Friday, 29 December 2006

Satisfaction guaranteed!

Our bias for the left-hand side of space could be distorting large-scale surveys. Past research has shown that when people are asked to bisect a horizontal line down the centre, most will cross the line too far to the left. This leftward bias is thought to stem from the right hemisphere – it plays a dominant role in allocating our attention and is also responsible for processing the left-hand side of space. It may also be related to a cultural tendency to read from left to right. Now Andrea Loftus and colleagues have reported this spatial bias could be distorting survey results.

The researchers presented two groups of students with the same questionnaire statements about their experience at university (e.g. “My course has been enjoyable”), except that one group answered using a 5-item Likert scale that ranged left-to-right, from ‘definitely disagree’ to ‘definitely agree’, whereas the other group answered using a scale that ranged left-to-right across the page, from ‘definitely agree’ to ‘definitely disagree’. The positive questionnaire statements were the same as those used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in its survey of 250,000 students.

In the current study, the students’ natural bias for the left meant those answering using the Likert scale that started on the left with ‘definitely agree’, responded with that answer to 27 per cent more statements than did the other group of students – that is, their views came out as more positive. By contrast, those students who answered using the scale that began on the left with ‘definitely disagree’ responded more often with ‘mostly disagree’, meaning their views came out overall as more negative.

The observation has profound implications for surveys, such as that conducted by the HEFCE, that seek respondents’ agreement, or not, with consistently positive or negative statements, and which use the same Likert scale for answers throughout. The researchers said one solution in the future is for the Likert scale direction to be reversed for half of the survey sample.

Nicholls, M.E.R., Orr, C.A., Okubo, M., and Loftus, A. (2006). Satisfaction Guaranteed. The Effect of Spatial Biases on Responses to Likert Scales. Psychological Science, 17, 1027-1028.

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

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Classic 1960's obediency experiment reproduced in virtual reality

Scientists have recreated Milgram’s classic obediency psychology experiment using virtual reality. Back in the 1960s Stanley Milgram appeared to show that student participants would obey a researcher and administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger, but the studies have not been replicated because of ethical concerns. Now Mel Slater at UCL and colleagues have tested participants’ willingness to administer electric shocks to a computer animated woman in a virtual reality environment.

Twenty-three participants donned a virtual reality headset and tested the computerised woman on a word memory task. Each time she responded incorrectly they were instructed to administer an increasingly large shock to her. The woman was clearly unreal, but she responded to the pain of the shocks, for example at one point she said she had never agreed to this and didn’t want to continue.

Although the participants knew the woman was unreal, six of them chose to stop the experiment before it was due to end on the woman’s 20th incorrect response. A further 6 said it had occurred to them to stop early because they had negative feelings about what was happening. By contrast, of eleven participants who completed a control experiment in which they only interacted with the (unseen) woman by text, just one chose to stop the experiment early, and no others said it had occurred to them to stop.

There was further evidence that the participants who could see and hear the computerised woman were affected by the experiment as if it were real. Their stress responses were raised (as judged by sweating and heart rate) compared with the 11 control participants. And on those trials in which the woman protested, the participants tended to give her longer to answer before administering the shock. Some participants emphasised the correct answer among the available choices, as if trying to help the woman avoid a shock.

“Humans tend to respond realistically at subjective, physiological, and behavioural levels in interaction with virtual characters notwithstanding their cognitive certainty that they are not real”, the researchers said. The findings suggest immersive virtual reality environments could be a vital tool for social psychologists, especially for pursuing research of extreme social situations.

Slater, M., Antley, M., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., Pistrang, N. & Sanchez-Vives, M.V. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLOS ONE, 1, e39 (open access).

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

Editor's note - published just a few days ago, this study is from the very first issue of open access publisher PLOS' brand new general science journal PLOS ONE.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Public health leaflets ignore findings from health psychology

Public health leaflets are failing to incorporate the lessons learned by health psychology research. That’s according to Charles Abraham and colleagues, who looked at the specific case of public health leaflets designed to encourage people to drink alcohol more sensibly – a burning issue in the UK where 23 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women are estimated to binge drink.

A key finding in psychology is that people are more likely to make the effort to change their behaviour if they believe they have the ability, the ‘self-efficacy’, to do so. And yet of 31 alcohol leaflets available in the UK, Abraham’s team found none encouraged readers that they have the ability to abstain or drink moderately. Similarly, only 7 per cent of British leaflets gave instructions on how to set oneself drinking-related goals – the kind of information that can bolster a person’s belief in their ability to change.

Other research shows that people’s behaviour is strongly influenced by anticipated regret, and yet only 7 per cent of UK leaflets warned readers that they were likely to regret drinking too much. Nearly all leaflets warned about the negative health consequences of drinking too much, but fewer than half the leaflets warned readers about the negative psychological consequences.

It was a similar story for leaflets available in the Netherlands and in Germany. The researchers concluded their findings had highlighted a communication gap “between, on the one hand, psychologists who apply predictive models to alcohol use and make recommendations concerning potentially effective persuasive communication and, on the other hand, health promoters who write educational leaflets designed to reduce alcohol intake.”

Alcohol leaflets could easily be re-written to incorporate 30 key theory-based messages, without becoming any longer than they are already, the researchers said.

Abraham, C., Southby, L., Quandte, S., Krahe, B. & Van Der Sluijs, W. (2007). What’s in a leaflet? Identifying research-based persuasive messages in European alcohol-education leaflets. Psychology and Health, 22, 31-60.

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

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Investigating the 'dreamy state'

Patients with temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes experience unusual hallucinations and strange sensations when they have a seizure. Back in the nineteenth century, the legendary English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson called these experiences ‘dreamy states’. Now a team of French researchers, led by Jean-Pierre Vignal, have re-visited these strange phenomena.

One hundred and eighty epileptic patients were having parts of their brains stimulated and recorded from, to try to establish the source of their seizures. During these tests, Vignal’s team found 17 of the patients reported a total of 55 dreamy state experiences, some were a result of seizures, others were caused by the stimulation.

A frequent experience reported by the dreamy state patients was deja vecu (like déjà vu but involving all the senses). As one patient explained:
It’s like in my seizures, I’m reliving something…but I can see you clearly…It’s as if what is happening now has already happened to me, it’s like an old memory that I am in the middle of living out”.

However, at other times, the sensation was more like a visual hallucination:

I see myself playing the drums, with people from my family listening to me”, another patient said.

Such hallucinations always involved personal memories from either the recent or distant past, but never featured public or historical events. This fits with the fact the dreamy states were provoked by a seizure in, or stimulation of, the mesial temporal lobe, the seat of our autobiographical memories.

Vignal, J-P., Maillard, L., McGonigal, A. & Chauvel, P. (2007). The dreamy state: hallucinations of autobiographic memory evoked by temporal lobe stimulations and seizures. Brain, 130, 88-99.

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

Friday, 15 December 2006


For when you've had enough of journal articles...

The Mind Gym are offering £10,000 to research that "illuminates how generic, useful and everyday qualities of the mind can be enhanced" - entries welcome. How magicians use their psychological skills in real life. Watch Ray Miller, president of the BPS, make the case for tougher statutory regulation of UK psychology, at the Scottish Parliament's Health Committee. Don't drink and be merry - three people describe how giving up alcohol has improved their social lives. Does naming and shaming work in today's world? What it's like to be unable to recognise people's faces. Psychological operations during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict. Integrating the teaching of conservationism and psychology. Saba Salman has watched her learning-disabled sister bloom after attending a special college. Can you convey the magic of science and technology in plain English? We all know family breakdown is the root of many problems - let's do something about it. The priest who adapted theology into a form of therapy.

The Special Issue Spotter

The latest journal special issues in psychology:

The perception of emotion and social cues in faces (Neuropsychologia). Behavioural analysis around the world (International Journal of Psychology). Therapeutic training after Freud (Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling). The role of disgust in anxiety and related disorders (Stress and Coping). Theory of Mind (Social Neuroscience).

If you're aware of a forthcoming journal special issue in psychology, please let me know.


Other eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Does a 6-month-old baby's temperament predict its character at age five? Explaining how human altruism evolved. How mood can affect taste. Should psychiatric diagnoses should be dimensional, rather than categorical? When threats and encouragements are effective in bargaining. The neural correlates of a pessimistic attitude. Are 'evening people' more creative than early risers?

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

What makes a multidisciplinary team work well?

The benefit of having a multidisciplinary team filled with a diverse range of skills and expertise seems obvious – just look at the Fantastic Four. And yet past research on this issue has been inconsistent, with some studies even suggesting that a team’s diversity can have a negative effect. One apparent drawback is that team members with shared backgrounds tend to organise themselves into opposing cliques.

Now Doris Fay and colleagues have proposed that the benefit of being multidisciplinary is dependent on whether certain group processes are working well.

The researchers looked at the quantity and quality of innovations introduced by 70 Breast Care Teams and 95 Primary Health Care Teams working in the UK. The number of professions represented in each team varied from 4 to 12 (including nurses, surgeons and psychologists), and this was taken as the measure of how multidisciplinary a team was.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, teams that were more multidisciplinary tended to have introduced more innovations over the previous year, regardless of whether effective group processes were in place. Crucially, however, the quality of the innovations (e.g. as measured by their benefit to patients) was dependent on group processes. Teams with more professions on board only introduced innovations of greater quality when effective group processes were in place – including all team members being committed to the same cause; everyone in the team being listened to; the team reflecting on its own effectiveness; and there being plenty of contact between team members.

“From a practical perspective, the most eminent question is how to establish team processes that help capitalize on multidisciplinarity”, the researchers concluded.

A shortcoming of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is its cross-sectional methodology – it’s possible that generating better quality innovations has a beneficial effect on a team’s group processes, for example by engendering greater team cohesion.

Fay, D., Borrill, C., Amir, Z., Haward, R. & West, M.A. (2006). Getting the most out of multidisciplinary teams: A multi-sample study of team innovation in health care. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79, 553–567.

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

Link 1, Link 2, and Link 3, to related Digest items.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Biological accounts of mental illness may dent patients’ hope and increase stigma

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders” - that's the bold proclamation made by The National Alliance on Mental Illness and many other campaign groups. No doubt, one intention of such proclamations is to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness – to show that mental illnesses are not “all in the mind”, but are as real as any physical illness. However, Danny Lam and Paul Salkovskis report that such arguments may in fact do more harm than good, increasing stigma, and causing patients to feel pessimistic about their chances of recovery.

Forty-nine participants suffering from depression or anxiety were played a ten minute assessment video featuring a woman who suffers from panic attacks and agoraphobia. Crucially, before watching the video, some participants read an information sheet that explained panic attacks are caused by psychological processes, whereas others read a version that said panic is a biological condition caused by a chemical imbalance. A control group read that the causes of panic disorder are unknown.

After watching the video, the participants rated the woman’s chances for the future. Those who’d read that panic was a biological condition predicted the woman’s treatment would take longer than the other participants did, and regarded her as having a higher risk of harming herself and others. By contrast, the participants who read that panic is a psychological condition rated the woman’s chances of recovery as significantly better than the other participants did.

Together with prior research, the researchers said these findings suggested “biological explanations of mental health problems may increase public, professional and patient perception of harm (self-harm and harming others) and result in more negative predictions regarding prognosis, whilst psychological accounts may have the opposite (destigmatising) effect.”

Lam, D.C.K. & Salkovskis, P.M. (2006). An experimental investigation of the impact of biological and psychological causal explanations on anxious and depressed patients’ perception of a person with panic disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 405-411.

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

Friday, 8 December 2006

Fear impedes older patients' recovery from hip surgery

Falling and breaking a hip can have a devastating effect on older people’s lives. Alongside pain, depression and loss of cognitive functioning, it’s been known for some time that fear of falling is one of several factors that can impede their recovery after hip surgery. But now Alistair Burns and colleagues report that of these factors, fear might well be the most important, with clear implications for rehabilitation.

One hundred and eighty-seven patients undergoing hip surgery (average age 80 years) were assessed on several physical and psychological measures six weeks after their operation. Functional recovery was assessed six months later, for example by seeing how long it took patients to get up and walk three metres and back again.

Consistent with previous research, the more pain, depression, loss of cognitive functioning or fear of falling experienced by patients after their operation, the less functional recovery they were likely to show at 6 months. But that’s when these factors were examined individually. Crucially, when these factors were considered all together, only fear of falling and loss of cognitive functioning were related to functional recovery six months after surgery. One way in which fear of falling affects rehabilitation is that it deters patients from practicing walking again.

“Treatment of depression is important to improve quality of life in this particularly frail patient group, but our results suggest that adding cognitive-behavioural interventions aimed to reduce fear of falling is essential to improve functional outcome”, the researchers said.

Voshaar, R.C.O., Banerjee, S., Horan, M., Baldwin, R., Pendleton, N., Proctor, R., Tarrier, N., Woodward, Y. & Burns, A. (2006). Fear of falling more important than pain and depression for functional recovery after surgery for hip fracture in older people. Psychological Medicine, 36, 1635-1645.

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

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Men's dancing style determined in the womb

If you dance like a deranged spinning top, blame your mother! Apparently, the way men dance is related to how much testosterone they were exposed to in the womb, as indicated by the relative lengths of their index and ring fingers.

Previous research has shown the ratio of the lengths of the second (2D) to fourth digits (4D) of a person’s hand is related to how much testosterone they were exposed to in the womb, with a lower 2D:4D ratio being associated with greater testosterone exposure.

Bernhard Fink and colleagues filmed 52 male students dancing to a drum beat. From these, they picked out the six men who had the lowest 2D:4D ratio (that is, their index finger was relatively shorter), and the six with the highest 2D:4D ratio (their index finger was relatively longer).

One hundred and four women watched ten second video clips of the 12 men dancing. The clips were blurred and manipulated to conceal the men’s body shape and height, and they were played in a random order, so the women were ignorant of the men’s finger lengths.

The dancing men with the lower 2D:4D ratio were rated by the women as significantly more attractive, dominant and masculine compared with the men who had a higher 2D:4D ratio.

“Our data suggest that early androgens [like testosterone] could be a moderator of the variance in men’s dance movements and women’s perception of them”, the researchers said.

Fink, B., Seydel, H., Manning, J.T. & Kappeler, P.M. (2006). A preliminary investigation of the associations between digit ratio and women’s perception of men’s dance. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 381-390.

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

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

How wishing to appear racially colour-blind can backfire

I haven’t got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don’t care if you're black, brown or yellow - you know, Orientals make very good workers”, David Brent, from the BBC comedy The Office.

Like gender, age, hair colour and other personal attributes, a person’s race can be a useful way of distinguishing them from others, especially if, in conversation, we’re attempting to refer to a person whose name we don’t know. But such is the fear of being labelled a racist, that today many people go out of their way to appear racially colour-blind.

However, this desire to appear oblivious to race can backfire. Michael Norton and colleagues have shown that it not only impairs people’s performance on an identification game, but that it is also associated with appearing unfriendly.

The researchers first paired 30 white participants with either a black or white playing partner (unbeknown to the participants these partners were assistants working for the researchers). The participants had before them 32 photos of people – half were male; half were old, half were young; half were black, half were white and so on. On each turn, the participants had to identify which one of these 32 people their playing partner was currently looking at, by asking as few yes/no questions as possible.

Participants playing with a black partner were far less likely to ask a question about the race of the person in the photograph (64 per cent of trials) than were participants playing with a white partner (93 per cent). Not only did this apparent political correctness impair their performance at the game – they needed to ask more questions to find out who their partner was looking at – the effort to appear colour-blind was also associated with appearing less friendly.

Two independent judges watched silent video recordings of the participants as they played the game (their partners were obscured) and took note of their manner and body language. It turned out that those participants who used the terms ‘Black’ or ‘African American’ less during the game, were rated as more unfriendly by the judges, and tended to make less eye contact with their partner.

“Ironically those Whites who tried hardest to appear colour-blind by avoiding the use of race were the individuals who appeared least friendly when interacting with black partners”, the researchers said.

Norton, M.I., Sommers, S.R., Apfelbaum, E.P., Pura, N. & Ariely, D. (2006). Colour blindness and interracial interaction. Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.

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

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

The price of money - selfishness

A series of experiments have shown that merely thinking about or looking at money changes the way people behave, causing them to be more selfish and self-sufficient.

Participants first re-arranged several jumbled lists of words to form sentences. Some participants were given word lists that led to neutral sentences (e.g. ‘it is cold outside’), whereas other participants were given words that led to money-related sentences (e.g. ‘a high-paying salary’). Next, they all attempted to solve a difficult geometric puzzle. Those participants who had completed the money-related sentences worked significantly longer on the puzzle before asking for help (average of 314 seconds), compared with the participants who’d completed neutral sentences (average of 186 seconds – no different from controls who didn’t complete the earlier sentence task).

In another experiment, participants were again primed with either the neutral or money-related descrambling task. Afterwards they sat alone in a room to complete some irrelevant questionnaires. They were soon joined by an assistant of the researchers who was pretending to be another research participant, confused by the questionnaires. The participants primed by the money-related sentences spent only half as much time helping the confused person compared with the participants who’d completed the neutral sentences.

Further experiments showed participants left with more money after a monopoly game helped pick up fewer pencils dropped by a passer-by; participants primed with money-related sentences gave less money to charity; and participants sat in front of a money-themed computer screen-saver chose to sit further away from a another participant they were due to chat with.

Kathleen Vohs and colleagues, who completed the research, said that because money allows people to achieve goals without help from others, tasks that reminded the participants of money led to feelings of self sufficiency, causing them to avoid dependency and to prefer that other people weren't dependent on them.

Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L. & Goode, M.R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science, 314, 1154-1156.

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

Link to further information on methodology.

But can money make you happy? See related Digest items, here and here.

Monday, 4 December 2006


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

"Schizophrenia may not cause one's death, but it does take one's life".

Alexander Linklater on coma-induced paradise, split personalities and the case of the woman who kept falling over.

Fathers who kill their children.

Jonny Wilkinson's mind.

Adopting can be psychologically gruelling.

The pressures faced by retired athletes.

The Special Issue Spotter

Community treatment orders. (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).

Memory and Psi. (European Journal of Parapsychology).

Sport psychology at the Athens Olympics. (The Sport and Exercise Psychology Review).

The psychopharmacology of memory. (Psychopharmacology).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know. Email christian[@] (remove brackets).


Eye-catching articles that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

How do kids become anti-social adults?

Teenagers' understanding of legal terms.

How world class batsmen anticipate the bowler's delivery.

Children prefer people who are lucky.

Pigeons are not so bird-brained after all.

If you've come across a particularly note-worthy psychology journal article, please let me know - email christian[@] (remove brackets).

Magic trick fools us but not our eyes

The magician throws the ball twice into the air and catches it, then he throws it a third time and it vanishes! Of course, he’s really secreted the ball in the palm of his hand, so why do so many observers believe they’ve seen the ball vanish mid-flight?

Gustav Kuhn and Michael Land recorded the eye movements of 38 participants while they watched a video clip of this vanishing ball illusion.

On the final throw, the magician looks skyward as if the ball really has been thrown and this social cueing is crucial to the illusion. Half the participants were shown a version of the trick in which the magician looked at his hand on the final throw instead of looking skyward, and in this case only 32 per cent of the participants experienced the illusion, compared with 68 per cent of the participants who witnessed the trick performed properly.

Moreover, whereas the participants said they had kept their eyes on the ball, the eye movement analysis revealed that before each throw, the participants glanced at the magician’s face.

But there’s a way in which the participants’ eyes were not fooled by the illusion. Those participants who experienced the illusion said they had seen the ball leave the top of the screen, and they guessed the illusion was created by someone catching the ball off screen. However, their eyes were not tricked – the analysis showed they only looked at the top of the screen when the ball was really thrown.

“These results illustrate a remarkable dissociation between what participants claimed to have seen and the way in which their eyes behaved”, the researchers said.

Their perceptual experience was based on their expectation of what would happen to the ball (informed by the magician’s misleading skyward gaze), whereas their eye movements were controlled by actual visual input. The finding is consistent with the huge body of research showing that perception and action are based on separate visual systems in the brain.

Gustav, K. & Land M.K. (2006). There’s more to magic than meets the eye. Current Biology, 16, R950-R951.

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

Link to videos of illusion and further info on methods.
Link to cool online illusion, via author's homepage.