Research Lead: Political Civility, Not Compromise, the Pandemic and Human Nature, Setting Better Resolutions, and More

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

Civility—not compromise—can help reduce polarization 

After the hostile political environment of the last several years, many are calling for the partisan rancor to end. But some critics have publicly questioned whether unity is possible. Who’s right? In a novel study, researchers examined the effects of warm social relations and policy compromise on reducing “affective polarization” (i.e., hostility between rival political partisans). Across two experiments, participants read a story about a fictional interaction between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, who at the time were the Senate minority and majority leader, respectively (these roles have since switched). In both studies, kind interactions between the two leaders helped reduce affective polarization among participants more than reaching a policy compromise, which had no effect. This study suggests that despite policy disagreement, visibly warm relationships across party lines could be one way to reduce political hostility. [Political Psychology; open access

For better resolutions, think about things you want to do—not what you want to stop doing

A yearlong study in Sweden suggests that the key to making your New Year’s resolutions stick is all about the framing: add rather than subtract. Instead of focusing on avoiding or quitting something, called “avoidance goals,” frame your resolutions as “approach goals” and make them about adding something to your life. Want to be physically healthier? According to researchers, you’re significantly more likely to succeed if you set up your resolution as an approach goal (I will eat fruit and vegetables three times a day) than as an avoidance goal (I will stop eating sweets). [PlosONE]

A practical guide for communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine 

Odds are you’ve had a conversation in the last month with someone about the COVID-19 vaccine—How does it work? What are the risks? Is this thing I heard from my cousin true? And with so much misinformation circulating about the virus and the vaccine, the conversation might have taken a turn into myth-conspiracy theory territory. To help us all be better equipped to tackle these conversations, an international team of scientists has developed the COVID-19 vaccine communication handbook. From facts about vaccination and side effects to strategies for combating misinformation, it’s a solid resource for public health officials, policymakers, and anyone talking about the vaccine (in other words, for all of us). [SciBeh

Are smiles (and scowls) universal around the world? 

A new study touches on two ongoing debates in emotion research: whether or not facial expressions reliably communicate inner emotional states, and whether or not emotional expressions are culturally universal. Using deep neural networks, researchers examined whether 16 different facial expressions occurred in certain social contexts (e.g., weddings or sports events) across 12 world regions. They found that each facial expression did have distinct associations depending on the context. Although there were some slight cultural differences in expressions, this study provides evidence that there might be cultural universality in emotions (and how they appear on our faces). [Nature]

Facial expression annotations according to the deep neural network. Each pattern of facial movement tends to be associated with a distinct mental or emotional state. Source: Nature

Ways the pandemic has exposed human nature 

An evolutionary perspective can help us better understand the COVID-19 virus and our own response argue a group of scientists in a new paper. Through a lens of evolutionary psychology, they explain how the pandemic might affect our mating behaviors, gender norms, cooperation, and other social behaviors. Key insights? The virus might alter our own sociability (could COVID-19 hijack our brains to make us socialize more so that it can spread?), “generation quarantine” might lack important exposure to other microbes, and “we have not evolved to seek the truth.” Ultimately, the authors argue that we need to understand our long history of coevolution to understand the virus—and our response to it. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

The practicality crisis in social psychology research 

Piling on to the often-cited replication crisis, two researchers argue that there’s another crisis plaguing social psychology research: impracticality. In a new critique, they argue that “most psychological theories have little relevance to people’s everyday lives, poor accessibility to policymakers, or even applicability to the work of other academics.” How, then, can psychological theory return to its former status as “a useful science that speaks to pressing social issues”? According to the authors, researchers who want to make their theory work more practical should a) start with a problem, b) iterate with practitioners and “real” people throughout the research cycle, and c) ground theory in “high-quality descriptive data on real-world problems.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science; open access]

Evaluate prospective employees’ applications, not their social media pages

Content on social media is seen as fair game for hiring managers and future bosses when evaluating candidates—but should it be? Maybe not, according to new research that evaluates whether social media information assessments are a valid predictor of future work performance. In addition to finding scant evidence that information on social media accurately predicts how an employee will perform if they get the job, researchers found troubling evidence of another troubling possibility. Social media includes demographic variables that organizations legally can’t use when making personnel decisions (like gender, age, ethnicity, and religion). In this study, some of these demographic variables were significantly correlated with recruiter evaluations, but more research is needed to see the extent to which this information can lead to unfair or biased hiring decisions. [Journal of Applied Psychology; open access]

What’s good for us is good—right? 

People often make moral judgments based on their own self-interest. For example: stealing is bad, but if it benefits me it’s less bad than when someone else does it. In a recent study, scientists wanted to know if a similar slef-interest bias occurs when people make moral judgements about their ingroup. Across a series of studies, they found that participants judge actions favoring outgroups as less moral than similar actions that favored their ingroup. This “ingroup interest bias” was most prevalent among those who scored high in collective narcissism. This means that participants tended to make moral judgments in favor of their social group, and this effect was stronger among those who believed their group was great in a way “not appreciated by others.” [Journal of Experimental Social Psychology]

It might be college roommates (not professors) who influence political views 

There’s a common refrain in conservative media coverage that colleges and universities have a left-progressive agenda intent on indoctrinating students with leftist dogmas. But does higher education make students more liberal? New research fails to find evidence that supports this narrative. Surveys conducted before and after students’ first year of college found little effect of higher education on political views. If anything, political views were slightly more conservative, not liberal, at the end of the year. However, study results indicated that students moved closer toward their roommate’s political views over the course of the year, suggesting social influences may sway political views more than the content taught in college classrooms. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

Nervous about asking sensitive questions? Maybe you shouldn’t be 

While Miss Manners might advise otherwise, new research suggests it might actually be okay to ask questions about so-called verboten topics like salary or relationship status. While most people don’t ask these types of questions because they worry about causing discomfort or damaging impressions, a new study indicates that these preoccupations are often overblown. 

Across a series of experiments, asking about sensitive topics did not impact the impression responders had of the question asker. This suggests that we frequently make errors when estimating the interpersonal costs of asking sensitive questions. In fact, when we don’t engage in topics like the cost of rent or views on immigration, we may be missing out on relationship-strengthening conversations. [Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes]