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Cutting-edge reports on the latest psychology research
"It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped." John Humphreys, writing in the Daily Mail.The growing use of mobile phones to send text messages, often with abbreviations and symbols (i.e. "textisms"), has been blamed by many for the alleged decline in correct English usage. But now Beverly Plester and colleagues have shown that young children who use more textisms also tend to be better readers.Eighty-eight children aged between ten and twelve years were asked to compose text messages describing ten scenarios - for example, explaining to a friend that they'd missed the bus and would be late. Those children who used more textisms in their messages - including abbreviations like "bro", unconventional spellings like "skool" and so-called accent stylizations like "wiv" - also tended to score more highly on a reading task.The study also showed that girls tended to use more textisms than boys, and that the earlier a child first started using a mobile phone, the more superior their reading ability tended to be.The researchers think greater use of textisms may be a sign of increased phonological awareness - that is, awareness of the sounds that words are made of - a skill that's been linked with literacy for some time. However, this can't be the whole story - greater use of textisms was associated with better reading ability even when the influence of other factors, such as age, working memory and phonological skill were taken into account. One possibility is that texting could be associated with superior reading because it exposes children to printed text, which in itself is known to be beneficial to reading.The researchers themselves acknowledge that these findings must be interpreted with caution. This is a correlational, rather than longitudinal, study so it doesn't prove that using textisms leads to superior reading. Also factors like socio-economic status weren't taken into account. Children who use more textisms may do so because their parents are better off and they've had more chance to send instant messages on computer. Another issue is that the researchers didn't study texts that the children had composed spontaneously in everyday life."As the possession of mobile phones touches younger and younger children by the year, continuing research into the ways using these phones contributes to developing linguistic competence will be very important," the researchers said._________________________________Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, Puja Joshi (2009). Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X320507... Read more »
Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, & Puja Joshi. (2009) Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), 145-161. DOI: 10.1348/026151008X320507
Imagine if the leaders of the free world were chosen not based on their actual competence but on how competent they look. Such a scenario could be worryingly close to the truth.John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas presented photos of pairs of competing candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary elections to hundreds of Swiss undergrads, who had no idea who the politicians were. The students were asked to indicate which candidate in each pair was the most competent, and for about 70 per cent of the pairs, the candidate rated as looking most competent was the candidate who had actually won the election. The startling implication is that the real-life voters must also have based their choice of candidate on looks, at least in part.Moreover, a second experiment asked children aged 5 to 13 years to make the same choice, but in the context of a game in which they needed to select who they would like to captain their ship sailing from Troy to Ithaca. They tended to select for captain those candidates rated earlier as most competent by the udergrads, and again the children's choices tended to retrospectively predict which candidates went on to be victorious in the real election.For the pair of candidates shown above, 77 per cent children who rated this pair, and 67 per cent of adults, chose Laurent Henart, on the right (the real-life winning candidate), rather than Jean-Jacques Denis on the left."These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy's most important civic duties," the researchers said.One possibility is that people's looks do actually correlate with their competence and it's that association that the participants in this study were tapping into. However, Antonakis and Dalgas note that past research shows there is no link between competence and appearance, at least not in terms of IQ.Link to related Digest posts, and see here.Link to Science podcast with study author.Image copyright: Science/AAAS_________________________________J. Antonakis, O. Dalgas (2009). Predicting Elections: Child's Play. Science, 323. In Press.... Read more »
J. Antonakis, & O. Dalgas. (2009) Predicting Elections: Child's Play. Science, 1183.
Most of us probably like to think that our moral sense of right and wrong is clear-headed and rational, but the evidence is mounting that our moral thinking is in fact grounded in the more emotional parts of the brain. Now a study by Hanah Chapman and colleagues has added to this picture by showing that people's reaction to the unfair division of money provokes the same kind of nose-wrinkling, disgusted facial expression as the taste of bad food.Chapman and her team recorded the facial muscles of participants when they tasted unpleasant liquids, when they looked at gory pictures, and when they were conned in a financial game. Throughout, the same muscles controlling the wrinkling of the nose and raising of the upper lip were activated.What's more, when they were conned in the game, the participants tended to report that a picture of a disgusted facial expression, as opposed to other emotional expressions, best captured how they were feeling (anger and sadness were also sometimes reported, but to a lesser degree).Finally, the participants' experience of disgust appeared to influence their behaviour. The more the participants' wrinkled their noses and curled their lips, and the more they said the picture of a disgusted face reflected their feelings, the more likely they were to reject an unfair offer in the financial game. By contrast, levels of self-reported anger and sadness were not linked with rejection decisions or nose wrinkling.Taken together these findings support the idea that our moral sense has co-opted an evolutionarily older brain system - the Yuk! response - that serves to protect us from unpleasant, potentially toxic foods and substances. This implies that unfairness leaving a bad taste in the mouth is more than a mere metaphor, and is consistent with previous, related research showing, for example, that washing can assuage guilt."That a system with the ancient and critical adaptive function of rejecting toxic foods should be brought to bear in the moral sphere speaks to the vital importance of regulating social behavior for human beings," the researchers concluded.Writing a commentary on this research in the same journal issue, Paul Rozin and colleagues cautioned that the detail is rather more complicated than the Chapman study implies. "Until studies examine the effects of a variety of elicitors on a variety of dependent measures (e.g., contamination, appraisals, and feelings)," they argued, "it is unclear whether [fairness and toxins provoke] 'the same' disgust, or just some common elements in the output system."Link to related Digest items.Image copyright: Science/AAAS_________________________________H. A. Chapman, D. A. Kim, J. M. Susskind, A. K. Anderson (2009). In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust. Science. In Press.... Read more »
H. A. Chapman, D. A. Kim, J. M. Susskind, & A. K. Anderson. (2009) In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust. Science.
People can recognise, from just ten seconds of video footage, whether one person has the hots for another.Skyler Place and colleagues made their finding using footage of couples on speed-dates. Fifty-four students observed dozens of 10-, 20- or 30-second clips of real speed dating interactions and attempted to say in each case whether each person was romantically interested in the other.The researchers had access to the daters' real decisions about whether they were interested in any of their speed dates, and were able to compare these with the students' judgements.The students performed more accurately than would be expected had they simply been guessing. They judged the interest of the male daters with 61 per cent accuracy and the female daters with 58 per cent accuracy. Their accuracy was unaffected by the length of each clip, but was higher when the clip was taken from the middle or the end of a dating interaction. Students currently in a romantic relationship outperformed those who weren't.Another key finding was that the students were less accurate when judging the romantic interest of females compared with males, just as the researchers had predicted. Place's team said it made sense for women to "behave more covertly and ambiguously" because there is more at stake for them in making a potential mating choice. By hiding their romantic interest, the researchers argued, women are able to give themselves more time to evaluate a potential partner before revealing their feelings.This is just the latest in a spate of recent studies to show how quickly and efficiently people are able to obtain information, or form judgements, about others. Last year, for example, Nick Rule and Nalini Ambady showed that observers were able to accurately judge men's sexual orientation within 50ms, and in 2006 Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that people judged the trustworthiness of others within 100ms._________________________________Skyler S. Place, Peter M. Todd, Lars Penke, Jens B. Asendorpf (2009). The Ability to Judge the Romantic Interest of Others. Psychological Science, 20 (1), 22-26 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02248.x... Read more »
Skyler S. Place, Peter M. Todd, Lars Penke, & Jens B. Asendorpf. (2009) The Ability to Judge the Romantic Interest of Others. Psychological Science, 20(1), 22-26. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02248.x
For the first time, psychologists have documented the prevalence of a form of synaesthesia - the condition that leads to a mixing of the senses - in a large sample of children. Over a twelve month period, Julia Simner and colleagues tested 615 children aged six to seven years at 21 UK schools and conservatively estimated that 1.3 per cent of them had grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which letters and numbers involuntarily trigger the sensation of different colours."[This] implicates over 170,000 children age 0–17 in the UK alone, and over930,000 in the USA," the researchers said, "and suggests that the average primary school in England and Scotland (n = 168 pupils) contains 2.2 grapheme-colour synaesthetes at any time, while the average-sized US primary school (n = 396 pupils) contains 5.1." Inevitably, the prevalence for synaesthesia as a whole, considering all the sub-types, would be even higher.A hall-mark of grapheme-colour synaesthesia is that the colour triggered by a given letter or number is always the same - a fact the researchers exploited to identify the condition in school children.Indeed, when asked to associate letters with colours, the children identified as synaesthetes showed more consistency over a 12-month-period than the other children did over a ten second period!The study also showed how synaesthetic associations develop over time. The children with synaesthesia had an average of 10.5 reliable grapheme-colour associations when first tested aged six to seven, compared with 16.9 when tested a year later."It is not known whether the developmental pattern shown by our synaesthetes (i.e. 6.4 new coloured graphemes per year) represents a linear acquisition, or whether greater gains are made in later years," the researchers said, "...our lab is currently tracking the development of this group to follow their transition into adult-like consistency."Link to earlier Digest items on synaesthesia._________________________________J. Simner, J. Harrold, H. Creed, L. Monro, L. Foulkes (2008). Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132 (1), 57-64 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn292... Read more »
J. Simner, J. Harrold, H. Creed, L. Monro, & L. Foulkes. (2008) Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132(1), 57-64. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn292
We share more in common with mice than a penchant for cheese, we also like the same kinds of smells. This suggests that our nasal preferences, even for biologically insignificant smells, are somewhat hard-wired or predetermined, and not entirely learned.Nathalie Mandairon and colleagues asked thirty participants to rate their preference for a range of odours including geraniol, which has a floral smell, and guaiacol, which has a smoky whiff about it. The odours that the participants said they favoured, such as geraniol, tended to be the same ones that thirty mice spent the most amount of time sniffing, whereas the odours the humans liked least, such as guaiacol, tended to be the ones the mice were least interested in.Importantly, the smells used in the study were varied and had no apparent biological significance. For example, it wasn't just the case that humans and mice both disliked smells that signalled rotten food or that signalled danger."Even if pleasantness is the result of culture, life experience and learning," the researchers said, "the present interspecies comparison shows that there is an initial part of the percept which is innate and engraved in the odourant structure."Just what it is about the chemical structure of some substances that makes them smell pleasant to mice and humans remains to be discovered. "Taken as a whole, these results substantially affect our view of olfactory [smell-based] hedonic perception and open up new avenues for the understanding of its neural mechanisms," the researchers concluded. "They also suggest that odour exploration behaviour in mice may be used to predict human olfactory preferences."_________________________________Nathalie Mandairon, Johan Poncelet, Moustafa Bensafi, Anne Didier (2009). Humans and Mice Express Similar Olfactory Preferences PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004209... Read more »
Nathalie Mandairon, Johan Poncelet, Moustafa Bensafi, & Anne Didier. (2009) Humans and Mice Express Similar Olfactory Preferences. PLoS ONE, 4(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004209
Babies as young as ten-months are able to recognise the intent behind a failed action, thus revealing a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of other people's minds.Amanda Brandone and Henry Wellman, who made the finding, used a methodological approach that regular readers of the Digest will be familiar with. This is the preferential looking time procedure, which exploits the fact that babies tend to look longer at something novel that grabs their interest.One hundred and thirty-four babies in three age groups - eight, ten and twelve-months - were habituated to one of two versions of a video showing someone reaching for a ball. To say the babies were habituated to the video means they were shown it enough times that they grew bored.One version showed a person reaching, with an arc-like movement, over a mini wall to pick up a ball. The key thing about this video was that it showed someone intending to make a direct reach for the ball. The other version showed the same movement but the person failed to quite reach the ball - so the intent was the same, but they had failed.Next the babies watched two further alternating videos: both were similar to the first they'd seen, but this time the wall wasn't there. In one, a person is seen reaching directly for the ball, with a straight, horizontal arm movement. In other words, his intent was to make a direct reach for the ball, just as in the earlier video. In the other, the person makes an arc-like reaching movement (similar to that seen earlier), even though no wall is in the way. So this person intended to make an indirect reach. The key question was - which of the later videos would most grab the babies' interest: the first one, which matched the intent in the earlier video (a direct reach for the ball), but was perceptually different, or the second video which was perceptually similar because of the arc-like movement, but which reflected a different intent (i.e. an indirect reach for the ball)?The answer depended on which version of the first video the babies had seen.When the first video showed someone successfully picking up the ball, all age groups subsequently spent more time looking at the later video showing an arc-like, indirect ball reach. This suggests that all the babies, from eight months and upwards, understood the intent behind the successful reach of the ball, and therefore found the later video showing an indirect reach far more interesting. (Yes, maybe they should get out more, but remember they're only little).By contrast, among the babies who saw the initial video version with an unsuccessful ball reach, only the 10- and 12-month-olds subsequently spent longer watching the later video showing the indirect, arc-like ball grab. This suggests that only the older babies understood that the person in the first video was to trying to directly reach the ball, even though he'd failed. Taken altogether this research suggests that the ability of babies to understand the intent behind failed actions builds on their earlier ability to understand the intent behind successful actions.In the researchers' words: "...these data illustrate the early emergence of an intentional framework in at least one key instance of human action. Moreover, they show that this early intentional understanding of action appears later than, and potentially builds upon, a prior action- and object-based understanding."_________________________________Amanda C. Brandone, Henry M. Wellman (2009). You Can't Always Get What You Want: Infants Understand Failed Goal-Directed Actions. Psychological Science, 20 (1), 85-91 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02246.x... Read more »
Amanda C. Brandone, & Henry M. Wellman. (2009) You Can't Always Get What You Want: Infants Understand Failed Goal-Directed Actions. Psychological Science, 20(1), 85-91. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02246.x
The human brain recognises the difference between low and high-fat food with the same automatic efficiency as it exhibits when discriminating happy and sad faces, and living and non-living entities. Ulrike Toepel and colleagues who made the finding, hope it will contribute to our understanding of over-eating.The researchers presented 24 normal-weight participants with photos of hundreds of different types of food, as well as pictures of kitchen utensils, all the while recording their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).The participants thought their task was to indicate as fast as possible whether each photo, presented for just half a second, showed food or a kitchen utensil. In fact, the researchers were interested in whether the brain activity of the participants differed according to whether a high or low fat food had been presented.The advantage of EEG over brain imaging techniques like fMRI, is in the level of time-related detail it can provide. In this case, Toepel's team were able to show that high-fat food led to distinct patterns of brain activity relative to low-fat food, during two discrete time periods: 160-220ms and 330-370ms after presentation of the food.The speed with which the fat content of food was discriminated by the brain is similar to that shown for other fundamental categories such as for living vs. non-living things. Because the participants were distracted by the task involving kitchen utensils, the results further show that this discrimination between high and low-fat foods occurs automatically.Areas of the brain that showed sensitivity to food fattiness were temporo-parietal regions during the first time period and the pre-frontal cortex during the second time period. The first time period probably relates to rudimentary analysis of the fattiness category, and the second probably relates to decision making."Enhanced activation in prefrontal cortices has also been related to syndromes of eating disorders," the researchers explained. "Thus, the network identified during this second stage points to the role of this categorization phase in the decision-making process on food choices based on their energetic value."_________________________________U TOEPEL, J KNEBEL, J HUDRY, J LECOUTRE, M MURRAY (2009). The brain tracks the energetic value in food images. NeuroImage, 44 (3), 967-974 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.10.005... Read more »
U TOEPEL, J KNEBEL, J HUDRY, J LECOUTRE, & M MURRAY. (2009) The brain tracks the energetic value in food images. NeuroImage, 44(3), 967-974. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.10.005
According to the aberrant salience account of schizophrenia, the positive symptoms of the condition - the hallucinations and delusions - come about because patients see meaning where there is none. The neurotransmitter dopamine, associated with learning and reward, is found in excess in patients with schizophrenia, and it is this chemical anomaly that is thought to underlie their tendency to misinterpret the meaning of things.The aberrant salience account was proposed by psychiatrist Shitij Kapur and while it has provoked a lot of interest, few studies have attempted to directly test its predictions. Now Jonathan Roiser and colleagues have shown that patients experiencing delusions show more aberrant salience in a learning task than do patients whose symptoms are in remission - a finding entirely consistent with Kapur's account.On each trial, 20 patients on medication for schizophrenia and 17 healthy controls had to press a button as fast as possible in response to a black square appearing on a computer monitor. Sometimes participants were rewarded for responding quickly to this square and sometimes they weren't. Crucially, the reward schedule wasn't completely random, and the likelihood of a trial being rewarded could sometimes be predicted by the an image (e.g. a household item) flashed on-screen before the black square. However not all images were predictive in this way. Some were irrelevant, and a key feature of the task was whether or not participants would learn which images were predictive and which weren't.If participants responded more quickly after predictive images than irrelevant ones, then this would indicate they had learned correctly - a sign of so-called "adaptive salience". By contrast, speedier responding after irrelevant images would indicate that they'd read predictive meaning where there was none - a sign of "aberrant salience". After the testing, the participants were also asked to report which images they thought were predictive and which weren't, thus providing another, more explicit, measure of adaptive and aberrant salience. Overall, the medicated patients with schizophrenia showed no more aberrant salience than the controls. That is, they were no more likely to believe an irrelevant image signalled a forthcoming reward. Crucially, however, among the patients, those who were still experiencing delusions showed more evidence of aberrant salience than those whose symptoms were in remission.Moreover, the patients showed reduced adaptive salience relative to the controls. This is also consistent with Kapur's account, which predicts that patients treated with anti-psychotic medication will show impaired learning as a side-effect of their medication. A final supportive finding was that control participants who scored higher on a test of schizophrenia-like experiences also demonstrated increased aberrant salience.A finding not predicted by Kapur's account was that patients with more negative symptoms of schizophrenia - lethargy and lack of emotion - also tended to display more aberrant salience."...these data are consistent with the hypothesis that schizophrenia patients with delusions exhibit aberrant salience," Roiser's group concluded. "The aberrant salience hypothesis warrants further investigation in unmedicated patients with schizophrenia."_________________________________J. P. Roiser, K. E. Stephan, H. E. M. den Ouden, T. R. E. Barnes, K. J. Friston, E. M. Joyce (2008). Do patients with schizophrenia exhibit aberrant salience? Psychological Medicine, 39 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708003863Link to related feature article in The Psychologist magazine (open access).Link to related post on Mind Hacks blog.... Read more »
J. P. Roiser, K. E. Stephan, H. E. M. den Ouden, T. R. E. Barnes, K. J. Friston, & E. M. Joyce. (2008) Do patients with schizophrenia exhibit aberrant salience?. Psychological Medicine, 39(02), 199. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708003863
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
Paint the walls blue to boost your creativity. That's the message from an intriguing new study that shows the contrasting effects of blue and red on mental performance.Psychologists have known for some time that colours can affect cognition, but research in the area has produced contradictory results. For example, some studies have shown red to be beneficial while others have found the opposite.Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu believe the contrasting results have arisen from the fact that red is beneficial for some kinds of mental processing, while blue is beneficial for others.In a series of six experiments, they've now demonstrated that red provokes a cautious, avoidant mode of motivation, which is beneficial for tasks that require attention to detail. By contrast, blue provokes an approach-based, exploratory motivational state, which is conducive to creativity.Many of the experiments involved computer tasks, with either a red or blue background appearing on the monitor. These experiments showed that people were better at a word-recall task and a proof-reading task when the screen background was red compared with when it was blue or white. By contrast, participants came up with better quality and more creative ideas for things to do with a brick when the screen was blue, rather than red, and they also preformed better at the remote associates test (e.g. which one word relates to "shelf", "read" and "end"?).Support for the idea that these differences emerged via the effect of colour on motivational state come from performance in an anagram tasks. Mehta and Zhu found that participants working at a monitor with a red background were quicker at unscrambling anagrams related to avoidance, while those with a blue background were quicker to unscramble jumbled words related to approach.In another experiment, participants were given twenty "parts" from which to design a child's toy. Participants given red parts designed toys that independent judges rated to be more practical and appropriate, but less original and novel. By contrast, participants given blue parts came up with more creative toy designs.Screen background colour also influenced participants' preference for two different camera adverts. Participants shown an advert against a red background tended to prefer the advert that showed a montage of product details, whereas participants shown the advert against a blue background preferred a version where the montage showed vague, travel-related images.Mehta and Zhu said their findings have real life implications. "What wall colour do we pick for an educational facility? What colour enhances persuasion in a consumption context? What colour enhances creativity in a new product design process?" they asked. "Results from this research suggest that, depending on the nature of the task, different colours might be beneficial."_________________________________Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science. In Press.... Read more »
Ravi Mehta, & Rui (Juliet) Zhu. (2009) Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science.
I doubt Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the first public figure to have boasted about his moral compass. Implicit in these claims is the idea that to follow a moral code is a good thing. But this may betray a certain psychological naivete, for a growing research base is showing much of our moral thinking is automatic and nonconscious - mindless even.To take an example provided by psychologist Jonathan Haidt: most people register moral objection when told a story about a brother and sister who slept together, consensually, with no harm arising. Yet asked why they find it objectionable, such people can't explain their reasoning - a phenomenon that Haidt has dubbed moral dumbfounding.Now Fionnuala Murphy and colleagues have provided further evidence for the automaticity of moral processing. Murphy's team asked three groups of 24 students to read different versions of short stories that either ended with a morally good or morally bad punchline.The tales and their punchlines were constructed in such a way that pairs of stories shared a matching final sentence, which was worded identically, and yet had two different moral meanings based on the preceding context. For example, the sentence "Jessica thought about the situation and decided it would be right for her to do it" could either have good moral connotations following a story about returning a lost wallet, or immoral connotations following a story about the possibility of an affair.Murhpy's team found that it took participants longer to read final sentences with an immoral meaning than those with a moral meaning. As the final sentences were worded identically, this delay must have arisen because the participants had processed the contrasting moral implications of the stories.The most important part of the experiment concerned the fact that two of the participant groups were given an easy or difficult memory task to do at the same time as they read the stories. These participants also took longer to read immoral punchlines compared with moral ones, thus suggesting they too had processed the moral content of the stories, even though they had been mentally distracted by a memory task at the time of reading."Researchers in the area of social cognition have shown that many social psychological phenomena — including attitudes, evaluations and impressions, emotions, and social behaviour — occur automatically and without awareness (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; PDF). The present findings suggest that the same may be true for moral processing," the researchers said._________________________________Fionnuala Murphy, Gemma Wilde, Neil Ogden, Philip Barnard, Andrew Calder (2008). Assessing the automaticity of moral processing: Efficient coding of moral information during narrative comprehension The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 41-49 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802254441... Read more »
Fionnuala Murphy, Gemma Wilde, Neil Ogden, Philip Barnard, & Andrew Calder. (2008) Assessing the automaticity of moral processing: Efficient coding of moral information during narrative comprehension. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62(1), 41-49. DOI: 10.1080/17470210802254441
Most of us find that people from other races look more similar to each other than people from our own race - a phenomenon dubbed the 'other race effect'. Sophie Lebrecht and colleagues reasoned that this perceptual bias could feed into people's implicit, non-conscious racial stereotypes. Now in an exciting new study they've shown that training people to distinguish among other-race faces can help reduce implicit racism.Twenty White participants completed a test of their implicit racism towards African American people. As expected, the participants were quicker at identifying a negative word after presentation of an African American face than they were at identifying a positive word.Half the students then received training in discriminating among African American faces, after which they re-took the implicit racism test and showed significantly reduced evidence of implicit racism. The other students, who acted as control group, were exposed to as many African American faces in the training period, but received no practice at discriminating among them. On re-testing, their implicit racism was unchanged.The finding suggests that by improving people's ability to discriminate among other-race faces, their implicit racial biases can be reduced. This makes intuitive sense. After all, if people from a given race all seem to look alike, then it's not so hard to believe that they are similar in other ways too. In contrast, learning to see the visible differences between people of another race, makes it harder to lump them altogether in social and cultural ways."Our findings have great potential for how we understand and address the real-world consequences of racial stereotyping," the researchers said._________________________________Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, James W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215... Read more »
Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, & James W. Tanaka. (2009) Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE, 4(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215
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.
It's reassuring to learn that even the most elite athletes can suffer from mental frailties. Maurizio Bertollo and colleagues interviewed 13 members of Italy's 2004 pentathlon squad and a common theme to emerge was the curse of so-called "ironic effects". As one athlete explained: "In some circumstances my intention is not to do the best but to avoid making a bad shot. That is when I make a bad shot. When I think about avoiding the error, I make the error."The modern pentathlon involves pistol shooting, épée fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3km cross-country run, all conducted on the same day. Bertollo's research team transcribed the interviews they conducted with the pentathletes, generating 220 pages of text. They trawled this text, looking for common themes to emerge and then organised these according to different stages preceding, during and following a competitive event.For example, several of the athletes said that during the days before an event they attempted to recreate the emotional stress of a real competition. They also said they prioritised relaxation time, set themselves goals and mentally rehearsed success.During a competition, the athletes performed an opposite mental exercise to that conducted prior to the event, attempting to recreate the feelings, such as of muscle relaxation, that they achieved during training. They also revealed that they tried to avoid dwelling on mistakes; that they reassured themselves that dysfunctional emotions usually stop once a contest gets started; and that they strive to focus their attention in useful ways, such as on the sight and target during shooting.As well as difficulties with "ironic effects", the athletes also spoke of the curse of bodily symptoms such as trembling and fatigue, and the feeling of a loss of control or choking. "There are times when I say, ‘I don’t see when this will end. Oh God, let me finish this contest! I want it to end!’ And I am in acute crisis," one athlete said.The athletes also reported devoting considerable time to post-contest evaluation, especially so as to learn from their mistakes._________________________________M BERTOLLO, B SALTARELLI, C ROBAZZA (2009). Mental preparation strategies of elite modern pentathletes Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (2), 244-254 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.09.003Image is from Wikipedia and shows the conclusion of the Men's pentathlon event at the 2004 Summer Olympics.... Read more »
M BERTOLLO, B SALTARELLI, & C ROBAZZA. (2009) Mental preparation strategies of elite modern pentathletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(2), 244-254. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.09.003
Psychologists have known for some time that mood can have an effect on memory: for example, we're more likely to remember events that are consistent with our current state of mind, and a bad mood is known to reduce the likelihood of people recalling false memories.In the latter case, the theory is that a bad mood triggers a more sceptical, careful mode of processing, in contrast to the less vigilant, conceptual thinking style that characterises a good mood. Now Joseph Forgas and colleagues have taken this line of work out of the lab and into the real world, showing how the weather can affect our memory via its effects on our mood.The researchers employed the help of a newsagents shop in Sydney and tested the ability of 73 shoppers to recall ten objects, including a piggy savings jar and toy cars, that were placed around the counter. The shoppers were quizzed after they left the store, with half of them tested on rainy, cloudy days and the others tested on bright, sunny days.A mood questionnaire confirmed that the shoppers tested on rainy days were in a worse mood than those tested on a sunny day. And the memory test showed the rainy-day shoppers correctly identified three times as many items as the participants tested on a sunny day. Moreover, the rainy-day shoppers were less likely to have false memories for objects that hadn't been around the counter."This finding suggests that some allowance for such mood effects could be incorporated in applied domains such as legal, forensic, counselling and clinical practice," the researchers said.A possible methodological flaw is that the rainy-day shoppers might have spent longer in the store, but a follow-up study showed that shoppers spent no longer in the shop on rainy days relative to sunny days.This appears to be the latest example of an emerging trend among memory researchers to take their work out of the lab - just last year, researchers at Goldsmith's College performed an experiment at the London Dungeons to examine the effect of fear on eye-witness memory._________________________________J FORGAS, L GOLDENBERG, C UNKELBACH (2009). Can bad weather improve your memory? An unobtrusive field study of natural mood effects on real-life memory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 254-257 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.014... Read more »
J FORGAS, L GOLDENBERG, & C UNKELBACH. (2009) Can bad weather improve your memory? An unobtrusive field study of natural mood effects on real-life memory☆. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(1), 254-257. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.014
There are some people, who, when they telephone, say "Hello, it's me!" Although rather endearing, such people, by doing this, aren't being sensitive to the needs of people with phonagnosia - the inability to recognise a person's identity from the sound of their voice.Previously, phonagnosia had only been documented in people who had developed the condition after sustaining a brain injury. Now Lúcia Garrido and colleagues have provided what they believe is the first ever description of a case of developmental phonagnosia - that is, the presence of the condition in a woman with no apparent brain damage.KH, a female, aged 60 at the time of her testing, told the researchers that she had always had difficulty recognising who people were from the sound of their voices. Garrido's team confirmed this in a series of comprehensive lab tests. KH was unable to tell famous voices, such as David Beckham's, from non-famous ones and was unable to learn to associate new voices with the names of their owners. By contrast, she was able to identity environmental sounds, recognise familiar music and infer emotions from both non-verbal sounds and speech.It seems phonagnosia can join a growing list of specific impairments that can either be acquired through brain injury or present from birth or early childhood. Others include prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces; until recently it was thought this condition only arose through injury), dyscalculia (a deficit with numbers), dyslexia, amusia (a musical deficit) and specific language impairment.The researchers said the existence of phonoagnosia provides support for a modular account of voice processing - this is the idea that different aspects of voices, such as emotion and identity, are processed independently in the brain."Other selective developmental conditions have shed light on the cognitive, neural, developmental and genetic basis of particular abilities," they concluded, "and we expect that developmental phonagnosia will provide a means to address these issues for voice processing."_________________________________L GARRIDO, F EISNER, C MCGETTIGAN, L STEWART, D SAUTER, J HANLEY, S SCHWEINBERGER, J WARREN, B DUCHAINE (2009). Developmental phonagnosia: A selective deficit of vocal identity recognition. Neuropsychologia, 47 (1), 123-131 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.08.003... Read more »
L GARRIDO, F EISNER, C MCGETTIGAN, L STEWART, D SAUTER, J HANLEY, S SCHWEINBERGER, J WARREN, & B DUCHAINE. (2009) Developmental phonagnosia: A selective deficit of vocal identity recognition. Neuropsychologia, 47(1), 123-131. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.08.003
Back in the 70's, a classic study (PDF) showed that people using a photocopier were just as likely to give way to a line-pusher who gave the nonsense excuse "because I need to make copies", as they were to one who gave the more sensible excuse "because I'm in a rush". Ellen Langer and colleagues interpreted their finding as showing how mindless we often are. As soon as we hear the word "because", we assume the excuse that follows is justified and respond accordingly. Now Scott Key and colleagues have replicated this classic study, with the further aim of finding out if some personality types are more likely than others to give way.Key's team were interested in two key personality factors. The first was "need for cognition", a strange-sounding term that refers to a person's tendency to engage their brain. It's measured by agreement with statements like "I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours", and it's been shown that people who score highly on this measure tend to be more resistant to persuasion. In this case, to the researchers' surprise, the factor was found to be irrelevant. Of the 129 students who were tested, the high scorers on "need for cognition" were just as likely to give way as low scorers.The second factor was "self-monitoring", which as you'd expect describes the extent to which a person tends to keep a check on their own behaviour, especially in relation to social rules. The researchers thought that students who scored highly on this measure would be more likely to give way at the photocopier, in order not to cause a scene, but the opposite turned out to be true. High self-monitors were less likely to give way. Perhaps their concern to obtain the photocopies they'd been instructed to get trumped any worries about causing a social scene."We hope that our research ... spurs future research into what appears to be a neglected but important field of study: how individual differences moderate processes of behavior change," the researchers said._________________________________M SCOTTKEY, J EDLUND, B SAGARIN, G BIZER (2009). Individual differences in susceptibility to mindlessness Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (3), 261-264 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.10.001... Read more »
M SCOTTKEY, J EDLUND, B SAGARIN, & G BIZER. (2009) Individual differences in susceptibility to mindlessness. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(3), 261-264. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.10.001
The idea that autism may be the manifestation of an "extreme male brain" has received support from a study showing that higher levels of fetal exposure to testosterone are associated with the later presence of autistic traits in childhood.Bonnie Auyeung and colleagues found that among 235 mothers, those who had higher levels of testosterone in their amniotic fluid during pregnancy, subsequently rated their children, when aged between six and ten years, as showing more autistic traits, such as avoiding eye contact. This was true whether the children were studied as a group, or if the analysis was done on just girls or just boys.It's not yet known for sure whether fetal exposure to testosterone causes the presence of these autistic traits or whether a third unknown factor affects both testosterone levels and the presence of the traits. It is also worth remembering that the children in this study were not actually diagnosed with autism. Fetal exposure to testosterone has only been linked by this study with the presence of autistic-like traits. However, the researchers are planning to test the significance of fetal testosterone exposure among children with an actual diagnosis of autism."If, according to the extreme male brain theory, autistic spectrum conditions are an extreme of male-typical behaviour, exposure to elevated levels of fetal testosterone could be one important factor that is involved with the development of the condition," the researchers said.The findings from this study led to discussion in the media about the prospects of a fetal test for autism. For example, co-author Simon Baron-Cohen wrote this piece for BBC News online._________________________________Bonnie Auyeung, Simon Baron-Cohen, Emma Ashwin, Rebecca Knickmeyer, Kevin Taylor, Gerald Hackett (2009). Fetal testosterone and autistic traits. British Journal of Psychology, 100 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1348/000712608X311731... Read more »
It's not just the amount of sleep we get that is so important for learning, but the quality of that sleep. That's according to a new study that made precise use of beeping noises to disrupt deep "slow-wave" sleep among 13 elderly participants (average age 60 years), without actually waking them up.The beeping was used in such a way that although the participants' were deprived of deep sleep, their total sleep time and number of sleep stages were unaffected (compared with a comparison night of undisturbed sleep).After a night of either shallow or deep sleep, the participants had their brains scanned while they viewed 50 images of houses and landscapes. The next day they had to say which of 100 images were repeated from the day before. The participants' performance was superior when a night with deep sleep had preceded the learning of the images, compared with a night of shallow sleep, even though total sleep time was the same in each case (36.6 images correctly identified versus 31.4 images, on average).Moreover, the brain scans showed that during the initial viewing of images, activity in the hippocampus, the seat of human memory, was reduced after shallow versus deep sleep, but only for those images that were subsequently recalled. This suggests that shallow sleep somehow interferes with the way the hippocampus encodes new, explicit memories.By contrast, so-called "implicit memory", appears to be unaffected by sleep quality. Regardless of the kind of sleep they'd had, participants showed superior performance at a sequence learning task when the sequence was fixed rather than random, even though they were consciously unaware of what the actual sequence was."The mechanism by which deep sleep affects hippocampal function is unclear," Ysbrand Van Der Werf and colleagues said, "but may involve local synaptic changes resulting from slow wave activity."_________________________________Ysbrand D Van Der Werf1,2, Ellemarije Altena1,3,, Menno M Schoonheim, Ernesto J Sanz-Arigita, Jose´ C Vis, Wim De Rijke, Eus J W Van Someren (2009). Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature Neuroscience. In Press.... Read more »
Ysbrand D Van Der Werf1,2, Ellemarije Altena1,3,, Menno M Schoonheim, Ernesto J Sanz-Arigita, Jose´ C Vis, Wim De Rijke, & Eus J W Van Someren. (2009) Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature Neuroscience.
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