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Cutting-edge reports on the latest psychology research
The benefits, or not, of reading about Ms Clinton
Fear of prejudice can adversely affect people's performance. For example, female participants reminded of the stereotype that women are innately inferior at maths compared to men, subsequently perform sub-optimally at a maths task, especially in the company of men. This effect, known as stereotype threat, occurs at least in part because of the anxiety that one's own poor performance will be used by the ignorant to bolster their prejudicial beliefs.
An antidote to stereotype threat is to remind people of high achieving members of their in-group. For example, reminding Black Americans of President Obama's success has been shown to improve their subsequent IQ test performance. Psychologists think this 'Obama effect' occurs because the role-model's salient success takes away the burden people feel of having to represent their group.
A new study by Cheryl Taylor and colleagues has built on this literature by showing that the stereotype-busting effect of a role-model only occurs if that role-model's success is perceived as due to their own innate ability and effort. If the role-model is considered to have been lucky then their stereotype-busting power is lost. Taylor's team call this the Hillary Clinton effect.
Dozens of female undergrads rated the extent to which various successful women deserved their success, including Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey. Pilot work had already established that Hillary Clinton tends to divide opinion and that was replicated here. Several months later these same female undergrads were recruited for what they thought was a separate study. Their main task was to complete a maths test. Beforehand, however, some of them were reminded of the 'women are poor at maths' stereotype. And within that stereotype-reminded group, before the maths test, half were asked to read a factual account of Hillary Clinton's life, followed by questions on it, whilst the remainder read about a successful British company (this was intended to be innocuous, just to control for the effect of completing a reading comprehension task). The key question was whether reading about Hillary Clinton would have a protective effect or not.
The classic stereotype effect was replicated. Women reminded of the sexist stereotype (and who read about a successful British company) answered 50.7 per cent of attempted items correctly compared with a success rate of 59.3 per cent achieved by women who just took the test without the stereotype reminder (there was no difference in the number of items attempted). What about the participants who read about Hillary Clinton? It depended. For the women who'd earlier said they judged Clinton's success to be deserved and due to her abilities, reading about her offered protection: they scored 62.3 per cent correct. By contrast, for the women who judged Clinton's success as down to luck and nepotism, she offered no protection: they scored just 48.9 per cent correct.
'Reading a factual biography of Hillary Clinton alleviated the performance deficits associated with mathematics stereotype threat for some women, but not for others,' the researchers said. Now more research is needed to explore this effect. For example, the perceived 'likeability', or many other characteristics of the role model, could be the key factor explaining their protective value, rather than the deservingness of their success. In the meantime, Taylor and her colleagues said the stereotype-busting effects of role-models could be enhanced and preserved by ensuring people are aware of the stable and internal causes of the role-models' successes.
Taylor, C., Lord, C., McIntyre, R., and Paulson, R. (2011). The Hillary Clinton effect: When the same role model inspires or fails to inspire improved performance under stereotype threat. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430210382680
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Taylor, C., Lord, C., McIntyre, R., & Paulson, R. (2011) The Hillary Clinton effect: When the same role model inspires or fails to inspire improved performance under stereotype threat. Group Processes . DOI: 10.1177/1368430210382680
Anger can de-bias our thinking
Imagine you're in a room with four people, one is lip-snarling angry, the others are calm. Who among them would you consider the most likely to think rationally? A surprising new study suggests that in at least one important respect it's actually the angry individual who will be the more rational decision maker. How come? Because they'll be less prone to the confirmation bias - our tendency to seek out information that supports our existing views.
Maia Young and her colleagues had 97 undergrads take part in what they thought were two separate experiments. The first involved them either recalling and writing about a time they'd been exceptionally angry (this was designed to make them angry), or a time they'd been sad, or about mundane events.
Next, all the participants read an introduction to the debate about whether hands-free kits make speaking on a mobile phone while driving any safer. All participants had been chosen because pre-study they believed that they do. The most important part came next, as the participants were presented with one-sentence summaries of eight articles, either in favour, or against, the idea that hands-free kits make driving safer. The participants had to choose five of these articles to read in full.
Which participants tended to choose to read more articles critical of hands-free kits and therefore contrary to their own position? It was the participants who'd earlier been made to feel angry. What's more, when the participants' attitudes were re-tested at the study end, it was the angry participants who'd shifted more from their original position on the debate.
These findings were supported in a follow-up involving 89 adults, with the controversial issue pertaining to who should be the next US president, in what was then the upcoming 2008 election. Once again, participants provoked into feeling angry tended to choose to read articles that ran counter to their original position (be that favouring Obama or McCain). Another detail was that this effect of anger was entirely explained by what the researchers called a 'moving against' tendency, measured by participants' agreement, after the anger induction, with statements like 'I wanted to assault something or someone'.
Young and her team said their results provided an example of anger leading to a cognitive pattern characterised by less bias. 'Although the hypothesis disconfirming behaviour that anger produces may well be an aggressive act, meant to move or fight against the opposition's opinion,' they said, 'its result is to provide those who feel angry with better information.'
What are the real-life implications of this result? The researchers conceded that it's unrealistic to make people angry as a way to improve their decision making. However, they said that in a work meeting, if someone is angry, they might be the one best placed to play the role of devil's advocate on behalf of the group. 'By encouraging angry group members to select information necessary for group discussion,' the researchers explained, 'the group as a whole may get the benefit of being exposed to diverse views and, as a result, achieve a more balanced perspective.'
Young, M., Tiedens, L., Jung, H., and Tsai, M. (2011). Mad enough to see the other side: Anger and the search for disconfirming information. Cognition and Emotion, 25 (1), 10-21 DOI: 10.1080/02699930903534105
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Young, M., Tiedens, L., Jung, H., & Tsai, M. (2011) Mad enough to see the other side: Anger and the search for disconfirming information. Cognition , 25(1), 10-21. DOI: 10.1080/02699930903534105
Following the crowd really can change the value we see in things
Let's be honest, most of us do it, at least some of the time. We modify our own opinions in line with what other people think, especially our friends and peers.
A problem for psychologists investigating the effect of peer influence is that it can be tricky to tell whether people are simply acquiescing in public, for show, or if their attitudes really have changed. A new study by a team of psychologists at Harvard University has used an innovative mix of behavioural and brain-scan methods to show that peer influence really can change how people value something, in this case the attractiveness of a face.
Fourteen male participants performed a series of 'hot-or-not' style ratings of pictures of 180 women's faces. For the majority of the faces, after they'd made their own rating, the students were shown the average rating given to that face by hundreds of previous participants. This was actually fixed by the researchers and was sometimes higher than the particiant's own rating and sometimes lower.
About half an hour later, the participants rated the same faces again, but this time had their brains scanned whilst they did so. The relevation here was that the effect of the faces on reward-related regions in the participants' brains depended on the feedback the participants had received earlier about how their peers had rated those faces.
Let's focus on those faces that a participant had earlier given equal attractiveness ratings to, and which you'd therefore think they'd find equally rewarding to look at. In fact, among these faces, those that they'd been told earlier were rated as more attractive by previous participants, triggered more reward-related brain activity (the participants also increased the attractiveness ratings they gave to these faces). In contrast, the faces they'd earlier been told were rated as less attractive by peers, triggered less reward activity, and were now rated as less attractive by the participants.
A financial game played during the same scanning session allowed the reearchers to pin-point the brain areas involved in receiving monetary reward - the orbitofrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. It was these same brain regions that were more active when the participants looked at female faces which they'd earlier been told were rated as more attractive by other men.
This isn't the first time that brain imaging has been used to show how social factors can alter the value we place on things. For example, a wine-tasting study tricked participants into drinking the same wine twice, once thinking it was an expensive bottle and another time thinking it was a cheap one. The participants' reward pathways were activated more when they thought the wine was expensive. In a similar fashion this new study suggests that the pleasure we find in looking at a face is dependent not just on what we think of it, but on what we think other people think of it.
'Rather than the result of individual weakness and faulty character, conformity appears to arise from the same neural systems that guide behaviour towards highly-valued outcomes, including such basic needs as food, water, and opportunities for reproduction,' wrote the team, led by Jamil Zaki. 'This emerging understanding of the neural basis of social influence suggests that members of our species are not only remarkable in their willingness to adopt the opinions and norms of others, but equally remarkable in their fundamental motivation for doing so.'
Jamil Zeki, Jason Mitchell, and Jessica Schirmer (2011). Social influence modulates the neural computation of value. Psychological Science, In Press.
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Jamil Zeki, Jason Mitchell, & Jessica Schirmer. (2011) Social influence modulates the neural computation of value. Psychological Science. info:/
In the old days of criminal profiling, a psychologist would study the idiosyncrasies of a crime scene with the expert-eye of an art collector inspecting a painting of unknown provenance. They'd draw on their clinical and forensic knowledge to help the police narrow their search, describing to them the kind of person who would likely commit a crime in this way. It wasn't particularly scientific and there were some high profile blunders, such as the misguided entrapment of Colin Stagg during the hunt for the killer of Rachel Nickell.
By contrast, contemporary criminal profiling is more data-driven. More about number crunching and less about the judgment of a single expert. Thousands of criminal records are poured over to look for factual correlations that could usefully inform investigations. It's been shown for example, that two burglaries closer together geographically, or closer together in time, are more likely to have been committed by the same person.
This empirical approach is also being brought to bear on more psychological aspects of crime scenes. In a new study, Carrie Trojan and Gabrielle Salfati studied a set of criminal records to see if there were links between the crime scene behaviour of murderers and the general theme of their offending history. The majority of murderers in the USA, where this research was conducted, have an existing criminal record, so if such a link could be established it could help guide future murder hunts.
The researchers' prediction was that murder scenes betraying signs of uncontrolled violence and impulsivity, which they labelled as 'hostile', will be more likely to have been perpetrated by a person with a record of committing crimes bearing that same hall-mark, such as assault, domestic violence and vandalism. By contrast, they predicted that murder scenes betraying signs of calculation and an ulterior motive, which they labelled 'cognitive', such as hiding the body, and involving acts of a sexual nature or robbery, will be more likely to have been committed by someone with a criminal record involving more considered, 'instrumental' crimes, such as theft or evasion of arrest.
Trojan and Salfati obtained records from the Cincinnati Police Department of 122 murders committed by someone who'd only ever killed once (between 1997 and 2006), and records of nine serial killers from across the USA. The latter had killed between three and six people each, but only ever one person at a time. The researchers first established that it was possible to classify the majority of murder scenes as either hostile or cognitive based on a scene having twice as many signs of one theme, in proportionate terms, than the other. On this basis, 87 per cent of the murder scenes were considered to have a dominant theme.
Next, the researchers showed that the vast majority (95 per cent) of murders by a one-victim killer were associated with hostile murder scenes. This chimes with the fact that nearly half of all murders in the USA occur during arguments. In contrast, the murder scenes left by serial killers were approximately half the time (51 per cent) hostile themed, and half the time (49 per cent) cognitive themed.
Turning to the key question of whether murder scene behaviour echoes the murderer's criminal history, the results unfortunately became far messier. For murderers with one victim, the most common pattern (26 per cent) was for a hostile crime scene to be left by a person with a history of more instrumental crimes. In other words, there was most often actually a mismatch between murder scene behaviour and offending history. For 24 per cent of single-victim murderers, their was a hostile/hostile match in the murder scene and offending history. For the remainder, the classifications were mixed or unidentifiable.
What about the serial killers? Although the largest category (33 per cent) did show a murder scene/ offending history match - being more cognitive and instrumental in each case - other patterns were also found, with 22 per cent tending to leave a mixture of cognitive and hostile murder scenes, but with an instrumental offending background, and another 22 per cent leaving a mixture of murder scenes and having a mixed background of offending.
'When linking criminal history to crime scene behaviour, thematic consistency was not evident in most cases,' the researchers concluded. 'Essentially, the results show that most single-victim homicide crime scenes display the same theme and that offenders are equally likely to have a pattern of either violence or instrumentality in their criminal background and a decent number have no pattern in their criminal history …' And here's the rub, Trojan and Salfati added: 'It would be difficult to apply this information in investigations.'
The study had its limitations. Not only was the number of serial killers woefully small, but as the researchers themselves concede, they didn't look at the time-line of murderers' past offences. This could have revealed useful patterns, such as that it is a murderer's recent style of offending that is linked to his or her murder scene behaviour, rather than his or her overall career pattern of offending. 'However,' the researchers said, 'because this study was the first to directly focus on the link between criminal history and crime scene actions, it provides an important first step for more in-depth examinations.'
Trojan, C., and Salfati, C. (2011). Linking Criminal History to Crime Scene Behavior in Single-Victim and Serial Homicide: Implications for Offender Profiling Research. Homicide Studies, 15 (1), 3-31 DOI: 10.1177/1088767910397281
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Trojan, C., & Salfati, C. (2011) Linking Criminal History to Crime Scene Behavior in Single-Victim and Serial Homicide: Implications for Offender Profiling Research. Homicide Studies, 15(1), 3-31. DOI: 10.1177/1088767910397281
Distancing ourselves from a problem can help us reach the solution
The next time you're struggling to solve a creative problem, try solving it for someone else. According to Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, we're more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. This is just the latest extension of research into construal level theory, an intriguing concept that suggests various aspects of psychological distance can affect our thinking style.
It's been shown, for example, that greater physical and temporal distance lead us to think more abstractly, such that you're more likely to solve a problem if you imagine being confronted by it in a far-off place and/or at a future time (read Jonah Lehrer's take on what this says about the importance of holidays). Now Polman and Emich have shown that social distance can have the same psychological benefit.
Across four studies involving hundreds of undergrads, Polman and Emich found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves; that participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month; and that participants were more likely to solve an escape-from-tower problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves (a 66 vs. 48 per cent success rate). Briefly, the tower problem requires you to explain how a prisoner escaped the tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. The solution is that he divided the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together.
The researchers were careful to consider a range of possible confounding factors, including confidence in our knowledge of ourselves versus others, emotional involvement and feelings of closeness. None of these made much difference to the main result. On the other hand, among participants who tackled the tower problem, it was those who said afterwards that they felt the tower was further away, who tended to have found the solution. This reinforces the researchers' claim that solving a problem for a stranger is easier because of the feeling of psychological distance that it creates.
The study has some limitations - the participants didn't know who they were solving a problem for, other than that they were another student. When it comes to applying the lessons of this research to real life, it will surely make a difference who we think we're solving a problem for - be they a stranger, a relative or a manager. Future research could look at this.
'The practical implications of our findings are striking in the extent of their reach,' the researchers concluded with gusto. 'That decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self is not only valuable information for researchers in social psychology, decision making, marketing, and management but also should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers, and advertisers, among many others.'
Polman E, and Emich KJ (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 21317316
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Polman E, & Emich KJ. (2011) Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality . PMID: 21317316
When an infant starts walking, this important achievement is more than just a milestone in motor control. According to Melissa Clearfield, the child's newfound locomotor skill arrives hand-in-hand with a raft of other changes in social behaviour and maturity. This is an unfolding, interactive process of development that before now has been little explored by psychologists.
Clearfield first had 17 non-walking infants (aged between 9 and 11 months) twice spend ten minutes exploring a 3m by 3m floor area dotted with toys, and with their mother and three other people positioned in each corner. The infants first explored the area crawling and then in a baby walker (this piece of equipment allows infants who can't yet walk to move around in an upright position as if walking).
The infants spent the same amount of time interacting with toys and people, gesturing and vocalising, whether they were crawling or in the baby walker. In other words, there wasn't anything about being in an upright position per se that changed the social behaviour of these children.
Next, Clearfield had a new group of 16 infants (also aged nine to eleven months) perform the same task, except these children were all walkers. These walking infants, even though they were age-matched to the first group, spent considerably more time vocalising and making socially-directed gestures, such as pointing at or waving a toy whilst looking at their mothers. Overall, the walkers spent three times as much time interacting with their mothers, and twice as much time interacting with the toys, compared with crawlers of the same age.
A final study tested another set of fourteen 9-month-old infants on the same exploratory task, once a month for six months, to see how their behaviour changed, not by virtue of their age, but rather according to whether they had yet learned to walk (onset of walking ability varied across the group, but all were walking by 15 months).
Irrespective of age, Clearfield found that infants gestured far more during their first walk session compared with their last crawl session, and that they interacted with their mothers more, and their toys less, during their first walk session compared with both their last crawl session and their second walk session.
By twelve months of age, eight members of this final infant group were walking, whilst six were still crawling. Comparing the walkers and crawlers revealed once again that the walkers interacted more with their mothers and performed more social gestures. 'This more mature mode of interaction did not come about through age or more experience in the world,' Clearfield said, 'but rather, the transition to independent walking itself changed how infants interact with others.'
The message is that the same developmental processes that lead an infant to take its first steps, also seem to drive changes in their social behaviour. Importantly, the baby walker study showed this isn't simply because of different opportunities afforded by being in an upright position. 'Under this explanation,' Clearfield concluded, 'processes such as perception, attention, memory, cognition, and social behaviours all shift to accommodate infants' new mode of moving through the world, and each process affects and is affected by the changes in the other processes. From this dynamic view, learning to walk becomes much more than simply a motor milestone; instead, it becomes the core of system-wide changes across many developing domains.'
Clearfield, M. (2011). Learning to walk changes infants’ social interactions. Infant Behavior and Development, 34 (1), 15-25 DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2010.04.008
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Clearfield, M. (2011) Learning to walk changes infants’ social interactions. Infant Behavior and Development, 34(1), 15-25. DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2010.04.008
Romantic couples outperformed pairs of strangers
Whether it's a raised eyebrow or curl of the lip, we usually think of emotions as conveyed through facial expressions and body language. Science too has focused on these forms of emotional communication, finding that there's a high degree of consistency across cultures. It's only in the last few years that psychologists have looked at whether and how the emotions can be communicated purely through touch.
A 2006 study by Matthew Hertenstein demonstrated that strangers could accurately communicate the 'universal' emotions of anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy, purely through touches to the forearm, but not the 'prosocial' emotions of surprise, happiness and sadness, nor the 'self-focused' emotions of embarrassment, envy and pride. Now Erin Thompson and James Hampton have added to this nascent literature by comparing the accuracy of touch-based emotional communication between strangers and between those who are romantically involved.
Thirty romantic couples (the vast majority were heterosexual) based in London took part. One partner in each romantic pair attempted to communicate 12 different emotions, one at a time, to their partner. They sat at opposite sides of a table divided by a curtained screen. The emotional 'decoder' slid their forearm through the curtain for the 'encoder' to touch, after which the 'decoder' attempted to identify which of the 12 emotions had been communicated. The participants were filmed throughout.
After this, the romantic couples were split up and participants paired up with a stranger to repeat the exercise (encoders and decoders kept whichever role they'd had first time around). Strangers were usually formed into same-sex pairs, to avoid the social awkwardness of touching an opposite-sex partner. This created an unfortunate confound, acknowledged by the researchers, which is that most romantic couples were opposite-sex whereas most stranger pairs were same-sex. However, focusing only on results from same-sex pairs versus opposite-sex pairs suggested gender was not an important factor.
The key finding is that although strangers performed well for most emotions, romantic couples tended to be superior, especially for the self-focused emotions of embarrassment, envy and pride. Thompson and Hampton calculated that chance performance (i.e. merely guessing) would produce an accuracy rate of 25 per cent. Although there were 12 emotions to select from, the rationale here is that some are far more similar to each other than others, so even a guesser would perform better than 1/12 accuracy. Romantic partners communicated universal emotions, prosocial and self-focused emotions with an accuracy of 53 per cent, 60 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively - in each case, far better than chance performance. In contrast, strangers achieved accuracy rates of 39 per cent, 56 per cent and 17 per cent, for universal, prosocial, and self-focused emotions respectively, with the last considered as no better than chance performance.
How did the romantic couples achieve their greater accuracy? They touched for longer, but this wasn't correlated with accuracy. Using footage of the experiment, the researchers coded the types of touch used (a wide range of discrete touch types were identified, from trembling and scratching to slapping and squeezing), and for each emotion it was clear that strangers were using similar kinds of touch as were romantic couples. This means that there were either subtle differences in the touching used by romantic couples, which the experimenters had failed to detect, or the 'decoders' were interpreting the same touch cues differently when they were delivered by an intimate partner.
This topic is ripe for further investigation - for example, does the touch advantage shown by romantic couples extend to non-emotional communication? Would other long-term, but non-sexual, relationship partners such as siblings, show a similar advantage? And would romantic partners still display an advantage if they didn't know who was doing the touching? 'Our findings extend the literature on the communication of emotion,' the researchers said. 'The nature of particular relationships appears to have the ability to diminish the ambiguity of emotional expression via touch.'
Thompson, E., and Hampton, J. (2011). The effect of relationship status on communicating emotions through touch. Cognition and Emotion, 25 (2), 295-306 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2010.492957
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Thompson, E., & Hampton, J. (2011) The effect of relationship status on communicating emotions through touch. Cognition , 25(2), 295-306. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2010.492957
The cerebellum is coloured green in this model
Thanks to the success of the Kings Speech movie, most of us are familiar with the 'developmental' kind of stammering that begins in childhood. However, more rarely, stammering can also have a sudden onset, triggered by illness or injury to the brain. Far rarer still are cases where a person with a pre-existing, developmental stammer suffers from brain injury or disease and is subsequently cured. In fact, a team led by Magid Bakheit at Mosley Hall Hospital in Birmingham, who have newly reported such a patient, are aware of just two prior adult cases in the literature.
Bakheit's patient, a 54-year-old bilingual man, suffered a stroke that caused damage to the left side of his brain stem and both hemispheres of his cerebellum - that's the cauliflower-shaped structure, associated with motor control and other functions, which hangs off the back of the brain. The brain damage left him unsteady on his feet, gave him difficulty with swallowing and his speech was slightly slurred. But remarkably, his life-long stammer, characterised by repetitions of sounds, was entirely gone - an account corroborated by his wife.
Bakheit's team conducted an extensive retrospective assessment of the man's history of stammering and concluded that he'd had a serious life-long stammer, which caused him distress, and led him to avoid certain situations. By the time of his discharge from hospital, the slowing of his speech was much improved and yet thankfully his stammer remained absent.
The researchers can't be sure, but they think the remission of the man's stammer is likely related to his cerebellum damage, which may have had the effect of inhibiting excessive neural activation in that structure. This would be consistent with previous research showing that people who stammer have exaggerated activation in the cerebellum compared with controls, and with the finding that successful speech therapy is associated with reductions to cerebellum activation compared with pre-treatment. A second, related possibility is that, pre-stroke, the man's cerebellum was somehow having a detrimental effect on his basal ganglia (a group of sub-cortical structures involved in motor control and other functions) and that this adverse effect was ameliorated by the stroke-induced damage. This would be consistent with reports of stammers developing in patients with diseases, such as Parkinson's, that affect the basal ganglia.
A third and final possibility, the researchers said, is simply that the slowing of the man's speech somehow aided his stammer. Indeed, reducing the rate of speech is a therapeutic approach. However, this certainly wasn't a conscious strategy employed by the patient, and as we've seen, his stammer remained in remission even as his speech rate improved.
'The complete remission of stammering following a posterior circulation stroke in our patient suggests that the cerebellum and/or its connections with brain structures has an important role in maintaining developmental stammering,' the researchers concluded.
Bakheit AM, Frost J, and Ackroyd E (2011). Remission of life-long stammering after posterior circulation stroke. Neurocase : case studies in neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, and behavioural neurology, 17 (1), 41-5 PMID: 20799135
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Bakheit AM, Frost J, & Ackroyd E. (2011) Remission of life-long stammering after posterior circulation stroke. Neurocase : case studies in neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, and behavioural neurology, 17(1), 41-5. PMID: 20799135
Cheating the scanner is relatively easy
Sure, it's possible to differentiate patterns of truth-telling brain activity from patterns of lying-related activity. But contrary to media hype, experts have been quick to point out that the accuracy of brain-scan based lie detection is often no better than with traditional approaches, such as the polygraph. Furthermore, these experts warn, brain-scan methods could, in theory, be easily thwarted by liars with even modest levels of guile. That claim is no longer purely theoretical, for in a new study, Girgio Ganis and his colleagues have used a popular paradigm to show just how easy it is for lying participants to trick the brain-scanner.
Twenty-six participants had their brains scanned whilst they looked at the same six dates appearing for half a second each, one at a time, on a screen. For each date they had to indicate with a button press whether it was their date of birth - yes or no. This was repeated several times. In the truth-telling condition, none of the dates was their birth date and the participants simply told the truth and said 'no' to each date. In the lying condition, one of the dates was their birth date and their task was to lie and indicate 'no' whenever it appeared. An equivalent set-up in a real-life criminal case might involve a suspect repeatedly looking at the same selection of knives and indicating whether they owned any of them. One further twist to the task was that participants had to look out for a further specific meaningless date - this was just to make sure they stayed engaged with the task.
When the participants lied and pressed 'no' whenever their birth date was visible then, consistent with past research, their mendacity was revealed in their brain activity. In particular, because of its salience, seeing one's birth date was associated with raised activity in the front-most part of the brain, on both sides. Focusing on activity in these regions, a simple algorithm could tell whether a participant was lying or not with 100 per cent accuracy (the extremely high accuracy may be due to the greater salience of one's own birth date compared with the material used in previous research).
Most importantly, in a repeat of the experiment, the participants were taught a simple cheating technique. All they had to do was ever so slightly move their left index finger, middle left finger, and left toe, respectively, whenever three of the irrelevant dates appeared on the screen (they were instructed to ensure the movements would be too slight to be seen by someone watching). This cheating strategy lent salience to these irrelevant dates, thereby reduced the stand-out salience of one's birth date, and had the effect of reducing the accuracy of the lie-detection algorithm to 33 per cent. In other words, most instances of lying were misidentified as honest responses.
The researchers think that the moving part of this cheating strategy probably isn't necessary. For example, deliberately recalling a certain memory when certain 'irrelevant' stimuli are shown would have the same effect of reducing the stand-out salience of a target stimulus, be that a murder weapon or a date of birth.
'Although these results apply directly only to the specific [and commonly used] laboratory paradigm used here ...,' the researchers said, 'they support the more general point that the vulnerability of the neuroimaging paradigms for deception detection to various countermeasures should be assessed and documented explicitly before they can be used in applied settings.'
Ganis G, Rosenfeld JP, Meixner J, Kievit RA, and Schendan HE (2011). Lying in the scanner: Covert countermeasures disrupt deception detection by functional magnetic resonance imaging. NeuroImage, 55 (1), 312-9 PMID: 21111834
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Ganis G, Rosenfeld JP, Meixner J, Kievit RA, & Schendan HE. (2011) Lying in the scanner: Covert countermeasures disrupt deception detection by functional magnetic resonance imaging. NeuroImage, 55(1), 312-9. PMID: 21111834
Dr. Jennifer Melfi: What line of work are you in?
Tony Soprano: Waste management consultant.Client confidentiality in psychotherapy only goes so far. If a client threatens the therapist, another person, or themselves, and the threat is perceived as serious, then most jurisdictions (including the BPS ethics code) recognise this as a valid reason to breach the client's privacy and go to the authorities. But what about the situation in which the client confesses to a past violent act for which they were never prosecuted? What if they tell their therapist that they've previously murdered someone?
Steven Walfish and his colleagues have investigated this issue in a survey of 162 US psychological psychotherapists recruited randomly via the National Register of Health Service Providers. Astoundingly, 21 of the psychologists said that on at least one occasion they'd had a client disclose in therapy that they'd murdered someone, but never been found out (one unlucky psychologist said they'd encountered this scenario six times!).
One hundred and three of the psychologists said they'd had a client disclose having committed an act of previously unreported sexual assault, and 111 of them had had a client disclose a previously unreported act of physical assault. The majority of psychologists said disclosure of past physical assault had happened on three or more occasions; one of them said it had happened more than 200 times!
From an ethical point of view these disclosures of past violent acts are trickier to resolve than threats of future violence, especially if there's no other reason to believe that the client remains a threat. Among the psychologists surveyed in the current research, the majority (63.2 per cent) said such disclosures had had a neutral effect on therapy, 18.8 percent said it was harmful to therapy and a similar proportion (17.9 per cent) viewed it as beneficial.
From a therapeutic perspective, the researchers pointed out that those therapists who viewed the disclosure negatively were at obvious risk of 'negative counter-transference'. This is a fancy way of saying that the disclosure could negatively affect the way the therapist relates to their client, especially if the therapist has themselves previously been a victim of violence. Psychotherapists could be trained to guard against this, but Walfish and his colleagues point out that it's not unusual for therapists to be attacked or threatened by clients and so: 'fears of potential client violence may not always represent an unresolved conflict on the part of the therapist. The psychotherapist knowing this piece of clinical information [the disclosure about past violence], and knowing that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, may be concerned that they themselves may become a victim of violence.'
Somewhat worryingly, nearly one fifth of the current sample did not feel fully informed about what to do when a client makes a disclosure about past acts of violence, and nearly two thirds felt inadequately prepared for the situation by their graduate training.
Walfish and his colleagues concluded that therapists need to be prepared to hear any material in their consulting rooms, 'regardless of how unusual or unpleasant.' They also need to be aware of their own emotional reactions to disclosures of past violence, how to maintain their own safety, as well as their legal and ethical obligations. 'Graduate training programmes, internship and postdoctoral training settings, and continuing education courses should be encouraged to explore this often difficult topic area in greater depth,' the researchers said.
Walfish, S., Barnett, J., Marlyere, K., and Zielke, R. (2010). “Doc, There's Something I Have To Tell You”: Patient Disclosure to Their Psychotherapist of Unprosecuted Murder and Other Violence. Ethics and Behavior, 20 (5), 311-323 DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2010.491743 [ht: Ian Leslie]
A further note on the BPS Ethics Code: The code emphasises the importance of peer support and supervision. If you are a psychologist and unsure how to proceed following a client disclosure, you should seek guidance from your peers and supervisor, fully evaluate the situation, consider alternative courses of action and fully document the process of decision making [thanks to Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard for this advice]
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Walfish, S., Barnett, J., Marlyere, K., & Zielke, R. (2010) “Doc, There's Something I Have To Tell You”: Patient Disclosure to Their Psychotherapist of Unprosecuted Murder and Other Violence. Ethics , 20(5), 311-323. DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2010.491743
Stanley Milgram's seminal experiments in the 1960s may not have been a demonstration of obedience to authority after all, a new study claims.
Milgram appalled the world when he showed the willingness of ordinary people to administer a lethal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because an experimenter ordered them to do so. Participants believed they were punishing an unsuccessful 'learner' in a learning task; the reality was the learner was a stooge. The conventional view is that the experiment demonstrated many people's utter obedience to authority.
Attempts to explore the issue through replication have stalled in recent decades because of concerns the experiment could be distressing for participants. Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University found a partial solution to this problem in a 2009 study, after he realised that 79 per cent of Milgram's participants who went beyond the 150-volt level (at which the 'learner' was first heard to call out in distress) subsequently went on to apply the maximum lethal shock level of 450 volts, almost as if the 150-volt level were a point of no return [further information]. Burger conducted a modern replication up to the 150-volt level and found that a similar proportion of people (70 per cent) were willing to go beyond this point as were willing to do so in the 1960s (82.5 per cent). Presumably, most of these participants would have gone all the way to 450 volts level had the experiment not been stopped short.
Now Burger and his colleagues have studied the utterances made by the modern-day participants during the 2009 partial-replication, and afterwards during de-briefing. They found that participants who expressed a sense that they were responsible for their actions were the ones least likely to go beyond the crucial 150-volt level. Relevant to this is that Milgram's participants (and Burger's) were told, if they asked, that responsibility for any harm caused to the learner rested with the experimenter.
In contrast to the key role played by participants' sense of responsibility, utterances betraying concern about the learner's wellbeing were not associated with whether they went beyond the 150-volt level. Yes, participants who voiced more concerns required more prompts from the experimenter to continue, but ultimately they were just as likely to apply the crucial 150-volt shock.
However, it's the overall negligible effect of these experimenter prompts that's led Burger and his team to question whether Milgram's study is really about obedience at all. In their 2009 partial-replication, Burger's lab copied the prompts used in the seminal research, word-for-word. The first time a participant exhibited reluctance to continue, the experimenter said, 'Please continue'. With successive signs of resistance, the experimenter's utterances became progressively more forceful: 'The experiment requires that you continue'; 'It is absolutely essential that you continue'; and finally 'You have no other choice, you must go on.'
Burger's revelation (based on their 2009 replication) is that as the experimenter utterances became more forceful - effectively more like a command, or an order - their effectiveness dwindled. In fact, of the participants who were told 'you have no choice, you must continue', all chose to disobey and none reached the 150-volt level. 'The more the experimenter's statement resembled an order,' the researchers said, 'the less likely participants did what the experimenter wished.' It would be interesting to learn if the same pattern applied during Milgram's original studies, but those results were not reported here, perhaps because the necessary data are not available.
Burger and his colleagues said their new observation has implications for how Milgram's studies are portrayed to students and the wider public. Their feeling is that Milgram's results say less about obedience and rather more about our general proclivity for acting out of character in certain circumstances. 'The point is that these uncharacteristic behaviours may not be limited to circumstances in which an authority figure gives orders,' Burger and his team said. 'Few of us will ever find ourselves in a situation like My Lai or Abu Ghraib. But each of us may well encounter settings that lead us to act in surprising and perhaps disturbing ways.'
Burger, J., Girgis, Z., and Manning, C. (2011). In Their Own Words: Explaining Obedience to Authority Through an Examination of Participants' Comments. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550610397632
More on Milgram:
Milgram's personal archive reveals how he created the 'strongest obedience situation'.
Classic 1960's obediency experiment reproduced in virtual reality.
... Read more »
Burger, J., Girgis, Z., & Manning, C. (2011) In Their Own Words: Explaining Obedience to Authority Through an Examination of Participants' Comments. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550610397632
Cognition researchers should beware assuming that people's mental faculties have finished maturing when they reach adulthood. So say Laura Germine and colleagues, whose new study shows that face learning ability continues to improve until people reach their early thirties.
Although vocabulary and other forms of acquired knowledge grow throughout the life course, it's generally accepted that the speed and efficiency of the cognitive faculties peaks in the early twenties before starting a steady decline. This study challenges that assumption.
A massive sample of 44,000 people, aged between ten and seventy, completed an online face learning test in which they were required to study briefly several unfamiliar faces, presented in grey scale without hair or other non-facial distinguishing features. They then had to identify those faces, shown in novel poses and varied lighting conditions, from among further unfamiliar faces.
As you might expect, performance at the task increased steadily through adolescence. But although improvement slowed once adulthood was reached, it didn't stop there. Performance in fact peaked among those participants aged 31.4 years, after which it declined slowly. The pattern of results meant that average performance by 16-year-olds matched the average performance of those aged 65.
The results suggest strongly that face learning capabilities continue to develop into the early thirties, but an alternative explanation is that the sustained changes are more generic, to do with general memory or cognitive abilities. To rule this out, a second study tested nearly 15,000 people on a face task and also a memory task involving names. As before, face learning ability peaked in the early thirties. In contrast, performance at the learning of names peaked at age 23.
A final study used children's faces, in case the earlier studies' use of more mature faces had given older participants an unfair advantage. Even with children's faces, facial learning peaked in the early thirties. However, this prolonged developmental trend wasn't found for inverted faces (performance with these peaked at age 23.5 years), thus suggesting it's specifically the ability to learn new up-right faces that continues to improve into the thirties. It remains to be seen whether this improvement reflects a kind of prolonged innate maturation process or if it's simply a consequence of more years practice at learning faces.
How big were the increases in face learning performance between the end of adolescence and the early thirties? They were modest (the effect size was d=.021) so more research is needed to find out what real life implications, if any, these lingering improvements in ability might have. Another study limitation is the use of a cross-sectional sample. Future research should study changes in ability in the same individuals over time. Notwithstanding these points, the researchers said 'our data illustrate that meaningful changes can and do occur during early and middle adulthood and suggest a need for integration of research in cognitive development and aging.'
Germine, L., Duchaine, B., and Nakayama, K. (2011). Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, 118 (2), 201-210 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.002
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Germine, L., Duchaine, B., & Nakayama, K. (2011) Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30☆. Cognition, 118(2), 201-210. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.002
What effect do thoughts of death have on a typical person's desire for sex? The short answer is that it depends. Armed with insight from terror management theory and attachment theory, Gurit Birnbaum and her colleagues have made a start unpicking the detail of when and for whom death is an aphrodisiac.
Research on terror management theory has shown that people respond to mortality reminders by bolstering their own cultural view, derogating opposing views, and shoring up their self-esteem. By this account, the effect of death on libidinous desire will depend on the meaning that sex has for a person.
An initial study with 36 women and 40 men in Israel found that thinking about death led the men, but not the women, to say that they'd be more likely (compared with controls who thought about a dentist visit) to take part in a casual, one-night stand with a person they'd met at a pick-up bar. Perhaps, the researchers reasoned, this is because cultural norms dictate that 'sexual conquests' can be a self-esteem boost for men, but less so for women.
A follow-up was similar to the first except the 163 Californian participants were asked to imagine a potential one-night in a more romantic context, after a candle-lit dinner and engaging conversation. In this case, thoughts of death led both men and women to say that they'd be more likely than controls to go ahead with the one-one night stand, thus showing how a subtle change in sexual symbolism can alter the relationship between morbid thoughts and sexual desire.
This idea was supported in a third study with 89 men and women who were primed with thoughts of death before considering their willingness to have either physical, hedonistic sex with an long-term partner or romantic, loving sex. This time, thoughts of death, compared with thoughts of a dental visit, increased participants' desire for loving, romantic sex, but not purely physical sex. In fact, there was a slight trend for participants to be put off this latter kind of sex, perhaps because morbid thoughts make some people want to escape their animal nature, not be reminded of it.
Lastly, Birnbaum's team explored the role of attachment style in all this, leading to some complex results. This time, morbid thoughts increased most people's overall sexual desire, unless they had an anxious attachment style (characterised by clingy behaviour driven by self-doubt). For these anxious types, when morbid thoughts did lead to sexual desire it was for reasons of relationship insecurity - i.e. to have sex with a partner as a way to cement the relationship. By contrast, for participants with an avoidant attachment style (characterised by emotional distance and self-reliance) morbid thoughts led to increased desire for sex that would bolster self-estem. For men with an avoidant attachment style, this meant a desire for casual sex.
Taken together the research paints a complex picture in which the effect of death-related thoughts on people's libido depends on the meaning that sex has for them. In turn this meaning is shaped by cultural norms and a person's attachment style. 'Although the present research is an important step toward shedding light on the dual potential of sex for both joy and distress,' the researchers said, 'more research is needed to elucidate its contextual determinants and the psychological mechanisms regulating its expression.'
BIRNBAUM, G., HIRSCHBERGER, G., and GOLDENBERG, J. (2011). Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01298.x
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BIRNBAUM, G., HIRSCHBERGER, G., & GOLDENBERG, J. (2010) Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation. Personal Relationships. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01298.x
Try bribing him with a sticker
Some experts have warned that bribing children to eat healthy foods can be counter-productive, undermining their intrinsic motivation and actually increasing disliking. Lucy Cooke and colleagues have found no evidence for this in their new large-scale investigation of the issue. They conclude that rewards could be an effective way for parents to improve their children's diet. '...rewarding children for tasting an initially disliked food produced sustained increases in acceptance, with no negative effects on liking,' they said.
Over four hundred four- to six-year-olds tasted six vegetables, rated them for taste and then ranked them in order of liking. Whichever was their fourth-ranked choice became their target vegetable. Twelve times over the next two weeks, most of these children were presented with a small sample of their target vegetable and encouraged to eat it. Some of them were encouraged with the reward of a sticker, others with the reward of verbal praise, while the remainder received no reward (a mere exposure condition). A minority of the children formed a control group and didn't go through an intervention of any kind.
After the two-week period, all the intervention children showed equal increases in their liking of their target vegetable compared with the control children. However, when given the chance to eat as much of it as they wanted (knowing there was no chance of reward), the kids who had previously earned stickers chose to eat more than the kids who'd just been repeatedly exposed to the vegetable without reward.
At one- and three-month follow-up, the intervention children's increased liking of their target vegetable was sustained regardless of the specific condition they'd been in. However, in terms of increased consumption (when given the opportunity to eat their target vegetable, knowing no reward would be forthcoming), only the sticker and verbal praise children showed sustained increases.
So, how come previous studies have claimed that bribery can undermine children's intrinsic motivation, actually leading to increases in disliking of foods? Cooke and her colleagues think this may be because past lab studies have often targeted foods that children already rather liked. Consistent with this explanation, it's notable that past community studies that reported the successful use of rewards targeted unpopular vegetables just as this study did.
An important detail of the current study is that verbal praise was almost as effective as tangible reward. 'Social reward might be particularly valuable in the home,' the researchers said, 'because it may help parents avoid being accused of unfairness in offering incentives to a fussy child but not to the child's siblings.'
Cooke, L., Chambers, L., Anez, E., Croker, H., Boniface, D., Yeomans, M., and Wardle, J. (2011). Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children's Enjoyment of Vegetables. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610394662
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Cooke, L., Chambers, L., Anez, E., Croker, H., Boniface, D., Yeomans, M., & Wardle, J. (2010) Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children's Enjoyment of Vegetables. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610394662
We experience emotion more intensely with our eyes closed
The simple act of closing our eyes has a significant effect on our moral judgement and behaviour. Eugene Caruso and Francesca Gino, who made the observation, think the effect has to do with mental simulation, whereby having our eyes closed causes us to simulate scenarios more vividly. In turn this triggers more intense emotion.
Throughout the study, Caruso and Gino concealed the true aim of the research from participants by telling them that part of the investigation was about judging the quality of head-phones. Participants were asked to listen to the rest of the study instructions through a pair of head-phones with a view to rating the sound quality. Crucially, half the participants were asked to listen to the different instructions and scenarios with their eyes closed - ostensibly to help their judgment of the sound quality - whilst the remainder listened with their eyes open.
Across the first three studies, the following effects were observed: participants with their eyes closed who heard a hypothetical scenario in which they deliberately over-estimated hours worked (so as to charge more) judged the act as more unethical than participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Participants who heard the instructions for a simple financial game with their eyes closed subsequently shared money more fairly than participants who heard the instructions with their eyes open. And participants who listened to a hypothetical scenario with their eyes closed, in which nepotism and self-interest had biased a recruitment decision they'd made, judged that act as more unethical than did participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Follow-up questions showed that the eyes-closed participants had visualised the scenario more vividly.
A fourth study was similar to the last except that some of the participants were given an explicit instruction to visualise the nepotism scenario as vividly as they could. This instruction led the eyes-open participants to judge the nepotistic act more harshly, similar to the eyes-closed participants. Overall, there was no evidence that the eyes-closed participants had simply paid more attention to the scenario than the eyes-open participants, but they did experience more negative, guilt-based emotion and it's this effect that probably underlies the study's central finding.
'Although scholars from different fields have provided important insights in understanding why people commonly cross ethical boundaries, little research has examined potential solutions that are easily implementable,' the researchers said. 'Here we identified a simple strategy: closing one's eyes, people are likely to simulate the decision they are facing more extensively and experience its emotional components more vividly. As a result ... people may be more sensitive to the ethical nature of their own and others' decisions, and perhaps behave more honestly as a result.'
Caruso, E., and Gino, F. (2011). Blind ethics: Closing one’s eyes polarizes moral judgments and discourages dishonest behavior. Cognition, 118 (2), 280-285 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.008
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Caruso, E., & Gino, F. (2011) Blind ethics: Closing one’s eyes polarizes moral judgments and discourages dishonest behavior. Cognition, 118(2), 280-285. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.008
Many people believe implicitly that the world is fair, that bad things by and large don't happen to good people. When presented with evidence to the contrary, they ignore or downplay it. According to Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, this is exactly what happens when such people are presented with dire warnings about global warning.
Feinberg and Willer had 97 undergrads read one of two versions of a newspaper-style article about global warming and its likely consequences. Both articles began in the same way with findings reported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but then one of them went on to describe apocalyptic consequences whereas the other was more upbeat and described potential technological solutions.
The effect of the articles on the participants' global warming scepticism depended partly on their strength of just-world beliefs, as measured at the study start (by their agreement or not with statements like 'I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve'). Those participants with stronger just-world beliefs were actually made more sceptical about global warming by the more shocking newspaper article. By contrast, the more upbeat article reduced participants' scepticism regardless of the strength of their just-world beliefs.
A second study provoked just-world beliefs in some participants by having them de-scramble sentences that spelt out phrases such as 'somehow justice will always prevail'. Control participants also de-scrambled sentences but they weren't related to just-world beliefs. Next, all the participants watched a 60-second dire message video clip about climate change. It featured a train hurtling towards a child and children making tick-tock clock noises - the message being that future generations of children will suffer from global warming's consequences. After watching the video, the participants primed with just-world phrases reported more scepticism about global warming compared with the controls, and less willingness to change their own behaviour.
This is the latest in a string of studies that suggest fear-based messages can backfire if they clash with people's underlying beliefs. For example, morbid anti-smoking messages can actually encourage smoking in those for whom the habit is tied to their self-esteem. In relation to climate change, there's evidence that framing environmentalism as patriotic can be more effective than playing on people's fears.
'We believe that our findings should be informative for politicians and environmental advocates who are interested in understanding public reaction to climate-change research and advocacy efforts,' the researchers said. 'More generally, our research responds to recent calls for psychologists to become actively involved in the study of climate-change attitudes and behaviour and complements the small but growing body of insights psychology has contributed to this topic.'
Feinberg, M., and Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34-38 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911
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Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2010) Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science, 22(1), 34-38. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911
Why did I buy this?
The fallibility of eye-witness memory is well documented. But what about people's memories of their own past intentions? This is an unexplored issue in memory research with real-life implications.
Consider the copyright infringement case in 2002, in which French composer Jacques Loussier sued Eminem, claiming that the track Kill You sampled beats from Loussier's work. Loussier further claimed that the success of the album was due in large part to the popularity of that specific track. Eminem's team responded by conducting a survey of people who'd bought the album in the last three years, only one per cent of whom stated they'd bought the album for the specific song Kill You.
The survey appeared to undermine Loussier's claim, but the trouble is that without any research on the topic, we don't know whether those survey responses can be trusted. Now a team led by Suzanne Kaasa and including Elizabeth Loftus has made a start on plugging this gap in the literature.
Nearly six hundred undergrads answered open-ended questions about why they'd purchased, downloaded or copied their most recently acquired album (the vast majority had acquired one within the last two weeks), and then they provided the same information again six months to a year later. The participants' answers fell into five main categories: because they liked the artist, liked the music, liked a specific song or songs, someone had recommended the album, or they needed the album for a specific purpose.
The key finding was that only one in five participants gave a consistent reason or reasons at both time points. The researchers had anticipated that memory for some reasons might prove more durable over time than others, but this wasn't the case. Overall, the most common form of change was simply to invent new reasons at the later time point. Sometimes participants also forgot reasons they'd mentioned earlier. Unsurprisingly perhaps, participants who recalled more reasons at the first time point tended to be more prone to forgetting reasons when quizzed again later. This was also true of participants who reported liking their CD more, perhaps because they'd felt less need to dwell on their motives at the time they acquired the album.
A subset of 82 of the participants also gave their reasons at a third time point, approximately six months to a year after the second time of questioning. Although still evident, changes in memory between the second and third time points were far reduced compared with between the first and second time points. This is important for real-life legal situations because consistency of answers across later interviews could be interpreted as a sign of memory reliability. 'It appears critical to have an accurate and complete record of the very first interview given by a witness,' the researchers said.
The study had some limitations, including the fact that the precise time between album acquisition and the first questioning session was unknown. However, the researchers observed that 'although individuals may not be able to accurately recall the reasons for their behaviours ... the real world continues to rely on self-reported motivations in a variety of circumstances, including police investigations and court proceedings.'
Kaasa, S., Morris, E., and Loftus, E. (2011). Remembering why: Can people consistently recall reasons for their behaviour? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (1), 35-42 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1639
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Kaasa, S., Morris, E., & Loftus, E. (2011) Remembering why: Can people consistently recall reasons for their behaviour?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(1), 35-42. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1639
You are not alone ...
Have you ever had the feeling that everyone else seems so sorted, so at ease? You look about you and see friends chatting over lunch, people laughing on their mobiles, others escaping contentedly through novels or newspapers. According to Alexander Jordan and colleagues, most of us have such a tendency to underestimate other people's experience of negative emotion. In turn the researchers think this skewed perception perpetuates a collective delusion in which we all strive to present an unrealistically happy front because we think that's the norm.
Jordan's team began their investigation by asking 63 undergrads to describe recent negative and positive emotional experiences they'd had. As expected, the negative examples (e.g. had an argument; was rejected by a boy/girl), more than the positive examples (e.g. attended a fun party; had a great meal), tended to occur in private and to provoke emotions that the students had attempted to suppress.
The most frequently cited of these experiences were then put to separate set of 80 students whose task was to say how many times in the last two weeks they had lived through something similar, and to estimate how often their peers had. The important finding here was that the students consistently underestimated their peers' experience of negative events (by an average of 17 per cent) whilst slightly over-estimating their peers' experience of positive situations (by 5.6 per cent).
What about close friends - surely we have a more accurate sense of their emotional lives? A third study was based on emotional weekly blogs kept by over 200 students, which they used to rate their experience of various positive and negative emotions over the course of a term. Each blog student then nominated a close friend or romantic partner who had to estimate the range of emotions the blogger had experienced that term. Consistent with the study's main message, close friends and partners tended to underestimate the bloggers' experiences of negative emotions and to overestimate their experiences of positive emotions. A deeper analysis of the data suggested the underestimation of negative emotion was partly mediated by the bloggers' deliberate suppression of their negative emotions.
A final study showed that students with a greater tendency to underestimate their peers' negative emotions also tended to feel more lonely, less satisfied with life and to ruminate more, thus suggesting that underestimating others' misery could be harmful to our own well-being. Of course the causal direction could run the other way (i.e. being lonely and discontented could predispose us to think everyone else is happier than they are), or both ways. The researchers acknowledged more research is needed to test this.
Assuming the present results can be replicated, an enduring mystery is why we continue to underestimate other people's misery whilst knowing full well that most of our own negative experiences happen in private, and that we frequently put on a brave, happy face when socialising. Why don't we reason that other people do the same? Jordan and his colleagues think this is probably part of an established phenomenon in psychology - 'the fundamental attribution error' - in which people downplay the role of the situation when assessing other people's behaviour compared with their own.
A fascinating implication of this research is that it could help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books. 'In fictional tragedy, people are given the opportunity to witness "the terrible things in life" that are ordinarily "played out behind the scenes",' the researchers said (quoting Checkhov), 'which may help to depathologise people's own negative emotional experiences.'
Jordan, A., Monin, B., Dweck, C., Lovett, B., John, O., and Gross, J. (2010). Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210390822
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Jordan, A., Monin, B., Dweck, C., Lovett, B., John, O., & Gross, J. (2010) Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(1), 120-135. DOI: 10.1177/0146167210390822
"Heal The WorldMake It A Better PlaceFor You And For MeAnd The Entire Human Race"So much research has looked at the effects of violent music lyrics and video-games on people's aggressiveness, but what about the effects of media with a positive message? Can songs like Michael Jackson's Heal the World and Bob Sinclair's Love Generation change people's behaviour for the better? Tobias Greitemeyer says this side of the media-behaviour equation has been neglected before now, but in a series of five studies conducted in Germany and the UK he's shown that 'pro-social' music reduces people's aggression. What's more, he's demonstrated that it appears to do so through its effect on mood and emotion rather than via changes to thoughts and cognition.
Greitemeyer's general approach was to have half his participants listen to a few pro-social songs, the others listen to neutral songs, and then all of them complete various questionnaires or tasks, depending on the specific experiment.
Further examples of pro-social songs used in the experiments include Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's We Are The World (among the biggest selling singles of all time) and U2's Vertigo. Among the neutral songs used were Michael Jackson's On The Line and Bob Sinclair's Rock This Party. Greitmeyer deliberately chose some pro-social and neutral songs by the same artists so as to control for the effects of the actual singer and general style.
Participants who listened to pro-social songs subsequently showed reduced aggressive cognitions - for example they were less likely to complete ambiguous word stems (e.g. 'schla_' in German) with violent endings (e.g. 'schlagen', to hit), choosing instead more peaceful endings (e.g. 'schlafen' to sleep). They also exhibited reduced aggressive mood, being less likely to say they felt angry or irritated.
Most importantly, participants who listened to Heal the World and other pro-social songs were less likely than participants who listened to neutral music to actually be aggressive. This was tested indirectly by having participants evaluate a job candidate. Apparently this is a common measure in the aggression field, with harsh judgements being taken as a sign of indirect aggression. Aggressive behaviour was tested directly in another experiment by giving participants the chance to choose how much chilli sauce another student would have to eat, having heard that he or she hated chilli. This student had earlier given the participants an unfair essay evaluation so there was a temptation to be aggressive.
In the final experiment, when Greitmeyer looked to see whether it was cognitions or mood that mediated the effect of pro-social songs on aggressive behaviour, he found it was mood or 'affect' that was key. Intriguingly, this is the opposite to what's been found for video-games, in which case it's changes to cognitions, not affect, that mediates the influence, for better or worse, of violent or pro-social games on subsequent aggression.
'Music exposure is omnipresent in our daily life,' Greitmeyer concluded. 'Thus, the present findings are not only of theoretical significance, but have important practical implications as well, in suggesting that depending on the context of the song lyrics music exposure may reduce aggressive encounters.'
Greitemeyer, T. (2011). Exposure to music with prosocial lyrics reduces aggression: First evidence and test of the underlying mechanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 28-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.005
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Greitemeyer, T. (2011) Exposure to music with prosocial lyrics reduces aggression: First evidence and test of the underlying mechanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(1), 28-36. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.005
How does the mind file life's episodes?
Autobiographical or 'episodic' memory describes our ability to recall past experiences and is distinct from semantic memory, which is our factual knowledge about the world. So far so good, but according to Youssef Ezzyat and Lila Davachi, psychology has so far largely neglected to investigate exactly how the brain organises the continuity of lived experience into a filing system of discrete episodes.
Ezzyat and Davachi have made a start. They had 23 participants read six narratives containing dozens of sentences about a protagonist performing everyday activities. Each sentence was displayed one at a time on a screen. Crucially, a minority of sentences began: 'A while later ...', thereby conveying a temporal boundary in the narrative; the end of one episode and start of another. For comparison, a small number of control sentences began: 'A moment later ...', indicating that the ensuing sentence was part of the same episode, not a new one.
After a ten minute break, the participants were given a surprise memory test. Presented with one sentence from the earlier narratives, their task was to recall the sentence that had followed. The key finding here was that the participants were poorer at recalling a sentence that came after a temporal boundary. It's as if information within an episode was somehow bound together, whereas a memory divide was placed between information spanning two episodes.
A second study was similar to the first except that nineteen participants had their brains scanned during the initial read-through of the sentences. Ezzyat and Davachi identified patterns of neural activity in distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex and the middle-temporal gyrus that either correlated with within-event processing or with forming boundaries between events. These neural activity patterns were more distinct in those participants who showed larger behavioural effects of episode boundaries in their memory performance.
'Our experiments are an important step toward understanding how event perception and segmentation influence the structure of long-term memory,' the researchers concluded. 'The behavioural results support the hypothesis that event segmentation shapes the organisation of long-term memory; the fMRI [brain scanning] results link these memory effects to brain activity consistent with information maintenance and integration within events.'
Ezzyat, Y., and Davachi, L. (2010). What Constitutes an Episode in Episodic Memory? Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610393742
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