What's in a name?

Hypnosis stops being hypnotic when it’s described to participants as ‘relaxation’. This finding by Balaganesh Ghandi and David Oakley at UCL’s Hypnosis Unit complements earlier research showing the opposite effect: that relaxation labelled as ‘hypnosis’ can be hypnotic.

Ghandi and Oakley performed an identical, standard hypnotic induction on 70 participants. But whereas half of them were told their suggestibility was to be tested “whilst in hypnosis”, after they had completed a “hypnotic induction” to help them become “hypnotised”, the other half were told their suggestibility would be tested “whilst being relaxed”, after they had followed “relaxation instructions” to help them become “relaxed”. The hypnotic procedure itself contained no mention of the words ‘hypnosis/hypnotised/hypnotic’ but instead talked about ‘absorption’ or being ‘absorbed’.

Before and after the hypnotic induction, the participants performed standard tests of suggestibility ranging from being told they couldn’t move their arms, to being told there was a mosquito buzzing in the room. The researchers rated how prone each participant was to these suggestions and the participants also rated how much they felt they had experienced the suggestions.

Participants who were told the hypnotic induction was a relaxation procedure were no more suggestible after the hypnotic induction than before it. In contrast, participants told the induction was a hypnotic procedure were significantly more suggestible after the induction than before it, based on both the researchers’ and the participants’ ratings.

The researchers said “…the extent to which suggestion affects conscious experience appears to depend more on the individual’s perception that the context can be identified as ‘hypnosis’ and on the beliefs and expectations that this raises, than it does on intrinsic properties of the induction procedure itself”.

Ghandi, B. & Oakley, D.A. (2005). Does ‘hypnosis’ by any other name smell as sweet? The efficacy of ‘hypnotic’ inductions depends on the label ‘hypnosis’. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 304-315.
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What makes a baby smile?

By eight months of age, babies are already smiling ’socially’. That’s according to Susan Jones and Hye-Won Hong at Indiana University who filmed 20 eight-month-old infants while they played for ten minutes alone in a room with their mother who was seated behind them. Half the time the mothers were instructed to watch their child play, the other half of the time they read a magazine and ignored their child as much as possible.

How much the infants looked at their mother didn’t depend on whether their mum was reading or not – they looked at her roughly once a minute in either case. But whether or not they smiled was affected by whether their mother was looking at them. The infants rarely smiled at their mother when she was reading, but smiled roughly 50 per cent of the time when they looked at her and she was watching. The babies rarely smiled when they were facing the toys.

In a second experiment with 16 different eight-month-olds, the researchers played back the footage to see if the mothers were doing something differently on those occasions when their infant looked at them and smiled. They couldn’t find any maternal behaviours or facial expressions that positively predicted when their child would smile at them. However, the babies were more likely to smile when they looked round at their mother after they had just been engaged in active play, as opposed to examining the toys or changing their position, for example.

Exciting toy play, a look in their mother’s direction and a social response from their mother were clearly important factors triggering a smile from the infants, the researchers concluded, yet “…none of these by itself was sufficient to produce a smile: rather the smile appeared to be a product assembled out of the positive state of the infant and a look to an attentive and, crucially, a responsive mother”, they said.

“…the finding that smiles to the toys are rare, along with the fact that a critical ingredient for most smile production is input from a social partner, underlines the degree to which smiling at eight months is a social behaviour”, Jones and Hong said.

Jones, S.S. & Hong, H-W. (2005). How some infant smiles get made. Infant Behaviour and Development, 28, 194-205.
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Forgive and forget

“…the most beautiful thing that man can do is to forgive a wrong”, wrote Jewish rabbi, Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238). It may once have been strictly theological territory but now psychologists are turning their attention to understanding forgiving. It’s hoped research in the area could aid conflict resolution and there’s also emerging evidence that failing to forgive could be bad for your health (e.g. see Berry, J.W. & Worthington, E.L. (2001). Journal of Counselling Psychology, 48, 447-455).

Now Louise Barber at Sheffield Hallam University and her colleagues have investigated what aspects of anger and rumination (i.e. dwelling on things) might impede people’s ability to forgive. Two hundred university students filled out several questionnaires probing their readiness to forgive, their tendency to re-enact angry episodes in their mind, to harbour thoughts of revenge, to dwell on past injustices they’ve suffered and to dwell on the reasons why they’ve been treated badly in the past.

Considering these factors all at once, Barber’s team found that it was specifically people’s tendency to experience frequent fantasies of revenge, agreeing with statements like “I have long living fantasises of revenge after the conflict is over”, that predicted they would also report finding it harder to forgive other people. The researchers said “Getting back at that person and thoughts and daydreams of a violent nature may inhibit the likelihood of forgiving”.

In contrast, when it came to forgiving themselves, Barber found it was specifically people’s tendency to experience frequent angry memories, agreeing with questionnaire statements like “I ponder about injustices that have been done to me”, that predicted they would also report finding it hard to forgive themselves. “It seems that people who ruminate about events from a long time ago and still get angry also do so in relation to themselves and the mistakes that they’ve made”, the researchers said.

“For practitioners dealing with forgiveness issues in therapeutic settings, encouraging the release of angry memories may be one way of reducing self-blame; or ameliorating thoughts of revenge may be helpful in interventions to promote forgiveness in interpersonal conflict”, Barber’s team concluded.

Barber, L., Maltby, J. & Macaskill, A. (2005). Angry memories and thoughts of revenge: the relationship between forgiveness and anger rumination. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 253-262.
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Choosing between the indistinguishable

Is it possible to have a preference for one taste over another without being able to distinguish between the two? That’s apparently the case with patient B, a 72-year-old man brain-damaged by Herpes simplex encephalitis in 1975. Patient B suffered bilateral damage to the amygdala, the hypocampus, basal forebrain, insular and cingulate cortex, all of which left him severely amnesic, unable to recognise familiar people and objects, with profoundly impaired taste and smell, but with relatively normal language and vision.

Neurologist and best-selling author Antonio Damasio and his colleagues at the University of Iowa asked patient B to taste 38 drinks in succession. In fact, each drink was either a mixture of salt and water (which tastes disgusting), or sugar and water (which tastes much nicer), presented in a random order. Regardless of which drink he was tasting, patient B declared each one to be ‘delicious’, and to taste ‘like pop’ (fizzy drink). In contrast, when healthy control participants and brain-damaged participants (none of whom had damage to the insular) completed the same task, they immediately stopped drinking all of the salt water drinks after the first sip, finding them extremely unpleasant.

So far the evidence simply suggests that patient B has lost his sense of taste. But next, the researchers presented patient B with two drinks at a time. The salt drink was in one beaker, the sugar drink in another, side by side. Patient B was asked to sip each and then to drink the one he preferred. On 18/19 trials of this kind, he chose the sugar drink. Even when urged by the researchers to drink the salty drink, he steadfastly refused.

“The taste comparison likely provides B with an overt feeling that he would rather drink one solution than another, without any overt knowledge of the taste experiences that would normally provide justification for this preference”, the researchers said. “We believe that he is aware of his preference of sucrose over saline, without awareness of the identity of either”.

It’s unlikely B’s other senses underlay his preference. A test with healthy participants showed they were unable to distinguish between the drinks based on smell, and anyway, B’s sense of smell is severely impaired. The researchers also argued it was unlikely at the concentrations they used that B was making his preference based on the ‘feeling’ of the drinks in his mouth.

Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Koenigs, M. & Damasio, A.R. (2005). Preferring one taste over another without recognising either. Nature Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication DOI: 10.1038/nn1489
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The sweet smell of success

Wearing perfume can make you feel and look more confident. No, this isn’t an advert, it’s the implication of a study by a team of Japanese researchers who filmed thirty-one young women while they underwent a mock interview.

Halfway through the 10 to 15 minute interview, a break was taken and half the women were sprayed once on the wrist with the perfume “Breath Garden-Tenderness Time”. Afterwards, 18 students were asked to compare video clips of the interviews taken before and after the mid-way break. Crucially, the student raters were unaware that half the women had been sprayed with perfume during the break. Also, all the interviewees were given the same grey sweatshirt to wear, and personality tests revealed no differences between those women who were, and were not, given perfume.

The student raters were asked to study the interviewees’ body language, eye contact and so on, as closely as possible. Their ratings revealed that after the interview break, the women who were sprayed with perfume, but not the other women, reduced the amount of nervous movements they made, for example they shifted their seat position less often and touched their hair and face less. The female student raters also judged the women given perfume, but not the other women, to be more confident after the interview break than before it. Furthermore, after the interview break, the women sprayed with perfume reported feeling more relaxed and more dominant.

While acknowledging there was a possibility the interviewees had guessed the purpose of the study, the researchers explained that: “The olfactory areas (i.e. smell related) in the brain make anatomically unique and direct connections with the neural substrates responsible for emotional information processing…[therefore] people who interact with those who wear perfume may experience relatively intense affective responses that result in a positive impression on the perfume-wearer”.

“Such positive reactions to perfume may also be experienced by the perfume-wearer”, they said “If this is so, perfume may cause behavioural changes that result in the wearer’s projecting a positive ‘visual’ impression”.

Higuchi, T., Shoji, K., Taguchi, S. & Hatayama, T. (2005). Improvement of nonverbal behaviour in Japanese female perfume-wearers. International Journal of Psychology, 40, 90-99.
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Coping with HIV

How someone understands and responds to their illness can influence whether or not they do all that is medically necessary to protect their health. Judith Moskowitz and Judith Wrubel at the University of California conducted bimonthly interviews with 57 HIV-positive gay men over two years. They wanted to explore the different ways these men responded to their illness, how they coped and the emotions they experienced.

They asked the men to tell them about the most stressful HIV-related event they had experienced in the previous week, and about something meaningful they’d done or that had happened, which made them feel good. The kind of events they talked about, and their reactions, were all coded and patterns were looked for.

Six distinct patterns of coping emerged from the interviews. Six of the men were ‘future focused’, they dwelled on the fact their disease would ultimately kill them, and strove to avoid negative emotions associated with HIV. Seven of the men were ‘detached’: “rather than having to manage negative emotions, the men in this group appeared not to experience negative emotions in the first place”, the researchers said. Thirteen of the men were preoccupied with anxiety about the stigma attached to HIV, yet ironically they stigmatised other people with HIV/AIDS, believing they should avoid going out in public if their symptoms were visible. Eleven of the men were ‘outward focused’, they sought social support more than any other group and were mostly preoccupied with the health and happiness of their friends. Thirteen of the men strove to avoid negative thoughts about their illness, yet they were preoccupied by it, and they were classified as ‘avoid/aware’. Finally, seven of the men began by fitting one of the patterns already described, but switched to another pattern over the course of the study, a change the researchers attributed to their deteriorating health. All but one changed their coping style to fit the ‘outward focus’ pattern.

A person’s approach to their illness influenced how much medical help they sought. The ‘detached’, ‘stigma’ and ‘outward focus’ men all looked after their health carefully, whereas the ‘future focused’ and ‘aware/avoid’ men did not. Moreover, whereas at the study start there were no health differences between men who would be allocated to the different groups, after two years, the men who changed coping style were the most ill and those in the ‘detached’ group were the healthiest. “Different types of intervention are required depending on the meaning of HIV for the individual”, the researchers concluded. “…health care providers should take into account an individual’s way of appraising an illness and tailor their interactions with their patients accordingly”.

Moskowitz, J.T. & Wrubel, J. (2005). Coping with HIV as a chronic illness: a longitudinal analysis of illness appraisals. Psychology and Health, 20, 509-531.

N.B. These interviews were conducted before the widespread use of highly active anti-retroviral therapies, which have proved to be an effective treatment for HIV.
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No regrets?

From the trivial – ‘I wouldn’t have this thumping headache if only I hadn’t drunk that last double vodka’, to the (slightly) more profound – ‘If only I’d studied finance rather than psychology I might be going to Las Vegas, not Blackpool’, it can be frustrating pondering what might have been.

Now Eric van Dijk and Marcel Zeelenberg at Leiden University in the Netherlands have investigated what influences how much regret we feel. First they showed that knowing for sure what the alternative outcome would have been, makes all the difference. One hundred and eight students were asked to imagine that they’d picked one of two boxes, each of which had a prize hidden in it, and won a squeezy stress ball. Some students were asked to imagine that they had definitely missed out on a specific, named prize in the other box. They were told whether it was a CD of their choosing, a walkman, or ‘a dinner for two’. These students anticipated experiencing significantly more regret than other students who were asked to imagine they’d missed out on either a CD, a walkman or dinner, but it wasn’t known which. “Uncertainty about what could have been may reduce feelings of regret”, the authors said.

A second study showed the comparability of what might have been, with what did happen, also makes a difference. Students asked to imagine winning a $15 book token via a scratch card, and then witnessing the next customer win a $50 book token on their card, anticipated feeling more regret than students asked to imagine winning a $15 book token but missing out on a $50 drinks voucher. The same principle applied with the prize contents reversed (e.g. a $15 drinks voucher compared with a $50 book prize). “More regret is anticipated when the obtained outcome and the missed outcome come from the same category”, the authors explained.

The authors said that without taking certainty and comparability into account, we’d be permanently rueing what might have been. “By excluding the unknown and the incomparable, we may be better able to experience life without the constant nagging feeling of regret”, they said.

van Dijk, E. & Zeelenberg, M. (2005). On the psychology of ‘if only’ : regret and the comparison between factual and counterfactual outcomes. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 97, 152-160.
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Measuring our mood at work

Negative events at work, like being criticised, affect our mood far more than positive events, such as receiving praise. That’s according to Andrew Miner from the University of Minnesota and his colleagues. They gave 41 employees a palmtop computer that prompted them to answer questions several times a day.

The participants all worked at a light manufacturing company, some in engineering, some in information services and others in customer services. The palmtop beeped when they first started work prompting the participants to indicate their ‘baseline’ mood. Then it beeped again at four further random times during the day, each beep prompting the participants to indicate briefly whether any positive or negative events had occurred, what they were currently doing, and how they were feeling. This went on for about two weeks.

Reassuringly, Miner’s team found the employees spent most of their time (76 per cent) on work-related tasks, usually in a pleasant mood. On average, the workers reported feeling unhappy 14.7 per cent of the time they were asked, and sad just 7.8 per cent of time. But when employees reported that a negative event had occurred since the last Palmtop beep, this affected their mood five times as much than if a positive event had occurred. “Employees generally went about their work in mildly positive states, as most people do”, the authors said, “but when a negative event occurred, it captured attention through large changes in mood”. Organisations should therefore focus more attention on reducing negative events at work, than on increasing the frequency of positive events, the researchers advised.

The workers who tended to start each day in a better mood than most, also tended to respond more to positive events, but they weren’t protected from the powerful influence of negative events.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Miner found that people tended to report being in a better mood when the Palmtop beeped while they were avoiding doing their work, than when it beeped while they were working. “It’s possible that participants engaged in work withdrawal because they were in more pleasant moods, perhaps as an effort to maintain a positive mood state”, the authors speculated.

Miner, A.G., Glomb, T.M. & Hulin, C. (2005). Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 78, 171-195.
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Captivating insights

Understandably, the first priority of the authorities when tackling a hostage situation is to keep the captive(s) physically safe. But Ellen Giebels at the University of Groningen and her Belgian colleagues argue that more attention should also be paid to how to protect hostages’ psychological health.

Giebels’ team conducted in-depth interviews with eleven former hostages. Seven of them had been held in a siege and five had been kidnapped. Sieges tend to be short-lived, lasting days, and the police know the location of the hostages, whereas kidnappings often last months and the hostages’ location is unknown.

All the interviewees described experiencing feelings of helplessness when they were held hostage. However, only the kidnap victims reported feelings of uncertainty and isolation. This often led them to experience an identity crisis. “Now and then it is important to think of who you actually are; you tend to forget because you lack interaction with family and friends”, one participant said. That the police seek ‘proof of life’ from the captors is therefore important not only to establish the hostage is still alive, but also because it will signal to the hostage that negotiations for his release are taking place. The ‘proof of life’ question should be chosen carefully in order to reinforce the hostage’s social identity. “Asking for the nickname of an ex-girlfriend may be considered a good question tactically, but not psychologically”, the researchers said.

All the interviewees described being intimidated, but only the kidnap victims talked about having negative feelings towards their captors. Seven of the participants also mentioned having positive feelings towards their captors. While this is reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome – the positive bond that can form between captives and captors – the researchers cautioned against considering their participants’ positive feelings as “some psychological artefact”. Those feelings “…result from normal social processes” and from deliberate efforts, like getting to know their captors, intended to maximise their survival chances, the researchers said. “Labelling most hostages as suffering from a syndrome, suggesting there is something wrong with them, may rather damage than help their psychological well-being and recovery”, they argued.

Not all the participants were positive about the police negotiators. One interviewee said “the police officer I talked to said ‘how are you doing?’ in a way you say it when you meet an acquaintance”.

Giebels, E., Noelanders, S. & Vervaeke, G. (2005). The hostage experience: implications for negotiation strategies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 241-253.
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Paying attention to what you're ignoring

Because there’s too much information out there for us to process all at once, we have to selectively attend to some things at the expense of others. Indeed, psychologists have spent a lot of time examining how we select certain things for preferential processing – colours, movement, whole objects and so on. But David Melcher at Oxford Brookes University and his colleagues wanted to know: how does what we’re focused on at the centre of our attention, affect the way we process things elsewhere, out of the corner of our eye?

Seven volunteers staring straight ahead first concentrated on either the red or green dots that were moving on the left side of a computer display (the red ones all moved up, the green ones moved down). They had to spot when the colours changed slightly.

Next they had to focus on a load of randomly moving (bouncing all over the place) red and green dots on the right side of the screen, and look out for a brief period of coherent motion, when a fraction of the dots would suddenly all move together, either to the left or right. This can be tricky, and their task was to say what direction the fraction of dots moved in – leftward or rightward?

Now this is the important part: to help them, the direction of this brief, coherent motion among the dots was actually revealed earlier, when they were busy looking to the left side of space, waiting to spot the colour change there. It was revealed by a burst of coherent horizontal motion among the dots on the right-hand side, that happened far too quickly for them to consciously see it, but which predicted the direction of the later burst (a kind of subconscious giveaway).

Crucially, Melcher found that whether this earlier subliminal giveaway helped or not depended on whether it was made up of the same colour dots that the participants were busy looking at over on the left. When it was the same colour, the participants obviously tuned into it on some level (even though their attention was focused to the left), because it then doubled their ability to detect the direction of the later burst of horizontal motion they had to look out for.

The take home message? If we’re focusing on red in one region of space, then we also preferentially process unrelated red things in another part of space – even things we’re not conscious of, and which are irrelevant to the task we’re currently busy with.

Melcher, D. Papathomas, T.V. & Vidnyanszky, Z. (2005). Implicit attentional selection of bound visual features. Neuron, 46, 723-729.
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No room for prejudice

Students’ racial prejudice is reduced when they share their university accommodation with roommates from a different ethnic group.

Colette Van Laar at Leiden University in The Netherlands and her American colleagues measured the racial prejudice of 3,877 students the summer before they started at the University of California in Los Angeles, and then measured it again at the end of the academic year. The researchers took advantage of the fact that most students are randomly allocated their first year accommodation, so they don’t choose their roommates. They then looked at how a student’s racial attitudes changed, depending on who they had been sharing with. Thirty-six per cent of the student sample were White, 36 per cent were Asian American, 18 per cent Latino, 6 per cent African American and 8 per cent were of another ethnicity.

Overall, students who shared accommodation with one or more people from a different ethnic background, expressed reduced racial prejudice at the year’s end compared with the previous summer, particularly towards the ethnic group to which their roommate(s) belonged. There was also some generalisation of this effect towards other racial groups. In particular, students who shared with someone of African American descent showed reduced prejudice towards people of Latino descent, and vice versa.

“Roommates have equal status, must work cooperatively and have the common goal of maintaining a home environment that is mutually satisfactory”, the authors said. “… the familiarity and mere exposure afforded by living together is likely to generate positive affective ties between roommates”.

Also on a positive note, the researchers found no evidence that a student’s racial prejudice was increased by sharing accommodation with people who had the same ethnicity as them.
Laar, C.V., Levin, S., Sinclair, S. & Sidanius, J. (2005). The effect of university roommate contact on ethnic attitudes and behaviour. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 41, 329-345.
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The woman in the mirror

Imagine if wherever you looked, you saw a translucent mirror image of yourself, about one metre in front of you. It’s wearing the same clothes as you and if you wave your right hand, it waves back in identical fashion (but with its left hand, just like a mirror image). That’s what patient B.F. reported seeing three months after she was brain damaged during the still birth of her baby, when she experienced seizures and fell into a brief coma.

Autoscopy as it’s known, is different from an out-of-body experience in which people report looking down onto their ‘real’ body below. And it’s different from something called ‘heautoscopy’ in which people believe they have an exact double, which may or may not be visible. B.F. knew the mirror image she could see was unreal.

B.F.’s brain damage left her unable to read or recognise familiar objects, but her sight was okay. When Giovanna Zamboni and her colleagues placed their hand on B.F.’s shoulder, she reported seeing a hand-like object appear on the illusory mirror image before her. When researchers drew a circle on her forehead in pencil, she reported seeing something dark and round tattooed on the forehead of her mirror image. If the researchers placed a sheet of paper where she said the image was located, then she said the image still appeared, but closer to her, on the surface of the paper. B.F. said the strange image she saw was clearer the more attention she paid to it. Six months after her trauma, B.F. said the image had gone, having gradually disappeared over the weeks.

The researchers believe B.F.’s strange experience was caused by damage to the part of her brain, the occipital cortex, that is normally responsible for early, basic visual processing. “…(undamaged) higher-order cortical visual areas, deprived of their input, may have established ‘abnormal cross-talk’ with cortical areas involved in body-schema representation”, the researchers explained.

“… autoscopy is a visual interpretation of the representation of the self, in which self-sensory or proprioceptive information is transformed into a visual image”, they said.
Zamboni, G., Budresi, C., Nichelli, P. (2005). “Seeing oneself”: a case of autoscopy. Neurocase, 11, 212-215.
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Turning bad boys good

Contributed by Michael Pink at Totton College

Less is more was the message reported by Guy Bourgon & Barbara Armstrong who wanted to change the way criminals behaved and tested the effects that the length of treatment had on whether criminals were likely to re-offend.

Male offenders were assessed for the likeliness to re-offend before undergoing a treatment programme using the Level of Service Inventory. From this they were recommended for a 5, 10 or 15 week programme. However, to assess the usefulness of this system some inmates, for instance, were recommended for 5 but completed a 10 or a 15 week programme. All groups had an untreated comparison.

During the programme criminals were taught to change their negative attitudes and accept personal responsibility for their behaviour using a range of techniques (e.g. anger management and problem solving).

Those who were recommended and completed a 5 week programme had the lowest recidivism rate (12%). A similar pattern emerged for those recommended and completing the 10 week and week programmes. Those ‘mismatched’ (e.g. recommended 5 but had 10 weeks) had higher recidivism rates.

This shows that it is important for criminals to receive their recommended length of treatment to achieve the most effective reduction for recidivism. “In summary this study…provided evidence that ‘dosage’ or length of treatment, plays a significant role in reducing recidivism” stated Bourgon and Armstrong.

Bourgon, G. & Armstrong, B. (2005). Transferring the principles of effective treatment into a ‘real world’ prison setting. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 32, 3-25.
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