Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The power of a light touch on the arm

A good-looking man approached 120 women in a night club over a period of three weeks, and asked them to dance. It was in the name of science – the man was an assistant to the psychologist Nicolas Guegen. Remarkably, of the 60 women who he touched lightly on the arm, 65 per cent agreed to a dance, compared with just 43 per cent of the 60 women who he asked without making any physical contact.

A second study involved three male research assistants approaching 240 women in the street and asking them for their phone numbers. Among those 120 women who the researchers touched lightly on the arm, 19 per cent agreed to share their number, compared with 10 per cent of the women with whom no physical contact was made.

Guegen says that when men make this light touch on the women's arms, they are perceived as more dominant which is an attractive trait associated with status.

To test this, more women were asked for their phone numbers in the street. Again, half were touched on the arm and half were not. After the male researchers had done their bit, a female researcher approached the women and asked them questions about the men. Supporting Guegen's explanation, the women who had been touched on the arm tended to rate the male researcher who had approached them as more attractive and more dominant.

This study was conducted in France, and Guegen cautioned the findings might not translate to other cultures. “It is possible that in a non-contact culture, the effect of touch in a courtship relation would be perceived negatively by women,” he said.

This is not the first time psychological research has revealed the social effects of physical touch. Other studies have shown, for example, that when observers view a picture of one person touching another, they perceive the “toucher” to be more dominant than the “touchee”. Yet another study found waiters and waitresses who touched customers lightly on the arm, were perceived more positively than those who made no physical contact.

Guegen, N. (2007). Courtship compliance: The effect of touch on women's behaviour. Social Influence, 2, 81-97.

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

Friday, 25 May 2007

A flicker of light in a sea of darkness

There's a scene in John Bayley's memoir of the late, great Iris Murdoch, in which he recalls her saying to a friend “I see an angel. I think it's you.” Murdoch had recently developed Alzheimer's Disease and the friend in question was helping her shower. Such moments of lucidity can be like a flicker of light in a sea of darkness to the relatives and friends of people suffering from dementia. They are also of interest to scientists and clinicians seeking to understand how the mind is affected by the ravages of disease.

Now David Hawkins and Neill Graff-Radford at the Mayo Clinic have reported the case of an 81-year-old lady suffering from probable Alzheimer's disease, who despite severe cognitive difficulties and widespread brain atrophy, has retained the ability to pun.

For example, in response to hearing her son say “Dad let's charge up the battery for your new phone”, the patient said “Are you going to charge him for that?”

After her son said “That dinner was great, but I'm really full,” the patient replied “It was a very fulfilling meal”. These and many other examples were recorded by the woman's son over a period of three hours and were said to be representative of her conversational style. Moreover, the lady seems to realise she's being witty – she laughs after making these remarks and admits to being very good at punning.

Prior to her illness, although she was humourous and quick-witted, the lady's verbal humour was not anywhere near so prolific. It's almost as though the disease has unlocked this ability in her.

“Interactions with patients such as the 81-year-old female discussed in this report serve to remind professionals working in this area that each individual is unique and may possess abilities that are remarkable in the presence of extensive degenerative neurological findings,” the authors said. “Focusing on such positive attributes can be helpful not only for the patient but also for the family members in dealing with the difficulties of AD.”

Hawkins, D.B. & Graff-Radford, N.R. (2007). The ability to pun may be retained in Alzheimer Disease. Neurocase, 13, 50-54.

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

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Meditation helps us make the most of our limited brain resources

It's easy to expose the limited processing power of the human brain. Present someone with a sequence of letters, and ask them to look out for the two numbers that will be embedded among those letters. They'll spot the first one okay, but if the second number comes less than half a second after the first, it is likely they won't spot it – a phenomenon known as the 'attentional blink'.

The reason the blink occurs is that we only have so much processing power, and when the first number appears, we allocate all our resources to that first number, not leaving any processing power to deal with the second number.

Now Heleen Slagter and colleagues have shown that three months intensive meditation training can change all that, by improving our ability to allocate our brain's limited resources.

Seventeen participants were tested on the attentional blink task prior to and then after a three-month intensive meditation retreat, during which they meditated for between ten and 12 hours per day. Any change in their performance was compared with a control group of 23 participants who were interested in learning about meditation, and who practised a little in the week prior to the second attentional blink task.

The participants who went on the meditation retreat, but not the novice controls, showed significantly improved performance on the attentional blink task between the first and second testing sessions. That is, they showed less of an attentional blink, identifying more of the second numbers that appeared in the stream of letters.

Moreover, after their retreat, the experienced meditators tended to show a weaker brain response to the first numbers, as revealed by electroencephalography. In fact, in a neat pairing of brain and behavioural data, it was those participants who showed the greatest reduction in their brain response to the first numbers, who were most accurate at spotting the second numbers. It seems they had learned not to allocate all their mental resources to the first number.

“Through mental training, increased control over the distribution of limited brain resources may be possible,” the researchers said. This is consistent with the fact the Vipassana meditation, practised at the retreat, aims to teach people “a non-reactive form of sensory awareness or 'bare attention'”.

Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Francis, A.D., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J.M. & Davidson, R.J. (2007). Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PloS Biology, 5, e138.

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

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

How to praise children

When we praise a child, our wording can either be specific (e.g. “You did a good job drawing”) or generic (e.g. “You are a good drawer”). According to Andrei Cimpian and colleagues this subtle distinction can make a big difference to children's motivation when things go wrong.

The researchers played a kind of drawing game with 24 four-year-old children using hand-held puppets. The researchers controlled a 'teacher puppet' that asked the children's puppets to draw different objects. No drawing was actually performed, instead the children had to mime their puppet doing the drawing.

For the first four drawings the researchers responded as if the drawings had been a success. Crucially, half the children were praised generically whereas the other children were praised non-generically.

Then for the next two drawings, the researchers responded as though the children's puppets had failed to draw correctly (e.g. saying they had omitted wheels on a bus or ears on a cat). This was to see how the children responded to criticism.

The children who had earlier been told they were good drawers responded badly to the criticism. They lost interest in the drawing and failed to come up with strategies to correct the drawing mistakes. By contrast, the children previously praised in a non-generic fashion, responded better to the criticism, and came up with ways to rectify the failed drawings.

The idea is that if children are given generic praise – in this case being told they are a good drawer – this leads them to believe they have a stable, trait-like drawing ability. This belief turns to loss of morale when confronted with failure or criticism. By contrast, the non-generic praise, specific to a given episode, is rewarding without leading to false confidence.

Cimpian, A., Arce, H-M. C., Markman, E.M. & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children's motivation. Psychological Science, 18, 314-316.

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

Friday, 18 May 2007


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Can flies think? And Do flies have free-will?

Against the medicalisation of psychosis.

But Do we really need so many psychotherapists?

Either way, Happy birthday Prozac!

The truth about lying and laughing. And A quirky look at our quirky species. Psychologist Richard Wiseman promotes his new book.

Forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland discusses the 'CSI effect' (podcast).

Too hot to handle, all about blushing.

Besides giving us our genes, our parents don't shape who we are. But see also.

How to make your mind up (podcast).

Headaches have themselves (is it time to give up the distinction between the experience and the experiencer?)- Jerry Fodor reviews Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?

Women have a superior memory for faces

Women are better at remembering faces than men, probably because they're more interested in social aspects of the world than men are. That's according to Jenny Rehnman and Agneta Herlitz who presented 212 Swedish men and women with 60 faces to remember. After completing some unrelated psychology tests, the participants then viewed a new set of faces, half of which had been featured earlier. Their task was say which faces they'd already seen. (This procedure was then repeated again with another 60 faces to remember).

The female participants were significantly better than the men at recognising which faces they'd seen earlier and which were new. And they were particularly accurate when it came to female faces – an “own-sex” bias that's been documented before. The men didn't show a similar bias for male faces, in fact they too were better at recognising female faces.

The researchers explained the findings in terms of women's different approach to socialising: “Women's friendship is often described as 'face-to-face' with more of an affective focus on the other, in contrast to men's 'side-by-side' friendships, which is more oriented around external activities and tasks.”

Consistent with earlier research in this area, both the male and female participants were better at remembering faces that shared their own ethnicity (in this case, those that were Swedish rather than Bangladeshi). Also, whereas they recognised the faces of Swedish children and adults with equal accuracy, when it came to Bangladeshi faces, they found children's faces more difficult to remember.

Rehnman, J. & Herlitz, A. (2007). Women remember more faces than men do. Acta Psychologica, 124, 344-355.

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

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Tongue-tied: When bilinguals switch languages involuntarily

People who can communicate in more than one language – bilinguals - are intriguing to psychologists. A new study focuses on how bilinguals switch between tongues – how come they don't mix up words from different languages? A prevailing view is that bilinguals have a kind of switch at the front of their brain that inhibits the language(s) not currently in use. Now Kuan Kho and colleagues report the case of two bilingual patients who, during the course of brain surgery for epilepsy, appear to have had their 'switches' involuntarily flipped.

Prior to surgery, patient A – a Dutch-English bilingual - underwent a Wada test that involves anaesthetising one half of the brain at a time. When his left-hemisphere was anaesthetised he first went mute for a few minutes, then he fully recovered English (his second language), but struggled with Dutch. Asked to recall a story told to him earlier, he was only able to do so in English. Any Dutch he did come up with, he spoke in an English accent!

Patient B, a French-Chinese bilingual, was having his brain prodded with an electrode to identify which neural tissue was involved in language before the surgeons got to work. The patient was asked to count. He began in French, then when he reached seven (...quatre, cinq, six, sept), the stimulation was applied to his left inferior frontal gyrus, at which point he involuntarily switched to Chinese (, jiu, shi). When the stimulation ended, he reverted to French.

These case studies support the notion that, in bilinguals, specific regions at the front of the left hemisphere act as a language switch. The observations are also consistent with another recent study, which documented involuntary language switching in two bilingual patients who received transcranial magnetic stimulation to their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as a treatment for depression.

Kho, K.H., Duffau, H., Gatignol, P., Leijten, F.S.S., Ramsey, N.F., van Rijen, P.C. & Rutten, G-J.M. (2007). Involuntary language switching in two bilingual patients during the Wada test and intraoperative electrocortical stimulation. Brain and Language, 101, 31-37.

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

Monday, 14 May 2007

Mixing your teams up is key to group creativity

If you keep team membership constant, people in the team are going to grow familiar, they'll feel more comfortable, they won't be afraid to propose ideas, and morale will rise – surely all this is a guaranteed recipe for creativity? Not according to Charlan Nemeth and Margaret Ormiston, who've shown that, while stable teams are judged more friendly and comfortable than newly-formed teams, the cost for failing to mix up team membership is a loss of creativity.

One hundred and sixty-four undergrads were arranged into 41 teams of 4. One member in each team just kept notes, so these were really three-person teams. First, the teams were given 15 minutes to come up with ways to boost tourism in the San Francisco Bay area or ways to decrease traffic congestion.

Next, half the teams kept the same members, while the other half of the teams were entirely mixed up, so no two people who'd worked together in the first session were placed together in the second session. The stable teams and the mixed-up teams then worked together for 15 minutes on whichever of the two problems they hadn't tackled in the first session.

Afterwards, members of the stable teams reported feeling their groups were more creative, friendlier and more comfortable than did the members of the newly-formed teams. But crucially, it was the newly-formed teams who generated more ideas (an average of 28 ideas versus 23), and according to two independent judges their ideas were also better quality and more diverse.

“The current study underscores the theory that 'change' and the introduction of new perspectives are more important than comfort, belonging and friendliness for idea generation and creativity”, the researchers said. Managers should avoid the temptation to retain individuals in groups that have previously worked well together, they added. “Rather, teaming individuals who have not previously worked together may better benefit the creative process”.

Nemeth, C.J. & Ormiston, M. (2007). Creative idea generation: Harmony versus stimulation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 524-535.

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

Want more? Check out these from the Digest archives:
Three-person groups best for problem-solving.
Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?
New team members spark group creativity.
Be creative: don't even think about it.
What makes a multi-disciplinary team work well?
Admit it - you love work meetings really.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Can good people really turn bad? Re-visiting the Stanford Prison Experiment

The idea that certain situations can turn good people evil has spread like wildfire ever since Philip Zimbardo's (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment. The study ended prematurely when the "ordinary" participants acting as "guards" turned sadistic. Zimbardo has said this showed "the evil that good people can be readily induced into doing to other good people", and recently he has explained the Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in similar terms.

But what if the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment weren't "good people"? What if the idea of participating in a prison experiment, or working at an interrogation facility, appeals to a certain type of character?

Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland posted two adverts, just like the ones used in Zimbardo's study, in several campus newspapers. One advert invited male participants for “a psychological study of prison life”; the other invited participants for “a psychological study”.

Just as in Zimbardo's study, all participants with mental health problems or a criminal or anti-social background were omitted. Crucially, the remaining 30 applicants to the "study of prison life" scored significantly higher on measures of aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, social dominance, and lower on measures of altruism and empathy, than did the 61 volunteers for the "psychological study".

Contrary to Zimbardo's situationist perspective, the finding is compatible with a more interactionist view of human behaviour – one that acknowledges that people's personalities affect the situations they find themselves in. “We spend our lives selecting to be in some situations while avoiding others”, the researchers said. Moreover, like-minded individuals are likely to seek out similar situations. So, whether in Zimbardo's study, or in Abu Ghraib, similar characters may have “mutually weakened each other’s constraints against abuse and reinforced in each other their willingness to engage in it”.

Carnahan, T. & McFarland S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007, 33, 603-614.

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The woman who sees the world back to front

Imagine if your whole world suddenly went back to front, so that the left-hand side of things appeared on the right and vice versa. That's what happened to a 33-year-old woman, known by psychologists as PR, after a pneumonia-induced coma led her to suffer widespread brain damage.

As PR gradually recovered from her illness, many of her faculties returned to normal, but still she could not read. But then her son noticed that she was able to read perfectly well if he held text up against a mirror. Now Tobias Pflugshaupt and colleagues have observed PR's performance on a number of tests, and found her world appears to be entirely mirror-reversed.

Not only does PR read and write in mirror-reversed fashion, with both letters and whole words reversed, she also finds it easier to tell the time from mirror-reversed clocks, and when asked to draw objects, she portrays them back-to-front. She even reaches for everyday objects such as doors as if they were positioned the other way around from reality. Intriguingly, PR's problem disappears if stimuli are presented to her only very briefly (less than 200ms) – something she had noticed at a nightclub under flashing lights.

The researchers said the case shows how unstable our sense of left and right is – a notion reinforced by the fact young children often confuse left and right and sometimes produce mirror-reversed righting when learning to write. “Generally, mirrored vision can be regarded as an extreme clinical manifestation of this instability”, they said.

Pflugshaupt, T., Nyffeler, T., von Wartburg, R., Wurtz, P., Luthi, M., Hubl, D., Gutbrod, K., Juengling, F.D., Hess, C.W. & Muri, R.M. (2007). When left becomes right and vice versa: Mirrored vision after cerebral hypoxia. Neuropsychologia, 45, 2078-2091.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The downside of having too much love

Those people who give the impression they like pretty much everyone, tend to be popular and liked themselves. But a new study of speed daters suggests the opposite is true in a romantic context. In this case, the more daters a person reported finding desirable, the less likely they were to be rated desirable themselves – a finding not explained by (lack of) physical attractiveness, which was controlled for in the calculations.

The finding suggests a person's desperation for love can be picked up by others in as little as four minutes, an effect that is off-putting to potential dates who want to be made to feel special.

Dan Ariely (MIT) and colleagues made these observations after setting up a speed-dating session among 150 undergrad students. Each student conducted a four-minute 'date' with between 9 and 13 other students of the opposite sex. After each date, the students answered a few brief questions about how desirable they found the last person, how much chemistry they had, and how likely they thought that person was to find the other daters desirable.

“...the need to feel special plays a central role even within the first few moments of a romantic encounter”, the researchers said.

Eastwick, P.W., Finkel, E.J., Mochon, D. & Ariely, D. (2007). Selective versus unselective romantic desire. Psychological Science, 18, 317-319.

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

Saturday, 5 May 2007


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Distorted body images and communication hopes for locked-in, vegetative patients : two new free articles from Scientific American Mind.

The challenge of preventing violence is not just an American problem.

Art therapy for combat troops.

Law, responsibility and the brain.

One brain, two visual systems: from the latest back-issue of The Psychologist to be released free online.

Music does not make your kid smarter.

Susan Blackmore on consciousness (podcast).

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Performance Measures of Personality in School Psychology: Practice and Research (Psychology in the Schools).

What does it mean to communicate for infants? (Infant Behaviour and Development).

Leadership (American Psychologist).

Clergy Work-Related Psychological Health, Stress, and Burnout (Mental Health, Religion and Culture). Co-editor Dr Christopher Lewis, University of Ulster at Magee College, said "Clergy are often seen as one of the last professions that could suffer from work-related stress, unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth. This volume draws together some of the leading experts in the field of clergy stress so that we can better understand the numerous factors involved. Through doing so we can make strives toward improving the psychological health of clergy".

Please send in links to psychology journal special issues.

Thursday, 3 May 2007


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

Access to this month's Nature Reviews Neuroscience is free if you register.

Character strengths in the UK.

How would you feel if you caught your partner being unfaithful online?

The dark side of emotional intelligence.

A new scale for measuring hangover symptoms!

Can blind-sight be superior to normal sight?

Please send in links to eye-catching research.

Getting in touch with our shadows

The sight of our own shadows can affect our sense of touch. That's according to Francesco Pavani and Giovanni Galfano who have shown that seeing the shadow of a part of your body automatically directs your tactile attention to that body part.

Forty-two participants sat with their hands held in front of them. Two lamps above allowed shadows of their hands to be cast just beyond their real hands.

Throughout, the participants' task was to use a foot pedal (toe or heel) as quickly and accurately as possible to indicate where small lights appeared or vibrations were felt. The lights and vibrations, which occurred at the participants' index fingers or thumbs, were possible thanks to special gloves that the participants were wearing. Lights could also appear at the location of the shadows.

Sometimes, a couple of seconds before a light or vibration was delivered, a shadow of one or other of the participants' hands was cast beyond their real hands. These shadows weren't predictive - a hand shadow appearing didn't mean a light or vibration was more likely at the corresponding real hand. The key finding is the researchers found the participants were quicker and more accurate at responding to a vibration applied to one of their hands, if a shadow of that hand had been seen a couple of seconds earlier. This shows that seeing a shadow of their hand automatically enhanced participants' tactile attention to that hand.

The shadows didn't affect visual attention in the same way. For example, seeing the shadow of their right hand didn't lead participants to respond more quickly to the appearance of lights at their right hand, nor to lights appearing at the location of the shadow.

Moreover, the tactile-enhancing effect of the hand shadows was lost if the participants wore odd-shaped gloves that disfigured the shape of the shadows. Fake hand shadows with the right shape and location, but which obviously didn't move in synchrony with the participants' real hands, also failed to have the same enhancing effect on tactile attention. This shows a shadow has to be recognisable as cast by our own body part for it to exert its effect on our tactile attention.

“Body-shadows attract attention to the body location they refer to, rather than the portion of visual space the occupy”, the researchers said.

Pavani, F. & Galfano, G. (2007). Self-attributed body shadows modulate tactile attention. Cognition, 104, 73-88.

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

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

How do you use music?

Hang on, let me just turn down Paolo Nutini. You see, while reading this new study by the aptly-named Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adrian Furnham, I was listening to Nutini's recent live concert in Denver.

Using music in this fashion, as a background to other activities, is one of three ways of using music identified by the researchers. The second is using music to 'regulate our emotions' – to cheer ourselves up, say, or perhaps to wallow in sadness – and the last is listening to music as an 'intellectual pleasure', admiring the musicians' technique or the complexity of the composition.

Crucially, Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham believe the way we use music is related to our personality and intelligence. They surveyed 341 British and American university students (aged 17 to 41), and found students with a higher IQ, and those more open to new experiences, were more likely to listen to music for the deliberate, intellectual appreciation of it.
Meanwhile, neurotic types, who tend to experience regular bouts of negative emotions, and introverts, were more likely to say they listened to music as a way of coping with, or changing their mood.

I've met people who say they must work in silence, while others believe they can't do without some musical accompaniment, but in this study, neither intelligence, nor any of the personality measures, were associated with this use of music.

The researchers concluded: “Bearing in mind the many variables that may mediate and moderate our choice and motive for listening to music, the consistency with which personality and intelligence factors are associated with an individual's style for listening to music, is quite remarkable”. They added that more work was needed in this area, especially cross-cultural studies.

Chamorro-Premuzic T. & Furnham, A. (2007). Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life. British Journal of Psychology, 98, 175-185.

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

Link to more on personality and music from PsyBlog.