Thursday, 31 July 2008

Managers should be reminded that their employees can blossom

We all vary in how much we believe people's attributes, such as their intelligence, are fixed or subject to change. Now a new paper has looked at the implications such beliefs have for the way managers view and treat their staff. Peter Heslin and Don VandeWalle say the research shows that managers with a fixed view of people's attributes tend to ignore improvements or deterioration in the performance of their staff, and are also less likely to ensure they receive the training they need.

One study, for example, gave managers negative background information about a fictional employee before they were shown that same person performing well at a negotiation task. Managers with a fixed view of personal attributes (they tended to agree with statements like "As much as I hate to admit it, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. People can't change their deepest attributes") subsequently rated the employee less positively than managers with a belief that people can change.

Another study found that managers who think people's attributes are fixed gave their staff less coaching, presumably because they think such interventions will be ineffective.

However, on a more positive note, there's research showing that managers who think people can't change, can be persuaded to the contrary by a range of exercises, including showing them scientific evidence for people's ability to change and getting them to think about why it is important for staff to develop their abilities.

Heslin and VandeWalle concluded that this body of research has real-world implications. "To enhance workforce productivity, cues for managers to adopt a growth mindset [a belief that people can change] could be built into performance evaluation systems," they said. "These cues might include written, verbal and video-based reminders to managers...that all employee skills tend to be developed over time with practice and helpful feedback."

Heslin, P.A., VandeWalle, D. (2008). Managers' Implicit Assumptions About Personnel. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 219-223. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00578.x

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

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The return of "good character"

The latest issue of Prospect magazine features a thought-provoking, free article by Richard Reeves (director of the Demos think tank) on the old-fashioned concept of "good character" and its importance for a successful society.

Reeves says good character is made up of three parts: "a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification." (Of course, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a good character. Reeves quotes the first headmaster of Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, as saying his goal was to turn out boys who would be "acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.")

Reeves' three parts to a good character will be familiar to psychologists. The first is what psychologists call "self-efficacy" - belief in your own ability to achieve something. Shelves of evidence show how important self-belief is for success. Reeves' second aspect - "taking responsibility for one's own actions" - is easy to aim for but much harder to put into practice thanks to the effects of cognitive-dissonance. Psychologically it is extremely hard for us to recognise when we've behaved wrongly or made bad decisions (check out "mistakes were made but not by me" for more on this). Reeve's third aspect of a good character is also well known to psychologists who have built up plenty of evidence showing that self-discipline and self-regulation are vital to success, and may even be more important than intelligence in that regard.

As Reeves explains, the notion that there is such a thing as good characters gets politically delicate because of (probably unfounded) claims that bad characters cause poverty and because of evidence showing that poverty causes bad characters. Look away for a second and you find yourself in the territory of blaming poor people for their lot. And you're effectively saying that some people are better than others.

This is harsh if you believe that people can't change. But if you recognise that people can change and become better characters, well then it arguably makes sense to recognise the importance of good character and put policies in place that will nourish the next generation to achieve that ideal.

Reeves discusses whether good characters are harder to come by these days and if so why. He finds no evidence for the idea that we've been corrupted by consumerism, but says there is evidence for the idea that liberalism - the anything goes mentality of modern life - may be partly to blame.

In particular, Reeves says the idea that we should all be free to do what we want has negatively impacted on parenting. And it is the family and good parenting that Reeves identifies as one of the most important sources of good characters. Here Reeves says parenting classes could have a part to play. He cites a forthcoming paper by Stephen Scott of the Institute of Psychiatry showing just how long lasting the benefits of these classes can be.

All in all the essay makes for a fascinating read. It's rewarding to see psychological findings filtering through into political thinking. And it provides a lesson in how messy things can get when ostensibly innocent lab results (for example on parenting or self-discipline) collide with issues of morality and personal responsibility.

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

Link to "A Question of Character" freely available at Prospect magazine.

Men's sexual orientation recognised in a fraction of a second

It only takes a 50ms glimpse (that's one twentieth of a second) of a man's face for people to recognise his sexual orientation. Nick Rule and Nalini Ambady said such an ability could have evolved for reasons relating to sex or may simply reflect a more general human ability to detect the characteristics of others with impressive efficiency. Past research for example has shown that trustworthiness is judged in less than a tenth of a second and that a company's profits can be discerned from the appearance of its chief executive.

Twenty-two male and sixty-eight female undergrads were presented with photos of 90 men's faces (half were homosexual) for either 33ms, 50ms, 6500ms or 10,000ms. The anonymous photos were taken from an internet dating site where posters stated their sexual orientation. Any photos featuring facial hair, glasses or jewellery were not used.

At 33ms, the presentation was too quick for the students to consciously 'see' the faces and, perhaps unsurprisingly, their ability to determine the men's sexuality was no better than if they were simply guessing. However, at 50ms - just long enough for the faces to be consciously seen - the students' accuracy grew to 57 per cent, which is significantly better than chance performance. Accuracy didn't increase with the longer exposure times, suggesting that all the relevant information for making the judgment had already been extracted by 50ms.

In a second study, the researchers guarded against the possibility that the men in the dating photographs had deliberately accentuated their sexuality. This time photos were taken from the social website Facebook, where they had been posted by people other than the subjects of the photos (so deliberate accentuation of sexuality was less likely). Hairstyles were also removed from the photos. Again, from just a 50ms exposure to men's faces, the 15 undergraduate participants were able to recognise the men's sexual orientation with an accuracy better than chance.

"The finding that male sexual orientation can be accurately perceived in such a short period of time is striking," the researchers said. "Although previous work has shown that 'thin slices' of behaviour are remarkably rich in providing information about people, none have sliced as thin as 50ms."

RULE, N., AMBADY, N. (2008). Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50ms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 1100-1105. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.12.001

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

Monday, 28 July 2008

How to draw information out of your brain

Imagine you knew the answer to a question but the only way you could retrieve it was to draw the solution on a piece of paper. That's exactly what can happen when people are asked to close their eyes and identify a drawn object using only their fingertips to feel its raised outline.

Test yourself by asking someone to apply hard pressure to a piece of a paper while they perform a simple sketch, for example of a tree or car. Have them turn the paper upside down. Hopefully the lines of the sketch should be raised. Close your eyes and attempt to identify the sketch by running your fingertips along the raised outline.

Research shows we're hopeless at recognising drawings in this way. But apparently we can boost our recognition skills by sketching out the information we garnered through our sense of touch, thus allowing us to identify the original object via the sight of our own sketch.

This is uncanny. It means information about the original object is in your brain but is represented in a way that renders it unidentifiable...until, that is, you regurgitate it as a sketch, allowing re-interpretation by your visual system.

Maarten Wijntjes and colleagues first tested the ability of 20 blindfolded participants to recognise several simple embossed drawings, including a hammer, an anchor and a boat. Their accuracy was 49.5 per cent when using one hand to identify the objects, 59.4 per cent when using two hands.

When, after feeling an embossed drawing and failing to recognise it, the participants took off their blindfolds and attempted to sketch the object they'd just felt (now placed out of view), they were subsequently able to identify 28 previously unidentified objects.

Crucially, however, if they kept their blindfolds on during this procedure, the benefit virtually disappeared (only 2 previously unrecognised objects were identified) - thus showing that it is seeing their own sketch that was vital for recognition.

One of the reasons recognition with our fingertips is so difficult is because information about each object comes in serial form - one small part of the outline is experienced at a time. The visual equivalent would be to view the outline of each drawing through a small hole. (Feeling with two hands improves accuracy because it increases the amount of information obtained at once).

Having information about the object stored in your mind in serial form is not ideal for your recognition system. However, when you sketch out the drawing, your visual system can then gulp down the information whole, in a way much more suited for look-up in your mental library.

WIJNTJES, M., VANLIENEN, T., VERSTIJNEN, I., KAPPERS, A. (2008). Look what I have felt: Unidentified haptic line drawings are identified after sketching. Acta Psychologica, 128(2), 255-263. DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2008.01.006

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

Friday, 25 July 2008

Is a vivid imagination at the heart of OCD?

Considering that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterised by a fear that "bad things" will happen if certain rituals are not performed, it's surprising that so little is known about the role of imagination in the condition.

All the more so given classic work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that showed the easier we find it to imagine a given outcome, the more probable we think that outcome will be - a phenomenon they dubbed the simulation heuristic.

Following this logic, perhaps part of the reason people with OCD fear bad things will occur, if they don't perform their rituals, is because they find it so easy to imagine bleak consequences.

Nadine Keen and colleagues have made an initial attempt to plug this gap in the literature, by testing whether there is an association between the ability of people with OCD to imagine a given feared scenario and their subsequent worry and belief that that scenario will actually occur.

Seventeen men and thirteen women with OCD were presented with the beginnings and endings of various feared scenarios. For example, they were to imagine being served a meal in a restaurant by a waitress who they knew had just visited the toilet. They were then to imagine waking up the next morning feeling ill. Their task was to fill in the middle part of the story. The participants were presented with stories that were more or less relevant to their particular variety of OCD (e.g. hoarding or contamination-based), as well as control stories that had positive endings.

The key prediction was that the ease with which the participants were able to fill in the missing gaps (as gauged by independent judges) would be linked with how likely they subsequently rated that scenario as being in real life, and therefore how worried they would be about it. However, this wasn't found. Ease of imagination predicted subsequent worry, but not how likely the participants thought that scenario would be. Moreover, ease of imagination wasn't linked with any cognitive features of OCD such as perfectionism.

However, not all the results were negative. Participants found it easier to imagine the scenarios that were more relevant to their particular form of OCD, and the participants with more vivid imaginations showed more OCD-related symptoms.

Although the key result turned out negative, the researchers concluded that there is reason to pursue this line of enquiry further. "The present approach has the potential for tapping into the type of dynamic and cyclical thinking processes at the heart of disorders like OCD that questionnaire methods are inadequate for accessing," they said.

Keen, N., Brown, G.P., Wheatley, J. (2008). Obsessive compulsive symptoms and the simulation of future negative events. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 47(3), 265-279. DOI: 10.1348/014466508X282833

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Novelty seekers are biased to the right

Most people show a slight bias to the left-hand side of space. In other words, presented with a horizontal line and asked to identify its midway point, most of us will mark a position slightly too far to the left. Increasingly, however, research is showing that individuals vary in the side of space to which they are biased - a minority are biased to the right. What's more, our spatial bias could be tied in intriguing ways to our personality type.

Rachel Tomer used the sensitive grey scales task to test the spatial bias of 56 undergraduates. (Participants were presented with several pairs of rectangles that fade from black to white in opposite directions. Their aim was to say which rectangle in each pair contains the most black).

Tomer found the usual overall bias to the left-hand side of space, but also discovered that ten participants showed a bias to the right. Intriguingly, she found that the students with the rightward bias also tended to score higher on a measure of novelty seeking - a proclivity to look for thrills and new rewarding experiences.

This link isn't as surprising as it sounds considering research on animals shows their attentional bias is influenced by which side of their brain has the more active dopamine system (more dopamine activity in the left-hand hemisphere directs a bias to the right). Dopamine, of course, is a neurotransmitter known to be involved in pleasure and reward.

Tomer's theory is that students with a bias to the right have more dopamine activity in the left of their brain, a characteristic also underlying their novelty seeking. But why, you might fairly ask, is it greater dopamine activity specifically in the left side of the brain that is linked with novelty seeking?

The answer isn't entirely clear, but other lines of evidence also point to a link between left-sided dopamine activity and novelty seeking. For example, patients with Parkinson's disease who exhibited dopamine loss in their left hemisphere showed a reduction in their novelty seeking habits, whereas similar patients with dopamine loss in their right hemisphere showed no such behavioural change. Moreover, an earlier brain imaging study by Tomer showed that healthy individuals with more dopamine receptors in their left vs. their right hemispheres reported being more motivated by incentives.

TOMER, R. (2008). Attentional bias as trait: Correlations with novelty seeking. Neuropsychologia, 46(7), 2064-2070. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.02.005

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

Has this stirred your interest? Previously in the Digest:
The link between line bisection accuracy and emotional sensitivity to art.
How spatial biases could be distorting survey results.
And how tiredness affects our spatial bias.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web for the latest psychology journal special issues so you don't have to:

Neuroscience and crime (Neurocase).

Computational modelling in cognitive neuropsychology (Cognitive Neuropsychology).

Dialogue with the body in clinical practice (Counselling Psychology Quarterly).

New developments in E-commerce (Psychology and Marketing).

Monday, 21 July 2008

Athletes benefit from being perfectionist

Sports psychologists can't agree on whether or not perfectionism is a good or bad thing. The advantages are obvious and evoke images of the athlete practising a given shot, kick or putt over and over, until rare mastery is achieved. But the proposed downside is that perfectionism breeds anxiety and self-criticism, ultimately undermining performance.

Oliver Stoll and colleagues believe part of the reason for the disagreement is that there are actually two aspects to perfectionism: one is striving for perfection, the other is having negative reactions to a less than perfect performance. Their prediction was that the striving aspect would be beneficial to sports training, while the negative reactions aspect would be harmful.

Stoll's team measured these two aspects of perfectionism among 122 sports science students before observing their performance on a novel basketball training exercise that required the students to practice scoring a basket from behind the basketball board.

Striving for perfection was measured by students' agreement with statements like "I feel the need to be perfect", while negative reactions to imperfection were measured via students' agreement with statements like "After training, I feel depressed if I have not been perfect."

To the researchers' surprise, the students who showed the most improvement over the course of the training (four series of seven attempts) were those who reported high levels of both striving for perfection and negative reactions to imperfection. They speculated that perhaps the students who strove for perfection, but who were then unconcerned by whether they achieved that perfection or not, had less motivation to do well in training than the students who reported having both forms of perfectionism.

More research is clearly needed with other sports, and in actual competition rather than a training environment, the researchers said. However, they concluded: "perfectionistic strivings may form part of a healthy pursuit of excellence and may be adaptive in situations where such strivings may give athletes an additional motivational 'boost' to do their best, and thus achieve better results and make greater progress."

STOLL, O., LAU, A., STOEBER, J. (2008). Perfectionism and performance in a new basketball training task: Does striving for perfection enhance or undermine performance?. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(5), 620-629. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2007.10.001

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

Friday, 18 July 2008

Why psychologists are asking children to touch their toes

Psychologists in America say they have found a simple and quick way to test young children's ability to concentrate and follow instructions in class - what they call "self-regulation".

Self-regulation is said to reflect a combination of attention, inhibition and memory skills. It's a useful attribute to measure because it strongly predicts how well young children will do when they start school.

The new "Head-to-Toes" Task requires that children listen to ten instructions, delivered in random order, telling them to either touch their head or their toes. Points are scored for following the instructions correctly.

Other available measures of self-regulation, such as the Tower of London task, are more time consuming and tend to require special equipment.

Claire Ponitz and colleagues administered the new 'Head-to-Toes" Task several times over two years to 445 children aged between three and six years, based at two sites in Michigan and Oregon.

The researchers said their task showed high reliability and validity. In other words, the same child tested twice, with only a short gap between tests, tended to achieve the same score. Scores on the test also correlated with teachers' reports of the children's self-regulation skills.

The strongest influence on children's scores was their age, with older children finding the task easier. There were differences in performance levels between the two testing sites, but these disappeared once the background of the children in the two sites was taken into account - for example based on their parents' level of education.

The researchers concluded that although older children found the task too easy for it to be a useful measure (in its current form), for the younger children, the "Head-to-Toes" Task could serve as a simple and easy-to-administer measure of self-regulation, thus helping identify those children who are likely to have difficulties when they start formal schooling.

CAMERONPONITZ, C., MCCLELLAND, M., JEWKES, A., CONNOR, C., FARRIS, C., MORRISON, F. (2008). Touch your toes! Developing a direct measure of behavioral regulation in early childhood. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(2), 141-158. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2007.01.004

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

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Shifts in perception

If you're in or around London tomorrow evening, Friday (18 July), why not check out this Wellcome Collection event, featuring talks, activities and performances all about our perception of the world? It's free and runs from 18.30 to 22.00.

The official spiel: "An event for the inquisitive - join us to celebrate the extraordinary ways we perceive the world around us. Performances and activities throughout Wellcome Collection will explore how science allows us to appreciate far more than what first meets the eye."
Link to Shifts in Perception at the Wellcome Collection.

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


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

Scanning the brains of anorexia patients while they view their own bodies and other people's. Their neural activity is regular when they look at other people's bodies, but unusual when they look at their own.

Schizophrenia is associated with poor facial recognition. Patients with the illness were far worse at spotting faces hidden among neutral pictures than were control participants.

Studying muscled men who think they are small.

Adults with ADHD may be particularly vulnerable to suggestion in police interrogations.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Tattoos, body piercings and self-harm - is there a link?

Some people say cutting their skin brings them relief from emotional pain - an act usually referred to as self-harm. Others enjoy having their body pierced with metal and their skin inscribed with permanent ink. Is there a link between these acts? According to the German psychologists Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz, in some cases there might well be.

The researchers collaborated with the body modification magazine Taetowiermagazin, recruiting 432 of their readers to complete a comprehensive questionnaire about their tattooing and piercing practices and motives.

One hundred and nineteen of the participants admitted to cutting themselves in childhood. That's 27 per cent of the sample - a much higher proportion than is found among the general population of Germany: 0.75 per cent.

Compared with the readers who said they had never self-harmed, those who had were more likely to report "bad things" having happened in their lives, and to say they had previously had a bad relationship with their own body.

Moreover, the self-harmers reported that they often had their skin tattooed or body pierced to help overcome a negative experience, or simply to experience physical pain. Another clue that self-harm and piercing/tattooing might, in some cases, be linked, derives from the fact that many of the self-harmers said they had ceased cutting themselves after obtaining their first piercing or tattoo.

Stirn and Hinz concluded that most people who partake in body modification clearly do not do it because they have any psychological problems. "However," they continued, "because body modifications have become so common and accessible, they are also used with probably increasing frequency as a convenient means to either realise psychopathological inclinations, such as self-injury, or to overcome psychological traumas."

Stirn, A., Hinz, A. (2008). Tattoos, body piercings, and self-injury: Is there a connection? Investigations on a core group of participants practicing body modification. Psychotherapy Research, 18(3), 326-333. DOI: 10.1080/10503300701506938

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

Link to related Digest item.
Link to related research.
Link to BPS leaflet on self-harm.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

A nation of shoppers who feel empty inside... have filmed another illuminating psychology-related discussion (see player below), this time featuring moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and libertarian political analyst Will Wilkinson.

Haidt believes that our moral response to a situation is akin to an aesthetic reaction - it happens in the blink of an eye, and it's only after the gut reaction that we attempt to rationalise our feelings.

Underlying our moral responses are five foundations, which are calibrated at different levels depending on our cultural background. The first two, Harm/Care and and Fairness/Reciprocity, are universal, tend to correlate with each other, and are especially valued by liberals. The remaining three also tend to correlate with each other, but are less universal, tending to be valued more by conservative types. These are Ingroup loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity.

Haidt is not a moral absolutist: he doesn't think there is some external moral truth that existed before man, and will exist afterwards. Neither is he a moral rationalist: he doesn't think reason is the epitome of morality. This usually leaves only relativism - the idea that any given moral code is as good as the next, but Haidt isn't that either. Instead, he says there is a fourth way. There is a moral truth that emerges out of cultural and social circumstances, in the same way that the value of gold is not an inherent property of the metal, but emerges from market processes. Haidt says that appreciating this can help us to be more tolerant and understanding of other cultures.

Today it is morally right that men and women are perceived as equal, he says as an example, but go back in history and there were legitimate reasons driven by a need to divide labour that led the sexes to be viewed unequally, because that was what was seen to work best in that time.

For a successful society, Haidt believes, you need a balance between the five moral foundations - a blend of the liberal and conservative sensibilities. The danger with liberals, he says, is that they would likely choose to set the Authority, Ingroup, and Purity levels to zero, because they associate these values with racism and segregation. And yet, it is order, tradition, and a sense of community and belonging which Haidt believes makes people happy. Without these and you end up with a "nation of shoppers who feel empty inside".

Haidt's discussant Will Wilkinson, himself a libertarian, isn't convinced: "I think meaning is overrated," he says.

There's plenty more in the clip above, including why religion is correlated with happiness within nations, and yet the world's happiest nations are secular. Great stuff - Keep it up!

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

Want to know more about this area?
Link to recent Prospect magazine article on the emerging moral psychology (open access).
Link to Jonathan Haidt's landmark paper on the new synthesis in moral psychology (open access).

Monday, 14 July 2008

Finding your way back from the toilet in the dark, and other lessons...

The nation's psychology teachers had a noticeable spring in their step last week after cognitive neuroscientist and Mind Hacks author Dr Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield showed them the power of interactive demonstration. The Research Digest was lucky enough to be in the audience.

Moments into the keynote talk, the teachers and I found ourselves blinded by darkness. As our eyes adjusted, we were told to cover one eye with our hands before the lights were raised again. A little wait for our open eyes to become light-adjusted and then the lights re-dimmed. What would happen to our vision this time? The answer depends on whether adaptation to light levels occurs centrally, in the brain, or locally in each eye. The audience tested this, looking through each eye one at a time and discovering the strange experience of having one eye adapted to the light and one to the dark, thus showing that light adaptation occurs locally. Both eyes open led to a strange, grey, grainy, effect. “Whoever said psychology isn't useful is wrong,” Stafford said. “You now have the perfect strategy for visiting the toilet in the night and finding your way back to your bed in the dark.”

Light adaptation may well occur locally, but what about adaptation to motion? A huge video of a waterfall filled the screen. After a minute staring at the cascading water, the video was stopped and the audience experienced the well-known illusion of the water appearing to flow upwards. But what if the flowing water was watched with just one eye (with the other covered), with the paused video then observed through the previously covered eye? The illusion was still experienced, thus showing that in this case, adaptation to motion had occurred centrally, in the brain.

Here we were, an audience of several hundred, asking questions and finding answers about the organisation of the human brain, all from the comfort of our seats. “The wisdom of psychology,” Stafford said, “is as a way of finding things out and generating facts. Everyone can take part.”

“I'm now going to rewire your brains,” Stafford continued, “by fostering your expectations.” Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven began to fill the lecture room. Then a verse was played backwards (courtesy of Jeff Milner). Could we hear any words in the backward version? None. But then Stafford told us the hidden lyrics: “Oh here's to my Sweet Satan...”. The backward track was played again, and there the words were, bold, impossible to ignore. Visit the site and see for yourself. “Hours of fun or moral panic, depending on your perspective,” Stafford said.

Once the expectations for what to hear are in place, they can't be undone. You can't unhear the devilish lyrics once you know about them. This is a powerful demonstration of how our perceptual experiences are based not just on what is served up by our senses, but also on what our brains bring to the table.

“Examples like these teach us that we all have access to the raw materials of psychology,” Stafford said, “but that we can't necessarily trust them. Yet with sceptical enquiry and careful investigation, we can find out how the brain works.”

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

Dr Tom Stafford was speaking at the annual conference of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology at Lincoln in the UK.

Link to Tom's guest contribution to the Digest (an introduction to psychophysics).

Today's youth have inflated egos

The youth of today - they seem so fearless, so pleased with themselves, don't they? If that's the perception, there are at least two possible explanations. Perhaps today's youngsters really are more egotistical. Alternatively, maybe levels of youthful narcissism haven't changed, it's just that, for any given era, the older folk will always think young people are full of themselves.

In what they describe as "the most comprehensive examination to date" of this issue, American researchers, led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, have tested these two possible explanations by trawling published and unpublished data on self-reported undergraduate narcissism, dating from the late 1970s to the present day.

The researchers focused only on studies that collected data using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which requires respondents to choose between 40 forced-choice alternatives, such as: "I can live my life anyway I want to" vs. "People can't always live their lives in terms of what they want". The search uncovered 85 samples, involving 16,475 university students.

The data showed today's youth really are more egotistical than in previous eras. Levels of self-reported narcissism were found to have risen year on year from the late 70's to today, with the effect that two thirds of contemporary students scored above the narcissistic average for students tested in the years 1979-1985.

Twenge's team said their finding was consistent with other research showing generational increases in self-esteem, extraversion and assertiveness. Narcissism has its benefits in terms of self belief and confidence, the researchers said, but also comes with costs, tending to be associated with risky decision-making, aggression and addiction.

A limitation of the research, as acknowledged by the researchers, is that only data from undergraduates was analysed (and only in America). It's possible that the narcissism of all age groups, not just young people, has increased over recent decades.

Twenge, J.M., Konrath, S., Foster, J.D., Keith Campbell, W., Bushman, B.J. (2008). Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76(4), 875-902. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x

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

Friday, 11 July 2008

Musical ability - is it all just practice?

When marvelling at the world's great talents, whether in music, sport or literature, it's easy to conclude that these characters are simply born gifted. But that's unfair. Take a closer look and you'll see these people practice. A lot. In fact, the Swedish expertise expert Anders Ericsson has argued that the difference between an average and an elite musician is entirely down to practice, nothing else. Put the time in and you could be Mozart too, so the logic goes.

Is Ericsson right? Joanne Ruthsatz at Oberlin College and colleagues tested the intelligence, musical ability and practice habits of 178 high school band members and 83 elite conservatory music members.

Results were mixed. Among the high-school band members, musical achievement was predicted by practice, but also by general intelligence and musical aptitude (in terms of tone and rhythm perception skills). Moreover, all three of these factors were higher among the elite conservatory members, thus suggesting that musical achievement rests on a mixture of hard work and inherent talent.

However, among just the elite conservatory musicians, it was practice habits alone that differentiated the very highest achievers from the less successful. This suggests that once a certain amount of innate talent is in place, only practice makes the difference to the ultimate degree of success obtained. Unfortunately the limitations of the study mean we can't know for sure if this is correct. The researchers cautioned that the elite conservatory members all had extremely high intelligence and musical aptitude by virtue of their having gained a conservatory place, meaning there was very little variation in these factors between individuals.

Practice can be the crucial mediating factor in the acquisition of expert performance, the researchers concluded, 'but only after the group in question has been selected for general intelligence and musical ability. Thus we are forced to conclude that not everyone can be Mozart, even if they start young and practice intensively.'

RUTHSATZ, J., DETTERMAN, D., GRISCOM, W., CIRULLO, B. (2008). Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice. Intelligence, 36(4), 330-338. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2007.08.003

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

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web for the latest psychology journal special issues so you don't have to:

Neuroimaging and early Alzheimer's Disease (Neuropsychologia).

Client experiences of psychotherapy (Psychotherapy Research).

What is the parietal lobe contribution to human memory? (Neuropsychologia).

Cross-cultural analysis of quality of life and mental health (Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy).

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

TV shows like The O.C. accused of making teenagers sexist

American teenagers who spend more time watching romantic dramas like The O.C. or romance-based reality shows like The Bachelor tend to hold more old-fashioned views about the roles men and women should play when dating - a pattern that psychologists at Illinois State University believe should be a cause for concern.

Two hundred and fifteen teenagers with an average age of 15 years reported how much time they spent watching various TV shows and registered their belief in romantic gender roles - for example by saying whether or not they agreed that men should generally be the ones to initiate sexual contact.

Not only was viewing more romance-themed TV shows associated with teenagers having more traditional views of gender roles, but having these views was in turn associated with teenagers have more romantic partners and starting to go on dates from a younger age.

Rocio Rivadeneyra and Melanie Lebo who conducted the research said their findings showed television programmes could be teaching teenagers that dating involves prescribed roles for males and females and that dating should occur early and often: "all potential factors for sexual risk," they warned.

Another result to emerge was a link between watching non-romantic dramas such as Law and Order and teenagers having more egalitarian views of gender dating roles. The researchers said this could be because such programmes often portray women in less traditional roles.

The research was correlational, so as the researchers acknowledged, rather than TV shows affecting teenagers' attitudes, it's perfectly plausible that teenagers with traditional attitudes toward gender roles simply tend to favour watching shows like the O.C.

RIVADENEYRA, R., LEBO, M. (2008). The association between television-viewing behaviors and adolescent dating role attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Adolescence, 31(3), 291-305. DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2007.06.001

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


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

Are capacity bottlenecks in the brain's information processing pathways, at the heart of many mental conditions and disorders?

Differences between monkey and human mirror-neuron systems.

Ageing affects people's ability to correctly interpret proverbs.

Comparing the mental health of children and teenagers across 12 European countries.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Mind who you think of

From mother to best friend, carer or lover, we play many roles in life. How we see ourselves varies dramatically depending on which of these roles we're in and who we're interacting with. Now Barry Schlenker and colleagues have taken this idea further, showing that the mere thought of different people significantly impacts the way we perceive ourselves, even influencing our scores on a personality test.

Dozens of female university students were led to believe they were participating in an investigation into the effect of visualisation on heart rate, with the appropriate medical paraphernalia in place to make the story more convincing.

The students were asked to visualise a range of fairly mundane items or experiences and then at the end they were asked to visualise in detail either one of their parents, a recent romantic partner, or a friend. Afterwards they completed a range of personality and self-esteem tests. Post-experimental debriefing confirmed they hadn't guessed the true purpose of the study.

Students who visualised a parent subsequently rated themselves as less sensual, adventurous, dominant, extraverted and industrious, than did students asked to visualise a friend or romantic partner, consistent with the idea that people revert to a more submissive "child role" with their parents.

A second study revealed some interesting interactions between self-esteem and the effect of visualising different people. Low self-esteem female students who visualised a romantic partner subsequently rated themselves as less sensuous, relaxed and physically attractive, than did students with high self-esteem (however no such difference emerged after visualising a same-sex friend). Meanwhile imagining a same-sex friend led low self-esteem, but not high self-esteem, students to subsequently rate themselves as less socially dominant.

The researchers concluded that people could benefit from being more aware of the influences the mere thought of others can have. "If people recognise that imagined audiences could influence their thoughts, feelings, and actions, thereby perpetuating patterns that exist in specific relationships and possibly carrying over to new relationships, they can try to circumvent any undesirable effects through a conscious override." In other words, when it comes to seeing yourself in the best possible light for a given situation, mind who you think of.

SCHLENKER, B.R., WOWRA, S.A., JOHNSON, R.M., MILLER, M.L. (2008). The impact of imagined audiences on self-appraisals. Personal Relationships, 15(2), 247-260. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2008.00196.x

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

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

Monday, 7 July 2008

Using psychology and neuroscience to improve society

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (the RSA) has launched a new project that seeks to bring together all that we know about our brains and the way we think, so as to help humankind reach its full potential in a changing world, and to shape public policy for the good of society.

An article in the latest issue of the RSA's in-house journal puts it like this:

"Our growing knowledge about our brains and our ability to intervene in our own neural processes may offer us an unprecedented opportunity to shape our behaviours (conscious and unconscious) and to rise to current challenges. This potential will remain unfulfilled unless we can develop a cogent and accessible framework (bringing together science, social science, ethics, public policy) through which the wider public can understand, interpret, debate and exploit these possibilities. Developing this framework is the aspiration behind the RSA’s ambitious new project."
The article flits a little confusingly between the potential usefulness of biological interventions (e.g. cognitive enhancers) and psychological findings (e.g. Daniel Kahneman's Prospect Theory; Robert Cialdini's work on persuasion), and it sounds rather like what must have been the pitch for the recent book Nudge. However, there's no doubt that gathering all these threads together, and finding ways to apply them for the common good, is a laudable aim.

As part of the project launch, Jonathan Carr-West of the RSA interviewed Steve Pinker about some of these ideas, the video of which has been pasted on line (a screen grab appears above).

Pinker actually throws something of a dampener on the idea of intervening neurologically to improve our performance or help society. For instance, with over 100 trillion synapses, he thinks the idea of surgical brain enhancement is a long way off. However Pinker says there is plenty of scope for using what we know about the biases and heuristics in human thought - psychology in other words! - to improve our decision making, planning and behaviour.

Pinker cites the example of Dan Gilbert's work on affective forecasting, which has shown just how poor we are at predicting what will make us happy, despite our great confidence in our ability to do just that.

About 13 minutes into the interview Pinker says he himself learned from Gilbert's findings. Before Pinker made the decision to switch from MIT to Harvard, rather than imagining himself in his new job at Harvard, he asked colleagues he knew who'd made the same move, how they had found the experience.

This may sound shrewd but I couldn't help thinking that Pinker forgot to factor in the power of cognitive dissonance. Because of the tendency we all have to justify our own actions, and to see ourselves as wise decision-makers, the colleagues who gave up their job at MIT and went to Harvard are perhaps the last people Pinker should have spoken to if he wanted an objective assessment. Subconsciously or otherwise, research on cognitive dissonance predicts these people will have been highly motivated to perceive their decision to have been a good one.

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

Link to RSA Journal article: Brain Power.
Link to video of interview with Stephen Pinker.

disclaimer: I'm a fellow of the RSA.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nature on plasma TV not as beneficial as through a window

Nature, the outdoors, animals and fresh air: they're good for you. Don't take my word for it. Science says so. Hospital patients, for example, recover faster when their window looks out on a natural scene rather than a brick wall. Pet owners have lower blood pressure.

The trouble is we're showing a worrying trend towards not only harming our natural world, but also experiencing what's left of it through the prism of manufactured technologies: Telegardens (planting seeds in a remote garden using a robotic interface), virtual walks and robot-pets are the future. Does this matter? As a first step towards finding out, Peter Kahn Jr. and colleagues compared the restorative effects of a real window to the benefits of a giant plasma screen linked to a live, high-definition camera recording of the exact same view visible through the window.

Ninety students undertook a series of tasks including coming up with uses for a tin can and clever labels for ambiguous drawings. Heart rate was used to measure stress recovery during the rest periods between tasks, when a researcher gave instructions for the upcoming challenge.

Some of the students completed the tasks at a desk opposite a window with views toward a pleasant natural scene beyond; others sat opposite a similarly-sized "plasma window" showing the identical scene, with the real window concealed behind; the remainder sat in the same position but with drapes entirely obscuring the real window.

In terms of heart rate recovery, students who were sat opposite the plasma window showed no benefit at all relative to the students who performed with drapes covering the window. By contrast, the heart rate of the students sat opposite the real window recovered more quickly, consistent with past research showing the calming benefits of a natural scene.

It's unlikely the results are simply an effect of daylight in the room. Recovery among the students sat opposite the real window was no faster on brighter versus duller days. However, time spent looking out of the real window was correlated with speedier stress recovery.

So why didn't nature as displayed on the plasma window have any benefit? There are potential technical reasons to do with the limitations of the digital display, including issues of parallax, pixilation and 2-D depth perception. However the researchers think the reason is more likely to do with the participants knowing that the plasma view simply wasn't as "real".

"Our results, even at this early stage, provide some cautionary thoughts," the researchers said.

KAHNJR, P., FRIEDMAN, B., GILL, B., HAGMAN, J., SEVERSON, R., FREIER, N., FELDMAN, E., CARRERE, S., STOLYAR, A. (2008). A plasma display window?รข€”The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 192-199. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.10.008

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