Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Political activism is good for you

Aristotle argued that we're political animals at heart and that active involvement in society fulfils a basic human need. It's an idea that's been rediscovered recently by psychologists interested in well-being and human flourishing. Now the positive psychologists Malte Klar and Tim Kasser have provided some tentative evidence that activists are happier than non-activists. Moreover, they've shown that a brief activist task boosted participants' vitality levels compared to a group of controls.

Klar and Kasser recruited hundreds of college students and found that those who identified themselves as activists and who said they were planning some activism were happier and more fulfilled than non-activists. A second study made a similar finding with a sample of activists recruited through the website compared with a control group of non-activists matched for gender and education. An exception to this general pattern was that extreme activism, such as that likely to lead to arrest, was not associated with more happiness.

Overall, the first two studies suggest that activists are happier than non-activists, but they don't say anything about whether happiness leads to activism or vice versa. However, Klar and Kasser's final study suggested tentatively that activism may actually lead to greater happiness.

One hundred and twelve student participants were encouraged to write to the college cafeteria director calling on him to source food more locally and ethically. These students subsequently reported feeling more energised and alive than a control group of participants who wrote to the director calling for tastier food and more choice (more global measures of happiness showed no difference between the groups).

It's not simply that the students in the activism condition were more motivated by the task they'd been given - in fact, the students in the control condition said they felt more strongly about the issues they were writing about than did the students in the activism condition.

"Activist groups might use these results to help recruit new members from a broader range of people, " the researchers said. "Further, they might be able to find ways to emphasise the psychological benefits of activism to help encourage current activists in their daily struggle for a better society."

ResearchBlogging.orgKlar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Political Psychology, 30 (5), 755-777 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2009.00724.x

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

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Friday, 25 September 2009

Three-year-olds keep fictional game worlds separate

The Alien vs. Predator series of films provide a rare exception to the usual rule that fictional worlds are separate, with pretend entities in one not existing in any other. In 2006, Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom showed that young children aged between three and six years already understand this idea well. For example, the children said that the comic hero Batman could touch his side-kick Robin, but couldn't touch the sea sponge cartoon character SpongeBob. Now Weisberg (nee Skolnick) and Bloom have built on these findings, showing that young children also keep fictional game worlds separate when they are playing.

An initial study involved 50 three- and four-year-olds. Each child sat with two experimenters, a toy bear, a toy doll and a central pile of toy blocks. The first experimenter, located to the right, introduced the child to the doll Mary; together they pretended it was her bath-time and the child used one or more blocks as bath objects, such as soap. Then the second experimenter, located to the left, introduced the child to Bruno the bear. They pretended it was his bedtime and the child used one or more blocks in the game, for example as a pillow.

The crucial part came next, as the first experimenter told the child that Mary had grown tired and needed to sleep, whilst Bruno had woken and wanted to wash. Rather than using the toy block already established to be a pillow in Bruno's world, the children, regardless of age, nearly always reached for a new block from the pile to use as a pillow for Mary. Similarly, rather than using Mary's soap, most children reached for a new block to use as soap for Bruno. This remained the case in a follow-up study in which the researchers took great effort to ensure the children understood that the objects in one game world were available, and no longer being used by another toy character.

"Just because something was a pillow in Bruno's world did not necessarily mean that it was a pillow in Maggie's world," the researchers said.

Concerned that the parallel play arrangements of the first two studies were unnatural, the researchers also performed a third and final study where two games were played in sequence. This time, if the researcher announced between game sessions: "I'm bored, let's play something else" the children were far less likely to transfer pretend objects from one game to another compared with an alternative situation in which the researcher merely said they should take a break between play sessions. In other words, the children seemed to understand when the researcher intended that they create a new fictional world.

"The results from these three studies suggest that children keep different pretend play games separate from each other, imposing subtle structure on their make-believe worlds," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSkolnick Weisberg, D., & Bloom, P. (2009). Young children separate multiple pretend worlds. Developmental Science, 12 (5), 699-705 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00819.x

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

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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Anticipating an interaction with an obese person provokes feelings of social power

Humans are obsessed with status. Beneath every social interaction, there's an implicit power play. This is made stark by a North American study showing that the anticipation of a conversation with an obese person provokes in normal-weight people feelings of increased power and dominance, presumably because of the stigmatised status of obese people in the United States.

Olivier Klein and colleagues invited 77 normal-weight student participants to the psychology lab on the premise that they were to be observed having a introductory conversation with another student. The participants were shown a photo of the person they would be meeting and asked to provide some auto-biographical information before the meeting took place. Crucially, half the participants were shown a photo of an obese student, whereas the other participants were shown a picture of a normal-weight student.

The key finding was that participants expecting to have a conversation with an obese student were much quicker to indicate that words like "powerful", "strong" and "dominant" matched their self-concept than were participants expecting to have a conversation with a normal-weight student. This effect was specific to power-related concepts. There was no difference for socially positive concepts like "friendly" or "outgoing".

Moreover, participants expecting to chat to an overweight student reported feeling more socially powerful as revealed by their agreement with statements like "I could make the interaction more enjoyable for my partner" and "I expect that my partner will like me more than I like him". Finally, participants waiting to talk to an overweight partner also tended to rate their partner more negatively, and were more likely to say that obesity is due to lack of willpower.

"Participants' feeling of empowerment when interacting with an obese person may be based on the activation of obese people's status in American society today," the researchers said. "The perception of this lower status may have been used as a 'cue' triggering a perception of empowerment by the perceiver."

ResearchBlogging.orgKlein, O., Snyder, M., & Gonzalez, R. (2009). Stigma and Social Power: Expecting to Interact with an Obese Person Activates Power in the Self-concept. Self and Identity, 8 (4), 378-395 DOI: 10.1080/15298860802391413

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

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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Physiognomy redux? Link found between facial appearance and aggression

Physiognomy - inferring personality traits from facial features - was outlawed by King George II in 1743, and has for many years been dismissed as a pseudoscience. However, modern research is showing not only that observers readily make inferences about other people's traits based on their facial appearance, but that these inferences are often highly accurate. For example, people can use facial appearance to judge a man or woman's sexual orientation and to predict the success of chief executives. Now Justin Carre and colleagues have added to this burgeoning literature by showing that observers are able to predict the aggressiveness of a man by the look of his face.

A first study involved 31 participants rating the aggressiveness of 37 men based on a two-second viewing of each of their faces in turn. All the men were Caucasian, clean-shaven, and had been photographed with a neutral facial expression. The men's actual aggressiveness had been measured in an earlier lab task. This was a simple game, with aggression revealed by the men's tendency to press a button that took points from an opponent, with no benefit for themselves. It's a well-validated measure that correlates with real-life aggressiveness.

The participants' estimates of the men's aggression correlated with the men's actual aggression as revealed in the lab task. Carre's team think the participants were using the width-to-height ratio of the men's faces as a cue to their aggression. The wider a man's face relative to its length, the more aggressive the participants tended to think he was. In turn, and consistent with prior research, the width-to-height ratio of the men's faces correlated with their levels of aggression.

A second study with 16 female participants replicated these findings even though the men's faces were presented for just 37 milliseconds each - barely long enough to be consciously detected.

The researchers aren't sure why wider faces are judged to be more aggressive, but one possibility is that a higher width-to-height ratio resembles the facial expression of anger, in which the face is widened and shortened. It's also possible that the width-to-height ratio correlates with some other cue that's used by observers to judge aggressiveness.

"The present results raise the possibility that subtle differences in facial structure influence trait judgements," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgCarré JM, McCormick CM, & Mondloch CJ (2009). Facial Structure Is a Reliable Cue of Aggressive Behavior. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19686297

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

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Your personality type affects the situations you place yourself in

People with so-called "avoidant" personalities, who fear intimacy, also tend to shun the kind of social situations that could lead them to forge meaningful relations with others, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.

That's according to Lindsey Beck and Margaret Clark who conducted three studies testing participants' preference for "diagnostic social situations" in which they're likely to receive feedback regarding whether other people like them or not.

An initial study showed that participants who scored highly on avoidant attachment (associated with fear of intimacy and closeness to others), but not high scorers on anxious attachment (who fear rejection), tended to say they would prefer hypothetical situations that weren't socially diagnostic - for example, they'd prefer to be allocated a partner in a language class, rather than be in a situation where the class arranged themselves into pairs. This aversion was specific to social diagnostic situations, with avoidant characters just as likely to opt for feedback on their hearing or pronunciation ability as other participants.

The pattern was replicated in a second study that involved a real-life choice between participants forming groups in class for a research project, or having the lecturer dictate the groups. In this case, highly avoidant participants tended to opt for the lecturer to select the groups.

A final study showed that it was possible to provoke aversion to socially diagnostic situations by priming participants to think about a person they felt uncomfortable being close to.

Beck and Clark said their findings provided a specific example of an under-explored area - that is, how personality can affect people's lives by influencing the situations they place themselves in. "By sidestepping [socially diagnostic] situations ... avoidant individuals may protect themselves from intimacy, loss of control, and early rejection, but they also forgo the joys and benefits of a reciprocal, trusting relationship," the researchers said, "as well as the benefits that early negative signals can serve in limiting investments into relationships not worthy of such investments."

ResearchBlogging.orgBeck, L., & Clark, M. (2009). Choosing to Enter or Avoid Diagnostic Social Situations. Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1175-1181 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02420.x

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

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Team Innovation, Knowledge and Performance Management (European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology).

Prisoner's Mental Health (International Journal of Prisoner Health).

Activism and Emotional Sustainability (Emotion, Space and Society).

Improving Outcomes for Children and Young People in Care (Vulnerable Children and Young People).

Processing the Chinese language (Language and Cognitive Processes).

Beyond Psychopathology: Interrogating (Dis)Orders of Body Weight and Body Management (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Poor work ethic at uni predicts burnout 17 years later

If you're a university student, you'll be all too familiar with the looming coursework deadline. You'll know how tempting it is to keep putting the essay off until tomorrow, but then tomorrow comes and Jeremy Kyle has a guest on who's in love with her neighbour's dog, so you put it off again. Perhaps you fear receiving a bad mark, but you also reason to yourself that it doesn't matter. Your plan, once you graduate and get a job, is to change gears, really show what you can do.

If this sounds like you, it could be time to take note. A new study, rare for its longitudinal design, has shown that students who found reason to avoid work-related tasks at university, and who were pessimistic about their chances of success, were more likely, 10, 14 and 17 years later, to report feeling disengaged from their job, and were more likely to report experiencing work-related burnout.

Katariina Salmela-Aro and colleagues recruited 292 students and had them complete the "success expectation scale" and the "task-avoidance scale" and then followed them many years later and asked them to fill in measures of work burnout and work engagement.

Turning the results the other way around, students who were optimistic and focused at university tended to be more engaged in their working lives and to avoid burnout. The researchers said that so-called "achievement strategies" are more modifiable than personality traits and that there could therefore be value in university interventions that promote optimistic strategies and reduction in task avoidance.

"No previous study has examined how achievement strategies contribute over longer time periods or examined the consequences they have for people's working life and career adaptation," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSalmela-Aro, K., Tolvanen, A., & Nurmi, J. (2009). Achievement strategies during university studies predict early career burnout and engagement Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75 (2), 162-172 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2009.03.009

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

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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Derren Brown, purveyor of bad science

Derren Brown is a brilliant entertainer. He captivated much of the nation last week when he appeared to predict Wednesday's national lottery result. The country was abuzz with speculation about how he'd achieved the feat and we eagerly awaited his Friday-night show where he promised to reveal all. But rather than explaining how he'd performed Wednesday's illusion, Brown committed a disservice to the public understanding of psychology. He invoked a real, fascinating phenomenon in social psychology - the so-called "wisdom of crowds" - distorted it, and half-baked it with flim flam about "automatic writing" and "deep maths".

The wisdom of crowds is the consistent finding that the averaged judgements of a diverse group of independent people will nearly always be more accurate than any single person's judgement, no matter how expert that individual is. Note the emboldened words. The group must be diverse, with members having unique insights into the problem at hand. Group members must also be independent, in the sense that their own judgement is not contaminated or swayed by the opinions of others. In these conditions, the combined, diverse knowledge of a group of people can be effectively brought to bear on a problem. Judgements biased in one direction will be cancelled out by judgements biased in the other direction, as the group's combined verdict homes in on the truth.

As described by James Surowiecki in his excellent book, stock exchanges provide an ideal, though imperfect, medium for the collective pooling of wisdom as many thousands of individuals place their judgements on future outcomes. Stock exchanges often arrive at highly accurate judgements, both trivial as in the Hollywood Stock Exchange, and more serious, as in the share market's prediction of who was to blame for the Challenger space disaster.

There's also a fascinating literature on why crowds often work badly, rather than fulfilling their potential for wisdom. In group meetings, for example, research shows that people have an unfortunate tendency to talk about the information that they share, thereby undermining the diversity of knowledge in the group. Similarly, social dynamics can lead to diseases of the crowd such as "group think", in which the pursuit of consensus undermines the very independence of each individual's input that is so vital for the wisdom of the crowd to emerge.

Other new exciting research in this field suggests that individuals may be able to exploit the principles of the wisdom of the crowd on their own, by making repeated, independent judgements and averaging them.

Returning to Derren Brown's lottery explanation, we can see that the wisdom of crowds has no use for predicting the lottery. His group of 24 individuals did not have diverse insight into what numbers will come next. The history of lottery results has no bearing on each successive draw, so there was no purpose in the group studying the archives of past results. Even if past results did affect future results, the 24 individuals sat staring at the same data. They didn't each bring their own unique knowledge to the table. Moreover, if Brown had really wanted to exploit the wisdom of crowds, he ought to have kept the members of his group separate so as to maintain their independence and prevent them biasing each others' input. And finally, why on earth would he have had a group of just 24 people? With so much at stake, if there had been any sense in attempting to pool the collective wisdom on this challenge (which there wasn't), Brown should have exploited the combined wisdom of as many people as he possibly could.

These are the views of the Digest editor, not the British Psychological Society.

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

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Football players who rush penalty kicks are less likely to score

Taking a penalty in an international football competition must be one of the most tense moments an athlete can face. Even though the odds are stacked against the goal-keeper, the world's best attacking stars often under-perform. In psychological jargon - they choke.

According to a new analysis of all the penalty shoot-outs held in previous World Cups, European Championships and the UEFA Champions League, issues of timing appear to be crucial to the success or not of a penalty kick. Sports psychologist Geir Jordet and his colleagues have found that, on average, the less time a player takes to respond to the referee's whistle before running towards the ball to take the penalty, the more likely they are to fail to score.

The researchers say the finding is consistent with the idea that choking is a form of "self-regulatory breakdown". In other words, an intense threat to our reputation can cause so much distress that we do whatever we can to end the situation as quickly as possible, even if taking this action is harmful to our performance.

A snap-shot of the results reveals that players who took less than 200ms to respond to the ref's whistle scored, on average, just under 57 per cent of the time. By contrast, players who took more than a second to respond, tended to hit the back of the net just over 80 per cent of the time, on average.

It was a similar story for placement of the ball on the penalty spot, with the players who spent longer placing the ball also tending to be more likely to score, although this trend didn't reach statistical significance.

The researchers also looked at aspects of timing imposed by the referee. In this case, the pattern of results went in the other direction. For example, players were less likely to score if the penalty was delayed by the referee instructing them to reposition the ball. So whereas a player rushing is detrimental to performance, a referee slowing down the situation also seems to be harmful. This certainly chimes with Steven Gerrard's account in his autobiography of his penalty miss at the 2006 World Cup: "I was ready. Elizondo [the referee] wasn't. Blow the whistle! F***ing get a move on, ref! ... Those extra couple of seconds ... definitely put me off".

The researchers said their findings should be treated with caution given that some of the sample sizes for some of the conditions were small, and given that this was a retrospective analysis and interpretation of past events, rather than a controlled experiment. However, they concluded that: "short self-imposed times and long externally imposed waiting times accompany low performance" and that referees [should] therefore "make sure that they offer equal temporal conditions for all shooters, by giving the ready signal at the same points in time for everyone".

ResearchBlogging.orgJordet, G., Hartman, E., & Sigmundstad, E. (2009). Temporal links to performing under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (6), 621-627 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.03.004

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Empathic people remember your smell

If you're an empathic person, able to tune into other people's feelings, then the chances are you've also got a keen sense of what other people smell like! We've known for some time that the brain areas involved in empathy and recognising facial emotions partially overlap with the brain areas associated with smell. Wen Zhou's and Denise Chen's new finding shows that this overlap extends to behavioural performance.

Forty-four female university students were twice tasked with smelling three t-shirts and picking out the one that belonged to their room-mate. The t-shirts had been carefully prepared - worn overnight for an average of eight hours, after the owner had used scent-free toiletries for the previous two days.

Based on their performance, the students were arranged in three groups: 21 of them failed both times to pick out the correct t-shirt; 10 of them picked the correct t-shirt once; and 13 of them picked the correct t-shirt both times. The key finding was that the students who both times identified their room-mate's t-shirt by its smell also tended to excel at a test of identifying facial emotional expressions, and at a test of empathy in which they had to say how someone would feel in a range of different situations.

The students' confidence in their choices of t-shirt showed no association with their actual performance, thus suggesting that the ability to identify a room-mate's smell appeared to be implicit.

Further analysis showed that it was specifically the students' skill at using smell for "social" purposes that was linked with empathy. General keenness of smell and the ability to name a range of different odours were not linked to empathy in any way. The intensity and pleasantness of the t-shirt smells were also unrelated to the students' ability to identify their room-mates.

"To our knowledge, this study provides the first empirical evidence of the behavioural connection between a sensory system and emotional processing," the researchers said. "The behavioural findings reported here suggest that sociochemical signals may tap into a broader network of social cognition and emotion, and that similar underlying mechanisms may regulate sociochemosensory and emotional competencies."

ResearchBlogging.orgZhou W, & Chen D (2009). Sociochemosensory and emotional functions: behavioral evidence for shared mechanisms. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 20 (9), 1118-24 PMID: 19686296

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

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A day at the museum - how much do children actually remember?

Museum corridors are often populated by clipboard-bearing school children enjoying a day away from the classroom. These museum trips seem like a good idea, but how much do children really learn from their day out? According to Julien Gross and colleagues, young children actually remember a great deal, especially if they are given the chance to draw as they recount their museum experience.

Fifty-eight lucky New Zealand school children, aged approximately six years, were taken for a day visit to the Royal Albatross Centre and Historic Fort in Dunedin. One to two days later, the amount of information recalled by the children depended to a large degree on how they were tested. Asked to freely recall the visit, the children remembered a significant amount of factual and trivial, "narrative" information, uttering an average of ten factual clauses. Crucially, this amount of factual recall doubled when they were allowed to draw at the same time as they recounted the day's events. By contrast, the children performed relatively poorly when given a traditional comprehension test in the form of 12 questions.

A second study largely replicated these findings with a second group of children who were tested on their memory for the museum visit after seven months. The amount of information they recalled remained substantial but was reduced, as you'd expect after a longer delay. Also, the benefit of drawing now only affected recall of narrative information, not facts.

Why the difference in performance between free recall and the comprehension test? Analysis of the content of the children's free recall revealed that they tended to remember facts that were not tapped by the traditional comprehension test, which had of course been devised by adults. This tallies with previous research showing that children and adults tend to focus on different aspects of the same events.

Gross's team said the results "demonstrated that children learned and remembered an extraordinary amount of information about a school trip to a museum" even after a lengthy delay. The findings also showed that giving the children the opportunity to draw, significantly increased the amount of accurate information they recalled. This is consistent with previous, forensically motivated research showing that drawing facilitates children's verbal reports of their experiences.

An earlier theory for why drawing aids children's recall is that, rather than improving their memory for an actual event, it helps them tap their general knowledge for material that's relevant to the topic. However, Gross's team said their new findings showed there must be more to it than this, because drawing helped the children recall specific facts they could only have learned at the museum. Other possible explanations include the idea that drawing aids motivation and attention, provides memory cues, and that adult interviewers make more encouraging noises when children draw. This latter explanation was borne out by the current study, with interviewers in the drawing condition making twice as many encouraging noises like "uh huh" and "wow".

Our coverage of this research precedes the Campaign for Drawing's Big Draw series of events running throughout October, and coincides with the Independent on Sunday's Drawing for Britain competition.

ResearchBlogging.orgGross, J., Hayne, H., & Drury, T. (2009). Drawing facilitates children's reports of factual and narrative information: implications for educational contexts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (7), 953-971 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1518

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

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Neuropsychology shines torch through corridors of the mind

Hit the TV. The way it breaks down offers clues as to how it works. For example, you'll never find that a thump causes the screen to selectively stop displaying women, because there's no mechanism in the machine that exclusively supports the transmission of female images. Cognitive neuropsychologists pursue a similar approach with the human brain, except of course they don't kick people, but rather they study patients with a brain damaged through some other misfortune.

A new study focuses on the way the brain represents knowledge and facts about the world - what psychologists and linguists call semantics. Faye Corbett and colleagues compared the deficits shown by eight patients with semantic dementia - a form of neurodegenerative brain disease that affects the front region of the temporal lobes - and seven stroke patients with semantic aphasia. The stroke patients had damage either to the left, frontal part of their brains, or to the junction where the temporal and parietal cortices meet.

Superficially, the two groups of patients have remarkably similar impairments. They struggle to find the correct words to refer to things, and their factual knowledge and comprehension of words also seems affected. However, with the help of an extensive battery of tests, Corbett's team have shown that there are striking differences in the way the two patient groups are affected - a finding that helps further our understanding of the way the brain supports language and knowledge.

The patients with semantic dementia performed consistently across tests. So, if they struggled with a word on one test, such as matching a picture to the word "hammer", then they would also struggle when they were asked to mime the use of a hammer, or if they were asked to match a picture of a hammer to another object with a similar function. Moreover, the rarer a word, the more likely these patients were to have a problem. Altogether their performance suggests that they are progressively losing their core knowledge about objects.

By contrast, the performance of the patients with semantic aphasia was inconsistent. They'd perform well on a simple task, such as pointing to a picture of a hammer when prompted with the word, but they'd struggle as soon as a task was made more complicated - for example, involving pairing objects by their function, or by action. Moreover, the rarity of a word didn't predict whether these patients would have a problem.

This difference between the groups was particularly striking when it came to miming object use. The patients with semantic dementia could either do this for an object or they couldn't. By contrast, the aphasic patients would get some of the mime correct, but would then perform an inappropriate action, as if they were suddenly using a different type of object.

The researchers think the overall picture shown by the two groups of patients reveals that the semantic system of the brain is comprised of at least two components - a core representation of knowledge, and an overall control system that navigates through the corridors of the mind finding and comparing meanings. Core knowledge is subserved by the frontal area of the temproral lobes, which is the region afflicted by the disease process in semantic dementia, whilst the cognitive control component is subserved by the prefrontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction, which are the areas, which when damaged, lead to semantic aphasia.

"We propose that semantic dementia patients have damage to core amodal semantic representations, whereas patients with semantic aphasia have a more general executive impairment that leads to difficulty controlling activation within the semantic system in a flexible, task appropriate fashion," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgCorbett F, Jefferies E, Ehsan S, & Lambon Ralph MA (2009). Different impairments of semantic cognition in semantic dementia and semantic aphasia: evidence from the non-verbal domain. Brain : a journal of neurology, 132 (Pt 9), 2593-608 PMID: 19506072

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

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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:
"Heavy media multi-taskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability". More evidence that technology is scrambling our brains? Maybe not - thoughtful analysis from Mind Hacks.
Connectivity to and from the equivalent of Broca's area in the monkey brain (provides clues regarding the evolution of language).
This multidisciplinary article compares the pattern of memory loss described in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to that exhibited by patients with semantic dementia.
Gerard Duveen, Brady Wagoner and Alex Gillespie have created a new and updated version of the Frederic Bartlett Archive. Frederic Bartlett was an influential Cambridge social psychologist. The new digital archive provides free access to the majority of his works, together with related publications, unpublished manuscripts, photographs, a bibliography, and an extensive introduction to his career.

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

The tantalising potential of mobile phones for social research

Nearly everyone seems to carry a mobile phone these days. What if social scientists could exploit this technology to spy on our social behaviour: who we speak to and who we spend time with? It turns out they already are. Nathan Eagle, named recently as a leading young innovator by Technology Review, and his colleagues, have published one of the first studies into social network analysis using spy software loaded onto Nokia smartphones.

For nine months, Eagle's team recorded data from the phones of 94 students and staff at MIT. By using blue-tooth technology and phone masts, they could monitor the movements of the participants, as well as their phone calls. Their main goal with this preliminary study was to compare data collected from the phones with subjective self-report data collected through traditional survey methodology.

The participants were asked to estimate their average spatial proximity to the other participants, whether they were close friends, and to indicate how satisfied they were at work.

Some intriguing findings emerged. For example, the researchers could predict with around 95 per cent accuracy who was friends with whom by looking at how much time participants spent with each other during key periods, such as Saturday nights.

There were also discrepancies between the two data sets. For example, participants tended to overestimate how much time they spent with friends, and underestimate how much time they spent with non-friends. Also, the accuracy of the self-report proximity data tended to peak over the previous seven days (at which point it correlated highly with the phone records), but then its accuracy tailed off. This provides useful information about the validity of survey records over time, and an interesting insight into people's memories for their social interactions.

As regards satisfaction at work, it turned out that people who were in closer proximity to their friends during work time, tended to be happier at work, whilst participants less happy at work tended to make more phone calls to friends during work hours.

"Data collected from mobile phones have the potential to provide insight into the underlying relational dynamics of organisations, communities and potentially societies," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgEagle, N., Pentland, A., & Lazer, D. (2009). Inferring friendship network structure by using mobile phone data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900282106

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

Thursday, 3 September 2009

New insights into amputation desire

In the late Summer of 1997, the surgeon Robert Smith deliberately amputated the healthy lower left leg of his patient, 38-year-old Kevin Wright, who had been yearning for this outcome since childhood.

Back in the 90s, Wright's condition was judged to be a form of body dysmorphic disorder - a psychiatric diagnosis characterised by an irrational belief that there is something defective with a body part. Before now, there has been little systematic research with patients experiencing amputation desire, but in a new study, Olaf Blanke and colleagues have reported the results of extensive interviews they've conducted with 20 such patients. Blanke's findings have led his team to speculate that rather than being a form of body dysmorphic disorder, amputation desire might be more accurately construed as a neurological syndrome, related to a dysfunction in the way the body is represented in the fronto-parietal circuits of the brain - a condition they've labelled "body integrity identity disorder".

Supporting their account, Blanke's team point to the fact that 75 per cent of the interviewed patients specifically wanted their left leg amputated, or if they wanted both legs amputated, then the desire was predominantly for the left leg (which is represented and controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain).

Moreover, 13 of the participants reported abnormal sensations in the body part they wanted removed, including tingling and numbness, loss of sensitivity, the feeling that the limb belongs to someone else, or that it is already absent (almost like an inverted form of phantom limb syndrome). These were not delusions because the patients knew that in reality, the limb was theirs and was there. Crucially, however, these kinds of abnormal sensations are sometimes reported by patients with damage to the fronto-parietal cortex.

Contrary to the body dysmorphic diagnosis, none of the patients thought their limb was defective, nor were they embarrassed by it.

"Collectively, our data suggest that amputation desire might be conceptualised as chronic asomatognosia [lack of awareness of a body part] or a negative form of the phantom limb phenomenon," the researchers said, adding that the condition appeared to have much in common with gender identity disorder, which is associated with a desire to change sex. However, the researchers cautioned that there is a need for more in-depth neurological examinations with a larger sample of patients.

Several other curious findings emerged. For example, there appeared to be a sex difference in amputation desire. Whereas 12 of the 17 male patients desired the amputation of a single limb, the three female patients all wished for multiple amputations - one wanted all her limbs removed, one wanted to lose two legs and an arm, and the other wanted both legs truncated.

Among the patients' descriptions of their amputation desire were the following typical accounts: "It [the leg] feels foreign and it does not belong to me", "I should not have been born with my legs", and "My leg is somehow too much, I am not connected to my body".

ResearchBlogging.orgBlanke O, Morgenthaler FD, Brugger P, & Overney LS (2009). Preliminary evidence for a fronto-parietal dysfunction in able-bodied participants with a desire for limb amputation. Journal of neuropsychology, 3 (Pt 2), 181-200.

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

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Movies like Elizabeth I can help students learn history

It's late one Friday afternoon with "double history" looming. But you arrive at class and your prayers are answered: the teacher says that for today's lesson you're going to be watching the popular film Elizabeth I. According to a new study, not only will this ease you comfortably into the weekend, the experience could significantly improve your retention of the associated course text. With one caveat. The teacher must point out in advance where the film deviates from the true historical record.

Andrew Butler and colleagues presented dozens of undergrad students with short, accurate passages of text about a historical event or situation. Some of these passages were accompanied by five minute clips from relevant historical movies, including Elizabeth I and The Last Samurai. Each film clip included a factual accuracy that matched the text, and one inaccuracy.

Crucially, when the students were tested a week later, their memory for a fact in the text was improved by about 50 per cent if they'd also seen a film clip portraying the same information. The students also rated text as more interesting if they'd watched an associated film clip.

What about the effects of inaccuracies in the film clips? It depended on what kind of warning students were given about the inaccuracies. With no warning or a general warning, students asked a question about a fact that was misrepresented in a film clip tended to give an answer mistakenly based on the film information, rather than the text. However, a specific warning about the inaccuracy in a film clip eradicated these kind of errors.

A follow-up study with 54 more students replicated these findings and showed that when students mistakenly relied on inaccuracies in film clips, they often showed misplaced confidence in the accuracy of their answers, sometimes misattributing the source of the false information to the text rather than the film.

"The current study clearly shows that watching popular history films has both positive and negative effects on the learning of associated texts," the researchers said. One the one hand, they can "increase learning and interest in the classroom," but on the other hand, historical inaccuracies in films can have detrimental effects. "One potential solution," Butler's team advised, "is for educators to provide students with specific warnings regarding the misinformation present in popular films prior to showing them in the classroom."

ResearchBlogging.orgButler, A., Zaromb, F., Lyle, K., & Roediger, III, H. (2009). Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02410.x

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