January 16, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationHostile Attribution Bias
On a crowded city sidewalk, a stranger knocks hard into your shoulder. Aggressive gesture or innocent mistake? In the split second it takes to lock eyes with your might-be assailant, your mind may already have supplied an answer to that question. Many of us, in situations like this, exhibit something called hostile attribution bias: a tendency to err on the side of assuming malevolence in the intentions of others. (Pacific Standard)

Empathy for the Pain of Strangers
Being around strangers can cause people stress and, in turn, make them less able to feel others’ pain, new research suggests. But giving people a drug that blocks the body’s stress response can restore that sense of empathy, scientists said. What’s more, the same effect shows up in both humans and mice. (Tia Ghose, Live Science)

Getting Kids to Be Honest
While many parents looking to increase their children’s honesty might opt for one of two diametrically opposed options—the carrot of reward, or the stick of punishment—this new research shows there’s an important third route to take: appealing to the better angels of kids’ nature, and encouraging honesty because it will make others happy. (Dan Jones, BPS Research Digest)

Observing Someone Cold Can Make You Feel Cold
Why did people sync up their responses to their cold counterparts? Neil Harrison, a neuropsychiatrist who led the study, has a theory: matching someone else’s physical response can help us live together more harmoniously. “Mimicking another person is believed to help us create an internal model of their physiological state which we can use to better understand their motivations and how they’re feeling,” he said in a release. (Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian.com)

Scientific American Survey: Do We Have Free Will?
Gary Stix: An article in the January issue of Scientific American by philosopher Eddy Nahmias addressed this debate, coming to the conclusion that we are endowed with free will, even if, at times, a lot of mental processing is going on before we become conscious of it. The article—and the intrinsic fascination with this question—prompted us to run a survey of visitors to our site, asking their opinions on this philosophical perennial, now being debated anew because of the brain scans that question free will’s existence. The results are now in. (Talking back, Scientific American)

Scott Atran

In the wake of terrorist attacks last week on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris supermarket, the world has struggled to understand the combination of religion, European culture, and influence from terrorist organizations that drove the gunmen. Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, studies such questions by interviewing would-be and convicted terrorists about their extreme commitment to their organizations and ideals. Atran recently returned from Paris, where he talked with members of the shooters’ communities. He spoke with Nature about what he discovered. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

January 15, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationHow Secular Family Values Stack Up
Phil Zuckerman: My own ongoing research among secular Americans—as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture—confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy. (Los Angeles Times)

Pope Francis Is Expected to Issue an Encyclical on Climate Change
Its message will be spread to congregations around the world by Catholic clergy, mobilizing grassroots pressure for action ahead of the key UN climate summit in December in Paris. The encyclical may be published as early as March, and may be couched in terms of the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that we have responsibilities to our fellow humans. It will be the first encyclical to address concerns about a global environmental issue, and will provide “important orientation” to all Catholics to support action on climate change, says Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences in Vatican City. (Andy Coghlan, New Scientist)

The Global Catholic Climate Movement
Catholic environmental groups from around the world on Wednesday announced a new global network to battle climate change just as many Catholic conservatives are sharply criticizing Pope Francis’ campaign to put environmental protection high on the church’s agenda. “We are certain that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change endangers God’s creation and us all, particularly the poor, whose voices have already spoken of the impacts of an altered climate,” the new Global Catholic Climate Movement says in its mission statement. “Climate change is about our responsibility as God’s children and people of faith to care for human life, especially future generations, by caring for all of God’s wondrous creation,” the statement continues. (David Gibson, Religion News Service)

Can the Smell of Lavender Promote Interpersonal Trust?
“Lavender has this effect because of its calming property,” said study co-author Lorenza Colzato, cognitive psychologist and assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in an email. “This hypothesis is supported by the fact that, from an anatomical point of view, the olfactory nerve is connected to the medial prefrontal cortex a brain region that ‘controls’ the way we trust others.” (Mandy Oaklander, TIME)

Another “Academic Freedom” Act in Missouri
Missouri’s House Bill 486, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 13, 2015, would confer “academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution” to teachers. If enacted, the bill would in effect encourage science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased, and discourage responsible educational authorities from intervening. The bill specifically cites “the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution” as controversial. (National Center for Science Education)

January 14, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporatioHow Religion Can Move Us to Do Terrible Things
Susan Pinker: Time and again, social psychology experiments have shown that ordinary people can be spurred to commit horrific acts of cruelty. Giving them authority over arbitrarily defined transgressors can prompt brutality, as the Stanford Prison Experiment—in which students were assigned to playact the roles of either guards or prisoners—showed in the 1970s. Persuading them that outsiders are less than human can disable their natural powers of empathy. Priming religious believers with passages showing that God endorses revenge against malefactors is dangerously effective, too. (TIME)

Who Believes Conspiracy Theories?
New research from the Netherlands suggests the answer is people on the political extremes. Those on both the far right and far left tend to “adhere to their belief system in a rigid fashion, leading them to perceive their political ideas as the simple and only solution to societal problems,” writes a research team led by psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU University Amsterdam. This in turn “induces them to perceive evil conspiracies as causal explanations for various events,” they conclude in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Toolmaking, Teaching, and Language
If there’s one thing that distinguishes humans from other animals, it’s our ability to use language. But when and why did this trait evolve? A new study concludes that the art of conversation may have arisen early in human evolution, because it made it easier for our ancestors to teach each other how to make stone tools—a skill that was crucial for the spectacular success of our lineage. (Michael Balter, Science)

More on the Link Between Doors and Memory
The simple act of passing through a doorway induces forgetting. Now, psychologists at Knox College have taken things further, demonstrating that merely imagining walking through a doorway is enough to trigger increased forgetfulness. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Bill Nye on the Origins of Evolution

In February 2014, Bill Nye traveled to Kentucky to debate evolution with Ken Ham, a prominent creationist. Following the event, he set out to continue the conversation in what’s become his new book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. (Science Friday)

January 13, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationSomething the Human Brain Has That Chimp Brains Don’t
The human brain has a 4.5-centimetre-long groove running deeper along the right side than the left. Chimp brains lack this asymmetry, as François Leroy of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, and colleagues, have discovered. The groove’s function is unknown, but its location suggests it played a role in the evolution of our communication abilities. “One day this will help us understand what makes us tick,” says Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study. (Clare Wilson, New Scientist)

Biological Explanations for Psychological Problems Might Decrease Empathy
Matthew Lebowitz and Woo-young Ahn have published new evidence that suggests biological explanations of mental illness reduce the empathy that mental health professionals feel towards patients. (Christian Jarrett, Research Digest)

More on Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiment
​One of the most damning experiments ever to probe humanity’s “dark side,” the infamous work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, has a new interpretation, courtesy of sociologists at the University of Wisconsin. The group, led by graduate researcher Matthew Hollander, argues that within Milgram’s results, which show an alarming willingness of everyday people to administer torture when commanded, we can find a new strategy for resisting just that dark side. (Michael Byrne, Motherboard)

Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend Are Coming Up
Hundreds of congregations all over the country and around the world are taking part in Evolution Weekend, February 13 to 15, 2015, by presenting sermons and discussion groups on the compatibility of faith and science. Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, writes, “Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic—to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.” (National Center for Science Education)


From how people deal with their deepest, darkest thoughts to the experience of living in a world without fear, a new podcast explores the hidden forces that shape human behavior. Called “Invisibilia”—Latin for “invisible things”—the show, told with engaging anecdotes through a scientific lens, is about the powerful effect that thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and feelings have on people’s lives. (Tanya Lewis, Live Science)

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