753 posts · 542,288 views
Reports on the latest psychology research plus psych gossip and comment. Brought to you by the British Psychological Society.
Brainstorming sessions are popular but surprisingly ineffective. Research shows that people actually come up with more ideas working on their own than they do brainstorming together. According to business psychologist Peter Heslin, an alternative way for groups to generate ideas is called "Brainwriting", and early evidence suggests that it, unlike brainstorming, helps groups to spawn more ideas than the same number of people working alone.There are several reasons brainstorming is thought to be ineffective. To give two examples: it's easy for members of a group to remain creatively passive while others bandy ideas around - a phenomenon dubbed social loafing. Or group members can worry that their ideas will attact negative comment - this is called evaluation apprehension - thus leading them to keep quiet.Brainwriting aims to avoid some of these issues and is designed to encourage all group members to engage with each others' ideas. Briefly, it involves four group members writing ideas on slips of paper in silence. Group members pass the slips of paper between each other, reading others' ideas and inserting their own. Ink colour indicates who owns which ideas and when a paper slip has four ideas on it, it is placed in the centre of the table for all to see. This is repeated up to 25 times. The second stage involves group members withdrawing to the corners of the room and recalling as many of the ideas generated so far as possible - the rationale being that this encourages attention to the ideas generated. The final stage involves group members working alone for 15 minutes in an attempt to generate yet more ideas.A study published in 2000 with student participants found that they invented more novel uses for a paper clip using the brainwriting technique than did an equivalent number of students working alone.Peter Heslin is calling on more research to be conducted to find out whether brainwriting really is as effective as this preliminary study suggests, and to pin down under exactly which circumstances it is likely to be useful. For example, perhaps this technique would be more useful in some company cultures than others. Or maybe it would suit some personality types more than others. It's possible, for example, that extravert employees used to brainstorming would find the silent nature of brainwriting uncomfortable."A prime purpose of this paper is to raise awareness among scholars, practitioners, and managers of brainwriting as an alternative to the well-known brainstorming technique," Heslin said. "It also highlights the imperative for rigorous field research to investigate – and thus either confirm or refute – the validity of the contextual-based research ideas offered in this paper, so as to shed light on how and when organizations should consider using brainstorming instead of brainwriting."_________________________________Peter A. Heslin (2009). Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (1), 129-145 DOI: 10.1348/096317908X285642... Read more »
Peter A. Heslin. (2009) Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82(1), 129-145. DOI: 10.1348/096317908X285642
When marvelling at the world's great talents, whether in music, sport or literature, it's easy to conclude that these characters are simply born gifted. But that's unfair. Take a closer look and you'll see these people practice. A lot. In fact, the Swedish expertise expert Anders Ericsson has argued that the difference between an average and an elite musician is entirely down to practice, nothing else. Put the time in and you could be Mozart too, so the logic goes.Is Ericsson right? Joanne Ruthsatz at Oberlin College and colleagues tested the intelligence, musical ability and pract... Read more »
J RUTHSATZ, D DETTERMAN, W GRISCOM, & B CIRULLO. (2008) Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice. Intelligence, 36(4), 330-338. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2007.08.003
Wouldn't it be marvellous if brain-damaged stroke patients could use mental practice to rehabilitate their weakened limbs? This isn't as far fetched as it sounds. Merely imagining performing a movement, or watching someone else execute a movement, provokes activity in the same brain areas that are involved when carrying out that movement with your own body. This suggests imagery exercises could help forge new connections in damaged neural networks involved in actual bodily movement. Indeed, several small-scale studies have reported that mental imagery helps stroke patients recover their limb use, above and beyond the benefits from standard physical therapy.
What's been lacking is a larger study with recently afflicted patients, an adequate control condition, and with the imagery intervention kept separate from standard physical therapy. Now psychologist Magdalena letswaart and her colleagues have published the results from just such a study. Sadly the outcome is disappointing.
letswaart's team recruited 121 patients within one to six months of their having suffered a stroke, all of whom had significant weakness in one of their arms. Forty-one of these patients were then enrolled on an intensive four-week mental imagery intervention, which involved a total of nine hours supervised exercises and four hours of independent work.
The programme was extraordinarily thorough. As well as basic imagination exercises designed to target the damaged brain areas involved in motor control (e.g. imagining opening and closing the hand), there were also mirror and video techniques to aid the imagination process. For example, placing the weakened hand under a video display of a moving healthy hand can create the illusion that the weakened limb is moving, thus triggering activity in relevant brain areas. There was also a mental rotation exercise, involving rotating pictures of hands - again this has been shown to stimulate the desired motor areas of the brain.
Of the remaining patients, 39 were enrolled on a four-week placebo programme designed to match all the mental effort and therapist attention involved in the imagery programme. But instead of using motor imagery, this group spent their time visualising flowers and other static scenes. A final group of 41 patients had care as usual. Patients in all groups underwent standard physical therapy, but this was kept separate from the imagery work.
When tested soon after the intervention phase, patients in all groups had shown improvement in use of their weakened limb compared with baseline. But here's the rub: there was no difference between groups, either in the amount of limb improvement, or in secondary measures such as independent living. This result suggests the positive outcome for imagery found in previous small studies may have been based on non-specific effects, such as increased motivation. Alternatively, it may be that mental imagery only works as an adjunct to physical exercises, helping to consolidate the progress made with specific, related movements. This new study is the first to study mental imagery as a separate intervention in its own right.
The new findings undermine the idea that mental imagery on its own can help the brain forge new functional connections. If imagery only works by consolidating the benefits of related physical exercise, the researchers said this would significantly diminish its value as an rehabilitation intervention. Apart from anything else, they noted, it would suggest mental imagery could only be used to help patients who are already capable of performing physical exercises.
Ietswaart, M., Johnston, M., Dijkerman, H., Joice, S., Scott, C., MacWalter, R., and Hamilton, S. (2011). Mental practice with motor imagery in stroke recovery: randomized controlled trial of efficacy. Brain, 134 (5), 1373-1386 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr077
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
Ietswaart, M., Johnston, M., Dijkerman, H., Joice, S., Scott, C., MacWalter, R., & Hamilton, S. (2011) Mental practice with motor imagery in stroke recovery: randomized controlled trial of efficacy. Brain, 134(5), 1373-1386. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr077
Cognitive neuroscience explores how our mental faculties emerge from, and are organised in, the slimy tissue of our brains, and it's currently a thriving field. But some critics argue it's a dead-end, that biology is irrelevant to psychological accounts of how our minds work. In the words of philosopher Jerry Fodor, "If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north?"Now, writing in a special journal issue on the interface between psychology and neuroscience, language expert Peter Hagoort has hit back, arguing t... Read more »
Peter Hagoort. (2008) Should Psychology Ignore the Language of the Brain?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(2), 96-101. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00556.x
Many studies in clinical psychology and psychiatry are making the mistake of using healthy controls who are too healthy. That's according to a thought-provoking opinion piece by Sharon Schwartz and Ezra Susser - experts in the epidemiology of mental health.
Schwartz and Susser invite readers to consider a hypothetical study that samples participants from a wider group made up of people exposed to a virus prenatally and people not exposed to that virus. Imagine that a psychiatric registry is used to identify all the participants from this wider group who are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and they are compared with a slice of healthy participants recruited from the same source. The aim is to see what proportion of the participants with schizophrenia were exposed to the virus and what proportion of the healthy controls were exposed to the virus. If the history of exposure is higher among the schizophrenia participants, then this would suggest there may be an association between the virus and the later development of schizophrenia. In Schwartz and Susser's hypothetical scenario, there is no difference between patients and controls in rates of virus exposure and so the virus seems unassociated with schizophrenia. So far, so good - this is a classic case-controlled study.
The problem identified by Schwartz and Susser is that many such studies apply an exclusion criterion or criteria to the healthy controls that they don't also apply to the patient group. For example, they might rule out healthy controls with an alcohol problem, or depression, or even a physical disorder. The motivation for this is often the fear that these other disorders will obscure the potential link between the cause of interest and the condition of interest (virus exposure and schizophrenia in our ongoing example).
But to apply such exclusion criteria in a one-sided fashion (to the controls but not the patients), creates a serious confound. In our example, imagine that depressed "healthy" controls are excluded and imagine too that there is an underlying association between the virus exposure and depression. Excluding healthy controls with depression in this scenario would distort the results such that the virus appeared wrongly to be associated with schizophrenia (check out the full paper for the data behind this).
"With all the potential sources of bias in a biologic case-control study, why do we focus on the use of well controls?" the researchers asked. "We do so because the use of well controls is a common, and often recommended, method to select controls. Yet it is time-consuming and expensive, can cause considerable bias and does not improve study results."
If researchers include patient participants with other co-morbid diagnoses in their case-controlled studies, Schwartz and Susser went on to explain, then they must also include "healthy" controls who happen to have these other conditions. On the other hand, if researchers want to exclude other conditions, so as to clean up their investigation, then they must exclude both patient participants and controls with these other diagnoses.
Schwartz, S., and Susser, E. (2011). The use of well controls: an unhealthy practice in psychiatric research. Psychological Medicine, 41 (06), 1127-1131 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291710001595
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
Schwartz, S., & Susser, E. (2010) The use of well controls: an unhealthy practice in psychiatric research. Psychological Medicine, 41(06), 1127-1131. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291710001595
Plenty of research has been conducted into the ability of people, including police officers, to judge whether people are lying: most of us are useless, while new research suggests the police may be better. However, little research has been conducted into whether, deliberate deception aside, people can judge the accuracy of eye-witness statements. This is an important issue given how unreliable eye-witnesses can be, even when they think they're telling the truth.Now Torun Lindholm has made a start at plugging this gap in the literature, by presenting lay people, detectives and judges with eye-witness statements about a kidnapping they were shown on video. The participants' task was to say which statements were true and which were false.The results showed the judges and lay people performed little or no better than if they'd simply guessed at the accuracy of the statements. However, the police detectives performed better, showing a moderate to good ability to distinguish true from false eye-witness statements. All the participants showed a bias towards saying the statements were accurate and all reported using the same cues to make their judgements: the difficulty of the questions put to witnesses, the plausibility of the witnesses' answers and the witnesses' apparent confidence in their answers. It's possible the police officers' superior performance came from their use of cues that they didn't realise they were using.Another finding was that the participants ability to judge the accuracy of eye-witness statements was better when statements were presented by written transcript rather than by video, perhaps because people focus on unreliable cues when viewing a video. Lindholm said this result, if backed up by further research, could have real-life implications for how witness statements are presented."The fact that current evidence suggests that testimony transcripts provide a better basis for accuracy judgements than does live or taped testimony raises concerns regarding the orality principle to which most legal systems adhere - that only testimony given orally at court should be considered in legal procedures," Lindholm wrote. _________________________________Torun Lindholm (2008). Who can judge the accuracy of eyewitness statements? A comparison of professionals and lay-persons Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22 (9), 1301-1314 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1439... Read more »
Torun Lindholm. (2008) Who can judge the accuracy of eyewitness statements? A comparison of professionals and lay-persons. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(9), 1301-1314. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1439
You've probably been tormented by a catchy song playing over and over in your head. Spare a thought then for those people for whom this phenomenon is taken to the next level: the song or songs sound real and they play round the clock. They have what's called 'musical hallucinosis'. Besides hearing music that isn't there, such people often have no other psychological complaints. Now Ramon Mocellin and colleagues have described three typical cases and proposed a tentative neurobiological account of why the condition occurs.Case one was an 82-year-old patient who lived in a remote far... Read more »
Ramon Mocellin, Mark Walterfang, & Dennis Velakoulis. (2008) Musical hallucinosis: case reports and possible neurobiological models. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 20(2), 91-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1601-5215.2007.00255.x
The brain imaging community is about to experience another shockwave, just days after the online leak of a paper that challenged many of the brain-behaviour correlations reported in respected social neuroscience journals.Now Yevgeniy Sirotin and Aniruddha Das have reported that blood flow changes in the brain - the signal measured by brain scanners - are not always linked to changes in neuronal activity. Experts have known for some time that the relationship between blood flow and neuronal activity might be rather complicated but this is the first time that such an extreme mismatch has been demonstrated.Sirotin and Das used electrodes to directly record neuronal activity in the vision part of the brains of two awake monkeys, and at the same time they used a camera system and injected dyes to monitor blood flow to that region. This kind of thing couldn't be done with humans because it is too intrusive and physically harmful.The monkeys were trained to look at a tiny dot when it was one colour and to relax when it was another colour. The dot alternated colours following a predictable rhythm, so the monkeys could predict when they'd need to concentrate and when they could relax. Sometimes, when the monkeys were required to fixate the dot, it was accompanied by intense visual stimuli, whereas on other trials there was nothing, leaving the monkeys in near darkness.As you'd expect, when there was intense visual stimulation, the researchers observed increased neuronal activity in the visual area of the monkeys' brains and lots of blood flow to that region. But here's the important bit: they also observed increased blood flow to the visual brain even when there was nothing for the monkeys to look at, except for the minuscule dot, and even though neuronal activity was virtually silent. It's as though extra blood was being channelled to the visual cortex, in anticipation that there might be lots of visual material to look at.There's a chance that this anticipatory blood flow could just reflect an increase in arousal, since the researchers also noted anticipatory changes to heart rate and pupil size just before an active phase of each trial was due to begin. However, Sirotin and Das were able to rule this out using an auditory task. Heart rate and pupil size changed in anticipation of the active phase of the auditory task, but there was no anticipatory blood flow to the visual parts of the brain.The interpretation of human brain imaging experiments is founded on the idea that changes in blood flow reflect parallel changes in neuronal activity. This important new study shows that blood flow changes can be anticipatory and completely unconnected to any localised neuronal activity. It's up to future research to find out which brain areas and cognitive mechanisms are controlling this anticipatory blood flow. As the researchers said, their finding points to a "novel anticipatory brain mechanism".Writing a commentary on this paper in the same journal issue, David Leopold at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, said the findings were "sure to raise eyebrows among the human fMRI research community."_________________________________Yevgeniy B. Sirotin, Aniruddha Das (2009). Anticipatory haemodynamic signals in sensory cortex not predicted by local neuronal activity. Nature, 457, 475-479.Image shows blood vessel activation in the brain evoked by visual stimulus. White lightning bolt patterns outline arteries in the contraction phase of the anticipatory response; dark centre is the specific response to the visual stimulus. Credit Sirotin & Das.... Read more »
Yevgeniy B. Sirotin, & Aniruddha Das. (2009) Anticipatory haemodynamic signals in sensory cortex not predicted by local neuronal activity. Nature.
The following is written by Dr Alex Fradera and is being cross-posted here and over at the new BPS Occupational Digest - a 'child' blog of the Research Digest with a focus on psychology at work.
When impropriety or corruption emerges in an organisation, some cry “bad apple!” where others reply “more like bad barrel!” Yet between individuals and organisations we have teams, the context in which decisions are increasingly made. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on what it takes for teams to behave badly.
Researchers Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis recruited 378 undergraduate management studies students (about 1/3 female), already organised into study groups of three who had collaborated for months. Participants were asked to rate themselves on items relating to different philosophical outlooks, the pertinent one being utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes. Previous research suggests individuals who highly value utilitarianism tend to behave more unethically, as they are more prepared to bend rules or mislead if they perceive the ends to justify the means. Pearsall and Ellis suspected the same to be true in groups.
Each team was given a real opportunity to behave unethically, by cheating in the self-evaluation of a piece of coursework. Buried within the scoring criteria was an issue that could not possibly have been covered in the assignment, meaning any team that ticked this off was faking it. As expected, teams with a higher average utilitarianism score were more likely to cheat, mirroring the effect found for individuals.
However, there is a protective buffer against acting unethically in a team. You may be willing to bend the rules, and even suspect others share your view... but do you really want to be the first to say so out loud? Pearsall and Ellis predicted that making this step requires a strong feeling of psychological safety, the sense that others will not judge or report you for speaking out or taking risks. It turns out that the cheating behaviour observed in teams with high utilitarianism scores was almost entirely dependent on a psychologically safe environment, as measured using items like “It is safe to take a risk on this team”. Lacking that safe environment, the highly utilitarian teams were almost as well-behaved as their lower-scoring counterparts.
The researchers note that academic cheating involves relatively low stakes, so this may be a constraint on how far we should generalise to other situations. They also emphasise that psychological safety is generally something we prize in teams, and rightly so: through facilitating open communication and consideration of alternate views it can enhance performance, learning and adaptation to change. However, this evidence suggests that it can also incubate unethical behaviour, and the researchers urge that the field continues to look beyond the traits of individual miscreants to consider state factors such as psychological safety, that allow bad behaviour to take root.
Pearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411 DOI: 10.1037/a0021503
... Read more »
Pearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011) Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 401-411. DOI: 10.1037/a0021503
People of either sex who throw things in anger are more likely to be perceived as male, whilst those who throw in sadness are more likely to be judged as female. The finding, by Kerri Johnson and her team, builds on face research showing that people hold stereotyped beliefs about gender and emotion - seeing anger as a more male emotion and sadness as more female.
For example, a woman with an ambiguous facial expression is more likely to be judged as sad, whilst a man with an ambiguous expression is more often judged as angry. The problem with this line of investigation is that male faces, with thicker brows and square jaws, often do resemble a prototypical angry expression. So it's not entirely clear that people's biased interpretations of gender and facial emotion are based on gender stereotypes or if they're swayed by genuine sex differences in facial shape.
For the new research, Johnson and her colleagues videoed 14 male and 15 female actors throwing a ball into a bucket. Motion capture technology was used to create point light displays from these videos via markers placed on each actor's shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand. The actors read short paragraphs designed to stir different emotions in them before each throw - angry, neutral, happy or sad. The resulting stimuli simply showed the movement of the thrower's basic joints, seen as white dots against a black background.
A series of studies with dozens of undergrads confirmed that they were able to watch these basic point light displays and judge with some accuracy (up to 80 per cent in some conditions) the gender of the thrower and the emotion they were feeling. But crucially, there was a clear gender/emotion interaction, such that angry throwers were more likely to be judged male and sad throwers were more likely to be judged female. In fact, for angry female throwers, the ability to correctly discern their sex was reduced to no better than guessing, and the same for sad male throwers.
Further analysis and investigation confirmed that this confound existed because participants tended to rate angry throwers as more masculine (regardless of their actual sex) and sad throwers as more feminine.
An alternative, non-stereotype-based explanation for the results - that sad throwers and female throwers both throw with less velocity - was discounted. The male and female throwers in this study didn't differ in the velocity of their throws and the gender/emotion confound remained in place even after the point light displays were doctored to make all the emotions have the same velocity of throwing. 'The most likely explanation [for the findings],' the researchers said, 'is that emotions are gender stereotyped and thus affected sex perception via perceptions of masculinity/femininity.'
Johnson, K., McKay, L., and Pollick, F. (2011). He throws like a girl (but only when he’s sad): Emotion affects sex-decoding of biological motion displays. Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.016
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
Johnson, K., McKay, L., & Pollick, F. (2011) He throws like a girl (but only when he’s sad): Emotion affects sex-decoding of biological motion displays. Cognition. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.016
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can sometimes lead to an identity crisis so severe it is akin to dying. That's one message derived from comments made by fourteen people with the condition who were interviewed in-depth by health psychologists in Scotland.CFS, also known as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), is a poorly understood condition characterised by long-term tiredness that persists even after sleep and rest. The organic cause is unknown.Using a qualitative technique called interpretative phenomenological analysis (pdf), Adele Dickson and colleagues identified three t... Read more »
Adele Dickson, Christina Knussen, & Paul Flowers. (2008) 'That was my old life; it's almost like a past-life now': Identity crisis, loss and adjustment amongst people living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Psychology , 23(4), 459-476. DOI: 10.1080/08870440701757393
Research on group creativity shows consistently that the same people come up with more ideas working on their own than they do when brainstorming together. But perhaps it's time to move beyond this striking yet superficial discovery. After all, having a list of initial ideas is not the end of the creative process. A new study by Nicholas Kohn and colleagues has focused on the creative task of idea combination, finding that in this context groups do have advantages over individuals working alone.
One hundred and eight student participants formed groups of three working at computer terminals located apart (this set-up was used to rule out the influence of various social factors that emerge in face-to-face situations). The participants' ten-minute task was to come up with fresh ideas for how to improve their university. Some of the groups of three shared their ideas electronically - that is, each individual could see the ideas of their two fellow team members appear on their own screen as they worked. Other groups worked alone, each individual entirely cut off from their two team members.
The next stage was about idea combination. All participants, whether they previously worked alone or not, now had access to a list of their own existing ideas and the already proposed ideas of their team members. For the next fifteen minutes participants attempted to combine these existing ideas into novel concepts, or to combine an existing idea with a new one. Crucially, half the participants (whether they previously worked alone or collaboratively) now did the combining on their own; the other half could see their team members' newly combined ideas appear on-screen as they worked.
Consistent with past research, participants who worked alone in the first phase came up with more ideas than those who worked cooperatively with their team members. However, team working was more successful in the second, idea combination phase. Although participants working on their own came up with more combined ideas, it was the combined ideas produced by participants working together that were rated by independent judges as being more useful.
Another finding was that participants who worked alone in the first phase were more likely to use other people's ideas to form novel combinations in the second phase (rather than just combining their own earlier ideas), perhaps because they were seeing them for the first time and therefore finding them more stimulating.
A second study was similar to the first except the participants were asked to form newly combined ideas out of existing ideas from an external source (ie. not generated by themselves or their team members). The topic was as before - how to improve the university. Some groups worked with ideas categorised as common, others with rare ideas. This time the collaborators sat around a table and followed a "brain writing" technique - each time they conceived of a new idea combination they wrote it down on a piece of paper and passed it to their neighbour, who rated its usefulness. The purpose of this was to make sure collaborating participants engaged with each others' ideas.
Again, individuals working alone generated more freshly combined ideas than individuals working collaboratively - this was unsurprising since the brain writing process is time consuming. However, participants working collaboratively with rare material came up with combined ideas that judges rated as more novel and feasible, than did participants working alone. And collaborating participants working with common material came up with combined ideas rated as having more impact. This result shows again that there are times in the creative process when working collaboratively has advantages.
'Our results provide a fertile basis for future studies to examine the factors that influence this process and enhance the ability of groups to generate combinations that are both original and useful,' Kohn and his team concluded.
Kohn, N., Paulus, P., and Choi, Y. (2011). Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.004
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
Kohn, N., Paulus, P., & Choi, Y. (2011) Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.004
Without fanfare or formal announcement, human civilisation has passed a momentous milestone. For the first time, more of us now live in cities than in rural communities. The benefits are numerous: more jobs, better access to educational and health services, more potential friends, and on the list goes. Yet city living has its dark side. Crime, deprivation and inequality are usually higher and so are rates of mental illness, including more anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. A new paper has made one of the first attempts to understand the neural effects mediating this link between urban life and mental strife.
Across several studies, Florian Lederbogen and his team (at the University of Heidelberg and Douglas Mental Health Institute) placed volunteers in a brain scanner and engaged them in a task designed to create social stress. Participants had to answer tricky arithmetic problems as fast as possible, whilst receiving negative, critical feedback from the researchers and others, via headphones or a video display. The crucial question was whether the effect of this task on the brain would vary as a consequence of whether each participant currently lived in a city, a town or the countryside, and also where they grew up. Some participants were recruited via local newspaper advertisements, but unfortunately the majority were university undergrads.
There were two striking results. The stressful task triggered more amygdala activity in city-dwellers than townies, and more amygdala activity in townies compared with rural folk. Second, the task aroused more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of those participants raised in a more urban environment, regardless of where they currently lived. These associations were highly specific - no other brain areas were differentially activated according to urban/rural status. A raft of demographic variables including household size, income, personality, and self-reported health, played no part in the results. Also, demanding tasks (memory and face recognition), with the social stress element removed, did not lead to differential activity in the amygdala or ACC according to participants' current urban/rural status or upbringing.
The amygdala, often likened to an almond, is part of the brain's limbic system and is involved in emotional processing. That this region was apparently sensitised to social stress in the city dwellers "can plausibly be related to epidemiological observations," the researchers said, such as the higher rates of anxiety disorder in cities. The ACC, meanwhile, is involved in stress regulation, among other things. It's also been called the "oh shit" centre, for its function in looking out for unexpected outcomes. The researchers pointed out that schizophrenia, which is more common in cities, is associated with reduced ACC volume and connectivity abnormalities with the amygdala. Schizophrenia usually emerges in adolescence so it's notable that the city-link with ACC activity was based on participants' upbringing location rather than their current dwelling location. A follow-up study by Lederbogen's team further established that an urban upbringing was associated with reduced connectivity between the ACC and amygdala.
There's no question these are interesting results but they are crude. For example, we don't know what aspects of city living led to sensitised amygdala activation, or what aspect of an urban upbringing is associated with ACC function. Moreover, cities vary hugely and these results are based specifically on German urban and rural environments - perhaps the results would be different if the study were replicated on a different continent (although the researchers predict their results would be even larger in countries where the rural/urban discrepancies are greater).
We also don't know what it means to have an amygdala that's more aroused by social stress, or whether that sensitivity is permanent or not. For some broader context, consider that people with larger, more complex social networks have been shown to have bigger amygdalae. Perhaps - and this is pure speculation - city living is associated with having a more complex social life, and therefore an enlarged, more sensitive amygdala. By this account, the amygdala finding in the current study has provided evidence of adaptive neural plasticity, just as much as it may have uncovered a pathological vulnerability. Consistent with this interpretation, it's notable that the study participants were all psychologically healthy (potential volunteers were excluded if they had past or present mental health problems). The cross-sectional nature of the current research also means we don't know if city living causes the observed brain differences, or if people with certain kinds of brain are drawn to urban versus rural environments.
A final short-coming is that the brain differences associated with urban life did not correlate with cortisol levels triggered by the stressful tasks. Cortisol is a biological marker of stress, so if heightened amygdala and ACC activity were indicative of sensitivity to stress you'd expect participants with extra activity in these brain regions to have shown corresponding increases in cortisol.
Lederbogen and his colleagues said their study had shown "neural effects of urban upbringing and habituation on social stress processing in humans" and was a first step in what they hope will be "a new empirical approach for integrating social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenges of urbanisation."
F Lederbogen, P Kirsch, L Haddad, F Streit, H Tost, and six others (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature : 10.1038/nature10190
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
F Lederbogen, P Kirsch, L Haddad, F Streit, H Tost, & and six others. (2011) City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature. info:/10.1038/nature10190
A fascinating study has shown that we're unable to read insights into ourselves from watching a video of our own body language. It's as if we have an egocentric blind spot. Outside observers, by contrast, can watch the same video and make revealing insights into our personality.The premise of the new study is the tip-of-the-iceberg idea that what we know about ourselves is fairly limited, with many of our impulses, traits and beliefs residing below the level of conscious access. The researchers wondered whether people would be able to form a truer picture of themselves when presented with a video of their own body language.In an initial study, Wilhelm Hofmann and colleagues first had dozens of undergrad students rate how much of an extrovert they are, using both explicit and implicit measures. The explicit measure simply required the students to say whether they agreed that they were talkative, shy and so on. The implicit measure used was the Implicit Association Test. Briefly, this reveals how much people associate ideas in their mind, by seeing whether they are quicker or slower to respond when two ideas are allocated the same response key on a keyboard.Next, the participants recorded a one minute television commercial for a beauty product (they'd been told the study was about personality and advertising). The participants then watched back the video of themselves, having been given guidance on non-verbal cues that can reveal how extraverted or introverted a person is. Based on their observation of the video, they were then asked to rate their own personality again, using the explicit measure.The key question was whether seeing their non-verbal behaviour on video would allow the participants to rate their personality in a way that was consistent with their earlier scores on the implicit test.Long story short - they weren't able to. The participants' extraversion scores on the implicit test showed no association with their subsequent explicit ratings of themselves, and there was no evidence either that they'd used their non-verbal behaviours (such as amount of eye contact with the camera) to inform their self-ratings.In striking contrast, outside observers who watched the videos made ratings of the participants' personalities that did correlate with those same participants' implicit personality scores, and it was clear that it was the participants' non-verbal behaviours that mediated this correlation (that is, the observers had used the participants' non-verbal behaviours to inform their judgements about the participants' personalities).Two further experiments showed that this general pattern of findings held even when participants were given a financial incentive to rate their own personality accurately, as if from an outside observer's perspective, and also when the task involved anxiety personality ratings following the delivery of a short speech.What was going on? Why can't we use a video of ourselves to improve the accuracy of our self-perception? One answer could lie in cognitive dissonance - the need for us to hold consistent beliefs about ourselves. People may well be extremely reluctant to revise their self-perceptions, even in the face of powerful objective evidence. A detail in the final experiment supports this idea. Participants seemed able to use the videos to inform their ratings of their "state" anxiety (their anxiety "in the moment") even while leaving their scores for their "trait" anxiety unchanged."When applied to the question of how people may gain knowledge about their unconscious self, the present set of studies demonstrates that self-perceivers do not appear to pay as much attention to and make as much use of available behavioural information as neutral observers," the researchers said._________________________________Hofmann, W., Gschwendner, T., & Schmitt, M. (2009). The road to the unconscious self not taken: Discrepancies between self- and observer-inferences about implicit dispositions from nonverbal behavioural cues. European Journal of Personality, 23 (4), 343-366 DOI: 10.1002/per.722... Read more »
Hofmann, W., Gschwendner, T., & Schmitt, M. (2009) The road to the unconscious self not taken: Discrepancies between self- and observer-inferences about implicit dispositions from nonverbal behavioural cues. European Journal of Personality, 23(4), 343-366. DOI: 10.1002/per.722
A longitudinal study has identified a link between people's belief in age stereotypes when they're younger and their likelihood of suffering a cardiovascular illness when they get older.Becca Levy and colleagues used data collected from 1968 onwards from 386 people regarding their belief in age stereotypes. The participants, who were aged 36.5 years on average when first approached, had stated their agreement with views like "old people are helpless".Levy's team then looked to see which participants had suffered a cardiovascular illness such as heart attack or stroke between 1968 and 2007. There were 89 such cardiovascular events in total.Amazingly, participants who earlier held negative views about older people were subsequently more likely to suffer a cardiovascular illness over the next 38 years, than were the participants who had held more positive views about ageing. For example, 30 years after the questions about ageing, 25 per cent of those who'd espoused negative views had suffered an illness compared with just 13 per cent of those who'd held positive views.Crucially, this association held even after controlling for a raft of other factors that might have explained the link, including health at baseline, family medical history and body mass index at baseline. "This finding suggests that programmes aimed at reducing the negative age stereotypes of younger individuals could benefit their cardiovascular health when they become older individuals," the researchers said.The Digest asked Becca Levy what the possible mechanism underlying the link between earlier views and later health could be. "In previous studies we have found that age stereotype can impact how older individuals take in stressors," she said, "such that those with exposure to more negative age stereotypes tended to have an exaggerated cardiovascular response to stressors whereas those exposed to more positive age stereotypes tend to be protected." In other words, people's own age prejudices could be making them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress later in life. Another possibility, Levy said, was that people with negative views of old age tend to take less good care of themselves as they get older - perhaps attending fewer health appointments or performing less exercise._________________________________Levy, B., Zonderman, A., Slade, M., & Ferrucci, L. (2009). Age Stereotypes Held Earlier in Life Predict Cardiovascular Events in Later Life. Psychological Science, 20 (3), 296-298 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02298.x... Read more »
Levy, B., Zonderman, A., Slade, M., & Ferrucci, L. (2009) Age Stereotypes Held Earlier in Life Predict Cardiovascular Events in Later Life. Psychological Science, 20(3), 296-298. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02298.x
Much of psychology's efforts over the last few decades have been spent on understanding the nature of memory. Increasingly, though, psychologists are beginning to apply what we've learned about memory, so as to help enhance people's performance. In 2007, the Digest reported on a study that investigated the optimal interval to leave between study periods if you want to remember material long term. Now Claudia Meltzer-Baddeley and Roland Baddeley have tested a related approach to study, known as adaptive training, and found that it too helps boost learning.Adaptive training is a strategic form of study that ensures the learner spends more time focused on material they know less well and less time focused on already mastered material. This means that less familiar material is re-examined more frequently, while better mastered material is gradually left for longer and longer periods. It's possible to employ this kind of system by using stacks of learning cards, whereby correctly answered cards are placed on piles that are re-tested less often. However, there are computerised tools like "SuperMemo" that simplify and enhance this process, allowing the learner to say how confidently they answered each item, which in turn influences the likelihood of that item appearing again.Meltzer-Baddeley and Baddeley tested the ability of 32 undergrads to learn Spanish vocabulary using the SuperMemo software. Crucially, they compared the learning effectiveness of two versions - one employed adaptive training, whilst the other version simply randomised the presentation of the study items. The researchers found that the adaptive training version significantly boosted performance on a vocab test given immediately after training and two weeks' later, compared with performance using the simple randomised presentation of study items.The size of the adaptive training benefit was modest but the researchers said "in real life situations, in which motivated people may come back to material repeatedly across larger periods of times, we would expect much bigger advantages of adaptive spacing." They concluded that adaptive computer based training programmes could prove to be a useful tool "to enhance memory in healthy individuals, as well as people with learning and memory problems."_________________________________Metzler-Baddeley, C., & Baddeley, R. (2009). Does adaptive training work? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (2), 254-266 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1454... Read more »
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
... Read more »
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
Still life with guitar by Picasso [c. www.pablo-ruiz-picasso.net]
Psychologists who study art appreciation have their work cut out. How does one begin to untangle cultural influences from more basic perceptual factors - the cache from the contours? Well one way is to study babies, because they're obviously too young to know about cultural fads and artistic reputations.
Trix Cacchione and her team at the University of Zurich presented nine-month old babies with paintings by the cubist painter Picasso and the impressionist Monet. Their first aim was to see if the babies could tell the difference between the two painting styles. They did this by continually presenting the babies with different paintings by one of the artists until they grew bored (known as "habituation") and then seeing if the babies treated the sight of a painting by the other artist as somehow different, and therefore more worthy of their attention. The finding here was that babies who'd habituated to Monet were thereafter more attracted to a painting by Picasso, as revealed when new paintings by each artist were presented together side by side. There was clearly something novel about a Picasso painting that they perceived and found stimulating, which led them to look at it more. However, the reverse wasn't true. Babies habituated to Picasso preferred to look at yet another Picasso painting rather than enjoy the greater novelty of a Monet.
Next the researchers checked the babies could distinguish between different paintings by the same artist. They found that babies habituated to one particular Picasso were attracted to a new Picasso more than a repeat. Ditto for Monet - the babies preferred a new Monet to a familiar old one.
So why did the babies prefer to look at yet another Picasso, even after they'd seen loads of them, rather than enjoy the novelty of a Monet? The implication is that the appeal of a Picasso overpowers the novelty of a Monet. There's clearly something about Picasso, but what is it?
Cacchione's team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso's use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.
The most likely explanation then is that it's something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies. One further factor, which the current study didn't look at, is luminance or "perceived lightness". The researchers said it's possible that babies prefer Picasso because of the greater luminance of his paintings. Crucially, luminance is processed mostly by the dorsal visual stream (the "where pathway"). This would fit with the idea that babies don't yet have a fully developed visual system - in particular the ventral stream (also known as the "what pathway") is immature.
"Many of Monet's paintings have so little luminance contrast that it is impossible to recognise their elements on the basis of dorsal processing," the researchers said. "It is possible that infants preferred paintings by Picasso, because they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system."
A final possibility is that there's something about Monet that babies don't like, rather than there being something particularly appealing about Picasso. Only further studies with more babies and different artists will get to the truth of why there appears to be something about Picasso.
Cacchione, T., Möhring, W., and Bertin, E. (2011). What is it about Picasso? Infants' categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0024129
This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
... Read more »
Cacchione, T., Möhring, W., & Bertin, E. (2011) What is it about Picasso? Infants' categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. DOI: 10.1037/a0024129
Youngsters tend to live for the moment whilst older folks are more concerned about their futures. But when in a person's life does this change in perspective usually occur? A new study identifies a period between the ages of thirteen and sixteen as being critical. Laurence Steinberg and colleagues asked 935 people between the ages of ten and thirty years to answer questions regarding how much they think about the future, and to complete a time-discounting task. Briefly, this required them to make a number of hypothetical choices between less money now or more money at a later date. Choosing more money available later is a sign of being more oriented to the future.A key difference emerged between participants who were aged thirteen and younger versus those aged sixteen and older, with the older group being more future oriented. There were no age-related differences among participants aged thirteen or less, or among participants aged sixteen or more, whilst fourteen and fifteen-year-olds were mixed, with a time orientation that did not differ from the younger or older groups.Another important finding was that a tendency to favour immediate rewards was associated with the participants' self-reported tendency to not think about the consequences of their actions, but was less related to their self-reported impulsivity and disinclination to plan ahead. It's a subtle distinction, but Steinberg's team said this implies future orientation is influenced by at least two developmental trajectories: one relating to a proclivity to plan ahead, which continues to emerge well into early adulthood, and another related to a diminishing salience of immediate rewards, which as we've seen, undergoes a crucial change in mid-adolescence._________________________________Steinberg, L., Graham, S., O’Brien, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., & Banich, M. (2009). Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting. Child Development, 80 (1), 28-44 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01244.x... Read more »
Steinberg, L., Graham, S., O’Brien, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., & Banich, M. (2009) Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting. Child Development, 80(1), 28-44. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01244.x
In the first study of its kind, psychologists have used an economic game to investigate the behaviour and brain processes of people diagnosed with a personality disorder.Brooks King-Casas and colleagues recruited dozens of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to play the role of trustee in an economic game. People with this disorder tend to have unstable personal relationships and difficulty regulating their emotions. Healthy participants were recruited to play the part of investor and/or trustee.Over several rounds, the game involved the investor choosing how much money to pass to the trustee. The investment was automatically tripled and then the trustee had to decide how much money to pass back to the investor. For maximum returns, both parties need to cooperate. If the trustee is unfair in the returns he gives back, the investor will likely reduce his investments on future rounds, meaning less profit for everyone.The researchers found that cooperation broke down when a person with BPD played the role of trustee. They failed to recognise smaller investments as a sign that the investor was losing trust. Healthy trustees, by contrast, responded to a distrustful investor by increasing the returns they gave, thereby coaxing back the investor's trust and provoking a return to larger investments.Brain scans taken while the participants played the role of trustee showed that healthy participants, but not participants with BPD, showed greater activity in the anterior insula as investments reduced in size (this is a brain region known to be involved in fairness, as well as sensing the body's internal states). Perhaps because of their low expectations for how others will treat them, the participants with BPD didn't appear to recognise a low investment as unfair. Consequently, they didn't attempt to restore the investor's trust, thus leading to a collapse of cooperation.In a commentary on the study, published in the same journal issue, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg welcomed this pioneering use of an economic game for the study of mental health. "The correspondence of these brain findings to current psychotherapeutic practice is remarkable," he also noted. "The most effective treatment of borderline personality disorder, dialectical behaviour therapy, is based on the assumption that patients lack skills in interpersonal regulation, and attempts to build these abilities."_________________________________B. King-Casas, C. Sharp, L. Lomax-Bream, T. Lohrenz, P. Fonagy, P. R. Montague (2008). The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder Science, 321 (5890), 806-810 DOI: 10.1126/science.1156902A. Meyer-Lindenberg (2008). PSYCHOLOGY: Trust Me on This Science, 321 (5890), 778-780 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162908... Read more »
B. King-Casas, C. Sharp, L. Lomax-Bream, T. Lohrenz, P. Fonagy, & P. R. Montague. (2008) The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder. Science, 321(5890), 806-810. DOI: 10.1126/science.1156902
Do you write about peer-reviewed research in your blog? Use ResearchBlogging.org to make it easy for your readers — and others from around the world — to find your serious posts about academic research.
If you don't have a blog, you can still use our site to learn about fascinating developments in cutting-edge research from around the world.
Research Blogging is powered by SMG Technology.
To learn more, visit seedmediagroup.com.