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Reports on the latest psychology research plus psych gossip and comment. Brought to you by the British Psychological Society.
The political parties don't agree on much but what they do all agree on is that the more people who exercise their right to vote, the better. Psychology can help. A new study shows that phone calls to encourage people to vote can be made more effective by a simple strategy - that is, by asking the would-be voter to spell out what time they plan to vote, where they will be coming from prior to voting and what they will have been doing beforehand.David Nickerson and Todd Rogers targeted 155,669 voters on the electoral roll in Pennsylvania. Frequent voters had been excluded, so these were people who'd chosen to vote only once between 2000 and the time of this study, which took place just prior to the 2008 presidential primary.Would-be voters received one of three kinds of phone call: either they were encouraged to vote and reminded of their duty; they were asked whether they intended to vote; or they were asked more detailed questions about when, where etc they planned to vote. A control group received no phone call.A classic study in the 1980s found that simply asking people if they intended to vote ended up making them more likely to vote - a phenomenon known as the 'self-prophecy effect'. However, this effect wasn't replicated here. Would-be voters in the current study, who were simply asked whether they planned to vote or not, were barely more likely to vote than the control group. Same story for the participants who received a call with encouragement to vote. By contrast, would-be voters who were asked questions about the when and where of their voting intentions were, on average, 4.1 per cent more likely to vote than controls. There's a further twist. Digging deeper the researchers realised that the detailed questions about voting intentions only exerted an influence on would-be voters who were the sole eligible voter in their household. Focusing on just these people, the detailed voting intentions phone call led to an average 9.1 per cent increase in turnout. For people living in a household with multiple eligible voters, by contrast, the same kind of phone call was completely ineffective. Nickerson and Rogers think this difference probably arose because people living in a household with other eligible voters had already had conversations about when and where they planned to vote.'This research contributes to a growing body of work using behavioural science to facilitate socially important behaviours,' the researchers concluded. 'Campaign professionals can use psychological science more widely to help citizens follow through on their intentions to vote.'_________________________________Nickerson DW, & Rogers T (2010). Do you have a voting plan?: implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (2), 194-9 PMID: 20424044Link to more Digest posts on the psychology of politics.
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Nickerson DW, & Rogers T. (2010) Do you have a voting plan?: implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21(2), 194-9. PMID: 20424044
'No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted' - that's the concluding catchphrase of a one-minute video called 'evolution' made by Dove a few years ago to show how cosmetics and computer trickery are used to create the unrealistic portrayals of female models on advertising billboards. Now a team of researchers at the University of the West of England, led by Emma Halliwell, have tested whether viewing this short video can buffer young girls against the negative effects of looking at images of ultra-thin female models. Past research found such a benefit when adult women viewed a similar video but this is the first time the idea has been investigated with young girls.
One hundred and twenty-seven girls, aged ten to thirteen, from two schools in the South of England, were recruited for what they thought was an evaluation of 'attitudes to health, appearance and magazines'. In keeping with the cover story, tests of body satisfaction and esteem were embedded among other questionnaires to try to conceal the true purpose of the study.
Consistent with past research, girls who looked at thin models subsequently reported lower body satisfaction and confidence compared with girls who looked at pictures of landscapes. The key finding was that this negative effect was not seen among the girls who watched the Dove video first, before looking at the ultra-thin models. The body self-esteem and confidence of these girls was just the same as among girls who watched the video and then looked at pictures of landscapes.
'Theoretically, we assume that the intervention disrupted the upward social comparisons that many young girls make when viewing idealised media images,' the researchers concluded. 'Moreover, we propose that the comparison is avoided because the media models have been construed as artificial and, therefore, an inappropriate comparison target.' Halliwell and her team added that future research will be needed to test the truth of this reasoning and also to test whether the benefits of watching the evolution video, or others like it, can be sustained over time.
Halliwell E, Easun A, & Harcourt D (2010). Body dissatisfaction: Can a short media literacy message reduce negative media exposure effects amongst adolescent girls? British journal of health psychology PMID: 20687976
Link to Dove's Evolution video.
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Halliwell E, Easun A, & Harcourt D. (2010) Body dissatisfaction: Can a short media literacy message reduce negative media exposure effects amongst adolescent girls?. British journal of health psychology. PMID: 20687976
Have we evolved to detect this threat?
We humans seem to have an innate predisposition to fear dangerous animals and other hazards that would have imperilled our ancestors - a phenomenon called 'prepared learning'. For example, when researchers in the 1980s used loud noises to condition people to fear the sight of snakes and guns, they found that people acquired a fear of the snakes much more easily, even though the noises matched the sound made by guns. A new study has built on that classic work by showing that children as young as three seem to be particularly adept at spotting snakes in a 'striking pose'.
Nobuo Masataka and his colleagues presented their participants with three-by-three arrays of pictures of snakes and flowers on a touch-screen. On each trial, eight of the pictures were of flowers with one snake picture, or vice versa, and the task was to touch the odd-one-out picture as quickly as possible. Twenty three-year-olds, 34 four-year-olds and 20 adults took part.
Participants of all ages were significantly quicker at the task when spotting a snake among flowers than when spotting a flower among snakes. For example, the three-year-olds took an average of 2735ms when a snake photo was the target compared with an average reaction time of 3283ms when the target was a flower. This was the case even though the children's parents said their offspring hadn't previously been exposed to real or toy snakes.
What's more, all the participants were extra quick at the task when the target picture was a snake in a striking pose: with the body coiled, the neck held in an s-curve and the head poised to strike. The three-year-olds' average reaction time for snakes in a strike pose was 2452ms compared with 2519ms for snakes in a resting position.
The new finding builds on the classic research into prepared learning by suggesting that there is a prototypical snake posture that humans are innately sensitive to. 'When a striking posture is taken by snakes,' the researchers explained, 'they display their specific morphological characteristics as signals towards the presumptive signal receivers so that the receivers will categorise them as snakes as efficiently as possible, be threatened and withdraw.'
An interesting question for future research is whether this is an evolutionary adaptation in snakes or in humans. In other words, did snake appearance and behaviour evolve in a way that exploited existing perceptual biases in humans and other animals, or did the human perceptual and attentional system evolve in such a way to become particularly attuned to snakes and snake behaviour?
Masataka, N., Hayakawa, S., and Kawai, N. (2010). Human Young Children as well as Adults Demonstrate ‘Superior’ Rapid Snake Detection When Typical Striking Posture Is Displayed by the Snake. PLoS ONE, 5 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015122
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Masataka, N., Hayakawa, S., & Kawai, N. (2010) Human Young Children as well as Adults Demonstrate ‘Superior’ Rapid Snake Detection When Typical Striking Posture Is Displayed by the Snake. PLoS ONE, 5(11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015122
Nearly everyone seems to carry a mobile phone these days. What if social scientists could exploit this technology to spy on our social behaviour: who we speak to and who we spend time with? It turns out they already are. Nathan Eagle, named recently as a leading young innovator by Technology Review, and his colleagues, have published one of the first studies into social network analysis using spy software loaded onto Nokia smartphones.For nine months, Eagle's team recorded data from the phones of 94 students and staff at MIT. By using blue-tooth technology and phone masts, they could monitor the movements of the participants, as well as their phone calls. Their main goal with this preliminary study was to compare data collected from the phones with subjective self-report data collected through traditional survey methodology.The participants were asked to estimate their average spatial proximity to the other participants, whether they were close friends, and to indicate how satisfied they were at work.Some intriguing findings emerged. For example, the researchers could predict with around 95 per cent accuracy who was friends with whom by looking at how much time participants spent with each other during key periods, such as Saturday nights.There were also discrepancies between the two data sets. For example, participants tended to overestimate how much time they spent with friends, and underestimate how much time they spent with non-friends. Also, the accuracy of the self-report proximity data tended to peak over the previous seven days (at which point it correlated highly with the phone records), but then it's accuracy tailed off. This provides useful information about the validity of survey records over time, and an interesting insight into people's memories for their social interactions.As regards satisfaction at work, it turned out that people who were in closer proximity to their friends during work time, tended to be happier at work, whilst participants less happy at work tended to make more phone calls to friends during work hours."Data collected from mobile phones have the potential to provide insight into the underlying relational dynamics of organisations, communities and potentially societies," the researchers said._________________________________Eagle, N., Pentland, A., & Lazer, D. (2009). Inferring friendship network structure by using mobile phone data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900282106
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Eagle, N., Pentland, A., & Lazer, D. (2009) Inferring friendship network structure by using mobile phone data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900282106
Would you lie for the sake of your team? Perhaps it depends on the culture you come from. Monica Sweet at the University of California and her co-researchers reasoned that children from collectivist cultures, such as China, which emphasise the importance of group ties, might be more inclined to say it's okay to lie for your team than children from individualistic cultures, such as the US, which place more value on self-interest.
Nearly four hundred children aged seven to eleven, approximately half from a city in Eastern China and half from the US, were presented with fictional scenarios in which a protagonist either lied or told the truth about a transgression by his or her team. The transgression related either to a tug-of-war team cheating by getting extra friends to help or a drawing competition team cheating by getting older children to help.
The surprising finding was that the children from China actually found lying to protect one's team less acceptable than did the children from the US. 'This is not to suggest that Chinese children were acting in an individualistic manner,' the researchers said, 'but rather that they were acting based on what they believed to be a more salient moral aspect of the situation.'
Moreover, children from both the US and China tended to refer to the protagonist's concern for him or herself (e.g. 'she wanted to win'), rather than concern for the team, when asked to explain the protagonist's motivation to lie or truth-tell. Also, asked to justify their own evaluation of the protagonist's lies or truth-telling, few Chinese or American children mentioned concern for others (e.g. 'she did the right thing by standing by her group'). '...[I]t is somewhat surprising,' the researchers said, 'that more children from China, the collectivist culture, did not mention the impact of the protagonist's decision on others.'
'Taken together,' the researchers concluded, 'the findings suggest that collectivist ideals do not necessarily equate to a greater focus on the group, and that situational context matters.' However, they acknowledged that the results might have been different if they'd used a sample of children from rural China as opposed to urban China, where Western influences are on the increase.
Sweet, M., Heyman, G., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2010). Are there limits to collectivism? Culture and children's reasoning about lying to conceal a group transgression. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.669
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Sweet, M., Heyman, G., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2010) Are there limits to collectivism? Culture and children's reasoning about lying to conceal a group transgression. Infant and Child Development. DOI: 10.1002/icd.669
When attempting to change people’s behaviour – for example, encouraging them to eat more healthily or recycle more – a common tactic is to present scientific findings that justify the behaviour change. A problem with this approach, according to recent research by Geoffrey Munro at Towson University in America, is that when people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings.
Perhaps the most common of these is to challenge the methodological soundness of the research. However, with newspaper reports and other brief summaries of science findings, that’s often not possible because of lack of detail. In this case, Munro's research suggests that people will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry. What’s more, he’s found that, having come to this conclusion about the specific topic at hand, the sceptic will then generalise their belief about scientific impotence to other topics as well (further detail). Munro says that by embracing the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science, such people are able to maintain belief in their own intellectual credibility, rather than feeling that they’ve selectively dismissed unpalatable findings.
The Digest caught up with Professor Munro to ask him, first of all, whether he thinks there are any ways to combat the scientific impotence excuse or reduce the likelihood of it being deployed.
"One of the most difficult things to do is to admit that you are wrong. In cases where a person is exposed to scientific conclusions that contradict her or his existing beliefs, one option would be to accept the scientific conclusions and change one’s beliefs. It sounds simple enough, and, for many topics, it is that simple. However, some of our beliefs are much more resistant to change. These are the ones that are important to us. They may be linked to other important aspects of our identity or self-concept (e.g., “I’m an environmentalist ”) or relevant to values that are central to who we are (e.g., “I believe in the sanctity of human life”) or meaningful to the social groups to which we align ourselves (e.g., “I’m a union man like my father and grandfather before him”) or associated with deeply-held emotions (e.g., “Homosexuality disgusts me”). When scientific conclusions challenge these kinds of beliefs, it’s much harder to admit that we were wrong because it might require a rethinking of our sense of who we are, what values are important to us, who we align ourselves with, and what our gut feelings tell us. Thus, a cognitively easier solution might be to not admit our beliefs have been defeated but to question the validity of the scientific conclusions. We might question the methodological quality of the scientific evidence, the researcher’s impartiality, or even the ability of scientific methods to provide us with useful information about this topic (and other topics as well). This final resistance technique is what I called “scientific impotence”.
So, how can strongly-held beliefs be changed? How can scientific evidence break through the defensive tenacity of these beliefs? Well, I hope the paragraph above illustrates how scientific evidence can be threatening when it challenges an important belief. It makes you feel anxious, upset, and/or embarrassed. It makes you question your own intelligence, moral standing, and group alliances. Therefore, the most effective ways to break the resistance to belief-challenging scientific conclusions is to present such conclusions in non-threatening ways. For example, Cohen and his colleagues have shown that affirming a person’s values prior to presenting belief-challenging scientific conclusions breaks down the usual resistance. In other words, the science is not so threatening when you’ve had a chance to bolster your value system. Relatedly, framing scientific conclusions in a way that is consistent with the values of the audience is more effective than challenging those values. Research from my own laboratory shows that reducing the negative emotional reactions people feel in response to belief-challenging scientific evidence can make people more accepting of the evidence. We achieved this by giving participants another source (something other than the scientific conclusions they read) to which they could attribute their negative emotional reactions. While this might be difficult to implement outside of the laboratory, we believe that other factors can affect the degree to which negative emotional reactions occur. For example, a source who speaks with humility is less upsetting than a sarcastic and arrogant pundit. Similarly, the use of discovery-type scientific words and phrases (e.g., “we learned that…” or “the studies revealed that…”) might be less emotionally provocative than debate-type scientific words and phrases (e.g., “we argue that…” or “we disagree with so-and-so and contend that…”). In fact, anything that draws the ingroup-outgroup line in the sand is likely to lead to defensive resistance if it appears that the science or its source is the outgroup. So, avoiding culture war symbols is crucial. Finally, as a college professor, I believe that frequent exposure to critical thinking skills, practice with critical thinking situations, and quality feedback about critical thinking allows people to understand how their own biases can affect their analysis of information and result in open-minded thinkers who are skeptical yet not defensive."Next, the Digest asked Prof Munro whether he thinks psychology findings are particularly prone to provoke scientific discounting cognitions - and if so, should we as a discipline make extra effort to combat this?
"Yes, I believe psychological research (and probably social science research in general) is prone to provoke scientific discounting. The term “soft science” illustrates how social sciences are perceived differently than the “hard sciences”. There are a number of reasons why this might be true. First, much psychological research is conducted without the use of technologically-sophisticated laboratories containing the fancy equipment that comes to many people’s minds when the word science is used. In other words, psychological research doesn’t always resemble the science prototype. Supporting this position, psychological research that is conducted in high-tech labs (e.g., neuroscience imaging studies) is, in my opinion, perceived with less skepticism by the general public. Second, psychological research often investigates topics about which people already have subjective opinions or, at least, can easily call to mind experiences from their own lives that serve as a comparison to the research conclusions. In other words, people often believe that they already have knowledge and expertise about human thought and behavior. When their opinions run counter to psychological research conclusions, then scientific discounting is likely. For example, there is a common belief that cathartic behaviors (e.g., punching a punching bag) can reduce the frustrations that sometimes lead to aggression. Psychological research, however, has contradicted the catharsis hypothesis, yet the belief remains entrenched, possibly because it has such a strong intuitive appeal. In contrast, people will quickly reveal their lack of expertise on topics in physics or chemistry and have a harder time calling to mind examples from their own lives. Third, there is likely some belief that people’s thoughts and behaviors are less predictable, more mysterious, and affected by more variables than are inanimate objects like chemical molecules, planets in motion, or even the functioning of some parts of the human body (e.g., the kidneys). Furthermore, psychological conclusions are based on probability (e.g., the presence of a particular variable makes a behavior more likely to happen), and probability introduces the kind of ambiguity that makes the conclusions easy to discount. Fourth, some psychological research is perceived to be derived from and possibly biased by a sociopolitical ideology. That is, there is the belief that some psychologists conduct their research with the goal of providing support for some political viewpoint. This is somewhat less common among the “hard sciences” although the controversy over climate change and the researchers who investigate it suggest that if the topic is one that elicits the ingroup-outgroup nature of the cultural divide, then the “hard sciences” are also not immune to the problem of scientific discounting.
I think that the discipline of psychology has already made vast improvements in managing its public impression and is probably held in higher esteem than it was 50 or even 20 years ago. However, continued vigilance is essential against those (both within and outside of the discipline) who contribute to the perception of psychology as something less than science. The field of psychology has much to offer – it can generate important knowledge that can inform public policy and increase people’s health and happiness, but it cannot do so if its scientific conclusions fall on deaf ears."_________________________________
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Munro, G. (2010) The Scientific Impotence Excuse:ï¿½Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579-600. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x
Barely a day goes by without some political scandal or other splashed across the papers. Critics argue this obsession with tittle-tattle distracts the electorate from more important policy issues. '...a fiercely independent media is the guarantor of democracy,' Will Hutton wrote in 2000, before warning that the British media's obsession with scandal 'paradoxically, may be beginning to endanger it [democracy]'.
A new study by Beth Miller at the University of Missouri-Kansas City challenges the assumption that scandal is a distraction. Every two days, she presented 413 undergrads with a newspaper article containing information about a policy position held by a mayoral candidate. Then, 1 to 14 days later, she tested the students' memory for the candidate's policies. The important twist was that for half the participants, the fourth of five newspaper articles, rather than being about a policy, was about a scandal involving the candidate - in particular, his confession to an extra-marital affair.
The assumption of many would be that this story would distract participants from the drier, but arguably more important, detail of the politician's policies. Similarly, in psychological terms, it might be argued that the scandalous information would displace the earlier memory traces associated with policies, especially since negative information is known to be particularly memorable and attention-grabbing.
An alternative prediction, however, is that the salience of the scandal would actually benefit all other memories associated with the politician. This is consistent with the idea that memory is an 'associative network' made up of interconnected nodes. By this account, activation of one node - the one representing scandal - will spill over and raise the activation in all related nodes, thus benefiting participants' memory for the mayoral candidate's policies.
Miller found that more policy-related information was recalled by participants who read about the scandal, consistent with the associative-memory account. Moreover, compared with participants in the scandal condition who forgot about it (the scandal), those who remembered it were also more likely to remember policy information - reinforcing the idea that the scandal memory had benefited policy memories. As you might expect, although the scandal benefited participants' memory for policies, it also negatively affected the participants' evaluation of the candidate.
'While these results do not suggest that candidates can engage in scandalous activities without consequence, they do suggest that the depiction of the public as blind to anything but scandalous information seems to be an exaggeration,' Miller said. 'The results ... suggest that exposure to scandalous information ... may have beneficial side-effects not previously explored.'
Miller, B. (2010). The Effects of Scandalous Information on Recall of Policy-Related Information. Political Psychology, 31 (6), 887-914 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00786.x
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Miller, B. (2010) The Effects of Scandalous Information on Recall of Policy-Related Information. Political Psychology, 31(6), 887-914. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00786.x
Who'd ever have thought it could be so difficult to measure happiness? Most large-scale studies rely on so-called "global measures". People are asked to rate how satisfied they are with their life, or something similar. The problems here are obvious: people's answers are likely to be swayed by their current mood, and we probably all interpret labels like "satisfied" in our own way. So along came Nobel prize-winning uber psychologist Daniel Kahneman, with his "day reconstruction method" (DRM). Participants divide the last day up into discrete episodes and rate their feelings during each one. It's a more nuanced measure but it's thrown up some bizarre results. According to the DRM, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things they claim not to enjoy, like spending time with their children, and commuting. Now Mathew White and Paul Dolan, two British academics, have waded into the morass of happiness research, arguing that the DRM can be improved by measuring thoughts, not just feelings.Six hundred and twenty-five participants completed an online questionnaire about their previous day, generating an average of ten episodes per person, including eating, reading, time with children, watching TV, and commuting.Just as in the original DRM research, the participants rated each episode according to the feelings they experienced at the time, thus giving a measure of "pleasure". Unlike the earlier research, they also rated their thoughts about each episode (for example, by rating their agreement with sentences like "I feel the activities in this episode were worthwhile/meaningful"), thus giving a measure of "reward".In terms of pleasure, the results confirmed earlier findings, suggesting that we spend an awful lot of time doing things we don't find pleasurable, including "work" and "shopping". Out of 18 key activities, "time with children" and "sex" both came in around mid-table, far below "outdoor activities" and "watching TV". However, consideration of the ratings for "reward" (as opposed to pleasure) told a rather different story, with "work" now the top scorer, and "time with children" not far behind."If one looks only at pleasure, one could come to the same conclusion as Kahneman et al [about time spent with children]" White and Dolan said "that this is relatively 'bad time', but when reward is also considered, time spent with children is relatively 'good time'. Perhaps the statement that 'I enjoy my kids' is not so wrong after all, if enjoyment is interpreted in a broader sense that includes reward in addition to pleasure."Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was no new insight when it came to "commuting": participants rated this activity low on pleasure and low on reward._________________________________White, M., & Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the Richness of Daily Activities. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02392.xFurther reading:Think having children will make you happy? [link]Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will. [link]
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Research conducted in the aftermath of a devastating Chinese earthquake has uncovered a paradoxical psychological phenomenon - survivors living in the most devastated regions appear to be the least concerned by the ongoing risks. Shu Li and colleagues dubbed this the 'Psychological Typhoon Eye' in a paper published last year and now they've reported follow-up investigations that suggest the effect was still in evidence a year after the disaster.The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake registered 8 on the Richter scale and killed over 68,000 people. More than four million people were also injured. In their initial paper, Shu Li's team observed that survivors living in the most devastated regions were the least concerned, as measured by their estimates for: how many relief workers were needed, the likelihood of a epidemic outbreak, the need to take safety measures against aftershocks, and the level of dose needed if a fictitious psychological medication were made available for an earthquake victim.The new study of over 5000 residents finds that this association held after four and eleven months and it also replicates the finding when using a 'relational distance' measure of involvement in the quake. That is, people who reported having closer rather than more distant relations who'd been affected by the quake tended to report less ongoing concern with the threat. One of the explanations for the Psychological Typhoon Eye mooted in Li's 2009 paper was psychological immunity - the idea being that exposure to danger builds psychological resilience. However, the new study undermined this explanation - people living in the most devastated regions still showed the same level of Psychological Typhoon Eye regardless of whether they themselves had suffered physical or economic harm from the quake. Another possible explanation is cognitive dissonance. The idea here is that continuing to live in a dangerous area is psychological uncomfortable - to justify this decision people have to downplay the risks in their own mind. Li's team said more research was needed to test this explanation.These studies are not the first to find paradoxical psychological responses to danger. Research published in the 1970s found that people living nearer to French nuclear power stations perceived the risk to be lower than people living further away._________________________________Li, S., Rao, L., Bai, X., Zheng, R., Ren, X., Li, J., Wang, Z., Liu, H., & Zhang, K. (2010). Progression of the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” and Variations Since the Wenchuan Earthquake. PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009727Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
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Li, S., Rao, L., Bai, X., Zheng, R., Ren, X., Li, J., Wang, Z., Liu, H., & Zhang, K. (2010) Progression of the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” and Variations Since the Wenchuan Earthquake. PLoS ONE, 5(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009727
Young children are little scientists. They instinctively stretch, prod, observe and categorise the world's offerings. This natural inquisitiveness can be cultivated even before school and several studies have shown the benefits, in terms of general learning ability and specific maths and science skills. But just how early can this 'sciencing', as it's known, start? A new study by Tessa van Schijndel and colleagues claims that a six-week sciencing programme for two to three-year-olds boosted their exploratory 'science-like' play.
Thirty-five two- to three-year-olds at an Amsterdam day-care centre were assigned to the six-week sciencing programme. This involved a specialist science teacher encouraging the children to play two kinds of games in their sandpit: 'sorting and sets', which had a cake-baking theme, and 'slope and speed' which had an 'on top of the mountain theme'. The children were free to join in or leave the sand-pit games as often as they wanted, but were encouraged to take part at least once a week. The games involved toys of different colours and materials, as well as plastic tubes and balls. The key elements of the guided play were manipulating the objects, repeatedly sorting them into various combinations, and observing the effects of these manipulations. The regular teachers complemented this play by reading from books that matched the cake and mountain themes.
Twelve age-matched kids at another day-care centre run by the same organisation acted as controls. They were provided with the exact same sand-pit toys but they weren't guided in how to interact with them.
The researchers devised a scale for rating the sophistication of spontaneous exploratory play and, using videos of the children's unguided sand-pit play during the five weeks preceding and following the sciencing programme, they were able to see if the programme had made any difference. Coding of the videos showed that the sciencing programme children's spontaneous exploratory play had become more sophisticated (including more manipulation, re-combining, observation, and more symbolic play) - especially among those whose initial exploratory play levels were lower. By contrast, the control children's play had actually become slightly less exploratory, probably as a result of their having grown bored with the same sand-pit toys.
van Schijndel's team acknowledged that more research is needed to identify the effective aspects of their sciencing intervention. Indeed, they admitted that the programme may have worked by altering the practices of the day-care centre's regular teaching staff, an outcome they said should also be considered a success.
'...[W]e plead for more attention in the initial and in-service training of teachers for science-related subjects,' the researchers concluded. 'Our study shows that the curiosity of young children in natural phenomena and in how things work, needs to be supported by playful and scaffolding teachers. Probably, this is especially true for children with a low level of exploratory play.'
Their plea comes at a time when primary school teachers in the UK with a science degree are a rare breed. Speaking to the Independent recently, Sir Martin Rees, outgoing head of the Royal Society, said there is just one such teacher for every three primary schools. 'It is depressing that a tiny, tiny fraction of primary school teachers have any higher education qualification with a scientific component,' he lamented.
van Schijndel, T., Singer, E., van der Maas, H., and Raijmakers, M. (2010). A sciencing programme and young children's exploratory play in the sandpit. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7 (5), 603-617 DOI: 10.1080/17405620903412344
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van Schijndel, T., Singer, E., van der Maas, H., & Raijmakers, M. (2010) A sciencing programme and young children's exploratory play in the sandpit. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7(5), 603-617. DOI: 10.1080/17405620903412344
Illness is like the street you've driven down your whole life. So familiar you've never bothered to look around. We've all experienced illness, either first-hand or via someone we know, but rarely do we stop to wonder what it really is.
You might say it's when something mental or physical isn't working as it should be. But then who is to say how things should be working? This is easier to answer in relation to physical health, but still tricky. Pain, a loss of ability, a shortening of life expectancy, perhaps? These criteria seem far from satisfactory. Pain is highly subjective and can be triggered by mundane ailments like toothaches or stubbed toes - are they really illnesses? Loss of ability seems more objective, but is surely only a necessary rather than sufficient criterion. After all, temporary fatigue and age both cause a loss of ability. Similarly, driving cars fast and other dangerous hobbies will likely shorten your life. These philosophical conundrums are magnified when it comes to mental illness. When does a hobbyist collector become a compulsive hoarder? How tightly do the shackles of shyness have to constrain a person before he or she is considered ill? What if the solitude of the social phobic allows them to pen great poetry or novels - is that adaptive or maladaptive?
The psychiatrist Dan Stein at the University of Cape Town and five others have tackled these issues and more in an editorial for the journal Psychological Medicine. Their approach has been to consider the definition of mental disorder stated in the fourth edition of the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and to recommend modifications to it to be used in the forthcoming fifth edition, for which they are Work Group members.
Stein's team propose that a mental disorder has five features. First, it is a behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in the individual. This emphasis on the individual rules out dysfunctions that exist at the relationship or group level. Interestingly, they acknowledge that this causes problems for the DSM IV diagnosis of Shared Psychotic Disorder (or Folie à deux) in which delusions are passed from one person to another.
Second, the symptoms of a mental disorder are clinically significant distress (e.g. a painful symptom) or disability (i.e. impairment in one more important areas of functioning). Here they explain that 'clinically significant' is meant to distinguish from 'milder distress or difficulty in functioning that may not warrant clinical attention'. They acknowledge that clinical significance is tricky to 'operationalise', but argue that it 'remains useful in differentiating disorder from normality'. Readers will notice that this point doesn't really help us distinguish between personality traits like shyness and disorders like social phobia - it merely acknowledges that somewhere a line of severity is crossed.
Third, the behaviour or symptoms must not merely be an expectable response to common stressors and losses (e.g. the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (e.g. trance states in religious rituals). Similar to the last, this point is also intended to help prevent the medicalisation of psychological reactions that are an expected part of life. However, Stein's team acknowledge this is murky territory - for example, they point to the contentious boundaries between 'normal and pathological bereavement.' Also, so-called 'normal' reactions to distress are often associated with increased risk of more serious problems later on - in other words, from a clinical point of view they shouldn't be ignored.
Fourth, a mental disorder must reflect an underlying psychobiological dysfunction. This is an acknowledgement that all illnesses of the mind have an underlying neural correlate. Meanwhile, the 'dysfunction' described here can be interpreted either in evolutionary terms whereby some faculty is not working as it evolved to, or in terms of statistical deviance from what's normal according to the client's own background and future goals. Neither is without problems. Evolutionary interpretations tend to be speculative, and what counts as dysfunctional is subjective and influenced by context. Stein's team give the example of living in a dangerous urban area 'where it may be adaptive to join a gang, but where this requires participating in behaviours listed in the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder.'
Fifth, to be a mental disorder, Stein and his colleagues say a person's behaviour or symptoms should not primarily be a result of social deviance or conflicts with society. This is yet another safeguard against over-pathologising behaviour. The criterion is required, Stein's team say, 'because psychiatric diagnoses have been used for political purposes in the past and potential future misuse cannot be ruled out'. Indeed, one need only consider the fact that homosexuality was included in the DSM until as recently as 1973 to see the inappropriate influence of social mores on psychiatry.
Finally, Stein and his co-authors outline several further points for DSM 5 to bear in mind when considering what constitutes a mental disorder, including: that the potential benefits of adding a condition to the new DSM should outweigh the potential harms, and that any new diagnostic category should be clinically useful - that is: 'facilitate the process of patient evaluation and treatment rather than hinder it.'
As you can see from these highlights, there are many grey areas when it comes to defining what constitutes a mental illness, especially in relation to judging what counts as abnormal distress or dysfunction. As the authors conclude, the basic position (acknowledged in DSM IV) that mental disorder cannot be 'precisely operationally defined seems ... to be basically correct.' However, on a more optimistic note, Stein's team further argue that the classification system can improve over time as the scientific knowledge base progresses. 'Disorders are more than mere "labels",' they conclude, 'and progress towards a more scientifically valid and more clinically useful nomenclature is possible.'
What do you think? Do you share their optimism?
Stein, D., Phillips, K., Bolton, D., Fulford, K., Sadler, J., and Kendler, K. (2010). What is a mental/psychiatric disorder? From DSM-IV to DSM-V. Psychological Medicine, 40 (11), 1759-1765 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291709992261
Further reading on the Digest blog:
Are mental disorders real?
New data suggests one in two of us experience mental illness in our life-times.
Psychotherapy has drug-like effect on the brain.
This post is an invited contribution to a blogging carnival on the topic 'What is psychopathology?' to be hosted by The Thoughtful Animal blog - I will provide an update when the other entries are online.
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Stein, D., Phillips, K., Bolton, D., Fulford, K., Sadler, J., & Kendler, K. (2010) What is a mental/psychiatric disorder? From DSM-IV to DSM-V. Psychological Medicine, 40(11), 1759-1765. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291709992261
Whether it's the awkward coincidence of meeting your boss in the supermarket aisle or a humourless joke by a new date, what would we do without the fake smile? It's not that the fake is all that convincing. Apparently most adults can tell the difference - the lopsidedness of the mouth and lack of creasing around the eyes gives it away. But the fact that the faker is trying their best to send a positive signal somehow saves face all round. Well, most of the time anyway.
Of course when you're dealing with a child you'd probably like to think you can pull a fake smile and they won't realise. 'Yes darling, that's a beautiful drawing' - big smile, encouraging voice. Indeed, past research suggested children couldn't tell a fake smile from a genuine one until about the age of nine or ten. But now a new study with a different methodology suggests that estimate may have to be brought forward to age six.
Pierre Gosselin's team at the University of Ottawa and Laurentian University devised a simpler paradigm than used previously. Sixty boys and girls aged six to seven and nine to ten watched pairs of videos of actors pulling either: a genuine smile (symmetrical, eyes creased); a lop-sided fake (eyes creased but asymmetrical intensity); or a mouth-only smile (symmetrical, no eye creasing). Each pair contained either two smiles of the same type or two different types. The children's task was to say whether the smiles were the same type or not.
Their accuracy wasn't great (around 60 per cent) but it was high enough to show that, based on either creasing around the eyes or symmetry, the kids were able to tell the difference between the smile types better than if they had simply been guessing. The younger children were also just as accurate as the older children.
Telling the different types of smile apart visually is only half the job. A second study tested whether another batch of children could read the appropriate meaning into the different smiles. The stimuli were the same as before but this time children successfully identified that the faces with genuine smiles were happier than those with lopsided or mouth-only smiles. At around 60 per cent, accuracy once again wasn't brilliant but was better than if they'd been guessing. This time, performance was better among the older children thus suggesting, as you'd expect, that detecting fake smiles is a skill that improves with age.
'The fact that six- and seven-year-old children are sensitive to the asymmetry of smiles and Cheek Raiser activity [creasing around the eyes] suggests they already have a significant amount of experience with social influence, and particularly with the use of smiles in social interactions,' the researchers said.
Gosselin, P., Perron, M., & Maassarani, R. (2009). Children's ability to distinguish between enjoyment and non-enjoyment smiles. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.648
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Gosselin, P., Perron, M., & Maassarani, R. (2009) Children's ability to distinguish between enjoyment and non-enjoyment smiles. Infant and Child Development. DOI: 10.1002/icd.648
To view plagiarism as an adult does, a child must combine several pieces of a puzzle: they need to understand that not everyone has access to all ideas; that people can create their own ideas; and that stealing an idea, like stealing physical property, is wrong.
There's been plenty of research on children's understanding of physical property ownership, which has shown that a rudimentary understanding is already in place by age two. Now in the first ever systematic study of its kind, Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw at Yale have investigated children's understanding of the ownership of ideas.
Across three studies, Olson and Shaw presented children aged between three and eleven with vignettes and puppet videos in which two characters either both came up with their own idea for what to draw in art class, or one character copied what the other one had drawn. By age five to six, children showed less liking for characters who copied and rated them as 'more bad'. Crucially, they gave copying as their justification for these negative appraisals. 'These results demonstrate a relatively sophisticated understanding of ideas as early as age five years,' the researchers said.
By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn't because the children didn't understand the rating scale or weren't paying attention.
Future research is needed to find out if children younger than four don't understand the idea of original ideas or if they don't yet recognise that to steal ideas is wrong (or both). It's also not yet clear what drives the development of understanding in this area - is it a reflection of cognitive development or does it perhaps have to do with exposure to formal rules about copying at school. 'Our hope is that our idea about ideas is unique and will motivate future research,' the researchers concluded.
Olson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x
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Olson, K., & Shaw, A. (2010) PAPER: ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x
Freud said there'd be no need for incest to be such a powerful cultural taboo if people weren't sexually attracted to their relatives in the first place. Given that in-breeding is associated with increased mortality, he argued that the incest taboo had emerged as way to keep our dangerous incestuous desires in check. Evolutionary psychologists take a strikingly different view. Inspired by Edward Westermarck, the Finnish sociologist and anthropologist, they argue that we've evolved automatic psychological processes that lead us to find our relatives sexually aversive, not attractive, thus decreasing the likelihood of in-breeding occurring. Who's right - Freud or Westermarck?
Chris Fraley and Michael Marks asked 74 students to rate the sexual attractiveness of 100 strangers' faces. Crucially, for half the students, each face was preceded by a subliminal presentation of a family member. For the remaining control students, the subliminal presentation was of someone else's family member, i.e. a non-relative.
Westmarckian theory predicts that the non-conscious presentation of a relative will trigger the automatic system that makes relatives seem sexually unattractive, with the knock-on effect that the the strangers' faces would be rated as less attractive. Contrary to this prediction, the students who were subliminally presented with a family member actually rated the strangers' faces as more attractive than did the control students.
In a second study, 40 students rated the sexual attractiveness of faces that either had or hadn't been morphed to varying degrees to resemble their own face (a way of simulating genetic relatedness). The students presented with the morphed faces rated them as more sexually attractive than did control students who viewed unaltered faces, and the greater the morphing, the greater the perceived attractiveness. This appears to be consistent with Freud's claim that we really are attracted to our relatives, and it also chimes with past research showing that we tend to marry people who look similar to ourselves - a phenomenon known as homogamy.
For the final study, a group of students once again rated the sexual attractiveness of strangers' faces. This time half the students were told falsely that some of the faces had been morphed to resemble them, as a way to simulate genetic relatedness. The students fed this lie subsequently rated the faces as less attractive than the control students who thought they were simply rating strangers' faces. The finding appears to support Freud's contention that it is the incest taboo that causes us to find people who we think we're related to, less attractive.
Fraley and Marks say their findings are largely in keeping with Freud's writings, whilst being at odds with Westermarckian evolutionary psychology. However, whereas Freud referred to unconscious desires, Fraley and Marks think our attraction to our relatives could be triggered by a kind of human sexual imprinting, according to which our sexual preferences are shaped by our early experiences, or by mere familiarity, or both. The point about familiarity refers to a well established finding in psychology that we tend to find things that are more familiar more appealing.
The influences of imprinting and familiarity are balanced out, Fraley and Marks suggest, by the cultural deterrent of the incest taboo and also by habituation - the tendency for excessive familiarity to breed indifference or contempt. Indeed, the deterring influence of taboo and habituation could explain the finding that people are less likely to mate with a person with whom they are reared, even if that person is unrelated (this is known as the Westermarck effect).
Fraley and Marks call their approach to this topic the evolutionary psychodynamic perspective. 'From this point of view,' the researchers said, 'one reason Oedipus longed for (and eventually married) his mother in the myth of Oedipus Rex is because she was related to him. His desire was possible, however, only because he was unaware of his true relationship to her.'
Fraley RC, & Marks MJ (2010). Westermarck, freud, and the incest taboo: does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction? Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36 (9), 1202-12 PMID: 20647594
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Fraley RC, & Marks MJ. (2010) Westermarck, freud, and the incest taboo: does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction?. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36(9), 1202-12. PMID: 20647594
Women at an Ethiopian refugee camp
People are more willing to donate money to help victims of natural, as opposed to man-made, disasters. Hanna Zagefka and her team found this is because people generally perceive victims caught up in man-made disasters to be more responsible for their predicament and to be less active in helping themselves, as compared with with victims of natural disasters. The findings have implications for the future design of fund-raising campaigns run by charities and NGOs.
Zagefka started by asking 76 participants (average age 50 years) to read one of two accounts of a fictitious flooding disaster. One account implied there was a man-made element to the disaster because the island's dams hadn't been built effectively. The other account implied the disaster was caused by the storm being of unusual intensity. The main finding here was that the participants who read the former account were far less willing to donate money to the victims.
A follow-up study with over 200 students gauged their willingness in 2005 to donate to one of two real-life disasters - the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Darfur civil war taking place at the same time. The description of the Asian disaster emphasised that it was caused by a big tidal wave. In contrast, the description of the Darfur war emphasised that the situation was caused by ethnic conflict. Again, the participants generally expressed less willingness to donate to victims caught up in the man-made disaster, an effect that appeared to be mediated by their perception that the victims in Darfur were more to blame for their predicament and doing less to help themselves.
Two further studies with hundreds more student participants built on these findings by actually giving them a chance to donate some or all of their participation fee. Again, participants who heard about more natural-sounding disasters tended to donate more money. Using fictional accounts, one of these studies also directly manipulated how blame-worthy the victims sounded, and how much they were reportedly doing to help themselves (by building their own make-shift accommodation, or not). Again, when victims appeared more blame-worthy and less active in helping themselves, participants were less willing to donate.
Zagefka and her colleagues said that not all victims caught up in man-made disasters were necessarily to blame for their predicament - far from it - nor do they necessarily help themselves less than the victims of natural disasters. And yet these new findings suggest that many people make precisely these assumptions, thus biasing them against the victims of man-made disasters.
'For humanly caused disasters, appeals could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting,' the researchers advised. 'Similarly appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves. This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.'
Zagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., de Moura, G., and Hopthrow, T. (2010). Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.781
Previously on the Digest: We're more generous to a suffering individual than the needy masses. See also: the Scope-Severity paradox, which is our tendency to think crimes that affect more people are less harmful [pdf].
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Zagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., de Moura, G., & Hopthrow, T. (2010) Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. European Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.781
We're slower to direct our attention to the same location twice in succession, a well-established phenomenon that cognitive psychologists call 'inhibition of return' (IoR). It's thought the mechanism may act to make our search of the visual scene more efficient by deterring us from looking at the same spot twice. Now Paul Skarratt and his colleagues have documented a new 'social' form of inhibition of return, in which people are slower to attend to a location that social cues, such as gaze direction, suggest another person has already attended to.Twelve participants sat at a table with an animated character projected opposite. Each participant and their animated partner had two lights and two buttons in front of them, near the middle of the table (see figure above). One light/button pair was to the left, the other pair was to the right. The basic task was to press the corresponding button as fast as possible when it's light came on. Participants were slower to respond to a light when the animated partner had just responded to the adjacent light on their side of the table - this is what you might call a weak version of social inhibition of return. However, when two large vertical barriers were put up with a gap in the middle, so that the participants could only see their partner's eyes and initial reaching action, and not their actual button presses, this social IoR disappeared.In a second experiment, the animated partner was replaced with a human. This time, the social IoR effect occurred even when the barriers were erected and only the partner's eye gaze and initial hand movement could be seen. In other words, inferences about where the partner was going to attend, based on their eyes or early hand movement, seemed to be enough to inhibit a participant's own attention to the same location. For some reason, this strong version of social IoR only occurred with a real, human partner, not the animated, computer-controlled partner of the first experiment. The final experiment added yet another visual barrier, which left only the partner's eyes or only their early hand movement visible. This was to try to establish which cue was the more important for provoking social IoR. The answer was that both cues were equally effective. It's only supposition at this stage, but Skarratt and his team think social IoR could be supported by the postulated mirror neuron system. Monkey research has shown, for example, that there are mirror neurons in the premotor cortex that fire whether a monkey sees another person grasp an object or if they just see the initial part of that grasping movement.'Although the critical mechanisms underlying social IoR remain to be discovered,' the researchers said, 'the current study indicates that it can be generated independently of direct sensory stimulation normally associated with IoR, and can occur instead on the basis of an inference of another person's behaviour.'_________________________________Skarratt, P., Cole, G., & Kingstone, A. (2010). Social inhibition of return. Acta Psychologica, 134 (1), 48-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2009.12.003Figure courtesy of Paul Skarratt.
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Perhaps there's something in the drinking water at Cornell University. A new study involving hundreds of Cornell undergrads has provided a dramatic demonstration of numerous 'retroactive' psi effects - that is, phenomena that are inexplicable according to current scientific knowledge (pdf).
Rather than having the students read each others' minds or wear sliced ping-pong balls over their eyes, Daryl Bem has taken the unusual, yet elegantly simple, approach of testing a raft of classic psychological phenomena, backwards.
Take priming - the effect whereby a subliminal (i.e. too fast for conscious detection) presentation of a word or concept speeds subsequent reaction times for recognition of a related stimulus. Bem turned this around by having participants categorise pictures as negative or positive and then presenting them subliminally with a negative or positive word. That is, the primes came afterwards. Students were quicker, by an average of 16.5ms, to categorise negative pictures as negative when they were followed by a negative subliminal word (e.g. 'threatening'), almost as if that word were acting as a prime working backwards in time.
If psi abilities have really evolved, it makes sense that they should confer survival advantages by helping us find mates and avoid danger. In another experiment Bem had dozens of undergrads guess which set of curtains in a pair on a computer screen was concealing an erotic picture. Participants were accurate on 53.1 per cent of trials, compared with the 50 per cent accuracy you'd expect if they were simply guessing. This accuracy was increased to 57 per cent among students who scored higher on a measure of thrill-seeking. By contrast, no such psi effects were observed for neutral stimuli.
In another experiment participants looked at successive pairs of neutral mirror images and chose their favourite - the left or right. After each pair, an unpleasant picture was flashed subliminally on one side or the other. You guessed it, participants tended to favour the mirror image on the side of the screen opposite to where an unpleasant picture was about to appear.
The examples keep coming. The mere exposure effect is when subliminal presentation of a particular object, word or symbol causes us to favour that target afterwards. Bem turned this backwards so that participants chose between pairs of negative pictures, and then just one of them was flashed subliminally several times. Female participants tended to favour the negative images that went on to be flashed subliminally, as if the mere exposure effect were working backwards through time.
This backward mere exposure effect didn't work for male undergrads, perhaps because the images weren't arousing enough, so Bem replicated the experiment using more extreme negative images and erotic images. This time 'backwards' mere exposure effect was found for unpleasant images. For positive imagery, mere exposure traditionally has a negative effect, as the stimuli are made to become more boring. Bem showed this in reverse time. Presented with pairs of erotic images, male undergrads showed less favour for the images that went on to be flashed subliminally multiple times. It's as if the participants knew which images were going to become boring before they had.
Finally, we all know that practice improves learning. Bem tested students' memory for word lists and then had them engage in extensive practice (e.g. typing out) for some of the words but not others. His finding? That memory performance was superior for words that the students went on to practice afterwards - a kind of reverse learning effect whereby your memory is improved now based on study you do later.
These reverse effects seem bizarre but they are backed up by some rigorous methodology. For example, Bem used two types of randomisation for the stimuli - one that's based on computer algorithms, which produce a kind of pseudo-randomisation in the sense that a given distribution of stimuli is decided in advance. And another form of randomisation based on hardware that produces true randomisation that unfolds over time as an experiment plays out. Also throughout his paper, Bem uses multiple forms of simple statistical test and he reports results for each, thus demonstrating that he hasn't simply cherry picked the approach that produces the right result. Across all nine experiments the mean effect size for the psi effects was 0.22 - this is small, but noteworthy given the nature of the results.
So what's going on? Bem doesn't proffer too many answers although he argues that his psi phenomena vary with subject variables, just like mainstream psychological effects do. For example, the phenomena were nearly always exaggerated in the more extravert, thrill-seeking participants. From a physics perspective, he believes the explanations may lie in quantum effects. 'Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics ... will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality,' Bem argues. 'Many psi researchers see sufficiently compelling parallels between these phenomena and characteristics of psi to warrant considering them as potential candidates for theories of psi.'
Daryl Bem (2010). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In Print. PDF.
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Daryl Bem. (2010) Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. info:/
'Because you're worth it!' L'Oreal's catchphrase taps into the narcissistic zeitgeist. But it also begs the question: Are we at risk of becoming obsessed with feeling good about ourselves? According to new research by Brad Bushman and his co-workers, not only do US college students have higher self-esteem than previous generations, they now value self-esteem boosts more than sex, food, receiving a salary payment, seeing a friend or having an alcoholic drink.
Bushman's team made their finding by asking dozens of US college students to imagine their favourite food, sexual activity, self-esteem boosting activity (e.g. receiving a compliment, getting a good grade) etc, and in each case to say how much they wanted it and how much they liked it. The key finding was that self-esteem boosting activities came out on top.
Some validity was lent to these thought-experiments by offering the students a real chance to boost their self-esteem. For example, in the first study, as well as answering questions about food, sex and so on, the students were scored on a simple verbal intelligence test. They were then given the opportunity to wait around for an extra ten minutes to receive a score based on a different algorithm that usually produces higher scores. The students who said earlier that they wanted self-esteem more than they liked it (taken as a sign of being addicted to self-esteem) tended to be the ones who stayed behind for the chance to receive a higher intelligence score.
Other personality factors that the researchers looked at were 'entitlement', and trying to get other people to recognise how good you are, otherwise known as 'pursuing self-image goals'. Higher scores on entitlement, as measured by agreement with statements like 'If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,' tended to correlate with wanting the rewards - that's the imagined self-esteem boosts, sex, food etc - but not the liking of them. Predictably enough, pursuing self-image goals tended to correlate with placing a high value on self-esteem boosts.
What does all this mean? Bushman's team think the new results confirm that self-esteem is an essential human need, as claimed by humanistic psychology pioneer Abraham Maslow and others. 'Overall, our findings shed new and interesting light on just how important it is for people to feel worthy and valuable,' the researchers said. But their write-up is tinged with anxiety. Valuing self-esteem can encourage the pursuit of self-image goals, which they warned can lead to conflict with others. 'Of course we should enjoy the good things in life, but not so much that we want them more than we like them,' Bushman's team concluded. 'We do not want to become addicted to self-esteem or other rewards, or we will become "slaves" to them, to borrow the words of Fritz Perls [the founder of Gestalt therapy].'
Bushman, B., Moeller, S., and Crocker, J. (2010). Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards. Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00712.x
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Bushman, B., Moeller, S., & Crocker, J. (2010) Sweets, Sex, or Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant Rewards. Journal of Personality. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00712.x
Can confidence ever be a bad thing? What if it happens to be confidence in your own self-doubt? In a pair of mind-bending experiments Aaron Wichman and colleagues show that doubt layered on doubt doesn't lead to more doubt but rather to increased confidence, as the initial self-doubt is undermined. The researchers say their findings have clinical implications - for instance, by turning a belief that one is definitely going to fail into a belief that one might fail, a therapist could help inspire a client to overcome the paralysis of hopelessness.First off, Wichman's team measured the chronic uncertainty of 37 participants (by testing their agreement with statements like 'When bad things happen I do not know why'). Half these participants also completed a sentence unscrambling task designed to surreptitiously sow doubt. They had to organise jumbled words into sentences and many of the words, like 'uncertainty', pertained to doubt. The other participants performed an almost identical task but without any doubt-related words. After this, the participants read some imaginary scenarios, such as an employee getting a raise, and rated their confidence in the different possible causes of these scenarios. The key finding here was that the doubt-inducing sentence task led usually uncertain participants to be far more confident in their judgments about the imaginary scenarios. Participants appeared to be doubting their own doubts, leading to confidence.A second study built on these findings, showing that one doubt-inducing task followed by another led to more confident behaviour. Participants first wrote about real-life instances of doubt and then completed a coordination task that required them to shake their head from side to side, as if saying 'no' (past research shows that this instills doubt whereas nodding increases confidence). These double-doubt participants subsequently rated an imaginary character Donald as more confident and certain - the opposite of what you'd expect if the two doubt-inducing procedures had added together to make more doubt. By contrast, participants who wrote about a real-life instance of doubt and then completed a nodding task, subsequently rated Donald as unconfident and uncertain, consistent with the idea that the secondary nodding task had reinforced the doubt sown in the writing task.'One might speculate that the difference between being certain of one's agonising insecurity and lack of worth and being uncertain of it may mean the difference between suicide and scheduling an appointment for psychological therapy,' the researchers said. 'Sometimes, self-doubt reduction might be achieved by instilling doubt in one's doubt.'_________________________________Wichman, A., Briñol, P., Petty, R., Rucker, D., Tormala, Z., & Weary, G. (2010). Doubting one’s doubt: A formula for confidence? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (2), 350-355 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.10.012
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Queen Bee is a term used in business psychology to refer to women in senior positions who boast about their own masculine attributes, whilst derogating their female subordinates and endorsing sexist stereotypes. According to articles in the popular press, the presence of Queen Bees is as much a cause of gender inequality at work as is the sexism shown by men. A new article by Belle Derks and her colleagues challenges this claim, arguing instead that sexist work-places are a breeding ground for Queen Bees - that the latter are a consequence, not a cause, of sexism at work.
Derks team surveyed 94 women holding senior positions in several Dutch organisations (in the Netherlands, women make up only 7 per cent of the boards of the largest 100 companies and on average earn 6.5 per cent lower pay than men). The central finding was that those women who showed all the hall-marks of a Queen Bee tended to recall having suffered more sexism and prejudice in their own careers and, moreover, tended to report feeling less identification with other women when they started their careers.
According to Derks and her colleagues, when women join a sexist work-place, they have two options - they can either bolster their ties to other women or they can distance themselves from their feminine identity. The new findings are consistent with the idea that women who have a weaker feminine identity in the first place are more likely to go for the second option. Derks' central point is that it's the sexist culture that forces women to make this choice and start on the path to becoming a Queen Bee.
As with so much psychological research, this study suffers from the serious weakness of being cross-sectional in design. This means that rather than a sexist culture causing women to reject their feminine identity and become a Queen Bee, the effect could work backwards such that being a Queen Bee somehow makes you more likely to recall being the victim of sexism. However, the researchers argue this is unlikely - if anything they think established Queen Bees would be likely to downplay the presence of gender discrimination.
The new results have important implications for organisations seeking to reduce sexism. Simply appointing a few token female senior managers in a sexist culture is likely to backfire as this will dispose them to becoming Queen Bees, thus worsening the situation for their female subordinates. Instead greater emphasis should be placed on reducing sexist beliefs and practices in the organisation. 'In companies that ensure that women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification,' the researchers said, 'women in senior positions are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of their female subordinates.'
Derks B, Ellemers N, van Laar C, and de Groot K (2010). Do sexist organizational cultures create the Queen Bee? The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 20964948
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Derks B, Ellemers N, van Laar C, & de Groot K. (2010) Do sexist organizational cultures create the Queen Bee?. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society. PMID: 20964948
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