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People Aren’t Just Afraid of the Dark, They’re Afraid of Nighttime

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There’s a reason people are afraid of things that go bump in the night. Once the sun goes down, people are more sensitive to scary stimuli. That jumpiness may have more to do with the time of day than the darkness, a new study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology explains. 

A group of Chinese researchers tested the links between fear, darkness, and nighttime by splitting a group of women into four groups and exposing them to scary sights and sounds; the women were monitored for spikes in heart rate and perspiration. Some participants looked at scary pictures and listened to scary sounds during the day with all the lights on, while others looked at the pictures during the day, but in darkness. Some viewed them at night with a dim light, and others at night in complete darkness except for the computer screen. 

Those who undertook the task at night found the pictures and sounds scarier than did the women who had to examine them during the day, regardless of the light condition. By contrast, their reaction to neutral pictures and sounds didn’t vary based on the time of day. 

The study only tested young female participants in China (the average age was 22), so it's far from definitive. Fear could affect men and women and people of different ages and cultures differently. But this does suggest that there could be a circadian rhythm to fear, and that biologically, we’re more inclined to be afraid of things at nighttime. As humans aren’t nocturnal animals, but plenty of predators are, it makes sense that we would learn to be a little more sensitive to threatening sights and sounds in the night. 

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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Why Eating From a Smaller Plate Might Not Be an Effective Dieting Trick 
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It might be time to rewrite the diet books. Israeli psychologists have cast doubt on the widespread belief that eating from smaller plates helps you control food portions and feel fuller, Scientific American reports.

Past studies have shown that this mind trick, called the Delboeuf illusion, influences the amount of food that people eat. In one 2012 study, participants who were given larger bowls ended up eating more soup overall than those given smaller bowls.

However, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel, concluded in a study published in the journal Appetite that the effectiveness of the illusion depends on how empty your stomach is. The team of scientists studied two groups of participants: one that ate three hours before the experiment, and another that ate one hour prior. When participants were shown images of pizzas on serving trays of varying sizes, the group that hadn’t eaten in several hours was more accurate in assessing the size of pizzas. In other words, the hungrier they were, the less likely they were to be fooled by the different trays.

However, both groups were equally tricked by the illusion when they were asked to estimate the size of non-food objects, such as black circles inside of white circles and hubcaps within tires. Researchers say this demonstrates that motivational factors, like appetite, affects how we perceive food. The findings also dovetail with the results of an earlier study, which concluded that overweight people are less likely to fall for the illusion than people of a normal weight.

So go ahead and get a large plate every now and then. At the very least, it may save you a second trip to the buffet table.

[h/t Scientific American]

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Want to Chat with Your Colleagues? Don't Work in an Open Office
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Open office plans are often touted by companies as a way to encourage interaction among employees, but in practice, open offices are often a lot less collaborative than they’re designed to be. In fact, new research goes so far as to say that they cause people to “socially withdraw,” according to a study spotted by BPS Research Digest.

In the study, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Harvard researchers outfitted employees of two major corporations with sensor badges that could analyze their interactions. These badges—containing an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth transmitter, an accelerometer, and a microphone—could sense when employees were facing another person, whether they were speaking or listening (though it didn’t record what they were saying), if they were moving, and where in the office they were standing. The researchers also analyzed the employee’s corporate email and instant messaging data to determine whether people starting using digital communications more after they started working in open offices.

In one study, the researchers examined 52 employees working at a multinational Fortune 500 company that had recently decided to transform one of the floors in its headquarters to an open office. The company moved workers from workspaces with walls to a completely wall-free desk design with a similar layout. The researchers were able to record participants before and after the change.

In a second study, they analyzed 100 employees working in the headquarters of another multinational Fortune 500 company. This company was in the middle of redesigning its offices, too, and the researchers collected data before the redesign, when employees were working in cubicles, and afterward, when they were assigned to work at open desk spaces without dividers.

They found that the redesigns significantly changed how people interacted—and not in the way intended by most open-office advocates. Face-to-face interactions decreased by 70 percent as people began to opt for digital communication methods. Outgoing emails went up by between 20 and 50 percent after the change. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the researchers note.

While companies hope to throw all their employees together in a room and create a culture of buzzing collaboration, the results are starkly different. “What they often get,” the researchers write, “is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

Part of the problem is that in an open layout, even the smallest interactions end up broadcast to the whole office—which is awkward at best, and actively distracting to coworkers at worst. “Rather than have [a face-to-face] interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.”

While previous research has tested employee satisfaction with open offices (and often found it lacking), this is one of the first studies to find an empirical way to measure how open offices can change social behavior at work.

The open office trend probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Companies may tout the collaboration benefits, but there's another reason they're so popular: Squeezing people together into long desks also helps businesses save on rent. Whether those rent savings balance out the cost of lost productivity is up for debate. But now at least we can say for sure that tearing down walls doesn’t actually get people talking to each other.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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