Thursday, 25 January 2007

Do young children understand irony?

Some children as young as six already understand the idea that people make sarcastic remarks, saying one thing but meaning another, according to psychologists Penny Pexman and Melanie Glenwright.

They presented 70 children aged between six and ten with different scenarios played out by puppets who made sarcastic comments. For example, if one puppet scored a goal, the other would say “That was terrible play!” with a sarcastic tone. Or if the shot missed, they might say “That was a great play!”.

The children then used a rating scale featuring cartoon faces to indicate their interpretation of a sarcastic puppet’s beliefs (whether he thought it was a good shot or not), attitude (was he trying to be mean?), and whether or not he was teasing.

The children found ironic criticisms – such as “that was great play” – easier to understand than ironic compliments. A grasp of the speaker’s true belief emerged first, then an understanding of the speaker’s attitude and intention to tease tended to emerge together, usually in the older children.

Ironic compliments – such as “that was terrible play!” after a goal – caused the children more problems. In this case an understanding of the speaker’s true belief and intention to tease appeared together, with an appreciation of his true attitude only emerging in older children. In fact, only two of the 70 children were always accurate about the attitudes of the speakers who made ironic compliments.

Pexman and Glenwright said this difficulty with ironic compliments probably occurs because the correct interpretation of them requires a two-fold process requiring inhibitory control. First the child must realise the negative statement is actually positive, then they must realise this positive statement, while complimentary, is intended in a jokey, teasing way.

“We predict that if one were to assess inhibitory control skills in children… performance on those measures would be correlated with children’s comprehension of ironic compliments”, they concluded.

Pexman, P.M. & Glenwright, M. (2007). How do typically developing children grasp the meaning of verbal irony? Journal of Neurolinguistics, 20, 178-196.

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

How to practise penalty shoot-outs

Footballers should practise taking penalty kicks in front of as large an audience as possible and the results should be published, so as to help recreate the pressure of a real tournament. That’s according to researchers who say the effect of stress is even more important than skill or experience in determining whether a penalty-taker hits the back of the net.

Penalty shoot-outs are often used to decide tournament games that have ended in a draw. Five players from each team take one kick each. If the score remains level after this, one player from each team takes a kick until one side is a goal ahead from the same number of kicks.

Some commentators have declared penalties to be a lottery, but the contrasting track records of penalty success between countries tells a different story – for example, England have lost four of their five penalty shoot-outs at major tournaments, whereas Germany have won five out of six.

Geir Jordet and colleagues at the Centre for Human Movement Sciences in Groningen analysed all 409 spot kicks taken in the World Cup, European Championships and Copa America between 1976 and 2004. They found a higher penalty success rate at the less important European and Copa America tournaments (85 and 82 per cent, respectively) relative to the World Cup (71 per cent), suggesting the pressure of the event was affecting penalty-takers’ performance. Moreover, success was greater for kicks taken earlier in a shoot-out, when the pressure is lower because each kick is not in itself decisive.

There was also evidence that skill plays a role, because forward players, who have more goal-scoring experience, tended to be more successful at penalties than defensive players.

“Psychological variables showed a stronger relationship to [penalty] outcome than any of the other variables” the researchers concluded. “Knowledge about psychology should be used to prepare teams for these contests”, they said.

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C. & Lemmink, K.A.P.M. (2007). Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25, 121-129.

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

Link to related research.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

We become more ambidextrous as we get older

We’re unaware of it, but starting in middle-age, our dominant hand gradually loses its superiority, so that we become, in a sense, more ambidextrous as we get older.

Tobias Kalisch and colleagues recruited 60 participants who were all strongly right-handed according to the commonly-used Edinburgh Handedness Inventory (EHI), which asks people to indicate their favoured hand for several everyday activities. The participants then completed a range of computerised dexterity tests, including line tracing, an aiming task, and tapping (pictured left).

Consistent with their claims of right-handedness, the younger group of participants (average age 25 years) performed far better with their right hand on all the dexterity tests. By contrast, the middle-aged group (average age 50) performed just as well with either hand on the aiming task. And the two older groups (average age 70 and 80 years) performed just as well with either hand on all the tasks bar one.

Overall, performance tended to be poorer with increasing age, especially for the right hand. In other words, it seems we become more ambidextrous as we get older because our dominant hand loses its superior dexterity and becomes more like our weaker hand.

The findings were supported by a second experiment that used a gadget to record several hours of everyday hand use among 36 right-handed participants. The younger participants used their right hand far more than their left, whereas the older participants used both their hands a similar amount, despite claiming to be right-handed.

Neurophysiological studies don’t support the idea that one side of the brain ages more quickly than the other, so the researchers favour a “use-dependent plasticity” explanation for why our dominant hand loses its superiority. They said the dominance of our favoured hand is intensified through our use of it in everyday activities, so “when these activities decrease after retirement, or by the limitations in older age and sedentary lifestyles, it is conceivable that the practice-based superior performance of the right hand is no longer maintained…”.

Kalisch, T., Wilimzig, C., Kleibel, N., Tegenthoff, M. & Dinse, H.R. (2006). Age-related attenuation of dominant hand superiority. PLoS ONE, 1, 1-9. (Open access).

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

Monday, 22 January 2007

Mindless eating: the food decisions we don’t realise we’re making

How many food-related decisions do you think you make every day? When Brian Wansink and Jeffery Sobal of Cornell University asked 139 participants this question, the average answer was 14 decisions. But then the participants were asked to break a typical day down, and think about how many ‘when’, ‘what’, ‘how much’, ‘where’ and ‘who with’ decisions they made for a typical meal, snack and drink. When these were added, it showed the participants made an average of 226 food decisions a day, 59 of which related to what kind of food to eat.
“Given that people so dramatically underestimate the number of food-related decisions they make in a day, it is not unfair to say we often engage in mindless eating”, the researchers said.
But not only are we unaware of the number of food decisions we make, we’re also blind to the environmental factors influencing those decisions, the researchers showed.

In four field studies, the researchers measured the amount eaten by 379 participants, half of whom were served with a particularly large bowl or plate of food. The participants given the extra-large servings ate an average of 31 per cent more food than the control participants. But crucially, just 8 per cent of them said afterwards that they thought they’d eaten any more than they would usually do. When told they’d been given an extra-large portion, 21 per cent continued to deny they’d eaten any more than usual, and of those who accepted they had eaten more than usual, only 4 per cent attributed this to the large plate or bowl their food had come in, with most others saying they’d eaten so much because they were hungry.

“This hesitancy to acknowledge one being influenced by an external cue is common and has even been found when people are presented with tangible evidence of their bias”, the researchers said. Greater awareness of the food decisions we make and the factors influencing them could be good for our health, they added. “Altering one’s immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help us lose weight in a way that does not necessitate the discipline of dieting or the governance of another person”.

Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating. The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behaviour, 39, 106-123.

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

Related Digest items: The 'power of one': why larger portions cause us to eat more; Beware short wide glasses.

Friday, 19 January 2007

You hunky smile magnet

It seems beauty isn’t all in the eye of the beholder after all. Researchers have shown women rate a man as more attractive after they’ve seen another woman smiling at him. By contrast, being a jealous bunch, male observers rate a man as less attractive after they’ve seen a woman smiling at him.

Benedict Jones and colleagues at Aberdeen University’s Face Research Laboratory first asked 28 women and 28 men to rate the attractiveness of several pairs of male faces. Next they were shown the same pairs again, except this time one face in each pair was shown with a woman’s face staring at it from the side, either with a smiling or neutral expression. When the participants then rated the male faces for a second time, their ratings had changed for those male faces that had been stared at by a woman.

Female participants rated a male face as more attractive after it had been stared at by a smiling woman, but less attractive if a woman with a neutral expression had stared at it. By contrast, the male participants showed the opposite pattern, tending to rate a male face as less attractive after they’d seen a smiling woman looking at it.

The researchers said this shows our preference for a man’s face is affected by social cues we pick up from how other people look at him. Apparently a similar phenomenon occurs in the animal kingdom – for example female zebra finches prefer a male who they’ve previously seen paired with another female.

Jones, B.C., DeBruine, L.M., Little, A.C., Burriss, R.P. & Feinburg, D.R. (2007). Social transmission of face preferences among humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online (open access).

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

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Looking for longer but 'seeing' less

Looking for too long at something can sometimes make it harder to ‘see’ what you are looking for, according to Li Zhaoping and Nathalie Guyader at UCL.

In an odd-one-out type task, a single line orientated like this / was hidden among dozens of lines leaning the other way like this \ and the participants had to indicate which side of the screen the oddball was on (see left-hand image, above). It’s an easy task because the unique line pops out in an attention-grabbing way.

But then the task was made much harder because a vertical or horizontal line (like this - or like this |) was drawn through all the original slanting lines (see right-hand image, above). Again the participants had to spot the oddball - the only item to feature a line slanting to the right /. The intriguing finding is that the participants’ performance became less accurate, the longer they were given to spot the odd-one-out (95 accuracy for a fraction of a second vs. 70 per cent when they had over a second to look). Some of them even said they felt they had spotted the odd-one-out, only for it to disappear the longer they looked.

Although only one item featured a line leaning like this /, with a bit of rotation, all the items were in a sense identical. This is crucial because the researchers said that looking at the display for over a second meant higher-level visual processing had a chance to kick in - processing that is used for recognising objects regardless of their orientation. Once this happened, it made all the items appear the same. By contrast, when the participants were given less than 100ms to look at the display, only lower level visual processing had a chance to take place - the kind of processing that focuses on the features of objects like their orientation - and this made the odd-one-out, with its uniquely slanted line, easier to spot.
"Our finding is the first we know of providing quantitative psychophysical data to suggest that deeper cognitive processing can be detrimental to some visual cognitive tasks”, the researchers said.
Apparently the participants cottoned on to some performance-improving strategies, such as deliberately defocusing their vision, or staring at the centre of the display. The researchers said this was consistent with their explanation because our peripheral and defocused vision relies more on the magno visual pathway, which is associated with lower-level, feature-based vision.

Zhaoping, L. & Guyader, N. (2007). Interference with bottom-up feature detection by higher-level object recognition. Current Biology, 17, 26-31.

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

Link to BBC report on this study.

A web guide for psychology students

The Digest invited psychologist and PsychSplash founder Dr. Gareth Furber to produce a guide to internet resources for psychology students. Here's his advice in the form of a poem:


Students unite, for the time is nigh
To take your web-based research to the sky
Poems are lame, yes its true
But this one will make a researcher out of you!!

Searching is easy, but I think it is frugal
To adopt a more scholarly google
Or if you want a more ajax-based treat (a)
Try MSN’s Academic Live Beta.

But what if journals give you the willies?
Their evidence-based nonsense endlessly silly
Why not search for the voice of the masses
Keyword “psychology”, technorati, skip classes.

Is it links you want, organized neatly?
All you needed to do was ask sweetly
Try here and here and here and here
And then chill out with a beer (sorry that was a lame rhyme).

I must admit, I have a thing for librarians
Mostly the younger ones, not the octogenarians
My fascination however I assure you is pure
It’s their mental health resources that are the lure.

Perhaps this is old hat, and you’re more into excesses (not safe for work)
In which my collection of extensive RSS ‘ss
Should keep you quiet for many hours
Right down to the article about psychology and flowers.

Now “blogs” is a strange little word
Reminding one of a small round t %^ d
But these gems of intellectual might
Are a sure-fire gateway to massive insights.

I warn thee however, there are many to choose
Pick the wrong one, and you could lose
The BPS digest is a great place to start
Christian’s got blogging down to an art.

Searching for blogs is a bit of a chore
But tools exist to reduce the bore….
..dom of finding something that tickles your fancy
from clinical psych to necromancy (
link not included for safety reasons).

What about those who love to write?
Staying up late into the dead of night
Starting out can be a little tricky
Unless of course you opt for a wiki!

Wikipedia is standard, their psychology portal
Giving some academics a reason to chortle
But theirs is not the only choice
Competition gives many a voice.

Now I’ve heard social support
Can improve your immunity
So why not share your thoughts
With a thriving community?

Professional or casual
It is up to you
But whatever you choose
Try at least one or two.

Now before you leave, you should be aware
Of a couple of pioneers of internet psychology care
is not just a man of nirvana
And counselling resource is a virtual charmer.

Now, no post is complete without shameless promotion
Of one’s own display of professional devotion.
So feel free to visit my home on the web
Any support you give me will reduce the ebb.


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

There are some astoundingly vivid descriptions of panic (p.90) and self-harming (p.145) in Sarah Walter's latest best-selling novel The Night Watch (published by Virago Press), set in London during and immediately after World War II.

Happiness is the new weapon in the drive to recruit the best and brightest new workers.

What shapes the political views that we hold?

Nature has abandoned its open peer review trial, which involved academics commenting publicly on each others' submitted manuscripts online.

Practice makes perfect (via PsyBlog).

Is dyslexia a big, expensive myth?

Go easy on the clear stuff - the effect of too much water on the brain.

The Special Issue Spotter

Multiplicity of the self in psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

The treatment and assessment of the severe behaviour of individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. (Behavioural Interventions).

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


Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Women are more likely to dress to impress when they are near ovulation.

In everyday language people use the term 'schizophrenic' to refer to someone with a split personality, despite the fact the illness schizophrenia has nothing to do with having two personalities. Why did this come about?

Chimpanzees deceive a human by hiding.

Do you know about the socio-political approach within UK clinical psychology? This study investigates what trainee clinical psychologists think about it.

How do children learn to bargain?

Monday, 15 January 2007

Ninety minutes blindfolded enhances your hearing

In blind people, the part of the brain usually used for vision can be commandeered by other senses, resulting in improved hearing and touch. It’s an amazing testament to the brain’s ability to adapt. But now, Jorg Lewald reports that prolonged blindness isn’t needed for this kind of adaptation to occur – just ninety minutes blindfolded can enhance your hearing ability!

Twenty participants donned a blindfold and were surrounded by a semi-circle of 21 stereo speakers. Each time one of the speakers made a noise, the participants’ task was to turn their head, and to face the speaker that made the noise as accurately as possible. As has been shown before in tasks like this, the participants tended not to turn their head far enough, underestimating just how far around each noise had originated.

Next the participants spent 90 minutes sitting quietly with the blindfold on. Crucially, when they repeated the task after this, their accuracy was improved as they no longer underestimated the location of the sounds as much, especially when the sound was from a more central speaker. In fact their performance had become more typical of a blind person performing this kind of task. However, the enhancement was easily reversible - 180 minutes without the blindfold returned their performance back to normal.

A control group of twenty participants who were only blindfolded during testing, showed no such improvements from one session to the next.

Lewald argues his finding is consistent with the idea that the visual cortex is actually a multi-sensory area, with short-term light deprivation serving to jump-start the auditory circuits found in this brain region.

“Processes of short-term crossmodal plasticity may thus be based on rapid enhancement of these pre-existing neural circuits that, possibly, play a role also in the development of long-term plastic changes with blindness”, he said. The current finding is consistent with earlier research showing enhanced touch after short-term sight deprivation.

Lewald, J. (2007). More accurate sound localisation induced by short-term light deprivation. Neuropsychologia, 45, 1215-1222.

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

Friday, 12 January 2007

Training fails to teach teachers how to recognise depression

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds in England and Wales, so it’s vital depressed teenagers are identified and helped as soon as possible. Unfortunately, distinguishing the irritability, social withdrawal and cognitive decline of depression from the moodiness, ill-temper and laziness so typical of healthy adolescence is not the easiest of tasks. The question is, would it help to give teachers special training in how to recognise when a teenager is depressed?

Seventy-six teachers watched a specially-made video about adolescent depression, and they were also presented with a series of case vignettes about depressed pupils and the impact depression had on their behaviour at school.

An assessment of the teachers’ ability to identify which of their teenage pupils was depressed, was made before and after the special training. In total their were 1,911 pupils, 69 of whom were identified by the researchers as having major depression, based on self-report and clinical interview.

Before the training, the teachers correctly identified 52 per cent of the depressed pupils whereas afterwards they identified just 45 per cent – that is, they’d got worse! Even though their performance had deteriorated, the training left the teachers feeling more knowledgeable about depression and more confident that could they identify it.

A control group of teachers who didn’t receive the training identified 41 per cent in the first instance, and 43 per cent after the other teachers had completed their training.

“The negative results from this study add to the growing literature on the difficulties in demonstrating clear effects of interventions when robust evaluations are applied to such public health initiatives”, the researchers concluded.

Moor, S. Ann, M., Hester, M., Elisabeth, W.J., Robert, E., Robert, W. & Caroline, B. (2007). Improving the recognition of depression in adolescence: Can we teach the teachers? Journal of Adolescence, 30, 81-95.

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

Link to online help for depressed teenagers.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

A case of post-traumatic stress in a five-month-old baby

Babies can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just as older children and adults can, reports Aletha Solter, a former student of Jean Piaget.

Solter describes the case of Michael, a five-month-old who showed signs of traumatic stress after a three-day hospital stay for surgery to correct the shape of his head. Babies can’t meet the usual adult criteria for PTSD, which relies on verbal reports of symptoms. But Solter says that after returning home, Michael cried more, experienced night terrors, displayed a regression in his motor skills (he stopped rolling from his back to his stomach as he had previously learned to do), he displayed terror when lying on his back, and had become fearful of strangers. “The implication is that surgery followed by a fairly short hospital stay can be emotionally traumatising to an infant”, Solter said.

Solter prescribed ‘flooding’, a behaviourist term to describe exposing someone to that which they find frightening, until their terror subsides as what’s feared fails to materialise. In this case, the baby was left lying on his back to scream to exhaustion, while his father stayed close by offering comfort. After about 20 minutes Michael calmed down and from that point on he was far happier lying on his back. Occasionally lying on his back again triggered terror in Michael, in which case his parents left him on his back, but stayed close, offering comfort. Gradually Michael’s other problems reduced too and a year later all was well again. However, as Solter acknowledges, this is a single case study, so there’s no evidence Michael would have remained traumatised had the flooding technique not been used.

Flooding should only be used if the trauma is very specific and relatively minor, Solter advises, otherwise gradual desensitisation is recommended. And she warns that a traumatised infant should never be exposed to a situation that an un-traumatised baby would resist.

“It would be useful for paediatric surgeons to warn parents of the possible emotional and behaviour sequelae in their infants following surgery”, Solter concludes.

Solter, A. (2007). A case study of traumatic stress disorder in a five-month-old infant following surgery. Infant Mental Health Journal, 28, 76-96.

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

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Ouch, that's expensive!

As well as hurting your wallet, your brain expects an expensive product to cause you pain too. Researchers have found that in terms of brain activity, whether or not we choose to make a purchase is reflected in a trade-off between regions of the brain involved in anticipating pain and pleasure.

Twenty-six participants’ brains were scanned while they decided whether or not to purchase a series of products, including a DVD, chocolates and a book. On each trial, the participants were first shown the product, then its price and finally they made their purchasing decision. After each decision the participants rated their preference for the product and how much they would have been willing to pay for it.

When looking at a product, activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward centre, was associated with subsequent self-reported product preference and also predicted a purchase. Meanwhile, during presentation of the price, activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in weighing up relative gains and losses, also predicted a subsequent purchase, and was related to how much smaller the actual price was than the price a participant reported being prepared to pay. Finally, also during the price presentation, increased activity in the insula, a region involved in anticipating physical pain, predicted a decision not to purchase the product.

This shows the decision to buy was the result of a “hedonic competition between the immediate pleasure of acquisition and the equally immediate pain of paying”, said Brian Knutson and colleagues who conducted the study. They added this could help explain why people over-spend on credit cards. “The abstract nature of credit coupled with deferred payment may ‘anaesthetise’ consumers against the pain of paying”, they said.

Knutson, B., Rick, S., Wimmer, E., Prelec, D. & Lowenstein, G. (2007). Neural predictors of purchases. Neuron, 53, 147-156.

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

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

How our defence mechanisms change from childhood to adolescence

Freud’s notion that we use defence mechanisms to protect our self-esteem has fallen out of favour in mainstream psychology, but research in this area continues. Now Phebe Cramer reports that as we mature from late childhood into adulthood, we rely less on ‘denial’ (ignoring upsetting thoughts) and instead use progressively more ‘projection’ and ‘identification’. Projection describes the habit of removing our own disturbing thoughts by attributing them to someone else, whereas identification is changing ourselves to become more like someone we admire.

Seventy-one participants completed the thematic apperception test (TAT) when they were aged 11, 12 and 18, as part of the Berkeley Guidance Study, which started in 1928. The TAT requires participants to look at a simple, ambiguous drawing, for example of a man turning away from a woman, and to tell the story of what happened before, during and after the scene. A participant’s use of defence mechanisms is inferred from the stories they tell (pdf). For example, if the participant failed to mention the state of a woman who was clearly shown to be pregnant, this would be coded as an instance of denial; if a character was described as being embarrassed without there being any obvious reason for this in the picture, it would be coded as projection.

Cramer found that denial was the least commonly observed defence mechanism among this sample. This contrasts with studies on younger children showing they used denial the most.

And as the participants grew older they used progressively more projection and identification. At age 18, greater use of identification was association with a higher IQ. Denial also showed a resurgence at age 18 – perhaps reflecting “an adolescent’s belief that she has the power to create an environment that conforms to her wishes”, Cramer said.

Data collected more recently shows 18-year-olds actually employ identification more than projection but this wasn’t the case among the participants in this study. Cramer said this could have been because of sociocultural factors – the current sample were aged 18 in 1946, just a year after the end of World War II, when there was little time “to explore different avenues of identity development”.

Cramer, P. (2007). Longitudinal study of defence mechanisms: Late childhood to late adolescence. Journal of Personality, 75, 1-23.

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

Monday, 8 January 2007

How a dentist visit can trigger anorexia

Dental treatment can, in rare cases, trigger anorexia nervosa in those susceptible to the illness, a psychiatrist has claimed. Tony Jaffa, of the Phoenix Adolescent Eating Disorders Centre in Cambridge, reports that out of approximately 100 case referrals over the last two years, he has seen three teenagers for whom the trigger for anorexia appeared to be dental treatment.

A 12-year-old lost weight for nine months following a visit to the dentist at which she was advised to stop eating sweets between meals. “She did so but then progressed to not snacking between meals and reducing her meal portions,” Jaffa said.

A 16-year-old had experienced two years of eating problems since having a brace fitted to re-align her teeth. Her mouth was made sore by the brace, and her dentist also advised her to avoid sweet foods. “She probably never resumed a normal diet from this point…”, Jaffa said. “She reported knowing that she was underweight and yet continuing to feel ‘big’.”

Finally, Jaffa described the case of a 14-year-old who started eating soups and soft food after having a brace fitted. A friend told her she might lose weight when she had the brace fitted and the episode sparked a prolonged interest in weighing herself and a desire to become thinner. “She complained of feeling fat. She used the discomfort of the braces as an excuse not to eat,” Jaffa said.

All three cases had also experienced other stressors – for example, exams, the death of a pet, or low self-esteem – typical adolescent experiences which Jaffa said may also have played a contributory role.

The media and society’s obsession with the thin ideal is normally blamed for triggering anorexia in those at risk of the illness. But Jaffa said these cases showed “the professional community should be…more attentive to the range of factors which can cause weight loss and which therefore may be precipitants of anorexia nervosa in susceptible individuals.”

If the profile of this issue were raised, dentists might be encouraged to be more careful about when and how they give out dietary advice, Jaffa concluded.

Jaffa, T. (2007). Three cases illustrating the potential of dental treatment as a precipitant for weight loss leading to anorexia nervosa. European Eating Disorders Review, 15, 42-44.

Editor's note: remember, although these case reports may be suggestive of an association between dental treatment and anorexia in some people, such a link has not been demonstrated experimentally or epidemiologically.

Link to National Centre for Eating Disorders.

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

Thursday, 4 January 2007


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

A feature article on violent behaviour, and another on drugs to combat mental fatigue, both open-access in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind. Read the winning entries in the National Amazing Brain Writing Prize. How to argue. The government's own institute for clinical evidence recommends talking therapy for depression, so why is it so hard to see a psychologist when you need one? What is it like to live without the sense of smell? Where does Freud's legacy stand today? - one of Prospect magazine's 10 most popular articles of 2006, now made freely available. What's happened to the e-generation of pill-popping clubbers now they've turned 40? (link is to BBC radio show). How to fend off a dangerous dog. What you do affects how you think (featuring fun thought experiments). Did the execution of Saddam Hussein mean the loss of a vital research resource for psychologists? How to win friends and influence people; and Emotional Intelligence - two books featured in BBC Radio 4s countdown of books to change your life by (both links are to BBC Radio Shows). The first account of successful psychotherapy in European prose literature?

If you've come across a particularly noteworthy, freely-available psychology-related article or radio show on the web, which others might have missed, please let me know.

The Special Issue Spotter

We've trawled the world's journals so you don't have to...

Advances in multisensory processes (Neuropsychologia). Introspection (Consciousness and Cognition). The present and future of clinical psychology (Clinical Psychology Science and Practice). Creativity and medicine (The Lancet). In Recognition of Jay S. Rosenblatt (Developmental Psychobiology). Becoming an Intentional Agent: Early Development of Action Interpretation and Action Control (Acta Psychologica). Northern Ireland (Political Psychology). Cardiac Vagal Control, Emotion, Psychopathology, and Health (Biological Psychology).

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


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

People who have memories of a 'previous life' are more likely to forget where they first encountered a person's name - a finding that provides a small clue as to why they believe they can remember an earlier existence. Pianists are better at duetting with a recording of themselves playing, than with other people. Perfectionism in people with anorexia. Investigating people's perception of how likely they are to be a victim of crime. Anxiety disorders in children can be treated effectively, a metanalysis shows. Cleverer children are more likely to become vegetarians as adults.

If you come across a noteworthy psychology journal article, or perhaps you've published one yourself, please let me know.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Status anxiety at work

People who compare themselves against their junior colleagues tend to be more content at work than those who compare themselves against their seniors, researchers have found.

Measuring ourselves up against those around us is a fundamental aspect of human nature, providing another source of information to fuel our boundless self curiosity. But according to Douglas Brown and colleagues, little or no research has previously been conducted on the role of these social comparisons in the workplace.

Nine-hundred and ninety-one university graduates, from teachers to salespeople, completed an online survey about their tendency to compare their fortunes with those above or below them at work. Several factors were associated with a person’s tendency to compare themselves against their superiors. Participants who lacked autonomy at work, who were unclear about their responsibilities, and/or who were uncertain about their own status and abilities, were more likely to compare themselves to those above them at work. This in turn was associated with job dissatisfaction, and a tendency to look elsewhere for work.

Of course, the link between lack of job autonomy, job ambiguity and job dissatisfaction are well established by previous research, but Douglas Brown’s team said they are the first to highlight the important mediating role social comparison plays in all this.

Only one factor – uncertainty about one’s own status and abilities – was associated with making more frequent comparisons against one’s junior colleagues, a somewhat surprising finding considering the same factor was also associated making more upward comparisons. In turn, comparing oneself with more junior colleagues was associated with more job satisfaction.

While acknowledging their cross-sectional design meant the causal role of social comparisons at work has not been established, the researchers concluded “these findings have important implications for understanding how social comparisons work in an organisational context, and how job attitudes form and job search behaviour is initiated”.

Brown, D.J., Ferris, D.L., Heller, D. & Keeping, L.M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of the frequency of upward and downward social comparisons at work. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 102, 59-75.

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

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Humans can track scents like a dog

Bloodhounds are unlikely to be out of work just yet, but researchers have found humans can track a scent on the ground in the same way that dogs do. While humans are traditionally considered to have a poor sense of smell compared with many of their mammalian cousins, the new finding suggests this reputation may be unfair.

Jess Porter and colleagues first observed that 21 out of 32 participants were able to track a 10 metre trail of chocolate essential oil through an open field using their sense of smell alone. By contrast, none of them were able to track the scent when their nostrils were taped up. (watch film)

Moreover, it seems this latent ability is ripe for improvement through practice. In a second experiment the researchers asked four participants to practise tracking scents for three hours a day, for three days. Afterwards, the participants were more than twice as fast at tracking a scent, and they deviated less from the scent trail. The researchers said such improvements needn’t end there: "Our sense of smell is less keen partly because we put less demand on it", Porter said. "But if people practice sniffing smells, they can get really good at it.”

Next, in a move that opponents of animal experimentation would surely approve of, the researchers used human participants to find out more about how animals track scents. They wanted to know if such tracking is done by comparing odour intensity across the two nostrils, in much the same way that sound is localised by comparing across the ears. Some have argued the nostrils are spaced to close together to be used in this way, but it’s been a difficult issue to research with even in the most well-behaved dogs objecting to their nostrils being blocked.

So 14 human participants attempted to track a scent either with one nostril taped, or with both nostrils clear. Accuracy dropped to 36 per cent with a taped nostril (compared with 66 per cent with both nostrils clear) and speed dropped by 26 per cent. Another experiment used a special device that combined airflow so that both nostrils received the same information, and this was again found to impair performance.

“Here we find that mammals performing a scent-tracking task, freely able to move their nose and sample the olfactory environment in real time, reap added benefit from sampling via their two spatially offset nostrils”, the researchers concluded.

Porter, J., Craven, B., Khan, R.M., Chang, S-J., Kang, I., Judkewicz, B., Volpe, J., Settles, G. & Sobel, N. (2006). Mechanisms of scent tracking in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 27-29.

Link to film showing human tracking scent.

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