Satisfaction guaranteed!

Our bias for the left-hand side of space could be distorting large-scale surveys. Past research has shown that when people are asked to bisect a horizontal line down the centre, most will cross the line too far to the left. This leftward bias is thought to stem from the right hemisphere – it plays a dominant role in allocating our attention and is also responsible for processing the left-hand side of space. It may also be related to a cultural tendency to read from left to right. Now Andrea Loftus and colleagues have reported this spatial bias could be distorting survey results.

The researchers presented two groups of students with the same questionnaire statements about their experience at university (e.g. “My course has been enjoyable”), except that one group answered using a 5-item Likert scale that ranged left-to-right, from ‘definitely disagree’ to ‘definitely agree’, whereas the other group answered using a scale that ranged left-to-right across the page, from ‘definitely agree’ to ‘definitely disagree’. The positive questionnaire statements were the same as those used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in its survey of 250,000 students.

In the current study, the students’ natural bias for the left meant those answering using the Likert scale that started on the left with ‘definitely agree’, responded with that answer to 27 per cent more statements than did the other group of students – that is, their views came out as more positive. By contrast, those students who answered using the scale that began on the left with ‘definitely disagree’ responded more often with ‘mostly disagree’, meaning their views came out overall as more negative.

The observation has profound implications for surveys, such as that conducted by the HEFCE, that seek respondents’ agreement, or not, with consistently positive or negative statements, and which use the same Likert scale for answers throughout. The researchers said one solution in the future is for the Likert scale direction to be reversed for half of the survey sample.

Nicholls, M.E.R., Orr, C.A., Okubo, M., and Loftus, A. (2006). Satisfaction Guaranteed. The Effect of Spatial Biases on Responses to Likert Scales. Psychological Science, 17, 1027-1028.
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Classic 1960's obediency experiment reproduced in virtual reality

Scientists have recreated Milgram’s classic obediency psychology experiment using virtual reality. Back in the 1960s Stanley Milgram appeared to show that student participants would obey a researcher and administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger, but the studies have not been replicated because of ethical concerns. Now Mel Slater at UCL and colleagues have tested participants’ willingness to administer electric shocks to a computer animated woman in a virtual reality environment.

Twenty-three participants donned a virtual reality headset and tested the computerised woman on a word memory task. Each time she responded incorrectly they were instructed to administer an increasingly large shock to her. The woman was clearly unreal, but she responded to the pain of the shocks, for example at one point she said she had never agreed to this and didn’t want to continue.

Although the participants knew the woman was unreal, six of them chose to stop the experiment before it was due to end on the woman’s 20th incorrect response. A further 6 said it had occurred to them to stop early because they had negative feelings about what was happening. By contrast, of eleven participants who completed a control experiment in which they only interacted with the (unseen) woman by text, just one chose to stop the experiment early, and no others said it had occurred to them to stop.

There was further evidence that the participants who could see and hear the computerised woman were affected by the experiment as if it were real. Their stress responses were raised (as judged by sweating and heart rate) compared with the 11 control participants. And on those trials in which the woman protested, the participants tended to give her longer to answer before administering the shock. Some participants emphasised the correct answer among the available choices, as if trying to help the woman avoid a shock.

“Humans tend to respond realistically at subjective, physiological, and behavioural levels in interaction with virtual characters notwithstanding their cognitive certainty that they are not real”, the researchers said. The findings suggest immersive virtual reality environments could be a vital tool for social psychologists, especially for pursuing research of extreme social situations.

Slater, M., Antley, M., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., Pistrang, N. & Sanchez-Vives, M.V. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLOS ONE, 1, e39 (open access).

Editor's note - published just a few days ago, this study is from the very first issue of open access publisher PLOS' brand new general science journal PLOS ONE.
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Public health leaflets ignore findings from health psychology

Public health leaflets are failing to incorporate the lessons learned by health psychology research. That’s according to Charles Abraham and colleagues, who looked at the specific case of public health leaflets designed to encourage people to drink alcohol more sensibly – a burning issue in the UK where 23 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women are estimated to binge drink.

A key finding in psychology is that people are more likely to make the effort to change their behaviour if they believe they have the ability, the ‘self-efficacy’, to do so. And yet of 31 alcohol leaflets available in the UK, Abraham’s team found none encouraged readers that they have the ability to abstain or drink moderately. Similarly, only 7 per cent of British leaflets gave instructions on how to set oneself drinking-related goals – the kind of information that can bolster a person’s belief in their ability to change.

Other research shows that people’s behaviour is strongly influenced by anticipated regret, and yet only 7 per cent of UK leaflets warned readers that they were likely to regret drinking too much. Nearly all leaflets warned about the negative health consequences of drinking too much, but fewer than half the leaflets warned readers about the negative psychological consequences.

It was a similar story for leaflets available in the Netherlands and in Germany. The researchers concluded their findings had highlighted a communication gap “between, on the one hand, psychologists who apply predictive models to alcohol use and make recommendations concerning potentially effective persuasive communication and, on the other hand, health promoters who write educational leaflets designed to reduce alcohol intake.”

Alcohol leaflets could easily be re-written to incorporate 30 key theory-based messages, without becoming any longer than they are already, the researchers said.

Abraham, C., Southby, L., Quandte, S., Krahe, B. & Van Der Sluijs, W. (2007). What’s in a leaflet? Identifying research-based persuasive messages in European alcohol-education leaflets. Psychology and Health, 22, 31-60.
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Investigating the 'dreamy state'

Patients with temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes experience unusual hallucinations and strange sensations when they have a seizure. Back in the nineteenth century, the legendary English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson called these experiences ‘dreamy states’. Now a team of French researchers, led by Jean-Pierre Vignal, have re-visited these strange phenomena.

One hundred and eighty epileptic patients were having parts of their brains stimulated and recorded from, to try to establish the source of their seizures. During these tests, Vignal’s team found 17 of the patients reported a total of 55 dreamy state experiences, some were a result of seizures, others were caused by the stimulation.

A frequent experience reported by the dreamy state patients was deja vecu (like déjà vu but involving all the senses). As one patient explained:
It’s like in my seizures, I’m reliving something…but I can see you clearly…It’s as if what is happening now has already happened to me, it’s like an old memory that I am in the middle of living out”.

However, at other times, the sensation was more like a visual hallucination:

I see myself playing the drums, with people from my family listening to me”, another patient said.

Such hallucinations always involved personal memories from either the recent or distant past, but never featured public or historical events. This fits with the fact the dreamy states were provoked by a seizure in, or stimulation of, the mesial temporal lobe, the seat of our autobiographical memories.

Vignal, J-P., Maillard, L., McGonigal, A. & Chauvel, P. (2007). The dreamy state: hallucinations of autobiographic memory evoked by temporal lobe stimulations and seizures. Brain, 130, 88-99.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles...

The Mind Gym are offering £10,000 to research that "illuminates how generic, useful and everyday qualities of the mind can be enhanced" - entries welcome. How magicians use their psychological skills in real life. Watch Ray Miller, president of the BPS, make the case for tougher statutory regulation of UK psychology, at the Scottish Parliament's Health Committee. Don't drink and be merry - three people describe how giving up alcohol has improved their social lives. Does naming and shaming work in today's world? What it's like to be unable to recognise people's faces. Psychological operations during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict. Integrating the teaching of conservationism and psychology. Saba Salman has watched her learning-disabled sister bloom after attending a special college. Can you convey the magic of science and technology in plain English? We all know family breakdown is the root of many problems - let's do something about it. The priest who adapted theology into a form of therapy.
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The Special Issue Spotter

The latest journal special issues in psychology:

The perception of emotion and social cues in faces (Neuropsychologia). Behavioural analysis around the world (International Journal of Psychology). Therapeutic training after Freud (Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling). The role of disgust in anxiety and related disorders (Stress and Coping). Theory of Mind (Social Neuroscience).

If you're aware of a forthcoming journal special issue in psychology, please let me know.
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Other eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Does a 6-month-old baby's temperament predict its character at age five? Explaining how human altruism evolved. How mood can affect taste. Should psychiatric diagnoses should be dimensional, rather than categorical? When threats and encouragements are effective in bargaining. The neural correlates of a pessimistic attitude. Are 'evening people' more creative than early risers?
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What makes a multidisciplinary team work well?

The benefit of having a multidisciplinary team filled with a diverse range of skills and expertise seems obvious – just look at the Fantastic Four. And yet past research on this issue has been inconsistent, with some studies even suggesting that a team’s diversity can have a negative effect. One apparent drawback is that team members with shared backgrounds tend to organise themselves into opposing cliques.

Now Doris Fay and colleagues have proposed that the benefit of being multidisciplinary is dependent on whether certain group processes are working well.

The researchers looked at the quantity and quality of innovations introduced by 70 Breast Care Teams and 95 Primary Health Care Teams working in the UK. The number of professions represented in each team varied from 4 to 12 (including nurses, surgeons and psychologists), and this was taken as the measure of how multidisciplinary a team was.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, teams that were more multidisciplinary tended to have introduced more innovations over the previous year, regardless of whether effective group processes were in place. Crucially, however, the quality of the innovations (e.g. as measured by their benefit to patients) was dependent on group processes. Teams with more professions on board only introduced innovations of greater quality when effective group processes were in place – including all team members being committed to the same cause; everyone in the team being listened to; the team reflecting on its own effectiveness; and there being plenty of contact between team members.

“From a practical perspective, the most eminent question is how to establish team processes that help capitalize on multidisciplinarity”, the researchers concluded.

A shortcoming of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is its cross-sectional methodology – it’s possible that generating better quality innovations has a beneficial effect on a team’s group processes, for example by engendering greater team cohesion.

Fay, D., Borrill, C., Amir, Z., Haward, R. & West, M.A. (2006). Getting the most out of multidisciplinary teams: A multi-sample study of team innovation in health care. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79, 553–567.

Link 1, Link 2, and Link 3, to related Digest items.
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Biological accounts of mental illness may dent patients’ hope and increase stigma

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders” - that's the bold proclamation made by The National Alliance on Mental Illness and many other campaign groups. No doubt, one intention of such proclamations is to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness – to show that mental illnesses are not “all in the mind”, but are as real as any physical illness. However, Danny Lam and Paul Salkovskis report that such arguments may in fact do more harm than good, increasing stigma, and causing patients to feel pessimistic about their chances of recovery.

Forty-nine participants suffering from depression or anxiety were played a ten minute assessment video featuring a woman who suffers from panic attacks and agoraphobia. Crucially, before watching the video, some participants read an information sheet that explained panic attacks are caused by psychological processes, whereas others read a version that said panic is a biological condition caused by a chemical imbalance. A control group read that the causes of panic disorder are unknown.

After watching the video, the participants rated the woman’s chances for the future. Those who’d read that panic was a biological condition predicted the woman’s treatment would take longer than the other participants did, and regarded her as having a higher risk of harming herself and others. By contrast, the participants who read that panic is a psychological condition rated the woman’s chances of recovery as significantly better than the other participants did.

Together with prior research, the researchers said these findings suggested “biological explanations of mental health problems may increase public, professional and patient perception of harm (self-harm and harming others) and result in more negative predictions regarding prognosis, whilst psychological accounts may have the opposite (destigmatising) effect.”

Lam, D.C.K. & Salkovskis, P.M. (2006). An experimental investigation of the impact of biological and psychological causal explanations on anxious and depressed patients’ perception of a person with panic disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 405-411.
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Fear impedes older patients' recovery from hip surgery

Falling and breaking a hip can have a devastating effect on older people’s lives. Alongside pain, depression and loss of cognitive functioning, it’s been known for some time that fear of falling is one of several factors that can impede their recovery after hip surgery. But now Alistair Burns and colleagues report that of these factors, fear might well be the most important, with clear implications for rehabilitation.

One hundred and eighty-seven patients undergoing hip surgery (average age 80 years) were assessed on several physical and psychological measures six weeks after their operation. Functional recovery was assessed six months later, for example by seeing how long it took patients to get up and walk three metres and back again.

Consistent with previous research, the more pain, depression, loss of cognitive functioning or fear of falling experienced by patients after their operation, the less functional recovery they were likely to show at 6 months. But that’s when these factors were examined individually. Crucially, when these factors were considered all together, only fear of falling and loss of cognitive functioning were related to functional recovery six months after surgery. One way in which fear of falling affects rehabilitation is that it deters patients from practicing walking again.

“Treatment of depression is important to improve quality of life in this particularly frail patient group, but our results suggest that adding cognitive-behavioural interventions aimed to reduce fear of falling is essential to improve functional outcome”, the researchers said.

Voshaar, R.C.O., Banerjee, S., Horan, M., Baldwin, R., Pendleton, N., Proctor, R., Tarrier, N., Woodward, Y. & Burns, A. (2006). Fear of falling more important than pain and depression for functional recovery after surgery for hip fracture in older people. Psychological Medicine, 36, 1635-1645.
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Men's dancing style determined in the womb

If you dance like a deranged spinning top, blame your mother! Apparently, the way men dance is related to how much testosterone they were exposed to in the womb, as indicated by the relative lengths of their index and ring fingers.

Previous research has shown the ratio of the lengths of the second (2D) to fourth digits (4D) of a person’s hand is related to how much testosterone they were exposed to in the womb, with a lower 2D:4D ratio being associated with greater testosterone exposure.

Bernhard Fink and colleagues filmed 52 male students dancing to a drum beat. From these, they picked out the six men who had the lowest 2D:4D ratio (that is, their index finger was relatively shorter), and the six with the highest 2D:4D ratio (their index finger was relatively longer).

One hundred and four women watched ten second video clips of the 12 men dancing. The clips were blurred and manipulated to conceal the men’s body shape and height, and they were played in a random order, so the women were ignorant of the men’s finger lengths.

The dancing men with the lower 2D:4D ratio were rated by the women as significantly more attractive, dominant and masculine compared with the men who had a higher 2D:4D ratio.

“Our data suggest that early androgens [like testosterone] could be a moderator of the variance in men’s dance movements and women’s perception of them”, the researchers said.

Fink, B., Seydel, H., Manning, J.T. & Kappeler, P.M. (2006). A preliminary investigation of the associations between digit ratio and women’s perception of men’s dance. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 381-390.
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How wishing to appear racially colour-blind can backfire

I haven’t got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don’t care if you're black, brown or yellow - you know, Orientals make very good workers”, David Brent, from the BBC comedy The Office.

Like gender, age, hair colour and other personal attributes, a person’s race can be a useful way of distinguishing them from others, especially if, in conversation, we’re attempting to refer to a person whose name we don’t know. But such is the fear of being labelled a racist, that today many people go out of their way to appear racially colour-blind.

However, this desire to appear oblivious to race can backfire. Michael Norton and colleagues have shown that it not only impairs people’s performance on an identification game, but that it is also associated with appearing unfriendly.

The researchers first paired 30 white participants with either a black or white playing partner (unbeknown to the participants these partners were assistants working for the researchers). The participants had before them 32 photos of people – half were male; half were old, half were young; half were black, half were white and so on. On each turn, the participants had to identify which one of these 32 people their playing partner was currently looking at, by asking as few yes/no questions as possible.

Participants playing with a black partner were far less likely to ask a question about the race of the person in the photograph (64 per cent of trials) than were participants playing with a white partner (93 per cent). Not only did this apparent political correctness impair their performance at the game – they needed to ask more questions to find out who their partner was looking at – the effort to appear colour-blind was also associated with appearing less friendly.

Two independent judges watched silent video recordings of the participants as they played the game (their partners were obscured) and took note of their manner and body language. It turned out that those participants who used the terms ‘Black’ or ‘African American’ less during the game, were rated as more unfriendly by the judges, and tended to make less eye contact with their partner.

“Ironically those Whites who tried hardest to appear colour-blind by avoiding the use of race were the individuals who appeared least friendly when interacting with black partners”, the researchers said.

Norton, M.I., Sommers, S.R., Apfelbaum, E.P., Pura, N. & Ariely, D. (2006). Colour blindness and interracial interaction. Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.
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The price of money - selfishness

A series of experiments have shown that merely thinking about or looking at money changes the way people behave, causing them to be more selfish and self-sufficient.

Participants first re-arranged several jumbled lists of words to form sentences. Some participants were given word lists that led to neutral sentences (e.g. ‘it is cold outside’), whereas other participants were given words that led to money-related sentences (e.g. ‘a high-paying salary’). Next, they all attempted to solve a difficult geometric puzzle. Those participants who had completed the money-related sentences worked significantly longer on the puzzle before asking for help (average of 314 seconds), compared with the participants who’d completed neutral sentences (average of 186 seconds – no different from controls who didn’t complete the earlier sentence task).

In another experiment, participants were again primed with either the neutral or money-related descrambling task. Afterwards they sat alone in a room to complete some irrelevant questionnaires. They were soon joined by an assistant of the researchers who was pretending to be another research participant, confused by the questionnaires. The participants primed by the money-related sentences spent only half as much time helping the confused person compared with the participants who’d completed the neutral sentences.

Further experiments showed participants left with more money after a monopoly game helped pick up fewer pencils dropped by a passer-by; participants primed with money-related sentences gave less money to charity; and participants sat in front of a money-themed computer screen-saver chose to sit further away from a another participant they were due to chat with.

Kathleen Vohs and colleagues, who completed the research, said that because money allows people to achieve goals without help from others, tasks that reminded the participants of money led to feelings of self sufficiency, causing them to avoid dependency and to prefer that other people weren't dependent on them.

Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L. & Goode, M.R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science, 314, 1154-1156.

Link to further information on methodology.

But can money make you happy? See related Digest items, here and here.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

"Schizophrenia may not cause one's death, but it does take one's life".

Alexander Linklater on coma-induced paradise, split personalities and the case of the woman who kept falling over.

Fathers who kill their children.

Jonny Wilkinson's mind.

Adopting can be psychologically gruelling.

The pressures faced by retired athletes.

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The Special Issue Spotter

Community treatment orders. (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).

Memory and Psi. (European Journal of Parapsychology).

Sport psychology at the Athens Olympics. (The Sport and Exercise Psychology Review).

The psychopharmacology of memory. (Psychopharmacology).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know. Email christian[@] (remove brackets).
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Eye-catching articles that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

How do kids become anti-social adults?

Teenagers' understanding of legal terms.

How world class batsmen anticipate the bowler's delivery.

Children prefer people who are lucky.

Pigeons are not so bird-brained after all.

If you've come across a particularly note-worthy psychology journal article, please let me know - email christian[@] (remove brackets).
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Magic trick fools us but not our eyes

The magician throws the ball twice into the air and catches it, then he throws it a third time and it vanishes! Of course, he’s really secreted the ball in the palm of his hand, so why do so many observers believe they’ve seen the ball vanish mid-flight?

Gustav Kuhn and Michael Land recorded the eye movements of 38 participants while they watched a video clip of this vanishing ball illusion.

On the final throw, the magician looks skyward as if the ball really has been thrown and this social cueing is crucial to the illusion. Half the participants were shown a version of the trick in which the magician looked at his hand on the final throw instead of looking skyward, and in this case only 32 per cent of the participants experienced the illusion, compared with 68 per cent of the participants who witnessed the trick performed properly.

Moreover, whereas the participants said they had kept their eyes on the ball, the eye movement analysis revealed that before each throw, the participants glanced at the magician’s face.

But there’s a way in which the participants’ eyes were not fooled by the illusion. Those participants who experienced the illusion said they had seen the ball leave the top of the screen, and they guessed the illusion was created by someone catching the ball off screen. However, their eyes were not tricked – the analysis showed they only looked at the top of the screen when the ball was really thrown.

“These results illustrate a remarkable dissociation between what participants claimed to have seen and the way in which their eyes behaved”, the researchers said.

Their perceptual experience was based on their expectation of what would happen to the ball (informed by the magician’s misleading skyward gaze), whereas their eye movements were controlled by actual visual input. The finding is consistent with the huge body of research showing that perception and action are based on separate visual systems in the brain.

Gustav, K. & Land M.K. (2006). There’s more to magic than meets the eye. Current Biology, 16, R950-R951.

Link to videos of illusion and further info on methods.
Link to cool online illusion, via author's homepage.
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When castanets taste of tuna

Words have sensory connotations to most of us. The word leathery really does feel ...well, rather leathery. But to some synaesthetes – people who experience a cross-over of the senses – such analogies are literal and can relate to tastes. That is, certain words cause them to experience a given taste each time they’re encountered. Now Julia Simner and Jamie Ward have shown that this perceptual association seems to be triggered by the meaning of those words – to the concept they represent – rather than by the letters and syllables that they’re formed from.

Simner and Ward demonstrated this by provoking a tip-of-the-tongue state in six synaesthetes. The participants were shown pictures of unusual objects – such as castanets (the Spanish percussion instrument) or a platypus – and in those instances where they indicated they were familiar with the object, but just couldn’t think of the word, they were asked to say whether they were experiencing any kind of taste sensation.

Of 89 such tip-of-the-tongue states that were experienced by the participants, 15 were also accompanied by a taste sensation. For example, one participant tasted tuna when she was presented with a picture of castanets. Later the participants were told the names of the objects, and they confirmed that these words elicited the same taste experience they had reported when in the earlier tip-of-the-tongue state.

When in that earlier state, the participants recognised the picture, but couldn’t currently identify the word for it, or any of the identifying word’s letters or syllables. This strongly suggests it was the concept that was responsible for the taste sensation, and that words normally trigger tastes in the synaesthetes by virtue of the concepts they represent.

The researchers said these perceptual-conceptual associations are likely to be present in everyone but are exaggerated in lexical−gustatory synaesthesia.

Simner, J. & Ward, J. (2006). The taste of words on the tip of the tongue. Nature, 444, 438.

Link to supplementary information on methods (pdf).
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Looking at Wayne Rooney impairs the control you have over your own feet

No wonder he’s so adept at getting past defenders. According to Patric Bach and Steven Tipper of Bangor University, the mere sight of Wayne Rooney inhibits the control you have over your feet. Apparently, looking at Rooney automatically triggers football-related activity in the movement control parts of your brain, leading to the paradoxical effect of impairing your own foot control. By contrast, Bach and Tipper found the sight of the British tennis player Tim Henman impairs your hand control, but not your foot control.

Forty student participants were shown photos of the footballers Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen and the tennis players Tim Henman and Greg Rusedksi. None of the photos were action shots, but half showed the sportsmen in a sporting context whereas the other half showed them off-pitch, or off-court.

The participants’ task was to identify as quickly and accurately as possible the sportsman currently displayed, using either a keyboard key or a footpad. For example, during one trial the participants were required to press the footpad if the computer screen showed Rooney but to press the spacebar with their finger if the photo was of Henman. On another trial the means of response was reversed so that the footpad was used for identifying Tim Henman, with the keyboard used for Rooney. Hundreds of such trials were performed.

The crucial finding is that on average the participants were slower (by about 20ms) and less accurate at identifying the footballers when using their foot compared with their finger. By contrast, they were slower and less accurate at identifying the tennis players with their finger than with their foot. These effects were actually slightly greater when the sportsmen were shown out of a sporting context.

“Perceiving a highly skilled athlete inhibited similar motor behaviour in the observer”, the researchers said. The finding suggests that “people use their own action system to represent knowledge about other persons”. In this case, the participants represented the motor skills of Rooney and the others, even though they weren’t observed in action.

The findings are consistent with earlier research showing the sight of Albert Einstein impaired people’s subsequent performance on an IQ test.

Bach, P. & Tipper, S.P. (2006). Bend it like Beckham: Embodying the motor skills of famous athletes. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 2033-2039.
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Poets and artists have as many ‘unusual experiences’ as people with schizophrenia

The idea that creative geniuses might not be entirely sane isn't exactly new. But just how much do creative types have in common with people suffering from psychosis? Well, according to Daniel Nettle at the University of Newcastle, serious poets and artists have just as many ‘unusual experiences’ as people diagnosed with schizophrenia. What saves them from the disabling effects of schizophrenia is that they don’t suffer from the lack of emotion and motivation – known as ‘introvertive anhedonia’ – also associated with the illness.

Nettle asked artists and poets, mental health patients and ‘non-creative’, healthy controls to fill out a questionnaire that’s designed to detect schizophrenic-like symptoms in healthy people. Participants seriously involved in poetry or art (as opposed to mere hobbyists, or non-creative controls) reported having just as many unusual experiences as did patients diagnosed with schizophrenia – that is they tended to answer yes to questions like “Do you think you could learn to read others’ minds if you wanted to?” or “Are the sounds you hear in your daydreams really clear and distinct?”. However, in contrast, they scored lower than both patients and healthy controls on measures of lack of emotion and motivation.

“What factors moderate the development of introvertive anhedonia, and whether they can be modified during life, is yet to be determined”, Nettle said, “but is obviously of the greatest interest in terms of the prevention of suffering and the enhancement of creativity”.

Nettle also asked professional mathematicians to complete the same questionnaire. He found they reported even fewer unusual experiences than the healthy controls, but that they tended to score highly on lack of emotion and motivation – the opposite pattern to artists and poets. “The constellation of autism, systemising and science appears to be in many respects the opposite tail of the distribution to the constellation of arts, unusual experiences and affective and psychotic disorders explored in the present study”, Nettle said.

Nettle, D. (2006). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876-890.

Link to full paper (via author’s website).
Link to related Digest item suggesting virile artists are to blame for schizophrenia's prevalence.
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Social, creative - that's physics!

Physics seems to have an image problem. According to BBC News, the physics department at Reading University is set to become the 21st physics school to have closed or merged over the last 10 years in the UK. But now Ursula Kessels and colleagues at the Freie Universität in Berlin have shown that some students’ attitudes towards physics are easily improved – they need only to be shown the social and creative side of the subject.

The researchers first tested the implicit attitudes of 63 sixth-form pupils towards physics and English. As expected, compared with English, the pupils associated physics far more quickly with masculinity, difficulty, and as offering few opportunities for self-expression.

However, in a second experiment, the researchers showed a simple intervention could improve these negative attitudes.

Seventy-one psychology undergrads were given one of two passages of text to read before completing a test of their implicit attitudes towards physics. As expected, those students who read a passage of text from a physics textbook, went on to associate physics more easily with negative words and lack of self-expression than they did with positive words and creativity. This was true even if they’d studied physics at sixth form.

However, other students were given a passage of text to read written by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn that emphasised the importance of dialogue and creativity in scientific activity. Among these students, the tendency to associate physics with negativity and lack of self-expression was greatly reduced – but only if they had studied physics at sixth form. Unfortunately, the text by Kuhn couldn’t shift the attitudes of those students who had dropped school physics at the earliest opportunity.

The researchers said their findings were encouraging and showed the “stereotypic views of the school subject physics are not immutable”.
Kessels, U., Rau, M. & Hannover, B. (2006). What goes well with physics? Measuring and altering the image of science. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 761-780.

Link to what happened when BBC2 Newsnight’s culture correspondent went to physics class.
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Speaking with doubt and hesitation can (sometimes) get you promotion

We normally associate leadership with a confident, assertive speaking style. But according to Alison Fragale at the University of North Carolina, when it comes to tasks or organisations that require a cooperative style of working, people look for leadership from those with doubt and hesitation in their voice.

Fifty-four participants read one of two descriptions of a company – one version emphasised that the company prized the ability to work independently; by contrast, the other stressed the need for staff to work cooperatively. The participants then read one of two versions of a transcript of a telephone call made by an employee, ‘Richard’, at that company. In one version he spoke with confidence and without hesitation (e.g. “I know. I need the results of the Xerox project to help guide us. Why haven’t we received them yet?”); in the other version he spoke with hesitation and qualification (“I know. I’m not really sure, but I think we really need the results of the Xerox project to help guide us. I totally don’t want to be a pain or anything, but do you know why haven’t we received them yet?”).

As you might expect, participants who read that the company valued people’s ability to work alone, were more likely to recommend Richard for a high status promotion if they’d read the telephone transcript in which he had spoken assertively and without hesitation. More surprisingly, among the participants who read that the company cherished cooperation among staff, those who read the transcript in which Richard spoke with doubt and hesitation were more likely to recommend him for promotion than were the participants who read the transcript in which he was assertive and confident. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact the participants who read the ‘hesitant’ transcript rated Richard as more likeable and tolerant than the participants who read the ‘confident’ transcript.

Fragale concluded that whereas many people have argued for a language of success – “an assertive manner of speaking that has been shown to improve an individual’s status position” – the current findings* suggest this may be an oversimplification, and in fact “multiple languages may lead to status attainment”, depending on the context.

Fragale, A.R. (2006). The power of powerless speech: The effects of speech style and task interdependence on status conferral (click for pdf). Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 101, 243-261.

*Fragale performed another experiment (not described here) that also supported her claims.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Simon Baron-Cohen argues autism may be on the rise because people with autistic-like traits tend to mate with partners who also have such traits.

One way of solving the cocktail party problem.

Can fish oils improve schoolchildren's exam results? (audio).

Which is the world's happiest nation?

The biggest questions ever asked - New Scientist celebrates its 50th (subscription required).

Mental processes in the human brain - a discussion meeting at the Royal Society (Video). And look out for our forthcoming reports from this event in December's Psychologist magazine.

It's time to rediscover our sense of smell.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Breast feeding does not affect children's intelligence.

Elephants recognise themselves in the mirror.

Most psychologists asked to share their data failed to do so (PDF).

The stigmatisation of smokers.

Everyday crimes by middle class people.

Some batsmen are less likely to be out leg before wicket when playing at their home ground.

Depression linked with loss of bone mass.

Have you spotted a particularly noteworthy psychology journal article? If so, please let me know on christian[@] (remove brackets around the @ symbol).
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The Special Issue Spotter

Attitudes towards immigrants and immigration (International Journal of Intercultural Relations).

Understanding and challenging stigma (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

Menstruation (Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology).

Developmental disability in chronic disease (Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews).

If you're aware of a forthcoming journal special issue in psychology, please let me know on christian[@] (remove brackets round the @ symbol).
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Screening troops for psychological vulnerability is futile

The idea of screening members of our armed services for psychological vulnerability before their deployment to war zones surely makes sense. However, historically, doing this has proved hugely problematic. For example, a screening programme introduced before the Second World War was deemed a costly failure after rates of psychiatric breakdown among the forces were as high or higher than in the First World War. Now according to a longitudinal study of British troops, screening for psychological vulnerability remains as futile as ever.

In 2002, prior to preparations for the Iraq war, Roberto Rona (Kings Centre for Military Health Research) and colleagues gave 2,873 personnel from the army, navy and RAF psychological screening questionnaires to complete, including a checklist for PTSD symptoms and questions about alcohol abuse. Hundreds of them went on to be deployed in Iraq.

The mental health of the sample was again assessed between 2004 and 2006 to see if their earlier scores on the psychological screening tools were usefully related to their having psychological problems later on. The only reliable link the researchers found between the participants’ original screening scores and their later mental health was for PTSD – that is personnel with PTSD symptoms in 2002 were particularly likely to have such symptoms later. However, because so few personnel had PTSD symptoms at baseline (< 3.2 per cent), the researchers concluded that even the use of a PTSD checklist may not be worthwhile. The results didn’t change if analysis was restricted to just those personnel who were deployed to Iraq.

“This study provides little support for the use of mental health screening before deployment for preventing mental disorders after deployment”, the researchers said.

Rona, R.J., Hooper, R., Jones, M., Hull, L., Browne, T., Horn, O., Murphy, D., Hotopf, M. & Wessely, S. (2006). Mental health screening in armed forces before the Iraq war and prevention of subsequent psychological morbidity: follow-up study. BMJ, DOI:10.1136/bmj.38985.610949.55
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Cryptic crosswords impair face recognition

Solving cryptic crosswords impairs our subsequent ability to recognise faces, a finding that has obvious practical implications for the kind of activities eye-witnesses get up to prior to an identity parade.

Michael Lewis at Cardiff University presented 60 students with 14 faces, one at a time, for three seconds each. Some of the students then read a passage of a Dan Brown book for five minutes, others performed a Sudoku puzzle during this time, some completed a simple crossword, while others worked on a cryptic crossword. The students were then presented with a further 28 faces and they had to identify the original faces among these. During this identification phase, the participants also continued with their allotted puzzle/ reading for 30 seconds between the presentation of each face.

The students working on the cryptic crossword performed significantly worse at the face recognition task than all the other participants (68 per cent accuracy compared with 80 per cent for simple crossword, 76 per cent for reading and 79 per cent for Sudoku). Relative to chance performance, Lewis said this represented a 40 per cent reduction in performance for the cryptic crossword participants relative to the others.

The finding follows other research showing face recognition is impaired after reading the small letters of Navon stimuli (pictured right) – these are images in which a large letter or symbol is composed of many tiny repeats of a different letter or symbol.

Lewis speculated that both Navon stimuli and cryptic crosswords involve the suppression of obvious, irrelevant information – the large letter in the first case, or the literal meaning of a word in the latter case – and that this process could have a negative impact on face recognition. “This observation, however, does not explain how such suppression has such a detrimental effect on face recognition”, he said.

Lewis, M.B. (2006). Eye-witnesses should not do cryptic crosswords prior to identity parades. Perception, 35, 1433-1436.
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“If I cover my eyes I’ll be hidden” – how young children understand visibility

Young children aged between two and four years believe that you only have to hide your head to become invisible – if your legs are on view, it doesn’t matter, you still can’t be seen.

That’s according to Nicola McGuigan and Martin Doherty who say this is probably because young children think of ‘seeing’ in terms of mutual engagement between people. It explains why kids often think they can’t be seen if they cover their eyes.

The researchers placed a Teletubby toy in various degrees of concealment behind a screen on the opposite side of a table to a Care Bear toy. If, from the perspective of the Bear, the Telebubby was completely hidden, completely visible, or just its head was showing, the children were able to accurately judge whether the Bear could see the Telebubby (at least 86 per cent accuracy). By contrast, when the Teletubby’s legs were showing but its head was hidden, the children wrongly tended (49 per cent of the trials) to say it could not be seen by the Bear.

A second experiment showed young children don’t make the same mistake when judging if inanimate objects are hidden – they realise that if any bit is poking out, the object will remain visible to an observer.

“In the case of a human target (including themselves), children may misconstrue ‘see’ as mutual engagement. If so, when covering their eyes they are really attempting to avoid engagement with others – and in this sense, their action can be effective”, the researchers concluded.

McGuigan, N. & Doherty, M.J. (2006). Head and shoulders, knees and toes: Which parts of the body are necessary to be seen? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 727-732.
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Seeing others as less than human

A satisfactory psychological explanation for man’s inhumanity to man – the genocides, the serial murders – may always be beyond reach. But surely at the heart of any attempt at explanation will be the idea that the purveyors of these atrocities come to see their victims as somehow less than human. Indeed, perhaps we are all capable of seeing those who we are most prejudiced against as not quite as human as ourselves.

Support for this notion comes from a new study by Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske who scanned the brains of ten Princeton university students while they viewed pictures of people from different social groups.

As predicted, pictures of sporting heroes, the elderly and businessmen all triggered activity in a region of the brain – the medial prefrontal cortex – known to be associated with thinking about other people or oneself. By contrast, pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts failed to trigger activity in this area, and instead prompted activity in the areas of the brain related to disgust. “Members of some social groups seem to be dehumanised, at least as indicated by the absence of the typical neural signature for social cognition”, the researchers said.

A second study with 12 students confirmed that, like pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, images of objects also failed to trigger activity in the medial prefrontal cortex – except for the sight of money, which participants said caused them to think about wealthy people.

“If replicated and extended, this kind of evidence could begin to help explain the all-too-human ability to commit atrocities such as hate crimes, prisoner abuse, and genocide against people who are dehumanised”, the researchers said.

Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanising the lowest of the low. Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.
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Turn it off

Barely a day goes by that obesity isn’t mentioned in the British media – indeed, news reports suggest we’re now the fattest nation in Europe and our children among the laziest.

One alleged culprit is TV, with a 2005 BMJ report finding that three-year-olds who watch more than eight hours TV per week are at increased risk of obesity. Interventions aimed at reducing TV watching in children have met with some success, now Amy Gorin and colleagues at the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Centre in America have piloted what they say is the first intervention targeting the whole family.

The typical TV viewing habits of six families were monitored over four days using commercially available devices connected between the families’ TVs and their power supplies. For eight weeks these same devices were then used to limit the families’ TV viewing to 75 per cent of their typical amount. To complement this, the families were also sent a pack full of advice on ways for the family to watch less TV and suggestions for alternative activities.

After eight weeks, the TV viewing restriction was removed, and the time the families spent watching TV was again recorded for four days and compared with their original habits. The families had originally watched an average of 7.45 hours per day, but at follow up, this was reduced to an average of 3.73 hours a day. All the families said they would recommend using the ‘TV Allowance’ devices.

The researchers said more work was needed to establish whether this improvement would be seen long-term, and whether the participants' health had benefited from the intervention or if instead they had simply switched from watching TV to another sedentary activity.

Gorin, A., Raynor, H., Chula-Maguire, K. & Wing, R. (2006). Decreasing household television time: A pilot study of a combined behavioural and environmental intervention. Behavioural Interventions, 21, 273-280.

Link to White Dot, the international campaign against TV.
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Electric stimulation boosts beneficial effect of sleep on memory

Having a nap is a great way to consolidate your memory for what you’ve just learned. Now it appears researchers have found a way to boost this beneficial effect.

A control condition confirmed the benefits of sleep: 13 participants remembered 37.42 words in a memory task before sleep, compared with 39.5 on waking. On another occasion with a different set of words, Jan Born and colleagues applied an oscillating electrical current through the participants’ skulls just as they were entering a period of slumber known as slow wave sleep. In this case the participants recalled an average of 36.5 words before sleep, compared with 41.27 words when they were tested on waking – a larger benefit than in the control condition.

"This improvement in retention following stimulation is striking considering that most subjects were medical students, who were highly trained in memorising facts and already performed well in the sham [control] condition", the researchers said.

During slow wave sleep, populations of neurons oscillate between activity and rest, and the application of an oscillating electric current at this time seemed to accentuate the process. The stimulation also caused more sleep spindles – these are bursts of activity that the researchers said could have led to a strengthening of the synaptic connections involved in memory.

Crucially, the stimulation didn’t boost the participants’ memory when it was given at a different frequency or at a different time (just before waking). It also didn’t help participants to learn patterns of finger movements. Such a task depends on procedural memory as opposed to the declarative memory tested by the word task. "Our results indicate that slow oscillations have a causal role in consolidating hippocampus-dependent memories during sleep", the researchers said.

Marshall, L., Helgadottir, H., Molle, M. & Born, J. (2006). Boosting slow oscillations during sleep potentiates memory. Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature05278.
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Visual skills could hold key to boosting people's work confidence

Past research looking at mental faculties and work ability has taken the approach you’d expect – participants are asked to complete tests of memory, language, attention and so on, and their performance on those measures is then compared with how well they get on in their actual workplace. This approach has identified IQ, memory and executive function as being the faculties most strongly associated with work performance.

But rather than looking at actual work ability, Johnny Wen and colleagues have examined which mental skills are most strongly associated with a person’s confidence in their ability to work.

Seventy-three participants were recruited from an outpatient medical centre – most were of low socioeconomic status, 89 per cent were out of work, and many were suffering from psychological or medical problems (patients with dementia or a profoundly low IQ had been omitted). Participants completed a raft of neuropsychological tests and then answered questions about their attitudes to work and their beliefs in their work skills.

Of all the mental faculties tested, it was only the participants’ performance on tests of visual skill that was consistently related to their overall belief in their work ability. That is, the better a participant’s visual skills, the more confident they were likely to be in their ability to work. Visual skills were tested by asking participants to re-draw a complex figure, or to re-create a figure using blocks.

Considering their participants were largely unemployed and relatively unskilled, the researchers surmised “Perhaps this population views visual constructional skills which are required for common skilled jobs, such as carpentry, plumbing… as a tangible measure of greater employability…”.

The researchers added their results “raise the intriguing possibility that targeting of visual spatial skills for remediation and development might play a separate and unique role in the vocational rehabilitation of a lower socioeconomic status population” by boosting their confidence in their own employability.

Wen, J.H., Boone, K. & Kim, K. (2006). Ecological validity of neuropsychological assessment and perceived employability. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 28, 1423-1434.
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Why it's so hard to find a blue banana

We like to think we see things how they are. Often, however, what we actually see is based less on the outside world and more on what our brain expects to be there, like a kind of mentally-generated virtual reality.

Now psychologists in Germany have demonstrated this in an elegant experiment involving people’s memory for the colour of everyday fruit and vegetables.

Karl Gegenfurtner and colleagues presented 14 participants with strangely coloured fruits on a computer screen – for example a pink banana – against a grey background. The participants’ task was to adjust the colour of the onscreen banana until it blended exactly with the grey background. It sounds easy, but the participants couldn’t do it because as they adjusted the colour, they compensated not just for the banana’s actual pink pigmentation, but also for a yellowness that only existed in their mind, thus leaving the banana with a slight bluish hue. That is, their memory for the typical colour of a banana was interfering with their performance.

By contrast, the participants didn’t have any trouble adjusting the colour of anonymous spots of light to make them blend in with the grey background – thus suggesting it wasn’t some quirk of the experimental set-up that was causing the participants difficulties with the fruit and veg.

Moreover, when presented with a banana that had been correctly adjusted to perfectly blend in with the grey background, the participants reported that it looked slightly yellow – a percept generated by their own mind, not by the actual colour of the banana.

“Our results show a high-level cognitive effect on low-level perceptual mechanisms”, the researchers said.

Hansen, T., Olkkonen, M., Walter, S. & Gegenfurtner, K.R. (2006). Memory modulates colour appearance. Nature Neuroscience, DOI:10.1038/nn1794.

Link to related review paper.
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It's not always beneficial to feel in control of your illness

Feeling in control of your illness is normally considered a good thing – research shows it means you’re more likely to take constructive, pro-active steps to cope and more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviours.

But now Carolyn Fang and colleagues have looked at the specific case of women who are at dramatically increased risk of developing ovarian cancer because they have one or more close relatives with the disease. Fang’s team found those women who felt more in control of the possibility of developing cancer, and who actively engaged in problem-focused coping strategies, actually suffered more distress over time and were less likely to attend ovarian cancer screening.

Why might this be? Possibly because feeling in control is only beneficial if it matches reality. Unfortunately, there is currently little that a woman at risk of hereditary ovarian cancer can do to protect herself against developing the disease (but see here). “The subgroup of women who perceived high control and reported high levels of problem-focused coping may have become increasingly more distressed if their efforts to reduce or manage their cancer risk did not lead to actual changes in risk”, the researchers said.

Consistent with this, the women in this study who felt in control, but who didn’t pursue problem-focused coping strategies, did not experience increased distress over time – perhaps because they were “not faced with their subsequent failure to control or alter the health threat”.

But why would the women with high-perceived control and active coping strategies be less likely to attend cancer screening? Perhaps because of the increased distress they were experiencing – this would fit with past research. The researchers said “Health professionals should be aware that, although some women may appear to be actively coping with and managing their cancer risk well, [they] may be less likely to adhere to recommended ovarian cancer-screening regimens”.

The findings come from a three month follow-up of 80 women enrolled on a family risk assessment programme at a cancer centre, all of whom had one or more immediate relatives with ovarian cancer.

Fang, C.Y., Daly, M.B., Miller, S.M., Zerr, T., Malick, J. & Engstrom, P. (2006). Coping with ovarian cancer risk: The moderating effects of perceived control on coping an adjustment. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 561-580.

Link to UK-based ovarian cancer support network.
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Are you tuned into your heartbeat?

You’ve probably been there – waiting for an interview, palms sweaty, heartbeat pounding… or perhaps not, maybe you don’t tend to hear your heartbeat. It’s increasingly being recognised that people differ in how much attention they pay to their internal bodily sensations, and that people who suffer from panic attacks probably pay more attention than most.

To explore this theme, Rachel Pollock and colleagues recruited 136 participants and identified 34 of them who reported being particularly afraid of anxiety-related symptoms and 31 who were unbothered by them. They played the participants the sounds of either normal or abnormal, palpitating heartbeats against varying degrees of background white noise.

In trials containing normal heartbeats only, the more anxious participants were, as expected, just as good at detecting them, but crucially, they also tended to report hearing a heartbeat when there wasn’t one – far more often than the non-anxious participants did.

Less expected was the observation that the more anxious participants were actually poorer at detecting abnormal heartbeats – the researchers think this might be because the sound of an abnormal heartbeat triggered a fearful response in the anxious participants, thus compromising their performance.

Finally, given a mixture of normal and abnormal heartbeats, the anxious participants showed a greater tendency to mistake a normal heartbeat for an abnormal one.

Prior research has suggested panic attacks can be triggered by the catastrophic misperception of a normal heartbeat. Given this, the researchers said the current findings suggest people who fear anxiety symptoms may have a particular vulnerability for panic because of the way they perceive heartbeats.

Pollock, R.A., Carter, A.S., Amir, N. & Marks, L.E. (2006). Anxiety sensitivity and auditory perception of heartbeat. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1739-1756.
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So-called 'implicit' test of attitudes is affected by social desirability

A perennial problem with asking people about their views is that they are likely to moderate their answers to make them socially acceptable. The ‘implicit association test’ (IAT) is supposed to get round that problem by tapping into people’s deep-held attitudes below the level of their conscious control. But now Guy Boysen and colleagues report that the IAT is also affected by what is socially acceptable.

Boysen’s team used the IAT to measure participants’ attitudes toward homosexuality. Participants responded to pictures of gay and straight couples and pleasant and unpleasant words as fast as possible using two keys. In one condition, the same key was pressed in response to the sight of gay couples and unpleasant words, with another key used to respond to straight couples or pleasant words. A homophobic person would be expected to respond more quickly in this condition because the key pairings are consistent with their attitudes, but more slowly in a second condition in which the same key is allocated to gay couples and pleasant words, with another key for straight couples/ unpleasant words.

Over one hundred and fifty straight students performed this test, with half told their responses would be kept private and the others told the researchers would see the results. If the test is truly implicit, the participants shouldn’t have been able to moderate their performance. However, the researchers found the participants who believed their results would be public showed a significantly reduced bias against homosexuals compared with the participants who thought their results would be private.

So the IAT can be affected by social desirability, but does this happen deliberately or at a subconscious level? In a second experiment, all the participants were told their results would be seen by the researchers. Crucially, however, half were also told physiological measures taken afterwards would reveal whether they had tried to fake their results to make them more acceptable. If moderation of the IAT is under deliberate control, participants subjected to this latter manipulation should have been put off faking their attitudes, but actually there was no difference between the groups. This suggests social desirability can affect the IAT, but only at a subconscious level beyond participants' control.

Boysen, G.A., Vogel, D.L. & Madon, S. (2006). A public versus private administration of the implicit association test. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 845-856.

Link to demonstration of the IAT.
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Anyone remember what Chandler's job was in the sitcom Friends?

It can be so embarrassing when you bump into a person you haven’t seen for years – you recognise them, you even remember lots of things about them like their job…but you just can’t quite recall their name.

This phenomenon has been replicated in the psychology lab countless times and explained by that staple of the undergraduate psychology diet – the Bruce and Young serial model of face recognition – which states names are stored separately from other knowledge about a person, and that names can only be retrieved after enough of that knowledge has been accessed.

But now Lesley Calderwood and Mike Burton have challenged this account. They’ve shown that for people who we’re extremely familiar with, we’re actually quicker to recall their name than other information about them.

They recruited 24 undergrads who confessed to being hard-core fans of the American sitcom Friends, watching approximately two hours of it per week. Participants first read aloud the names and occupations of the six main characters. Next they were shown the faces of the characters and in one condition had to name them as fast as possible, and in another they had to state their occupation as quick as they could. They were faster at naming the characters than stating their occupation.

The researchers also repeated this observation with children, using pictures of the children’s classmates. The children were quicker to name their classmates than say which maths group they were in.

“One reason why the name disadvantage may be reversed for highly familiar faces is the frequency with which their names are retrieved in our day-to-day lives”, Calderwood and Burton explained. This also applies to programmes we watch regularly. “We are much more likely to have heard the [characters’] names Ross and Rachel than to have heard about their jobs over the years of watching Friends”, they said.

The finding supports parallel models of face processing which don’t propose information about a person is accessed in a sequential manner.

Oh and in case you were wondering, Chandler was apparently in advertising.

Calderwood, L. & Burton, A.M. (2006). Children and adults recall the names of highly familiar faces faster than semantic information. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 441-454.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in our willingness to punish unfair behaviour by others, even at a cost to ourselves.

The boundaries between different colours are arbitrary - determined by which wavelengths we decide to allocate labels to. It seems different cultures around the world slice colour up in the same way. (Open access)

Men maybe more vulnerable than women to depression if their spouse suffers cognitive decline.

Dyslexic students may be particularly prone to anxiety.

Should you reveal information about yourself when you're negotiating?

Have you seen a particularly noteworthy paper in psychology? Let me know on christian[@]
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The Special Issue Spotter

Inequality and injustice: implications (Cognitive Development).

Neuroimaging. (Forthcoming at The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry).

Memory and Psi. (Forthcoming at European Journal of Parapsychology).

Magda B. Arnold's contributions to emotion research and theory. (Cognition and Emotion).

Visual search and attention. (Visual Cognition).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know - email christian[@]
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

The curse of the yips.

Apparently, it's now good to push your kids to excel.

The psychology of fairground rides.

How to be a good journal referee.

How to win the Nobel prize (book review).

Nature Neuroscience launches a podcast.

Do microexpressions reveal what we're really feeling?

Gestures lend a vital hand to communication.

Are best friends a dying species for young men?
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The brain's great connector

Pick two people off the street at random, put them in a brain scanner, and look at the thickness of their corpus callosums – that’s the massive bundle of nerve fibres that connects the two halves of the brain. In all likelihood, you’ll find it’s much thicker in one person than the other. Indeed, some people can have up to three times as many nerve fibres in their corpus callosum compared with the next person.

According to Bruce Morton and Stein Rafto, psychologists used to think callosum thickness was largely explained by gender and left or right handedness. For example, one theory had it that men have a thinner connection between their hemispheres, thus causing them to have more specialised brains suitable for maths and the like. But literally hundreds of papers have now been published on the topic and the results have been completely inconsistent – some showing men have thinner hemispheric connectivity, others showing the opposite.

Morton and Rafto think these inconsistent findings are due to the fact callosum thickness is related to hemisphericity – which side of a person’s brain is dominant – irrespective of sex or handedness. To test this, they scanned the brains of 113 participants who also completed several tests of hemisphericity. These look not at handedness, but rather at which side of the brain is dominant. For example, one test measures whether a participant is more accurate at marking the exact mid-point of a line with their left or their right hand.

Morton And Rafto found the thickness of the callosum varied little between the sexes or between the left and right-handers (less than 3 per cent difference in each case), but varied significantly according hemisphericity, with right-brain dominant participants having a 10 per cent thicker callosum on average.

Thickness of the callosum was also independently related to something called ‘dichotic deafness’, a common characteristic of people with a left-hemisphere dominant brain . This is the inability of some people to hear two sounds presented simultaneously, when one sound is played to one ear and the other sound to the other ear. Such people can only hear the sound played to their ‘dominant’ ear, and Morton and Rafto found they too tended to have a thinner corpus callosum.

The results suggest that men and women with a left-hemisphere dominant brain have a thinner corpus callosum and so have less cross-talk between their two hemispheres. Besides dichotic deafness, the practical implications of a thin callosum are unknown. However, it doesn’t seem associated with intelligence – the two participants in this study with the thinnest corpus callosums and the two with the thickest, were all university professors with doctoral degrees.

Morton, B.E. & Rafto, S.E. (2006). Corpus callosum size is linked to dichotic deafness and hemisphericity, not sex or handedness. Brain and Cognition, 62, 1-8.
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