Research Lead: Groups Are Only As Smart as Their Cockiest Member, Nudging Versus Boosting, Saying Bye to the DSM? and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Groups are as smart as their most confident member

How beneficial is group discussion? According to research from Ike Silver, Barbara Mellers, and Philip Tetlock, it depends on the confidence of the most knowledgeable group member. These authors propose a new predictor for how beneficial group discussion will be: collective confidence calibration, or how confident and accurate individuals are in their knowledge compared to others. 

Participants were asked to estimate a series of different numbers, from populations of different countries to historical event dates, and rate their confidence in their estimate before and after a group discussion. When individuals were both accurate and confident in their answer prior to the group discussion, the group as a whole was more accurate post discussion. But if the most confident members are also the least accurate, individual estimates after discussion suffered. The authors propose this effect occurs because “groups typically assume their most confident members are their most knowledgeable.” If their assumption is incorrect, then all of our estimates suffer. [Journal of Experimental Social Psychology]

Examples of high and low group collective confidence calibration. The left panel represents a “well-calibrated” group, with the accuracy of individuals positively correlated with the confidence each individual has in their answer. On the right, a “poorly-calibrated group,” where accuracy of individuals is negatively correlated with confidence. Source: JESP.

Goodbye, DSM? Is there a better way of diagnosing mental illness?

Clinical psychologists have for decades used the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to diagnose mental illnesses. Currently in its fifth edition, the DSM categorizes mental disorders into discrete categories, each distinct from each other and from “healthy” people. However, people diagnosed with mental disorders rarely fit into a single DSM category, can qualify for multiple diagnoses, and often aren’t qualitatively different from “healthy” people. For instance, we all experience anxiety, just to different degrees. 

A group of researchers argues that a more nuanced diagnostic tool exists: the Hierarchical Taxonomy of Psychopathology (HiTOP). HiTOP deconstructs the DSM categories and instead classifies behaviors as part of a spectrum. This restructuring, the authors suggest, lets mental health researchers and clinicians fully appreciate how behaviors are hierarchical and nested, with multiple symptoms together creating a syndrome. Although HiTOP has been around for a few years, the authors argue that there is now empirical evidence of its utility. They believe that in recasting the DSM categories as dimensions, HiTOP gives clinicians the power to better diagnose, understand, and treat the wide array of extant mental disorders. [Current Directions in Psychological Science]

Automated payments: great for growing savings … and growing debt  

Improving household financial practices has been a big focus of behavioral science interventions over the years, with many touting the importance of automation for good financial health (like automatic enrollment in retirement plans and a portion of paychecks being autodeducted toward savings). But automating certain aspects of our money management may sometimes backfire, as in the case of automatic bill pay. While automatic bill pay can bring some benefits (reducing late fees due to inattention to payment dates, for one), research from Chile suggests that they may be more harmful than beneficial when it comes to debt. Using survey data from Chile’s Central Bank, researchers found that automating bill payment led to decreased attention to levels of indebtedness, which in turn caused households to go into greater debt than if they had been more fully aware of their bank account disbursements. The authors conclude that while inattention following automation might be beneficial for some aspects of financial health, like savings, it can ding other areas of the wallet. [Journal of Economic Psychology]

Finger wagging and obfuscation by fossil fuel companies

A common refrain from large companies is that we’re all to blame for climate change, and we as individuals are particularly responsible for saving the planet. This message, however, is a deliberate marketing strategy: fossil fuel companies have for years tried to shift the blame for climate change to consumers. Now, there’s even more evidence that fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil has been deliberately using language to construct a “Fossil Fuel Savior” frame, downplaying the reality and seriousness of climate change while individualizing responsibility. 

Advertorials—advertisements giving information on a product in the form of an editorial—focus on how individuals can fight climate change and blame consumers for demanding fossil fuels. In contrast, internal ExxonMobil documents directly acknowledge how their business of supplying fossil fuels is driving climate change. This marketing strategy mirrors the tobacco industry’s strategy of shifting blame from corporations to consumers, arguing, for instance, that individuals should know the risks of using fossil fuels, and ExxonMobil is simply responding to market demand. Given the historical parallel with the tobacco industry, we can expect ExxonMobil to use this “individual responsibility” argument to oppose litigation, regulation, and activism in the future. [One Earth]

Your airtight alibi may not be as solid as you remember

Where were you at 10 a.m. last Thursday? How confident are you in your answer? If you’re like the participants of a recent memory study, there’s a decent chance you’re misremembering. After collecting locational data every hour for a month, participants in this study were given four potential locations and asked to identify where they were at a certain day and time. They ended up being accurate 64 percent of the time. Mistakes were most common if the places were similar in location or if participants were in different places at similar times. While a 64 percent accuracy rate might not seem that bad, it has serious implications for the legal system, where eye-witness testimony is weighted heavily. For instance, if there’s a chance you’re going to misremember your location a month ago, you may inadvertently give a false alibi. According to the authors, “These results can alert investigators to the questions they should ask in order to catch the memory errors that suspects are likely to make.” Hopefully, insights from research like this can help fewer innocent people end up in jail. [Psychological Science; preprint]

Lacking evidence between increased tech use and mental health problems 

Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, television, and the like are definitely rotting the youths’ brains, right? While that hyperbolic claim is too close to the front lines in the millennial versus Gen Z culture wars, I (Michaela) do find myself worrying about the impact of digital tech use on young people’s mental health. New findings out this month suggest that at least some of these concerns may be overblown. 

Using longitudinal data from three large-scale studies of adolescents in the United States and the United Kingdom, researchers found scant evidence for a connection between increased technology use and mental health concerns like depression. The study did rely on self-report data for time spent on technology, which another study also published this month suggests may not be a very accurate measure. As always, more research is needed to understand the link between digital tech use and mental health, but these results are hopeful. [Clinical Psychological Science]

The role of religion and morality in violent conflict 

“It can sometimes feel like our world is plagued by irreconcilable conflicts involving religious elements,” write the authors of a new paper published in Social Cognition that examines the relationship between religion, violence, and morality. This feels especially true over the last few weeks as the whole world observes the violence between Israel and Palestine. Drawing upon the virtuous violence theory, research on moral cognition and social identity, and empirical data from the World Values Survey, researchers find “a nuanced effect of religion on people’s beliefs about violence.” They found that while religious individuals were less likely to condone violence, religious countries were more likely to.

This difference can be explained through a complicated morality that justifies violence against others as the right thing to do. While this seems counterintuitive (how can violence ever be moral?), they explain that many wars “can be explained by a moral motivation to regulate social relations. People fight to unify a country split by civil war (Unity), to establish who ought to be at the top versus at the bottom (Hierarchy), to retaliate for some past wrong (Equality) and to fairly exchange resources or commitments (Proportionality).” The authors conclude that morality is a “linchpin in intergroup relations, especially during relationships marked by violent conflict.” [Social Cognition]

Intervention showdown: nudging versus boosting 

In behavioral science circles nudging might feel like old hat. But have you heard of “boosting”? While nudges involve tweaking decision environments to help people make better decisions without a lot of effort, boosting aims to improve people’s conscious decision-making “to change behavior not by changing the choice environment but by empowering individuals and strengthening their competence.” Scientists tested the two approaches against each other in an intervention aimed at increasing hand hygiene compliance among nurses at a large Dutch hospital. They found that both nudging and boosting were effective interventions, but the boost effect remained stable for at least a week after the interventions were taken away (at which point the nudge’s effect had dropped off). The study’s authors conclude with a recommendation to consider boosting in addition to nudging when designing behavior change interventions. [Behavioural Public Policy]

Global predictors of science skepticism

Science skepticism is alive and well in the United States, but what about in other countries? A recent study finds that the level of science skepticism varies across 24 countries, but its predictors are more homogeneous. Climate change doubt, for instance, is predicted by political conservatism across countries, but the effect is strongest in the United States and Canada. Skepticism for other topics have predictors that are consistent across cultures: for example, high spirituality predicts vaccine hesitancy, and high religious orthodoxy predicts evolution skepticism. Understanding exactly how science skepticism varies by culture and topic could help inform specific interventions and communication strategies. Framing messages around spirituality is most useful in Western countries for improving faith in science, while understanding the relationship between religious orthodoxy and evolution skepticism is beneficial regardless of cultural context. [Social Psychological and Personality Science]

Improving fisheries through rights-based management 

Overfishing due to population growth and increased food needs has caused the collapse of many important fish populations—threatening overall ocean health and the livelihood of people who depend on these fisheries. Rare’s Fish Forever program exists to help community fisheries manage coastal waters sustainably through a “scientifically informed, community-driven participatory process.” Across three case studies in Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines, scientists describe their rights-based fisheries management approach adapted to each local context. Among many other factors, the authors find that “success starts and ends with the buy-in of [the local communities and fishers].” [Marine Policy; video]

“Nonreplicable publications are cited more than replicable ones”

“We use publicly available data to show that published papers in top psychology, economics, and general interest journals that fail to replicate are cited more than those that replicate. This difference in citation does not change after the publication of the failure to replicate. Only 12% of postreplication citations of nonreplicable findings acknowledge the replication failure. Existing evidence also shows that experts predict well which papers will be replicated. Given this prediction, why are nonreplicable papers accepted for publication in the first place? A possible answer is that the review team faces a trade-off. When the results are more ‘interesting,’ they apply lower standards regarding their reproducibility.” [Science]

Disclosure: The fisheries report was led by Rare, a member of Behavioral Scientist’s 2021 organizational donors program which provides financial support for Behavioral Scientist. Organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine. All selections in the Research Lead are independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team.