Autistic children with imaginary friends have better social skills, just like neurotypical children

Imaginative, or “pretend”, play in childhood is important. It offers opportunities for social interaction as well as the chance to learn how to understand social signals and the minds of others. A common form of pretend play is the creation of an imaginary friend, and research with neurotypical children has found that children with imaginary friends tend to show better understanding of the mental and emotional states of others, greater focus on the mental states of friends, and superior communication skills.  

Autism has been associated with deficits in both pretend play andsocial skills. But Page Davis and colleagues have previously found that although autistic children are less inclined to create imaginary friends, when they do create them, they are similar to those of neurotypical children in terms of their social attributions (e.g. mental states, personality traits), reported function (e.g. social, comfort) and gender. Now, Davis and her team have examined whether autistic children who have imaginary friends also experience the social benefits seen among neurotypical children. Continue reading →

People are more sceptical of sex difference research when findings favour men


Research into sex differences gets a lot of publicity – and can be very controversial. On one hand, science has historically cast women in a negative light, with poorly-evidenced claims about apparent differences between men and women; research debunking these claims is therefore noteworthy. On the other, some work has drawn out differences that, previously ignored, have harmed women: for example, medical research has often seen male patients as the default “subject” to be tested, which has led to adverse reactions to medication in women.

So while many people (very reasonably) are suspicious of research on sex differences, some of it provides useful information. It’s therefore important to know how people engage with and respond to this kind of work. Now a new study has found that people have a consistent aversion to research favouring men, especially when that research is authored by men. Continue reading →

Can listening to white noise help you focus?

I use white noise to help me to sleep. And according to the results of a new study in Scientific Reports, I should be using it to help me to work, as well.

White noise contains equal amounts of all the sound frequencies that we can hear. Since at least 2007, research has suggested that it can boost the memory and attention levels of children diagnosed with ADHD. However, relatively little work has been done on neurotypical people — and the few studies that have been conducted have produced mixed results. So Mohamed Awada at the University of Southern California and colleagues set out to run a comprehensive investigation on the effects of white noise on cognition, using two different volumes of white noise and a broad battery of cognitive tests. Continue reading →

Women bear the brunt of unpaid labour – and it may be affecting their mental health


We know that unpaid labour impacts millions of people across the world – and women tend to bear the brunt. In the UK alone, women carry out around 60% more unpaid work than men, spending more time on cooking, cleaning, and childcare. What we know less about, however, is the impact this work has on people’s mental health.

A new review in The Lancet Public Health by a team from the University of Melbourne explores the research conducted so far in this area. It finds that unpaid labour has a clearer negative impact on women’s mental health than men’s, suggesting that this gendered divide could be causing serious problems for women. Continue reading →

“Expansive” body poses don’t always signal dominance


People reliably interpret expansive poses — with the arms and legs spread and the head held high — as a signal of dominance, or power.

Well, that’s how I began a post from July this year. That was based on a body of research on ‘power posing’. But now a new study challenges the idea that expansive poses — those that take up the most physical space — invariably signal dominance. In fact, Patty Van Cappellen at Duke University and her team report in Emotion that we take the most expansive poses of all to signal something very different indeed. Continue reading →

This cognitive bias can push people into more extreme ideological positions

Numerous psychological studies have found that we seek out information that supports our pre-existing views – and avoid information that might contradict them. This is particularly true for politicised issues: for instance, people will choose to forgo cash in order to avoid reading opposing views on topics like same-sex marriage and gun control. 

The implication of these studies is that this so-called “selective exposure bias” may be pushing us into more polarised positions. After all, if we ignore evidence that could contradict our beliefs, we may end up feeling even more strongly that our own view is the correct one. Yet, as the authors of a new study in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review point out, although plenty of research has shown that this bias exists, there hasn’t actually been much work on how it affects our beliefs and behaviours. Now the researchers find that the bias can indeed shape people’s beliefs in at least one area: their attitudes towards diversity. Continue reading →

Eating disorder rates vary among different groups of transgender and gender diverse people

Eating disorders are frequently conceptualised and talked about along gender lines: women are more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, while men are more likely to face stigma and go undiagnosed. However, these discussions largely focus on cisgender people – those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Yet many trans and gender diverse people also experience eating disorders, and there is also variance within these groups that largely goes unnoticed.

A new study published in Annals of Epidemiology looks at eating disorder risk and diagnosis across transgender and gender diverse students in the US. The team finds significant variability within this broad group of people, with those with certain gender identities and sexualities more at risk of eating disorders than others. Continue reading →

Learning a musical instrument may confer lifelong cognitive benefits

Musical training has long been linked to better general cognitive functioning. Studies investigating everything from the cognitive skills of adult musicians vs non-musicians to the effects of instrument lessons on children’s cognition has come out in support of the idea. 

However, relatively few studies have explored whether the benefits last — if, as a child, you have piano lessons, for example, does this have any impact on your cognitive abilities in later life? The results of a new longitudinal study, in Psychological Science, which tested the same people at the ages of 11 and 70, suggest that it does. Cognitive benefits of musical training seem to be evident even decades later. Continue reading →

Our memory is worse for things we’ve photographed – even when we’ve taken multiple photos

Many of us know that taking a photograph of something hinders rather than helps our memory of it. Linda Henkel first reported this ‘photo-taking-impairment’ effect back in 2014. Since then, a wealth of studies have supported it.

This research has generally involved participants taking just a single photo of an object. But given how easy it is to take lots of pictures with a phone, how often do you restrict yourself to just one shot? Perhaps taking multiple photos lessens the memory impairment — or, alternatively, perhaps it encourages us to feel even less responsibility for remembering what we’re looking at, making our memory of it even worse.

In a new paper in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Julia S Shares at Mississippi State University and Benjamin C Storm at UC Santa Cruz report their investigation of this, using three lab-based studies on a total of about 400 participants. Continue reading →