Friday, 29 May 2009

Simulating déjà vu in the lab

Déjà vu is that creepy feeling that you're living through a moment for the second time, as if retreading the path of an earlier existence. Now Alan Brown and Elizabeth Marsh believe they've found a way to simulate the déjà vu sensation in the laboratory - a finding that could help us understand why the phenomenon occurs.

Twenty-four participants were presented with dozens of symbols that had been carefully chosen, with the help of a pilot study, to be either entirely novel, rarely encountered, or highly familiar (e.g. the division symbol). The participants' task was simply to state for each symbol whether they'd seen it prior to the experiment.

A vital twist was that some of the symbols were preceded by an exceedingly brief flash - too quick to be detected consciously - of the same or a different symbol.

The take-home finding was that a brief flash of an entirely novel symbol before its subsequent, longer presentation, significantly increased the likelihood that a participant would wrongly claim to have seen that symbol prior to the experiment. Indeed, novel symbols not preceded by a subliminal flash were judged to be familiar just three per cent of the time, compared with 15 per cent of the time when preceded by a subliminal flash of the same symbol.

The relevance of these findings to the déjà vu effect were highlighted by post-test questioning of the participants, in which 50 per cent of them reported having experienced déjà vu during the study and 79 per cent said they'd sometimes been confused about whether or not they'd seen a symbol before.

The researchers said their experimental paradigm was analogous to a person glancing fleetingly at an unfamiliar street scene, being distracted by a poster in a window, before returning their gaze to the street and experiencing a strange sense of having been there before. The experiment provides "a possible mechanism for common illusions of false recognition," they concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgBrown, A., & Marsh, E. (2009). Creating Illusions of Past Encounter Through Brief Exposure. Psychological Science, 20 (5), 534-538. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02337.x

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

When to scowl

Psychologists have tended to study facial emotional expressions outside of their real-life social context. But in reality, of course, our facial expressions are usually accompanied by what we, or someone else, is saying or doing. A new study by Shlomo Hareli and colleagues acknowledges this, investigating the effects of sad, friendly and angry expressions in either a clear-cut complaint scenario versus a more ambiguous situation. The results show that scowling, or showing your anger, can be effective when the social situation is ambiguous, presumably because it helps convey the sincerity of your feelings.

Hundreds of participants watched videos of actors complaining about a fridge or a poster. The complaint was either clear-cut (the fridge hadn't been fixed as requested, or the wrong colour had been used on the poster) or it was less justified (the technician hadn't anticipated a fridge problem that emerged later, or the poster text was considered too small, even though size hadn't been specified in advance). The complaints were delivered with an angry facial expression, a sad expression or with a friendly, smiling demeanour.

An interesting interaction emerged - the participants rated less-justified complaints as more credible when delivered with an angry face, rather than a sad face or friendly face, but this was reversed for the well-justified, clear-cut scenario. It's possible that a scowl in a clear-cut scenario comes across as aggressive, whereas it conveys sincerity in a more ambiguous situation.

"The present findings support the notion that when the emotion expression adds new information to the verbal message it can affect the persuasiveness of the overall message and thereby credibility," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHareli, S., Harush, R., Suleiman, R., Cossette, M., Bergeron, S., Lavoie, V., Dugay, G., & Hess, U. (2009). When scowling may be a good thing: The influence of anger expressions on credibility. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (4), 631-638 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.573

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

Tuesday, 26 May 2009


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

Less than human? How we perceive members of the out-group versus our in-group.

An account of what motivates people to become suicide bombers.

Staring at a moving stimulus like a waterfall and then looking at stationary rocks, leads to the illusory perception that the rocks are moving in the opposite direction to the waterfall - an example of the "motion after-effect". An intriguing new study shows that this effect can transfer from the visual domain to touch and also from touch to vision.

A new paper questions whether genius and madness really do go together

Yuk! Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals.

How do psychiatrists view mental illness - as a medical disease or as psychological problem?

Measuring a mother's relationship with her foetus.

People with severe hearing impairment show enhanced visual attention.

Nice old-school Nike's you've got on there. Fashion conscious burglars leave clues for psychological profilers.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Drawings and diagrams don't help pupils learn history

Most modern textbooks are jammed full of glossy pictures and intricate diagrams and, indeed, research has shown that learning from text complemented with such "visualisations" boosts learning performance. That research, however, has been almost exclusively restricted to the teaching of science. Maaike Prangsma and colleagues have now tested the benefits of drawings and diagrams in the teaching of history, finding that they made no difference at all to learning performance, although pupils did say they found the graphics-enhanced materials easier to understand than plain-old text.

Prangsma and colleagues had 104 pupils aged 12 to 13 years read a short passage of text about the fall of the Roman Empire before engaging in one of four versions of a learning task based on the same topic. This task involved inserting missing words into statements about the fall of the Roman Empire, and crucially the task was either presented with text only; within a schematic diagram illustrating causal relations and chronology; with relevant drawings; or with a combination of the diagram and drawings. Learning performance was tested with 28 true-false statements, given before, immediately after, and six weeks after the experiment.

The key finding was that the nature of the learning task made no difference to learning outcomes. The plain text version appeared to be just as effective as the versions involving a diagram, drawings, or combination of the two. The researchers were surprised by this result and offered a number of possible explanations. For example, perhaps the initial text on the fall of the Roman Empire was so effective it undermined any possible differential effects from the learning tasks. Or perhaps graphics aid science learning because there are clear rules about what different signs and symbols mean, whereas history lacks these conventions and the students therefore didn't know how to use the visual aids.

On a positive note, the students said they found the learning task with drawings easier to understand than the plain text version and they felt that they had learned more from it. "Such positive appreciation of the materials should not be underestimated," the researchers said. "The goal of educational motivation is not only to make learning more efficient ... or effective ... but also to make learning more pleasant such that the affective learning experience is more satisfying and learners will want to learn more."

ResearchBlogging.orgPrangsma, M., van Boxtel, C., Kanselaar, G., & Kirschner, P. (2009). Concrete and abstract visualizations in history learning tasks. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79 (2), 371-387 DOI: 10.1348/000709908X379341

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

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Developmental "foreign accent syndrome" - cases documented for the first time

You may have seen cases of foreign accent syndrome (FAS) covered in the news. In 2007, for example, a ten-year-old boy acquired a new accent after undergoing brain surgery. "He went in with a York accent and came out all posh" his mother told the Guardian newspaper. It's generally been thought that FAS arises after damage to brain areas involved in controlling speech, and to date all reported genuine cases have followed brain injury or surgery. But now a team of Belgian researchers led by Peter Marien have documented what they say are the first ever cases of "developmental" FAS in people with no history of brain damage, brain surgery or psychiatric illness.

Case TL was a 29-year-old Dutch-speaking Belgian woman who sought medical help because she'd pronounced words in a strange way since early childhood. Close relatives confirmed she'd always spoken with a strange accent and brain scans revealed no evidence of neurological abnormalities.

Case KL was a 7-year-old Dutch-speaking Belgian boy with specific language impairment, which means that his language abilities lagged behind his other, unaffected mental abilities. As well as exhibiting language delays, KL also spoke with a strange accent, out of keeping with his family background.

Marien's team recorded speech samples from TL and KL and played them, together with samples from native speakers and cases of acquired FAS, to a listening panel of 123 native Dutch speakers. Sixty-two per cent of the panel judged TL to be a non-native speaker of Dutch and 56.4 per cent felt the same way about KL. The majority view was that TL and KL spoke Dutch with a French accent.

Consistent with this, analysis of the speech of TL and KL by a neurolinguist and phonetician, revealed, for example, that their speech was characterised by tongue movements not typical of Dutch speakers, and by use of an uvular trill - a consonant sound associated with French.

The researchers aren't sure of the causes of the FAS in these two cases, but TL's strange pronunciation may reflect a form of speech apraxia, although this really just replaces one label for her condition with another. KL's unusual pronunciation is likely linked to his language impairment in some way, perhaps caused by abnormalities to the cerebellum, a brain region involved in movement control. These case studies appear to demonstrate just how much more we have to learn about how the brain controls speech.

"The observations in this paper require the traditional definition of FAS as an essentially acquired motor speech disorder to be revised to include patients with a developmental speech and language pathology," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgMariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Wackenier, P., Engelborghs, S., & De Deyn, P. (2009). Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder. Cortex, 45 (7), 870-878 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2008.10.010

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Emotions in music are universally recognised

Here in Britain, we all know an up-beat summer tune when we hear one, but what about other parts of the world? Perhaps our culture's summer anthem would sound to others like a soulless dirge. In fact a new study suggests this isn't the case at all. Echoing the way that the same basic facial expressions of emotion are recognised the world over, psychologists have reported new evidence that emotions in music are also universally recognised.

Thomas Fritz and colleagues played samples of computer-generated piano music to members of the culturally isolated Mafa tribe of Cameroon as well as to Western participants. The music had been specifically designed to convey either happiness, sadness or fear by careful manipulation of mode, tempo, pitch range, tone density and rhythmic regularity, according to Western conventions.

The tribes-people had never before heard Western music and yet they matched the musical samples to the appropriate (according to Western convention) pictures of facial emotional expressions, with an accuracy significantly above chance performance. Analysis of their ratings showed that both they and Western participants relied on the same cues to make their judgements: for example, pieces with higher tempo were more likely to be rated as happy, whereas lower tempo prompted ratings of fear.

A second experiment provided evidence for the universality of musical enjoyment. This time the researchers played either Western or traditional Mafa music to Mafa tribes-people and Westerners. Crucially, they played either unaltered versions of the music or "spectrally manipulated" versions. This manipulation altered the timing of the music to make it sound more dissonant or lacking in harmony. The tribes-people and the Westerners both preferred the unaltered versions of both the Mafa and Western music.

Does the universality of musical emotional recognition mean that music acts as a universal language of human emotion? Not so fast. In a supplementary discussion available free online, the researchers pointed out that Mafa music doesn't convey as many different emotions as Western music, thus undermining the idea of music as a universal language. "Despite the observed universals of emotional expression recognition one should thus be cautious to conjure the idea of music as a universal language of emotion, which is partly a legacy of the period of romanticism," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgFritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music. Current Biology, 19 (7), 573-576 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058

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

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Voodoo journal issue is finally published

More virulent than Swine Flu, a controversial journal article about brain imaging analysis spread around the internet earlier this year at a staggering rate. The paper had been leaked and the replies and commentaries that were meant to accompany it were, at least for a while, missing. Sensing a scandal in the brain imaging community, the scientific blogosphere and traditional publications went to town. But they didn't have the full story. Now, at last, the journal issue containing the provocative article has finally been published in Perspectives in Psychological Science, along with all six replies and a final retort from the target paper's authors. Unfortunately the content is behind a pay-wall, although several of the pdfs do crop up via a Google search. 

In his introduction to the special section, editor Ed Deiner says the saga has thrown up important ethical issues, which psychology needs to address urgently. As well as the brain imaging issues at the heart of the controversy, Deiner says "prepublication" on the internet needs to be discussed, as well as issues surrounding the survey of researchers about their methods. Some of the brain imagers surveyed by the target article complained that they were not informed as to how their information would be used. Some of them feel that they have effectively participated in human research without having given their consent.

Deiner ends his editorial optimistically:
"My hope is that the set of articles can help the field of neuroimaging. From my perspective, this field has a set of challenging and somewhat unique statistical problems. In addition, there are questions related to what relative blood-oxygen levels actually signify about the mind when they are uncovered. This obviously is one of the most exciting areas in the behavioral sciences, but also one of the most challenging. I am hoping that the following set of articles helps move the best practices forward in this area of research.

I believe that the debate can itself stimulate useful discussions about scientific practices and communication. Further discussion of the issues should now take place in journals that are focused on imaging and neuroscience, so that the readers there can judge and benefit from the ensuing discussions."
Link to latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Training in emotional intelligence actually works

A new study shows that training in emotional intelligence (EI) - the ability to understand and manage one's own and other people's emotions - actually works. Delphine Nelis and colleagues said their finding has profound implications given the number of positive outcomes, including improved health and occupational success, that are known to be associated with having greater emotional intelligence (one recent study even linked EI to orgasm frequency in women!)

Nineteen students undertook the training, whilst 18 others formed a control group and carried on life as normal. The training - 4 weekly sessions lasting 2.5 hours each plus homework - was theoretically grounded and aimed to improve the understanding of emotions, identifying emotions, expressing and using emotions and managing emotions.

After training and at 6-month follow-up, the training students but not the control students showed improvements in aspects of "trait" emotional intelligence normally considered immutable, including improvement in emotion identification and emotion management (of self and others' emotions). Surprisingly perhaps, "emotional understanding" showed no improvement.

"Overall these results are promising," the researchers said, "as they suggest that, with a proper methodology relying on the latest scientific knowledge ... some facets of EI can be enhanced but not all."

Nelis and her colleagues said their findings could have potential application in health, educational and organisational settings but they acknowledged their study had a number of major limitations. These include the fact that the control group undertook no special activity, so any effects observed for the EI training could be caused by non-specific factors, such as the simple benefit that can come from taking part in group activities.

ResearchBlogging.orgNelis, D., Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Hansenne, M. (2009). Increasing emotional intelligence: (How) is it possible? Personality and Individual Differences, 47 (1), 36-41 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.046

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

Friday, 15 May 2009

Are British politicians suffering from hubris syndrome?

Thanks to the expenses scandal, storm clouds of controversy continue to gather over the palace of Westminster. A clue as to how our elected leaders landed themselves in such a mess is provided by a timely new article in the prestigious psychology and neuroscience journal Brain.

In the paper, Lord David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and now a member of the House of Lords, and psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson, together argue that many of our elected leaders have shown signs of 'Hubris Syndrome' - a form of acquired personality disorder.

"The key concept," they write, "is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader."

The pair go on to detail the fourteen key features of hubris syndrome, including using the royal "we" in conversation; losing contact with reality; and showing excessive self-confidence. Particularly relevant to the current expenses scandal consuming British politics are the following three criteria: "allows moral rectitude to obviate consideration of practicality, cost or outcome", "manifestly has contempt for others" and "displays incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policy making". Owen and Davidson state that hubris syndrome can "affect anyone with power", thus allowing for the possibility that the lower echelons of our political class may also be vulnerable to this postulated condition.

Applying their criteria to British Prime Ministers and US Presidents in office over the last 100 years, Owen and Davidson identify several cases of probable hubris syndrome. Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and Neville Chamberlain are among the British Prime Ministers considered to have developed hubris syndrome, while Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan and John Major are among those considered to have led without acquiring the condition. Among US Presidents, George W Bush is listed as the only definite case of hubris syndrome, with his appearance on an aircraft carrier in front of the words "mission accomplished" cited as the high point of the condition.

Regarding Thatcher - she, of course, famously began to refer to herself in the third person, as in "We have become a grandmother." Meanwhile, Blair's hyperactive travel and hyperbolic speeches are considered by Owen and Davison as clear signs of hubris syndrome. They cite Blair's comments over Iraq as further evidence: "If you have faith about these things, then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God, it's made by God as well."

As for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Owen and Davidson say only time will tell. However, they do point to early signs of hubris syndrome. Shortly before becoming PM, Brown claimed to have ended boom and bust and he said of the first decade of the 21st century that "the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created." It wasn't many months later that the world faced its worst financial crisis for 70 years.

Owen and Davidson do warn about the dangers of diagnosis at a distance."Premature, uncritical, dissemination of labels should be avoided," they write. However, they appear to be genuinely concerned by the harm that hubris syndrome could cause. "The potential importance of the syndrome derives ... from the extensive damage that can be done by the small number of people who are affected," they say.

As for treatment and prevention, Owen and Davidson see most immediate hope in political systems - such as the two-term limit on US Presidents - and climates in which leaders are held accountable for their actions. "Qualities protective against disproportionate hubris, like humour and cynicism are worth mentioning," they add. "But nothing can replace the need for self-control, the preservation of modesty while in power, the ability to be laughed at, and the ability to listen to those who are in a position to advise."

ResearchBlogging.orgOwen, D., & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years Brain, 132 (5), 1396-1406 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp008

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

Caring for a partner could lengthen your life

We usually hear about the stress and strain of care-giving but a new study suggests caring for a partner could actually lengthen your life. Stephanie Brown and colleagues who conducted the new study say this is because past research has tended to conflate two issues: the act of care-giving itself, and the stress of worrying about an ailing loved one.

Between 1993 and 2000, Brown's team followed 1688 married couples, all aged over 70 at baseline, during which time 909 of the participants died. Crucially those participants who provided more than 14 hours per week care to their partner at baseline were at substantially reduced risk of dying over the course of the study compared with participants who provided no care.

It's not just that healthier people tend to provide more help. When the researchers included health at baseline and medical history in the statistical analyses, those participants providing more than 14 hours a week help were approximately 36 per cent less likely to die over the seven year period than non-carers.

The researchers aren't sure about the mechanism underlying the protective effects of providing care, but one theory they have involves the hormone oxytocin, known to be associated with caring behaviour. "Hormones that are causally linked to helping behaviour, such as oxytocin, decrease activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (stress) axis, and contribute to cellular repair and storage of cell nutrients," they said.

It wasn't all good news. Consistent with past research, Brown's team also found that participants with less healthy partners tended to die earlier. This may seem to contradict the finding of a benefit of care-giving, but the two effects are possible because having a needy partner wasn't synonymous with giving care. Indeed, among participants who reported having one or more impairments, nearly half said they received no care at all.

It's worth noting that this study was based on participants who were healthy enough to still live at home and take part in a psychology survey. In contrast, past research showing the costs of care-giving has tended to involve participants looking after partners who are more seriously ill.

ResearchBlogging.orgBrown, S., Smith, D., Schulz, R., Kabeto, M., Ubel, P., Poulin, M., Yi, J., Kim, C., & Langa, K. (2009). Caregiving Behavior Is Associated With Decreased Mortality Risk. Psychological Science, 20 (4), 488-494 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02323.x

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

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

Narratives of suffering (Journal of Aging Studies).

Marketing movies (Psychology and Marketing).

Alcohol, media and message (Alcohol and Alcoholism).

Mindfulness (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Enabling elderly users to create and share self authored multimedia content (Computers in Human Behaviour).

Language production: sublexical, lexical and supralexical information (Language and Cognitive Processes).

Critical acculturation psychology (International Journal of Intercultural Relations).

Language as a Dynamical System (Cognitive Science).

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Do professional movie critics evaluate films the same way as the rest of us?

If you want to know whether you're going to enjoy a movie, the opinion of professional film critics might not be the best place to find out. Jonathan Plucker and colleagues compared the ratings given to films by professional critics, "amateur critics", and undergrad students, and discovered a continuum of overlapping opinion with the experts being the harshest judges, followed by the amateur critics, while the students were the most generous.

A further finding to emerge was that undergrads who'd watched more films tended to provide harsher ratings, but these were still more generous on average than the amateur and professional critics.

Plucker's team said this is one of the first studies to compare expert and lay opinion on films in a systematic way. Their results involved the assessment of 680 films dating from 2001 and 2005, with professional ratings garnered from and amateur critics' ratings taken from and One hundred and sixty-nine undergrads provided their ratings for comparison.

The researchers said their findings support the idea of "creative gatekeepers" who help society decide what products in a given realm are truly creative. A continuum of film opinion suggests different people might best be served by different gatekeepers. They explained: "a gatekeeper for one person may be a well-known critic, for another, novice critics on the most popular film sites; and for yet another, their next-door neighbour or best friend."

ResearchBlogging.orgPlucker, J., Kaufman, J., Temple, J., & Qian, M. (2009). Do experts and novices evaluate movies the same way? Psychology and Marketing, 26 (5), 470-478 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20283

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

Monday, 11 May 2009

People judged as likable in the flesh also make good first impressions online

First impressions used to be all about the first time two people came face to face. These days, first impressions are as likely to be formed via perusal of a person's website or Facebook page, as they are to be formed from actually meeting them. Now a study has compared first impressions gleaned from face-to-face contact and from Facebook pages, and found a close parallel between the two. People judged to be likeable via one medium were also judged as likeable via the other.

Max Weisbuch and colleagues had 37 undergrads spend four minutes chatting with what they thought was another participant but was really one of six confederates working for the researchers. Afterwards the confederates rated how likeable they found the participants to be. The same participants also agreed to reveal their Facebook pages to the researchers. These were shown to another group of ten undergrads who subsequently used the pages to rate the likeability of the participants.

The key finding was that participants rated as more likeable in the flesh also tended to be rated as more likeable based on their Facebook page. Moreover, an analysis of the cues used to make these judgements also showed parallels between the two mediums. Video-recordings of the face-to-face contacts suggested it was participants who were more non-verbally expressive (through facial expression and tone of voice) who tended to be rated as more likeable. Similarly, participants with more expressive Facebook pages - for example having more photos available to view - tended to be judged as more likeable. Finally, participants who were expressive in the flesh also tended to be expressive on their Facebook page.

The researchers said this suggests that personal webpages can contain valid information about their owner's likability in real life. "Hence, while social interactions and personal webpages have many qualitative differences, considered more broadly, there are important social analogies between the two sources of social information," they concluded.

Link to related Digest item.
Link to online experiment about faces and personality.

ResearchBlogging.orgWeisbuch, M., Ivcevic, Z., & Ambady, N. (2009). On being liked on the web and in the “real world”: Consistency in first impressions across personal webpages and spontaneous behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 573-576 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.12.009

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

Thursday, 7 May 2009

In search of the conscious will

Studying how people form a conscious intention to move is troublesome for at least two reasons. First, as soon as you instruct a participant that now is the time for them to move freely, of their own volition, you've already undermined the idea that they're making up their own minds. Second, there's no room in materialist science for a conscious will, separate from the electro-chemical workings of brain. However, according to human movement expert Patrick Haggard, these two obstacles are partly overcome by a new study that follows in the steps of celebrated neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield - directly stimulating patients' brains with electrodes and observing the effects on behaviour and sensation.

Michel Desmurget and colleagues used this approach with seven patients undergoing neurosurgery for the removal of brain tumours (see images and further related info). Stimulation of the premotor cortex at the front of the brains of four of these patients led them to perform limb and mouth movements that they were unaware of. By contrast, stimulation of the parietal cortex at the rear of the brains of three of the patients led them to experience a powerful desire to move. Even higher power stimulation in this region provoked an erroneous belief that they had in fact moved when really they hadn't.

This new research is the first to link the parietal cortex directly with the feeling of a desire to move. Whereas frontal brain regions are associated with actual movement execution, the parietal cortex is known to be involved in predicting the sensory consequences of our own actions. This new research suggests this predictive activity may play a role in the feeling of having made a decision to move.

The story doesn't end there. Past research has shown that stimulation of a frontal area - supplementary motor cortex - is also linked with an urge to move. This region is involved in actual motor command planning. So the complete picture, so far, appears to be that the feeling of a desire to move arises from frontal areas associated with movement execution and from parietal areas associated with predicting the sensory consequences of moving. "Just how the frontal, motor aspect of this experience differs from the parietal, sensory aspect, is the next question," said Haggard in his comment piece.

See here and here for earlier, related Digest posts.

ResearchBlogging.orgM Desmurget, K Reilly, N Richard, A Szathmari, C Mottolese, & A Sirigu (2009). Movement intention after parietal cortex stimulation in humansScience, 324, 811-813.

P Haggard (2009). The sources of human volitionScience, 324, 731-733

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


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

The simple act of stepping backwards seems to boost people's cognitive control, as measured by the Stroop test. More evidence for the embodiment of cognition.

The objectification of women - as happened with Sarah Palin during last year's American Presidential Election - leads them to be judged as less competent and less human.

The psychological profile of vicious dog owners. You might want to avoid inviting them round for tea.

"We argue that praying to God is an intersubjective experience comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction". Brain imaging evidence that religious folk really do believe they're talking to someone when they pray.

Perception of biological motion may be altered in young children with autism. Deficit could play a role in later socio-emotional problems.

Does bribing people to live more healthily actually work?

More evidence for the effectiveness of dialectical behavioural therapy in helping people with borderline personality disorder.

Assessing the personality profile of professional comedians. They're not all neurotic extraverts, apparently.

We make the mistake of thinking that a person will be more likely to remember important information when that information's importance was only realised at a later date. Researchers dub this the Scooter Libby Effect.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Living abroad linked with enhanced creativity

Spend a few months living in a foreign land. Set your creative juices flowing. The idea sounds intuitive enough and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that it ought to work. Just think of painters like Picasso, or composers like Handel, both of whom created some of their most celebrated works while abroad. Now William Maddux and Adam Galinsky have joined the party with what they say is some of the first ever scientific evidence that living abroad really is associated with enhanced creativity.

Across three studies the pair made the following findings: students who'd spent more time abroad were more likely to work out how to affix a candle to a wall without the wax spilling; those who spent more time abroad were more likely to succeed in an awkward negotiation task that required a creative solution; and students primed to think about a time they'd lived abroad were more likely to identify a missing word connected in meaning with three clue words, than were students primed to think about travelling abroad or the last time they went to a supermarket.

Across these three studies, the association between foreign living and creativity held even after controlling for personality variables. In other words it wasn't just that time abroad was a marker for having a creative personality. Another consistent finding was that travelling abroad had no association with creativity - only living abroad did.

Two final studies sought to identify the mechanism by which living abroad might be linked with creativity. Maddux and Galinsky found preliminary evidence that it might be the act of adapting to a foreign culture that serves to boost creativity. Among 133 European business students who spent time living abroad, it was those who said they'd adapted more to the foreign culture who subsequently solved more hidden words. A final study showed that students primed to think about when they'd adapted to a foreign country subsequently drew more novel-looking aliens than did their peers who were asked to think about when they'd observed a foreign country or learnt a new sport.

The researchers cautioned that longitudinal research is needed to more fully test whether and how living abroad is linked with enhanced creativity, but they said their findings made a good start. "It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to 'think outside the box' but also the capacity to realise that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgMaddux, W., & Galinsky, A. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (5), 1047-1061 DOI: 10.1037/a0014861

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

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The harm caused by witnessing rudeness

Seeing one person be rude to another can stunt a person's creativity, impair their mental performance and make them less likely to be civil themselves. Christine Porath and Amir Erez, who made this finding, say it has profound implications for the workplace, where rudeness has been described by some as a modern epidemic.

Across three studies, Porath and Erez recruited undergrad students to take part in what they were led to believe was an investigation into personality and task performance. Porath and Erez contrived situations in their lab so that the student participants witnessed either a researcher be rude to a student for turning up late, or one student be rude to another student for taking so long over a consent form.

Witnessing an act of rudeness, whether committed by a researcher or student, led the participants to solve fewer anagrams, come up with fewer uses for a brick (and to come up with more aggressive uses!), made them less likely to offer to participate in another study, and lowered their mood.

A third study showed that the harmful effects of witnessing rudeness were greater when students were enrolled in a collaborative group task, compared with when they were enrolled in a competitive group task where they had something to gain from the rudeness victim's ordeal. Although the harmful effects were lower in the competitive scenario, they were still present.

Porath and Erez said this is the first study to their knowledge that has investigated the direct effects of merely witnessing rudeness as opposed to being the target of rudeness. Future research is needed to explore the mechanisms by which witnessing rudeness leads to the harmful outcomes reported here.

"The conclusion that rudeness may not be contained within the instigator-target dyad and that it affects performance is theoretically and practically significant because it implies that the organisational functioning and climate could be affected by isolated rude incidents," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgPorath, C., & Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.01.003

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

Friday, 1 May 2009

Head size and attention-to-detail are linked in children with autism

Like many people with autism, the celebrated artist Stephen Wiltshire has an incredible ability to focus on small details, as evidenced by his beautifully intricate art-work (see image). However, in the lab, psychologists have struggled to pin down this feature of autism.

Some studies have revealed a global-processing deficit, some haven't. Others have shown a local-processing bias, some haven't. The very latest findings suggest that some, but not all, children with autism specifically show an exaggerated difficulty switching from the local detailed level to a more big-picture global level: an anomaly that can actually lead to advantages when attention is left focused on tiny details. Now a new study has linked this attentional style with head size. It's an exciting finding that could help explain why not all children with autism show the attentional anomaly, and which could also help link the cognitive anomaly with a neurological mechanism.

Sarah White and colleagues tested 49 high-functioning children with autism and 29 neurotypical controls on a task that required them to flick their attention back and forth from a local to a more global level. Specifically they had to either identify large letters made up of smaller blocks, or they had to identify lots of smaller letters that were the size of those blocks.

Consistent with recent findings, a portion of the children with autism showed a very specific deficit - that is, their performance was poorer than the other children when switching from processing at the local to the global level. Crucially, it was the autistic children with abnormally big heads who were the ones to show this anomaly.

A possible neural mechanism underlying this local-global switching deficit seen in some autistic children is abnormal brain wiring, perhaps originating during the pruning phase of neural development when many neurons and synapses are destroyed in a carefully controlled biological process. The new findings suggest that an enlarged head could be a marker for the existence of this abnormal wiring.

A follow-up study tested 12 neurotypical children with big heads and found that, unlike autistic children with big heads, they did not show a deficit in switching from local to global processing. However, these neurotypical children were physically larger in height as well as head size, unlike the big-headed autistic children who were the same height as their smaller-headed peers. This reinforces the idea that it is only when head size is a marker for abnormal brain wiring - as seen in some children with autism - that it is linked with a cost switching to global processing.

"The tentative hypothesis can therefore be proposed," the researchers said, "that head size may be a biological marker of abnormal neural connectivity, resulting in a locally oriented processing style, and may provide a useful endophenotype for investigating the genetic basis of a subgroup of individuals with autistic spectrum disorder."

ResearchBlogging.orgWhite, S., O’Reilly, H., & Frith, U. (2009). Big heads, small details and autism Neuropsychologia, 47 (5), 1274-1281 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.01.012

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