Thursday, 29 April 2010

Hosting a major sporting event - economic gains are unlikely, but will it bring happiness?

The football World Cup in South Africa is almost upon us and the clock is ticking down on London 2012. It's a timely moment to ask: why, when it costs a country billions of pounds to host a major international sporting event, do they bother?

The usual argument is that it's all about the legacy - the lasting economic benefit. But according to two economists, Georgios Kavetsos and Stefan Szymanski, the evidence for this simply isn't there. For example, there's research showing that the economic benefit of sports-related investment is lower than for other types of investment. And the newly-created employment opportunities associated with sport are most often low-skilled and casual. Now Kavetsos and Szymanski have tested an alternative explanation for the political appeal of big sports events: perhaps they make the population happier.

Increasingly, governments are also choosing to invest huge quantities of public money in training athletes so as to boost their country's chances of sporting success. The usual justification is that sports success is good for a country's well being and national pride. Kavestsos and Szymanski also tested this claim.

The researchers mined the Eurobarometer Survey series, involving 12 European nations, including the UK, between the years 1974 to 2004. Twice a year, a random selection of 1000 people per country were interviewed and one of the questions was about their life satisfaction. Kavestsos and Szymanski looked for any changes in average life satisfaction scores in surveys that took place in the Autumn following the Olympics, Football World Cup or European Cup. Specifically, they wanted to know if a country doing better than expected in a competition had any beneficial effect on average life satisfaction and/or whether hosting a competition had any benefits (the data available meant the latter question was restricted to the hosting of football events).

There was very little evidence that performing better than expected at a sports event had any positive benefit for the average life satisfaction scores of a country's citizens. The data moved in the right direction but with one exception the effects were not statistically significant. By contrast, there was strong evidence that hosting a major international football event boosted the life satisfaction of a host nation's citizens. Good news for South Africa.

Just how large was the life satisfaction increase for a typical citizen in a host nation? Kavetsos and Szymanski said it was pretty big: three times the size of the happiness boost associated with gaining a higher education; one and half times the happiness boost associated with getting married; and nearly large enough to offset the misery triggered by divorce.

Is there a catch? Unfortunately, yes. By one year after the event, the benefits had gone, so the effects on people's happiness were extremely short-lived (the effects of marriage on happiness, by contrast, are long-lasting). There was also no evidence of a host country's happiness being boosted in anticipation of hosting an event.

'Most politicians calculate that hosting events can only enhance their political standing,' Kavetsos and Szymanski said. 'This makes sense if the benefits of hosting are not derived through economic gains [which the research says don't exist], but through the feelgood factor, specifically associated with being the host.'

Kavetsos, G., & Szymanski, S. (2010). National well-being and international sports events. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31 (2), 158-171 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2009.11.005

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

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


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

The mere sight of other people's disease symptoms causes your immune system to brace itself.

Mental disorders are brain disorders: You think?

Alcohol misuse and functional impairment in the UK Armed Forces: A population-based study.

Top-down influences on colour-flavour interactions: '...when presented with a brown drink, the majority of British participants (70%) associated that color with a “cola” flavor (and 0% with a “grape” flavor), whereas half of the Taiwanese participants (49%) associated that same color with a “grape” flavor instead (and 0% with a “cola” flavor).'

How the two hemispheres job share during dual-task conditions. [Check out the report on this study over at Not Exactly Rocket Science].

Neighborhood context and the development of aggression in boys and girls.

"You" and "I" need to talk about "us": Linguistic patterns in marital interactions.

Contemplating the future helps us pleasure delay - postponing immediate gratification in favour of a bigger reward later. [Check out the report on this study over at Frontal Cortex].

And finally ... did you know there's a journal of NeuroQuantology - covering neuroscience and quantum physics?

Monday, 26 April 2010

How to nap

Even naps as short as ten minutes have been shown to provide psychological benefits in terms of reduced fatigue and improved concentration (pdf). But would-be nappers face some strategic decisions, most obviously - does it matter whether I nap in my chair or ought I try to find somewhere to lie down? And then ... if remaining seated, is it okay to lean forwards and rest my head on a desk?

When it comes to napping while leaning back in a chair or car seat, past research has shown that the further you can lean back, the better, at least in terms of subjective fatigue and reaction times. Now Dayong Zhao and colleagues have addressed the leaning forward issue, comparing lying-down napping and leaning-forward napping, and they've found that the former is the most effective, but that the leaning-forward variety still has clear benefits compared with no nap at all.

Thirty undergrads, all regular nappers, had electrodes attached to their heads before lunch. Then they performed an 'oddball' auditory task in which they had to listen to a string of tones and listen out for the occasional one of a different pitch. Next they had lunch before splitting into three groups: one group enjoyed a twenty minute nap lying down; another enjoyed a twenty-minute nap leaning forwards onto a desk (plus pillow for comfort); the final group just spent the same time sitting quietly.

After this, all the participants performed a repeat of the oddball task whilst having their brainwaves recorded via electroencephalography. Zhao's team were particularly interested in the size and delay of the P300 - a brainwave measure of cognitive alertness.

Participants in both of the napping conditions showed benefits compared with their peers who'd been denied a nap. The nappers, leaning and lying, reported being in a better mood and feeling less sleepy and they performed better at the oddball task. When it came to the brainwave recordings, however, the leaning-forward nappers, unlike the lying-down nappers, showed no difference from the control group. Uniquely, the lying-down nappers showed an increased P300 amplitude, perhaps indicating increased cortical arousal on their part.

The message it seems is clear. A post-luncheon nap is beneficial to your mental functioning even if you're forced to rest your head on your desk. However, if you can find somewhere to lie down properly, then do, because the benefits of the nap will be that much greater.

ResearchBlogging.orgZhao, D., Zhang, Q., Fu, M., Tang, Y., & Zhao, Y. (2010). Effects of physical positions on sleep architectures and post-nap functions among habitual nappers. Biological Psychology, 83 (3), 207-213 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.12.008

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

Friday, 23 April 2010

A history of psychology treasure trove

If you're interested in the history of psychology, you'd better take a deep breath. A magnificent treasure trove of images, articles and interactive tests from the history of psychology has been placed online thanks to the Science Museum and the work of the British Psychological Society's curator of psychology Philip Loring.

The new online exhibition can be found on the Brought to Life section of the Science Museum website, under the new heading 'Mental Health and Illness'. One hundred and eighty-five artifacts, from arm restraints and bird cages to barbiturate bottles, have been carefully photographed and all are available open access for inspection and teaching. The artifacts are complemented by fascinating articles on mental institutions, nervous illnesses, trauma in war and peace, women and psychiatry, and psychiatric tests.

A particular highlight is three 'interactive' classic psychiatric tests: a picture completion task from the 1930s, an object sorting task from the 1940s, and the Lowenfeld Mosaics test from the 50's. In each case an animation allows you to explore the materials and you can actually watch patients with different diagnoses complete the tests and see how they would have been scored.

Most of the artifacts featured on the new site aren't on physical display in the museum because of space constraints. However, in 2010 and 2011, the BPS will be sponsoring a series of events in conjunction with the Science Museum's Dana Centre, which will allow members of the public to get up close to these and other objects from the Museum's psychology collection. Plans are also in the works to bring the 'melancholy insane woman' (see pic) to Glasgow for the BPS's Annual Conference in May 2011! Sign up to the Research Digest editor's Twitter feed for updates or email for further info.

The image shows a life-sized wax head of a 'melancholy insane woman' dating from 1910-1950 [more information].

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

Face-to-face in a brain scanner

Many neuro-imaging studies claim to have investigated what happens in the brain when people interact socially. To overcome the awkward fact that participants have to lie entombed in the bore of a large magnet, these studies have used various means to simulate a social interaction. This includes: having participants watch videos of social interactions; interact with an animated character; or play a game with a human opponent (usually computer controlled) supposedly located in another room. Such methods score marks for improvisation but arguably none of them fully capture the dynamic cut and thrust of a real face-to-face social interaction between two people. That's why Elizabeth Redcay and her colleagues have devised the first ever experimental set up that allows for live face-to-face (via video link) interaction whilst participants are prostrate inside a brain-imaging magnet.

Participants in this study watched a live video feed of the experimenter. The experimenter in turn had a display showing them a live feed of where the participant was looking. Experimenter and participant then engaged in a series of 'games' that required social interaction. For example, in one, the experimenter picked up various toys and the participant had to look in the direction of the appropriately coloured bucket to which the toy belonged. Compared with watching a recording of this same interaction, the live interaction itself triggered increased activation in a swathe of social-cognitive, attention-related and reward processing brain regions.

The second experiment involved the participant identifying which screen quadrant a mouse was hidden in. In the live 'joint attention' condition, the experimenter's gaze direction cued the mouse's location and only when both experimenter and participant looked at the correct quadrant did the mouse appear. Compared with a solo condition in which a house symbol cued the mouse location, the interactive joint attention condition triggered increased activation in the right superior temporal sulcus and right temporal parietal junction. The former brain region has previously been associated with processing socially relevant stimuli such as eye gaze and reaching, whereas the latter temporal-parietal region is associated with thinking about other people's thoughts.

Past research using simulations of social interaction has identified the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex as a key area involved in social engagement. The quietness of this region in the current study suggests it may have been the competitive or social judgement elements of previous paradigms, rather than social interaction per se, that led to its activation.

'Social interaction in the presence of a live person (compared to a visually identical recording) resulted in activation of multiple neural systems which may be critical to real-world social interactions but are missed in more constrained, offline experiments,' the researchers said.

Redcay's group said their new set-up would be ideal for studying the social difficulties associated with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Attempts to identify the neural bases of these difficulties have previously met with mixed success. 'A neuroimaging task that includes the complexity of dynamic, multi-modal social interactions may provide a more sensitive measure of the neural basis of social and communicative impairments in ASD,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgRedcay E, Dodell-Feder D, Pearrow MJ, Mavros PL, Kleiner M, Gabrieli JD, & Saxe R (2010). Live face-to-face interaction during fMRI: a new tool for social cognitive neuroscience. NeuroImage, 50 (4), 1639-47 PMID: 20096792

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

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Redcay.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Don't start group discussions by sharing initial preferences

When groups of people get together to make decisions, they often struggle to fulfil their potential. Part of the reason is that they tend to spend more time talking about information that everyone shares rather than learning fresh insights from each other. In a forthcoming paper, Andreas Mojzisch and Stefan Schulz-Hardt have uncovered a new reason groups so often make sub-optimal decisions. The researchers show that when a group of people begin a discussion by sharing their initial preferences, they subsequently devote less attention to the information brought to the table by each member, thus leading the group to fail to reach the optimal decision. The practical implications are clear - if you can, avoid beginning group decision-making sessions with the exchange of members' initial preferences.

Mojzisch and Schulz-Hardt began their investigation with a carefully controlled simulation of a real group discussion. Rather than exchanging ideas face-to-face, dozens of participants were presented with some selective written information about various job candidates and either told or not told about the initial preferences of other group members who'd received different information. Each participant then received the information that had been given to all the other group members.

Participants needed to consider the information available to the entire group if they were to identify the optimum candidate. Crucially, participants who began the session by hearing about other group members' initial candidate preferences were subsequently less successful at using the group's shared information to pick the optimum candidate. A memory test suggested this was because they'd paid less attention to the relevant information than had the participants who'd been kept in the dark about other members' initial candidate preferences.

A final study tested these effects in a real, face-to-face group decision-making situation. One hundred and eighty students participated in sixty three-person groups tasked with selecting the best among three job candidates. Each group member started off with a unique set of information about the three candidates and the optimum candidate selection could only be reached if group members shared with each other their unique information. Once again, groups were far less successful at sharing the necessary information, and therefore at reaching an optimal decision, if they began their session by sharing their initial candidate preferences. As before, the reason was that sharing initial preferences led group members to pay less attention to the relevant information during group discussion.

'The take-home-message of our study is simple,' Mojzisch told the Digest. 'Ninety per cent of group discussions start with the members exchanging their pre-discussion preferences. Our research shows that learning the other group members' preferences at the beginning of a group discussion has a negative effect on the quality of group decision-making.'

ResearchBlogging.orgAndreas Mojzisch, & Stefan Schulz-Hardt (2010). Knowing others' preferences degrades the quality of group decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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

PS. The authors of the current study tipped off the Digest editor about their research findings. If you have some exciting peer-reviewed research in press, you too could tip off the Digest editor, for the chance to have your findings popularised on one of the world's leading psychology blogs. Email: christianjarrett[@] Thanks!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Brain training games don't work

Six weeks of computer brain training has little benefit beyond boosting performance on the specific tasks included in the training. That's according to an online study involving more than 11,000 participants conducted as part of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory science programme.

Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and his colleagues first measured participants' baseline performance on a battery of freely available 'benchmark' tests. Included were measures of reasoning, verbal short-term memory, spatial working memory and paired-associates learning (a test of longer-term verbal memory).

The participants, who had an average age of 39, then formed three groups. The first group spent six weeks, for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, performing computerised training tasks in reasoning, planning and problem solving. The second group spent the same time training on a broader range of tests of short-term memory, attention, visuospatial processing and mathematics, similar to those found in commercial brain training products. For both brain training groups, the tasks increased in difficulty in line with any gains in participant performance. The final, control group spent the same time using the internet to find answers to obscure quiz questions.

Participants in all groups showed improvements on the specific tasks included in their training regimens, but a repeat of the benchmark performance tests used at the study outset showed that these benefits had not generalised, not even when the training tests and benchmark tests involved similar cognitive processes.

The vanishingly modest transferable benefits of brain training that were observed, were no greater than those found in the control group after they'd spent time Googling the answers to obscure general knowledge questions. To take one example, consider changes to the number of digits participants could hold in memory. At the study end, the control group participants could remember, on average, two-tenths of a digit more than they could at the study outset. What about participants in the second brain training group? Their digit memory increased, on average, by a mere three-hundreths of a digit - actually less than the control group.

'These results provide no evidence for any generalised improvements in cognitive function following brain training in a large sample of healthy adults,' the researchers said.

What about the possibility that the training regimens in the current study weren't long enough to generate transferable benefits? This seems unlikely because there was a negligible link between the number of training sessions completed and the amount of observed transferable benefit. 'That said,' the researchers admitted, 'the possibility that an even more extensive training regime may have eventually produced an effect cannot be excluded'.

The results of this study will be shared and discussed on Bang Goes The Theory on BBC One at 9pm on 21 April and on the BBC's Lab UK website.

The new findings are just the latest to cast doubt on the value of commercial brain training products. A 2008 investigation by the consumer charity Which? concluded that 'none of the claims [of commercial brain training products] are supported by peer-reviewed research published in a recognised scientific journal and involving the specific product'. The Which? investigators, Adrian Owen among them, recommended a healthy diet, physical exercise and challenging mental activities, including learning a new instrument or language, or completing crosswords, as the most effective ways to maintain a healthy mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgA.M. Owen, A. Hampshire, J.A. Grahn, R. Stenton, S. Dajani, A.S. Burns, R.J. Howard, & C.G. Gallard (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature [In Press].

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

Link to interactive website featuring the benchmark cognitive tests used in the current study, including useful background information.
Link to Which? investigation of brain training products.
Link to BBC Bang Goes The Theory programme.
Link to recent feature article in The Independent on brain training.

'My son could be the next prime minister': How indirect bragging backfires

You want to impress but you realise that bold-faced bragging can backfire. So instead you highlight the achievements of those close to you - perhaps your son or daughter's success, or even a colleague's - with the hope of basking in the reflected glory. 'I'm a lecturer at Neverland University,' you say, 'our head of department just won a Nobel Prize.' Bad move. According to Nurit Tal-Or's latest research on the psychology of boasting, this form of indirect self-promotion, known as 'burnishing', carries all the costs of bragging but none of the gains.

Sixty participants aged between 60 and 90 read one of three versions of a fictional scenario in which a 68-year-old called Joseph attended a university reunion. In one version, Joseph tells his former classmates that he's a professor of bio-medicine at a well-respected university. In another, he says he used to have that position. In the final version he says his son holds that post. The participants were asked to rate Joseph's character. The Joseph who bragged about his son was rated as no more sociable than the Joseph who boasted about his own past or present career, but was rated as less capable. The indirect bragging was just as costly as direct bragging, it seems, but carried none of the gains.

A second study found the same pattern of results in a different context and with the benefit of a control condition. In this case 83 students read one of four versions of a conversation between two undergrads. In one version, one student tells the other that last month he came second in a marathon. In another, he says he came second in a marathon when at school. In the indirect boasting condition, he says that his brother came second in a marathon last month. And in the control condition, he says that their (shared) stats tutor came second in a marathon. The boasting student, whether done directly or indirectly, was rated by participants as more manipulative than the control version student. And yet only the student who boasted about himself was rated as more able than the control student.

'When people boast about the success of other people, this need to bask in the reflected glory of the success of others may be perceived as pathetic and unworthy of respect,' Tal-Or said. Another possibility is that 'when people brag about their associates' success, their audience may suspect that they themselves do not have any successes of their own to be proud of.'

Previous research by Tal-Or has shown that bragging is perceived as more socially acceptable when it occurs in the context of a topic raised by someone else. Meanwhile, research published in 2008 showed that name-droppers are perceived as manipulative and incompetent.

ResearchBlogging.orgTal-Or, N. (2010). Direct and indirect self-promotion in the eyes of the perceivers. Social Influence, 5 (2), 87-100 DOI: 10.1080/15534510903306489

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

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Special Issue Spotter

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

The Right Hand and the Left Hand of History (Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition). Includes article on Jimi Hendrix's mixed-handedness.

Special Review Series on Social Neuroscience (Neuron).

Binding Processes: Neurodynamics and Functional Role in Memory and Action (Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews).

Special Section on Epigenetic Perspectives on Development: Evolving insights on the Origins of Variation (Developmental Psychobiology).

Embodied Language Processing: Neuroimaging, Behavioural, and Neurocomputational Perspectives (Brain and Language).

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Psychological calm in the eye of a storm

Research conducted in the aftermath of a devastating Chinese earthquake has uncovered a paradoxical psychological phenomenon - survivors living in the most devastated regions appear to be the least concerned by the ongoing risks. Shu Li and colleagues dubbed this the 'Psychological Typhoon Eye' in a paper published last year and now they've reported follow-up investigations that suggest the effect was still in evidence a year after the disaster.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake registered 8 on the Richter scale and killed over 68,000 people. More than four million people were also injured. In their initial paper, Shu Li's team observed that survivors living in the most devastated regions were the least concerned, as measured by their estimates for: how many relief workers were needed, the likelihood of a epidemic outbreak, the need to take safety measures against aftershocks, and the level of dose needed if a fictitious psychological medication were made available for an earthquake victim.

The new study of over 5000 residents finds that this association held after four and eleven months and it also replicates the finding when using a 'relational distance' measure of involvement in the quake. That is, people who reported having closer rather than more distant relations who'd been affected by the quake tended to report less ongoing concern with the threat.

One of the explanations for the Psychological Typhoon Eye mooted in Li's 2009 paper was psychological immunity - the idea being that exposure to danger builds psychological resilience. However, the new study undermined this explanation - people living in the most devastated regions still showed the same level of Psychological Typhoon Eye regardless of whether they themselves had suffered physical or economic harm from the quake.

Another possible explanation is cognitive dissonance. The idea here is that continuing to live in a dangerous area is psychologically uncomfortable - to justify this decision people have to downplay the risks in their own mind. Li's team said more research was needed to test this explanation.

These studies are not the first to find paradoxical psychological responses to danger. Research published in the 1970s found that people living nearer to French nuclear power stations perceived the risk to be lower than people living further away.

ResearchBlogging.orgLi, S., Rao, L., Bai, X., Zheng, R., Ren, X., Li, J., Wang, Z., Liu, H., & Zhang, K. (2010). Progression of the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” and Variations Since the Wenchuan Earthquake. PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009727

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

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Is this the first ever direct evidence for human mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are one of the most hyped concepts in psychology and neurocience. V.S. Ramachandran famously wrote that they will 'do for psychology what DNA did for biology'. Although recordings from single cells in the brains of monkeys have identified 'mirror' neurons that respond both to the execution of a movement and the observation of another agent performing that same movement, the existence of such cells in humans has, up until now, been inferred only from indirect evidence, particularly brain imaging. Now Roy Mukamel and colleagues have provided what appears to be the first ever direct evidence, using implanted electrode recordings of single cells, for the existence of mirror neurons in humans.

Mukamel's team seized the opportunity for single cell recording provided by the clinical investigations that were being carried out on patients with intractable epilepsy. These patients had electrodes implanted into their brains to identify the loci of their seizures. Mukamel and his colleagues recruited 21 of these patients and had them look at videos of hand gestures or facial expressions on a laptop in one condition, and perform those same gestures and expressions in another condition.

Most of the 1177 cells that were recorded showed a response either to the execution of an action or the sight of that action, not both. However, there was a significant subset of 'mirror' neurons in the front of the brain, including the supplementary motor area, and in the temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, that responded to the sight and execution of the very same actions.

Critics could argue that rather than having mirror properties, these cells were responding to a concept. For example, according to this argument, a cell that responded to the sight of a smile and the execution of a smile, was actually being activated by the smile concept. Mukamel's group reject that argument. They had a control condition in which the words for actions appeared on a screen, rather than those actions being seen or performed. The postulated mirror neurons responded to the sight and execution of an action, but not the word.

Another potential criticism is that the execution-related activity of a postulated mirror neuron is triggered by the sight of one's own action, rather than by motor-output per se. However, this can't explain the mirror neurons that responded both to the sight of a given facial expression and one's own execution of that facial expression (although proprioceptive feedback could still be a potential confound).

Mirror neurons make functional sense in relation to empathy and imitative learning, but a drawback could be unwanted imitation and confusion regarding ownership over actions. The researchers uncovered another subset of cells that could help reduce these risks - these cells were activated by the execution of a given movement but inhibited by the sight of someone else performing that same movement (or vice versa).

'Taken together,' the researchers concluded, 'these findings suggest the existence of multiple systems in the brain endowed with neural mirroring mechanisms for flexible integration and differentiation of the perceptual and motor aspects of actions performed by self and others.'

ResearchBlogging.orgRoy Mukamel, Arne D Ekstrom, Jonas Kaplan, Maraco Iacoboni, & Itzhak Fried (2010). Single-Neuron Responses in Humans during Execution and Observation of Actions. Current Biology [In Press].

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

Thursday, 8 April 2010

People lie more in email than when using pen and paper

Emails feel so transient, so disembodied, that we're more tempted to lie when sending them compared with writing with pen and paper. That's according to Charles Naquin and colleagues who tested the honesty of students and managers as they played financial games.

Forty-eight graduate business students were presented with an imaginary $89 kitty and had to choose how much they'd tell their partner was in the kitty, and how much of the kitty to share with their partner. Crucially, some participants shared this information by email, others by pen and paper. You guessed it - those who shared the info by email were more likely to lie about the kitty size (92 per cent of them did vs. 63 per cent of the pen and paper group), and they were also more unfair in how they shared the money. Participants in the email group also said they felt more justified in misrepresenting the amount of money to their partner.

A follow-up study ramped up the ecological validity. One hundred and seventy-seven full-time managers took part in a group financial game. Participants formed teams of three with each member pretending to be the manager of a science project negotiating for grant money. This game was played with real money, the players all knew each other, and any lies would be revealed afterwards. Once again, players who shared information by email were more likely to lie and cheat than were players who shared information by pen and paper.

Charles Naquin's team said their results chime with previous research showing, for example, that peer performance reviews are more negative when conducted online rather than on paper. 'Moving paper tasks online either within or across organisational boundaries should be undertaken with caution,' they said. For example: 'Taxes using the increasingly popular e-filing system could be even more fraught with deception than the traditional paper forms.'

ResearchBlogging.orgNaquin, C., Kurtzberg, T., & Belkin, L. (2010). The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (2), 387-394 DOI: 10.1037/a0018627

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

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Looking back on five years of the Digest, part II

The Research Digest blog was five years old in February. As part of an ongoing celebratory series, I've asked Dr Gavin Nobes of the University of East Anglia to look back on his research on children's naive models of the earth that I covered in March 2005, to reflect on that study and the field more generally. Here's what he had to say:

"Almost 15 years ago the late George Butterworth visited UEL and inspired a group of us to follow up some work he and Michael Siegal had started in Australia. Using a novel, forced-choice question task, they were testing the claim, based on children's drawings, that children have theory-like ‘naive mental models’ of the Earth; that is, children believe it to be (for example) flat, or a hollow sphere in which we live. This area of research has important implications for our understanding of the acquisition of knowledge, and for science education. For example, if children are influenced primarily by their intuitions and observations (as proponents of the naive mental model approach claim), they would be expected to think the Earth is flat; but if cultural communication is the principal source of information, children’s first concept of the Earth should be a rudimentary version of the scientific, spherical model.

In the study featured in the Digest five years ago, Georgia Panagiotaki, Alan Martin and I asked children not to draw but to choose, from a set of pictures, those that they thought best represented the Earth. As in the Australian study, we found that children knew much more about the Earth than previous researchers had claimed, and found no evidence of naive mental models.

Despite this apparently strong evidence from two different methods, the debate continued. Our recognition (forced-choice questions and picture selection) methods were criticised on the grounds that, unlike the earlier studies based on children's drawings, they failed properly to elicit children’s understanding. We responded to these criticisms by giving university students the same drawing task and open-ended questions that had been given to children in the earlier studies. We were amazed to find that many of these adults drew exactly the same pictures, and gave identical non-scientific answers, as had children who were supposed to have naive mental models. Subsequent interviews revealed that the students had drawn and answered in these ways because they didn’t understand the questions – despite them being designed for 5-year-olds! Further experiments with a new version of the task, in which we rephrased the original open questions to reduce their ambiguity, led both adults and children to give substantially fewer non-scientific answers. We concluded that naive mental models are methodological artifacts: children and adults give these responses to the original instrument because the questions are poorly worded.

One recommendation that arises from this work is that, wherever possible, different methods should be used to test the same hypotheses. Another is that, however simple your children’s task might be, try it out first on adults: this is quick, easy, and can be remarkably revealing. And third, don’t be too dispirited by negative reviews: especially early on, editors sent our submissions to proponents of the naive mental model view, whose disparaging reviews resulted in rejections. Had it not been for Michael’s and George’s generous support and encouragement, we would probably have given up and turned to less controversial areas of research."

ResearchBlogging.orgNobes, G., Martin, A., & Panagiotaki, G. (2005). The development of scientific knowledge of the Earth. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23 (1), 47-64 DOI: 10.1348/026151004x20649

Look out for more of these 'looking back' guest posts in the coming months.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

People have an intuitive understanding of the science of persuasion

Psychologists have devoted entire careers to finding out how people can be persuaded, but far less time investigating what people know intuitively about persuasion.

Now Karen Douglas and colleagues at Kent University have bucked this trend with a paper which they say shows people have an intuitive understanding of how a person's thinking style affects their vulnerability to persuasion, known formally as 'the elaboration likelihood model'. This is the idea, supported by research findings, that people who have a greater inclination for thinking things through tend to be less swayed by adverts that use superficial tricks like beautiful models and slick graphics, but are more persuaded by adverts that make an intelligent argument. The jargon for the character trait in question is 'need for cognition'.

Douglas' team asked 132 non-psychology undergrad students to either rate themselves or 'other students in their class' on their weak-mindedness, their strong minded-ness and their 'need for cognition'. Next the students had to look at six colour advertisements that used style rather than intelligent argument to promote things like food and mobile phones, and their task was to say how much either they or typical undergrads in their class would be persuaded by those adverts.

The key finding was that the participants' judgments about either their own or other people's vulnerability to the adverts was strongly related to the scores they gave on 'need for cognition', even above and beyond the relation to strong and weak-mindedness. In other words, if they saw themselves or other students as low on this measure then the students also tend to say that they or other students would be swayed by the ads. It's as if they were applying the rules of psychology's 'elaboration likelihood model' even though it's highly unlikely they'd ever heard of such a thing.

Another finding to come out of the research was that the students tended to think other people would be swayed by the adverts far more than they would be themselves - a well-established phenomenon in persuasion research. Past studies have suggested that this tendency to think other people will be more prone to persuasion is just another expression of our egotistical tendency to see ourselves as better than average. However, the current study suggested instead that we think other people will be more prone to persuasion (by superficial ads) because we think they have less 'need for cognition'. We probably make this assumption, the researchers said, not for self-serving, egotistical reasons but simply because we 'have greater access to our own thoughts, and therefore to occasions in which we were personally motivated to think.'

Concluding their paper, Douglas's team said: 'This research provides the first evidence that people do indeed use their intuitive understanding of persuasion and the personal characteristics associated with persuasion, to judge the extent to which persuasive attempts will be successful.'

In as yet unpublished research Douglas has further shown how people are able to make effective use of their lay theories of persuasion. In one study participants tailored mobile phone adverts appropriately according to an audience who were described as being either high or low in need for cognition. For example, for consumers who think more, the participants chose an ad with more detail on technical specifications.

'We and Tobias Vogel at the University of Heidelberg have a lot of data on this topic ... it's very interesting because no research (to our knowledge) to date investigates people's lay theories of persuasion and certainly not how people use these theories to persuade people,' Douglas told the Digest.

'Our findings suggest that people do have some kind of awareness of how persuasion works and can use their knowledge to attempt to persuade people. It's just the beginning really - while people seem to have an intuitive understanding of how thinking style relates to persuadibility, it could plausibly extend to other aspects of persuasion and persuasive techniques such as social norms and the foot-in-the-door technique.'

ResearchBlogging.orgDouglas, K., Sutton, R., & Stathi, S. (2010). Why I am less persuaded than you: People's intuitive understanding of the psychology of persuasion. Social Influence, 5 (2), 133-148 DOI: 10.1080/15534511003597423

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

Friday, 2 April 2010

Milgram's personal archive reveals how he created the 'strongest obedience situation'

Stanley Milgram's 1960s obedience to authority experiments, in which a majority of participants applied an apparently fatal electric shock to an innocent 'learner', are probably the most famous in psychology, and their findings still appall and intrigue to this day. Now, in a hunt for fresh clues as to why ordinary people were so ready to harm another, Nestar Russell, at Victoria University of Wellington, has reviewed Milgram's personal notes and project applications, which are housed at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library.

Milgram trained under Solomon Asch, author of the famous conformity experiments, and the obedience project was originally conceived as an extension of Asch's work. Milgram was going to see how the behaviour of a group of cooperating participants (actually confederates working for the researcher) influenced the naive participants' willingness to harm another. A condition in which single participants followed the experimenter's orders on their own was planned as a mere control condition.

It was during Milgram's extensive pilot work that he discovered the remarkable willingness for participants to obey instructions, without the need for group coercion, thus changing the direction of his project. The focus shifted to lone participants and Milgram began a process of trial and error pilot work to identify the perfect conditions for inducing obedience - what he described as 'the strongest obedience situation'.

Early on, Milgram recognised the need for an acceptable rationale for harming another and so he invented the cover story that the experiment was about using punishment to improve learning. To counter participants' reluctance to harm an innocent person, Milgram also devised several other 'strain resolving mechanisms'. This included replacing the final shock level label 'LETHAL' with the more ambiguous 'XXX'; removing a Nazi-sounding 'pledge to obey' from the experiment instructions; and creating physical distance between the participants and the innocent, to-be-electrocuted learner.

In fact, this latter factor worked too well. When Milgram removed any sight or sound of the learner, 'virtually all' participants showed a willingness to inflict lethal harm. Milgram realised this near-total obedience was counter-productive and would prevent his paradigm from 'scaling obedient tendencies'. For his first official experiment he therefore settled on auditory feedback only, in the form of the learner banging on the wall in distress.

Another 'strain resolving mechanism' that Milgram devised included increasing the number of levels on the shock generator. This allowed for exploitation of the 'foot in the door' persuasion effect whereby people are more likely to cooperate once they have already agreed to a less significant request - a kind of piecemeal compliance.

Milgram was also careful about the actors he chose to play the part of experimenter and learner. Though both non-professionals, the man acting as learner was chosen because he was 'mild and submissive; not at all academic' and a 'perfect victim', whilst the man playing the experimenter was 'stern' and 'intellectual looking'. Finally, Milgram was careful to plan things so that the 'experimenter', whenever challenged, replied that he was responsible for anything that happens to the learner.

Taken altogether, Russell's new analysis shows how Milgram used ad hoc trial and error pilot testing to hone his methodology and ensure his first official obedience experiment achieved such a high obedience rate (of 65 per cent). 'Knowing step-by-step how Milgram developed this result may better arm theorists interested in untangling this still enigmatic question of why so many participants inflicted every shock,' Russell said.

ResearchBlogging.orgRussell, N. (2010). Milgram's obedience to authority experiments: Origins and early evolution. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1348/014466610X492205 [Open Access]

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

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Personalistic thinking (New Ideas in Psychology).

To mark reaching its fourth decade of publication, Psychological Medicine has made its inaugural 1970 issue and its Jan 2010 issue open access.

Special Section: Match-making and match-breaking: Exploring the nature of match within and around job design. (Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology).

Current Directions at the Juncture of Clinical and Cognitive Science (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Psychological Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Journal of Traumatic Stress). [open access]