Merry Christmas to all our readers!

The Research Digest wishes all its readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Hope you visit again in 2006!
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Depression linked with ultra-sensitivity to other people’s emotions

Depressed people are normally thought of as being somewhat disengaged from the rest of the world, but psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada have found that mildly depressed students actually have a heightened ability to detect other people’s emotions.

Kate Harkness and colleagues asked 43 depressed and non-depressed students to identify people's emotions from pictures that showed only the eye region of their faces. The 16 students who were classified as mildly to moderately depressed – based on their score on the Beck Depression Inventory – performed significantly better (78 per cent correct) on this emotion-recognition test relative to the 27 non-depressed controls (69 per cent correct). The depressed students didn’t take any longer over their answers and their superior performance was not due to their being more sensitive to negative emotions only. Also, there was no difference between the groups on two control tests, one of which involved detecting people’s gender just from pictures of their eyes.

The researchers replicated their finding in a second experiment that involved a larger sample of 81 students, and which controlled for the influence of anxiety using the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire. Again, students classified as mild to moderately depressed were better at recognising the emotions shown in pictures of people’s eyes.

Understanding other people’s feelings requires two stages, the authors said – the ability to detect emotions, followed by the ability to interpret and reason about those emotions. The researchers believe depressed people have an enhanced ability for the first stage paired with negatively biased functioning in the second stage.

“…hypersensitivity to others’ emotional states may have pathological implications simply because by being more sensitive, dysphoric and depressed individuals have more opportunities to deploy their negative biases in interpreting fleeting emotional reactions”, the researchers said.

Harkness, K.L., Sabbagh, M.A., Jacobson, J.A., Chowdrey, N.K. & Chen, T. (2005). Enhanced accuracy of mental state decoding in dysphoric college students. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 999-1025.
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Trying to predict who will be a happy doctor

Being a doctor can be incredibly stressful and more than a fifth of junior physicians wish they'd never taken medicine in the first place. Moreover, there's evidence showing that stressed doctors are bad doctors, so it would make sense if applicants to medical school were selected not just on the basis of their academic strengths but also on whether they're likely to enjoy being a doctor. But in the UK, besides exam results, which are known to be a bad predictor of later stress and burnout, the only information medical school selectors currently have to go on are students' personal statements and referees' reports. To find out if these can be used to judge which applicants will become happy, stress-free doctors, Chris McManus and colleagues recruited assessors and showed them applications made in 1990, to see if they could predict which applicants had gone on to become very happy doctors in 2002, and which had become stressed and wanted to change jobs.

Each assessor was shown 20 pairs of personal statements and referees’ reports taken from a pool of 80 applicants, and had to say in each case which belonged to a subsequently happy doctor (based on data collected in 2002) and which belonged to an applicant who had become stressed and wanted to stop being a doctor.

The researchers found that 35 expert medical school selectors performed no better than chance at this task. Nineteen doctors, 22 medical students, and 20 psychology students, who also completed the task, fared no better.

However, the assessors' judgements were not random - they tended to agree with each other and their predictions also correlated with the applicants' exam results. It seems that to predict who would become a happy doctor, the assessors were mistakenly using clues to the applicants' academic prowess that were contained in the personal statements and referees' reports.

The researchers said "...although many claims are made for the utility of the personal and referees' information [contained on application forms], we could find no evidence of the long-term predictive validity for an important outcome variable - the judgment of whether or not an applicant will be a happy and satisfied doctor, or instead will be an unhappy, stressed, burned out, dissatisfied doctor who does not enjoy their job and thinks of leaving for another career".

McManus, I.C., Iqbal, S., Ferguson, E. & Leaviss, J.. (2005). Unhappiness and dissatisfaction in doctors cannot be predicted by selectors from medical school application forms: A prospective, longitudinal study. BMC Medical Education, 5:38.

Link to article in The Psychologist by Chris McManus on this topic.
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Imaging the brain to control the mind

For the first time anywhere in the world, psychologists at California-based company Omneuron and Stanford University have demonstrated that people can be taught how to reduce their experience of pain with the aid of real-time images of their brain activity.

Healthy participants had a painful stimulus applied to the back of their hand. At the same time they learned to use mental strategies - such as concentrating on another part of their body, or viewing the pain as a neutral experience - to control levels of activity in their anterior cingulate gyrus (a brain area known to be involved in pain perception), displayed to them live using real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging. All the while they provided a continuous rating of how painful the stimulus was.

The researchers found that the pain was perceived as being significantly less intense when the participants reduced the activity in their anterior cingulate gyrus compared with when they increased activity in that region. A similar effect was observed when the experiment was repeated with patients suffering from chronic pain - they were able to reduce their pain by lowering activity in their anterior cingulate.

A number of control conditions supported the researchers' interpretation of the results. The same control over pain wasn't shown when a different set of participants were taught the same mental strategies but without the real-time brain images; nor when participants used real-time brain images to learn to control activity in a part of the brain (the posterior cingulate) not involved in pain perception; nor when participants were given false real-time feedback of activity in their anterior cingulate. "Any effects of expectation or suggestion created by the displays themselves or by the subjects' perception of their control over brain activation were identically matched in these control subjects, who nonetheless did not show an improvement in their control over pain", the researchers said.

Now that this study has demonstrated the feasibility of using real-time brain images to help people learn to control an aspect of their behaviour or mental experience, more work is planned to test the potential benefit of this intervention with other conditions. The study also raises interesting philosophical questions. Did the images of the participants' own brains allow them to master their thoughts, or did their mental strategies allow them to control their brain activity? Which was the means and which was the ends to controlling their pain?

deCharms, R.C., Fumiko, M., Glover, G.H., Ludlow, D., Pauly, J.M., Soneji, D., Gabrieli, J.D.E. & Mackey, S.C. (2005). Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. In Press, DOI:10.1073/pnas.0505210102.
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Why do sceptics always report negative results?

Most people have experienced the sensation that someone is staring at them, only to turn around and find that indeed, someone's gaze is burning a hole in the back of their head. The phenomenon has led some to believe that people must have a sixth sense that allows them to know they are being stared at. However, when experimenters have investigated whether the phenomenon is a real one, the results seem to depend on who is doing the research. For example, the sceptic Richard Wiseman always reports negative results whereas the believer in psychic ability Marilyn Schlitz always reports positive results. So Wiseman and Schlitz decided to do some research together to find out what was going on.

The pair conducted research that involved recording the skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) of people who were sometimes stared at, via a live video feed, by an experimenter sat in another room. In earlier work, they found that if Marilyn Shlitz, the psychic believer, did the greeting of participants and did the staring, then participants tended to show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at. However, when Richard Wiseman, the sceptic, did the greeting and staring, evidence for the 'sense of being stared at' was not found.

In the current experiment at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in America, where Schlitz is based, the two researchers broke things down still further to isolate the source of their earlier inconsistent findings. This time, Wiseman sometimes did the greeting while Schlitz did the staring, and vice versa. However, none of these manipulations made any difference - participants didn't show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at regardless of who did the greeting or staring. Schlitz's rapport with participants and expectations of success, which were also measured, also had no association with the outcome.

The researchers concluded that the latest findings have failed to explain their earlier inconsistent results, but they said "this series of experiments demonstrates that it is possible to conduct fruitful collaborative research involving both sceptics and proponents and it offers the potential of a more productive route than more traditional forms of sceptic-proponent debate".

They added "It is hoped that the studies described here will encourage researchers working in other controversial areas (e.g. the role of trance in hypnosis, false memory syndrome, unorthodox forms of psychotherapy and complimentary and alternative medicine) to engage in similar joint projects and that such work will help advance our understanding of the phenomena underlying these controversies".
Schiltz, M., Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Radin, D. (2006). Of two minds: Sceptic-proponent collaboration within parapsychology. British Journal of Psychology. In Press, DOI:1348/000712605X80704.
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People prone to boredom less able to judge short intervals of time

It’s no wonder they get bored. According to psychologists James Danckert and Ava-Ann Allman at the University of Waterloo in Canada, time really does pass more slowly for people who are prone to boredom. The researchers came to this conclusion after finding people prone to boredom were less accurate at estimating the duration of intervals lasting from two seconds to a minute, than were people not prone to boredom.

Four hundred and seventy-six undergrads completed a 28-item questionnaire designed to measure boredom proneness, rating their agreement or not with statements like “Having to watch someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously”. From this, the 20 most and least boredom prone students were selected.

The remaining participants then completed a measure of their ability to rapidly reallocate their attention from one instant to the next, which required them to watch a computer monitor and note the appearance of one or two letters that appeared in streams of numbers. The brain’s limited attentional resources mean that if a second letter appeared too soon (typically within 200 to 500 ms) after the first, it would be more likely to go unnoticed - this is called the attentional blink. The participants then watched a series of illusory motion displays that showed a dot appearing to move around in a circle, and they had to say in each case how long in seconds the movement had lasted.

The size of the attentional blink was no larger in the participants prone to boredom than it was in the control participants, suggesting they were just as capable of refocusing their attention from one instant to the next. However, the boredom prone individuals were significantly less accurate at judging the duration of the illusory motion, particularly tending to overestimate its length.

The researchers said “If one’s subjective experience indicates that a task (say, reading an article on boredom) has taken less time than has really passed, that individual may be more motivated to continue reading and may in turn report the experience as a pleasant one…In other words, perhaps the reason time flies when we’re having fun is because this perception allows us to maintain attention for longer periods, which in turn allows us to see things through to completion, and perhaps results in more positive affect and enjoyment of the task itself”.

Danckert, J.A. & Allman, A.A. (2005). Time flies when you’re having fun: Temporal estimation and the experience of boredom. Brain and Cognition, 59, 236-245.
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A social 'Viagra' for shy people?

The days of finding Dutch courage in a quick drink before a stressful situation could soon be over – researchers have reported that a few sniffs of the hormone oxytocin can dampen the brain’s fear response to threatening images. The finding follows a report earlier this year showing oxytocin can increase people’s trust.

Peter Kirsch and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health in America scanned the brains of 15 male participants while they looked at angry and scared faces, or threatening scenes, such as a gun pointed in their direction. In a control condition they looked at simple shapes. Before the brain scanning, half the participants took five sniffs of oxytocin, the other half sniffed a placebo. The experiment was double-blind, so during the procedure neither the participants nor the researchers knew who had sniffed oxytocin and who had sniffed placebo.

As expected, when the participants who sniffed placebo looked at threatening faces or scenes, activity in their amygdalae increased relative to when they looked at simple shapes. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located in the temporal lobe that is known to respond to danger. However, this fear-related brain activity was significantly reduced in the participants who had sniffed oxytocin, especially when they looked at the threatening faces, suggesting oxytocin may particularly dampen down social fear. Moreover, in the participants who’d inhaled placebo, functional connectivity was detected between the amygdala and brainstem regions involved in the flight or fight response, but this connectivity was significantly reduced in participants who’d inhaled oxytocin.

There was no difference in the way the placebo participants and oxytocin participants felt according to questionnaires they completed before and after the experiment. This suggests the effect of oxytocin only becomes noticeable to the user in an actual interactive situation.

Co-researcher Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg told the Digest that oxytocin was soon to be tested as a short-term aid for people with social phobia. He said the side-effects, such as a possible head-ache, are weak, and that although the beneficial effects would be short-lived “that might be enough if you have a known stressor like a public speech”. Oxytocin would be “sort of a ‘social Viagra’, if you will” he said. He added that there was no evidence so far that oxytocin could lead to aggression or social disinhibition.

Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C., Chen, Q., Mier, D., Lis, S., Siddhanti, S., Gruppe, H., Mattay, V.S., Gallhofer, B. & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2005). Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 11489-11493.
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Five-year-old girls who want to be thin

Contributed by Hannah Corlass at Totton College

Is it worrying that young girls don’t like their bodies, and know what a diet is?
This study aimed to find out how aware of dieting and body dissatisfaction young girls (5-8 years old) are, and how peers affect this awareness. Previous research has shown that the desire to be thinner has become so common in women it’s considered ‘a normative discontent’.

Eighty-one girls from the first three years of two private, single-sex schools were individually interviewed about their awareness of dieting and how teasing and likeability can change in relation to body shape, size and weight. For reasons of sensitivity, all questions were designed so that the participants didn’t have to go into detail or give reasons for their answers – they were just required to say yes or no.

When the girls were asked to point to a picture of their ideal figure, all, regardless of age, chose the thinner model. However, the girls in year two had the greatest body dissatisfaction when asked to answer yes or no to questions about dieting, weight and likeability. Twenty-two per cent of the girls could fully define the word ‘diet’, most of them being the older girls. Also, all the girls were aware of how teasing and likeability can be influenced by weight and body shape.

Awareness of dieting and weight seems to appear at a young age, with peer influences and opinions having a great affect on this. “This study has confirmed that a substantial number of young girls express a wish to be thinner and are well aware of dieting as a way of achieving the thin ideal”, said the researchers Hayley Dohnt and Marika Tiggemann at Flinders University in Australia.

Dohnt, H.K. & Tiggemann, M. (2005). Peer influences on body dissatisfaction and dieting awareness in young girls. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 103-116.
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Virile artists to blame for schizophrenia's prevalence?

Artists and poets who have an embryonic form of schizophrenia called ‘schizotypy’ are responsible for the illness not dying out despite the fact that people with full-blown schizophrenia are far less likely to have children than healthy people. That’s according to Daniel Nettle and Helen Keenoo who believe prevalence rates for schizophrenia remain relatively constant at around one per cent of the population because of the superior mating success of creative people who are schizotypic.

Nettle and Keenoo asked a sample of 425 people – including 96 recruited via adverts in art and poetry publications – to complete several questionnaires. One measured schizotypy, another asked how many sexual partners they’d had, while creativity was indicated by whether each participant was uninvolved in art, had it as a hobby, was an amateur or professional. The schizotypy questionnaire tapped four dimensions: unusual perceptual experiences and magical thinking; difficulties concentrating; violent and reckless behaviours; and ‘introvertive anhedonia’, which is an inability to enjoy oneself combined with social withdrawal.

Nettle and Keenoo found that participants who had more unusual thoughts and perceptions tended to be more creative, and in turn, people who were more creative tended to report having more sexual partners. They said this showed that in some people, schizotypic traits can manifest as creativity, which in turn is associated with more sexual partners, thus propagating schizophrenia-related genes.

They also found that a tendency towards violence or recklessness was directly related to having more sexual partners. Meanwhile, introvertive anhedonia, which the authors said schizophrenia sufferers score highly on but artists and poets do not, was associated with fewer sexual partners. Indeed, Nettle and Keenoo suggested that artists and poets “are differentiated from patients only by their low scores on introvertive anhedonia”.

Nettle, D. & Keenoo, H. (2005). Schizotypy, creativity and mating success in humans. Proceedings of The Royal Society, B. In Press, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3349.

Link to an artist's response in the Guardian
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Jokes are a serious part of business

Most textbooks fail to discuss the role of humour in business negotiations but from her analysis of two real-life meetings concerning a multi-million pound transaction, Taina Vuorela at the Helsinki School of Economics reports that humour can be an important strategic tool for negotiators.

Vuorela first sat in on an internal strategic meeting held by sellers – four British men and a Finn – at a Finnish company that manufactures engines for use in power plants. She then sat in on a meeting that took place hours later between those sellers and a team of British and Irish buyers representing a British power company.

She found that joking was a sign of power, so that in the second meeting it was the chief buyer who initiated and ended most of the joking. His authority was betrayed by the fact everyone laughed at his jokes. “Based on my observations as a researcher…the quality of his quips did not deserve the level of laughter they received…the sellers seemed to be showing their respect for the head buyer in this way”, Vuorela said.

Humour was also used to express frustration. “It was a ‘safe’ way to express discontent because it permitted the speaker to express a problem while at the same time saving his face or that of the interlocutor because the joke was ‘off-the-record’ and not an official part of the negotiation”, Vuorela explained.

Experts tend to advise against using ethnic humour in business deals but Vuorela found that jokes about cultural differences were common. “Joking about your own national characteristics seems to be an acceptable way to produce ethnic humour”, she said.

Finally, there was evidence of unsuccessful humour – for example, although the sellers joked about their product in private, they did not respond to jokes about their product made by the buyers.

“Although consultative business communication guide books warn negotiators against using humour in multicultural negotiating, the data from this study indicate that disregarding humour in such business meetings would leave a negotiator on the ‘outside’ of the process”, Vuorela concluded.

Vuorela, T. (2005). Laughing matters: A case study of humour in multicultural business negotiations. Negotiation Journal, 21, 105-130.

Link to Laughlab
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Different kinds of learning occur during night and day

click to enlargeIf you are learning a skill such as playing the piano, you have to master the fact-based aspect (the sequence of notes) and also the movement-related aspect (moving your fingers in the correct way on the keys). Both aspects improve during practice, but only one continues to improve afterwards, as what you’ve learned is consolidated in your brain. Now researchers have found that which aspect this is depends on whether it’s night or day.

Daniel Cohen and colleagues at Harvard Medical School investigated these two aspects of learning by asking 50 participants to learn a sequence of key presses with their right hand. They then asked the participants to switch hands. For some of the participants the key sequence stayed the same but because they were now using a different hand, they obviously had to learn a different order of finger movements (see Figure). For the other participants, the sequence was mirror-reversed so they obviously had to learn a new sequence, but because they had switched hands, the order of the finger movements was actually same (see Figure). This procedure allowed the researchers to disentangle the fact-based and movement-based aspects of learning a motor skill. Some of the participants completed this initial part of the experiment in the morning, others in the evening.

Twelve hours later the participants were tested again. Of those participants who had to learn new finger movements, only those originally tested in the morning showed evidence of improvement. By contrast, of those who had to learn a new key-press sequence, only those who were previously tested in the evening and had therefore since slept, showed any sign of improvement.

The researchers said “We found that goal-based [i.e. fact-based] improvements developed exclusively overnight, whereas movement-based improvements developed exclusively over the day”.

“This deepens our understanding of [skill] consolidation by showing that off-line skill enhancement depends on multiple distinct processes that are preferentially engaged depending on when consolidation takes place”, they concluded.

Cohen, D.A., Leone, A-P., Press, D.Z. & Robertson, E.M. (2005). Off-line learning of motor skill memory: A double dissociation of goal and movement. In Press, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0506072102.

Link to related review article
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Does your boyfriend let you out of his sight?

So your boyfriend wants to hold your hand when you’re out together – that’s probably just a sign of affection and shows that he’s proud to be with you. But then he starts showing up unexpectedly to check that you’re doing what you said you’d be doing; refuses to introduce you to his male friends; and tells you he’ll die if you ever leave him. Uh oh! Evolutionary psychologists call these ‘mate retention behaviours’ and a new study shows they could be related to rates of relationship violence.

Todd Shackleford and colleagues asked 461 men to complete questionnaires about their use of ‘mate retention behaviours’ (see weblink) and their use of violence against their partners. They also asked a separate sample of 560 women to rate their partner’s use of mate retention tactics and their use of violence. Finally, 107 married couples gave the same information concerning the husband’s behaviour.

Across all three samples, the researchers found certain male behaviours tended to be associated with the use of violence against women. Men who were violent toward their partners also tended to use emotional manipulation (e.g. threatening to hurt themselves if their partner left them), to monopolise their partner’s time (e.g. not letting her go out without them), and/or to punish their partner’s infidelity (e.g. by becoming angry when she flirted with anyone else).

Other mate retention behaviours showed the opposite pattern and tended to be associated with a lack of violence. These included telling their partner they love them and spending a lot of money on their partner.

The researchers said “At a practical level, results of these studies can potentially be used to inform women and men, friends and relatives, of danger signs – the specific acts and tactics of mate retention – that portend the possibility of future violence in relationships in order to prevent it before it has been enacted”. They also acknowledged that women are sometimes violent towards men.

Shackleford, T.K., Goetz, A.T., Buss, D.M., Euler, H.A. & Hoier, S. (2005). When we hurt the ones we love: Predicting violence against women from men’s mate retention. Personal Relationships, 12, 447-463.

Link to mate retention inventory
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Self-discipline matters more than IQ

An American study has found that a school pupil’s self-discipline is a stronger predictor of their future academic success than their IQ, leading researchers to conclude that self-discipline may be the “royal road” to building academic achievement.

In a first study, Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman (Positive Psychology Centre, University of Pennsylvania) recruited 140 school children (average age 13 years) at the start of the academic year. In the Autumn, the children, their parents and teachers, all completed questionnaires about the children’s self-discipline. The measures asked things about the children’s ability to follow rules, to avoid acting impulsively, and to put off instant rewards for later gratification. Scores from the different measures were combined to create an overall indicator of self-discipline.

The researchers found self-discipline predicted all sorts of academic measures taken seven months later, including the children’s average grade for the academic year, their Spring exam result and their selection into High School.

A second study with 164 children (average age 13) followed a similar procedure but also involved the children taking an IQ test in the Autumn. Self-discipline again predicted later academic performance, as measured by their average grade for the year and their Spring exam result. Moreover, the researchers found that the children’s self-discipline scores accounted for twice as much of the variation in their later academic performance as their IQ did.

The researchers said “Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline”.

Duckworth, A.L. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
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The bystander phenomenon revisited

The case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in New York in 1964 in full view of 39 witnesses who did nothing to help, triggered a series of seminal research papers by John Darley and Bibb Latane on what was dubbed the ‘bystander phenomenon’ – the apathy typically shown by people when they then assume someone else will take responsibility for a situation.

Now Peter Fischer and colleagues have revisited the phenomenon and come to the more heartening conclusion that people are likely to help if they perceive that someone is in serious danger.

Fischer’s team recruited 86 participants who were led to believe they were taking part in an experiment in which they had to observe the way men and women flirt with each other. The participants thought they were watching a live video feed from an adjacent room in which male and female strangers were meeting each other, but really they were watching pre-prepared video clips.

The first two clips each featured a different man and a woman meeting for the first time and passed uneventfully. However, during the third clip, which featured a third couple played by professional actors, the man grew increasingly aggressive towards the woman, until by the end of the clip he was being violent and abusive towards her.

Crucially, some participants watched a clip that featured a huge brute of a man (high danger condition), while other participants were shown a clip that featured a scrawny, skinny man (low danger condition). Also, half the participants were sat on their own, while the other half were accompanied by what they thought was another participant but was really an assistant to the researchers. When the man in the clip started getting aggressive, this other ‘participant’ just shrugged and said (s)he didn’t want to get involved.

When it was a little skinny man who started getting violent, the bystander effect seemed to occur: 50 per cent of participants who were sat alone went off to help the woman, compared with just 6 per cent when another ‘participant’ was sat with them. However, when the violent man was a large brute, the bystander effect virtually disappeared: 44 per cent went to help when they were on their own, compared with 40 per cent in the company of another ‘participant’.

Lead researcher Dr. Peter Fischer said “The good news is that when people are in real trouble, they have a good chance of receiving help, even when another bystander is present”.

Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F. & Frey, D. (2005). Unresponsive bystander behaviour: Are bystanders more responsive in dangerous emergencies? European Journal of Social Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.297.
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