Psychological Science Across Disciplinary and Geographic Borders

Topics in this issue:

  1. Safe Sex or Risky Romance? Young Adults Make the Rational Choice: Eros, the fabled Greek god of love, was said to bring confusion and “weaken the mind.” New research, however, suggests that young adults are instead quite rational when it comes to selecting potential sexual partners.
  2. Remember That Fake News You Read? It May Help You Remember Even More: Thinking back on a time you encountered false information or “fake news” may prime your brain to better recall truthful memories.
  3. Interventions May Have Lasting BenefitsThe benefits of interventions—actions or policies intended to elicit a change in a person’s life—may either be lasting or fade over time. A review of hundreds of prior studies provides guidance on which educational interventions are most likely to create lasting effects.

Safe Sex or Risky Romance? Young Adults Make the Rational Choice

A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that young adults—contrary to how they are sometimes portrayed in the media—tend to make highly rational decisions when it comes to selecting potential romantic partners. This is not to say that young adults make risk-free choices, but they appear to consider both the risks and benefits of their sexual behavior in a highly consistent and thoughtful manner. “There is a tendency to view sexual decision making in young adults as a highly variable and somewhat random process, more influenced by hormones or impulsivity than rational processes,” said Laura Hatz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri and lead author of the study. “Our study suggests, however, that young adults are highly consistent in their choices, balancing potential partners’ level of attractiveness against the potential risk for sexually transmitted infection.” The research involved presenting 257 participants with hypothetical “sexual gambles” in which a photo of a potential partner’s face was shown alongside an associated, though purely hypothetical, risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Nearly all participants in the study made consistently rational choices, as defined by established models of psychological behavior. Prior research has shown that, in general, individuals tend to use what are known as heuristic decision strategies—cognitive shortcuts that may ignore some information—to make choices in life. Hatz and her colleagues found that even individuals who could be identified as classic heuristic decision makers for monetary-based choices became rational decision makers when similar choices were framed as sexual choices.

Reference: Hatz, L. E., Park, S., McCarty, K. N., McCarthy, D. M., & Davis-Stober, C. P. (2020). Young adults make rational sexual decisions. Psychological Science, 31(8), 944–956.

2. Remember That Fake News You Read? It May Help You Remember Even More

People who receive reminders of past misinformation may form new factual memories with greater fidelity, according to an article published in the journal Psychological Science. Past research highlights one insidious side of fake news: The more you encounter the same misinformation—for instance, that world governments are covering up the existence of flying saucers—the more familiar and potentially believable that false information becomes. New research, however, has found that reminders of past misinformation can help protect against remembering misinformation as true while improving recollection of real-world events and information. “Reminding people of previous encounters with fake news can improve memory and beliefs for facts that correct misinformation,” said Christopher Wahlheim, a lead author on the paper and assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “This suggests that pointing out conflicting information could improve the comprehension of truth in some situations.” Wahlheim and colleagues conducted two experiments examining whether reminders of misinformation could improve memory for and beliefs in corrections. Study participants were shown corrections of news and information they may have encountered in the past. Reminders of past misinformation appeared before some corrections but not others. Study results showed that misinformation reminders increased the participants’ recall of facts and belief accuracy. The researchers interpreted the results to indicate that misinformation reminders raise awareness of discrepancies and promote memory updating. These results may be pertinent to individuals who confront misinformation frequently. “It suggests that there may be benefits to learning how someone was being misleading. This knowledge may inform strategies that people use to counteract high exposure to misinformation spread for political gain,” Wahlheim said.

Reference: Wahlheim, C. N., Alexander T. R., & Peske, C. D. (2020). Reminders of everyday misinformation statements can enhance memory for and beliefs in corrections of those statements in the short term. Psychological Science, 31(10), 1325–1339.

3. Interventions May Have Lasting Benefits

The term “intervention” is often used when concerned family members and friends confront a loved one about a troubling aspect of their life, such as an unhealthy dependence or relationship. In the social sciences, however, interventions are anything that practitioners or experimenters use in order to change people in some way. A comprehensive review of past studies published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest explores the factors that lead educational interventions’ effects to either persist over the long term or fade out—diminishing or even disappearing completely after the intervention ends. These results stress the need for scientists to conduct long-term evaluations of their interventions. “The goal of this research is to better predict what will happen to people much later after an intervention that changes a person in the short term and, ultimately, to invest in interventions most likely to improve a child’s life,” said Drew Bailey, a researcher with the University of California, Irvine, and coauthor of the article. “We end by calling on researchers and funders to help improve the evidence base, which we can use to better inform research on persistence and fade-out.” The researchers based their conclusions on a wide sample of research on interventions. Much of this work is in the form of meta-analyses, which together cover hundreds of studies. “Our review indicates that, across a large set of interventions targeting all sorts of psychological characteristics, persistence and fade-out frequently occur together,” Bailey said. The authors did not attempt to identify one optimal package of existing interventions to invest in. However, their review clearly indicates that some interventions, such as compulsory schooling and high-quality early education programs (particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged children), have improved children’s life outcomes.

Reference: Bailey, D. H., Duncan, G. J., Cunha, F., Foorman, B. R., & Yeager, D. S. (2020). Persistence and fade-out of educational intervention effects: Mechanisms and potential solutions. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 21(2), 55–97.