On this episode Connor Leslie tells us about her work on agression detection from both an evolutionary and forensic psychology perspective. Connor discusses the importance of detecting agression for preventing violence. Look out for those aggressive behaviors and try to avoid them on the International Day of Non-violence! #internationaldayofnonviolence
To follow Connor’s research check her out on Twitter @ConnorLeslie91.
Want to know more about motion capture and psychology research of a more non-violent nature? Check out these studies from members of our department:
This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.
Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.
This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.
We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).
Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
After the England men’s football team reached their first major final in 55 years, the national headlines should have been celebrating their exceptional achievement. Instead, the focus quickly turned to the vile racist abuse targeted at three Black players: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. These young men were subjected to widespread racist hatred and threats on social media platforms. The magnitude and ferocity of such incidents of hate is, regrettably, just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of hate crimes are reported across England and Wales every week, with the total number of cases officially recorded by the police doubling over the past ten years to over 100,000 incidents per year
Hate: a special category of crime
In England and Wales, hate crimes, such as those directed at the football players, are defined as any crime (e.g., threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, assault) that is perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards five legally protected characteristics: an individual’s (i) race, (ii) religion, (iii) sexual orientation, (iv) transgender identity, or (v) disability. Importantly, when a crime is shown to demonstrate or be motivated by these prejudices, the courts ‘must’ apply a ‘sentence uplift’, meaning perpetrators receive an increased punishment for their crime. Thus, the distinction of hate crime has real, tangible effects for perpetrators. But why are hate crimes considered to be a ‘special’ category of offending?
The impacts of hate
Critics of hate crime legislation have argued that such laws are prosecuting thoughts rather than actions, and that crimes, regardless of their underlying motivations, should be prosecuted in the same way. However, not only does this argument misinterpret the true nature and dynamics of hate crime, but it also fails to recognise that criminal responsibility must reflect both an offender’s level of culpability for committing an offence and the level of harm it is likely to cause. There is now considerable research that shows hate crimes are unique because the motivations underpinning such offences have additional traumatic effects both on individual victims and entire communities of people
On the individual level, research shows that hate crime victims report feeling more anxious, fearful, and vulnerable than victims of comparable non-hate crimes. Hate crime victims are also more likely to suffer more violent attacks, resulting in substantial physical injuries and in turn extensive psychological trauma. Furthermore, as hate crimes specifically target individual’s core identities and beliefs, victims are more likely to feel ostracised and marginalised, forcing them to question their place and worth in society.
The impacts do not stop there. Hate crimes act as messages of intolerance to entire communities. By targeting one member, these crimes reverberate throughout communities who share the victim’s identity characteristic causing ‘waves of harm’, in which all members are shown (or reminded) that they are vulnerable to targeted violence because of who they are.
In our research which involved 20 separate studies with over 7000 individuals in England and Wales, we have consistently found that hate crimes have a significant impact on targeted community members’ perceptions of threat (against their physical safety and rights as equal citizens), which in turn has significant negative effects on their emotional wellbeing, and their behaviours. For example, when LGBT+ participants personally knew of, or read about, other LGBT+ individuals’ experiences of hate crimes, they reported feeling vulnerable, anxious, angry, and even ashamed. While many community members sought solace with fellow LGBT+ people and were more determined to fight injustice, many also chose to avert potential prejudice-based abuse by avoiding certain locations and people, restricting public displays of affections to their partners and were less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to others.
These ‘social harms’ have significant implications for society in general, making it less open, less equal, and less diverse. In other words, hate crimes don’t just hurt those groups who are targeted, they hurt everyone who wants to live in a diverse and open society. In this sense, hate crime laws reflect the greater seriousness of such offences, not only acknowledging the enhanced harms they cause to those targeted, but they also recognise that they are a direct attack against liberal democracy’s commitment to fundamental principles including freedom and equality. Here we are reminded of the indelible words of Martin Luther King Jr who stated, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
Informing policy and practice
A central aim of our interdisciplinary research is to help combat and address the impacts of hate crimes. In doing so, we have worked with thousands of victims, multiple criminal justice agencies, and numerous charities, including Stonewall, Galop, Tell MAMA, and the Muslim Council of Britain, to ensure the research can be used to raise awareness of hate crimes and provide support to those who are affected.
Yet it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent hate crimes and address the harms they cause. To this end, hate crime law reform consultations have been taking place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, Judge Desmond Marrinan recently published an extensive review in hate crime legislation, while the Law Commission for England and Wales have published a 516 page consultation paper on hate crime laws and will publish their final report later this year. Both reviews are examining the use of restorative justice as an alternative intervention to address the rise in hate crime.
In its simplest terms, restorative justice helps victims and perpetrators to communicate with one another about the causes and harms of hate incidents in an effort to repair these harms and to prevent further offences. Central to the process is that those who are harmed are given a role in resolving their case, which can involve them explaining directly to the perpetrator how they have been affected and what needs to be done to assist their recover. Those who have harmed are asked to take responsibility by undertaking some form of reparation (such as financial compensation, written apologies, community or charitable work).
Although there has been initial policy resistance to its use for hate crime, our contributions to both reviews showed that restorative justice can be highly effective at reducing the emotional traumas caused by hate crime, while simultaneously preventing incidents from recurring. Perhaps almost as important is our newest research which showed that the use of restorative justice for hate crimes is supported by targeted communities and, thus, may not be seen as the “soft touch” commonly assumed by policy makers. The Northern Ireland review has in turn recommended the development of a new statutory scheme for adult restorative justice for hate crime. We hope that both Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK lead the way in instituting restorative justice practices as a means of addressing hate crime.
Another important proposal by both the Northern Ireland review and the Law Commission consultation is to broaden the scope of the current laws to include other protected characteristics, including gender and sex – a topic that has been receiving increasing support and media attention following the recent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, pre-empting the work of the Commission and its final report the Prime Minister has stated that misogyny should not be made a hate crime. This is despite a wealth of research showing its existence as a social problem and its impact on women. It is clear that further research and, importantly, engagement with policymakers is needed to emphasise how hate-motivated attacks target individuals, threaten vast groups of people and, ultimately, undermine society. It is only by engaging with policymakers and practitioners that our research can truly help all those affected by these crimes.
Hate Crime Awareness Week
This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and impact of hate crimes, and to provide support for all those who are affected. Please click on the following links if you would like to know more about hate crime, how to report it, and how to get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.
Search for “climate change” on YouTube and before long you’ll likely find a video that denies it exists. In fact, when it comes to shaping the online conversation around climate change, a new study suggests that deniers and conspiracy theorists might hold an edge over those believing in science. Researchers found evidence that most YouTube videos relating to climate change oppose the scientific consensus that it’s primarily caused by human activities.
The study highlights the key role of social media use in the spread of scientific misinformation. And it suggests scientists and those who support them need to be more active in developing creative and compelling ways to communicate their findings. But more importantly, we need to be worried about the effects that maliciously manipulated scientific information can have on our behaviour, individually and as a society.
The recent study by Joachim Allgaier of RWTH Aachen University in Germany analysed the content of a randomised sample of 200 YouTube videos related to climate change. He found that a majority (107) of the videos either denied that climate change was caused by humans or claimed that climate change was a conspiracy.
The videos peddling the conspiracy theories received the highest number of views. And those spreading these conspiracy theories used terms like “geoengineering” to make it seem like their claims had a scientific basis when, in fact, they did not.
Climate change is far from the only area where we see a trend for online misinformation about science triumphing over scientifically valid facts. Take an issue like infectious diseases, and perhaps the most well-known example of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Despite large amounts of online information about the vaccine’s safety, false claims that it has harmful effects have spread widely and resulted in plummeting levels of vaccination in many countries around the world.
But it’s not just well-known conspiracy theories that are causing a problem. In May 2018, one troublemaker came into his own at the height of the Nipah virus outbreak that eventually claimed 17 lives in the southern Indian state of Kerala. He duplicated the letterhead of the District Medical Officer and spread a message claiming that Nipah was spreading through chicken meat.
In reality, the scientifically established view is that the fruit bat is the host for the virus. As the unfounded rumour went viral on WhatsApp in Kerala and neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, consumers became wary of consuming chicken, which sent the incomes of local chicken traders into a tailspin.
The effects of misinformation surrounding the MMR vaccine and Nipah virus on human behaviour should not be surprising given we know that our memory is malleable. Our recollection of original facts can be replaced with new, false ones. We also know conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal as they can help people make sense of events or issues they feel they have no control over.
This problem is complicated further by the personalisation algorithms underlying social media. These tend to feed us content consistent with our beliefs and clicking patterns, helping to strengthen the acceptance of misinformation. Someone who is sceptical about climate change might be given an increasing stream of content denying it is caused by humans, making them less likely to take personal action or vote to tackle the issue.
Further rapid advances in digital technologies will also ensure that misinformation arrives in unexpected formats and with varying levels of sophistication. Duplicating an official’s letterhead or strategically using key words to manipulate online search engines is the tip of the iceberg. The emergence of artificial intelligence-related developments such as DeepFakes – highly realistic doctored videos – is likely to make it a lot harder to spot misinformation.
So how do we tackle this problem? The challenge is made greater by the fact that simply providing corrective scientific information can reinforce people’s awareness of the falsehoods. We also have to overcome resistance from people’s ideological beliefs and biases.
Social media companies are trying to developing institutional mechanisms to contain the spread of misinformation. Responding to the new research, a YouTube spokesperson said: “Since this study was conducted in 2018, we’ve made hundreds of changes to our platform and the results of this study do not accurately reflect the way that YouTube works today … These changes have already reduced views from recommendations of this type of content by 50% in the US.”
Other companies have recruited fact checkers in large numbers, awarded research grants to study misinformation to academics (including myself), and search terms for topics where misinformation could have harmful health effects have been blocked.
But the continuing prominence of scientific misinformation on social media suggests these measures are not enough. As a result, governments around the world are taking action, ranging from passing legislation to internet shutdowns, much to the ire of freedom-of-speech activists.
Scientists need to get involved
Another possible solution may be to hone people’s ability to think critically so they can tell the difference between actual scientific information and conspiracy theories. For example, a district in Kerala has launched a data literacy initiative across nearly 150 public schools trying to empower children with the skills to differentiate between authentic and fake information. It’s early days but there is already anecdotal evidence that this can make a difference.
Scientists also need to get more involved in the fight to make sure their work isn’t dismissed or misused, as in the case of terms like “geoengineering” being hijacked by YouTube climate deniers. Conspiracy theories ride on the appeal of certainties – however fake – whereas uncertainty is inherent to the scientific process. But in the case of the scientific consensus on climate change, which sees up to 99% of climate scientists agreeing that humans are responsible, we have something as close to certainty as science comes.
Scientists need to leverage this agreement to its maximum and communicate to the public using innovative and persuasive strategies. This includes creating social media content of their own to not only shift beliefs but also influence behaviours. Otherwise, their voices, however highly trusted, will continue to be drowned out by the frequency and ferocity of content produced by those with no concrete evidence.
The online retail giant Amazon has moved from our screens to our streets, with the introduction of Amazon grocery and book stores. With this expansion came the introduction of Amazon One – a service that lets customers use their handprint to pay, rather than tapping or swiping a card. According to recent reports, Amazon is now offering promotional credit to users who enroll.
In the UK we’re quickly becoming used to biometric-based identification. Many of us use a thumbprint or facial recognition to access our smartphones, authorise payments or cross international borders.
Using a biometric (part of your body) rather than a credit card (something you own) to make a purchase might offer a lot more convenience for what feels like very little cost. But there are several complex issues involved in giving up your biometric data to another party, which is why we should be wary of companies such as Amazon incentivising us to use biometrics for everyday transactions.
Amazon’s handprint incentive adds to an ongoing academic and policy debate about when and where to use biometrics to “authenticate” yourself to a system (to prove that you are who you say you are).
On the benefits side, you’re never without your biometric identifier -– your face, hand or finger travel with you. Biometrics are pretty hard to steal (modern fingerprint systems typically include a “liveness” test so that no attacker would be tempted to chop a finger off or make latex copies). They’re also easy to use -– gone are the problems of remembering multiple passwords to access different systems and services.
What about the costs? You don’t have many hands –- and you can’t get a new one –- so one biometric will have to serve as an entry point to multiple systems. That becomes a real problem if a biometric is hacked.
Biometrics can also be discriminatory. Many facial recognition systems fail ethnic minorities (because the systems have been trained with predominantly white faces. Fingerprint systems may fail older adults, who have thinner skin and less marked whorls, and all systems would fail those with certain disabilities – arthritis, for example, could make it difficult to yield a palm print.
Who should we trust?
A key issue for biometrics “identity providers” is that they can be trusted. This means that they will keep the data secure and will be “proportional” in their use of biometrics as a means of identification. In other words, they will use biometrics when it is necessary – say, for security purposes – but not simply because it seems convenient.
The UK government is currently consulting on a new digital identity and attributes trust framework where firms can be certified to offer biometric and other forms of identity management services.
As the number of daily digital transactions we make grows, so does the need for simple, seamless authentication, so it is not surprising that Amazon might want to become a major player in this space. Offering to pay for you to use a biometric sign-in is a quick means of getting you to choose Amazon as your trusted identity provider … but are you sure you want to do that?
Unfortunately we’re victims of our own psychology in this process. We will often say we value our privacy and want to protect our data, but then, with the promise of a quick reward, we will simply click on that link, accept those cookies, login via Facebook, offer up that fingerprint and buy into that shiny new thing.
Researchers have a name for this: the privacy paradox. In survey after survey, people will argue that they care deeply about privacy, data protection and digital security, but these attitudes are not supported in their behaviour. Several explanations exist for this, with some researchers arguing that people employ a privacy calculus to assess the costs and benefits of disclosing particular information.
The problem, as always, is that certain types of cognitive or social bias begin to creep into this calculus. We know, for example, that people will underestimate the risks associated with things they like and overestimate the risks associated with things they dislike (something known as the “affect heuristic”).
As a consequence, people tend to share more personal data than they should, and the amount of such data in circulation grows exponentially. The same is true for biometrics. People will say that only trusted organisations should hold biometric data, but then go on to give their biometrics up with a small incentive. In my own research, I’ve linked this behavioural paradox to the fact that security and privacy are things we need to do, but they don’t give us any joy, so our motivation to act is low.
Any warnings about the longer-term risks of taking the Amazon shilling might be futile, but I leave you with this: your biometrics don’t just confirm your identity, they are more revealing than that. They say something very clearly about ethnicity and age, but may also unknowingly reveal information about disability or even mood (in the example of, say, a voice biometric).
Biometric analysis can be done without permission (state regulations permitting) and, in some cases, at scale. China leads the way in the use of face recognition to identify individuals in a crowd, even when wearing masks. Exchanging a palm print for the equivalent of a free book may seem like a vastly different thing, but it is the thin end of the biometric wedge.
Have you ever thought there was an uncanny family resemblance between your friend and her partner? Or wondered for a fleeting moment whether the pair walking down the road were husband and wife, or brother and sister? You might not be imagining things. Animals of many species “learn” what a suitable mate looks like based on the appearance of their parents, and so, it seems, do humans.
This isn’t Freud’s Oedipus complex revisited. Freud believed that children have a suppressed desire for their parents. But this branch of research doesn’t in any way show that we secretly desire our parents, just that we simply tend to be attracted to people who resemble them to some extent.
If anything, we seem to find our immediate family members unattractive. For instance, people find the very idea of sexual relationships with their siblings deeply unappealing. This aversion seems to develop automatically through two distinct processes. One process turns off attraction to those that we spend a lot of time with during childhood. The other turns off attraction to any infants that our mother looks after a lot. Sexual aversion to siblings might be nature’s way of ensuring we don’t try to reproduce with someone who is too closely related to us and reproduction with close relatives is linked to an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in any resulting offspring. This aversion to close relatives is known as negative sexual imprinting. However, genetic sexual attraction can occur between siblings that have been separated and meet first as adults.
But when do we develop these preferences? Perhaps we learn that our parents looks are attractive early in life, and then tuck that learning away – only to let it reemerge when we’re ready for adult relationships. Or perhaps more recent experiences override earlier learning? To test this, I asked heterosexual adult women about their relationships with their parents at different ages during their development, and I assessed how much their current preferences matched up with the appearance of their parents.
I found that the women who reported a better relationship with their parents after puberty were more likely to be attracted to partners with similar eye colour to them. In contrast, if a woman was close to her parents earlier in life, she was actually less likely to prefer the eye colour of her parents in a partner. In science, we always like to see replications with different samples, methodologies and research groups before we generalise findings too much. So far though, the intriguing pattern of this early study suggests that there may be complex developmental patterns underlying how we construct our idea of an ideal partner. Perhaps we are seeing the actions of both positive and negative sexual imprinting at work.
But one question remains. If we’re finding preferences for parental resemblance across different populations, then what is the biological explanation for this behaviour? It turns out that coupling up with a distant family member seems to be the best bet, biologically, to produce a large number of healthy children. One possibility is that if you are attracted to people who look like your parents, then chances are you may get a crush on distant relatives. This might give you better chances of more healthy children, and so this behaviour persists.
Over the course of history, conspiracy theories have been linked to conflict, prejudice, genocide and the rejection of important scientific advances. Recently, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories (such as that the virus is a hoax) have been linked to vaccine rejection and reluctance to take action to stop the spread of the virus.
However, despite their significance, we know almost nothing about how conspiracy theories affect children, or how beliefs in conspiracy theories change across the lifespan. This is because existing research on the psychology of conspiracy theories has only been conducted with adults. Scientists have not been able to study conspiracy beliefs in children because age-appropriate research methods have not been available.
Using this questionnaire, we found that adolescents in the UK seem most likely to start believing in conspiracy theories around the age of 14. In one of our studies, we found that as adolescents reach around this age, their conspiracy beliefs were higher than in younger age groups. In another study, we found that 18-year-olds displayed higher belief in conspiracy theories compared to a mixed‐age sample of older adults. It therefore seems that adolescence could be a peak time for conspiracy theorising.
We asked participants to decide how much they agreed with nine different statements, each on a scale of 1 to 7. These included assertions such as “secret societies influence many political decisions”, “governments have deliberately spread diseases in certain groups of people”, and “secret societies control politicians and other leaders”. We then calculated average scores across the nine items. A higher average score indicated a higher belief in conspiracy theories.
Between the ages of 11-14 and 14-16, belief in conspiracy theories increased from an average score of 3.72 to 4.67. Young people aged 16-17 also displayed a higher average (4.39) than the younger children. Furthermore, participants aged 18 reported higher conspiracy beliefs (4.06) than a mixed-age sample of older adults (3.81). Around the age of 14, conspiracy beliefs therefore appear to peak, and remain heightened into early adulthood, but then they appear to plateau.
Why conspiracy beliefs are taking hold
Many adolescents have been home schooled and isolated from their peer groups for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore not surprising that their social media use has significantly increased during this time. This could be the ideal situation for conspiracy theories to flourish in younger groups.
Psychological stress could also contribute to conspiracy beliefs in younger people. Our research also uncovered initial evidence that paranoia and mistrust are associated with young people’s conspiracy beliefs.
Other research suggests that adolescents aged 13-15 are less likely to rely on emotion regulation strategies than at other points in their life. This means that adolescents may have trouble controlling, understanding and expressing their emotions at this age, which may lead to increased anxiety and, in turn, increased belief in conspiracy theories. The additional stress and mental health worries caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead adolescents to turn to conspiracy theories even more to try to cope with feelings of anxiety and isolation.
We know that helping adults feel more empowered can reduce their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. That is, feeling more in control of one’s social environment can reduce reliance on conspiracy theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is lowered when people are encouraged to think analytically. An important next step would be to examine whether such techniques help reduce conspiracy beliefs in younger people.
Our project has spotlighted young people’s conspiracy beliefs for the first time. Conspiracy beliefs seem to flourish in teenage years and the COVID-19 pandemic may have made things worse. We therefore need to understand more about why conspiracy theories appeal to young people and what to do about it.
What is the point of a beard, evolutionarily speaking? Children, women, and a whole bunch of men manage just fine without one. But take a walk down some streets these days and you’ll be confronted with all sizes and shapes of groomed (and less groomed) facial hair – from designer stubble to waxed moustaches and hipster beards.
When we see men paying attention to their appearance, it’s easy to assume that they’re just angling for partners. But our research on beards and voices shows that beards probably evolved at least partly to help men boost their standing among other men.
Compared to males and females of many other primates, men and women on average look very different from each other – partly thanks to men’s facial hair. And when we see differences between males and females, the explanation often boils down to evolution through sexual selection – the process that favours traits that boost mating opportunities.
But interestingly, women don’t seem that interested in beards. While some studies have found that women like a bit or even a lot of facial hair on men, other studies have reported that they prefer the clean-shaven look. The lack of consistent evidence means we can’t conclude that beards evolved because women were attracted to them.
Researchers have therefore suggested that a second type of sexual selection may hold the answer. To reproduce, it’s often not enough to simply be attractive. You also have to compete with the same sex for mating opportunities. The funny, shy guy at the back of the bar isn’t going to stand a chance when competing with his bolshier brothers otherwise. And there’s evidence that beards evolved to help men do just that.
A man’s ability to grow a fulsome beard isn’t actually neatly linked to his testosterone levels. Despite this, a number of studies have suggested that both men and women perceive men with beards as older, stronger and more aggressive than others. And dominant men can get more mating opportunities by intimidating rivals to stand aside.
This is something that holds true both in modern times and throughout human history. Dominance can provide a staggering short-cut to mating opportunities: genetic evidence indicates that about 8% of the male population of Asia today is a descendent of Genghis Khan and his family.
A study by the appropriately-named Nigel Barber linked British facial hair fashions between 1842 and 1971 to the ratio of men to women in the marriage market. It found that in times with a greater proportion of single men competing for fewer women, beards and moustaches became more fashionable.
Beards aren’t the only feature that can convey dominance – voices do too. People tend to vote for leaders with lower-pitched voices, and during competitive tasks men lower the pitch of their voice if they think they are more dominant than their opponent. Like facial hair, voice pitch also easily distinguishes men and women.
To help trace the evolutionary origin of beards and voices, we tested whether they were seen as attractive, dominant or both. We asked 20 men and 20 women to rate the dominance and attractiveness of six men who were video-taped on four occasions as they let their facial hair grow. We then used computer software to create four versions of each video where the men’s voices had been changed to sound higher and lower-pitched.
We found that male voices that sounded deeper than average were rated as the most attractive. Really deep or high pitches weren’t as popular. In contrast, men’s voices were perceived as increasingly dominant the lower they were. Beards didn’t affect a man’s attractiveness rating consistently, but those who let their facial hair grow were perceived as more dominant than others – in line with previous research.
The tension between attracting a mate and competing with others doesn’t just apply to beards and voices. Men on average also think their body should be more muscular than women report that they want, while women on average believe they need to be thinner and wear more make-up than men report that they want. We’re not always that great at judging what the other sex finds appealing, but maybe that’s in part because our instincts are to out-compete our peers as well as attract a partner.
Of course, most of this research has been carried out within western populations. Make-up use, average body composition, and even the very ability to grow facial hair all differ enormously across the world – meaning we could get different results elsewhere.
But the point is that, whether it’s facial hair or something else, we often see this pattern of competing requirements leading to differences in appearances. Think you can please everyone all of the time? You can’t.