Is day care harmful to small children? The latest findings...

Does it matter that young children are spending increasingly more time in day care, as more women than ever before are choosing to return to work soon after giving birth?

Yes, according to Jay Belsky in his round-up of the main findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care in America – “a unique and massive collaborative enterprise”, in which over 1200 children from 10 communities were followed from birth through to starting school.

Critics of earlier research had suggested the problem of day care was all to do with poor quality, but the new study found that even when controlling for the quality of care, the quantity of day care still mattered. Children who spent early, extensive and continuous time in the care of non-relatives were more likely to show later behavioural problems, such as aggressiveness and disobedience, as indicated by ratings from their caregivers, their mothers and eventually their teachers.

The type of care mattered too. The study found children who spent more time in a child care centre (as opposed to in another person’s home with a non-relative, or in a home with a relative other than their mother) tended to show benefits in terms of their cognitive and linguistic development, but to also show more behavioural problems, being more aggressive and disobedient.

Finally, and not surprisingly, the quality of care was also found to be relevant, in terms of how attentive and responsive carers were, and how stimulating the care environment was. Low quality care was particularly detrimental to the children of mothers who lacked sensitivity. High quality care on the other hand was associated with later superior cognitive-linguistic functioning.

Given these results, and similar findings from British studies such as the EPPE Study, Belsky concluded that policies should be introduced to discourage parents from putting their children into day care for too long, including the expansion of parental leave, and tax policies to reduce the economic factors that encourage parents to leave their children in the care of other people. “Of significance is that all of these conclusions could be justified on humanitarian grounds alone”, Belsky said.

Belsky, J. (2006). Early child care and early child development: Major findings of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 3, 95-110.

Link to related cover-story article in the latest issue of Prospect magazine (free access). "For the first time in history, women in developed societies can take up any occupation or career they please. This has brought enormous benefits. But it has also had some less positive consequences—the death of sisterhood, a decline in female altruism and growing disincentives to bear children" by Alison Wolf.
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Reasons to own a dog

No wonder they’re man’s best friend. Deborah Wells of the Canine Behaviour Centre at Queen’s University Belfast has surveyed the literature and found widespread evidence for the benefits that dogs can bring to our physical and psychological well-being.

While acknowledging the methodological weaknesses of research in the area, Wells writes that “…the domestic dog may be able to prevent us becoming ill, facilitate our recovery from ill-health and predict certain types of underlying ailment”.

For example, a study in 1995 found “Dog owners were roughly 8.6 times more likely to still be alive one year after a heart attack than those who did not own a dog”. Meanwhile a study in the Lancet reported the case of a dog who repeatedly sniffed a mole on its owner’s leg that turned out to be malignant. “Tumours typically produce odorous compounds…the dog, with its olfactory acuity, may be able to detect these compounds, even in minute quantities”, Wells said. Other work suggests dogs may be able to use facial expressions and postures to predict the imminent onset of an epileptic seizure, and use their sense of smell to detect hypoglycaemia in diabetics.

Regarding psychological health, research has shown dogs can ameliorate the effects of stressful life events such as bereavement and divorce, reduce anxiety loneliness and depression, and enhance feelings of autonomy, competence and self-esteem. “Dogs may also help promote psychological well-being indirectly through the facilitation of social interactions between people”, Wells said. For example, a study found walkers experienced significantly more chance conversations with strangers when accompanied by a dog, than when alone. Other research has documented the benefits dogs can bring to nursing homes, prisons, and to the disabled.

“The dog should not be regarded as a panacea for ill-health in humans. Nonetheless, the findings from this overview suggest that this particular companion animal can contribute to a significant degree to our well-being and quality of lives”, Wells concluded.

Wells, D.L. (2006). Domestic dogs and human health: An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1348/135910706X103284
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Patients with Tourette's have more self-control, not less

People with Tourette’s syndrome can’t stop themselves from making sudden repeated movements or noises, so you might infer that they have an impairment in their mental control processes. On the contrary, according to a new study they actually have greater cognitive control than healthy people, suggesting the cause of their symptoms lies deeper, in their subcortical inhibitory mechanisms.

To test cognitive control, Sven Mueller and colleagues at the University of Nottingham asked nine young patients with Tourette’s and 19 controls to sometimes make fast eye movements towards an onscreen target, and sometimes to do the reverse – to make fast eye movements in the opposite direction to a target. A coloured border on the screen told them which rule to follow, and the rule changed every two trials. Switching between the two commands takes mental effort, especially when the natural reflex to look at a suddenly appearing target must be inhibited.

As expected, the participants were slower to respond whenever the rule changed, as they adjusted their mental ‘set’ to the new rule. However, to the researchers' surprise, without sacrificing their accuracy the Tourette’s patients actually slowed down less than the healthy controls.

The researchers said the patients’ superior performance at the task “may reflect a compensatory change in which the chronic suppression of tics results in a generalised suppression of reflexive behaviour in favour of increased cognitive control”.

“It is also consistent with the suggestion that the occurrence of vocal and motor tics does not result from a failure in inhibitory control at a cognitive level, but instead reflects a deficit in subcortical control mechanisms”, they added.

Mueller, S.C., Jackson, G.M., Dhalla, R., Datsopoulos, S. & Hollis, C.P. (2006). Enhanced cognitive control in young people with Tourette’s syndrome. Current Biology, 16, 570-573.

Tim Howard, a goal-keeper for Manchester United, has Tourette's and won humanitarian of the year in 2001 for his work with children with the condition.
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Be creative: Don't even think about it

Not thinking about a problem for a while doesn’t just give you a fresh perspective when you come back to it. It also allows your more creative unconscious to get to work as it “…ventures out to the dark and dusty nooks and crannies of the mind”.

That’s according to Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs at the University of Amsterdam, who were keen to show that the benefits of taking a break from thinking hard about a problem are not merely passive (for example, by freeing you from an incorrect line of thought), but that unconscious thought actually offers an alternative, active mode of thinking that is more divergent and creative.

In one experiment Dijksterhuis and Meurs asked 87 students to think of as many new names for pasta as they could, giving them five examples of existing names that all began with the letter ‘i’. Those students who were engaged in a distracter task for three minutes before giving their suggestions thought of far more varied names than students who were given three minutes to concentrate on thinking of new names (they mostly thought of new names beginning with ‘i’).

In another experiment, students were asked to think of places in Holland beginning with the letter ‘A’. Those students who were distracted before being asked to give their suggestions named a wide variety of cities, towns and villages, whereas students who were given time to think of places, and students who answered immediately, tended to just name the most obvious main cities in Holland.

Finally, students were asked to name as many uses as they could for a brick. Again, students who were distracted by a different task before giving their suggestions, didn’t name more uses, but were judged by two independent raters to have proposed more creative and unusual uses than students who were given dedicated time to think, or than students who answered immediately.

“Upon being confronted with a task that requires a certain degree of creativity, it pays off to delegate the labour of thinking to the unconscious mind”, the authors concluded.

Dijksterhuis, A. & Meurs, T. (2006). Where creativity resides: The generative power of unconscious thought. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 135-146.

Link to recent research, also by Dijksterhuis, showing that it's best not to consciously deliberate when making big decisions like which house or car to buy. BBC coverage here.
Link to article in The Psychologist celebrating psychology's rediscovery of 'the irrational' (BPS members only).
Link to New Scientist special issue on creativity.
Link to Scientific American Mind issue on creativity.
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Dreaming of the war

Don’t mention this at the World Cup, but interviews conducted in the year 2000 revealed 17.3 per cent of German people who lived through the Second World War were still experiencing war-related dreams 55 years after it ended.

Michael Schredl and Edgar Piel interviewed representative samples of thousands of people in 1956, 1970, 1981 and 2000 about the content of their dreams. Participants had to indicate whether their dreams featured any of 20 different themes, among which were included four war-related themes – air raid, war captivity, war-zone exposure, and being on the run, as well as more mundane themes such as travelling and work.

Overall, war-related dreams were far rarer in the year 2000 than in 1956, except among people aged over 60, 17.5 per cent of whom still had war-related dreams, a level comparable to the 1956 average across all age groups of 19.9 per cent. In contrast, in 2000, just 8.6 per cent of interviewees aged between 18 and 29 reported having war-related dreams.

“The present study clearly indicates that World War II had a strong and lasting effect on the people visible in their war-related dreams at night”, the researchers said. “The findings are consistent with the ‘generational hypothesis’…i.e. political events or changes have their strongest effect on persons when experienced in late adolescence and early adulthood and when experienced directly”, they said.

Schredl and Piel said their study showed how “…eliciting and analysing dreams is an informative approach to study the effects of political events on the inner lives of people”, and that it added to earlier research such as that carried out among war Veterans showing nightmare frequency was correlated with time endured in concentration camp captivity.

Schredl, M. & Piel, E. (2006). War-related dream themes in Germany from 1956 to 2000. Political Psychology, 27, 299-307.
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Concerns raised about the use of computer animations in court

Things seem so much more predictable once they’ve happened – a flaw in our thinking that’s been dubbed the ‘hindsight bias’. It’s a particular problem in legal cases where jurors are asked to judge the extent to which a defendant should have known what was likely to happen when they took a certain decision (for example, when they decided to overtake on a bend).

Now for the first time, Neal Roese at the University of Illinois and colleagues have investigated the impact of computer animation on the hindsight bias, a topical issue given the increased use of such animations in American and UK courtrooms.

Participants were shown real-life road traffic scenarios either via dynamic computer animations, or via old-fashioned text descriptions and diagrams. Those participants who saw a complete version that ended with a serious crash were asked to discount what they’d seen and to estimate the likelihood of a crash happening from the moment the driver made an error (e.g. at the point of overtaking). Consistent with the hindsight bias, participants who’d seen the crash happen (via animation or diagram) estimated a crash was more likely to happen than participants who were only shown the early stages of the road scenario. Crucially, this hindsight bias was twice the size in the participants who saw the animation than in the participants who were shown diagrams.

Another finding came from participants who were shown an animation, or diagrams, up to the moment just before, but not including, the crash. Participants shown the animation up to this point (but not the participants shown diagrams) judged a crash was more likely to happen than any of the other participant groups, including those who’d seen the animation through to the end – a bias the researchers dubbed ‘the propensity effect’.

”The propensity effect is an entirely new phenomenon that stands alongside the hindsight bias, apparently born of the unique combination of motion perception plus an inference of propensity toward a salient end point (‘I just know it’s headed over there’)”, the researchers said.

They concluded with a warning about the implications for legal practice: “Our research indicates that the clarity of computer animation can obscure the underlying certainty of accident reconstruction, creating a biased feeling of knowing”.

Roese, N.J., Fessel, F., Summerville, A., Kruger, J. & Dilich, M.A. (2006). The propensity effect. When foresight trumps hindsight. Psychological Science, 17, 305-310.

Link to relevant BBC news item.
Link to forensic animation company.
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Studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

How children develop an understanding of the dangers of crossing roads.

Treating a woman with Down's Syndrome whose fear of her feet being touched was impeding vital physiotherapy.

Is chronic fatigue syndrome associated with perfectionism?

What is an anger attack?
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Born to lead

"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 27.10.03.

An unusually high proportion of politicians are first borns – that is, their parents’ first child. Is this because the first born in a family benefits from the undivided attention of their parents’ resources and expectations? Or is it because the first born develops leadership skills through dealing with their younger siblings?

Rudy Andeweg and Steef Van Den Berg (Leiden University, Holland) questioned 1,200 Dutch individuals due to take office in local or national government. To test the parental vs. sibling theories, they took note of how many politicians were ‘only children’ (without any brothers or sisters) and how many were ‘middle-order children’. 'Only children' would have enjoyed the benefits of their parents’ undivided attention but wouldn't have had any younger siblings to boss around. Middle-order children, by contrast, would have missed out on parental preference, but would have been able to command their younger siblings.

As expected, relative to the general population, they found a greater proportion of politicians were first borns (36 per cent vs. 26 per cent) and fewer were last borns (19 per cent vs. 25 per cent). In support of the parental explanation, they found a disproportionate number of the politicians were only children. Middle-order children, by contrast, were not over-represented among the politicians – undermining the importance of the sibling explanation.

Andeweg, R.B. & Van Den Berg, S.B. (2003). Linking birth order to political leadership: the impact of parents of sibling interaction? Political Psychology, 24, 605-623.

Link to free full-text.
Link to birth order entry on wikipedia.

Note, Alfred Adler wrote a seminal paper on birth order effects in 1928. There’s also another trend among leaders not mentioned by the current study – of the 24 British Prime Ministers between 1809 and 1937, 15 lost one or more of their parents as children. And the pattern continues among modern day leaders: Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born, John Major’s father died just before his son’s nineteenth birthday (from Jeremy Paxman's book The Political Animal).
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Oops! How sarcastic emails fall flat

Dear Boss – Really? You’d like me to attend the Hawaii meeting?! Hang on, I might have something on, let me just check my diary…” you email sarcastically – obviously you’d drop anything to be there. But then the reply comes back “Don’t worry, if you’re likely to be busy, I’ve asked Sarah instead”.

Disaster! Another message misinterpreted because of the ambiguity of email communication, stripped as it is of any extra-linguistic cues such as gestures and intonation. According to Justin Kruger and colleagues, this kind of communication breakdown is all too common because we overestimate how likely it is that recipients of our emails will appreciate our intended tone.

Indeed in several experiments, they confirmed overconfidence in intended meaning occurred more for email than for spoken communication, and that it still occurred whether or not senders and recipients knew each other well. Recipients too overestimated their ability to interpret the intended tone of emails.

One reason is that as we compose an email, we read it to ourselves silently with our intended tone, forgetting as we do that our recipient(s) might not read it that way at all. A solution could be to read emails to yourself in a neutral tone before sending them.

Indeed, when Kruger’s team asked participants to read a sarcastic message out loud to themselves in a neutral tone before sending it, they found they were more accurate than normal at judging how unlikely recipients were to realise they were being sarcastic.

By contrast, in another study, participants sending an email of a joke were more likely to overestimate how funny recipients would think the email was, if before sending the message, they watched a video clip of the joke being performed live.

“If comprehending human communication consisted merely of translating sentences and syntax into thoughts and ideas, there would be no room for misunderstanding. But it does not, and so there is”, the researchers concluded.

Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J. & Zhi-Wen, Ng. (2005). Egocentrism over email: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 925-936.

Are we also uncharacteristically impatient when it comes to emails?
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Who replaced all my things?

Capgras syndrome – in which the patient believes their friends and relatives have been replaced by impersonators – was first described in 1923 by the French psychiatrist J.M.J. Capgras in a paper with J. Reboul-Lachaux.

Now Alireza Nejad and Khatereh Toofani at the Beheshti Hospital in Iran have reported an extremely rare variant of Capgras syndrome in which a 55-year-old woman with epilepsy believes her possessions have all been replaced by substitute objects that don’t belong to her. When she buys something new, she immediately feels that it has been replaced.

However, the authors reported “there was no evidence of dementia, her memory was intact, and her immediate, recent, and remote memories were okay. She was oriented to time, place and person, and had appropriate intelligence”. She also had no history of head injury or migraine, and brain scans revealed no gross abnormality.

The woman developed grandmal epilepsy when she was thirty. Then three months before her psychiatric referral, she had a seizure followed by the sensation that someone was following her. Then it was after her next seizure that she developed the delusional belief that all her things had been swapped. The authors can’t explain her delusion but believe it may be related to right-hemisphere frontal and temporal abnormalities. “No remarkable point was present in the patient’s history, and there was no psychosocial stress prior to her psychotic episode” they said.

Nejad, A.G. & Toofani, K. A variant of Capgras syndrome with delusional conviction of inanimate doubles in a patient with grandmal epilepsy. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 18, 52-54.

In another paper, a patient thought hospital staff were hired actors in a stage production. See Silva, J.A. et al. (1990). An unusual case of Capgras syndrome: the psychiatric ward as a stage. Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa, 15, 44-46.

The classic paper: Capgras, J. & Reboul-Lachaux, J. (1923). Illusion des sosies dans un delire systematise chronique. Bulletin de la Societe Clinique de Medicine Mentale, 2, 6–16.
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Chimps and toddlers lend a helping hand

It’s been argued that only humans display truly altruistic behaviour, but now, under laboratory conditions, Michael Tomasello and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology have observed altruistic behaviour by chimpanzees towards a human experimenter, suggesting we’re not so unique after all. They’ve also observed surprising degrees of altruistic helping by 18-month old children.

Three young chimpanzees were observed helping a human experimenter reach items she’d dropped or couldn’t reach. They helped without verbal prompting, training or any form of reward or punishment (see movie). However, they didn’t help when the experimenter’s needs were more complicated – for example they didn’t open the doors to a cabinet when she had her hands full.

In a related study, Tomasello’s group also observed chimps letting another chimp in from an adjacent room when they needed help reaching a food platform, and that given a choice, they chose the more able chimp from two potential collaborators (see movie). “The implication is that human forms of collaboration are built on a foundation of evolutionary precursors that are present in chimpanzees and a variety of other primate species”, the researchers said.

Tomasello found the altruism shown by 18-month old infants was even more extensive – they helped a researcher reach things he’d dropped but also did things like open a cabinet door so he could place books inside (see movie). Again this behaviour was observed without any verbal requests for help or any reward or praise. And importantly, the infants (and chimps) rarely helped in control conditions – for example, if the researcher deliberately threw something on the floor, or clearly intended to place books on top of the cabinet rather than inside.

“Children and chimpanzees are both willing to help, but they appear to differ in their ability to interpret the other's need for help in different situations," the researchers said.

The observed altruism in chimpanzees appears to contradict an earlier study that showed chimps tended not to share food with others when given the opportunity at no cost to themselves. However, Tomasello and colleagues suggest that study may not have used ideal conditions to study altruism because chimps are notoriously competitive with each other when it comes to food.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301-1302.
Melis, A.P., Hare, B., Tomasello, M. (2006). Chimpanzees recruit the best collaborators.Science, 311, 1297-1300.
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Women need female role models

The promotion of young female MPs like 26-year-old Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems’ newly-appointed Scotland spokesperson (pictured left; Baroness Greenfield pictured right), could be just what’s needed to inspire more women into politics and other male-dominated fields. According to Penelope Lockwood at the University of Toronto, women more than men need role models who are the same gender as they are.

Lockwood asked 44 female and 38 male students to read a fictional newspaper account of an outstanding professional who had excelled in the same field that they aspired to work in. Some of the students read an account of a female professional while others read about a man.

Afterwards female students who’d read an account of a female professional rated themselves more positively than the female students who read about a man, and more positively than control students who hadn’t read any account. By contrast, male students who read about a male role model did not rate themselves any more positively than male students who read about a female role model, or than control students who hadn’t read any account.

In a second study, students were asked to name a real person who was a role-model for them in their career ambitions. Sixty-three per cent of female students chose a woman, 75.6 per cent of male students chose a man. But crucially, whereas the male students said gender was not a factor in their choice, 27 per cent of female students who named a female role-model said that they were inspired by the gender-related obstacles overcome by their choice.

“Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success, illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable”, Lockwood concluded.

Lockwood, P. (2006). “Someone like me can be successful”: Do college students need same-gender role models? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 36-46.
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Rabbit illusion tricks the brain too

Like a kind of neural Voodoo doll, there’s a representation of our body in our brain, so that when we’re touched on, say, our left arm, the brain’s representation of our left arm is activated. So what do you think would happen in a tactile illusion when being touched on one part of the body leads to the sensation of having been touched somewhere else? Would it be the brain’s representation of the body part that was touched that was activated, or would it be the brain’s representation of where the touch was ‘felt’ to have occurred, that was activated.

That’s what Felix Blankenberg and colleagues have investigated using a brain scanner and the Rabbit illusion. In this illusion a person’s wrist is tapped several times followed by tapping of their elbow. Under optimal conditions it can lead to the sensation that the tapping continued up the arm from the wrist to the elbow, like a ‘rabbit’ hopping up the arm.

Blankenberg placed electrodes along the arms of thirteen participants and compared the brain activity that occurred when pulses were delivered all the way up their arm; when six pulses on the wrist were followed by three at the elbow (inducing the Rabbit illusion, as confirmed by participants’ reports); and in a control condition, in which three pulses were given at the wrist, three at the elbow, followed by three at the wrist again – a pattern that does not induce the illusion.

They found the brain’s representation of the middle part of the forearm (in the primary somatosensory cortex) was activated when pulses were actually delivered there, and crucially, also when, during the illusion, sensations were felt there even though no pulses were actually delivered there. By contrast, the region was not activated during the control condition.

“The intervening hops of the rabbit that get mislocalised and filled-in for conscious phenomenology evidently also get filled in and appropriately re-localised within human primary somatosensory cortex”, the researchers concluded.

Blankenburg, F., Ruff, C.C., Deichmann, Rees, G. & Driver, J. (2006). The cutaneous rabbit illusion affects human primary sensory cortex somatotopically. PLoS Biology, 4, e69.
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Admit it, you love meetings really...

Employees are always in meetings these days and the popular consensus is that, at best, they’re a chore, and at worst, they’re a serious disruption to productivity. But when Steven Rogelberg and colleagues surveyed 980 employees in America and the UK, they found no association between employees’ time spent in meetings and how positive or negative they felt about their work, or how well they felt in general.

“It may be socially unacceptable to publicly claim that meetings are desirable. Instead, a social norm to complain about meetings may exist – not doing so could reflect poorly on the employee”, the researchers said.

In the first study, hundreds of employees completed an online survey that asked about the number of meetings (and time spent in meetings) they typically had in a week. In the second study, participants answered questions about meetings they’d had that same day.

Overall participants who endured more meetings were just as positive about their jobs as people who had few meetings. However, employees who reported being particularly goal driven did tend to be negatively affected by meetings. Moreover, in the first study, participants whose responsibilities didn’t require working with other people were also negatively affected by meetings. Finally, the perceived quality of meetings had an impact on employees’ attitudes in the second study but not the first, probably because they were recalling specific experiences from that same day rather than responding more generally.

“Trade literature argues that perceptions of meeting effectiveness would appear to be promoted to the extent that people come prepared to meetings, an agenda is used, meetings are punctual, purposes are clear, and there is widespread attendee participation. We recommend that organisations include such factors in good-practice guidelines for the conduct of their meetings”, the researchers said.

Rogelberg, S.G., Leach, D.J., Warr, P.B. & Burnfield, J.L. (2006). "Not another meeting!" Are meeting time demands related to employee well-being? Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 83-96.
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Studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Veterans and hospital staff benefited from training in using mantras
like "take it easy".

Game suggests people can behave altruistically to maintain the earth's
climate given the right circumstances.

Observers make more perceptual errors in a cluttered scene, but
paradoxically are more confident in their judgments.

Psychological factors like anxiety-proneness predict self-reported, but not objective, measures of fatigue.
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Does my head look big in this?

"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 13.10.03.

Buying hats may well prove troublesome, but having a huge head also brings a key advantage - it means you're less likely to suffer mental decline in old age.

Catherine Gale (MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton) and colleagues recruited 215 men and women aged 66-75 years, measured their head circumference (itself an indicator of brain size) and gave them two sets of intelligence tests - first at the head-measuring session and then again, three and half years later. Old records also detailed the participants' head circumference at birth.

People with bigger heads scored more highly on the intelligence tests, and were less likely to show mental decline as indicated by a lower score at the second testing session relative to the first. In fact, the bottom quartile (25 per cent) of the sample for head size were five times more likely to exhibit mental decline than the quartile with the biggest heads.

Head circumference at birth, by contrast, had no relationship with intelligence or mental decline. This has important implications, because as the authors explained, it suggests "brain development during infancy and early childhood is more important than foetal growth in determining how well cognitive abilities are preserved in old age".

Gale, C.R., Walton, S. & Martyn, C.N. (2003). Foetal and postnatal head growth and risk of cognitive decline in old age. Brain, 126, 2273-2278.
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Body image - it's 'healthy' people who are deluded

We’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it. Depressing? Well, it’s been argued that depressed people are the sane ones because they see the world for how it really is. Now consider this – a study has found people with eating disorders have an accurate perception of how attractive their bodies look to other people. In contrast, healthy controls are the ‘deluded’ ones – they think their bodies look far more attractive to other people than they really do.

Anita Jansen and colleagues took photos of 14 women with eating-disorder symptoms and of 12 healthy controls, all wearing underwear only. A panel of 24 men and 64 women then looked at the photos and, without knowing which women had eating disorder symptoms, rated the women’s bodies for attractiveness. The photos didn’t show the women’s faces.

Although the bodies of the women with eating disorder symptoms and the healthy controls did not differ on objective measures (such as body mass index and waist to hip ratio), the panel rated the bodies of the women with eating disorder symptoms as significantly less attractive than the control women’s bodies. This would have come as no surprise to the eating disorder women – their ratings of their own appearance closely matched the ratings they received from the panel.

But even though the healthy controls’ appearance was rated higher than the eating disorder women, they would have been upset – the appearance ratings they gave themselves were much higher than the ratings given to them by the panel. “This points to the existence of a self-serving body-image bias in the normal controls”, the researchers said. “Self-serving biases or positive illusions are prototypical for healthy people, they maintain mental health and help to protect from depression”.

So, what are the implications of this research for helping women with eating disorders? Lead researcher Anita Jansen told The Digest about research into a possible cognitive intervention: “We have started a training for people who are dissatisfied with their looks, to expose them to their own bodies and to teach them to focus on the (self-defined) beautiful parts of their bodies only and to describe them in very positive terms. Focusing at the beautiful parts instead of the ugly ones makes them happier and more satisfied with their bodies is our experience until now”.

Jansen, A., Smeets, T., Martijn, C. & Nederkoorn, C. (2006). I see what you see: The lack of a self-serving body-image bias in eating disorders. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45, 123-135.

Link to NICE guidelines for the treatment of eating disorders.

Link to discussion of this study, via Mind Hacks.
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Winning gold - comparing media coverage in America and Japan

With a final, gargantuan burst of effort, the sprinter breaks through the finishing tape to win gold. An individual triumph, achieved through a combination of physical prowess and sheer determination on the day? Or is it a shared success, the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of trials and tribulations, shaped by the sprinter’s friends, family and coaches?

An analysis of media coverage during the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City suggests the answer depends very much on where you are.

Hazel Rose Markus and her colleagues found American media coverage focused on athletes’ personal attributes and the competition they faced on the day, whereas the Japanese media also devoted attention to athletes’ life experiences, their reactions to winning or losing, and the role played by the people around them. Moreover, American coverage of athletes was overwhelmingly positive, whereas Japanese coverage paid equal attention to negative and positive aspects of the athlete and their story.

In a second study, 60 American and 60 Japanese students were asked to select 15 out of 40 possible statements that could be used by the media to describe a fictional athlete. The Americans chose statements that emphasised personal attributes and uniqueness whereas the Japanese chose statements emphasising the athlete’s coach and team, their motivation, emotion and doubt.

“Performance does not just happen for the Olympian or for the fans”, the researchers concluded. “Rather it is fashioned and ‘identified’ with the aid of a variety of implicit socioculturally grounded models…Beyond construing the ‘same’ world differently, perceivers experience and create somewhat different worlds”.
Markus, H.Z., Uchida, Y., Omoregie, H., Townsend, S.S.M. & Kitayama, S. (2006). Going for the Gold. Models of agency in Japanese and American contexts. Psychological Science, 17, 103-112.
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Are you a grumpy maximiser or a happy satisficer?

From finding a TV channel to picking a restaurant, are you one of those people – a maximiser – who always has to perform an exhaustive check of all the available choices to make sure you pick the best? Or are you are a satisficer – someone who searches only for as long as it takes to find something adequate? If you’re a maximiser, take heed – you might end up with something better, but your pains will make you unhappy in the process. At least that’s what Barry Schwartz and colleagues found happens when it comes to job hunting.

Five hundred and forty-eight graduating students from 11 universities were categorised as maximisers or satisficers based on their answers to questions like “When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to”.

When questioned again the following summer, the maximisers had found jobs that paid 20 per cent more on average than the satisficers’ jobs, but they were less satisfied with the outcome of their job search, and were more pessimistic, stressed, tired, anxious, worried, overwhelmed and depressed.

“We suggest that maximisers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations”, the researchers said. Indeed, the researchers found that maximisers were more likely to report fantasising about jobs they hadn’t applied for and wishing they had pursued even more jobs than they did.

“Even when they get what they want, maximisers may not always want what they get”, the researchers concluded. “Individual decision-makers and policymakers are thus confronted by a dilemma: What should people do when ‘doing better’ makes them feel worse?”.

Iyengar, S.S., Wells, R.E. & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing better but feeling worse. Looking for the ‘best’ job undermines satisfaction. Psychological Science, 17, 143-149.

Link to abstract of another recent study showing it's not always best to think too hard about decisions. BBC coverage here.
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Meaningful gestures help people remember what you said

Complement your speech with gestures if you want people to remember what you’re telling them, but make sure they’re related to what you’re saying and not just random gesticulations.

Pierre Feyereisen at the University of Louvain in Belgium showed 59 student participants a video of an actor uttering different sentences. Afterwards, he asked them to recall as many of the sentences as possible. He found they remembered more sentences that were accompanied by a meaningful gesture (e.g. “the buyer went round the property”, accompanied by the actor pointing his right index finger downwards and drawing a circle”) than sentences accompanied by a meaningless gesture (e.g. “He runs to the nearest house” accompanied by the actor holding his right hand open, palm facing upwards). A control condition with different students confirmed that without gestures, the sentences were all equally memorable.

The finding suggests it is the meaning inherent in gestures that acts as a memory aid, rather than the mere act of gesturing making some sentences more distinctive than others.

This was confirmed in a second experiment in which video editing was used to jumble up the actor’s utterances and gestures. When a meaningful gesture didn’t match the sentence it was combined with, it no longer acted as a memory aid. Again, this shows it isn’t the inherent physical complexity or appearance of meaningful gestures that underlies their mnemonic value, rather it is their representation of the sentence’s meaning that is important.
Feyereisen, P. (2006). Further investigation on the mnemonic effect of gestures: Their meaning matters. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18, 185-205.
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How lies breed lies

Lies breed because we’re more likely to tell lies to people who have lied to us. That’s according to James Tyler and colleagues who found telling multiple lies of exaggeration (e.g. “I got a first class degree at university”) is more likely to mean you will be lied to in return, distrusted and disliked, than if you tell lies of underestimation (e.g. “Berlusconi only gifted me £150,000”).

Tyler’s team showed 64 undergrads a video of another student being interviewed. The participants were given a sheet of facts about the student (presented on university headed paper, and ostensibly gathered from the student’s admission interview to the university) so they could tell whether he was lying on not in the video. In fact the student in the video was a confederate of the researchers, and five versions of the video were made, featuring varying levels of honesty.

Afterwards each participant was secretly filmed while he/she briefly met the student who they’d just watched being interviewed. Then the participants were debriefed and asked to point out any lies they had told to the interviewee student.

Participants who’d watched a version of the video in which the interviewee had told several lies of exaggeration were more likely to report having lied to him when they subsequently met, than were participants who watched a version of the video in which the interviewee always told the truth, only told lies of underestimation, or only told one lie of exaggeration.

Unsurprisingly, participants who watched a version in which the interviewee told multiple lies of exaggeration also tended to say they liked him less and found him less trustworthy.

“When people are lied to they may consider a requisite amount of reciprocal deception as a legitimate and called for response”, the researchers concluded. They said this finding could be interpreted in support of the negative norm of reciprocity “in which people tend to ‘reciprocate in kind’ to others who mistreat them”, or it might instead reflect a form of the chameleon effect “in which people non-consciously alter their behaviours to match those of interaction partners”.

Tyler, J.M., Feldman, R.S. & Reichert, A. (2006). The price of deceptive behaviour: Disliking and lying to people who lie to us. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 69-77.
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You won't forget this

Last year researchers reported they were able to use real-time images of a person’s brain activity to tell what version of an ambiguous shape they were looking at. Now Leun Otten and colleagues report that they can use measures of the brain’s surface electrical activity to predict whether someone will remember a word that they’re about to look at.

Participants were repeatedly presented with a symbol and then a word. The symbol indicated whether the participant had to judge if the ensuing word was a living thing, or if they had to decide whether its first and last letters were in alphabetical order. From the brain activity that occurred after the symbol, Otten’s team found that they could tell whether participants would remember the ensuing word when it was presented to them again 45 minutes later. Specifically, more negative electroencephalographic waveforms at the front of the brain after a symbol was shown, indicated the ensuing word was more likely to be remembered later.

“These findings demonstrate that neural activity preceding a stimulus event can influence memory for the event up to at least 45 minutes later”, the researchers said. The finding adds to previous research by showing that it’s not only brain activity elicited by a to-be-remembered stimulus that is important. Preceding brain activity “that in some sense provides a ‘neural context’ for the event”, is also crucial, the researchers explained.

Lead researcher Leun Otten said: “It sounds a bit like clairvoyance in the sense that we're able to predict whether someone will remember a word before they even see it. That's really new - scientists knew that brain activity changes as you store things into memory but now we have found brain activity that tells how well your memory will work in advance”. Spooky.

Otten, L.J., Quayle, A.H., Akram, S., Ditewig, T.A. & Rugg, M.D. (2006). Brain activity before an event predicts later recollection. Nature Neuroscience. In Press. DOI: 10.1038/nn1663.
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