Friday, 31 October 2008

Older people are less optimistic, but more realistic

They say we tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles but it seems that is far from a universal rule. According to psychologists in America our views on our past and future happiness change as a function of where we are in our lives.

From a survey of over 3000 American adults conducted at two time points spaced nine years apart, Margie Lachman and colleagues found that younger and middle-aged people tended to underestimate their past happiness and to overestimate their future happiness - probably because to do so helps motivate them to strive for a better life.

By contrast, older people (aged over 65) were more accurate in recalling their prior and future life satisfaction - in this case, to do so probably reflected their need to accept their life as it had been lived, combined with their greater understanding of our capacity to adjust emotionally to whatever life throws our way. Indeed, in line with the predictions of the older participants, most people's life satisfaction, in this study and others, actually changes very little through the years (in Western democracies, at least).

Lachman's team also looked out how adaptive it was for people to have either rose-tinted or darkly clouded views of their past and future. The results showed that at whatever age, it is beneficial to have a more realistic view of the past and future. Those participants who more accurately perceived their past and future happiness tended to suffer less depression and enjoy better health.

"The young have an illusion of continued improvement, seeing the past as worse than it really was and the future as better than it turns out to be," the researchers said. "This illusion is consistent with their motivational orientation toward continued growth and gains."

ResearchBlogging.orgMargie E. Lachman, Christina Röcke, Christopher Rosnick, Carol D. Ryff (2008). Realism and Illusion in Americans' Temporal Views of Their Life Satisfaction: Age Differences in Reconstructing the Past and Anticipating the Future Psychological Science, 19 (9), 889-897 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02173.x

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

Thursday, 30 October 2008

"Is evolutionary psychology a dubious science?" and other battles...

This coming weekend, the fourth annual Battle of Ideas takes place at the Royal College of Art in London. Launched by the Institute of Ideas think tank, the Battle of Ideas aims to "make virtues of free-thinking and lively exchanges of views".

Several of the planned Battles have a psychological slant. For example, the Battle for Intelligence on Saturday will feature Prof Colin Blakemore and others discussing the scientific merit and ethical issues regarding cognitive enhancement.

The live Battles are also complemented by a number of "Battles in Print", one of which caught my eye. Carl Ratner, Director of the Institute for Cultural Research & Education in Trinidad, California, has written a provocative essay entitled "The dubious science of evolutionary psychology."

Ratner's essay takes aim at what he claims are the two central tenets of evolutionary psychology: 1) that human psychology/ behaviour evolves according to the same genetic principles that govern physical evolution and 2) that adult human psychological mechanisms are determined by the same biological functions that govern animal and infant behaviour.

This is not the appropriate forum for a detailed response to Ratner's arguments. However, in the spirit of the Battle of Ideas, I can't resist taking a pop at a few of his claims. To begin with, he seems to have created a straw man that bears little relation to the true assumptions made by evolutionary psychologists. Surely the basic premise of evolutionary psychology is not that behaviour is governed by principles of genetic mutation, but rather that behaviour is governed by an interaction between the environment and our physical selves, which have been shaped by evolutionary forces. Similarly, although adult psychological mechanisms are not exactly the same as infant or animal psychological mechanisms, they surely do share the exact same quality of being a product of our biological brains.

All this becomes somewhat clearer if we examine one of Ratner's own examples. To demonstrate that adult psychology is qualitatively different from infant and animal psychology, he cites the example of an adult newspaper reader becoming anxious and fearful upon reading about the looming recession. This anxiety, he says, "depends upon (is mediated by) a host of conscious, symbolic understandings of what a recession means and the ways it could affect one’s family and one’s country. Infants and animals are incapable of such an emotion because they lack the cultural and mental factors that make it possible. The fear that an infant or animals experiences when hearing a loud noise is obviously based on an entirely different mechanism."

Ratner seems to have confused the mechanisms involved in the perception of danger with the fear response itself. Of course babies and animals won't get anxious about a newspaper report on the recession because they can't read and they don't understand what a recession and its consequences are. So this is a question of perception, understanding and cognitive appraisal. Like an animal or infant, an illiterate adult, or an adult with infinite monetary resources, would also fail to be moved by the news story. Crucially, however, the fear response that the article triggers in some adults will share many features with the fear response of an animal or child to a loud noise: increased heart beat, sweaty palms, extra activity in the limbic system of the brain.

Why, we might sensibly ask, does the adult newspaper reader show these physiological responses to the threat of financial meltdown? It makes sense for the animal or infant to escape the danger of a loud noise, but running faster won't help the adult elude their debts. This, of course, is where evolutionary psychology comes into play. By recognising that our mental lives are played out in a body that has been shaped by evolutionary forces through the millennia, we can come to a fuller understanding of why we behave the way we do. No matter what the perceived threat, we have but one phylogenetically old fear response that's changed little for many thousands of years.

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

Link to the Battle of Ideas.
Link to essay on evolutionary psychology.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Are brain damaged people who confabulate even trying to remember?

When a patient with brain damage provides bizarre answers to questions about their life or their recent activities, they are said to be confabulating. It's nearly always associated with damage to the frontal cortex and has traditionally be construed as a problem with memory retrieval - a mixing up of real memories with imagined facts. But now Gian Zannino and his associates have proposed a new explanation. Their suggestion is that confabulation often doesn't involve memory at all. Rather, they say it reflects a basic inability to select the appropriate mental process for the task at hand.

Zannino's group studied patient M.L. - a 55-year-old woman who frequently confabulates following an aneurysm in the front of her brain. They compared her performance on a range of psychological tests with that of two patients with frontal lobe brain damage who don't confabulate, and with five healthy controls.

The researchers showed first that M.L., but not the other participants, confabulated just as much regardless of question difficulty. So, for example, she gave bizarre, incorrect answers whether she was describing the last time she'd travelled by ship ("I went, I took the ship in Lyons and I went to Great Britain, then I sailed round the island, because I had to go opposite St. Paul's island"), or whether she was answering a deliberately impossible question about the job held by Baudelaire's sister ("tailor"). By contrast, in the case of impossible questions, the control participants would simply say they didn't know. The researchers said that as M.L.'s tendency to confabulation doesn't vary with the difficulty of memory retrieval, it undermines the idea that it's inherently a memory retrieval problem.

Secondly, the researchers showed that M.L. produced bizarre answers to tasks that didn't involve memory, and that she used the wrong mental process in a word definition task. In the former situation, she invented new features when asked to copy a simple line drawing, and in the latter case she gave the origins of words rather than their definitions.

Zannino's team concluded by arguing against an intimate link between confabulation and recollective processes. "We believe that the present case report provides evidence that in confabulators the lack of strategic control might occur at a very high hierarchical level in the control of mental processes - that is, at a level where confabulators have to choose between engaging in an attempt to recollect or perform some other less demanding mental process..."

ResearchBlogging.orgGian Daniele Zannino, Francesco Barban, Carlo Caltagirone, Giovanni Carlesimo (2008). Do confabulators really try to remember when they confabulate? A case report Cognitive Neuropsychology, 25 (6), 831-852 DOI: 10.1080/02643290802365078

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

Monday, 27 October 2008

The age when children begin attempting to appear racially colour-blind

Several embarrassing scenes in the spoof fly-on-the-wall series The Office feature the calamitous manager David Brent trying so hard to appear racially colour blind that he actually ends up causing serious offence. A new study by Evan Apfelbaum and colleagues has identified the age when (White American) children first show this concern to appear unprejudiced, even though doing so leads them to perform less well at a task.

One hundred and one children, predominantly White, half of whom were aged 8 to 9, the other half being aged 9 to 10, participated in a task reminiscent of the board game "Guess Who?" Presented with photos of 40 individuals who varied according to four key dimensions, the children's task was to find out with as few yes/no questions as possible which one of those individuals' photos the researcher had in their hand.

Crucially, for half the children, race was one of the key dimensions. Among these children, the younger kids actually outperformed the older ones, and they did so because they were unafraid to ask questions about race. For the other half of the children, coloured stickers replaced race as the fourth identifying dimension, and in this case, as you'd expect, the older children outperformed the younger ones.

"The anomaly in task performance demonstrated in the present study may point to the onset of an important transition in human social development at 10 years of age," the researchers said, "when internalised social and moral norms begin to regulate behaviour, even when such regulation comes at a cost."

ResearchBlogging.orgEvan P. Apfelbaum, Kristin Pauker, Nalini Ambady, Samuel R. Sommers, Michael I. Norton (2008). Learning (not) to talk about race: When older children underperform in social categorization. Developmental Psychology, 44 (5), 1513-1518 DOI: 10.1037/a0012835

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

Link to related Digest item: "How wishing to appear racially colour-blind can backfire".
Link to related Digest item: Do children acquire racism from their mothers?
Link to related Digest item: How ambiguous racism can be more harmful than the blatant variety.

Friday, 24 October 2008

What U2 fans think about queue jumpers

Some of the best experiments involve psychologists casting off their lab coats, rolling up their sleeves and delving into the messy midst of the real world. Stanley Milgram (of obediency experiment fame) and his colleagues did just that back in the 1980s when they pushed in line at 129 queues at train stations, betting shops and other venues in New York. They uncovered interesting behavioural patterns, such as that people were far more likely to react to a line pusher right in front of them than one who pushed in several places ahead (even though the effect of the pusher on waiting time would be the same in each case).

Inspired by studies like this, Marie Helweg-Larsen and Barbara LoMonaco did the next best thing after actually pushing into queues. They surveyed groups of U2 fans queuing overnight to get the best positions possible in the general admission area at a U2 stadium concert.

An initial survey of 238 fans at a Philadelphia concert asked queuers how they would react to a series of line-pushing scenarios. Fans said they would react more negatively if an apparent stranger pushed in, as opposed to a "friend" taking up a place "saved" for them by others. However, fans didn't say they would react any less negatively if someone pushed in behind them as opposed to pushing in front of them (even though the former case wouldn't affect them directly). It also didn't make any difference to fans' reactions if they were currently nearer the front of the line as opposed to being nearer the back.

A second survey of 206 fans in Atlanta Georgia replicated a finding from the first survey: hardcore fans said they would react more severely to line-pushers than did casual fans. All fans said they would be more upset by a line pusher if they had been waiting longer. However, once again, fans said it didn't matter whether a line pusher barged in behind or in front of them in the queue - they'd be equally upset.

"Clearly people care about the context and situation of norm violations, not just about the objective set back associated with someone intruding in line," the researchers said. However, they added that this "moral outrage" response was probably related to more functional concerns. After all, "For U2 fans, any threat to the established queue might create chaos to the entire system and, therefore, ultimately threaten one's own position..."

ResearchBlogging.orgMarie Helweg-Larsen, Barbara L. LoMonaco (2008). Queuing Among U2 Fans: Reactions to Social Norm Violations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38 (9), 2378-2393 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00396.x

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

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Special Issue Spotter

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

The Neurobiology of Violence (Philosophical Transactions B).

Living with Risk and Uncertainty (Health, Risk and Society).

Imitation in Children with Autism (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology).

The Self and Identity in Rehabilitation (Neuropsychological Rehabilitation).

Youth, Violence, and Social Disintegration (New Directions for Youth Development).

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Self-belief boosts problem solving success

Success at mental arithmetic isn't purely a question of mathematical skill and knowledge - people's belief in their own ability, known as "self-efficacy", plays a key part too. Bobby Hoffman and Alexandru Spatariu who made the new finding say their research is the "first study that we know of to demonstrate the effect of self-efficacy on problem-solving efficiency when controlling for background knowledge."

Hoffman and Spatariu tested the basic addition and multiplication abilities of 81 undergrad students, as well as their confidence in performing mental multiplication. Next, the researchers gave the students twenty easy (single digit X single digit) and twenty difficult (double digit X double digit) multiplication problems to perform in their heads, in a "reasonable amount of time". In a final twist, half the students were also given so-called "metacognitive prompts" during the testing. For example, the computer screen on which they were being tested would flash up prompts like "What steps are you using to solve these problems?"

Self-efficacy and general ability each made a unique contribution to the students' success at the easy and difficult multiplication task, in terms of overall accuracy and efficiency. Those students with higher ability and greater self-belief performed more quickly and more accurately. For the harder multiplication task only, metacognitive prompting also boosted accuracy. It sped efficiency too, if the time taken for the prompts to appear and be cleared was not counted.

Lead researcher Dr Bobby Hoffman told the Digest that effective problem-solving requires a unique blend of skills and strategies. "In learning situations there is a natural tendency to build basic skills," he said, "but that is only part of the formula. Instructors that focus on building the confidence of students, providing strategic instruction, and giving relevant feedback can enhance performance outcomes."

ResearchBlogging.orgB HOFFMAN, A SPATARIU (2008). The influence of self-efficacy and metacognitive prompting on math problem-solving efficiency Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33 (4), 875-893 DOI: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2007.07.002

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

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

This is your brain on politics

As the US Presidential Election builds to its climax, I just discovered that last month's (freely available) cover feature for the Observer magazine of the Association for Psychological Science was all about the psychology and neuroscience of politics.

The writer Ian Herbert provides a wide-ranging survey of research in the area, with the main thrust being that the majority of us vote according to our emotionally-driven party political biases, with the facts and figures of policy detail making little impression.

Swing voters too are likely to use mental short-cuts to make their voting decisions. Specifically, people are likely to vote for the candidate who seems most similar to themselves. The kind of people the candidates associate with is also likely to play a key role with swing voters - a phenomenon known as the "proximity effect".

"This obviously has very real implications for politicians who are constantly trying to distance themselves from controversial figures," Herbert writes. "Just think of Obama's difficulties because of Reverend Jeremiah Wright or McCain's embarrassment over Pastor John Hagee. It also explains why we likely won't see the President stumping for Republicans this election season."

Another research finding described by Herbert that's pertinent to the current election concerns the detrimental effect of negative advertising on voter engagement. Ted Brader has conducted research showing that viewers of positive ads come away feeling more interested in the campaign than viewers of negative ads. I expect that before politicians heed these kind of findings, they'll need to be convinced that negative campaigning harms their own prospects more than, or at least as much as, it harms their opponents'.

All in all the article makes for an interesting and timely read, although the conclusion does rather leave you feeling that you haven't learned anything revelatory:

"The implication for politicians is ... very clear: ooze charisma. If you can do that, play off the emotions of your constituents in TV commercials, avoid associating with any questionable characters, be as much like 'the people' as possible, and, of course, be a member of whichever political party is most popular, then you're well on your way to being the next president of the United States."

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

Link to free article: "This is your brain on politics".

Monday, 20 October 2008

How a psychological bias leads many people to pay more credit card interest

New financial rules in the U.K. and elsewhere mean that credit card companies have to take a monthly minimum payment from card-holders who have an outstanding balance. It's a protective measure that's intended to stop card-holders' debt from spiralling out of control. However, new research by Neil Stewart shows that, thanks to a decision-making bias known as "anchoring", printed information about compulsory minimum payments leads many card-holders to actually pay off less of their balance than they would have done, thus costing them significantly in the long-run.

Stewart first conducted a survey of 248 real-life credit-card users and their statements. This showed that among those card-holders (36 per cent) who paid more than the minimum payment but less than the total outstanding balance, their choice of how much to pay was correlated with the stated size of the minimum compulsory payment. It's as if knowledge of the minimum required payment dragged down their choice of how much to pay off. By contrast, people who paid off the full amount, or only the minimum payment, were unaffected.

Stewart tested this idea further in an experiment. Hundreds of participants were given a credit-card bill with an outstanding balance of £435.76 and asked how much they could afford to pay off, given their real-life finances. Crucially, half the participants were shown what the minimum compulsory payment was and half weren't.

The presence or not of information about a minimum payment didn't affect the proportion of participants who said they'd pay the balance off in full. However, among those 45 per cent of participants who said they'd pay only some of the bill, the presence of information about the minimum required payment had a dramatic effect on how much they said they'd pay.

Among the partial payers, those who saw information on the minimum required payment (which was £5.42) said they'd pay off 70 per cent less than those who didn't see information on the minimum payment. Stewart said that in real life this difference could double the ultimate amount of interest paid by the card-holder over the life of the debt.

He explained: "Although minimum payments are a good idea in principle ― because they protect the small number of people who would otherwise make no repayment at all ― minimum payments do seem to have an adverse effect on those who repay only part of the bill, even those repaying a large fraction of the bill."

Anchoring is a well known psychological bias. It was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1974. They asked people to spin a random number wheel before estimating what proportion of United Nations countries were African. People's guesses were strongly influenced by whether the wheel landed on a high or low number, even though they knew the number had no bearing on the question at hand.

In the context of credit-card payments, Stewart says that the effects of anchoring can be countered by providing people with more information. In fact, he's set up a website that helps you calculate what the total costs of a loan will be given how quickly you choose to pay off your debt.

ResearchBlogging.orgStewart, N. (2008). The cost of anchoring on credit card minimum payments Psychological Science. In Press.

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

Friday, 17 October 2008

When thoughts of death turn to environmentalism

Reminding people of their own mortality can either turn them off environmentalism or reinforce their commitment to it, depending on how important the cause was to them in the first place. That's according to Matthew Vess and Jamie Arndt who asked 57 students to think about what will happen when they die, or to imagine physical pain (this served as a non-morbid control condition).

After completing an irrelevant distraction task, the students next read an article about a lawsuit concerning a city council's decision to prohibit development on parkland. Finally, the students gave their opinions on the lawsuit and chose further pro- or anti-environment articles to read.

Students who said being an environmentalist was unimportant to their self-esteem, and who'd earlier thought about their own death, subsequently showed less environmental concern in response to the development article than did non-environmentalists who had earlier thought about physical pain. This is consistent with previous work showing that thoughts of death lead people to reject their earthly origins (for example, one study showed that people reminded of their mortality subsequently rated a wilderness scene less favourably and a cityscape more favourably).

By contrast, students who said environmentalism was important to their self-esteem, and who'd earlier thought about their own death, subsequently showed far greater environmental concern than environmentalist students who'd earlier thought about physical pain.

"It appears that certain people derive existentially important feelings of self-esteem from pro-environmental behaviour and thus respond to concerns about mortality with increased concern for the well-being of the natural world," the researchers said. "These self-esteem investments can thus transform the protection of the natural world into an existentially relevant behaviour which can similarly function to mitigate concerns with our vulnerability to death."

ResearchBlogging.orgM VESS, J ARNDT (2008). The nature of death and the death of nature: The impact of mortality salience on environmental concern Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (5), 1376-1380 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.04.007

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

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Electronic Games and Personalized eLearning Processes (Computers in Human Behaviour).

Engagement at work: An Emerging Concept (Work and Stress).

Advances in Understanding Youth Violence (Journal of Community Psychology).

New directions and Resources in Group Psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How do children's books portray people who stutter?

Stuttering is a form of speech disorder characterised by difficulty getting words out, and involves repetitions or prolongations of sounds. These difficulties usually arise in early childhood and one way of helping children who stutter could be for them to read novels that involve a character who stutters. However, whether such books will be helpful depends on how stuttering is portrayed. To find out Kenneth Logan and colleagues identified and reviewed 29 children's fictional books published since 1988, all of which featured a stuttering character (plot summaries of some of these are available online).

Overall, Logan's team concluded that the books were accurate and sensitive enough to be useful in therapy. However, looking more closely, it was clear that the books scored a mixture of misses and hits.

The gender imbalance in stuttering was underestimated: the books suggested boys exhibit stuttering twice as often as girls, when the reality is three to four times. . In real life, the condition is usually mild but it tended to be severe in the books. There were some inaccuracies in the way symptoms were presented. For example, in The Treasure Bird, the character Jessy exhibits final sound repetitions (e.g. "bird-d") which is extremely rare.

Also, whereas stuttering runs in families and is seen by modern experts as an inherited pre-disposition that may be triggered by environmental circumstances, only a few of the books mentioned that stuttering is heritable; in fact the causes of the condition were seldom discussed.

Having said all that, the books often gave moving insights into the frustrations of stuttering. "My heart and head hold so many words and thoughts, but my mouth is like a jailer that won't release them," says 15-year-old Frederick in The Only Outcast.

The books also captured the variability of symptoms - the fact that people
who stutter are often fine in some circumstances (e.g. when singing) but not others. The novels also conveyed the trauma of teasing experienced by many stutterers, and the frustrations of having a listener attempt to fill in their words for them - a typical response which only makes things worse.

Regarding treatment - the books rarely dealt with typical speech therapy, instead focusing on characters' use of idiosyncratic strategies or the benefits of social and emotional support. Although a serious weakness, this latter aspect actually chimes with a recent qualitative study of stutterers, in which many of them said emotional support had been pivotal in their recovery.

"Although empirical details at times take a back seat to adventure, intrigue and character development in this genre," the researchers concluded, "the books nearly all succeeded at offering young people who stutter a sense of hope - and that of course is an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to change how they live."

ResearchBlogging.orgLogan, K.J., Mullins, M.S. & Jones, K.M. (2008). The depiction of stuttering in contemporary juvenile fiction: Implications for clinical practice Psychology in the Schools, 45 (7), 609-626 DOI: 10.1002/pits.20313

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

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

What five things do you do to stay sane?

A group of volunteers, led by Andy Gibson and supported by the RSA and Young Foundation, is asking people to reveal what five things they do daily or regularly to stay sane.

The project, called Mindapples, was inspired by the 5-a-day healthy eating campaign that aimed to teach us how consuming five pieces of fruit or veg a day can help us to stay physically healthy. Mindapples asks what the equivalent is for mental well-being? Crunching through leaves in the park, the gentle touch of a loved one, or perhaps a quiet session with the newspaper: let them know what works for you.

The team behind Mindapples are all volunteers pursuing an interesting idea. They're hoping to receive over 1000 responses to their survey, with a plan to take things up a level once that target is reached. If you complete the very short survey, you're helping promote the cause and you get to read other people's anonymous revelations about what they do to stay sane.

I've just completed the survey and found it difficult to squeeze everything into just five activities. Maybe I'm high maintenance. I keep thinking of things I missed out, like eating chocolate.

Here's the Mindapples founder Andy Gibson, on what Mindapples is all about:
"Rather than offering expert advice, we’re asking everyone to think about their personal five-a-day, and using the power of the web to draw together a community of knowledge about what works for ordinary people. By supporting individuals to take care of their day-to-day mental health through simple activities, we can give people a sense of power over their minds. And by asking a question which everyone can answer, we hope to open up a mainstream public debate about mental health in which everyone can participate, and turn mental wellbeing into something aspirational and enjoyable for all.

And it could be fun too."
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Mindapples website.
Link to Mindapples survey.

Monday, 13 October 2008

We're the 20th best science blog!

Wikio internet portal have re-written their algorithm for calculating blog rankings and as a result the Digest has leapt 8 places in the science blog list to number 20 in the world. That makes us the second highest ranked psychology/neuroscience blog behind Frontal Cortex. Thanks so much to all our readers and to other blog authors for your continuing support!

The Digest is brought to you by the British Psychological Society and provides regular accessible reports on the latest peer-reviewed psychology research, plus frequent updates and commentary on psychology articles and debates appearing online and in the popular press. If you enjoy the Digest, please remember to tell your friends and colleagues they can subscribe free by email or RSS.

A personality test that can't be faked

Aspects of personality can be even more important than IQ when it comes to predicting workplace performance and academic success. If you're conscientious and emotionally stable, you're likely to be a better employee or a more successful student than someone who is lazy and unstable. The trouble for university selectors or company recruiters is that personality tests can be easily faked...until now. Psychologists in Canada think they've found a way to measure the Big Five factors of personality that is less vulnerable to faking.

Jacob Hirsh and Jordan Paterson asked 205 undergrads to complete both the standard Big Five Inventory and their newly designed "relative-scored" personality questionnaire.

The new test taps into the Big Five factors of personality but instead of asking respondents to rate how highly they agree with a set of descriptions about themselves, it forces them to choose between pairs of competing statements. For example, a participant might have to choose between "I rarely get irritated" versus "I am full of ideas". This means participants can't paint themselves as all round wonder-candidates - they have to sacrifice some positive attributes at the expense of others.

Crucially, half the students were asked to complete the tests honestly, while the other half were asked to fake them - as if they were trying to present the best impression possible.

When the tests were answered honestly, both of them predicted the participants' final school exam performance (their "grade point average") and their self-reported creative achievements. However, when the tests were deliberately faked, only scores on the newly designed test predicted exam and creative success.

"The massive variability in productivity typically obtaining between individuals means that even the moderate improvements in predictive validity potentially gained from the new questionnaire could have large economic benefits when used in real world selection procedures," the researchers said.

The new test also provides some intriguing clues about people's faking strategies. It showed that students tended to sacrifice their scores on agreeableness in order to present themselves as more conscientious. The researchers plan to test whether this will change in different circumstances or with different participants.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ HIRSH, J PETERSON (2008). Predicting creativity and academic success with a “Fake-Proof” measure of the Big Five Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (5), 1323-1333 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.04.006

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

Friday, 10 October 2008

Why do we want to punish repeat offenders so harshly?

Do you think repeat offenders should be punished more harshly than first-time offenders for the same crime? Does it make any difference if I make it clear that the specific hypothetical crime in question has caused the same harm in each case? If you still think the repeat offender should be punished more harshly, you're not alone. In fact this approach to justice is written into law in many countries. First time offenders can expect leniency whereas repeat offenders can expect severe punishment.

Why is it our moral intuition to take this stance? Dorit Kliemann and colleagues have tested the idea that it has to do with intentionality. If a repeat offender commits a crime, we are more likely to believe they did so intentionally than if a first-time offender commits the same act. The researchers argue this attribution of intentionality justifies our initial intuitive judgement that the repeat offender is more blameworthy.

Dozens of university students played an economic game against ten fictitious other students who were identified by a photograph (the participants were tricked into thinking these were real students enrolled in the same experiment). Some of these fictitious students played fairly whereas the others played selfishly. Later on the participants read stories about good or bad acts committed by those same students they'd played earlier. In the stories, intent was kept deliberately ambiguous.

Crucially, when the participants read about a bad act (e.g. shrinking a neighbour's new sweater) committed by a previously unfair student, they were more likely to attribute blame and intent to that student, compared with when the same act was committed by a student who'd previously played fairly. Moreover, scans taken of the participants' brains showed that a bad act committed by a previously unfair student led to greater activation of regions involved in attributing intentional states to others. The timing of this intent-related brain activity occurred after participants had decided how blameworthy the student was.

"One possibility," the researchers said, "is that subjects first feel an impulse to blame previously unfair people for causing negative outcomes, and then subsequently seek to justify this impulse by attributing to them negative intentions."

By contrast, when it came to good acts, a fictional students' earlier fairness had no bearing on how the participants allocated intent, nor on how their brain responded to hearing about that good act.

ResearchBlogging.orgD KLIEMANN, L YOUNG, J SCHOLZ, R SAXE (2008). The influence of prior record on moral judgment☆ Neuropsychologia, 46 (12), 2949-2957 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.06.010

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The same voices, heard differently?

It isn't just people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who claim to hear voices inside their heads. Many other people do too. However, a key difference between psychiatric and non-psychiatric voice hearers is that the latter usually claim not to be bothered by their unusual experiences. One explanation for this difference in the hearers' interpretation is that voice hearers who develop schizophrenia have been traumatised in their past, thus predisposing them to find the voices in their heads distressing.

A new study by Liz Andrew and colleagues explores this idea further. Andrew's team compared the traumatic history of 22 voice hearers who were in contact with psychiatric services, with the history of 21 psychics and mediums, who also claimed to hear voices, but who had never been in contact with psychiatric services.

Both groups actually reported having experienced similar rates of trauma in the past. However, the psychiatric group reported having experienced more childhood sexual abuse. And crucially, there were also differences in the lasting psychological impact of the traumatic experiences the two groups had lived through. The psychiatric group still experienced anguish related to their trauma, and the persistence of these difficulties was related to how they interpreted the voices they heard. Specifically, the more that trauma-related anguish persisted, the more likely a participant was to say that they found their heard voices malevolent. In turn, interpreting voices as malevolent was associated with mental distress, in terms of depression levels.

In other words, these findings suggest that a traumatic past can predispose people to hear voices, and that it is the long-term effects of that trauma, and whether or not it is resolved psychologically, that then determines whether or not those heard voices are experienced as distressing.

The findings have clinical implications, as the researchers explained: "The high prevalence of childhood sexual abuse in the psychiatric voice hearers suggests that this may be an important factor to consider in the assessment, formulation and intervention of individuals who hear voices."

A final note of caution. It's possible that the non-psychiatric group in this study don't really experience voices in their heads in the same way that the psychiatric group do. Other researchers have excluded mediums and the like from their studies on the basis that they may experience "pseudo-hallucinations" not directly comparable to the voices heard by people with psychosis.

ResearchBlogging.orgE. M. Andrew, N. S. Gray, R. J. Snowden (2008). The relationship between trauma and beliefs about hearing voices: a study of psychiatric and non-psychiatric voice hearers Psychological Medicine, 38 (10) DOI: 10.1017/S003329170700253X

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

Link to related earlier Digest item.
Link to another related item.
Link to one last, related Digest item.
Link to related item at Mind Hacks.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Are all children capable of academic success?

The latest issue of Standpoint magazine features a provocative article by Charles Murray on the question of whether all children have the potential to be academically successful. Murray was co-author of the controversial book "The Bell Curve", published in 1994, which explored issues of race and IQ in America.

Murray's new article is a response to what he describes as "educational romanticism", encapsulated by the beliefs of the UK's former schools minister Andrew Adonis. In August, Lord Adonis wrote "There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16."

Murray argues that study after study has shown that improving schools actually makes very little difference to children's academic success. For example, he cites the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, an American project which compared 11 of the best pre-school interventions. "The consortium's bottom line" he writes "was that 'the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent'".

He also discusses The Coleman Report, published in 1966, which observed the relation between school quality and academic success among 645,000 students. "To everyone's shock," Murray writes, "the Coleman Report found that the quality of schools explained almost nothing about differences in academic achievement." Instead, family background was by far the most important factor explaining academic success.

Murray argues that IQ is the strongest influence on academic success and that some children simply aren't equipped to excel at the highest levels, no matter how excellent the schooling they receive. The children of parents from the professional classes tend to do better academically, he proposes, because they inherit higher IQ from their parents, and because the households of professional couples are more conducive to learning - for example, more intelligent parents are more likely to read to their children.

"This is not a counsel of despair," Murray concludes. "The implication is not to stop trying to help but to remove the ideological blinkers and stop pretending that all children can or should pursue the academic track. There is a healthier and attainable goal of education: to bring children to adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well. The goal applies equally to every child, across the entire range of every ability."

What do Digest readers think? Does the psychological literature support Murray's controversial claims? A previous Digest item that seems to undermine his claims described a study showing that self-discipline matters more than IQ when it comes to academic success.

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

Other related Digest items include:
The long-term effect of streaming on children's self-esteem.
Reading to babies gives them a head-start.
How ambitious mothers breed successful daughters.

Link to Charles Murray's article: We can't all make the grade. 

Monday, 6 October 2008

Another look at a mistake babies make

Psychologists think they've found a new explanation for a classic mistake made by babies.

If you repeatedly hide an object under an opaque cup, each time allowing a ten-month-old baby to retrieve it, and then you hide it one last time under a second cup - where do you think the baby will look for it? The chances are, she'll probably look under the first cup, even though she's just that moment watched you put it under the second!

It's a strange mistake and one made famous by the grandfather of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget. The great man believed babies make this mistake because they've yet to grasp the idea that objects continue to exist even when they can't be seen. By his account, babies think the object will come into existence as a consequence of their act of looking.

More modern explanations think the mistake has more to do with memory or the inability of babies to inhibit their temptation to look under the first cup - they've found it under the first cup so many times, they can't stop themselves from looking there again.

But now Jozsef Topal and colleagues have provided evidence supporting an alternative explanation. They argue that when we communicate with babies using eye-contact and chirpy chatter, they have an innate tendency to assume that what we're communicating to them is a general fact about the world.

So when you hide the object under the first cup and you look and talk to the baby, she thinks you're telling her that this type of object is generally found under this cup.

Topal's team tested this explanation by performing the hiding test with three groups of ten-month-olds. For one group, the adult tester sat at right-angles and made no eye contact or communication with the babies. When the object was finally hidden under a second cup (after being repeatedly hidden and retrieved from a first cup), lo and behold, the babies were far more likely in these conditions to subsequently look for it in the right place (57 per cent of them did so, compared with 14 per cent of babies who were tested under typical conditions involving eye-contact and talk).

For the final group, the hiding task was performed with the tester concealed behind a curtain - these babies looked for the object under the second cup 64 per cent of the time.

Topal's team aren't saying that inhibition and memory don't have anything to do with this classic error - after all, even without eye-contact and talk the babies did still sometimes look in the wrong place. However, they say their account has the advantage of explaining why, under usual conditions, babies nearly always look in the wrong place (if they were simply clueless, you'd expect them to look in the correct place at least half the time).

"Human infants are highly social creatures who cannot help but interpret the ostensive communicative signals directed to them," the researchers wrote. "Although such a disposition prepares them to efficiently learn from adults, in certain situations it can also misguide their performance."

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Topal, G. Gergely, A. Miklosi, A. Erdohegyi, G. Csibra (2008). Infants' Perseverative Search Errors Are Induced by Pragmatic Misinterpretation Science, 321 (5897), 1831-1834 DOI: 10.1126/science.1161437

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

Friday, 3 October 2008

Psychology dominates at the Ig Nobel Awards

Psychology dominated at last night's Ig Nobel Awards - the alternative ceremony for research that makes you laugh and then makes you think. (The Digest provides you with links to the psychology-related journal abstracts and pdfs below).

Marc Abrahams, the founder of the awards, told MSNBC's Cosmic Log: "Psychology has the bizarre quality as an academic field that it's both the hardest and the easiest thing to do. To really explain anything about how people behave is just hard. But to almost explain it in a way that's probably wrong - that's easy."

The awards are broken down into various categories with only the "cognitive science" prize explicitly aimed at psychological research. However, winners in several categories were clearly psychology-related:

Nutrition prize: Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and British psychologist Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

Medicine prize: Dan Ariely of Duke University, USA, for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine.

Cognitive science prize: Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University, Japan, and colleagues for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.

Economics prize: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer's ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings (link is to full-text PDF via author's website).

Literature prize: David Sims of Cass Business School. London, UK, for his lovingly written study "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."

If any Digest readers locate freely-available full-text pdfs of any of these articles online, please let me know the link(s) via comments, and I'll add them to this post.

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

Link to Ig Nobel Awards.