Thursday, 31 December 2009

When new psychological symptoms emerge after a head injury

If a patient with a complicated psychiatric history suffers a traumatic brain injury and then develops new psychological problems, how do you know whether the new problems are related to the head injury or the prior psychiatric diagnoses? This dilemma forms the latest 'complex case' to appear in the journal Personality and Mental Health where it is accompanied by five expert commentaries.

The complex case is described by psychiatrist Kathleen Diehl at the University of Michigan. She undertook several sessions of therapy with a woman referred to as 'Ms C' after the lady, a 50-year-old divorcee, had suffered a head injury as a result of a fall at work. Prior to the accident, Ms C had a long history of depression, suicidality, self-harm and had received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder - a condition associated with relationship problems and emotional lability. Ms C had been physically abused as a child and had suffered extreme physical brutality at the hands of her ex-husband. She had two children, one of whom had cerebral palsy and had been moved to foster care.

After her fall, Ms C reported chronic dizziness, double-vision and head aches, but three brain scans, two taken immediately after her injury, have failed to uncover any signs of brain injury. Other symptoms to emerge after her fall include apparently unprovoked episodes of dissociation, in which Ms C would regress to a child-like manner and speak in a girl's voice. She experienced temporal dislocation, believing that she was living through a time eleven years prior to the present, such that she claimed not to recognise her pets or the medical staff attending to her. Despite these claims she seemed able to use modern technologies, such as her mobile phone. As plans for her return to work approached she developed panic symptoms. She was mostly oppositional in therapy and declined to participate in 'dialectical behavioural therapy' exercises which are designed to help increase emotional tolerance and help reduce distress.

Traumatic brain injury is known to lead to psychological problems in many cases, but given the negative brain scan results and Ms C's prior history, the psychiatrist Diehl concluded that it is 'difficult to distinguish organically based symptoms from emotional problems'. She asks: Just 'how do Ms C's medical and psychiatric symptoms overlap?' The expert replies, unfortunately behind a pay wall, are available here.

ResearchBlogging.orgDiehl, K. (2009). Head trauma, dissociation and possible development of multiple personalities. Personality and Mental Health, 3 (4), 295-301 DOI: 10.1002/pmh.95

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

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Right-handers sit to the right of the movie screen to optimise neural processing of the film

Although our bodies appear largely symmetrical on the outside, the way our brains are organised and wired is rather more lop-sided. This is obvious to us in relation to handedness, whereby the brain is better at controlling one hand than the other. The idea that, for many of us, the left-hemisphere is dominant for language is also widely known. However, functional asymmetry between the brain hemispheres also affects our behaviour in more subtle ways that are still being explored. The latest example of this comes from Japan where Matia Okubo has shown that right-handers have a preference for sitting to the right of the cinema screen, but only when they are motivated to watch the film. The finding is consistent with the idea that in right-handers, the right-hemisphere is dominant for processing visual and emotional input. By sitting to the right of the screen, the film is predominantly processed by the right-hemisphere and the suggestion is that, without necessarily realising it, right-handers are choosing to sit in an optimal position for their brain to digest the movie.

Okubo presented 200 students with a grid showing the seats available in a cinema (a central area was shown as occupied; the screen was at the top of the grid). In the first experiment, all the students were told that the film was enjoyed by friends and critics, with half also told that the story was sad and depressing and to imagine that they'd rather avoid seeing it. For students who only heard the recommendation, the right-handers were far more likely to choose a seat to the right of the screen (74 per cent did so), whereas the left-handers and mixed-handers didn't show a bias for one side or the other.

For the students who were put off the film, none showed a preference for the right-hand seats, regardless of their handedness. This suggests that we only choose an optimal seat for our brain organisation when we're motivated to watch the film. Left-handers and mixed-handers are known to have a more balanced distribution of function across their hemispheres so this could explain why they didn't show the opposite bias to the right-handers.

A second experiment was nearly identical, but this time half the students were told the film was excellent and depressing, whereas the other students were simply told they wouldn't enjoy it. Again, when they were motivated to watch the film, even a depressing one, the right-handers showed a bias for seats to the right of the screen. 'People tend to adopt the most effective manner in which their hemispheric functions can be utilised,' Okubo said, adding that: 'It is tempting to think that some other undiscovered behavioural asymmetries can also be discovered through this approach'.

This new research comes after a past study showed that adults with a more artistic, less analytic thinking style (associated with the right hemisphere) were more likely to sit on the right-hand side of the classroom; and another that showed people are more likely to exhibit the left side of their face (controlled by the right hemisphere) when asked to express emotion in a family photo, but to show their right profile when asked to pose as a scientist.

ResearchBlogging.orgOkubo, M. (2010). Right movies on the right seat: Laterality and seat choice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), 90-99 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1556

[Related Digest item here]

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

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the BPS Research Digest

A natural history of the Earworm - the song that won't get out of your head

Earworms are those songs that get lodged in your cranium, playing over and over and over. There's been surprisingly little published research on the phenomenon, although several popular science writers like Oliver Sacks have speculated about it. There's also an 'expert' in the form of Professor James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, but his investigations all appear to be unpublished. That hasn't stopped Kellaris' university from hosting a website devoted to earworms. And there's also an online earworm exhibition at San Francisco's Exploratorium.

Now two British psychologists, Philip Beaman and Tim Williams, have decided it's time to fill the empirical void and serve up some actual data on earworms. They surveyed just over one hundred railway travellers, students and visitors to a public garden about their earworm experiences, and they also asked 12 other participants to keep diary records for four weeks about their earworms.

Beaman and Williams found, contrary to the speculation, that earworms don't seem to be more common in people with musical expertise, although a study that actually targets musicians is needed to verify this. Instead, they found that it is people who judge music to be of more importance who are more likely to get a song stuck in their head.

Previous commentators have also tended to highlight the unpleasantness of earworms and compared them to the intrusive thoughts associated with obsessive compulsive disorder. However, the new research found that only a minority of earworms (33 per cent in the diary study) were described by participants in this way. Very few earworms recurred in the same day and most were usually gone by the next day. However, earworms did seem similar to intrusive thoughts in relation to attempts to banish them. Participants reported that most strategies, such as trying to think of another song, actually made the original earworm worse.

The researchers also looked at the typical length of earworm episodes. Approximately 27 minutes was the verdict from the diary study, and several hours was the survey result. Finally, what about the idea that some specific songs are more prone to becoming earworms than others? The researchers found little evidence for this. Different participants named and shamed different earworm songs and each individual participant tended to report a range of different songs, rather than pointing to repeat offending by the same recalcitrant tune. Instead, earworm potential appeared to be determined by amount of exposure to a tune combined with that tune's relative simplicity and repetitiveness.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeaman CP, & Williams TI (2009). Earworms ('stuck song syndrome'): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953) PMID: 19948084

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

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Friday, 18 December 2009

What does a doodle do? It boosts your memory and concentration

You know you're bored when you start shading in the squares of your notebook. Apparently it's a habit that could be helping you to concentrate. In a neat little experiment, Jackie Andrade asked forty participants to listen to a monotone two and a half minute phone message about arrangements for a party. They were told the message would be dull, that there was no need to memorise it, but that they should write down the names of the people who would be able to attend the party. Crucially, half the participants were also told to 'doodle' as they listened, by shading in the squares and circles of their note-paper.

Afterwards, the doodlers had noted fractionally more of the correct names (7.8 on average vs. 7.1 - a statistically significant difference). What's more, moments later, the doodlers also excelled in a surprise memory test of the guests' names and the places mentioned in the message, recalling 29 per cent more details than the non-doodlers.

Andrade said more research is obviously needed to find out how doodling helps us maintain our attention. However, her theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren't always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.

ResearchBlogging.orgAndrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), 100-106 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561

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

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Thursday, 17 December 2009

People really are happier in those US states identified as having better 'quality of life'

With our political leaders giving serious consideration to adopting population well-being, or 'happiness', as their ultimate goal (rather than economic prosperity), there is a greater need than ever to ensure that our scientific measures of the concept are valid. Prior research in this area has tended to involve asking large samples of people how satisfied they are with their lives. But how do we know that their answers are really trustworthy and accurate? Now Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu have cross-checked an enormous sample of subjective well-being data from the USA to see if it matches up with economists' estimates of where people ought to be happiest based on quality-of-life data for different US states. Their encouraging finding is that there is a most impressive correspondence between the two data sets. Indeed Oswald told the Digest that he almost didn't believe his computer screen when the results came up. The likelihood of the two sets of data corresponding so well by chance is '1 in 10,000' he told me.

Oswald and Wu obtained subjective well-being data for over 1.3 million US citizens using the United States Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System. This allowed them to arrive at average well-being or 'happiness' estimates for the different states in the US. They then compared these estimates with quality-of-life data published by Stuart Gabriel in 2003. He and his colleagues looked at about 25 factors, including weather, crime, and commuting time. Whereas a magazine might give these factors equal weighting and calculate a state's desirability by summing its scores across the 25 factors, Gabriel's team used average house prices and wages to ascertain the importance of each factor to potential residents. If a state's house prices and wages remained high despite a wet climate, for example, this would suggest that rain is less important than other factors. Crucially, the subjective data matched the economists' league table of states. People seem to be happier in those places that the economists have identified as having a high quality of life.

'The study's finding suggests that subjective well-being data contain genuine information about the quality of human lives,' the researchers concluded.

So, which states in the US were the most and least happy? Top of the happiness league were Louisiana and Hawaii. Bottom were Connecticut and New York. California didn't fare much better. Commenting on California and New York's dismal showing, Oswald said: 'Many people think these states would be marvellous places to live in. The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move into those states, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy.'

ResearchBlogging.orgAJ Oswald, & S Wu (2009). Objective confirmation of subjective measures of human well-being: Evidence from the USA. Science.

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

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Identifying and developing potential (Industrial and Organisational Psychology).

Early Childhood Education and Immigrant Children: Promises, Perils, Cultures, and Transitions to School (Early Childhood Research Quarterly).

Brain Informatics (Cognitive Systems Research). From the editorial: 'Brain Informatics (BI) has recently emerged as an interdisciplinary research field that focuses on studying the mechanisms underlying the human information processing system .... It investigates the essential functions of the brain, ranging from perception to thinking, and encompassing such areas as multi-perception, attention, memory, language, computation, heuristic search, reasoning, planning, decision-making, problem-solving, learning, discovery, and creativity.'

Psychiatric and Behavioral Aspects of Burn Injury (International Review of Psychiatry).

Adolescent sexual offending (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Rationality restored (Social Cognition).

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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Downright sexy: The contrasting effect of vertical position on the perceived attractiveness of men and women

If you're hoping to increase your online appeal to the opposite sex, you might want to consider where on the screen you place your photo. A study that's in press at Social Cognition has shown that women rate men's photos as more attractive when they're placed near the top of the screen. By contrast, men rate women's photos as more attractive when they're located near the bottom of the screen.

Brian Meier and Sarah Dionne say their finding can be understood in terms of 'embodied' or 'grounded cognition', in this case our tendency to think about abstract power in terms of physical height. Powerful people are talked about as being 'high' up in the hierarchy whereas junior staff are described as being on the 'bottom rung'. By this account, women are more attracted to men's photos at the top of the screen because this position is associated with power, whereas men are more attracted to women in the lower screen position associated with powerlessness.

This pattern of findings may sound controversial but is actually consistent with evolutionary accounts of what men and women are looking for in a potential mate. According to evolutionary psychologists, both men and women have evolved to seek partners who will maximise their chances of reproductive success. For men, this means finding a mate who is powerless in the sense of being young and faithful. Women, by contrast, are attracted to mates who are powerful in the sense of having status and resources to support and protect their offspring.

The researchers obtained their results by asking 79 heterosexual students (29 were male) to rate the attractiveness of photos of men and women located either at the top or bottom of a nineteen inch computer screen. The participants were told that the location of the photos was programmed to change so as to help maintain interest in the task.

The researchers concluded: 'These findings support evolutionary theory, reveal that grounded theory has implications for common social judgments, and illustrate how grounded theory can be used as a tool to examine predictions made by theories outside the realm of basic and fundamental cognitive processes.'

Meier and Dionne also mentioned that their results could help explain why, in even more cases than you'd expect based on sex differences in height, the man in a heterosexual couple is taller than the female. 'Height could be a cue to power and hence attractiveness,' they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBP Meier, & S Dionne (2010). Downright sexy: Verticality, implicit power and attractiveness. Social Cognition, In Press.

Previous Digest posts on embodied cognition: here and here.

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

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Monday, 14 December 2009

Who provides therapy in an office like this?

Therapists should bury their modesty and adorn the walls with their well-earned certificates and diplomas. That's according to Ann Devlin and colleagues who asked 227 undergrads to look for one minute at a photo of a clinician's office, furnished in a modern, minimalist style, and to give their impression of the therapist who worked there. All the photos were taken from the perspective of the client's chair, but some students were shown a version with bare walls and no family photos on the desk, whereas other students were shown a version with a certificate-adorned wall and/or family photos on the desk. There was no therapist present.

The key finding was that students who saw an office with certificates on the wall rated the therapist not only as more skillful, experienced, better-trained, and more authoritative, but also as more friendly, kinder, welcoming, congenial and interested in clients. Indeed, the more certificates the better. Students who saw an office with four or nine certificates and diplomas rated the therapist as even more friendly and proficient than students who saw an office with just two or no certificates. And when it came to the perceived energy and dynamism of the therapist, nine certificates was better than four.

By contrast, the presence or absence of family photos on the therapist's desk made no difference to the students' judgements. However, in open-ended questioning afterwards, none of the students said anything negative about the presence of family photos.

That certificates on the walls should lead to ratings of greater competence is perhaps unsurprising, but the association with perceptions of friendliness is more difficult to explain. The researchers said it could be that the students interpreted the display of credentials as a form of self-disclosure, as if the therapist were revealing something of him or herself.

Devlin's team said their results were important because prior research has shown that the success of therapy can depend on how clients view their therapist, including whether or not they believe in his or her credibility and expertise.

However, this study barely scratches the surface in terms of elucidating all the environmental effects at play in a therapist's office, as acknowledged by the researchers. For example, what about the effect of the furniture and decor? In open-ended questioning several of the students said they found the blandness of the office featured in this study off-putting. Or what about the interaction between a therapist's attire and their office style? There's also the fact that this study featured university students - other people might respond differently. And of course a final caveat is that many therapists, especially those working in the NHS, simply don't have their own, personal consulting rooms to work in.

ResearchBlogging.orgDevlin, A., Donovan, S., Nicolov, A., Nold, O., Packard, A., & Zandan, G. (2009). “Impressive?” Credentials, family photographs, and the perception of therapist qualities. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29 (4), 503-512 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.08.008

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

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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Step away from the cookie jar! Over-confidence in self-control leads us to temptation

Out on a shopping trip after lunch, you buy a couple of boxes of chocolates to put in storage for enjoyment over the festive break. You're not particularly hungry, and you see no obvious problems with the plan. Later that night, however, the munchies kick in and before you know it you're raiding the cupboard, tearing open the box and gorging yourself. According to a new paper by Loran Nordgren and colleagues, such lapses occur all to frequently because of our inability, when satiated, to fully recognise the power of our visceral needs when hungry, tired, or lustful. They call this the "cold-to-hot empathy gap". They say that when we're satiated, as we are most of the time, we overestimate our ability to resist temptation - a phenomenon they've dubbed the "restraint bias".

The researchers first demonstrated this in relation to mental fatigue. One group of students performed an easy two-minute memory task whilst a second group completed an arduous twenty-minute version. The group who'd completed the easy version subsequently rated their ability to overcome mental fatigue more highly than the group who'd performed the arduous task. What's more, the easy group said they planned to leave more of their coursework until the last week of term, consistent with their inflated belief in their ability to work through fatigue.

A second study involved students who were either arriving or leaving the college cafeteria. The students ranked seven snack bars from least favourite to favourite and then had to choose one bar to take away. If they brought it back in a week's time, they'd get to keep the bar and win $4. You guessed it - compared with the hungry students arriving at the cafeteria, the departing students (who'd eaten) rated their self-control more highly, were more likely to choose to take away their first or second favourite snack bar, and were more likely to eat that bar during the following week.

It doesn't end there. In a third study, the researchers contrived to influence beliefs about self-control by giving student smokers a bogus implicit test of impulse control. Later, the students were challenged to watch the film "Coffee and Cigarettes" whilst abstaining from smoking. They were promised a greater cash reward the more difficult they made the challenge for themselves. In this case, students given bogus test feedback indicating they had high self-control were more likely to opt for greater temptation - holding the cigarette in their hand rather than having it on the desk - and they were more likely to give in to that temptation.

Finally, Nordgren's team tested the idea that "restraint bias" could explain why drug addicts are so prone to relapse. They recruited 55 participants through a smoking-cessation programme, all of whom had been smoke free for at least three weeks. Those who said they had more impulse control also tended to say they wouldn't be trying so hard to avoid temptation, such as the company of other smokers. Four months' later, those with the inflated sense of impulse control were more likely to have relapsed.

"The restraint bias suggests that people are willing to experiment with addictive drugs simply because they believe they can overcome the addiction," the researchers said. "An urgent task for future research is to test whether enduring shifts in impulse-control beliefs can be created."

ResearchBlogging.orgNordgren, L., van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behaviour. Psychological Science, 20 (12), 1523-1528 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02468.x

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

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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Psychologists find a drug-free way for fears to be unlearned

In an exciting breakthrough for psychological science, researchers in the United States have demonstrated a drug-free way to prevent the return of a learned fear. Similar memory modification effects have been observed before, but these experiments have involved drugs such as the beta-blocker propranolol. It's hoped the new drug-free procedure will lead to improved therapeutic techniques for people with phobias or intrusive traumatic memories.

Elizabeth Phelps and her colleagues exploited the fact that memories are particularly vulnerable to modification just after they've been recalled. The procedure began with 65 participants learning to fear a coloured square that appeared on a computer screen. Each time the square appeared they received a mild but unpleasant electric shock to their wrist. In a real-life scenario the equivalent might be a repeatedly bad experience on each attempt at giving a class presentation.

The next day, the participants were repeatedly presented with the square but without the shock. This is a well-established procedure in psychological therapy known as extinction, the idea being that the person unlearns the fear associated with the stimulus or situation. A real-life equivalent might be to repeatedly practice giving a presentation in a safe environment, perhaps to sympathetic friends and family, or to a "virtual audience".

Crucially, a minority of participants undertook the extinction trials just ten minutes after they were given a reminder of the coloured square. This reminder will have rendered the memory of the square temporarily "labile" or vulnerable to modification. Other participants completed the extinction trials six hours after a reminder - too late to capitalise on the memory's vulnerable period - whilst a third group of participants had no reminder at all.

A short-coming with extinction therapy is that even after people appear to have unlearned the fear associated with a stimulus or situation, that fear can creep back. In the lab, on day three, the participants were again presented with the coloured square. Even though they'd all responded without fear at the end of the previous day's extinction training, the majority of the participants - those who'd had the 6-hour reminder before extinction, and those who'd had no reminder - showed a renewed fear response (as betrayed by their sweatiness), just as eventually tends to happen after extinction therapy in real life.

But excitingly, this was not so for the participants who'd had the ten-minute reminder before the previous day's extinction trials! They were ice calm, unmoved by the coloured square. For this group, it's as if their memory of the square had been permanently modified. When, on the previous day, they'd been reminded of the unpleasant shock-square experience, this memory was briefly vulnerable to modification, and it was just at this critical time that they'd had the run of ten innocuous, shock-free presentations. For the fictional student with a fear of class presentations, the trick would be to recall their nightmare experience in class, and then begin the safe, innocuous practice of presentations with friends.

This study gets even more impressive because the result carried over when a subsample of the participants were retested a year later - those who'd had the ten-minute reminder before extinction were still largely unmoved by the square whereas the other participants again showed signs of fear.

What's more, the intervention is highly specific. The researchers repeated the procedure but with three differently coloured squares - two associated with a shock, and one safe square. They then used the pre-extinction reminder procedure for one of the feared squares but not the other, and it was only this targeted square that remained fear free.

Phelps said: "Previous attempts to disrupt fear memories have relied on pharmacological interventions. Our results suggest such invasive techniques may not be necessary. Using a more natural intervention that captures the adaptive purpose of reconsolidation allows a safe way to prevent the return of fear.”

Phelps also told the Digest that any concerns that their procedure could be abused - for example to erase eye-witness memories or implant false memories - are misplaced. The types of emotional memory that were modified in the current study are represented in the amygdala, whereas the "declarative" memories involved in eye-witness testimony have a different neural representation, she explained. Indeed, all the participants in the current study were able to remember that the coloured square had previously been paired with a shock, it's just that those who undertook extinction ten minutes after a reminder no longer showed an automatic fear response to the square. "In short," Phelps told us, "eyewitness testimony depends on identifying (recollecting) what occurred before. We are not affecting that kind of memory."

ResearchBlogging.orgD Schiller, M-H Monfils, C Raio, D Johnson, J LeDoux & E Phelps. (2009). Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature

Update: Nature has a free video about this research and a PDF of supplementary methodological info.

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

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Monday, 7 December 2009

People who chew gum report feeling less stressed

It's not so pleasing when it glues your shoe to the pavement but a new study suggests chewing gum could be a great stress-reliever, with consequent health benefits. Perhaps the finding could help explain why Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson - an incessant gum chewer - has coped for so long with the stress of top-flight football?

Andrew Smith at Cardiff University surveyed over 2,000 workers and found that the 39 per cent of respondents who reported never chewing gum were twice as likely to say they were extremely stressed at work, compared with gum chewers, and one and a half times as likely to say they were very or extremely stressed with life in general.

Of course, rather than chewing gum having a stress-relieving effect, it's perfectly possible that some other factor reduces stress and encourages chewing gum. Indeed, Smith looked at a range of potential confounds and found that women, lower earners, younger, less educated respondents, smokers, people with demanding jobs and neurotic extraverts were all more likely to chew gum. Crucially, however, the link between chewing gum and lower stress held even after taking all these extraneous factors into account.

What's more, chewing gum was also associated with better mental and physical health. Again, this remained true even after controlling for extraneous factors, such that gum chewers were less likely to have symptoms of depression and half as likely to have self-reported high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Smith concluded that chewing gum may be a "readily available and relatively cheap method of addressing" stress and stress-related ill health. Possible mechanisms that might explain the associations reported here include an effect of chewing gum on autonomic nervous system activity and/or on the neurotransmitter serotonin. Smith noted that he has an intervention study underway that will provide a more robust test of the possible stress-related benefits of chewing gum.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmith, A. (2009). Chewing gum, stress and health Stress and Health, 25 (5), 445-451 DOI: 10.1002/smi.1272

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

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Psychology X-factor

Last time you voted for the healing power of empathic doctors. What was your favourite from among the last seven Digest items?:

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Sunday, 6 December 2009

People think that money affects happiness more than it really does

With dogged determination we lie, rob, borrow, gamble and sometimes work too, in the hope of boosting our income. So zealous is our pursuit of money, it's as if we think it will somehow make us happier. Strangely enough, whilst psychologists and economists have conducted numerous studies showing that the relationship between income and happiness is weak, only one prior study has asked what lay people really believe about money and happiness (and this was focused on middle-income, working women). It's into this empirical desert that Lara Aknin and colleagues arrive with a survey of hundreds of North Americans of mixed age, gender and wealth. Aknin's team have found that people do indeed overestimate the link between money and happiness, especially at lower levels of income.

The study worked by asking people what their own income and happiness levels were and then asking them to estimate the happiness of people on lower or higher incomes than themselves. The participants' estimates of the happiness of people on high incomes was largely accurate, but they massively underestimated the happiness of people on lower incomes. The picture was the same in a second study that asked people to estimate how happy they'd be if they earned more or less than they really did.

More detailed analysis showed that people on higher incomes were more likely to overestimate the relationship between money and happiness, perhaps because they had more to fear from losing the ability to maintain their current standard of living.

"We demonstrate that adult Americans erroneously believe that earning less than the median household income is associated with severely diminished happiness," the researchers said. "[This is] a false belief that may lead many people to chase opportunities for increased wealth or forgo a reduction in income for increased free time."

ResearchBlogging.orgAknin, L., Norton, M., & Dunn, E. (2009). From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 (6), 523-527 DOI: 10.1080/17439760903271421

Related Digest posts:

How much money to make you happy?
The price of money - selfishness.

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

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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Scientists find way to strengthen memories during sleep

If only we could make more constructive use of all the time that we spend asleep. People have tried playing various tapes to themselves while they're dozing, from foreign vocab lists to stop-smoking mantras, but they're all the wrong side of useless. What we do know for sure is that sleep is important for memory consolidation, if only we could tap into this somehow. Now, finally, John Rudoy and colleagues have provided some elusive evidence for how learning during sleep can be enhanced.

Twelve participants looked on as fifty objects appeared one at a time in various locations on a computer screen. Importantly, as each object appeared it was accompanied by a characteristic noise - for example a cat appeared with a meow and a kettle with a whistle. Several rounds of learning took place until the participants had estimated the approximate location of each object at least once. A final pre-nap test was then performed so that the researchers knew how well participants knew each object location before they went to sleep.

That the participants had nodded off was confirmed with brain wave recordings via scalp electrodes. But here's the clever bit. As the participants dozed off into non-REM slow-wave sleep, the researchers played the sounds associated with 25 of the objects. The objects that were cued in this way were carefully chosen such that pre-nap memory performance had been equal for cued and un-cued objects.

The participants woke up after about an hour and the exciting finding is that although their overall memory accuracy was lower compared with before the nap, their performance for the objects cued whilst they slept was superior to un-cued objects, even though pre-nap performance for the two object groups had been equal.

The researchers also looked back at the brain wave signals recorded during sleep, comparing the brain's response to sounds associated with objects that were better remembered on waking relative to objects for which memory had deteriorated. They found the brain had responded more to sounds belonging to better remembered objects. "We propose that sound cues presented during sleep prompted preferential processing of corresponding object-location associations," the researchers said.

For sceptics who think the results may have nothing to do with sleep, the researchers repeated the noise cueing exercise with twelve participants who remained awake. In their case, sounds presented after learning made no difference to subsequent memory performance.

ResearchBlogging.orgRudoy, J., Voss, J., Westerberg, C., & Paller, K. (2009). Strengthening Individual Memories by Reactivating Them During Sleep. Science, 326 (5956), 1079-1079 DOI: 10.1126/science.1179013

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

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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Modalities of Social Life: Roadmaps for an Embodied Social Psychology (European Journal of Social Psychology).

Atypical Development of Numerical Cognition (Cognitive Development).

Usable knowledge (Mind, Brain and Education).

Resilience in Common Life: Resources, Mechanisms, and Interventions (Journal of Personality).

Intervention and Prevention with Adolescents (Journal of Adolescence).

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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

"I wanted a new challenge" - Cross-cultural differences in workers' thoughts about their career changes

It's not many generations ago that workers expected to have a job for life, most probably one that followed in the footsteps of their father, and his father before that. In many of today's richer societies, it's all different. Longer education and greater individual choice mixed with mergers, take-overs and bankruptcies mean that people's careers are typically punctuated by a series of distinct transitions or chapters. But how do people perceive these transitions and do such perceptions vary between cultures? To find out, Katharina Chudzikowski and her colleagues interviewed a mix of over a hundred nurses and blue- and white-collar workers from five countries - Austria, Serbia, Spain, USA and China.

Their stand-out finding? Workers in the United States didn't ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors.

The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the USA and Europe, were positive. Generally-speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it's perhaps little wonder that many workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. "In addition," the researchers said, "in many cultures 'being in charge' of one's life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence."

Where workers showed a greater tendency to attribute their career transitions to external causes, this seemed to be related to the influence of a collectivist culture and an economy in flux. "Countries with more dynamic economic change show a stronger emphasis on organisational and macro factors," the researchers said.

Apart from the value of its findings, the study also provides a useful demonstration of the difficulties involved in conducting cross-cultural research. For example, whilst interviews were conducted in the participants' native languages, the transcripts were translated into English for qualitative analysis, which raised some interesting problems. For example, some German-speaking interviewees cited "Wirtschaft" as an influencing factor - a word that can mean economy, industry, commerce or business world, but which also has mythical-religious undertones. There's no real direct equivalent in English.

ResearchBlogging.orgChudzikowski, K., Demel, B., Mayrhofer, W., Briscoe, J., Unite, J., Bogićević Milikić, B., Hall, D., Las Heras, M., Shen, Y., & Zikic, J. (2009). Career transitions and their causes: A country-comparative perspective Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (4), 825-849 DOI: 10.1348/096317909X474786

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

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