Monday, 31 December 2012

When parents lie to their children

We teach our kids that it is wrong to lie, even though most of us do it everyday. In fact, it is often our children who we are lying to. A new study, involving participants in the USA and China, is one of the first to investigate parental lies, finding that the majority of parents tell their children lies as a way to control their behaviour.

Gail Heyman and her colleagues presented 114 parents in the USA and 85 in China with 16 so-called "instrumental lies" in four categories - lies intended to influence the kids' eating habits (e.g. "you need to finish all your food or you will get pimples all over your face"); lies to get the children to leave or stay put (e.g. "If you don't come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself); lies to control misbehaviour (e.g. "If you don't behave I will call the police"); and finally, lies to do with shopping and money (e.g. "I did not bring any money with me today. We can come back another day.").

Eighty-four per cent of US parents and 98 per cent of Chinese parents admitted telling at least one of the 16 lies to their children, and a majority of parents in both countries admitted to telling lies from three of the four categories. The exception was the misbehaviour category - just under half the US parents said they told lies to make their children behaviour better, compared with 80 per cent of Chinese parents.

The lie that the greatest proportion of parents said they told was threatening to leave a child behind if he/she refused to follow the parent. Rates of lying by parents were higher in China than in the US, especially in relation to misbehaviour and eating. The Chinese parents also viewed instrumental lying by parents with more approval than the US parents did; at the same time, they (the Chinese) viewed lying by children with more disapproval. "This cross-cultural difference may reflect greater concern with social cohesiveness and a greater emphasis on respect and obedience," the researchers said.

Asked why they told instrumental lies to their children, parents across both countries talked in terms of a cost-benefit trade-off and the stress of getting children to comply. Other times it was felt children would struggle to understand the truth, such as the complexities of the family budget.

As well as looking at instrumental lies, the study also asked parents about untruths they told their children regarding fantasy characters like the tooth-fairy, or to make their children feel better, for example praising a poor piano performance. Here there were no cultural differences in rates of lie-telling, although the Chinese parents showed less approval toward lying about the existence of fictional characters.

The study has limitations, as acknowledged by the researchers. The two samples differed in other ways besides their culture - the US parents being more highly educated, for example. And of course there was a reliance on self-report rather than an observation or record of actual lies told. Despite these issues, Heyman said their study "helps fill a void in an understudied area that may have strong implications for children's social and moral development."

What do you think about parents lying to their children? Do you lie to yours? Do you remember being lied to as a child?


Heyman, G., Hsu, A., Fu, G., and Lee, K. (2012). Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. International Journal of Psychology, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2012.746463

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

Thursday, 27 December 2012

How to kill an earworm

If earworms - songs that play in your head - drive you crazy, you'll welcome clues for how to eradicate them that come from a new study by psychologists at Western Washington University, USA.

First - and I realise this doesn't sound appealing - try to avoid songs that you like. The new research suggests they are most likely to become lodged in your head (contrary to the myth that it's obnoxious songs with most earworm potential). If you must listen to a favoured song, check to see if it starts playing in your head right afterwards. If it does, then it's well on its way to becoming an earworm. This is a particular risk is you find that only a part of the song plays in your head.

Ira Hyman Jr. and his colleagues believe this last detail may be a manifestation of the classic Zeigarnik Effect, whereby incomplete tasks remain in memory but evaporate once completed. In the case of earworms, the researchers propose that the playing of only a part of a song in your head leaves it incomplete and thereby increases the likelihood that it will return against your will as an earworm. This insight suggests that one way to squash a developing earworm is to make sure, once a song starts playing in your head, that you see it all the way through (perhaps you will need to listen to the track again to ensure this is possible).

Finally, after listening to music, try to avoid mental tasks that are either too easy or too difficult. Any kind of activity that increases your mind-wandering will also provide fertile ground for an earworm to develop. In the same vein, engaging in an absorbing task will tie up your mental resources and deny the earworm the chance to grow.

These insights are based on a survey and several lab experiments conducted by Hyman Jr. and his team. The survey of 299 students revealed that enjoyable, recently heard songs were more likely to become earworms; that a huge variety of songs become earworms; that musicians experience them more often and re-experience more aspects of songs.

In the experiments, dozens of students listened to and rated three songs by the Beatles and by more contemporary acts like Gaga (ostensibly as part of a completely different research study), then they completed a puzzle task. Afterwards they revealed whether any of the songs had started playing in their heads, and 24 hours later they reported whether the songs had returned as earworms.

Overly challenging sudoku or anagram tasks helped breed more earworms (the former more so than the latter). Beatles songs were just as likely to become earworms as modern hits. Songs played later in the experimental session (therefore more recently heard) were more likely to become earworms; and a song that started playing in the head soon after listening was more likely to become an earworm over the next 24 hours. Only playing part of songs to students, as opposed to the whole track, did not increase the risk of earworms.

"Songs frequently come to mind as intrusive thoughts, and intrusive song cycles are easy to start in both naturalistic and laboratory situations," the researchers said. "In our experimental studies, we have documented that intrusive song cycles are easy to start and manipulate. Therefore, songs may provide a valuable tool for examining why intrusive thoughts occur and how to control intrusive thought cycles."


Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., and Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897

--Further reading--
Hearing music that isn't there
A natural history of the Earworm - the song that won't get out of your head
What triggers an Earworm - the song that's stuck in your head?

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

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Our ten most popular posts of 2012

1. Why do children hide by covering their eyes? 

"Together with the fact that it was the concealment of the eyes that seemed to be the crucial factor for feeling hidden, the researchers wondered if the children's invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people - a meeting of gazes - for them to see each other (or at least, to see their "selves")."

2. Why do humans walk in circles?

"Bestaven's team said this suggests that our propensity to walk in circles is related in some way to slight irregularities in the vestibular system. Located in inner ear, the vestibular system guides our balance and minor disturbances here could skew our sense of the direction of "straight ahead" just enough to make us go around in circles."

3. Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

"Schellenberg and von Scheve found that the proportion of songs recorded in minor-mode has increased, doubling over the last fifty years. The proportion of slow tempo hits has also increased linearly, reaching a peak in the 90s."

4. You're most creative when you're at your groggiest

"Here's the headline result: the students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when the time of testing coincided with their least optimal time of functioning."

5. Introducing "enclothed cognition" - how what we wear affects how we think

"Participants who donned a lab coat performed significantly better than others who merely saw a lab coat on the desk (thus suggesting the enclothed effect is more powerful than mere priming) or others who wore the same kind of coat but were told it belonged to a painter."

6. Made it! An uncanny number of psychology findings manage to scrape into statistical significance

"The pattern of results could be indicative of dubious research practices, in which researchers nudge their results towards significance, for example by excluding troublesome outliers or adding new participants. Or it could reflect a selective publication bias in the discipline - an obsession with reporting results that have the magic stamp of statistical significance. Most likely it reflects a combination of both these influences."

7. Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery

Feeling afraid enhances the sublime power of art. "The capacity for a work of art to grab our interest and attention, to remove us from daily life, may stem from its ability to trigger our evolved mechanisms for coping with danger," the researchers said.

8. What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background

"Regardless of their current location, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of Facebook picture. Facebook users originally hailing from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context. Users from the USA, by contrast, were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame."

9. Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail

"For most of us, it's tricky enough to remember what we were doing this time last week, let alone on some random day years ago. But for a blind 20-year-old man referred to by researchers as HK, every day of his life since the age of about eleven is recorded in his memory in detail."

10. Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?

"The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation - as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants)."

Also, check out our at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2012 and The best psychology books of 2012.

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

What's it like to be face-blind?

Most of us take the ability to recognise each other for granted. What must it be like to go through life unable to identify and distinguish people based on their facial appearance?

Some idea comes from a new, candid first-person account written for the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology by a doctor about his life-long face-blindness (known formally as prosopagnosia). It's a problem he didn't even realise he had for 30 years, and which he only discovered was a neuropsychological condition in 2006, when he was diagnosed for the first time. "It now seems remarkable that I lived at least half my life with a socially disabling condition of which not only myself, but also those around me, seemed unaware," writes Dr David Roger Fine, a gastroenterologist at the University of Southampton.

Looking back at his childhood, Fine realises that he can remember school buildings with detail, the clothes worn by his male friends, the hairstyles of the girls - but no faces. He got into difficulties in the playground confusing "high- and low- status boys", and was admonished for not raising his cap to his form teacher when he encountered her out of context and so failed to recognise her.

At senior school he made friends with a close-knit group, all of whom were physically distinctive and so easy to distinguish. In his professional life, Fine describes how there are some situations where his condition doesn't matter - such as committee meetings, where everyone keeps the same seat, and when he's giving a conference presentation. His job as a hospital doctor also involves distinct spatial areas of work and he uses these environmental contexts to help him judge who he is likely to encounter at any given time. Nonetheless, he often walks right past colleagues, earning him a reputation as capricious and aloof. More than once he's been mislabeled as having Asperger's.

In his personal life, before marriage, romantic liaisons were especially problematic. Although women often dress in more distinctive ways than men, they also vary their appearance more often, for example changing their hair style and make-up after work. "It seemed to me that girls popped out of the Ether in one place then disappeared perhaps for months or even years before reappearing in another place, often disgruntled," he says.

Before his wife became his companion and minder, parties were particularly awkward and stressful. "I once met and had a long conversation with a man at a Christmas party," Fine recalls. "We circulated until we met again at the other side of the room and I introduced myself [again]. He looked puzzled until my wife came to my rescue." Making friends is nigh on impossible. "Recognising" strangers is a constant embarrassing risk.

Fine has had a successful career in spite of his prosopagnosia, but he feels his success was "blunted" by the condition. Now aged 60 he has highly developed strategies for coping - he has a better sense of people's age, which is one of the criteria he uses to distinguish people. The ethnic mix of modern Britain also helps. And he tries to focus on distinct items of jewellery, such as people's rings, that tend to be worn at all times. The increased popularity of tattoos is another help, although it can cause problems too - one female colleague with a tattoo low on her chest visible in summer clothes "caused consternation in the corridor [one winter] as she unbuttoned her blouse by way of identification."

Looking to the future, Fine is worried that his confusion about people's identity could lead to him being misdiagnosed with dementia. "During a recent hospital stay I asked the nurses to introduce themselves every time, as I was concerned that I might be misdiagnosed as confused if I muddled them up."


Experts used to think that the inability to recognise faces was a problem that nearly always arose after brain injury. In recent years, however, it's become apparent that many people are born with face-blindness (or develop it early in life), with the prevalence estimated at two per cent of the population. Do you have the condition or know anyone who has? How do you/they cope?


Fine, D. (2012). A life with prosopagnosia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 1-6 DOI: 10.1080/02643294.2012.736377

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

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Psychologist magazine is 25!

With publication of its January 2013 issue, The Psychologist magazine turns 25-years-old. Here's a free preview:

The Special Issue Spotter

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

High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Schools (Psychology in The Schools).

The Potential Contribution of Computational Modeling to the Study of Cognitive Development: When, and for What Topics? (Cognitive Development).

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (open access virtual special issue, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy).

Bullying (open access, virtual special issue from Wiley).

Advances in Eye Tracking in Infancy Research (open access, Infancy).

ADHD (open access, virtual special issue from Wiley).

Special Anniversary Issue: A Tribute to the First 30 Years of JLSP Scholarship (Journal of Language and Social Psychology).

New Directions and Challenges to Cognitive Load Theory (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Sport and Exercise Psychology (Canadian Psychology).

Cognitive modeling ‘versus’ cognitive neuroscience: Competing approaches or compatible levels of explanation? (open access, Australian Journal of Psychology).

Human fear conditioning (Biological Psychology).
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Why do toddlers bother learning to walk?

You're a cheeky 10-month-old, an expert crawler able to move with impressive speed on your hands and knees. The world is your oyster, so why do you bother staggering to your feet to become a doddering, novice walker?

Before now, psychologists looking for an answer to this question have been handicapped by the lack of observational data on how infants crawl and walk in a natural environment. When it comes to language development, there's a long tradition of recording the words that infants are exposed to in real life, and the utterances they produce. But strangely, all the research on walking has been based on lab studies, getting toddlers to crawl or walk in a straight(-ish) path across a mat.

Now Karen Adolph and her colleagues at New York University have videoed 151 infants (aged 11 to 19 months) mucking about in a play room for an hour with their mum or other care-giver. The videos were coded to compare the movement patterns and fall rates of crawlers and walkers. The infants typically got mobile during brief bursts of activity - amounting to 32.3 per cent of the total time they were observed.

The data provide dramatic insight into the learning process involved in walking. In an hour, the average toddler took 2,368 steps (either walking or crawling), travelled 701 meters, and fell 17 times. Extrapolating to 6 hours (half a toddler's typical waking day), this would translate to 14,000 steps a day,  travelling the distance of 46 football fields, with 100 falls.

Comparing expert crawlers with novice walkers, the researchers made a particularly surprising discovery. After controlling for the fact the novice walkers spent more overall time being mobile than crawlers, the data showed that they didn't in fact fall with any more frequency than the crawlers. This helps explain the mystery of why expert crawlers would give up a proven transport technique. "Part of the answer to 'why walk?'," the researchers said, "is 'why not?'."

Another useful outcome from the current research was that the researchers were able to compare the observational walking data from the play room with the infants' performance on the classic standardised measure of walking (in a straight-line across a gait mat). The two correlated, providing for the first time evidence of the validity of the standard walking test.

"This corpus of natural locomotion indicates that infants accumulate massive amounts of ... practice," the researchers concluded. "They may be motivated to walk in the first place because walking takes them farther faster than crawling without increasing the risk of falling."


Adolph, K., Cole, W., Komati, M., Garciaguirre, J., Badaly, D., Lingeman, J., Chan, G., and Sotsky, R. (2012). How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls per Day. Psychological Science, 23 (11), 1387-1394 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446346

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

Monday, 17 December 2012

The psychology of online reviews

We used to rely on word-of-mouth or expert critics to help us choose our purchases, be that a planned holiday or a movie rental. Today that's all changed. A few mouse clicks and sites like Trip Advisor and Amazon offer us an abundance of reviews written by strangers. Yet, how they affect our judgements has been little researched.

Now Brent Coker has conducted a pair of studies and his main finding suggests that we remain impressed after reading early positive reviews, even if negative reviews come later. It's a finding that could help us be more objective when reading review pages, and it will surely also be of interest to marketeers and PR professionals hoping to give their products an advantage.

Seventy-six undergrads were told all positive facts about one fictional coffee brand and all negative facts about another, along the lines of: "the company has put green policies in place" and "the company has tried to cover up exploitation of its workers". Pictures illustrated the facts.

Next a research assistant told the participants that a mistake had been made - the fact sheets had been wrongly labelled, so that the positive statements actually applied to other coffee brand and vice versa. They were asked to imagine the sheets had been labelled correctly and then say how they felt about the two companies. Their responses were compared against the ratings of a control group for whom the reversal wasn't made.

The key finding here was that the impact of the early positive facts lingered, leading to enhanced ratings for the brand that was originally misdescribed in glowing terms. In contrast, the stain of negative facts wore off. The brand originally misdescribed in negative terms was given fair ratings by the participants, as if they were able to forget the mistaken negative associations.

A second study tested this principle with online reviews for an LA hotel. Two hundred and eighty undergrads read five Trip Advisor reviews for the hotel, either ordered so that they went from positive to negative, or from negative to positive. The participants showed more favour for the hotel when they read the more positive reviews first, again showing how the impact of early positive reviews appears to linger. This remained the case even when the reviews were labelled such that they appeared to have been written over the course of a year (so giving the impression that the hotel had deteriorated during that time).

"This research documented evidence of asymmetrical affective perseverance when consumers form attitudes towards brands," Coker concluded. "... Consumers may overshoot their judgments towards brands when positive information is replaced with negative information."


Coker, B. (2012). Seeking the opinions of others online: Evidence of evaluation overshoot. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33 (6), 1033-1042 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.06.005

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

Friday, 14 December 2012

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2012

Milgram, Freud, Scandal and Sport, here's the Psychological Year in Review:

Jan - <>Hertfordshire police said they'd completed a successful trial using the polygraph with convicted sex offenders. The test, which measures physiological arousal, has a poor reputation among psychological scientists. Aldert Vrij at the University of Portsmouth said it is "atheoretical and inaccurate". <>Figures from December showing a dramatic rise in anti-depressant medications continued to attract controversy. The mainstream media said it was a sign of the recession affecting our mental health. Ben Goldacre and others disagreed.

Feb - <>New data suggested Little Albert was brain damaged. <>There was huge interest in a new study showing that brain activity could be decoded to reveal the words a person had heard. <>The film A Dangerous Method was released, about the relationship between Freud and Jung. <>Numerous psychologists joined other thinkers in answering the annual Edge question: "What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?". <>Twitter activity was found to predict the impact of science journals. <>The NYT noticed the rising wave of psychotherapy apps. <>Ulric Neisser passed away.

March - <>A row erupted over replications in psychology after a US professor reacted angrily to a failed replication of one of his seminal papers. <>The Maudsley/IoP debated whether psychoanalysis has a place in the modern NHS. <>The UK Government's Behavioural Insight Team said millions of pounds could be saved by using psychological insights to combat fraud and error. <>The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its first data on the nation's wellbeing. <>An article was published on the last of the split-brain patients.

April - <>The Levelt committee at the University of Tilburg published the preliminary results from its investigation into the fraud by Diederik Stapel. <>The Psychologist published an opinion special issue on the importance of replication. <>The UK's first ever "happiness weekend" took place at Wellington college. <>The British Psychological Society launched its Origins project - charting the history of the discipline. <>Neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer published his eagerly awaited book on creativity - Imagine. <>Channel 4 began a new show about people's hidden psychological talents.

May - <>Oxford University opened a new lab, "the Oxford Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour". <>A paper was published based on a replication of Milgram on a French TV quiz show. <>A survey of the media's treatment of neuroscience found that findings are often misrepresented for ideological ends. <>The British Psychological Society launched a sports psychology portal in anticipation of the Olympic Games. <>Researchers in the USA attempted to simulate the brain damage suffered by Phineas Gage. <>The "disappearing hand trick" won the year's prize for best illusion.

June - <>A trial of parenting classes began in England. <>A report by a cross-party group of MPs claimed half the UK population has a negative body image. <>The British Psychological Society published its concerns about the planned changes to psychiatry's diagnostic code (DSM-5). <>A meta-analysis claimed that working memory training fails to bring broader benefits. <>Crowdsourcing was said to be transforming the science of psychology. <>A close-up photo of the surface of a living human brain won the Wellcome Trust image awards. <>The Psychologist published a feature article on the psychology of competition in anticipation of the London Olympic games in July.

July - <>The Erasmus University of Rotterdam found one of their top social psychologists, Dirk Smeesters, guilty of "data selection" and failing to keep suitable data records. <>Chartered Psychologist Lih-Mei Liao, was part of a team behind a new animated documentary about labiaplasty. <>Pioneering occupational psychologist Harry Levinson passed away. <>An LA-Times op-ed urged people to stop bullying the social sciences. Another said psychology isn't a science (oh yes it is). <>Social psychologist Lawrence Sanna resigned his post under the cloud of scandal. <>Newsweek said the Internet is making us crazy. <>Plans were announced for the polygraph test to be rolled out nationally in England and Wales. <>George Miller passed away. <>Jonah Lehrer resigned his position at the New Yorker after admitting he'd fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine.

August - <>More data were published showing anti-depressant prescriptions on the rise. <>A murder trial judge in the US ruled that fMRI-based lie-detection evidence was inadmissible. <>Cambridge University merged its two psychology departments into one - "Experimental Psychology" and "Social and Developmental Psychology". <>The first annual results from the ONS well-being survey found that three quarters of people aged over 16 rated their overall life satisfaction as 7 or more (out of 10).

September - <>The winners of the latest annual Ig Nobel Awards were announced, including a study that brain scanned a dead salmon and another that showed leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower appear smaller. <>Nature published an editorial lamenting the lack of investment in research into ways to improve the effectiveness of psychological therapy. <>The Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) published an open letter to its members urging them to "make discussions of ethical behavior part of the everyday discussion in your lab." <>The Commission on Media Violence concluded that "research clearly shows that media violence consumption increases the relative risk of aggression."

October - <>The UK Home Office announced that it’s widening the cross-government definition of domestic violence, to take into account psychological factors. <>Thomas Szasz passed away. <>Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to social psychologists. <>The board of directors at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa placed the celebrated primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on "administrative leave". <>A neurosurgeon claimed that he died and went to heaven (and back) while suffering from a brain infection. <>British psychiatrist David Healy told the American Psychiatric Association that the profession is committing "professional suicide" by failing to deal with its close relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. <>Positive psychology mourned the passing of Christopher Petersen. A study into why children hide by covering their eyes becomes the most popular item on the Digest blog since records started.

November - <>Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech to the Royal College of Psychiatrists about mental illness, which he described as the "biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age". <>Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the US presidential election using number-crunching techniques. <>The Schizophrenia Commission published the results of its year-long investigation into the state of care for patients in England with schizophrenia, finding them to be "badly let down".  <>The Effect, a play about depression and the inadequacy of neuropharmacological explanations, opened at the Cottesloe Theatre, London, to rave reviews.

December - <>An American Psychiatric Association working party approved the proposed changes to its diagnostic code (DSM-5), due for publication next May. <>A law change was proposed to reflect the psychological harm caused by sexual offences. <>The Commons home affairs select committee calls for a fundamental review of UK drugs policy. <>The British Psychological Society's Research Digest published its first handy guide to the psychological year in review.

January - ?


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

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A new test for finding out what people really think of their personality

A problem with your standard personality questionnaire is that most people like to make a good impression. This is especially the case when questionnaires are used for job candidates. One way around this is to use so-called implicit measures of personality, designed to probe subconscious beliefs. The famous Rorschach ink-blot test is one example, but many psychologists criticise it for its unreliability. A more modern example is a version of the implicit association test, in which people are timed using the same response key for self-referential words and various personality traits. If they associate the trait with themselves, they should be quicker to answer. Now a team led by Florin Sava have proposed a brand-new test based on what's called the "semantic misattribution procedure".

Nearly a hundred participants watched as personality traits were flashed one at a time for a fifth of a second on a computer screen. After each trait (e.g. "anxious"), a neutral-looking Chinese pictograph was flashed on-screen. The participants didn't know what these Chinese symbols meant. Their task was to ignore the flashed personality traits and to say whether they'd like each Chinese symbol to be printed on a personalised t-shirt for them or not, to reflect their personality.

This method is based on past research showing that we tend to automatically misattribute the meaning of briefly presented words to subsequent neutral stimuli. So, in the example above, participants would be expected to attribute, at a subconscious level, the meaning of "anxious" to the Chinese symbol. When assessing the suitability of the symbol for their t-shirt, it feels subjectively as if they are merely guessing, or making their judgment based on its visual properties. But in fact their choice of whether the symbol is suitable will be influenced by the anxious meaning they've attributed to it, and, crucially, whether or not they have an implicit belief that they are anxious.

In this initial study, and two more involving nearly 300 participants, Sava and his colleagues showed that participants' scores on this test for conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion correlated with explicit measures of the same traits. The new implicit test also did a better job than explicit measures alone of predicting relevant behaviours, such as church attendance, perseverance on a lab task, and punctuality. The implicit scores for extraversion showed good consistency over 6 months. Finally, the new implicit test showed fewer signs of being influenced by social desirability concerns, as compared with traditional explicit measures. Next, the researchers plan to test whether their new implicit measure is immune to attempts at deliberate fakery.

"The present study suggests that the Semantic Misattribution Procedure is an effective alternative for measuring implicit personality self- concept," the researchers said.


Sava, F., MaricuΤoiu, L., Rusu, S., Macsinga, I., Vîrgă, D., Cheng, C., and Payne, B. (2012). An Inkblot for the Implicit Assessment of Personality: The Semantic Misattribution Procedure. European Journal of Personality, 26 (6), 613-628 DOI: 10.1002/per.1861

--Further reading--
A personality test that can't be faked

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

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Putting a price on emotions

Would you pay more cash to experience intense happiness or to avoid intense embarrassment? Your answer may depend on the culture you live in.

A team led by Hi Lau at the University of Hong Kong used this "willingness to pay" approach to find out how students in Britain and Hong Kong value different emotions. For the first study, 97 British students chose how much they'd be willing to spend (from £10 to £150, in £10 increments) to enjoy various positive emotions intensely for an hour, or to to avoid various negative emotions for an hour.

Overall, the students were willing to pay more to experience positive emotions than to avoid negative ones. An hour's worth of love was the most valued, followed by an hour's worth of happiness and then an hour without sadness. Bottom of the list was disgust - the students were only prepared to pay an average of £43 to avoid an hour of disgust (compared with £95 to have an hour of love).

Next, the research took in the choices of 46 students in Hong Kong as well as 41 Brits, and the range of emotions was expanded. The findings for the British students was largely a replication of the first study, with a greater willingness to pay for positive emotions than to avoid negative ones. The Hong Kong students showed a more balanced set of responses, being just as willing to pay to avoid negative emotions as to experience positive ones. Focusing on specific emotions, the Brits said they'd pay more than the Hong Kong students for happiness, delight and calm; the Hong Kong students meanwhile said they'd pay more than the Brits to avoid regret, embarrassment and frustration.

Lau's team, including University of Cambridge researcher Simone Schnall, said their approach offers a new, advantageous way to gauge people's attitudes towards emotions. The findings complement questionnaire-based research on people's beliefs about which emotions matter most to them, and their beliefs about which emotions will have more of an impact on their long-term wellbeing. There's some evidence that an absence of negative emotion is more important for wellbeing than positive emotion, in which case the British participants in the current study may have been unwise in their choices. "By putting price-tags on emotions we might come closer to understanding the value of human experience in order to aid policies at enhancing well-being," the researchers said.


Lau, H., White, M., and Schnall, S. (2012). Quantifying the Value of Emotions Using a Willingness to Pay Approach. Journal of Happiness Studies DOI: 10.1007/s10902-012-9394-7

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

Monday, 10 December 2012

For mimicry to flatter, it's all about the body part, not the action

We like people more when they mimic us. But only up to a point. If mimicry becomes too obvious, it can backfire, becoming mockery. A new study asks just how much imitation is enough to trigger benefits. Does the mimicker need to copy every action, or merely to move the same body parts?

Peggy Sparenberg and her colleagues conducted three experiments in all. In the first two, 126 participants performed movements while at the same time watching videos of human-like avatars performing various movements of their own.

The avatars either moved their arms in a straight line, up and down, or they moved their legs in a linear fashion. Meanwhile, the participants turned a crank in a circular motion, either with their arms, or with their legs. The idea was that the movement type performed by the participants was always completely different from the type of movements performed by the avatars, while the limb used matched for some participants but not others. Asked to rate the pleasantness of the avatars afterwards, there was a clear effect of matching limbs. Participants who'd watched an avatar moving the same limb type that they'd been moving tended to give their avatars higher ratings.

For the final study, 96 seated participants were trained in different types of movements with their arms or legs (e.g. holding the elbows steady near the body, and swinging the arms outwards to the side and back again). They then performed these trained movements while watching a video of a person in a chair performing movements of their own. The character in the video either performed the exact same kind of movements; different movements but with the same limb type; or different movements with different limbs.

After the videos, the participants rated their feelings towards the video character. The key finding here was that participants gave higher ratings when the person in the video moved the same limb as they did, regardless of whether they performed the same kind of movement. In fact, seeing the video character perform the same kind of movement added nothing to the preference ratings.

Mimicry is thought to make a good impression because it increases what's called "sensorimotor fluency". As mimicry researcher Rick van Baaren told The Psychologist, when you're mimicked, "What you perceive is the same as what you do. It’s easier for the brain to process, it takes less energy and leads to positive affect." These new results suggest that merely seeing the same limb moved as the limb you are moving, is enough to trigger this fluency effect. "To our knowledge," Sparenberg and her team concluded, "our results are the first to demonstrate that an incidental and minimal structural overlap in body part moved is sufficient to establish a mimicry-preference link."


Sparenberg, P., Topolinski, S., Springer, A., and Prinz, W. (2012). Minimal mimicry: Mere effector matching induces preference. Brain and Cognition, 80 (3), 291-300 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.08.004

--Further reading--
Mimicry improves women's speed-dating success.
Money makes mimicry backfire.
Mimicry the best form of flattery for computers too.

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

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The best psychology books of 2012

It's the season for Christmas book lists and we've trawled through them, looking for the psychology-themed tomes earning a recommendation.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by psychologist Jonathan Haidt - listed by the Sunday Times as one of their favourite thought-provoking books of the year (also chosen by the Guardian as a top psychology book).

In the same Sunday Times category was listed Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, which also won GoodReads vote for best non-fiction of the year.

In its list of the over-looked non-fiction books of the year Slate highlights The Wisdom of Psychopaths by psychologist Kevin Dutton: a "terrifically entertaining and chilling book".

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors of Victorian England by Sarah Wise (Bodley Head, £20) - Sebastian Faulks for the Daily Telegraph recommended it, saying "it is an illuminating look at an area of social history that inspired Wilkie Collins among others".

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg was chosen by Brain Pickings as one of the best science books of the year.

This year's British Psychological Society book award went to Dorling Kindersley's The Psychology Book: "An innovative and accessible guide designed for readers new to psychology."

In Amazon's list of the best non-fiction books of the year was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Barnes and Noble listed Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon as one of the best non-fiction books of the year: "This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human." (also chosen by the NYT as one of the 10 best books of the year).

The Guardian published a list of the best psychology books of the year, highlighting Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J Prinz: "shows how on most of the points on which evolutionary psychologists like to reflect, humans are shaped far more by their culture than by nature."

The Sunday Times chose Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by psychologist Charles Fernyhough as one of their favourite science books of the year: "a book about memory that is also a memoir".

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust, by John Coates was listed by the Daily Telegraph as one of the year's best science books: "No one is better qualified to analyse the biology of banking than Coates, a trader turned neuroscientist."

Last but not least, James Gleick's The Information won this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books: "tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness."
Post compiled by Digest editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer), whose Rough Guide to Psychology is still available from all good book shops. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Link feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

"The brain, the most mysterious object in the universe, but it can still make you behave like a bit of an idiot," said Dara Ó Briain, introducing the latest edition of his Science Club programme on BBC 2, which this week focused on the brain. Guests included psychology doyenne Uta Frith.

In Scientific American, a mindblowing article about children's cells living on in their mothers' brains - and the effects they might have.

Jules Evans - author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations - offers the top ten tips for recovering from a mental illness.

There's free access to all Springer Psychology journals until the end of this month.

Brain scans might not be as beguiling as is often assumed.

The latest edition of (US) psychiatry's diagnostic code - DSM-5 - has been approved and will publish in May next year. Here's Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks with an irreverent take on the news.

Could boredom be curable? - Maria Konnikova for the Boston Globe.

Ed Yong for Nature gives the lowdown on a new simulated brain - "Spaun" - with 2.5 million virtual neurons that allow it to "recognize lists of numbers, do simple arithmetic and solve reasoning problems".

There is room for free will in a world governed by the laws of physics - podcast of a recent talk at the LSE by Christian List.

The Guardian lists the top psychology books of 2012.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Benevolent sexism puts women off asking for help

Benevolent sexism describes insidious behaviours and beliefs that reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. It's a controversial idea. It's not always clear if an act, such as a man opening a door for a woman, is simply polite or an example of benevolent sexism. Another issue is whether or not benevolent sexism is harmful. A new study led by Juliet Wakefield claims to show that exposure to benevolent sexism can put women off asking for help. If true, it's a finding that has obvious implications for the workplace, especially in contexts where health and safety could be compromised.

Eighty-six female undergrads arrived one at a time at a psychology lab for what they thought was an investigation into sex differences in reasoning and problem-solving. A female research assistant welcomed them and explained that they'd be interacting with a remote research team via computer. She then went and sat behind a partition in the same room. The three-person remote team were either all male or all female (this was clear from their names), and they proceeded to ask some basic questions of the participant via the computer.

Next, the research assistant's mobile phone rang. It was obvious from her end of the conversation that it was her male plumber "Joe". He'd moved some items in her house without asking - an act that the research assistant blamed either on his impatience or his sexist beliefs. After her call, the research assistant apologised to the participant, either saying "Sorry about that, my plumber is so impatient" or "Sorry about that - my plumber is such a typical man - he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!".

After this, the participants began a 90-second anagram challenge on the computer. When the time was up, they had the chance to request help from the remote research team for any items they hadn't solved. They also answered questions about their mood.

The key finding is that participants exposed to the story about the sexist plumber asked for less help on average, compared with participants who were told the plumber was merely impatient (they sought help with 48 per cent vs. 56 per cent of unsolved items). This held regardless of the sex of the remote research team (the source of the help). Another finding was that for participants exposed to the sexist plumber story, the more help they sought, the worst their mood. Conforming to the stereotype of the needy female appeared to make them feel rubbish about themselves.

"All in all," the researchers concluded, "our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women's emotions and behaviour, and is therefore anything but banal."

Critics may feel that the explicit view to which some of the participants were exposed - that "women are incapable of doing anything on their own" (emphasis added) - was not particularly subtle; that the results therefore say more about out and out sexism rather than benevolent sexism. It would also have been preferable to include a third condition in which the participants were not exposed to any overheard phone conversation.

Wakefield, J., Hopkins, N., and Greenwood, R. (2012). Thanks, But No Thanks: Women's Avoidance of Help-Seeking in the Context of a Dependency-Related Stereotype Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36 (4), 423-431 DOI: 10.1177/0361684312457659

-Further resources-
Podcast featuring the lead author of this study discussing the findings.
"Let me help you with that" - how women suffer from benevolent sexism.

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