Disturbing memories caused by disturbed sleep?

Contributed by Lucy Rowe at Totton College.

Whether it’s possible for memories of a traumatic experience to be forgotten, only to be recovered years later remains controversial. One concern is that people who report experiencing fragments of buried memories of childhood sexual abuse are actually misinterpreting episodes of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when a person wakes from dream sleep before their ability to move their body has kicked in again. Also, their dream can often overlap with their awakening perception of the ‘real’ world, leading to a sense of an intruder being in the room, for example, or the hearing of strange noises. Richard McNally and Susan Clancy from Harvard University investigated whether sleep paralysis is more prevalent among people who have reported recovered memories of having been abused, or among people who believe they’ve been abused but have no memories of it.

After advertising for participants in a newspaper, McNally and Clancy gave sleep paralysis questionnaires to 18 people (17 women) who believed they had been sexually abused but had no memories of it, 14 people (8 women) who had ‘recovered’ at least one memory of being abused, and 36 people (28 women) who reported being abused and never having forgotten the experience. Only 8 of these participants were able to provide an external source to corroborate their abuse claims. Sixteen people (11 women) who denied ever having been abused, served as a control.

Sleep paralysis was indeed more prevalent among the participants who reported having been abused (around 45 per cent experienced it) compared with the control group (only 13 per cent had). Although when asked to choose an explanation for their sleep paralysis, only one woman (from the recovered memory group) related it to child abuse.

Explaining their findings, the researchers said “Individuals who have unusual sleep-related experiences tend to score high on measures of absorption and dissociation, and people reporting sexual abuse histories also score high on these measures”.

McNally, J.R. & Clancy, S.A. (2005). Sleep paralysis in adults reporting repressed, recovered, or continuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 19, 595-602.
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Attention provides the mental glue that binds

Sometimes information from our senses is merged so that what we experience reflects a sensory combination, quite different from what any one sense would have told us on its own. Nowhere is this more striking than in the McGurk Effect. In this illusion, the sound of a person saying one thing (e.g. the sound “BA”) is played over a video showing their lips saying something else (e.g. “GA”) , with the result that you hear them saying a mixture of the two (e.g. “DA”). First watch this video: http://tinyurl.com/4oj73 (QuickTime required: http://tinyurl.com/d3w3t) and then close your eyes and listen to it again. Notice the difference? The McGurk Effect tricks your brain’s multi-sensory strategy that in other circumstances – such as trying to listen to your friend at a noisy nightclub – helps you interpret what they’re saying.

Until now this combining of the senses was thought to occur automatically and without the need for any extra attention. But now a study by researchers at Barcelona University shows that if a person’s attentional resources are deployed on some other task, then visual-auditory integration won’t occur and they won’t experience the McGurk Effect, or at least not as much.

They played student volunteers a series of McGurk Effect stimuli. Half the students just had to report what they thought the talking face had said. The other half, however, had to complete a second task at the same time. This involved either looking at line drawings that were superimposed over the talking face and noting any repeats, or listening to sound effects and noting any repeats.

The researchers found that the McGurk Effect was reduced substantially in those students who had to complete secondary visual (Effect occurred 24 per cent less) or auditory (25 per cent less) tasks at the same time as they observed the McGurk stimuli. That is, when a participant was concentrating on another task at the same time, the actual word spoken by the face was perceived accurately, rather than being merged with the face’s lip movements.

“Exhausting attentional resources seriously compromises the multi-sensory integration process”, the authors said.

Alsuius, A. Navarra, J., Campbell, R. & Soto-Faraco, S. (2005). Audiovisual integration of speech falters under high attention demands. Current Biology, 15, 839-843.
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How messages are scent

The idea that humans release chemical signals – pheromones – that affect people around them is controversial. If pheromones do exist, however, two chemicals that might fulfil this role are the testosterone derivative 4,16-androstadien-3-one (AND), found in men’s sweat, and the oestrogen-like steroid estra-1,3,5(10),16-16-tetraen-3-ol (EST), found in female urine. As well as activating smell-related brain regions, these chemicals also have a different effect on a small, frontal brain region, the anterior hypothalamus, depending on the sex of the person doing the inhaling. AND triggers activity in this region of a woman’s brain but not a man’s, whereas EST triggers strong activity here in a man’s brain but not a woman’s. However, Ivanka Savic and colleagues wondered whether the different brain activity caused by EST and AND might depend not so much on a person’s sex, but rather on their sexual orientation.

Savic’s team used positron emission tomography to scan the brains of 12 heterosexual men, 12 heterosexual women and 12 homosexual men while they inhaled AND, EST, a range of odours including lavender oil, and odourless air.

The testosterone derivative AND found in men’s sweat, caused maximum activation in the same specific region of the brains of women and homosexual men, but not in the brains of the heterosexual men. This region, the preoptic area of the hypothalamus, is known to be involved in sexual behaviour. In contrast, it was the chemical EST that led to strong activation in the hypothalamus of the heterosexual men. The ordinary, control odours affected all of the participants’ brains similarly.

So, why does this brain region in homosexual men respond to AND in the same way as it does in the brains of women? First, it’s possible that this brain region develops differently in homosexual men’s brains than it does in heterosexual men’s brains. “Alternatively”, the authors explained “it could reflect an acquired sensitisation to AND stimuli in the hypothalamus (of homosexual men)…due to repeated sexual exposure to men. A third possibility is that heterosexual women and homosexual men associated (the smell of) AND with sex, whereas heterosexual men made a similar association with EST”.

Savic, I., Berglund, H. & Lindstrom, P. (2005). Brain response to putative pheromones in homosexual men. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 7356-7361.
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You would say that

People tend to think children are gullible. Richard Dawkins wrote that “with so many mindbytes to be downloaded, so many mental codons to be replicated, it is no wonder that child brains are gullible, open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion…”. But now a study by Yale psychologists Candice Mills and Frank Keil suggests that cynicism – interpreting what other people say in light of their biases and self-interests – develops earlier than previously thought.

They presented sixty children from three age groups (average age 6 years, 8 years or 10 years) with a series of stories about a character who would win a prize if certain conditions were met. For example, in one story, a boy called Michael competes in a running race for a prize. Mills and Keil found that given an ambiguous outcome to the race, children aged 8 and 10 were, like adults, more likely to believe a character’s claims if they appeared to go against that character’s self-interest (e.g. Michael claiming he lost the race) than if the claims were in the character’s interests. In contrast, the 6-year-olds were more likely to believe a character’s claims if they were in that character’s interest (they naively assume that someone who wants to win a race, will).

In a second experiment, children were told at the end of a story whether a character’s claim was accurate or not. If inaccurate, the children were asked to choose whether it was a lie, a mistake or caused by the character’s unintentional bias.

Like adults, even six-year-olds were more likely to interpret false claims consistent with a character’s self-interest as a “lie”, and were more likely to interpret a false claim that went against a character’s self-interest as a “mistake”. That is, they showed signs of cynicism. But only older children seemed to appreciate, as adults do, that people can be unintentionally biased by their desires – only the 12-year-olds frequently chose that interpretation for a character’s false claims.

“Children may be more gullible than adults”, the researchers concluded, “…but the seeds of doubt are also present from an early age and develop dramatically in the elementary-school years”.

Mills, C.M. & Keil, F.C. (2005). The development of cynicism. Psychological Science, 16, 385-390.
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You're feeling very sleepy

Just thinking that they’ve not had much sleep could interfere with the daytime functioning of imsomniacs, regardless of whether they actually had enough sleep or not.

Twenty-two students (average age 21 years) with primary insomnia were recruited by Christina Semler and Allison Harvey at Oxford University. All had experienced at least three nights’ sleep disturbance per week for the past month.

For three nights, the students’ sleep was measured using a sensitive gadget that records how much its wearer moves around. Each morning, an electronic display that the students thought was connected to this gadget, told them how well they had slept. But in fact the display was controlled by the researchers, so that they could trick the students into thinking they’d had a good or bad night’s sleep, regardless of how well they’d actually slept.

On days that the students were led to believe they’d had a poor night’s sleep, they reported having more negative thoughts (e.g. “I can’t cope today”), feeling more sleepy, performing more sleep-related monitoring (e.g. noticing aching muscles/ sore eyes), and resorting to more compensatory behaviours (e.g. taking a daytime nap). That’s despite the fact that the actual quality of their sleep didn’t vary significantly between days they were given positive or negative feedback about their sleep.

Together with past research showing imsomniacs often sleep much better than they realise, these findings suggest it could be their anxiety about not sleeping well, rather than a lack of sleep per se, that causes or worsens the daytime impairments so often reported by imsomniacs.

If these results can be replicated with a clinical sample, the authors said, then “…consideration should be given to teaching insomnia patients to lend less credence to their subjective perception of sleep. And the adverse consequences, for daytime functioning, of concluding that they’ve not obtained enough sleep should be emphasised”.

Semler, C.N. & Harvey, A.G. (2005). Misperception of sleep can adversely affect daytime functioning in insomnia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 843-856.
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Talking about immigration

The Dutch are renowned for their tolerance but racial tensions have been running high in the Netherlands, fuelled last year by the murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh, not long after the release of his controversial film about the abuse of Muslim women.

Now Maykel Verkuyten at Utrecht University has investigated the kind of language and arguments used by Dutch people when they talk about immigration. Seventy-one native Dutch participants (aged 22 to 71 years), most of them middle class, were interviewed.

Some participants talked of people choosing to come to the Netherlands by their own free will (e.g. “…nobody made them come to Holland…”), whereas other participants argued immigrants had no option, either because they had fled persecution or because they had been actively recruited by the Dutch authorities (e.g. “…we brought them over here…so we’ve got ourselves to blame”). Participants tended to adopt one view or the other regardless of whether they were talking about persecuted refugees, or migrant workers seeking employment. And each person’s take on the free-will issue tended to predict how they viewed multiculturalism. Those emphasising immigrants’ ‘choice’ argued immigrants should therefore respect Dutch culture. In contrast, those participants who saw immigrants as having had no choice tended to defend the immigrants’ cultural rights, arguing there was actually an onus on the Dutch to respect the immigrants’ culture.

Next Verkuyten presented 76 native Dutch students with a short factual account of Dutch immigration, ostensibly taken from the American National Encyclopaedia. The accounts were manipulated so that some students read an account emphasising the immigrants’ choice, whereas others read an account emphasising their lack of choice (e.g. either their flight from persecution or their recruitment by the Dutch authorities). Those students who read an account emphasising lack of choice were more likely to endorse multiculturalism in a subsequent questionnaire.

“This suggests that distinctions made in the media, in policies, and by politicians, between, for example, ‘real refugees’ and ‘fortune seekers’ can have important implications for intergroup relations in culturally plural societies”, Verkuyten said.

Verkuyten, M. (2005). Immigration discourses and their impact on multiculturalism: a discursive and experimental study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 223-241.
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Does sexual abuse leave intellectual as well as emotional scars?

There’s evidence that on top of their emotional and psychological suffering, victims of child sex abuse also experience learning and memory problems. But the evidence is inconsistent, and some studies comparing abused children with unharmed children have failed to take into account the possible role played by differences in the social class and wealth of the children’s families (i.e. their ‘socioeconomic status’). To investigate further, Corinna Porter (Brigham Young University, Utah) and her team recruited 24 children (19 girls; average age 10 years) who had suffered repeated sexual abuse, mostly perpetrated by an elder brother, and compared their intellectual functioning with an age- and gender-matched group of unharmed children.

Not surprisingly, the abused children all exhibited signs of emotional and behavioural problems, including depression and anxiety, whereas the unharmed children did not. In fact, all the abused children were undergoing therapy for their problems. However, after controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, there was no difference between the groups in terms of their learning and memory performance (as measured by TOMAL, see http://tinyurl.com/dvmoe).

“…having children under therapeutic management may reduce the deleterious effects of sexual abuse on memory and intellectual functioning”, the researchers concluded. They also noted that work in this area is impeded by the lack of a standardised measure of the severity of child sexual abuse – perhaps it is differences in severity of abuse that explains the inconsistent findings between studies. They also highlighted their lack of brain imaging data (previous studies have reported structural brain abnormalities in abused children) and the fact they didn’t investigate the children’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand, or to switch easily between tasks (i.e. executive functioning).

Porter, C., Lawson, J.S. & Bigler, E.D. (2005). Neurobehavioural sequelae of child sexual abuse. Child Neuropsychology, 11, 203-220.
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Testing mediums

Can mediums really speak with the dead? Scientists have been testing mediums since the nineteenth century, but according to Ciaran O’Keeffe and Richard Wiseman, their experiments have always suffered from serious methodological flaws that might allow the mediums to pick up information about their ‘sitters’ (the person the reading is for) via more earthly means, like the clothes they wear.

O’Keeffe and Wiseman asked five mediums to give 60-minute readings for five volunteer sitters, so there were 25 readings in all. The mediums and sitters never met and were placed in separate rooms. The sitters never actually heard their readings which were recorded and transcribed.

Afterwards, the sitters read through all the statements taken from all 25 readings, and they indicated how much each statement was appropriate to them. They had no way of knowing which statements came from their readings and which were taken from the other participants’ readings. The readings couldn’t be identified by any references to the day of the week either because all the sitters received one reading a day for five days.

If the mediums’ powers were genuine, the participants should have rated the statements from their own readings as more appropriate to them than the other statements. But in fact, with only one exception, statements from a given reading tended to be rated as less appropriate by the person for whom they were actually intended, than by the other participants. And among the statements, there were those that were rated highly, regardless of who they were intended for – these tended to be general (e.g. “Yes, a relative. Is it a man?”), and it’s thought such statements could make readings seem convincing. It’s known, for example, that there are statements (e.g. “I have scar on my left knee”) that appear highly specific but which the majority of people actually agree with.

“The present study found no evidence to support the notion that the professional mediums involved in the research were, under controlled conditions, able to demonstrate paranormal or mediumistic ability”, the authors said.

O’Keeffe, C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 215-231.
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Is your time always running out?

Psychologists have shown that people tend to underestimate how long things will take them, both in their personal and business lives. But most research into ‘the planning fallacy’, as it’s known, has been with individuals. Now psychologists in Canada have shown that when working in a group, we’re even more unrealistically optimistic about how quickly we can get things done.

In two studies, Roger Buehler at Wilfrid Laurier University and his colleagues followed hundreds of business students as they undertook lengthy group projects. They asked the students to estimate individually how long the different project stages would take, and they also asked them to make a group estimate once they had discussed the projects together. Their estimates were compared with how long the work actually took. In a third study, hundreds of participants estimated individually, and in groups, how long a group puzzle task would take them. As a guide, they were even told how long the task had taken other groups. Findings from all three studies pointed to the same conclusion – in groups we become even more unrealistically optimistic about how long things will take us.

Why might this happen? From notes they were asked to make afterwards, it was found that when participants made time estimates in a group, they tended to think more positively, focusing on things like their skill at the task, or the apparent ability of their team-mates. It’s also possible that in groups people might want to be seen to be positive by their team mates, thus encouraging them to make more optimistic estimates.

“These findings may be applicable to many collaborative work ventures” the authors said. “…Forecasters may well be advised to collect and aggregate individual forecasts, instead of engaging in group discussion”.

Buehler, R., Messervey, D. & Griffin, D. (2005). Collaborative planning and prediction: does group discussion affect optimistic biases in time estimation. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 97, 47-63.
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Are you thinking what I say you're thinking?

The idea that your brain contains information that ‘you’ cannot access is, of course, not new – Freud wrote about that years ago; and neither is it an unfamiliar phenomenon in our everyday lives – how often do we struggle to find a word that we know is in there somewhere? But what is new, is the demonstration by scientists that they can use a scan to read off information from your brain that you are unable to access yourself.

Using functional imaging, John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees at University College London first showed that some parts of the brain involved in early visual processing are activated more than others, depending on the particular angular orientation (e.g. / or \ ) of the visual pattern being looked at. That some brain cells are organised according to sensitivity to different orientations is well-known from the direct recording of individual neurons in monkeys, but this is the first time it has been shown in humans using brain scanning.

Next, Haynes and Rees presented participants with ‘invisible’ visual patterns. The patterns were invisible because they were presented so briefly, and because each one was followed by a visual mask – a second stimulus that interferes with processing of the first. This meant that when asked, a participant couldn’t say what orientation a pattern had – they could only guess. But although a pattern was invisible to a participant, its orientation still left a signature trace of activity in their brain. This meant the researchers could discern the orientation of the pattern by observing the distribution of activity in the participant’s brain (in their early visual cortex, called ‘V1’). So the researchers could read information in a participant’s brain that was inaccessible to the participant herself. “Human V1 can represent information about the orientation of visual stimuli that cannot be used by participants to make a simple behavioural discrimination”, the authors concluded.

Haynes, J-D. & Rees, G. (2005). Predicting the orientation of invisible stimuli from activity in human primary visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 686-691.
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Keep your eyes off the road

Harming innocent bystanders when racing to answer an emergency call is every police driver’s worst nightmare. Sadly such incidents, though rare, are on the increase. David Crundall and colleagues at the University of Nottingham investigated the suggestion that when they’re driving at speed, police drivers focus too much on the road ahead, neglecting to look out adequately for hazards all around them.

A group of trained police drivers and civilian drivers watched a series of 60-second video clips showing a normal drive, a police chase, and a police emergency call, all from the driver’s perspective. They had to continuously rate the level of hazard, as they judged it, using a sliding scale. Meanwhile the researchers monitored their eye movements to see where they were looking.

During the emergency call clips, the police and civilian drivers focused far more on the road directly ahead (at the ‘point of expansion’) than they did during the normal drive clips. “This is understandable in terms of the driver trying to obtain as much preview of their current course as possible, though the inevitable reduced attention to peripheral sources of hazards may be a cause for concern”, the researchers said.

During the chase clips, the civilian drivers who were more experienced tended to overly focus on the fleeing car, rather than all around. In contrast, and probably a sign of their training, this was far less the case for the police drivers who continued to look out for other potential hazards, like pedestrians. However, they did neglect to look at side roads as much as they did during the normal drive. The less experienced civilian drivers also focused less on the target car, but they spent the rest of the time looking at things like road markings rather than potential hazards.

“…it is hoped these data will help to form a foundation from which we can begin to understand the visual skills that are required for safe police driving”, the researchers concluded.

Crundall, D., Chapman, P., France, E., Underwood, G. & Phelps, N. (2005). What attracts attention during police pursuit driving? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 409-420.
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Video therapy

It’s not easy for people living on Scotland’s remote islands to find specialist psychological help. Susan Simpson and colleagues at Aberdeen’s Eating Disorders Service investigated the plausibility of using videoconferencing to deliver specialist therapy to six bulimia sufferers who lived in the Shetlands and the remote north east of Scotland. The technology allowed the clients to use a video link at their local clinic to see and talk to a therapist located hundreds of miles away in Aberdeen.

A concern with therapy via videoconferencing is that compared with meeting face to face, it might not be possible to build up the trust and rapport between client and therapist that is known to be so vital to successful therapy. But using a questionnaire-based measure of ‘therapeutic alliance’, Simpson and her team found their six clients had no trouble establishing a successful, rewarding relationship with their therapist via weekly videoconferencing. In fact, three of the clients said they would prefer video therapy to traditional therapy. Two clients had no preference and one said she would prefer face-to-face therapy because it would be more personal and private. By the end of the video therapy, three of the clients had recovered to the extent that they were no longer diagnosed with bulimia.

Interviewed afterwards, the participants said the video therapy was less intimidating than meeting a therapist face-to-face, and gave them a greater sense of control – after all, they could always turn the monitor off! The authors speculated video therapy might, therefore, be particularly beneficial to people with ‘shame-based’ difficulties such as eating disorders.

It wasn’t all positive: several of the local clinics had technical difficulties with the videoconferencing equipment. Also, the lack of soundproof rooms meant the clients sometimes feared other people might overhear their therapy sessions.

“Although the current sample is too small to draw any general conclusions, these initial findings suggest that video therapy leads to improvement in bulimic symptoms for some clients, and may be an acceptable means of treatment delivery for this client group”, the authors said.

Simpson, S., Bell, L., Knox, J. & Mitchell, D. (2005). Therapy via videoconferencing: a route to client empowerment. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 156-165.
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On marriage

Contributed by Leah Reynolds and Mandi Foote at Totton College.

Will your marriage turn out like your parents' marriage?

To find out, Jay Teachman looked at data from the National Survey of Family Growth and looked for childhood factors that predicted the kind of marriage people had once they were grown up.

Teachman only took data for the female participants and focused on characteristics of their mothers' marriages, for example the age at which they married, and the level of education they had reached when they got married.

A main finding was that if parents married as teenagers, then there was a higher chance that they would divorce, and therefore there was a lower chance of success in their children's own marriage.

"Respondents who grew up with only their mothers had the lowest education at marriage, married husbands with the least education, and were most likely to have premarital birth," said Teachman. So if your parents have a good marriage then the chances are you will too. However if your parents' marriage is not as strong, you will have to work at changing the future so that you don't turn out like your parents.

Teachman, J.D. (2004). The childhood living arrangements of children and the characteristics of their marriages. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 86-111.
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Political candidates - how do you choose yours?

How do we judge political candidates? By how closely their political views match our own, or by characteristics such as their integrity and conscientiousness?

Jeffery Mondak and Robert Huckfeldt at Florida State University and the University of California first showed that hundreds of students were able to decide whether they supported a fictional candidate just as quickly based on single-word descriptions such as "hardworking", and "trustworthy", as they were based on single-word descriptions of the candidates' political affiliation (e.g. Democrat vs. Republican). "Character is at least as accessible in candidate evaluation as are partisanship and ideology...perhaps slightly more so", the researchers said.

But what happens when information is available on a candidate's character and their political stance?

Mondak and Huckfeldt asked students to reveal their own political allegiances and then to evaluate fictional candidates based on information about some or all of the following information: their party, their own political slant within that party (e.g. left or right wing), and their character.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that character information is not something we fall back on when we are lacking information about a candidate's politics. Rather, information on character plays a greater role when we also know, for example, that a candidate shares our own political views. "When character cues are provided, it is the information rich who get richer", the researchers said. "Competence and integrity matter the most for those respondents who are best positioned to evaluate candidates without taking character information into account".

Mondak, J.J. & Huckfeldt, R. (2005). The accessibility and utility of candidate character in electoral decision making. Electoral Studies, in press.
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'Informed' people more likely to vote

We're finding it harder than ever to drag ourselves to the polling station. Just 59 per cent of us bothered in the 2001 general election, compared with levels near 80 per cent postwar. Now a study from Copenhagen suggests a key factor affecting our decision to vote is whether we've formed a political opinion based on our own experiences.

In 1996, Copenhagen was divided into 15 districts, and in just four of these, local administration was introduced for a trial period, responsible for things like primary schools and care for the elderly. Four years' later, all the city's residents voted on whether to spread the local administration system city-wide, or to scrap it.

Afterwards, researchers surveyed 2,026 people across the city on whether they had voted, and crucially, on what they thought of the city's 'decentralised administration' trial. If they said it went well, okay, or bad, they were classified as 'informed', whereas those with no opinion were classified as 'uninformed'.

David Lassen at the University of Copenhagen found that regardless of their interest in politics per se, more people living in the four city districts that trialled the local administration voted, and this was because more of them were 'informed' - that is they had an opinion on the issue.

This is an important finding because past research showing better informed people are more likely to vote has been undermined by the possibility that some other factor, for example wealth, affects both how informed a person is and their propensity to vote. In this study, by contrast, people were more informed because of where they lived - not because they were rich or because of some other personal characteristic - and being informed in this way was shown to increase the likelihood they would vote, regardless of their wealth, education or even how interested they were in politics.

Lassen, D.D. (2005). The effect of information on voter turnout: evidence from a natural experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 103-118.
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Rocking the vote

Just 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at the last general election, down from 68 per cent at the election before that in 1997. Clearly young people are feeling disengaged from politics. A new American study offers hope that youth-targeted initiatives can help reverse this trend.

Mitchell McKinney and Mary Banwart compared the political attitudes of a group of young people before and after they watched a televised political debate. In 2003, 181 students watched a youth-tailored 'Rock the vote' debate in which eight candidates to become the Democratic nominee for President answered questions from a youth audience and took questions by email and text message. Their reaction to that debate was compared to the experience of 149 other students who watched a standard televised debate in which journalists put questions to a panel of Democratic candidates.

McKinney and Banwart found that compared with the students who watched the standard debate, the students who watched the 'Rock the vote' debate expressed greater political trust, reported being less cynical and reported feeling the political candidates were more interested in them and their concerns.

Analysis of the debate transcripts revealed that during the 90 minutes of the standard debate, not a single reference was made to or about young citizens. In contrast, the youth-targeted debate involved frequent appeals directed at a youth audience. For example, Senator Edwards told the audience "You know they stereotype you...I'm here to tell you it is wrong, it is condescending...I'm going to reach out to you, to hear what you have to say". On the Iraq war, Senator Liberman said "I understand how it tears apart the generation that's in this room because most of the troops that are in Iraq today are from your generation".

The researchers concluded: "Our findings here suggest the 'Rock the Vote' debate was an effective youth engagement effort. We encourage debate sponsors and broadcasters to continue to develop such forums...".

McKinney, M.S. & Banwart, M.C. (2005). Rocking the youth vote through debate: examining the effects of a citizen versus journalist controlled debate on civic engagement. Journalism Studies, 6, 153-163.
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Political distrust - the lesson from Canada

"This election is all about trust" Conservative leader Michael Howard said at a recent press conference. He presumably thinks trust is a vote-winning issue for the Conservatives, but just how does political distrust affect the way people vote? Some insight comes from a study by Eric Belanger and Richard Nadeau that used data from the 1984, 1988 and 1993 Canadian elections - a period in which people's trust in politics dropped steadily.

Before each election, participants indicated their trust by agreeing, or not, with statements like "We can trust the government in Ottawa to do what is right" and "People running the government are a little crooked".

Results from the '84 and '88 elections provide good news for the Lib Dems here in the UK. Canadians who were distrustful were more likely to vote for Canada's third party - the New Democratic Party - at the expense of the two main parties. "...third parties can be thought of as channels used by voters to voice popular disenchantment with representative government and 'politics as usual'", the researchers said.

It also makes a difference whether a party exploits the trust issue as the Conservatives are doing in the current UK election. In the '93 Canadian election, two new parties entered the fray, one of which made trust a central campaign issue - and in that election it was these newer parties who benefited most from a voter's political distrust. "...parties' choice of campaign strategies and rhetoric are important" the researchers said.

What about voter apathy? Belanger and Nadeau estimated that if trust hadn't fallen from 1984 onwards, then turn out would only have been 1-2 per cent higher. And each election would also have seen the same winning party. "Declining levels of trust affected the electoral participation", the researchers said "but in a less dramatic way than one would expect".

Belanger, E. & Nadeau, R. (2005). Political trust and the vote in multiparty elections: The Canadian case. European Journal of Political Research, 44, 121-146.
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It's not the economy, actually

"It's the economy, stupid", was Bill Clinton's campaign mantra back in the nineties. Well, no it's not actually. At least not according to a new analysis of British voting behaviour in the 1997 and 2001 general elections.

As part of the British Household Panel Study, over three thousand people provided annual information from 1992 to 2001, on their current financial situation and expectations, as well as stating who they voted for in the '92, '97 and 2001 elections.

If we choose who to vote for based on economics, then you'd think that previously non-Tory voters who were financially comfortable in 1997 would reward the Conservative government (who had been in power) by voting for them. But Ron Johnston and his colleagues at Bristol University found very few examples of this happening. Similarly in 2001 (when Labour returned to power), examples were rare of previously non-Labour voters switching their allegiance to Labour because of their agreeable financial situation. In fact, an opposite pattern was apparent - those people who reported being in dire financial circumstances were twice as likely as the financially comfortable to switch their vote to Labour!

So according to these findings, either we don't base our choice of vote on economics, or if we do, then we do it selflessly, based on our perception of the country's economy as a whole rather than on our own circumstances.

An alternative possibility here is that our political allegiance colours how we judge our financial situation. Johnston found some evidence for this. People who voted Tory in '92 were more likely to report their finances were okay at the '97 election, as if viewing the economy through blue-tinted spectacles.

Johnston, R., Sarker, R., Jones, K., Bolster, A., Propper, C. & Burgess, S. (2005). Egocentric economic voting and changes in party choice: Great Britain 1992-2001. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 15, 129-144.
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Why Minghella got it right

It may have attracted derisory sniggers from the media, but Anthony Minghella's short 'romantic film' starring Messrs. Blair and Brown was probably worth it - a new study shows that political adverts accompanied by moody music and lighting really are more effective.

Against the backdrop of the 1998 election for the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Ted Brader at the University of Michigan recruited 286 volunteers ostensibly to participate in research into TV news. Participants watched a real 30-minute news programme into which Brader had embedded a carefully-designed political broadcast, either in favour or against one of the opposing candidates. Brader wanted to see whether adding moody music, lighting and images to an advert would have some extra effect on viewers even if the script were identical. So whereas some of his volunteers saw a positive advert with no music and set outside a local government building, others saw a version with uplifting music and colourful images of children playing. Similarly with the negative advert - some saw it with tense discordant music and black and white images of drug use, whereas others saw a neutral version.

Questioned afterwards, those participants who'd seen the positive advert with uplifting music reported being more interested in the election than those who'd seen the positive, unemotional version. They were also 29 per cent more likely to say they planned to vote, and were more likely to base their choice of candidate on their pre-existing preferences, rather than on topical issues.

The negative adverts - with or without emotive effects added - had no influence on people's stated intention to vote. But whereas the positive advert entrenched people's current beliefs, the addition of music and provocative images to the negative advert had the opposite effect, making people more likely to choose their candidate based on topical issues.

"Until now, we lacked hard evidence on whether emotions in general are an important part of political advertising.", Brader's report concludes, ".this study confirms what some observers long held on faith".

Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: how political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 388-405.
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