July 30, 2013

In this month’s research round up we look at research on positive emotions, contact theory, and moral psychology, together with some emerging research about the role of synchronous movement in empathy.

Use it or lose it
Just as muscles atrophy and you lose physical strength if you don’t take regular exercise researchers are finding that the same can happen in relation to our social connections. Our brains are essentially plastic; ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, and any habit you develop moulds the structure of your brain. Professor Barbara Fredrickson has been researching for the last twenty years into positive emotions. Recent studies she has conducted demonstrate that regular ‘loving kindness’1  meditation can actually increase the tone of your vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the heart. The tone of our vagus nerve is central to our capacity for friendship, empathy and connection. She argues that if we don’t regularly exercise our capacity to connect face to face, over time we will lose our biological capacity to do so. This article gives you the details, and there are lots of clips online of her talking more about her work. We are going to cover Barbara’s latest book Love 2.0 in our next research article.

Why can’t we live together?
This was the title of a recent lecture given by Professor Miles Hewstone, who for the last 25 years has been researching the factors that impact intergroup relations in places such as Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Balkans. In this lecture he outlines his recent findings about the relationship between tolerant individuals and tolerant neighbourhoods. He discovered that not only do more tolerant individuals in a particular locality make the neighbourhood more tolerant over all, but that individuals become more tolerant in a tolerant neighbourhood. He also looks back at the arguments for and against diversity. In particular he responds to Putnam’s assertion in Bowling Alone, that ethnic diversity drives down levels of trust in neighbourhoods; countering this argument by offering a more specific definition of contact – ‘meaningful interaction’, and the positive impacts of it. In our recent article The Art of Living Together (RESOURCE) we explore this area of social psychology research and its implications for the arts in a bit more depth.

Are you trapped in the moral matrix?
Asks Professor of Moral Psychology Jonathan Haidt in this TED talk about the five moral values that govern our political choices. He argues that we are all born with a first draft of the moral mind which includes the values of Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. His research indicates that liberals prioritise the first two values over the last three, whereas conservatives tend to prioritise the last three. He suggests that we need all five moral values in order to live well together, for example, research demonstrates that to solve cooperative problems amongst large groups it can help to have some sort of punishment or sanction. He concludes that ‘the struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the world’s worst disease’ and we need to employ all of the tools in the moral toolbox to promote cooperation and prosocial behaviour.

Does moving in time with others increase your compassion for them?
A recent study2 demonstrates that it might. Researchers conducted experiments where participants were encouraged to tap in time with others. Those who kept time with each other were more likely to develop a higher level of compassion for each other when engaged in an arduous task, and consequently were more likely to behave altruistically towards each other. Those in the control group displayed lower levels of compassion for the other. Although this is a very small study and an emerging area of research it does throws up some interesting questions about art activities and experiences which involve synchronicity and their potential to increase empathy amongst participants.

1An ancient mind training practice called metta originating from Buddhism

2Valdesolo, P., & DeSteno, D. (2011). Synchrony and the social tuning of compassion. Emotion, 11, 262-266. doi:10.1037/a0021302

Leave a Comment