Our Feelings Towards People Expressing Empathy Depend On Who They’re Empathising With

We tend to think of empathy as a wholly positive thing, a trait that’s not only favourable to possess but that we should actively foster. Books and courses promise to reveal secret wells of empathy and ways to channel them; some people even charge for “empathy readings”, a service that seems to sit somewhere between a psychic reading and a therapy session.

It would be easy to assume, therefore, that people who express empathy are generally well-liked. But a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that our feelings towards “empathisers” depends on who they are empathising with. While empathisers were considered warmer overall, participants judged people who expressed empathy for those with troubling political views more harshly — suggesting that we don’t always interpret empathy as a pure moral virtue. Continue reading →

Grimacing Or Smiling Can Make An Injection Feel Less Painful


If you’re preparing to receive a flu vaccine — or even a Covid-19 vaccine — this winter, you’ll be interested in the results of a new study that investigates whether it’s better to smile or grimace your way through the pain of an injection.

The researchers found that people who grimaced or performed a “Duchenne” smile, which incorporates muscles around the eyes, both reported less pain compared to those who simply held a neutral expression. And these expressions seemed to have some interesting effects on stress and heart rates as well. Continue reading →

Coping With Remote Working During Covid-19: The Latest Research, Digested

Covid-19 has changed our working lives, perhaps for good. Home-working is now common, and many of us have been doing it for months. With changing rules and guidelines, some of us have even gone from home-working to socially distanced office-working, to working back at home again. So what do we know about how these changes are affecting our mental health — and what can we do to make our new working lives better? Continue reading →

Not Too Scary, Not Too Tame: Horror Experiences Need To Hit A “Sweet Spot” To Be Enjoyable

You’re walking through a dark, dingy house. Floorboards creak and you think you hear something moving in the shadows. Suddenly, an engine revs and a blood-splattered man wearing a pig’s head lunges towards you with a chainsaw. You scream and run away. Terrifying, perhaps — but it also sounds kind of fun, right?

We generally think of fear as a negative emotion — something that signals danger and which is unpleasant to experience. Yet so many of us seek out situations that make us scared: haunted fairground rides, scary video games, and horror movies and novels. And now researchers have looked at exactly how the experience of fear is related to our enjoyment of this kind of “recreational horror”. The team finds that there’s a sweet spot when it comes to creating a scary but enjoyable experience: if you end up feeling too little fear — or too much — then it’s not quite as fun. Continue reading →

Climate Change Appeals May Be More Effective When They’re Pessimistic

There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is an existential crisis of the highest order — but how best to communicate that threat is unclear. Too much pessimism and people become paralysed with anxiety, pushing thoughts about the crisis away altogether. Too much optimism, on the other hand, can lead to complacency — if things are going to be okay, why would we feel the need to engage with what’s going on?

This tension is explored in a new study published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. The team finds that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings may actually boost people’s beliefs that it is a problem and that they can do something to combat it. Continue reading →

Babies Relax When Listening To Unfamiliar Lullabies From Other Cultures

The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to.

Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that babies themselves are relaxed by foreign lullabies that they have never heard before. The work suggests that across cultures, lullabies may share some similar acoustic features which produce a calming effect on infants. Continue reading →

Study Finds People Who Played Video Games For Longer Had Greater Wellbeing (But Direction Of Causality Isn’t Yet Clear)

Photo: William West/AFP via Getty Images

Video games get blamed for a lot. There are long-standing debates about whether violence in video games leads to real-world aggression, or whether video game “addiction” is something we should worry about. And some people have broader fears that more time spent on screens negatively affects our mental health and wellbeing.

However, an increasing number of studies have failed to find much evidence to back up these kinds of concerns. But the field suffers from some pretty big limitations. In particular, studies often rely on people reporting their own time spent consuming media — and we’re notoriously unreliable at making those sorts of estimates.

Enter a new preprint published earlier this week. The researchers find that more time spent playing video games actually relates to greater wellbeing (though there are plenty of caveats to that finding — more on those later). But the most interesting part of the study is really its methodology: rather than relying on people reporting their own video game use, the researchers established a rare collaboration with games companies in order to get precise data. Continue reading →

Children Can Acquire Fear Vicariously, By Watching Their Parents’ Reactions

How do children learn to fear things that aren’t obviously scary, but that do pose a threat — to learn, say, that touching the base of a lit barbecue is a very bad idea, so should never be done? A parent might explain that it’s dangerously hot. But as a new paper explores in detail, we also benefit from another more direct, wordless method of learning about threats. Or rather, we may typically benefit from it — but, the authors argue, it might also help to explain how anxiety disorders are transmitted down through generations. Continue reading →

Narcissistic People Are More Likely To Take Part In Political Activities

There’s likely to be a diverse set of factors driving any given person’s interest in politics. It could be that their parents had a political affiliation they’ve subsequently inherited; they may have had a personal experience that changed how they see the world; politics could provide a social life or community connections; they might consider political action a civic duty; or they might just be passionate about a particular issue.

According to a recent paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, there may be another motivation, too — namely narcissism. The paper finds that particular kinds of narcissism are related to taking part in political activities, suggesting that deeply rooted individual factors may play a large part in our willingness to engage in politics. Continue reading →

Being More Authentic On Social Media Could Improve Your Wellbeing

It’s become somewhat of a truism that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on social media. Where someone’s life looks perfect, we’re often reminded, there are probably a handful of problems silently situated away from the camera. Nobody’s life is as shiny, flawless, or enviable as it might appear in their carefully curated feed.

But presenting ourselves more authentically on social media — ditching those things we want to believe are true about ourselves in favour of those that are — could be good for our wellbeing, according to a new paper. Continue reading →