Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Social Neuroscience of Psychiatric Disorders (Social Neuroscience).

Virtual Issue: Interrogation techniques, information-gathering and (false) confessions (Legal and Criminological Psychology).

Studies with Children and Adolescents (Rorschachiana).

The Health Benefits of Nature (Applied Psychology: Health and Wellbeing).

Emotions, Emotional Regulation and Offender Treatment (Journal of Forensic Psychiatry).

Celebrating Applied Psychology's 60th Birthday - Virtual Special Issue (Applied Psychology).

International Psychoanalytic Association centenary issue (The International Journal of Psychoanalysis).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


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

Asch experiment replicated with 6-year-old kids.

Still got it? What happens to narcissists' personalities when they get older?

Depressive realism research. Mild depression (but not moderate) linked with greater insight into one's own memory performance.

Teens who completed exercises focusing on their strengths showed boosts to their life satisfaction.

A taxonomy of kids' cries: "Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children's tantrums"

Relevant to the Norwegian killer? The psychology of lone-wolf terrorism.

Seems obvious. Bored employees more likely to indulge in horseplay and other counter-productive behaviours at work.

Evidence for increased aggression in breast-feeding mothers.

No it can't. “Can It Read My Mind?” – What Do the Public and Experts Think of the Current (Mis)Uses of Neuroimaging?

Come on the Seagulls! Chanting football spectators show heightened aggression after a game, compared with non-chanters.

Emotions in music: "The results show that six basic emotions are perceivable in musical segments previously unknown to the listeners".

50 years on ... mental distress linked to the Nagasaki bomb.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

How to make the ceiling of your room seem higher

If you've ever witnessed would-be buyers looking around a house, you'll have noticed their observations about each room are usually limited to: "hmm, it's a good size" or "hmm, it's rather small". Little wonder then that home-improvers are so often fixated on making their rooms appear as spacious as possible. Design lore will tell them that to do so, they should paint their ceilings as light as possible, and in particular make the ceiling lighter than the walls. This contrast between ceilings and walls, so the advice goes, will increase the perceived room height. Does it really?

The answer, until recently, would have remained elusive. Interior design and architecture are strangely disconnected from psychology research. But a new study by Daniel Oberfeld and his team has defied this tradition. Across two experiments they had 32 participants don 3-D glasses and use a sliding scale to judge the ceiling height of dozens of virtual rooms. The rooms were empty and the colours were in shades of grey so that only lightness was varied. In particular, the ceiling, walls and floor were varied to be either low, medium or high in lightness. The depth (6m) and width (4.5m) of the rooms were fixed, whilst the actual ceiling height varied between 2.9 to 3.1m.

Increasing the lightness of the ceiling did increase its perceived height, so that aspect of design lore was supported. However, contrary to the traditional advice, the rooms also appeared higher when the walls were lighter. Moreover, the effect of ceiling lightness and wall lightness was additive. So the contrast effect endorsed by traditional design lore was refuted. Floor lightness made no difference to estimates of ceiling height, so it can't be overall room lightness that's crucial, but only the combination of wall and ceiling lightness.

Oberfeld and his colleagues said that practical guidelines for increasing perceived room height should be modified in light of their findings. "A rule of thumb consistent with our data," they wrote, "would be: 'If you intend to make the room appear higher, paint both the ceiling and the walls in a light colour. You are free to choose the colour of the floor because it has no effect on the perceived height."

From a theoretical perspective the new results are somewhat puzzling. Traditional research in psychophysics has shown that brighter objects usually appear closer. If people judge the height of a room by estimating the distance between their eyes and the ceiling, you'd think a lighter ceiling would appear lower. The present results suggest people must use some other means to judge ceiling height. Another possibility is that people look at the angles in the corner of the room, where the walls meet the ceiling. Perhaps increased lightness alters the angles via a geometric illusion to make the room seem taller. No, that isn't it either: Oberfeld's team said ceiling and wall lightness should have opposite effects on those crucial angles, which is inconsistent with the finding that both led to an increase in perceived height.

So, thanks to this research, we now know how to make our rooms seem higher, but we don't yet know why the technique works!

ResearchBlogging.orgOberfeld, D., Hecht, H., and Gamer, M. (2011). Surface lightness influences perceived room height. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (10), 1999-2011 DOI: 10.1080/17470211003646161

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Recovering patients describe their battles with an "anorexia voice"

People with anorexia find comfort in their illness at first, but then it becomes over-powering and they end up battling for control of their own minds. That's according to Sarah Williams and Marie Reid, who conducted an online focus group and email interviews with 14 people recovering from anorexia nervosa, aged 21 to 50 and including two men.

A consistent theme to emerge was that anorexia at first provided a sense of control and identity. The participants recalled enjoying striving for perfection. They saw thinness as an ideal that was within their means to reach. "Anorexia became a friend," said Natalie*. "When I was alone ... I knew that at least I had A." Jon said: "It was a way to control what was happening to me on a day to day basis, and also my weight."

Eventually though, rather than being a solution, anorexia became a problem all of its own. Said Lisa: "I call my anorexia 'the demon' who controls my thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions." Jon: "It's like there are two people in my head: the part that knows what needs to be done and the part of me that is trying to lead me astray. Ana is the part that is leading me astray and dominates me."

"Having developed the anorexic voice, participants came to feel that it was to an extent split from their authentic selves," said Williams and Reid. The research pair explained how their findings, placed in the context of similar results from past studies, provided useful ideas for therapeutic intervention. In particular, they suggested the need for recovering anorexia clients to acknowledge other positions beyond the anorexia voice and their own authentic self. "Wellness cannot simply be the absence of anorexia nervosa symptoms because this can intensify the inner battle with the anorexic voice," they said.

Williams and Reid advised using therapy to help build clients' sense of self. "This study suggests that this means developing the self beyond an ambivalent conflict between the authentic self and the anorexic voice," they said. "This would allow a new more positive dominant position to develop."

One approach that may be particularly suitable, according to Williams and Reid, is emotion-focused therapy (EFT). A technique used in EFT is for clients to address an empty chair, which represents their critical "anorexia voice". With the aid of the therapist, this can lead to a softening of the anorexic critic and the fostering of a new dominant position in the self. However, the researchers cautioned that there are "as yet ... no studies investigating the efficacy of externalisation techniques such as those used in EFT and this warrants further attention."

ResearchBlogging.orgWilliams, S., and Reid, M. (2011). ‘It's like there are two people in my head’: A phenomenological exploration of anorexia nervosa and its relationship to the self. Psychology and; Health, 1-18 DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2011.595488

*The names used here are the pseudonyms that appear in the paper.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Psychology books of the year 2011

The season has arrived when newspapers, magazines and bookshops publish their "books of the year" lists. The Digest has digested these for you, picking out the psychology books getting a mention:

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. The Sunday Times describes Foer's story of how he became American Memory Champion as "the most entertaining science book of the year". Also selected by editors as among the year's best non-fiction books.

The Indy says Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature will generate more discussion than any other science book this year, adding: "His explanations for the apparent paradox of how brutality and even genocide in the modern world coexist with a trend towards diminished violence are entirely convincing." Also listed by the New York Times and Marginal Revolution.

Not strictly psychology, but the Times has chosen Tim Harford's Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure as among the year's best science books. His "engaging" book "looks at how science and statistics can be used to predict commercial successes and industrial disasters and to inform public policy."

For the Guardian, both Jeanette Winterson and Hanif Kureishi chose Darian Leader's What is Madness? as among their favourite books of the year. Kureishi calls the book "magisterial" and describes how Leader "explains that the 'irrational' delusions and hallucinations of the mad are their attempts at sense." Winterson says it's a "thought-provoking book about how we diagnose and differentiate our many kinds of insanities."

Before I Go to Sleep, a novel by S. J. Watson is chosen by Waterstones as among their favourite paperbacks of 2011: "Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love - all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine's life".

The New York Times highlights Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow By Daniel Kahneman: "a lucid and profound vision of flawed human reason in a book full of intellectual surprises and self-help value."

Mind's book of the year was won by Bobby Baker for Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me. "A collection of 158 drawings Baker created between 1997 and 2008, the diary provides us with an astonishing insight into her struggle to overcome mental and physical ill-health."

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson, is chosen by's editors as among the best non-fiction titles this year. "In this madcap journey, a bestselling journalist investigates psychopaths and the industry of doctors, scientists, and everyone else who studies them."

Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher was shortlisted for this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (read the first chapter).

Finally, the British Psychological Society has just announced the shortlist for its 2011 Book of the Year Award.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Are there any psychology books published this year that you enjoyed but which aren't mentioned here? Please let us know via comments!

Suggestions pulled from comments and Twitter so far: Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir by Robert Jay Lifton; Altruism in Humans by C. Daniel Batson; An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine by Howard Markel; Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy Wilson; The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James Pennebaker; What Should We Do With Our Brain? by Catherine Malabou; Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds by Louise Barrett ... (click comments to see why readers nominated some of these books).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The taste for competition peaks at age 50

No wonder parents' races at school sports days are such fraught affairs. A new study finds that far from us mellowing as we age, our inclination for competition increases through life, peaking around the age of 50.

Prior to their data collection, Ulrich Mayr and his colleagues had several reasons for expecting that preference to compete would peak in youth and fade thereafter. They cited reductions in testosterone with age; the documented shift with age to a more prosocial orientation (older people give more money to charity); an age-related shift to a mastery (rather than comparison) approach to skills; and age-related falls in confidence, perhaps based on actual cognitive declines with age.

The researchers set up a stall at a shopping mall and invited volunteers to solve mental arithmetic equations (e.g. "true or false: 7 + 2 + 3 - 6 = 5") as quickly as possible in return for points. Points were exchanged for modest cash prizes. The 543 participants (aged 25 to 75), in private booths, completed one round lasting 30-seconds in which they earned more points the more equations they solved. They then completed a second "competitive" round, in which they only earned points for solving more equations than a randomly chosen rival. Participants didn't get feedback on their performance until the experiment was over. Finally - and this was the crucial round - the participants could choose for the final round whether to play solo (known as "piece-rate"), like they had in the first round, or whether to compete once again against another randomly chosen participant. Afterwards participants estimated how well they thought they'd done, as a measure of their confidence.

There were some clear gender effects, consistent with past research. Women were far less likely than men to opt for the competitive version in the final round (correction: 36 per cent vs. 56 per cent). And there were clear age effects across both genders: the taste for competition against others increased with age, levelling off at about the age of 50. For example, nearly 70 per cent of men aged 45 to 54 opted to compete versus just over 50 per cent of men aged 25 to 34.

What lies behind the gender effects? Men and women performed equally well at the task under piece-rate conditions, but the women's performance did drop slightly in the competitive version. Women were also less confident than men. Women's confidence, unlike men's, was also related to their choice of whether to compete or not (men chose to compete without consideration of their likelihood of winning!). However, none of these factors was sizeable enough to explain the size of the gender difference in choice to compete.

What about the effects of age on preference for competition? There was no difference in actual performance with age. Changes in confidence also couldn't explain the age-related change. A potential explanation comes from a recent meta-analysis, which found that the trait of "social dominance" increases with age until the 50s. Said Mayr and his team: "Successfully engaging in competitions is critical for establishing social dominance and therefore it is plausible to assume that with such an increased interest in social dominance comes an increased 'taste for competition."

One important caveat needs to be mentioned. Because this was a cross-sectional study, it's possible that it's not age that's related to competitiveness but rather the era that the participants grew up in - or something else to do with their particular generation. To get around this problem, participants would need to be followed up throughout their lives, to see if their taste for competition changes as they age. However, the researchers can't see any reason why the fifty-somethings' upbringing should have led them to be more competitive than the 30-somethings. Yes, Baby Boomers are known for their competitiveness but 30-year-olds grew up in a prolonged economic downturn that might have increased their competitive tendencies.

What about you - have you found that your taste for competition has altered as you've aged? Or looking at your friends and family, do these results fit with your own experiences of their competitiveness? Please use comments to let us know.

ResearchBlogging.orgMayr, U., Wozniak, D., Davidson, C., Kuhns, D., and Harbaugh, W. (2011). Competitiveness across the life span: The feisty fifties. Psychology and Aging DOI: 10.1037/a0025655

NB. Percentages for men and women's preferences were quoted incorrectly before but have now been corrected.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


Our round-up of the latest psychology links from around the web:

Tips from psychologists on how to maintain focus at work (New York Times). Don't worry, reading the Digest blog definitely counts as work.

Facebook users average just 3.74 degrees of separation from each other, according to new research.

But ... "It's not socially meaningful that a friend of your friends is buddies with an acquaintance of someone else's pal. It's just an innate feature of large, tangled networks," says mathematician Matt Parker for the Guardian.

Going into brain surgery with your eyes open. A shortlisted essay in the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize.

Chief Murdoch-hunter and MP Tom Watson leaps to the defence of violent video games.

"We’re Nowhere Near Artificial Brains," argues neurobiologist Mark Changizi.

Slate magazine reviews A Dangerous Method, the new Cronenberg film about Freud and Jung's relationship.

Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks and The Psychologist reports on the New York psychoanalytic scene.

The November issue of the American Psychological Association's Monitor magazine is online and includes an article on suicides among psychologists.

This week's Science Weekly podcast from the Guardian reports from the recent Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington.

Former political spin-meister Alistair Campbell on myths about schizophrenia.

Animal intelligence researcher and scientist-in-residence at the Rambert Dance Company Nicky Clayton was on The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, currently available on iPlayer.

Watch psychology's Nobel winner, Daniel Kahneman, talk about the cognitive biases that affect our decisions.

The history of nude psychotherapy.

Does the language we speak shape how we think? The Economist hosted a debate.

How does Prozac work? Jonah Lehrer with an answer that might surprise you.

Read the opening chapters from this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science books, including Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore was on BBC Radio 3 this week talking about teen brains and the need to change society attitudes towards teenagers. It's currently available on iPlayer.

A video introduction from the new editor of the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.

All in the Mind this week tackled riots, bullying and borderline personality disorder. It's currently on iPlayer.

It's locked behind a paywall unfortunately, but the Sunday Times had an intriguing article on the Met's elite team of super-recognisers. "A team of police officers with staggering memories for faces are naming and helping to catch rioters seen on even the blurriest CCTV footage."

Could you be a super-recogniser? There's still time to take part in a public experiment at London's Science Museum.

The December issue of The Psychologist magazine is online and includes an open-access article celebrating 25 years of the Health Psychology section at the British Psychological Society.

The advantages of being altruistic.

Chris Frith, author of "Making up the Mind: How the brain creates our mental world", was on Conscious.TV

Science writer David Dobbs on the need to distinguish between traits and behaviours when discussing behavioural genetics findings.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The "multiple reflection error" - yet another way that we misunderstand mirrors

On her trolley! Janine, the mannequin
Considering the ubiquity of mirrors in everyday life, it's amazing how confused we are about them. For example, many of us are oblivious to the small size of our heads as they appear reflected in the mirror. A new study by Rebecca Lawson has provided a compelling demonstration of the "multiple reflection error" - yet another striking way that we misunderstand mirrors.

Imagine you're at the entrance to a narrow corridor and further down, several feet away, hanging on the right-hand wall, there are three rectangular mirrors (30cm x 45cm) at head height. At what point, as you proceed down the corridor, do you think you'll be able to see your face in the mirrors?

The correct answer is that your face will only be visible in each mirror when you are passing directly opposite. At no point will your face be visible in more than one mirror.

Lawson first tested people's understanding of this idea by having them stand at one end of a corridor and say in which of four positions in the corridor a mannequin "Janine" (moved about on a trolley) would be able to see herself in each of the three mirrors. Only two of the four positions in question were actually directly opposite one of the mirrors. So, of the 12 possible position/mirror combinations, the answer "yes, Janine can see her face" should only have been given twice. In fact, the 18 Liverpool University students answered yes an average of 6.1 times, grossly overestimating how often the mannequin could see herself in the mirrors. The errors weren't randomly distributed, they tended to be made when the mannequin was located near to the mirrors, but not directly opposite them.

The same errors were made when a single, larger mirror was divided up into three using duct tape (to ensure that participants realised the mirror surfaces were all flat against the wall and not angled like a dressing-table mirror), and also when the original three mirrors were arranged on the wall vertically, rather than horizontally.

Perhaps, Lawson reasoned, the participants were performing so poorly because it was confusing assuming the perspective of a mannequin. And also, perhaps because they were asked about each position and each mirror one at a time, so that they didn't realise the full implications of what they were saying: that the mannequin could see her face in multiple mirrors from a single position, and in the same mirror from different positions (an optical impossibility in the situation as described).

To avoid these issues, Lawson created another set-up in which more participants (prospective students and their parents) were shown a photograph of a person sat facing five mirrors arranged on the wall in the shape of a cross, with the central mirror at head height. The participants were given a piece of paper with five rectangles on it arranged in a cross shape, and they had to draw crudely what the person in the photo would be able to see of themselves in each mirror. Once again, there was a striking overestimation of where the person would be able to see reflections of their own head and face (participants should have indicated that the person's head/face would only be visible to them in the central mirror).

Finally, more participants actually sat in front of this set up of five mirrors in a cross shape. Half of them had just the central mirror uncovered then re-covered before they used the pencil and paper to indicate what they'd see in all the mirrors (the remaining mirrors were covered throughout). The other half of the participants had all the mirrors uncovered first, then re-covered before they gave their answers with the paper and pencil. In the first case, 58 per cent of the participants made multiple reflection errors - again, overestimating where they'd be able to see themselves in the mirrors. In the latter case, with the chance to experience the entire mirror set up, 24 per cent made such errors.
"This multiple reflection error is particularly surprising," Lawson said "because it directly contradicts our everyday experience that mirrors reflect a single coherent scene."

So why do people misunderstand mirrors in this way? Lawson said there are probably multiple reasons. One participant described her naive belief that whenever you turn your eyes towards a mirror, wherever it is, you will see yourself reflected in it - "mirrors look back at you," she said. No doubt this belief was held implicitly by many of the other participants.

"Almost nobody will have a clear, thought-through and self-consistent theory of optics which they use to guide their predictions," Lawson said. "Most people probably use a set of underspecified beliefs and heuristics, some of which are incompatible, leading them to make unsophisticated, noisy and inaccurate predictions. People rarely think explicitly about optics and what determines what they can see in a mirror or a window - or indeed, what they can see directly."

ResearchBlogging.orgLawson, R. (2012). Mirrors, mirrors on the wall…the ubiquitous multiple reflection error. Cognition, 122 (1), 1-11 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.07.001

Further reading:
Link to Mirrors and the mind (Psychologist magazine article).
Link to New York Times article on the psychology of mirrors.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest. Thanks to Rebecca Lawson for providing images of her experiment.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Feeling socially excluded? Try touching a teddy bear (seriously)

Feeling as though we belong is important for our mental and physical wellbeing. Social exclusion hurts and it darkens our mood. Unfortunately, this sets up a vicious circle because we're then less likely to engage in friendly, prosocial acts, and so less likely to form new bonds with others. A new study documents an effective way to break this cycle - excluded people should touch a teddy bear. Seriously.

Across two studies Kenneth Tai and his colleagues prompted some of their participants to feel socially excluded, either by giving them false feedback on a personality questionnaire ("You're the type who will end up alone later in life") or by contriving an uncomfortable situation in a group task with other participants ("I hate to tell you this, but no one chose you as someone they wanted to work with"). Other participants were given more heartening feedback (e.g. lots of people chose you to be in their group) and acted as a comparison.

Next, all the participants had to rate a "consumer product" - a 80cm, furry teddy bear. Some of the participants were given the teddy bear to hold; others evaluated him from a distance.

The researchers were interested in how being socially excluded would influence the participants' willingness to volunteer for more experiments in the future, and their willingness to share money with another person in an economic game (both taken to be signs of pro-social behaviour). And most of all, the researchers wanted to know if touching a teddy first would make any difference to these behaviours.

It did. Socially excluded participants who had the chance to touch the teddy bear were more likely to volunteer for future experiments and they shared money more generously with another participant. By contrast, touching the teddy made no difference to the behaviour of participants who weren't socially excluded.

Touching a teddy increased the prosocial behaviour of excluded participants by increasing their experience of positive emotion. The researchers tested this by asking participants to explain their decision about sharing money in the economic game. Excluded participants who touched the teddy were more likely to give answers like this one, featuring mentions of positive emotions: "There is no urgent need for myself to have the money and it is always comforting to be pleasantly surprised by others, even if it's from a stranger. So I just hope the money can be useful for the person who receives it."

Why on earth would touching a teddy bear have these effects on grown adults? Part of it could have to do with the links between emotional and physical warmth. Past research has shown that socially excluded people rated a room's temperature as colder, and people who feel more lonely tend to take more hot baths. There are also obvious links with past research showing the emotional and physical benefits of contact with pets. Finally, it could also be to do with people anthropomorphising the teddy (i.e. seeing it as human). Touch from another human can boost oxytocin levels - a hormone involved in feelings of trust and social closeness - perhaps touching the teddy had a similar effect.

Tai and his colleagues said there are lots of avenues for future research to explore - would touching a soft blanket have the same benefits observed in this study, or what about touching a plastic teddy? Would the results be replicated in a culture that tends not to anthropomorphise teddies?

"Often times, it may be hard to renew affiliative bonds with other people when one has been socially excluded by others," the researchers concluded. "During situations that may be hard for people to regain social connection with others after being rejected, one can choose to seek solace in the comfort of a teddy bear."

ResearchBlogging.orgTai, K., Zheng, X., and Narayanan, J. (2011). Touching a Teddy Bear Mitigates Negative Effects of Social Exclusion to Increase Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2 (6), 618-626 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611404707

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 18 November 2011


Our round-up of the latest juicy psychology links from around the web:

Published today - new e-book "Mad mobs and Englishmen?: Myths and realities of the 2011 riots" by the psychologists Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott. The Guardian have a preview.

"I had an orgasm in a brain scanner," boasts Kayt Sukel.

Is a stranger trustworthy? You'll know in 20 seconds.

In Praise of Daniel Kahneman - Guardian editorial on the nobel-winning psychologist.

Debate at the Society for Neuroscience conference on whether girls and boys really do have different brains.

Why Kids With High IQs Are More Likely to Take Drugs

Amnesiac cellist astounds doctors with musical memory

Psychiatry's DSM task force responds to criticisms from psychology (pdf).

Jonah Lehrer looks back on 20 years of brain imaging.

HMP Grendon - Europe's only prison run entirely as a therapeutic community - is suffering from budget cuts and has experienced its first on-site murder.

Highlights from our Psychology to the Rescue series in Italian. Here's the English original.

An essay on the nocebo effect has won this year's Wellcome Trust science writer prize - congrats to the writer Penny Sarchet.

Texas governor Rick Perry experienced brain freeze during a live TV debate, prompting media commentary on the fallibility of human memory. Experts were quoted in an article for the BBC and I wrote a column on forgetting for the Guardian.

Test your morality - a new mass experiment being run by BBC Lab.

The fall-out from the Diederik Stapel (prominent social psychologist) fraud scandal continues. "Psychology Rife with Inaccurate Research Findings" says Karen Franklin for Psychology Today. "Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology," says The Chronicle.

The Brain is Wider Than the Sky author Bryan Appleyard spoke at the RSA (audio).

Scott Lilienfeld letter to the APS Observer magazine about the trend for psychology departments to add "and brain sciences" to their names.

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? Thought-provoking essay from Eddy Nahmias in the NYT.

The wonderful A History of the Brain podcast on BBC Radio Four concludes today. Get the podcasts.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Paraplegics walk in their dreams

In the land of dreams, the shackles of disability are cast asunder. That's the revelation from a new dream diary study featuring 15 paraplegics, 5 of whom were born with their condition. These volunteers (aged 22 to 84 years), recruited from a military hospital and a care home for people with motor disabilities, recorded their dreams for 6 weeks and French researchers compared the content with similar diaries kept by age-matched, able-bodied control participants.

All bar one of the disabled participants had at least one dream in which they moved their legs, including all five of the congenital paraplegics. As a group, the disabled participants experienced dreams about walking twice as often as they had dreams featuring their paraplegia. Moreover, voluntary leg movements featured in the dreams of the disabled more often than in the dreams of the able-bodied (38.2 per cent of dreams vs. 28.7 per cent). "I was not in a wheelchair but walking to a night club, to go dancing," recalled a 22-year-old person with congenital paraplegia in one typical dream report. There were some dreams featuring wheelchairs - these were experienced by eight of the disabled group and none of the controls.

Of the leg-movement mentions in the disabled participants' dream reports, the majority (46 per cent) pertained to walking. This is a lower percentage than found in the able-bodied diaries (64 per cent), but that's because the disabled dreamt more often about dancing and standing up. Activities like running, cycling, swimming and driving featured equally often in the dreams of both groups.

The disabled participants dreamed of walking even though they'd either never walked or hadn't walked for years. For example, two of the participants had been paralysed since sustaining gun-shot wounds during World War II and the France-Algeria war. There was no evidence that walking dreams became less frequent with duration of paralysis.

How do people with paraplegia dream of walking if it's something they've never experienced or haven't done for years? The researchers, led by Marie-Thérèse Saurat, believe it could reflect the activity of a "genetic, inherent walking programme", or the action of mirror neurons, which are stimulated during the day by the sight of other people performing movements. The latter explanation is especially favoured for dreams about cycling and other complex activities - it's "difficult to imagine that there is an innate programme for riding a bicycle, as this is a highly specialised activity recently developed in human history," the researchers said.

Why do paralysed people dream of walking? The researchers dismiss the psychoanalytic idea that the dreams are an expression of a subconscious wish. They argue that people with paraplegia are open about their desires to walk, and that their dreams are not dominated by walking to the extent you'd expect if they were compensating for lack of walking in waking life (in fact their dreams contained less walking than the control participants). Saurat and her colleagues suggest instead that walking in dreams may have an adaptive function: helping "consolidate the relevant neuronal mapping ... Notably, motor imagery training improves the movement performance of the intact muscles and increases basal ganglia activation in subjects with spinal cord injury."

These new findings add to previous research that found people born blind have visual experiences in their dreams and people born deaf can hear spoken language in theirs.

ResearchBlogging.orgSaurat, M., Agbakou, M., Attigui, P., Golmard, J., and Arnulf, I. (2011). Walking dreams in congenital and acquired paraplegia. Consciousness and Cognition, 20 (4), 1425-1432 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.05.015

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Children's moral judgments about environmental harm

Young children in northeastern USA see harms against the environment as morally worse than bad manners. And asked to explain this judgment, many of them referred to the moral standing of nature itself - displaying so-called "biocentric" reasoning. This precocity marks a change from similar research conducted in the 1990s, leading the authors of the new study, Karen Hussar and Jared Horvath, to speculate about "the possible effects of the increased focus on environmental initiatives during the last decade ... Although typically thought to emerge in later adolescence, a willingness to grant nature respect based on its own unique right-to-existence was present in our young participants."

Hussar and Horvath presented 61 children (aged 6 to 10 years) with 12 story cards: 3 portrayed a moral transgression against another person (e.g. stealing money from a classmate); 3 portrayed bad manners (e.g. eating salad with one's fingers); 3 portrayed a mundane personal choice (e.g. colouring a drawing with purple crayon); and 3 portrayed an environmentally harmful action (e.g. failing to recycle; damaging a tree). For each card, the children were asked to say if the act was OK, a little bad or very bad, and to explain their reasoning.

The children rated moral transgressions against other people as the worst of all, followed by harms against the environment, and then bad manners. Mundane personal choices were judged largely as "OK". There were no differences with age.

Asked to justify their judgments about environmental harm, 74 per cent of the explanations given referred to "biocentric" reasons (e.g. "A tree is a living thing and, it's like, breaking off your arm - someone else's arm or something"); 26 per cent invoked anthropocentric reasons (e.g. "Because without trees we wouldn't have oxygen"). The ratio of these categories of explanation didn't vary by age, but did vary by gender, with girls more likely to offer biocentric reasons. This fits with a wider, but still inconclusive, literature suggesting that women tend to base their moral judgments on issues of care, whereas men tend to base their moral judgments on issues of justice.

Hussar and Horvath said it was revealing that the children placed environmental harms midway between harms against other people and bad manners. "This environmental domain [of moral harm] implies a sophisticated comprehension by young children such that consideration is afforded to environmental life over social order, but, at the same time, consideration is afforded to human life over environmental life."

In contrast with the present findings, research conducted in the 90s found that young children tended to offer anthropocentric reasons for the immorality of environmental harm, only invoking biocentric reasons more frequently in late childhood or adolescence.

"To conclude, it is evident that the participants in the current study are constructing morally-based views about nature and humans' place within it from a very young age," the researchers said. "This moral stance was succinctly articulated by one of our participants: 'Even if there's no rules you should respect ... (and) be good to the environment.'."

ResearchBlogging.orgHussar, K., and Horvath, J. (2011). Do children play fair with mother nature? Understanding children’s judgments of environmentally harmful actions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31 (4), 309-313 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2011.05.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Did I do that? The psychology of alcohol-induced blackouts

The morning after. Photo credit: Sophie Scott
When our autobiographical memory lets us down, how do we reconstruct the lost chapters? Two psychologists Robert Nash and Melanie Takarangi have identified the perfect population for investigating this very question. "Colleges and universities teem with amnesiacs of a sort," they write, referring to the large number of students who drink quantities of alcohol sufficient to wash away whole episodes from memory.

Nash and Takarangi surveyed 280 students about their alcohol-induced blackouts and found the students were highly motivated to reconstruct what happened. In fact, their desire to fill in the blanks often led them to rely on unreliable sources, such as drunk friends, and to therefore form false memories of the blacked-out period. "Such errors could have enormous impact," the researchers said, "not least because during blackouts people engage in ... risky behaviours such as drug use, fighting and sexual intercourse."

Of the surveyed students, 85 per cent described themselves as drinkers and 61 per cent reported having experienced a total or partial memory blackout whilst drunk. Men were more likely to have had a blackout than women (75.4 vs. 56.7 per cent).

The researchers presented the students with a hypothetical party scenario in which they'd experienced a blackout and asked them to say how motivated they'd be to try each of eight strategies for filling in the blanks. Unsurprisingly, the students tended to say they were motivated most strongly to seek the help of a sober friend who'd been there. Other favoured strategies included: checking photos or videos, consulting a drunk friend who'd been present, and thinking hard about what had happened. Less favoured were: returning to the scene of the party, asking a sober or drunk party guest other than a friend.

Comparing students who'd experienced blackouts in real life with those who hadn't, an intriguing difference emerged - the blackout sufferers were more motivated to rely on drunk friends and there was a slight trend for them to judge drunk friends as more reliable. Blackout sufferers also judged drunk non-friends as more reliable than did non-sufferers.

Turning to the students' reports of how they'd actually attempted to reconstruct boozy blanks in real life, consulting a drunk friend was more common than consulting sober people (77 per cent vs. 69.6 per cent). Forty-three per cent said they'd seen a photo or video of what had happened on at least one occasion; 20.9 per cent had found other physical evidence.

The blackout sufferers said that their reconstructions of boozy blanks sometimes turned out later to have been inaccurate - 16.9 per cent admitted to this having happened, and they said the most frequent reason was relying on drunk friends. Some of the students (11.5 per cent of blackout sufferers) said they'd previously had confidence in the incorrect account of what had happened; 3.4 per cent said they'd actually formed (false) memories for events that hadn't happened.

A curious paradox to emerge in the results was that students who said they'd relied on drunk friends in the past were more likely to admit having been exposed to misinformation, but at the same time were more confident in the future reliability of drunk friends and non-friends. The researchers speculated that perhaps drunk friends had been the only source of information in the past and "because people are highly motivated to reconstruct forgotten experiences, it is possible that such circumstances might encourage individuals to believe that the available sources of evidence are more reliable" - a kind of self-serving bias.

Finally, Nash and Takarangi asked the students if they'd ever knowingly given blackout sufferers false information about blanks in their memories. Seventy-six per cent of the sample said they might have unintentionally done so; 13.7 per cent said they'd deliberately made up details; 7.1 per cent had fabricated an entire event.

The researchers end their study on a sombre note. "We can only speculate about the consequences that blackout sufferers' false beliefs and memories could have in some cases," they said. "For instance, archival studies suggest that numerous innocent people have confessed to crimes after being led to believe they committed acts while drunk, and flawed reconstructions might also lead blackout sufferers to make false accusations against others."

ResearchBlogging.orgNash, R., and Takarangi, M. (2011). Reconstructing alcohol-induced memory blackouts. Memory, 19 (6), 566-573 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2011.590508

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Positive psychology exercises can be harmful for some

Positive psychology exercises work by developing people's strengths and emotional resources, thereby building their resilience to depression. For a new study, Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongrain wanted to test the idea that these exercises will be more effective if they're tailored to people's particular personality type. They focused on two traits associated with vulnerability to depression: being excessively self-critical and being excessively needy.

Sergeant and Mongrain predicted that a gratitude exercise would be especially effective for self-critics by replacing a negative self-focus with an appreciation for the external world. And they thought a positive-music listening exercise would be particularly suited to needy people, offering them a practical tool that they could use independently. A control condition involved recalling early childhood memories.

The take-home finding is that whilst there was some evidence that self-critical people benefited more from the gratitude exercise than the music or control exercises (in terms of a greater happiness boost), the high neediness participants actually experienced reductions in their self-esteem following the gratitude and music exercises compared with the control exercise, and no benefits. "The present findings provide the first hint of deleterious effects that can be incurred by the use of positive psychology exercises," the researchers said.

The findings came from an Internet study of 772 volunteers. After completing baseline measures of self-esteem, happiness, depression, physical health, and the key traits of self-criticism and neediness, the participants were randomly allocated to a one-week intervention: either gratitude, music or the control task. The daily gratitude exercise involved recalling five things to be grateful for that day; the music task involved listening to three or four uplifting songs of their choosing each day; the memory task involved writing about a different childhood memory each day. Follow-up measures of depression and the rest were completed after the week's intervention and again at one, three and six-months. Two hundred and eighty-three participants stayed the course until the study end.

Why did high scorers in neediness actually show reductions in self-esteem after the positive exercises? Sergeant and Mongrain can't be sure, but they speculated that they'd chosen the wrong kind of exercise for these people. "... [B]oth tasks were focused on independent activity and required little involvement with other people," they said. "Needy people rely on having secure intimate bonds with others in order to experience well-being." It's also possible that the exercises were merely ineffectual for the needy participants, rather than harmful, but that they chose to take out their frustration about this on the outcome measures. Other study weaknesses include the impersonal nature of an Internet study and the brevity of the intervention.

These results add to an existing literature on the potential hazards of self-help. A 2010 study found that CBT-based self-help books were harmful for high ruminators (people who spend a lot of time thinking about their own thoughts and emotions); and a 2009 study found that uttering positive self-help mantras (e.g. "I'm a lovable person") backfired for people with low self-esteem.

ResearchBlogging.orgSergeant, S., and Mongrain, M. (2011). Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 260-272 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.577089

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 11 November 2011

"Change deafness" - the scant attention we pay to the voice on the end of the phone

Our perception of the world is so restricted by the brain's finite attentional resources that large changes to the visual scene can occur without us noticing. Psychologists have studied this extensively and they call it "change blindness". But what about our limited vigilance to the world of sound? In a new study, Kimberly Fenn and her team have tested whether people notice when, mid phone-conversation, the person they're talking to changes. They found that unless there was a change of gender, most people didn't notice they were talking to someone else - a phenomenon the researchers call "change deafness".

Across five experiments, Fenn's team followed a similar procedure. Participants were interviewed on the telephone, ostensibly as part of a study into memories of smells. A young female interviewer greeted them, explained that there'd be twelve questions, then proceeded to fire away. After the third question, a different interviewer, usually another female, took over the questioning without warning or announcement (the four women who played the role of interviewer across the different experiments had voice frequencies of 200Hz, 202Hz, 218Hz, and 239Hz). After the twelfth question, participants were told the phone would be passed to a "supervisor". The supervisor took the phone, introduced herself, and asked progressively more specific questions to find out if participants had noticed the earlier voice change, ranging from "Did anything unusual happen during the interview?" to, "Did the experimenter's voice change at all during the interview?"

In the first two experiments, just 1 person out of 16 (6 per cent) and 1 out of 24 (4 per cent), respectively, noticed the voice change, even after they were asked about this directly. Moreover, none of the participants made any mention during the interview when the voice of the interviewer changed.

After the initial interview, but before the supervisor questions about a voice change, the participants were played recordings of the two interviewer voices and asked by the supervisor to say which was the voice of the interviewer (remember, at this point nearly all of them thought there was just one interviewer). Participants picked out the first interviewer voice just as often as the second voice - so it's not that one was particularly more memorable or dominant. However, presented with either one of the interviewer voices and a strange, unfamiliar voice, most participants (74 per cent) correctly picked out the interviewer voice. This means that in spite of the "change deafness" some aspects of the interviewer voices must have been encoded.

In another experiment, participants were warned in advance that the voice of the interviewer might change at some point during the interview. In this case, 75 per cent correctly reported afterwards that the voice of the interviewer had changed, and six of these nine participants knew the precise moment that the switch occurred. This suggests "change deafness" doesn't occur because we're incapable of detecting a change, but because in usual circumstances we don't bother paying enough attention to voices to detect such a change. This makes strategic sense, leaving more processing resources available for focusing on what's actually being said, rather than who's saying it.

"If language use evolved in service of face-to-face conversation ... There is no reason for language processing to develop an alarm mechanism that would continuously monitor the talker's identity and automatically signal a talker change," the researchers said. "Given the assumption of interlocutor stability, listeners are free to focus attention on the linguistic message."

"Change deafness" has its limits. In yet another experiment, the interviewer voice changed without warning from a woman's to a man's, and in this case eleven out of twelve participants noticed the change. "When talkers differ in vocal tract sufficiently, such as when talkers differ in gender, these bottom-up acoustic differences may grab attention even in the absence of top-down expectations," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgFenn, K., Shintel, H., Atkins, A., Skipper, J., Bond, V., & Nusbaum, H. (2011). When less is heard than meets the ear: Change deafness in a telephone conversation. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64 (7), 1442-1456 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.570353

Previously on the Digest: Phonagnosia - the inability to recognise people by their voice alone.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 10 November 2011


Our round-up of the latest juicy psychology links from around the web:

One time that psychology came to their rescue. In case you missed it: leading psychologists help mark 200 issues of the BPS Research Digest email by sharing their stories.

A History of the Brain is a series of 15-minute shorts running everyday this week and next on BBC Radio 4. Hurry, download the podcasts before they're taken off the web.

Amazing photos from new book "Portraits of the Mind".

Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis.

Crowds are not dumb.

Video of Loraine Tyler lecture on the positive aspects of brain ageing.

The strange and curious history of lobotomy. (BBC R4 radio show about the same)

Links between dance and the scientific process - according to psychologist Nicky Clayton, scientist in residence for the Rambert Dance Company (ABC National Radio).

Coverage of the Diederik Stapel fraud: New York Times, The Chronicle.

Claudia Hammond debunks myths about the mind on BBC R4 (still available on iPlayer)

Steve Pinker was on the Guardian's Science Weekly podcast.

Can basic human nature be changed? Matt Ridley answers.

Overcoming emotional pain.

'You Are Not So Smart': Why We Can't Tell Good Wine From Bad.

Video of Francesca Happe lecture on what we do and don't understand about autism (find the link under "latest")

Why men have a harder time making friends.

Dogs are friendlier when a woman is holding their leash, plus other intriguing dog-walking findings.

Brains in a jar cupcakes.

NYT interview with Michael Gazzaniga, famous for his split-brain studies.

Eight ways to beat the winter blues.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What triggers an Earworm - the song that's stuck in your head?

PYT was triggered by the letters EYC 
The brain has its own jukebox. A personal sound system for your private listening pleasure. The downside is that it has a mind of its own. It often chooses the songs and it frequently gets stuck, playing a particular tune over and over until you're sick of it. Psychologists have nicknamed these mental tunes "earworms" (from the German Ohrwurm). A study from 2009 found that they can last anywhere between minutes to hours, but that they're only unpleasant in a minority of cases. Now a team led by Victoria Williamson, in partnership with BBC 6 Music and other international radio stations, has surveyed thousands of people to try to find out the various triggers that cause earworms to start playing. Radio listeners and web visitors were invited to fill in an online form or email the station about their latest earworm experience and the circumstances that preceded it.

Just over 600 participants provided all the information that was needed for a detailed analysis. Predictably, the most frequently cited circumstance was recent exposure to a particular song. "My bloody earworm is that bloody George Harrison song you played yesterday," one 6 Music listener wrote in. "Woke at 4.30 this morning with it going round me head. PLEASE DON'T EVER PLAY IT AGAIN." In relation to this kind of earworm-inducing exposure, the survey revealed the manifold ways that we come into contact with music in modern life, including: music in public places, in gyms, restaurants and shops; radio music; live music; ring tones; another person's humming or singing; and music played in visual media on TV and on the Internet.

However, a song doesn't have to be heard to worm its way inside your head. Many listeners described how earworms had been triggered by association - contact with certain people, rhythms, situations, sounds or words - sometimes with quite obscure links. "On my journey, I read a number plate on a car that ended in the letters 'EYC' which is NOTHING LIKE 'PYT' (by Michael Jackson)," said another listener, "but for some unknown reason, there it was - the song was in my head."

Memories also triggered earworms - for example, driving along the same stretch of road that a song was first heard. And also anticipation. Another listener had "Alive" by Pearl Jam stuck in their head in the days before attending a Pearl Jam concert.

Mood and stress were other triggers. "Prokofiev 'Montagues and Capulets' opening theme. I was writing an email about a distressing subject. I suspect the mood of the piece matched my mood at the time," said an amateur musician. Another listener had Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror playing in her mind ever since she'd been thinking about the star non-stop and feeling sad (the survey coincided with his death in 2009).

A final theme to emerge from the survey was the way that earworms start playing when we're in a "low attention state", bored or even asleep. "My earworm is 'Mulder and Scully' by Catatonia. In fact I dreamt about running through woods and this was the sound track in my head," said a 6 Music listener. Another survey respondent experienced K'naan "Waving Flag" when mind wandering through a monotonous lab task.

Theoretically, Williamson and her colleagues said earworms can be understood as another manifestation of what Ebbinghaus in the nineteenth century identified as "involuntary memory retrieval". They could even provide a new window through which to study that phenomenon.

"While musical imagery is a skill that many (especially musicians) can utilise to their advantage, involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is an involuntary, spontaneous, cognitive intrusion that, while not necessarily unpleasant or worrying, can prove hard to control," the researchers concluded. "The present study has classified the breadth of circumstances associated with the onset of an INMI episode in everyday life and provided insights into the origins of the pervasive phenomenon, as well as an illustration of how these different contexts might interact."

What about you? What earworms have you experienced lately and what was the context? Please use comments to share your earworm experiences.

ResearchBlogging.orgWilliamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., and Stewart, L. (2011). How do "earworms" start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553

Link to Earwormery, the website used by the authors of this study to survey participants' experiences.
Link to previous Digest item on earworms, "A natural history of the Earworm - the song that won't get out of your head."
Link to previous Digest item: "Hearing music that isn't there."

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Psychology to the rescue

The fortnightly email version of the BPS Research Digest, first launched in 2003, has today reached its 200th issue. To mark the occasion I've asked a handful of leading psychologists to write 200 words on a time in their lives that their psychology knowledge or skills came to their rescue. Here's what they had to say:

Simon Baron-Cohen: Cycles of abuse
Vaughan Bell: Living with ambiguity
Sue Blackmore: Coping with demented patients
Paul Broks: My confession
David Buss: Derogation of competitors
Susan Fiske: Nerdy but nice
Chris French: Seeing what we want to believe
Howard Gardner: Forming a synergistic team
Emily Holmes: My inner CBT therapist
Bruce Hood: Storytelling
Brian Knutson: (anti)complementarity
Ellen Langer: Combating ageism
David Lavallee: The Zeigarnik effect
Scott Lilienfeld: The unnatural nature of scientific thinking
Elizabeth Loftus: Prestige-enhancing memory tricks
Catherine Loveday: An insurance policy
David Myers: Advocating hearing assistance technology
Tom Stafford: Avoiding bystander apathy
Robert Sternberg: Understanding love
Jon Sutton: Pride before a fall
Essi Viding: A "good enough" child-rearing environment

I'm extremely grateful to all the contributors for taking the time and having the candour to share their stories - Thank You!

Readers: Please do use comments to respond and tell the world about your own experiences of using psychology in real life.

If you enjoyed this special feature, you may also enjoy reading similar features we've published in the past, including leading psychologists on one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves.

-Find out more about the BPS Research Digest.
-Find out more about the British Psychological Society.
-Access our monthly magazine, The Psychologist.