Monday, 28 February 2005

If Bill Clinton were a woman...

From Profumo to Boris and now Ken, the politician's knack of hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons shows no sign of abating. Their political survival then depends on the public's reaction. So, as women gradually increase their presence in political life, Elizabeth Smith (Furman University, USA) and Ashleigh Powers (University of North Carolina) ask whether people are less forgiving of female misdemeanours.

Two hundred and forty participants (average age 30 years) read two fictional newspaper stories about politicians who were in trouble for some errant behaviour. To gauge their reaction, the participants then evaluated the politicians on things like their competence, likeability and honesty. Different versions of the newspaper stories were used - the sex of the politicians changed, as did their misdemeanour and their account of what they'd done.

Overall, people were no less forgiving of transgressions by female politicians. Female participants, however, were less forgiving of all the politicians than the men. Participants were most forgiving when a politician committed an act that ran counter to gender stereotypes (e.g. a female politician accepting bribes; a male politician having sex with a superior). "In other words", the authors said, "if Bill Clinton were a woman, he might actually have gotten off easier in public evaluations".

The participants were convinced least by excuses (e.g. "This egregious error was caused by an oversight by my staff") and were, in contrast, most forgiving when justifications were given (e.g. "As two consenting adults we feel that this relationship is not improper in any way").

The authors concluded: "Since women's willingness to run for office seems to be one of the last great hurdles to full political equality, our findings will hopefully act to encourage women in their political considerations".

Smith, E.S. and Powers, A.S. (2005). If Bill Clinton were a woman: the effectiveness of male and female politicians' account strategies following alleged transgressions. Political Psychology, 26, 115-133.

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

Sunday, 27 February 2005

Testing times

"It's all in the reflexes", Kurt Russell drawls in the 80s martial arts romp Big Trouble in Little China. He could be right - according to scientists in Scotland, people with quicker reactions are more likely to live longer.

Ian Deary and Geoff Der measured the IQ and reaction times of 898 people (average age 55 years) in 1988 and then noted which of them had died by 2002 (185 had). They also recorded information on each person's education, occupation and whether or not they smoked.

In 1988, being male, a smoker, and of lower social class were all independent significant predictors of the likelihood of dying before 2002. But even when these factors were controlled for, having lower IQ and slower reactions were also significant predictors of the likelihood of dying, roughly equivalent to the difference made by whether one smoked or not. Reaction time seemed to be the crucial factor here - IQ and reactions correlated, and when reactions were controlled for, IQ no longer predicted the likelihood of dying.

But in our modern world of settees and coffee shops, why should having faster reactions increase your life expectancy? "These variables might...constitute a simple... indicator of the organism's integrity, and of clinical and subclinical pathology" the authors said.

But what about a study started in 1932 that showed 11-year-old children's IQ predicted their mortality 70 years later? Surely IQ wasn't revealing latent pathology at that age? Perhaps, the authors said, "...even at that age lower IQ relates to earlier death partly because it is a reflection of a body with suboptimal physical integrity".

Deary, I.J. & Derr, G. (2005). Reaction time explains IQ's association with death. Psychological Science, 16, 64-69.

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

Saturday, 26 February 2005

Keeping check

One in twelve women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. If it's detected early, for example by self-examination for abnormal lumps, then the chances of preventing the cancer spreading can be increased. Paul Norman and Kate Brain (University of Wales College of Medicine) investigated which health beliefs held by women predict how often they check their breasts.

Five hundred and sixty-seven women with a family history of breast cancer completed health belief and breast self-examination questionnaires at 'Time 1' and nine months later. Based on their answers, the women were categorised as either infrequent checkers (3-4 times a year or less), appropriate checkers (monthly or fortnightly) or excessive checkers (weekly or daily).

The strongest predictor of infrequent checking at nine months was past behaviour - infrequent checkers at Time 1 were also likely to be infrequent checkers nine months later. However, women lacking confidence in their ability to perform breast self-examination, and those who perceived there to be few benefits, were also more likely to be infrequent checkers nine months later, regardless of their past behaviour. This suggests "health professionals should highlight the positive benefits of performing a monthly self-examination and should seek to enhance women's confidence in their ability to self-check", the authors said.

Excessive checkers tended to be women who were confident in their ability to self-check, and who were more worried about breast cancer. Excessive breast self-examination can be counter-productive, being more frequent but less thorough, and diagnosis of benign lumps may be increased, impeding the detection of malignant lumps. The authors recommended practical demonstrations of self-checking, and said there was a need to address the high levels of cancer-related anxiety experienced by some women with a family history of breast cancer.

Norman, P. & Brain, K. (2005). An application of an extended health belief model to the prediction of breast self-examination among women with a family history of breast cancer. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 1-17.

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

Friday, 25 February 2005

Social phobia

People with social phobia dread social situations and live in fear of public embarrassment. Their anxiety often permeates all public activities, including eating out, or visiting a public lavatory. Research shows they catastrophise about social situations, what people think about them, and what negative social events say about the kind of person they are. By correcting these biases, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment. However, it's not known whether all of these biases need to be addressed for long term recovery, or if instead the correction of one particular bias is crucial. Judith Wilson and Ronald Rapee (Macquarie University, Sydney) investigated.

Thirty-six people undergoing a 12-week CBT programme for social phobia completed questionnaires before and after their treatment. Their long-term recovery was assessed three months later.

After CBT, the participants were less likely to believe a hypothetical social situation would cause others to think ill of them; were less likely to think it reflected badly on the kind of person they are; and less likely to think it would have long-term negative implications for their relationships and/or career. Of these, only reductions in the participants' belief that negative social events revealed bad things about them, independently predicted reduced social phobia at three months.

Whereas previous research has suggested social phobics are overly concerned by what others think of them, this research highlights the importance of how they view themselves. "It is ultimately the negative inferences they draw with regard to the self that may be important for maintaining the disorder", the authors said.

Wilson, J.K. & Rapee, R.M. (2005). The interpretation of negative social events in social phobia: changes during treatment and relationship to outcome. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 373-389.

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

Thursday, 24 February 2005

The foot is also quicker than the eye

Scientists at the Institute of Neurology have shown that reaching movements with the foot can be controlled by the same kind of rapid, sub-conscious processing as the hand.

Participants were asked to lift and place one of their feet as quickly as possible onto a target located 16cm in front of them. On a quarter of 96 trials, the target jumped unexpectedly 21cm to the left or right. Imagine reaching your foot out onto a stepping stone that suddenly moved. Raymond Reynolds and Brian Day found that in response, participants were able to adjust their reaching movement incredibly quickly - within 120ms - that's just an eighth of a second. The incredible speed of this adjustment suggests the existence of a sub-cortical visuomotor pathway for control of the foot (i.e. one not involving the cerebral cortex, which is associated with conscious thought).

Moreover, when they repeated the experiment without participants being able to grasp hand-rails for balance, they found the same rapid adjustments were made and, surprising the researchers, nobody fell over.

"Normally, foot-placement is pre-planned at the beginning of a step, and tightly coupled to the throw of the body that occurs before foot-off", the scientists explained. "But our results show some mid-swing alteration in foot placement can occur without balance being compromised...the central nervous system can alter foot trajectory quickly while simultaneously ensuring balance is not threatened".

The authors said such control systems could aid walking over uneven terrain, or even a football player's rapid interception of the ball.

Reynolds, R.F. & Day, B.L. (2005). Rapid visuo-motor processes drive the leg regardless of balance contraints. Current Biology, 15, R48-R49.

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

Wednesday, 23 February 2005

A crooked suggestion

When self-proclaimed psychics appear to bend metal using their mind alone, there are many possible explanations for what's really going on, from object substitution to the use of concealed force. But one of the hardest aspects to explain away is eye witness accounts that the metal object continues to bend after the performer puts it down (so-called 'after effects'). A new study by Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening at the University of Hertfordshire provides compelling evidence that it could all be down to verbal suggestion.

Forty-six undergrads watched a two-minute video of a performer bending a key, apparently using mind power, and then placing it on a table. For half the students only, the performer could be heard uttering one sentence suggesting the key was continuing to bend once on the table (it wasn't). Afterwards, 40 per cent of the students who were played the performer's suggestive comment agreed with the statement that the key had continued to bend. In contrast, only 5 per cent of students who weren't played his comment agreed it had continued bending.

The experiment was repeated with 100 students and an open-ended questionnaire for them to describe what happened. Those students played the performer's suggestive comment were more likely to write afterwards that the key had continued bending. But they seemed unaware of the performer's suggestion - of those students who wrote that the key kept bending, few mentioned his comment.

The results show that it is "possible to create... psychokinetic metal bending 'after effects' via verbal suggestion alone", the authors said.

Wiseman, R. & Greening, E. (2005). 'It's still bending': verbal suggestion and alleged psychokinetic ability. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 115-129.

Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Born already attached

Psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of 'antenatal attachment' - the bond formed between a pregnant mother and her unborn child. For example, a mother's degree of affection for her unborn child, and the amount of time she thinks about it, can predict the quality of the mother-child relationship once the baby is born. Pier Righetti (Conegliano Hospital, Italy) and colleagues investigated whether advances in ultrasound technology that provide enhanced foetal images, would strengthen the attachment formed between parents and their unborn baby.

Fifty-six women at 19-23 weeks pregnancy, and their partners, were split into two groups. Half attended a standard 2-D ultrasound appointment, and half underwent a state-of-the-art 4-D ultrasound, which provides superior imagery of the foetus, including showing its movements in real time. Before the ultrasound, and then two weeks after it, the parents completed self-report attachment questionnaires.

The strength of the mothers' attachment to their unborn baby increased significantly over the two week period, probably due in part to the foetuses starting to kick more during that time. However, the quality of the ultrasound made no difference to their strength of attachment, and the fathers' attachment didn't increase over the two weeks regardless of the ultrasound technology.

The authors point out that the improved ultrasound could have psychological benefits not tapped by the self-report questionnaires they used; that their research should be repeated at other stages of pregnancy, and with a greater number of couples.

Righetti, P.L., Avanzo, M.D., Grigio, M. & Nicolini. (2005). Maternal/paternal antenatal attachment and fourth-dimensional ultrasound technique: a preliminary report. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 129-139.

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

Monday, 21 February 2005

Driver stereotypes

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that car and driver stereotypes are commonplace. Only last spring, London Mayor Ken Livingstone branded urban drivers of 4 X 4 vehicles as "idiots". But there's little evidence concerning how such stereotypes might affect people's allocation of blame in controversial accidents.

Graham Davies (University of Leicester) and Darshana Patel (UCL) first established that 24 undergraduates consistently rated some car brands and colours as more aggressive than others. The Ford Escort XR3i, red cars, and young males were each rated as the most aggressive model, colour and driver, respectively. The Citroen 2CV, beige cars and elderly women were consistently rated the least aggressive.

In a second experiment, 81 members of a community sample read an account of a collision between a Ford Escort Xr3i, driven by a young man, and a Citroen 2CV, driven by an elderly man. They also read fictional driver statements, each blaming the other. Afterwards, the participants consistently allocated more blame to the Escort, and rated its speed as faster and its position as more erratic, even though they'd been given no objective facts to suggest this was true.

A final experiment found that car and driver stereotypes interact in subtle ways. For example, in another fictional crash scenario, a red car was later estimated by participants to be going five mph faster than the average, but only when the driver was described as a young male.

If stereotypes also affect how witnesses recall crash events, the authors said, then potentially "the young driver of a stereotypically aggressive car involved in an accident could be in danger of suffering double jeopardy: biased testimony from witnesses, combined with distorted judgments by decision makers".

Davies, M.D. & Patel, D. (2005). The influence of car and driver stereotypes on attributions of vehicle speed, position on the road and culpability in a road accident scenario. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 10, 45-64.

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