Friday, 20 January 2006

Should the media publish images of terror hostages?

By publishing harrowing images of kidnapped hostages, media organisations could be inadvertently helping terrorists, psychologists have warned.

Aarti Iyer and Julian Oldmeadow at Exeter University presented 26 men and 34 women with a description of Ken Bigley’s kidnapping, just days after news reports broke of his capture in Iraq. Half of the participants were also shown images of Ken Bigley that had been released by the kidnappers, and which had subsequently been published in the press. These showed Bigley in a prison-style orange jump suit, chained, caged and in obvious distress. The report detailed how the kidnappers were threatening to execute Bigley if their demands were not met. Afterwards all the participants recorded their emotional reaction to the kidnapping, in terms of their fear, sympathy and anger. They also reported their views on the Iraq war, and their opinion on whether the British government should negotiate with the kidnappers and heed to their demands.

Participants shown photographs of Ken Bigley, especially those who were against the Iraq war, subsequently reported feeling greater fear than participants who were only shown a written description of his kidnapping. Moreover, participants who experienced more fear, were also more likely to endorse negotiation with the kidnappers, and so Iyer and Oldmeadow concluded that by increasing people’s fear, the photos of Ken Bigley that appeared in the media could have indirectly aided the kidnappers’ aims.

“One reading of this research, then, is that those who asked the media not to publish the photographs of Mr. Bigley may have been correct in their misgivings”, the researchers said. However, they added that if the photographs had also shown the kidnappers and other aspects of the capture, the emotional impact of could have been different: provoking more anger, for example. “This suggests another reading of the research”, they said, “that the media should not be censored, but rather, should be careful to publish graphic images that present a balanced perspective of an event or situation”.
Iyer, A. & Oldmeadow, J. (2006). Picture this: Emotional and political responses to photographs of the Kenneth Bigley kidnapping. European Journal of Social Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.316

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to discussion on BBC News online

Is it really true that therapists don't improve with experience?

When choosing a therapist, you’d be forgiven for wanting someone with plenty of experience. But then you might well be unaware of all the studies that, to psychotherapy’s embarrassment, have failed to find any association between therapist experience and the likelihood of a client getting better.

However, Scott Leon and colleagues have suggested that crude measures of therapist experience – such as ‘years since graduation’ – have rendered past research fundamentally flawed.

In their new study, they took advantage of a nationwide database of client outcomes collected over several years, to see if a client was more likely to get better if their therapist had previously engaged in therapy with someone demographically similar to themselves, and with similar problems.

From 2,366 clients treated by 92 therapists, Leon’s team identified 83 pairs of similar clients who had been treated by the same therapist. The researchers were specifically interested in whether, of the two clients in a matched pair, a therapist was more successful at treating the second of the two clients to come to them. As a control, 86 random pairs of clients were also compared. A client’s improvement was measured according to data that both they and their therapist inputted periodically onto the database.

Therapists did indeed tend to have more success with a client if they had previously treated someone similar, but only if the second client came to them within 15 to 75 days of the first. In contrast, therapists had no more, or less, success with second clients who started therapy between 75 and 720 days, or longer, after the first ‘similar’ client. The researchers said this suggests “…therapists can make use of prior experience with future similar patients, as long as the subsequent patients enter treatment shortly after the initial patient”.

What about the implications for therapist training? The researchers said: “If replicated, these findings could suggest that therapists gain from experience if they are allowed to treat similar types of patient in quick succession”. They added that the “…findings might provide support for a specialised training and practice model”.
Leon, S.C., Martinovich, Z., Lutz, W. & Lyons, J.S. (2005). The effect of therapist experience on psychotherapy outcomes. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 417-426.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How we see half the world through the prism of language

Whereas I might say a jumper is blue or red, female acquaintances of mine refer to all sorts of gradations in between, such as navy blue, shocking pink, and many others that I can’t even recall. But does the richness of their colour vocabulary mean they can actually see more colours than me? This is the issue at the heart of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that our perception of the world is anchored in the language that we use. Now Aubrey Gilbert and colleagues have tested the suggestion that if language does affect perception, then it ought to do so more on the right side of space than on the left, because it is the language-dominant left-hemisphere with which we process the right side of space.

In an initial experiment, 13 participants had to distinguish between four similar shades of colour. In terms of wavelength, the shades differed from each other in equally-sized, incremental steps, but two of the shades were what we’d call ‘green’, whereas the other two shades were ‘blue’. Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, participants were quicker at distinguishing between a ‘green’ and a ‘blue’ than between two ‘greens’ or two ‘blues’, but crucially, this advantage only pertained when the colours appeared on the right-hand side of space.

A second experiment showed that this right-hand side advantage for discriminating between shades on either side of the blue/green boundary disappeared when participants were distracted by a simultaneous verbal task, but not when they were distracted by a concurrent spatial task. “The left hemisphere appears to sharpen visual distinctions between lexically defined categories and to blur visual distinctions within these categories, whereas the right hemisphere does so much less”, the researchers said.

If these results can be generalised to the real world, the researchers said “…our representation of the visual world may be, at one and the same time, filtered and not filtered through the categories of language” depending on whether we’re looking to the left or to the right.
Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 103, 489-494.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How anxious checking makes us doubt our memory

Most of us have had that feeling of doubt as we leave the house – did I turn the gas off? Did I leave the lights on? Sadly, for some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) this anxiety can become debilitating. They keep checking over and over and over. Now a study suggests the very act of repeated checking could be fuelling their doubt and anxiety. Adam Radomsky and his collaborators at Concordia University have shown in people without OCD that repeated checking actually decreases memory confidence for what’s being checked.

Fifty healthy, student participants were led to a real kitchen and instructed to turn on, turn off and then check three different hobs on an electric stove. In a separate room, they then attempted to recall which hobs they had checked, and stated how vivid their memory was and how confident they were in it.

Half the participants then repeated different permutations of the hob checking procedure a further 19 times. The other participants acted as a control group and followed a similar procedure with taps at the kitchen sink (intended to be an ‘irrelevant checking’ task), until the nineteenth repetition when they once again turned on and checked hobs at the stove.

Taken to another room, those participants who’d just checked the stove 19 times in a row, now had a less accurate and less vivid memory for the final, nineteenth check, and expressed less confidence in their memory than they had done previously for the single hob check they made at the start of the experiment. By contrast, the participants who’d mostly been checking taps at the sink, had just as accurate and vivid a memory for their most recent hob check as they’d had when recalling the hob check at the start of the experiment. This shows it is only repeatedly making the same check that leads to loss of memory confidence.

“While clinicians have known for years that checking behaviour is counter-productive, there is now some empirical evidence for why. It leads to memory distrust – the very thing it is intended to diminish. This in turn promotes continued and/ or renewed checking, paradoxically leading to even less confidence, vividness and detail”, the researchers said.

The finding could have implications for treating OCD, the researchers argued. “Psychoeducation about the effects of repeated checking would likely be very helpful in motivating patients to reduce their checking behaviour”, they said.
Radomsky, A.S., Gilchrist, P.T. & Dussault, D. (2006). Repeated checking really does cause memory distrust. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 305-316.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Getting people on the buses

Financial incentives aren’t the only way to encourage people to be more environmentally friendly. According to Ellen Matthies and colleagues at the Ruhr-Universitat in Germany, many people do care about the environment, despite their polluting habits, and so an alternative approach is to invite them to commit themselves to a change in behaviour. They tested a two-pronged strategy that involved inviting a voluntary commitment on the one hand, paired with a habit-breaking incentive on the other.

Matthies’ team recruited 297 people who made a regular journey in their car that could easily be completed by bus. Some were given a free bus ticket, while others were given a description of the harm to the environment that cars do, and invited to commit to a choice of green behaviours, including swapping their car for public transport during the next two weeks. Some participants were given the ticket as well as being invited to commit to a change of behaviour. Control participants received no intervention. Telephone interviews before, during and after the interventions were used to monitor people’s travelling behaviour.

In the short-term, the free ticket, the voluntary commitment, or both together, all increased the number of people who tried swapping their car for public transport, with the free ticket being most effective. For example, seven per cent of participants tried the bus before getting a free ticket, compared with 16.3 per cent afterwards. However, at the final 26 week follow up, the researchers found that it was those participants who had both committed themselves voluntarily to trying the bus and received a free ticket, who were most likely to still be using more public transport than at baseline.

The researchers concluded: “From a practical perspective, it follows that not only so-called “hard measures” [i.e. financial incentives] can be applied to alter the problematic behaviour, but that also ‘soft measures’ (e.g. plea for commitment), which target the moral dimension of environmental behaviour, may be helpful under some circumstances: if readiness for a commitment is high and if the plea for commitment is combined with a habit-defrosting strategy”.
Matthies, E., Klockner, C.A. & Preisner, C.L. (2006). Applying a modified moral decision making model to change habitual car use: How can commitment be effective? Applied Psychology, an International Review, 55, 91-106.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to the Department for Transport's sustainable travel page
Link to tomorrow's climate, today's challenge

How doing affects seeing

Training to perform certain movements, even blindfolded, affects our subsequent ability to perceive those same movements when performed by others. That’s according to Antonino Casile and Martin Giese at the University Clinic Tubingen, who say their finding reinforces the notion of an intimate link between how we control our own body and how we perceive the movements of others.

Casile and Giese tested participants’ ability to match images made up of lights that had the appearance of a person walking with one of three different rhythms. Imagine a person walking in the pitch-black darkness with a little light on each of their joints and you have an idea of what these images look like (see here).Participants were shown pairs of these ‘point-light’ images, and had to say in each case whether the two images showed the same walking rhythm or not.

Blindfolded to prevent any visual stimulation, the participants were then taught to walk with one of these awkward, unnatural rhythms. Crucially, when they were subsequently tested on the visual matching again, the participants showed a significant improvement, but only when matching two point-light displays that moved with the same walking rhythm they’d just been trained on. Moreover, motion-capture technology was used to determine how well the participants had learned the walking rhythm, and this showed that the better the participants learned to perform the rhythm, the greater their subsequent improvement in matching the associated point-light displays.

The researchers said “Our study shows, for the first time, a direct and highly selective influence of novel acquired motor programmes on visual action recognition that is independent of visual learning”.

But how does learning a movement affect our perception of that movement? The researchers explained the effect: “…might be mediated by the visual imagination of motor patterns during the motor training”. “Indeed”, they said, “experimental evidence suggests that motor imagination, action perception, and motor production might share common neuronal substrates”.
Casile, A. & Giese, M.A. (2006). Nonvisual motor training influences biological motion perception. Current Biology, 16, 69-74.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Cold comfort for shy people

"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 15.09.03

How sociable you are affects your chances of catching a cold. That's according to Sheldon Cohen (Carnegie Mellon University, USA) and colleagues (Universities of Pittsburgh and Virginia, USA) who measured the sociability of 334 people and then exposed them to a cold virus. Intriguingly, the more sociable a person was, the less likely they were to contract a cold.

It wasn't that sociable people, through all their mingling, had built up immunity through prior exposure to the virus – the researchers controlled for that by measuring pre-existing antibodies. Nor was it to do with better sleep and diet, or more positive emotions. The more sociable participants had all of these, but evidence for their protection from the virus remained even after controlling for such factors.

An alternative explanation proffered by the authors "is that sociability, a highly heritable characteristic, is partly determined by a gene or genes that contribute to sociability but at the same time contribute to biological processes that play a role in the body's ability to fight off infection".

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the participants were each paid $800 for their sniffles.

Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Turner, R., Alper, C.M., & Skoner, D.P. (2003). Sociability and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychological Science, 14, 389-395.

Thursday, 5 January 2006

How being happy can bring success

You could fill a library with all the research showing an association between happiness and success – no surprise there, why wouldn’t success lead people to be more happy? But after conducting a comprehensive review of 225 studies, collectively involving more than 275,000 participants, Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California and colleagues have concluded that happiness doesn’t just flow from success, it actually causes it.

Lyubomirsky and her collaborators trawled through three kinds of study: cross-sectional research, longitudinal research, and lab-based, experimental research. Throughout, happiness was defined as the experience of positive emotions most of the time, rather than as brief episodes of intense euphoria.

The cross-sectional studies can’t show that happiness causes success, but if they showed no association between happiness and success, that would obviously undermine any argument for a causal relationship between the two. In fact, the cross-sectional literature showed that happy people tend to have more successful relationships, careers and better health.

The longitudinal studies, of which there were far fewer, measured people’s happiness at one time point and then observed their success over subsequent years, simultaneously controlling for other extraneous factors that might have caused both the happiness and later success. These studies consistently showed that happiness tended to precede fulfilling work, satisfying relationships and a long life.

Finally, experimental studies that induced positive moods in people, for example using gifts or pleasant music, showed that short-term positive feelings increase people’s sociability, altruism, how much they like themselves and others, improve their ability to resolve conflicts, and boost their immune systems.

So how might happiness be causing success? The researchers said: “It appears that happiness, rooted in personality and in past successes, leads to approach behaviours that often lead to further success”.

“In other words”, they said “because all is going well, individuals can expand their resources and friendships; they can take the opportunity to build their repertoire of skills for future use; or they can rest and relax to rebuild their energy after expending high levels of effort”.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to full-text of this paper

Helping children by teaching them to look away

Teaching young children to look away while they are thinking could help improve their problem-solving abilities.

Fiona Phelps and colleagues at Stirling University recruited 20 five-year-old children and videoed them while they answered a range of verbal and arithmetic questions of varying difficulty (e.g. “What is a telescope?”). The children were tested individually, with all questions posed by the same researcher who sat 1.5 feet in front of them. During a practice session and before the test proper, half the children were instructed to look away from the researcher while they thought of answers to the questions; the remaining children received no such instruction and acted as controls.

The researchers found that the children encouraged to look away while they were thinking, did indeed look away more than the controls (52.5 per cent of the time on average vs. 34.7 per cent). The difference was particularly noticeable for harder questions, whereas it was absent for the easy maths questions. Crucially, the children trained to look away also answered more questions correctly than the control children (72.5 per cent vs. 55.9 per cent).

The researchers said “Given that five-year-old children could readily be trained to increase their use of gaze aversion, coupled with the finding that this training could significantly benefit performance, encouragement of gaze aversion while the child is thinking appears to be a simple, yet effective way in which to significantly improve a five-year-old child’s cognitive performance”. They also suggested that the extent of a child’s gaze aversion could serve as a useful tool for identifying when children are engaged in cognitive activity.

A second experiment found that five-year-olds at the end of their first year of school engaged in more spontaneous use of gaze aversion than did five-year-olds half way through their first year, who in turn looked away more than children at the start of their first year. “What still remains open to question”, the researchers said, “is whether this developmental change occurs because of age-related advancements in the child’s cognitive development or because of increased exposure to pedagogical interactions as a result of having entered formal education”.
Phelps, F.G., Doherty-Sneddon, G. & Warnock, H. (2006). Helping children think: Gaze aversion and teaching. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1348/026151005X49872.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to free, related article in The Psychologist magazine

Mental time travel

Remembering is like a form of mental time travel – our brain reinstates the patterns of neural activity that existed at the time of the recalled experience. That’s the suggestion from a new brain imaging study that compared participants’ neural activity when they studied photographs, with later activity that occurred when they subsequently attempted to recall those photographs.

Sean Polyn (pictured) at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues scanned the brains of nine participants while they were shown thirty photographs from three categories: famous faces, including Halle Berry and Madonna; famous places such as the Taj Mahal; and everyday objects, like tweezers or spray paint. To give each category a distinguishing mental context, participants were asked to make a different judgement for each category – they had to say whether they loved or hated each celebrity; how much they would like to visit each location; and how often they came across the objects. Later on, the participants were given three minutes to recall as many of the 90 photographs they had seen as possible.

Polyn’s team found that when the participants successfully recalled a photo, their brain activity resembled the pattern of activity shown when they originally looked at the photo. In fact, this similarity emerged several seconds before the participants made each recollection, so that the researchers could predict in advance what category of photo a participant was about to recall.

Sean Polyn said “This study shows that, as you search for memories of a particular event, your brain state progressively comes to resemble the state it was in when you initially experienced the event”.

Co-researcher Ken Norman explained how the research might have practical benefits: "Our method gives us some ability to see what cues participants are using, which in turn gives us some ability to predict what participants will recall. We are hopeful that, in the long run, this kind of work will help psychologists develop better theories of how people strategically cue memory, and also will suggest ways of making these cues more effective".
Polyn, S.M., Natu, V.S., Cohen, J.D. & Norman, K.A. (2005). Category-specific cortical activity precedes retrieval during memory search. Science, 310, 1963-1966.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Beware short, wide glasses

If your New Year’s resolution is to drink less, you may find it useful to know that because of perceptual biases, people tend to pour more liquid into short, wide glasses – ‘tumblers’ – than they pour into tall, elongated, ‘highball’ glasses.

Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum at Cornell University asked 198 students to pour a shot (44.3 ml) of whiskey, rum, gin or vodka from a full bottle into a glass. The bottles were real, but they actually contained water or tea. The students who poured into short, wide glasses, poured 30 per cent larger shots than the students asked to pour into tall glasses. Moreover, when asked to estimate the capacity of the glasses, the students estimated the tall glass held an average of five per cent more liquid, even though the glasses’ true capacity was actually equivalent. Students who poured into tall glasses were more accurate if they’d been given 10 practice pours with a shot glass, but practice did not improve the accuracy of the students pouring into short, wide glasses.

In a follow-up study, the researchers repeated the procedure with 86 experienced bartenders to see if they too were prone to this bias. Despite their experience, the bartenders poured an average of 20.5 per cent larger shots into short, wide glasses than into tall, slim ones.

The researchers said “If short tumblers lead even bartenders to pour more alcohol than tall highball glasses, the way to better control alcohol consumption is to use tall glasses or to use glasses with the alcohol level marked on them – and to realise that, when alcoholic drinks are served in a short wide glass, two drinks are actually equal to two and a half”.
Wansink, B. & van Ittersum, K. (2005). Shape of glass and amount of alcohol poured: comparative study of the effect of practice and concentration. BMJ, 331, 1512-1514.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Mind where you sit - how being in the middle is associated with superior performance

If you’re going for a group interview, or if you want to make an impression in class, try to sit as centrally as you can – new research suggests observers tend to overestimate the performance of people located in the centre.

Priya Raghubir and Ana Valenzuela analysed the first 20 episodes of the quiz show The Weakest Link that appeared on American TV in 2001. The quiz involves eight contestants standing in a semi-circle with one player, ‘the weakest link’, voted off each round by the other players. Raghubir and Valenzuela found that players occupying the two central positions reached the final round 42.5 per cent of the time, and won the game 45 per cent of time, whereas players in the two most extreme positions reached the final round just 17.5 per cent of the time, and won just 10 per cent of the time.

In another study 22 students watched an episode of The Weakest Link and attempted to recall the performance of each player afterwards. This showed they tended to overestimate the performance of the central players but underestimate the performance of the peripheral players. When the participants were warned to pay special attention, their accuracy at recalling the central players’ performance improved whereas their memory for the peripheral players remained unaffected. This is consistent with the researchers’ theory that observers pay less attention to people in the centre, assuming their performance will be superior because of where they’re located.

In another experiment, 111 students were shown different versions of a group photo showing five candidates for a business internship arranged in different positions. The participants knew the candidates had similar abilities but still tended to choose the candidate in the middle of the photo they were shown. Afterwards the participants stated whether they agreed with the statement “Important people sit in the middle of the table”, and it became clear that it was only participants who agreed with that statement who tended to favour the internship candidate in the middle of the group photo they saw.

“We have identified a biasing cue in objective judgments: the target’s position”, the researchers concluded. “These results have implications for selection interviews and performance assessment tasks such as grading, auditions or any evaluation of individuals competing in groups”.
Raghubir, P. & Valenzuela. (2006). Centre-of-inattention: Position biases in decision-making. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 99, 66-80.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Disagreeing about what we disagree about

Anyone who has watched Prime Minister’s Questions lately will have seen Tony Blair desperately trying to demonstrate the manifold ways in which he disagrees with the new Tory leader David Cameron. Blair won’t want to read this new study by John Chambers and colleagues, demonstrating that when it comes to controversial issues, we may all agree more than we realise, with members of groups with opposing views tending to underestimate how much the opposite camp agree with their own core values.

Chambers recruited 199 psychology students who held strong views on the abortion debate, being either pro-lifers who are against abortion, or pro-choice, believing in the rights of women to choose. The students rated how much they favoured or opposed issues such as the value of human life, and freedom from government interference, as well as indicating how important they felt each issue was. They then predicted the ratings given by members of the opposite camp.

The researchers found that the students tended to underestimate how much members of the opposite camp agreed with them on the issues they felt were most important. So, for example, the pro-life students rated the value of human life as particularly important, but they underestimated how much pro-choice students also recognised the importance of this issue. By contrast, pro-choice students accurately predicted how strongly pro-lifers felt about the value of human life, but underestimated how much they also recognised the importance of women’s rights. In other words, the two groups were disagreeing about what they disagreed about, with each group tending to believe it was their own core values that were the key source of conflict.

Chambers’ team replicated these findings with students who were either politically neutral, or allied to the Republican or Democratic party. Again, the politically affiliated students tended to underestimate how much the other group were sympathetic to their own core values, for example the funding of public education (Democrat) or crime prevention (Republican). The neutral students, by contrast, more accurately perceived how little disagreement there was between the Republican and Democratic students on these issues.

In light of their findings, the researchers said intergroup conflict might be helped by having “…partisans think about the social conflict through the frame of their adversaries’ ideological values. Doing so might bring partisans to the realisation not only that there is an alternative and equally valid set of ideals involved in the debate, but also that they and their adversaries share similar opinions about those ideals”.

Chambers, J.R., Baron, R.S. & Inman, M.L. (2006). Misperception in intergroup conflict. Disagreeing about what we disagree about. Psychological Science, 17, 38-45.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

From the archives

The Research Digest launched in September 2003 but has only appeared as a blog since last February. Each fortnight, the Digest blog will now feature an item 'from the archives', beginning with this item, from the very first Digest issue, entitled "You haven't changed a bit" (click the scroll to make it bigger):