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Mindful : June 2017
believing the wilder claims about mirror neurons (my June 2014 column), about biophilia (August 2015), and about sex differences in the brain (February 2016). But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the results I described in neuroeconomics (April 2015) and generosity (August 2016) don’t hold up as well. Scores of claims that have gotten extensive media coverage, and even made their way into textbooks, are questionable. I’ve chosen ones that offer some general lessons for consumers of psychology research: 1 Those learning styles: Although the major- ity of studies disprove the popular idea that students learn better if the pedagogic technique matches their supposed style, the myth persists. That may be because when people try to learn something according to what they believe to be their learning style, they feel they have learned the material better—but haven’t , found a 2016 study in the British Journal of Psychology led by psychologist Roger Van Horn of Central Mich- igan University. (Yes, I know every time I cite research I could be on thin ice. I try to include only findings with support from multiple, inde- pendent studies.) But the most effective peda- gogic technique varies according to the type of material, not the student. Nobel-winning social psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman asked, “The question I have is: If your effect is so fragile that it can only be reproduced [under strictly controlled conditions], then why do you think it can be reproduced by schoolteachers?” 2 The power stance: Stand with your feet apart and your hands on your hips, or sit with your legs on a desk. Such a “power pose,” researchers reported in 2010 in Psychological Science, made their 42 volunteers feel bolder, elevated their testosterone levels, decreased their levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased their tolerance for risk, as shown by their willingness of make risky bets. The TED talk version is that the power stance can change your life. Alas, when other scientists redid the study in 2015, with five times the participants, they found no such effect. And although the original scientists protested that 33 other studies found a power-pose effect, an objective analysis of those 33 found something quite different: The statis- tics in those 33 are such that they can equally support the conclusion that the power stance has no effect, and hint that researchers deep- sixed power stance studies that did not find an effect. They called the evidence “too weak to advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.” Lesson: If a claim is based on results from only a few dozen people, take it with a grain of salt, and keep the shaker nearby until a larger study replicates it. 3 Smiling makes you happy: This one has been around since at least 1988, when a study reported that holding a pen between the teeth to force a smile (try it) caused people to find cartoons funnier than when they held a pen between their lips. Unfortunately, when 17 independent labs ran the make-me-smile test with just under 2,000 volunteers, they found no effect of mouth posi- tion on how funny people found cartoons. This doesn’t mean no one feels happier if something forces him to smile; maybe if you force yourself to smile, without the annoying pencil, you feel a lit- tle happier. But the replication failure does mean the effect, if any, is too weak to appear reliably in large numbers of people. Lesson: If a psycholog- ical effect that is taken as applying to humans as a species applies only to some of us in some cir- cumstances, it’s not a legitimate human universal like confirmation bias and loss aversion. 4 Finite willpower: This is considered “one of the most influential psychological theories of modern times,” as the British Psychological Soci- ety put it. The idea is that if you draw on your lim- ited store of willpower to, say, resist the dessert cart at lunch, you have less to use when you walk past a store advertising exactly the shoes you’ve long admired. Dozens of studies have found such an effect, which is also called “ego depletion,” so it would seem to be robust. Yet 23 labs studying nearly 2,000 partic- ipants found that “draining ” self-control in one task had “close to zero” effect on people’s capacity for self-control in a subsequent task. A separate analysis of 116 studies, in Journal of Experimental Psychology, similarly came away unimpressed. Lesson: If there’s an effect at all it’s small, it doesn’t apply to everyone, and could even be opposite the one usually claimed. That is, exerting self-control in one situation made some people better at it in the next one. 5 The Lady Macbeth Effect, in which people exposed to, or made to engage in, unethical behavior are driven to wash their hands or otherwise clean themselves, as researchers reported in 2006 in Science. Strictly speaking, the claim was based on a lab study in which RESEARCH Not Myths While many find- ings in psych stud- ies have turned out to be mythi- cal, a number of cognitive biases— mental shortcuts we use to make quick decisions— have been amply demonstrated. With confir- mation bias, we seek data to support what we already believe. Loss aversion points to putting more effort into avoiding losses than making gains. They’re discussed in a popular new book by Michael Lewis: The Undo- ing Project, which is about two Israeli psychologists whose research on bias broke new ground. Take our pop psych quiz at mindful.org/ psychquiz 20 mindful June 2017 brain science