Category Archives: Psychology

Why Lockdown Is Making It Hard For You to Concentrate? (Psychology)

Studies show the way we remember and process information is greatly affected when we are in isolation.

Scientists have found the ‘Groundhog Day’ effect of lockdown affects our memory and cognitive ability.

While there’s a lack of data on the Australian lockdown experience, a study on Italians who were locked down for about two months last year found an increase in distractions and mind wandering was common.

Professor Brett Hayes from UNSW’s School of Psychology says that a study of 4000 respondents found 30 per cent had experienced some degree of change in their everyday cognition.

Some of the common everyday problems were memory problems, such as where you left your mobile phone, trouble in focusing your attention, and losing focus when trying to read a book or watching something online.

“Literally starting one job and without thinking about it, going off and starting a second job without finishing the first one,” the cognitive psychologist says.

“It was also worst for people who had emotional issues, who were feeling depressed, or stressed and anxious, they had more of these symptoms.

“But even for those without those issues, these cognitive issues were very common.”

How the brain lays down memories

The study suggests the reason why our everyday memory gets worse in lockdown is because we are living through a sort of Groundhog Day, which in turn makes it harder for our brain to lay down memories and retrieve them later on.

“What we know about human memory is that the context is really important. You might be doing a job at home, chatting to a friend, or watching a movie,” Prof. Hayes says.

“When we have those experiences, we might be focused on the main part of the experience, but our brain is actually encoding a lot of other things just incidentally, like where that’s happening, the location, where and when it’s taking place.”

He says our brain is sensitive to this background context, which helps us lay down our memories in a way that it’s easy for us to retrieve those experiences later on.

“So when the context is changing, which is does normally in everyday life when we are moving around and visiting different places in different times of the day, then it’s easy to lay down memories and recall them,” Prof. Hayes says.

“But when you are in lockdown, your opportunities to move around in the environment and engage in different activities are very limited.

“And when you do get into that Groundhog Day cycle, just variations on the same thing each day, that’s when the days do tend to start blurring into each other, because we have the same context for each day.”

This makes it harder for our brain to separate those experiences and that’s one of the reasons why we experience memory fog during lockdown, he says.

Recovery is quick when restrictions ease

study on a two-month lockdown in Scotland last year tasked recipients with online tasks to test their memory, decision making and selective attention.

They found performance was poorer during lockdown, but once restrictions were eased, particularly the social isolation, they recovered quite quickly.

Levels of social interaction during lockdown were also correlated with cognitive performance.

“People who were able to maintain their online interaction more during lockdown did better at these tasks,” he says.

“So complete isolation is really very bad for our cognitive functioning, but if we can keep up that level of interaction to some degree with whoever is in our house or online, that seems to be good for our cognitive functioning.”

Researchers have also found that people who had conversations within the last three days were a bit more protected from cognitive issues during long lockdown.

Other studies are looking at how people’s options are limited in COVID and have pointed to the importance of having a bit of variation and exercise every day.

“From a memory point of view, if you are able to exercise outside the house, vary those exercise paths from day to day to just to allow a different context for your brain to encode those different days, if you want to be able to remember what you did from day to day a bit better,” Prof. Hayes says.

Change your exercise routine

Variations on exercises and activities in your house or apartment will also help you avoid the memory fog.

Prof. Hayes says there’s a close connection between good cognitive ability and physical activity.

“So keeping up regular exercise is good to try and keeping our memory and decision making in shape as much as you can during lockdown.

“There’s some evidence that even if you are really restricted – even doing something like playing Exergames (online exercise games) where you watch a screen and jump around, that does show some benefits.

“The nice thing is that you can play with your family and so there’s a social dimension as well.”

Online yoga and dancing were things that people reported as part of their activity which he says seemed to have a beneficial effect on cognition.

“While there hasn’t been time to conduct research on the long term effects of lockdowns on memory, the evidence so far shows that as restrictions are eased, these cognitive issues should improve,” he says.

Featured image: Overseas studies have shown it’s common to have a lack of concentration and to have problems remembering when in lockdown. Photo: Shutterstock.

Reference: Gabriella Santangelo et al, Subjective cognitive failures and their psychological correlates in a large Italian sample during quarantine/self-isolation for COVID-19, Neurological Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s10072-021-05268-1

Provided by UNSW

How Authoritarian Leaders Maintain Support? (Psychology)

Study finds public anticorruption campaigns bolster leaders, even when such measures lack tangible results.

How do authoritarian regimes sustain their popularity? A novel study in China led by MIT scholars shows that anticorruption punishments meted out by government authorities receive significant support among citizens — who believe such actions demonstrate both competence and morally righteous leadership.

The findings help explain how authoritarian governments endure, not merely based on domination and fear, but as regimes generating positive public support over time.

“What we find is that not only does the punishment of corrupt officials increase the perception among citizens that there is a capable and competent government, but it also increases the belief that government authorities have moral commitments citizens care about,” says Lily Tsai, an MIT political scientist and co-author of a newly published paper detailing the study’s findings.

In the case of China, these anticorruption actions tend to consist of public punishments of lower-level local officials who have violated the law. It is not clear that such measures actually reduce corruption overall, but people are still influenced by public gestures involving crackdowns on malfeasance.

“It signals that there is someone in authority who is willing to create order and stability for the public,” Tsai notes.

The paper, “What makes anticorruption popular? Individual-level evidence from China,” has been published in advance online form in the Journal of Politics. The authors are Tsai, who is the Ford Professor of Political Science and MIT’s chair of the faculty; and Minh D. Trinh and Shiyao Liu, who are PhD candidates in political science at MIT.

Recession-proof support?

The study consists of a sophisticated public-opinion experiment conducted in China using “conjoint analysis,” a method that identifies how much relative influence different factors have on people’s views.

The researchers essentially conducted three iterations of a detailed public-opinion survey. Nearly 2,400 total participants, in both rural and urban settings, were presented with hypothetical profiles of pairs of government leaders and asked to evaluate their performances based on a range of supposed attributes and achievements — including their anticorruption activities. In these scenarios, the exact attributes and activities of the hypothetical leaders varied randomly, allowing the researchers to separate out the importance of anticorruption measures in the minds of citizens.

Other things being equal, in these hypothetical scenarios, survey participants preferred officials making higher-profile anticorruption efforts, up to 25 percent more often than other officials. The survey’s respondents placed more weight on the economic stewardship provided by government officials, but rated anticorruption activities as being about equal in importance to welfare provision and administering elections fairly.

More significantly, Tsai says, the experiment finds that public interest in anticorruption gestures exists independently of anything else in a government official’s resume.

“Independent of how well officials do at economic development, or providing social welfare, or implementing elections, anticorruption punishment can still be a very useful tactic for authorities who are seeking to bolster their public support,” Tsai observes.

Indeed, Tsai adds, the results have a somewhat ominous implication along those lines: “These findings could indicate anticorruption punishment is a useful way of recession-proofing public support.”

Making punishment visible

The authors also introduced several modifications to the structure of the conjoint analysis to learn why people support visible anticorruption measures. Their study finds two distinct reasons behind this support. First, those measures signal that the officials taking action have the capacity to take decisive actions. Second, anticorruption actions also signal that the values of officials are aligned with ordinary citizens — even when the same officials do not, say, administer local elections well enough to give voters a strong voice in selecting leaders.

“At least in the Chinese context, in both urban populations and rural populations in China, citizens see officials who punish other, lower-level officials for corruption as being more moral,” Tsai says. “They [think anticorruption officials] have the “’right intentions.’”

Moreover, Tsai adds, anticorruption gestures seem effective even in lieu of evidence that corruption might be consequently reduced. At least in political terms, staging a high-profile anticorruption campaign is what matters, more than quelling corruption.

“It’s in the interest of rulers to invest in anticorruption punishments even if that punishment does not decrease corruption,” Tsai says. “People have no data about how much corruption there is in government. What they can see more clearly are the incidents of punishment of corruption.”

In historical terms, Tsai adds, the results fit “a longstanding tradition in China where the rulers position themselves as the allies of ordinary people,” despite restricting individual liberties in many ways. That said, Tsai thinks the results describe a political dynamic that could be found in many nation-states, in many varieties: People will back leaders who support symbolic public punishments, conveying a message that the traditional social order will remain intact.

“People are often willing to sacrifice a lot for a sense of certainty,” Tsai says.

Featured image: Public anti-corruption gestures are an effective way for authoritarian governments to maintain public support, according to a study co-authored by MIT political scientist Lily Tsai.Credits:Image: Christine Daniloff, MIT, stock images

Reference: Lily L. Tsai, Minh D Trinh, and Shiyao Liu, “What Makes Anticorruption Punishment Popular? Individual-level Evidence from China”, The Journal of Politics, 2021.

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How Do Leaders And Influencers Emerge? (Psychology)

New research by UTS economist Associate Professor David Goldbaum suggests influential leaders emerge from an evolutionary social process that has less to do with skills and talent than we might think.

We think of leaders and influencers as imbued with special skills and qualities – either innate or hard-won merit – that propels them to success, high status and financial rewards. Self-help books on how to build leadership skills abound. 

However, new research that models the evolution of social networks suggests it is less about individual skills and talents, and more about a dynamic self-reinforcing social process – one that is driven by our instinct to conform to those around us, as well as to seek influence. 

Computer modelling by economist Associate Professor David Goldbaum from UTS Business School reveals that even when everyone in a group has exactly the same attributes, a leader will still emerge from the process. The study, The origins of influence, was recently published in the journal Economic Modelling

“The findings suggest our view of leadership is over-glorified. It invites a rethink of the notion that a person who gains a leadership position through a competitive process is necessarily more worthy. This is especially so in subjective fields such as art, music, politics or fashion,” said Associate Professor Goldbaum. 

“A leader is someone who has followers – something they may or may not directly control. My aim was to build a model that stripped away any unique attributes, to see if a leader will still emerge,” he said.

“Those who are interested in becoming leaders and influencers would do better to understand the landscape of the popularity game they are playing, than to focus on individual traits.”

— Associate Professor David Goldbaum

To do the analysis Associate Professor Goldbaum developed a computer simulation populated with identical ‘agents’ all employing the same rules of behaviour to govern their decisions.

They could either act autonomously or imitate one another. They could not campaign or persuade others but were rewarded for doing what is popular and they received a premium for being ahead of the crowd. 

Associate Professor Goldbaum let the simulation run thousands of times to see what would happen. In the beginning the actions were random and uncoordinated, but over time the agents, responding to the payoffs, learned to coordinate and began to organise, and a leader emerged from the process. 

While the model is an extreme – in the real world there are numerous negotiations going on – it does reveal that it can be less important who the leader is, than the fact that the group accepts that one person will come out ahead and organises behind them. 

“How you get to be the eventual leader is that you slowly build up influence, and as you build up influence, others see that popularity and decide to join the group. It’s a self-reinforcing process – a snowball effect,” said Associate Professor Goldbaum. 

social media influencer graphic
Influencers benefit from a system that rewards early success in gaining followers. Image: Pixabay

“We think of leaders as winners – as though there was a tournament, and they were the best. The simulation is tournament like – because somebody emerges as a leader – but they have not done anything special. They just benefit from a system that rewards early success in gaining followers. 

“Those who are interested in becoming leaders and influencers would do better to understand the landscape of the popularity game they are playing, than to focus on individual traits,” he said.

The findings also help explain why leaders emerge in a group. Our desire to conform and follow allows society to function more smoothly and predictably – for example the roads would be chaos if everyone created their own rules. And a leader aids this process by coordinating everyone. 

And while the whole population benefits from the emergence of a leader, next to the leader, it is the early followers that benefit the most. Through their actions, early followers influence the social evolution, which changes the course of what happens. 

For example, a music promoter’s early backing of a new band helps the band gain more fans, bringing greater financial success to both. Or an art collector acquiring avant-garde art raises the artist’s profile such that museums and galleries take notice, which increases the value of the art. 

avant garde art gallery
An art gallery that aquires avant-garde art raises the artist’s profile. Image: Pixabay

Adjusting the model to allow for individual differences shows that it is possible to have some influence on the outcome. An agent advantaged with a larger social network than others at the start has a greater chance of becoming a leader, but there is no guarantee of success. Sometimes an agent with fewer connections will still emerge a leader. 

“The model demonstrates that while skill, knowledge, or leadership qualities are possible factors in becoming a leader, just because someone is a leader doesn’t mean they possess those qualities. You can become an accidental guru.” 

Featured image credit: Pixabay

Provided by UTS

Crawling Important Step In Development of Risk Perception (Psychology)

The more crawling experience a baby has, the more likely they are to avoid falling into water, a University of Otago study shows.

Published in Infancy, the work is part of a longitudinal study into the effect locomotor experience has on infants’ avoidance of falling over sudden drop-offs.

Dr Carolina Burnay image
Dr Carolina Burnay © University of Otago

Lead author Dr Carolina Burnay, of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, says the researchers tested babies’ behaviour around a tub filled with water, termed a water drop-off.

“The main difference between the babies that fell and those who avoided falling in the water was the amount of crawling experience they had.

“A very interesting result was that the amount of prior crawling experience they had informed their perception of the risk and behaviour even when they were already walking – hence it seems very helpful for babies to crawl and explore their environment,” she says.

The findings go against the contemporary tendency to “helicopter parent”.

“Caregivers should be aware of the important role crawling plays in infant development and the benefits of promoting crawling opportunities for their infants. By touching the floor and looking closely to it, infants learn to distinguish safe from unsafe surfaces to locomote and start avoiding falls, into the water or not.

“Over-protecting babies by limiting their opportunities to self-locomote does not keep them safe, instead, it delays their development of the perception of risky situations.”

Dr Burnay has also conducted a study into how babies interact with a slope leading to water.

The study, just published in Developmental Psychobiology, allowed babies to move into the water down a gradual slope, similar to a beach leading to the ocean. In this case, locomotor experience had no impact on babies’ behaviour – they were more likely to engage in risky behaviour on the slope compared to the drop-off.

“Before these studies, we knew statistics about drowning among babies, numbers like how many babies drown every year, how many drowning incidents occur in beaches or swimming pools, and what ages are the most represented in drowning statistics. This new approach is investigating how infants relate with bodies of water, when and how they start perceiving the risk and avoiding drowning.

“If we want to develop better strategies to prevent drowning among young children, we need to understand how they interact with bodies of water and how they learn to perceive the consequences that interacting with bodies of water can impose,” Dr Burnay says.

The study also highlights the risk slopes into bodies of water pose to babies. Parents and those working in water safety should have increased vigilance around such accessways and prevent infants’ access to them in aquatic environments.

Dr Burnay is continuing her studies into how babies interact with bodies of water and is seeking participants (crawlers or walkers aged under 18-months) for testing at Moana Pool in Dunedin.

The babies tested on the water cliff were from Portugal, while those tested on the water slope were from Dunedin. To determine if the different findings are the impact of cultural difference, she is testing babies in both situations.

Publication details:

Experienced crawlers avoid real and water drop-offs, even when they are walking
Carolina Burnay, Rita Cordovil, Chris Button, James L. Croft, David I. Anderson


Do infants avoid a traversable slope leading into deep water?
Carolina Burnay, Chris Button, Rita Cordovil, David I. Anderson, James L. Croft
Developmental Psychobiology

Featured image credit: istock

Provided by University of Otago

Study Sheds New Light On Behaviour Called Joint Attention (Psychology)

Scientists have shed new light on a human behaviour called joint attention – the ability for two or more people to share attention about something in the world around us.

For instance, a child and mother may both see a beautiful butterfly, then look to each other to share a smile about the butterfly, so without any words they know they have seen the butterfly ‘together’. 

Some experts have argued that engaging in joint attention underpins human cooperation and it has been suggested that joint attention might represent a key species-difference between humans and other great apes. 

It’s an ability that doesn’t emerge until infants are 9-12 months old and scientists still don’t know if any other species can do it. Scientists say it may also be important in language acquisition, with children connecting words with objects to which they and another individual are jointly attending.


Given the importance of joint attention, psychologists at the universities of York and St Andrews wanted to better understand how to measure the behaviour in young infants who cannot yet talk.

Other scientists had previously suggested that the quality of look given by a child to an adult could be reliably identified by third party observers and the presence of ‘sharing’ rather than ‘checking’ looks were sufficient to distinguish joint attention from the child looking at the adult for other reasons (e.g. to monitor them). In this study this previous claim was rigorously tested and challenged.

As part of the study, they asked participants to watch videos of infants looking at their mothers and decide if the looks were sharing or checking looks. 

Overall, the study revealed low agreement among raters in assigning looks from infants to their mothers, challenging the idea that the quality of infant looks can be reliably distinguished as a marker of joint attention. 


Dr Kirsty Graham, from the University of St Andrews, said: “Our participants didn’t agree very well on the types of look, suggesting that it’s really hard to tell whether joint attention is happening from this third-party perspective if you just consider the look itself.”

The study authors suggest that to understand the development of joint attention in humans and to search for it in other species, we have to take an objective approach in measuring observable behaviour, rather than subjective judgements. 

Professor Katie Slocombe, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, added:

“These results give a clear steer for how we need to identify joint attention events between preverbal infants and adults.

“Having a rigorous, objective way of identifying joint attention events will be key for the next steps in our research, as we investigate whether other species engage in joint attention events and whether joint attention develops in a uniform way in diverse human cultures.”

Featured image: Engaging in joint attention underpins human cooperation, some experts argue © University of York

About this research

The paper called, “Detecting joint attention events in mother-infant dyads: Sharing looks cannot be reliably identified by naïve third-party observers”  is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Provided by University of York

New Insights Into the Relationship Between How We Feel And Our Views On Aging (Psychology)

A new study finds that the disconnect between how old we feel and how old we want to be can offer insights into the relationship between our views on aging and our health.

Subjective age discordance (SAD) – the difference between how old you feel and how old you would like to be—is a fairly new concept in the psychology of aging. However, the work to this point has used SAD to look at longitudinal data and how people’s views on aging evolve over months or years.

“We wanted to see whether SAD could help us assess day-to-day changes in our views on aging, and how that may relate to our physical health and well-being,” says Shevaun Neupert, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

SAD is determined by taking how old you feel, subtracting how old you would like to be and then dividing it by your actual age. The higher the score, the more you feel older than you want to be.

For this study, researchers enrolled 116 adults aged 60-90 and 107 adults aged 18-36. Study participants filled out an online survey every day for eight days. The survey was designed to assess how old participants felt each day, their ideal age, their positive and negative mood over the course of the day, any stresses they experienced, and any physical complaints, such as backaches or cold symptoms.

“We found that both older adults and younger adults experienced SAD,” Neupert says. “It was more pronounced in older adults, which makes sense. However, it fluctuated more from day to day in younger adults, which was interesting.”

“We think younger adults are getting pushed and pulled more,” says Jennifer Bellingtier, first author of the paper, and a researcher at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. “Younger adults are concerned about negative stereotypes associated with aging, but may also be dealing with negative stereotypes associated with younger generations and wishing they had some of the privileges and status associated with being older.”

Two additional findings stood out.

“On days when the age you feel is closer to your ideal age, people tend to have a more positive mood,” Bellingtier says. “And, on average, people who have more health complaints also had higher SAD scores.”

Neither finding was surprising, but both show the value of the SAD concept as a tool for understanding people’s views on age and aging. It may also offer a new approach for the way we think about aging and its impacts on health.

“Previous research has found that how old you feel can affect your physical and mental well-being, and interventions to address that have focused on trying to make people feel younger,” Neupert says.

“That approach is problematic, in that it effectively encourages ageism,” says Bellingtier. “Our findings in this study suggest that another approach to improving well-being would be to find ways to reduce this subjective age discordance. In other words, instead of telling people to feel young, we could help people by encouraging them to raise their ‘ideal’ age.”

The paper, “Daily Experiences of Subjective Age Discordance and Well-Being,” is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Reference: Jennifer A. Bellingtier et al, Daily experiences of subjective age discordance and well-being., Psychology and Aging (2021). DOI: 10.1037/pag0000621

Provided by North Carolina State University

Why Are Narcissists So Easily Bored? (Psychology)

New research examines the tendencies of narcissists to become bored.


  • No one likes to be bored, but for people high in narcissism, it can be almost intolerable.
  • New research explores the connection between boredom, narcissism, and an excessive need for smartphone use.
  • By understanding the factors that lead narcissists to become bored, one can gain better insight into how to manage relationships with them.

With the many sources of stimulation in a highly digitized world, it may be difficult to imagine how anyone can become bored. After all, there’s always some new message or text to check, endless choices of streaming shows and movies, and a constant drumbeat of information about everything from the latest COVID-19 statistics to celebrity scandals. However, because they need a flow of constant attention and admiration, people high in narcissism would seem to be particularly likely to experience this “blah” mental state.

Perhaps you have a cousin who, for as long as you can remember, demanded extra attention and reassurance. This cousin would become enraged and upset when other relatives focused on the younger children in the family. At a recent wedding, with the entire family in attendance, this cousin appeared agitated and ran to the bathroom, remaining there for most of the night. This debacle was nothing new, as the cousin had a long history of upending events ranging from funerals to baby showers when being forced to remain still or quiet while other people stole the glory.

When most people are bored, they manage to find ways to entertain themselves, even if it just means twiddling their thumbs. For people like your cousin, filled with insecurity, a period of time requiring patience can border on mental torment. Left with their own thoughts or, worse, the feeling that other people are ignoring them, they find ways to try to make up the void.

The idea that people whose need for relief from boredom reflects a form of narcissism served as the inspiration for University of Kentucky’s Albert Ksinan and colleagues’ (2021) study on the compulsive use of smartphones. According to Ksinan and his fellow authors, previous research suggests that narcissists “might use smartphones to access social media, where they can curate and present their preferred self-image.” On the other hand, maybe they do so, the authors suggested, because they’re bored.

Testing the Boredom-Narcissism Relationship

Apart from the study’s goal of examining smartphone use by narcissists, the U. Kentucky-led research provides valuable insights into boredom as a feature of the daily life of people who need constant admiration and attention. Ksinan and his fellow researchers decided to focus on the age range they thought would be most likely to engage in problematic smartphone use. The online sample of 532 young adults (average age 23 years old), completed standard questionnaires assessing narcissism, compulsive smartphone use, and boredom.

The narcissism questionnaires assessed grandiose narcissism with items such as “I prefer to be the center of attention” vs. “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.” The measure of vulnerable narcissism included items such as “I dislike being with a group unless I know that I am appreciated by at least one of those present.”

The instrument assessing boredom proneness (rated on a 7-point scale) includes such sample items as:

  1. It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
  2. Time always seems to be passing slowly.
  3. It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
  4. In situations where I have to wait, such as a line, I get very restless.
  5. I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
  6. It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy.

How did you score on these items? The average among the study sample was just 3.00, with most participants scoring between 2 and 4; a higher score than this would suggest that you’re constantly looking for excitement. In terms of the study’s purpose, you can also see how someone who feels that “vacuum” described by the authors would constantly be looking for ways to fill it up.article continues after advertisementnull

Turning now to the study’s findings, the authors reported that, as they predicted, people scoring high on both narcissism subscales had higher compulsive smartphone use scores (as indexed by items such as “Others complain about me using my mobile phone too much”). However, boredom served to play an important mediating role, at least for those high on the vulnerable narcissism scale. The link between smartphone use and vulnerable narcissism, in other words, was accounted for statistically by boredom scale scores. As the authors concluded, “vulnerable narcissists tend to suffer from feelings of boredom, and they seem to use smartphones as an easy fix to counter the negative feelings stemming from boredom.”

Based on the findings, smartphone use for grandiose narcissists seems to stem from a different need than an attempt to alleviate boredom. For these more gregarious individuals who like to show off on social media, the smartphone becomes an expression of their need to be in the limelight.

Beyond Boredom in Understanding Narcissism

Returning now to the case of that relative of yours, think back on what you believe causes all that distress when other people are the focus of attention. If you see this behavior as an outgrowth of vulnerable narcissism, you may have a better understanding of how to understand and manage your future interactions. Although you may still find the behavior to be annoying, if not upsetting, you can at least gain perspective on what’s behind it. Rather than trying to dominate others, this person is just trying to feel whole inside.

Consider, also, what it’s like when a vulnerable narcissist seeks that validation through constant checking of social media. It must be a tough process indeed when those “likes,” hearts, and comments don’t come flooding in with each post. Seeking validation when validation isn’t there can only become the source of even more insecurity.

To sum up, boredom alone can’t explain all the behavior of a narcissist, even a vulnerable one. However, you can gain important insights to help those in your life find greater fulfillment by allowing their true selves to shine through.

Featured image credit: Gettyimages


Ksinan, A. J., Mališ, J., & Vazsonyi, A. T. (2021). Swiping away the moments that make up a dull day: Narcissism, boredom, and compulsive smartphone use. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 40(6), 2917–2926. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00228-7

Provided by Psychology today

Text credit: Susan Krauss Whitbourne

Why Are So Many Movies Basically the Same? (Psychology)

People may like them because they produce evolved pleasurable responses.


  • An analysis of 1700 books found that most follow just one of six emotional story arcs.
  • A recent paper argues we like certain stories because they activate evolved cognitive mechanisms.
  • People are interested in stories involving overcoming obstacles because they evolved to learn from others.
  • People derive pleasure from seeing (fictional) others succeed, a mechanism that likely helped to promote cooperation.

What do Star Wars and Harry Potter have in common? In addition to having their own theme parks, quite a lot. Both feature orphaned protagonists who discover they have special powers and eventually go on to save the world. In fact, both stories follow a common template that can be found repeatedly in fiction, known as “the hero’s journey” or the monomyth.

In a previous post, I wrote about how true originality in creative work is rare. But what draws us to the same basic stories over and over again? Two recent journal articles offer a possible answer.

There are only about six basic stories

The first, published in 2016 by a group of researchers led by Andrew Reagan at the University of Vermont, analyzed about 1700 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg. The researchers used an AI method called sentiment analysis that assigns an estimate of the emotion expressed in a section of text. For example, the sentence “I’m super excited about my birthday tomorrow!” would be classified as highly positive. They constructed sentiment profiles of each book from start to finish to get a rough sense of their emotional arcs: Do they start happy and end sad, start sad and end happy, or something else? Then they used some statistical methods to see how many different profiles could be found in the set of books.

Most books fell into six basic categories, which they called:

  1. Rags to riches (start sad, end happy)
  2. Tragedy (start happy, end sad)
  3. Man in a hole (start happy, get sad, end happy)
  4. Icarus (start sad, get happy, end sad)
  5. Cinderella (start sad, get happy, get sad, end happy)
  6. Oedipus (start happy, get sad, get happy, end sad)
Reagan et al. (2016).
The six basic stories. Source: Reagan et al. (2016).

Somewhat surprisingly, even though rags to riches and tragedy stories were most common, man in a holeIcarus, and Oedipus stories were slightly more popular, based on download numbers.

This study supports the idea that most stories are, at their core, pretty much the same. But it doesn’t explain why that is, or why people prefer certain types of stories. There’s no reason why someone couldn’t write a riches to riches story in which everyone is happy from beginning to end, but it seems intuitively obvious that that story would be pretty boring.

A new theory argues we were born to like certain stories

An article published this month by anthropologist Manvir Singh argues that what makes stories like Star Wars and Harry Potter so appealing is what Singh calls their “sympathetic plots.”

The sympathetic plot, which is shared by countless stories across cultures, has several core features that are not unlike those of the hero’s journey: A hero has a justifiable goal, faces an obstacle, overcomes it, and earns a reward for themselves or for others.

Singh argues that the reason sympathetic plots are so appealing is that they hijack evolutionarily developed mechanisms for social learning. One of the most valuable skills humans have that distinguishes us from other animals is the ability to learn from others: Rather than having to figure out how to fix a running toilet on your own, you can watch a couple of other people do it on YouTube and you’re pretty much up to speed. As a result, Singh argues, we’re fascinated when we see people encounter obstacles, and we feel some pleasure when we learn how they overcame them. Of course, learning how Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star is completely useless knowledge for us, but this social learning mechanism is so deeply ingrained, watching him do it produces the same pleasure response.

Consider an alternative explanation for why we like fiction: It allows us to put ourselves in the roles of the protagonists to simulate solving similar problems. But again, we’ll never need to know how to use The Force or fight goblins. Instead, Singh argues that the pleasure we experience hearing these stories is just a side effect of our interest in learning how people overcome obstacles in general, even fictional ones.

We’re happy when people we like succeed

Another relevant mechanism is what Singh calls “sympathetic joy”: We feel happy when others succeed. Some researchers believe that sympathetic joy evolved to help motivate cooperation: If helping others succeed will make you feel good, this ought to motivate you to help people and vice versa.

These two mechanisms can help explain why a riches to riches story would be so boring: no obstacles to overcome, no success to be had. In other words, it would fail to activate either mechanism.

What about tragic endings?

But not all popular stories follow the sympathetic plot template. Recall that some of the most popular story arcs identified in the analysis of Project Gutenberg books ended in tragedy (so-called Icarus and Oedipus stories). Stories like these would, at the very least, seem to fail to activate any sympathetic joy.

As Singh points out, these evolutionary mechanisms are not the only factors that affect how enjoyable a story is. People may be drawn to how thought-provoking a story is, whether it was written or filmed in a unique way, or whether the ending, while tragic, provided some sort of closure. That is, the existence of the social learning and sympathetic joy mechanisms can explain why so many stories are so similar, but their existence doesn’t mean that every story in history will conform to the sympathetic plot.

None of this of course means that you can write an award-winning novel by following a simple formula (as if rags to riches or “overcoming obstacles” are helpful formulas anyway). Instead, these articles suggest that successful writers have converged on a common storytelling structure that they fill with rich and compelling characters, events, and relationships. As I argued in my earlier post, it doesn’t really matter when we see something familiar in a new way because it can still be enjoyable. Clearly, this is true: People have been consuming essentially the same stories for hundreds of years.

Text and featured image credit: Alan Jern/wallpaperflare


  • Reagan, A.J., Mitchell, L., Kiley, D. et al. (2016). The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes. EPJ Data Sci., 5, 31.
  • Singh M. (2021). The Sympathetic Plot, Its Psychological Origins, and Implications for the Evolution of Fiction. Emotion Review, 13(3), 183-198.

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Why Have So Many Leaders Screwed Up the Return to the Office? (Psychology)


  • Most workers would prefer to work from home at least half of the time, surveys show, yet many employers are forcing employees back to the office.
  • Cognitive biases, such as wanting to return to the status quo or envisioning a false consensus, may be hampering leaders’ decisions.
  • Work-from-home functions well for the vast majority of people. A hybrid model with remote work for those who want it may be the best solution.

Due to strong employee resistance and turnover, Google recently backtracked from its plan to force all employees to return back to the office and allowed many to work remotely. Apple’s plan to force its staff back to the office has caused many to leave Apple and led to substantial internal opposition.

Why are these and so many other leaders forcing employees to return to the office? They must know about the extensive, in-depth surveys from early spring 2021 that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on returning to the office after the pandemic.

All of the surveys revealed strong preferences for working from home post-pandemic at least half the time for over three-quarters of all respondents. A quarter to a third of all respondents desired full-time remote work permanently. From 40 to 55 percent of respondents said they’d quit without permanent remote options for at least half the work week; of these, many would leave if not permitted fully remote work. Minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination.

Yet many employers intend to force their employees who can easily work remotely back to the office for much or all of the work week.

Leaders frequently proclaim that “people are our most important resource.” Yet the leaders resistant to permitting telework are not living by that principle. Instead, they’re doing what they feel comfortable with, even if it devastates employee morale, engagement, and productivity, and seriously undercuts retention and recruitment, as well as harming diversity and inclusion. In the end, their behavior is a major threat to the bottom line.

The tensions of returning to the office and figuring out the most effective permanent post-pandemic work arrangements are the topic of my book, Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. This article focuses on the blindspots causing leaders to make bad decisions on these topics.

Why Are So Many Leaders Wary of Remote Work?

A large number of leaders want to return to what they saw as “normal” work life. By that, they mean turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic.

Another key concern for many involves personal discomfort. They like the feel of a full, buzzing office. They prefer to be surrounded by others when they work.

Other reasons involve challenges specifically related to remote work. This includes deteriorating company culture and growing work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue. Other leaders cited a rise in team conflicts and challenges in virtual collaboration and communication. A final category of concerns relates to a lack of accountability and effective evaluation of employees.

Mental Blindspots Leading to Disastrous Telework Decisions

Why are these leaders resistant to the seemingly obvious solution: a hybrid model for most, with full-time permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? This is because of cognitive biases, which are mental blindspots that lead to poor strategic and financial decision-making.

Fortunately, by understanding these cognitive biases and taking research-based steps to address them, we can make the best decisions.

Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things.

A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from their personal discomfort with work from home. They spent their career surrounded by other people. They want to resume regularly walking the floors, surrounded by the energy of staff working.

They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blindspot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information.

The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner. The confirmation bias offers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs and at looking only for information that confirms them.

Reluctant leaders usually tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that the large majority of their employees would rather work at the office than at home. They wave aside the fact that the large-scale public surveys show the opposite. For instance, one of the major complaints by Apple employees is a failure to do effective surveys and listen to employees.

In this refusal to do surveys, the confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias, called the false consensus effect. This mental blindspot leads us to envision other people in our in-group — such as those employed at our company — as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.

What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture and so on? Further inquiry on each problem revealed that the leaders never addressed these work-from-home problems strategically.

They transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, they focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. They ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together, motivates employees, and protects against burnout.

That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we ignore other possible functions, uses, and behaviors. We do this even if these new functions, uses and behaviors offer a better fit for a changed situation and would address our problems better.


The post-pandemic office will require the realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome the gut reactions that cause them to fall victim to mental blindspots. Only by doing so can they seize the competitive advantage from using their most important resource effectively to maximize their retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture, and thus their bottom line.

Text/Featured image credit: Gleb Tsipursky/gettyimages


Tsipursky, G. (2021). Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. Columbus, OH: Intentional Insights Press.

Provided by Psychology today