Resources for A-level students and teachers

OCR Core Studies - 2008 Specification

This is a special post for teachers and students of the OCR A/AS-level exam specification in the UK. We were particularly attracted to the OCR specification because it includes the unique 'core studies' unit which revisits classic studies from across the breadth of the psychology.

Below we collect together some key resources from the Research Digest and The Psychologist magazine (shown in red throughout post) relevant to the studies from the new specification, which teachers are currently preparing to teach from September 2008.

We’ve also contacted some of the authors of these ‘core studies’ for their views on influences, reactions, and how their research has stood the test of time.


1. LOFTUS, E. & PALMER, J. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 13, 585-589.

Elizabeth Loftus: "I had been studying semantic memory for several years when I decided I wanted to do some work that had more obviously social relevance. A perfect place to go for someone with a background in memory and an interest in legal matters was the study of eyewitness memory.

The particular angle I took was to look at the impact of leading questions. With collaborators, I showed that a leading question could affect the answer a witness gave. This is something lawyers and psychologists had known, but we showed that changing even a single word in a question could make a dramatic difference. However, we went further in this research in showing that a leading question could have a longer-range effect – it could influence the answers that witnesses gave to completely different questions posed much later. And it was my first inkling that the leading questions might actually be altering a witness’s memory.

Why did I study memory for accidents? A former professor of mine from Stanford was now working for the United States Department of Transportation. He said that there was money for research on accidents. So I wrote a proposal to look at leading questions and memory for accidents, and got my first big research grant. Of course the conclusions apply to myriad forms of complex autobiographical memory, but this is why these particular subjects were looking at accidents rather than some other stimuli.

The title, ‘Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction’, came to me while talking to a colleague at the Xerox machine. It seemed pithy and perfect. However, later I would get reprint requests from people who were expecting to learn about the engineering aspects of accident reconstruction!

BPS resources: Loftus on false memories ; False memories about fattening foods ; Earwitness testimony .

2. BARON-COHEN, S., JOLLIFFE, T., MORTIMORE, C. and ROBERTSON, M. (1997). Another advanced test of theory of mind: evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or asperger syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38, 813-822.

Simon Baron-Cohen: "The inspiration for the Eyes test was five-fold:(1) In the early 90s we had published a series of papers showing that mental states are not unobservable (which was the traditional view) but had some outward markers (e.g. facial expression, vocal intonation). Darwin had thought this might be restricted to the 'basic' emotions (happy, sad, angry, afraid, and surprised), but we wanted to see if even the 'complex' mental states (such as reflective, or distrust) might also be ‘readable’ from the face; (2) the traditional 'theory of mind' tests were all-or-none (pass/fail) tests which did not allow for the measurement of individual differences; (3) one type of individual difference that we wanted to test was a sex difference (given the widespread view in our society that empathy is better in females) but this needed a test that might be sensitive to individual differences of a subtle nature; and (4) there was a need for an ‘advanced’ theory of mind test because most of the available ones were designed for children. This meant that it was impossible to say if an adult had 'normal' theory of mind simply because they could pass a child-level test. What was needed was an age-appropriate adult-level test; (5) there was a need for a test of theory of mind that was not just relevant to the lower functioning individuals with autism but also to the higher functioning individuals with autism (such as Asperger Syndrome) if we were to test if a theory of mind deficit was universal to all individuals on the autistic spectrum.

What has been a pleasant surprise is how this test has been rapidly picked up by researchers across the world studying different clinical conditions or to test correlates of social cognition, across different cultures. I like to think that is because it is recognised as ecologically valid: that we do indeed pick up important information about a person's mind from subtle cues around their eyes. And that variation in such a skill might be both universal to humans, and be in part influenced by our biology (our genes or our hormones), such that atypical performance on this test could be the result of atypical neural structure or function.

BPS Resources: How children with autism draw people ; Feeling other people's pain ; Autism and theory of mind .

3. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH, S. (1986).
Spontaneous Symbol Acquisition and Communicative Use by Pygmy Chimpanzees. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 115(3), 211-35.

BPS Resources:
The usefulness of research on animals ; and debate here ; research on language .


1. SAMUEL, J. & BRYANT, P. (1984). Asking only one question in the conservation experiment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 25, 315-318.
NO RESOURCES AS YET – watch this space!

2. BANDURA, A., ROSS, D. & ROSS, S. (1961).
Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 375-382.
NO RESOURCES AS YET – watch this space!

3. FREUD, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five-year old boy. Pelican Freud Library. Vol. 8. Case Histories 1.

BPS Resources:
What did Freud get right? Freud's influence .


1. Maguire, E.A., Gadian, D.G., Johnsrude, I.S. et al. (2000). Navigation-related structural changes in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 97, 4398–403.

Eleanor Maguire: "The taxi driver study was inspired not so much by one previous paper, but by a whole set. For many years work in non-humans (birds, small mammals) suggested that animals who were particularly reliant on having a good spatial memory (for food-storing, or with large territories) had a larger hippocampus, even when body and brain size were taken into account. Even more interesting was the finding that hippocampal volume could change depending on the season! So during mating season in some species, when animals would wander far and wide, hippocampal volume would increase. This led me to wonder if similar kinds of effects could be found in humans; could the volume of the human hippocampus change in response to navigation needs.The original taxi driver study received global interest from fellow scientists, the media, and the general public. It really struck a chord, and to this day I still receive many inquiries about the study and subsequent work. I think its appeal lies in the ease with which the message can be understood by non-experts, but also in the important implications it has for scientists who study the cognitive neuroscience of memory."

BPS resources: None as yet – watch this space!
The research won Maguire and her team the ‘IgNobel’ award, which honour people whose achievements ‘cannot or should not be reproduced’. See
here and here.

2. DEMENT, W. & KLEITMAN, N. (1957). The relation of eye movements during sleep to dream activity. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53(5), 339-346.

BPS Resources: Sleep and memory consolidation ; Sleep and electrical stimulation ; Sleep .

3. SPERRY, R. (1968). Hemisphere deconnection and unity in consciousness. American Psychologist, 23, 723-733.

BPS Resources: The corpus callosum ; Hemispheric specialisation and brain state ; Seeing half the world through the prism of language .


1. MILGRAM, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
See also
Wikipedia entry, with links.

BPS Resources:
Milgram reproduced in virtual reality.

2. REICHER, S. & HASLAM S.A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny. The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 1-40.

The BBC Prison Study has its own resource-packed website. Psychblog has links to several videos about Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Study, including a BBC interview with the man himself.

Alex Haslam: "Our study was, of course, inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney et al., 1973). However, we and others had always felt that this study (and the theory that informed it) was limited because it failed to explore processes of resistance as well as those of tyranny. In line with the basic principles of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), we were therefore influenced by research like that of Wright et al. (1998) which showed that, under certain conditions, individuals would come together as a group to protest unfair treatment and in order to bring about social change. We were surprised by Zimbardo's argument that, because the BBC study showed that under particular conditions prisoners resist inequality, this must be the result a design error. Moreover, he argued that such resistance (and the stress it caused the guards) was evidence that our study lacked external validity since ‘such events [are unheard of] in any real prison anywhere in the known universe’. In fact though, the criminology literature discusses a number of classic cases of such resistance (e.g., Buntman, 2003; McEvoy, 2001), and also indicates that prison staff typically experience high levels of burnout and alienation (Phillber, 1987). The point is that both tyranny and resistance occur in prisons (as in other social systems), and the task of social psychology is to explain when and why these different outcomes occur."

Steve Reicher: "Historically, the Stanford Prison study was critical in turning the tide against personality explanations of (extreme) social behaviour and in demonstrating the power of context. But Zimbardo’s one-dimensional situationism in turn was bleak and unconvincing. It suggests that, particularly in groups, we cannot help but succumb to the demands placed upon us — that as social beings we have no agency, no choice and hence no responsibility for what we do. That is how Zimbardo explains and excuses the behaviour of the Stanford Guards. It comes as no surprise that, more recently, Zimbardo has played a prominent role in defending some of the soldiers accused of abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Where we strongly endorse Zimbardo’s contribution is in the need for a group-level explanation of brutality and inhumanity. Where we differ is in the type of group processes that are involved. More specifically, we strongly dispute the notion that group psychology is inherently primitive and negative.

Our own results, in accord with other work in the social identity tradition (e.g., Turner et al., 1987, 1994), show this clearly. First, our Guards and Prisoners did not automatically and helplessly slot into their assigned roles. Rather, their willingness to act as group members depended upon their identification with the group. Identification, in turn, was a function of the opportunities they perceived in the immediate context and the consequences they imagined in future contexts.

Second, shared identification was critical for people to work together and achieve their goals. It led to trust, to coordination, to planning and to the emergence of consensual leadership. In all these ways, group membership allowed people to become the authors of their own fate rather than have their fate imposed by others.

Third, while groups can of course do terrible things, this is not a function of some inherent flaw in group psychology, but rather stems from the social belief systems that inform group behaviour. The solution therefore lies at a societal and ideological level. Contrary to Zimbardo’s suggestions, it certainly does not lie in trying to break down the group and getting people to behave as individuals. Indeed there is a grave danger in following that path — not least because it is only in groups that people can resist oppression. Moreover, one of the most surprising and most disturbing findings in our study was that, when their own groups fail and people are unable, collectively, to build a system based on their own values, then these people will become more prone to let others build a system for them, even if it is based on completely alien values. It was this which led our participants to become increasingly authoritarian during the study and to turn increasingly from democracy to an embrace of tyranny (Haslam & Reicher, 2007a; Reicher & Haslam, 2006a).

In some quarters, our criticisms of Zimbardo’s brand of situationism have been taken as support for a return to some sort of personality explanation. They are not. Our argument is precisely that we need to overcome the old opposition between individual and situation — or, more accurately, between individual and group — and understand how these two things are informed by, and structure, each other (Haslam & Reicher, 2007b).

One of the moist basic messages to be taken from our study is that people are not mindless in groups. They do not follow norms or role requirements like mindless robots. Rather the group provides both (a) an intellectual framework for members to discuss and debate what is appropriate for them to do, and (b) the practical power to turn words into deeds. That is (in contrast to Zimbardo) we show that groups allow for, rather than detract from, human agency, choice and responsibility (Reicher & Haslam, 2006b). The challenge for the next wave of social psychological theory is to unravel the nature of this interdependency between individuality and collectivity."

BPS Resources: Tyranny revisited: The BBC Prison Study ; Zimbardo reassessed ; Can good people really turn bad?

3. PILIAVIN, I., RODIN, J. & PILIAVIN, J. (1969) Good Samaritanism; an underground phenomenon? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13(4), 289-299.

BPS Resources: Altruism ; The bystander phenomenon revisited .

Individual differences

ROSENHAN, D. (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 197, 250-258.

BPS Resources: Paranoia in the Digest ; and The Psychologist .

THIGPEN, C. & CLECKLEY, H. (1954) A case of multiple personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 135-151.

BPS Resources: The human chameleon ; Multiple personality and child abuse .

GRIFFITHS, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369. Listen to podcast

Mark Griffiths: "As a new PhD student, the paper that really inspired me was a pioneering study by Anderson and Brown (1984). Much of the experimental work on the psychology of gambling had been done in laboratory settings and the question of ecological validity was something that I had great concerns about. I didn’t want to study gamblers in a psychology laboratory, I wanted to examine them in the gambling environments themselves. Anderson and Brown studied a group of regular gamblers and reported that their heart rates did not increase in laboratory conditions but did in field conditions (i.e. in the casino), by an average of 23bpm. This perhaps explained why studies on arousal during laboratory gambling had failed to find heart rate increases above baseline levels.

From this study, Anderson and Brown – unhappy that Skinnerian reinforcement theory could not account for the phenomenology of pathological gambling (especially relapse after abstinence) – postulated a model centering upon individual differences in cortical and autonomic arousal in combination with irregular reinforcement schedules. This neo-Pavlovian model in which arousal has a central role, plays an important role in the addiction process. According to Anderson and Brown, this model accounts for reinstatement after abstinence and allows for the maintenance of the behaviour by internal mood/state/arousal cues in addition to external situation cues.

My 1994 study raised lots of interesting points and by studying gamblers within session I obtained lots of interesting data. One of the more interesting observations concerned ‘the psychology of the near miss’. I noticed that when thinking aloud, regular gamblers often explained away their losses and changed clear losses into near winning ones (i.e., gamblers weren’t constantly losing, they were constantly nearly winning, and this was both psychologically and physiologically rewarding for them). The work of Paul Delfabbro in Australia built on my idea of analyzing gamblers within session and postulated that gambling is maintained by winning and losing sequences within the operant conditioning paradigm (i.e. that the only rewards and reinforcers in gambling are purely monetary). I then argued in a follow up paper (Griffiths, 1999) that Delfabbro and Winefield’s contribution was too narrow in its focus in that they had taken no account of the "near miss" in relation to operant conditioning theory and that there may be other reinforcers that play a role in the maintenance process. I also argued that gambling was biopsychosocial behaviour and should therefore be explained by a biopsychosocial account.

I think the study is important because it showed that gamblers could be studied in real-life contexts and that useful data could be collected. It also showed the complexity of gambling and that gamblers could turn apparently objective outcomes (losing) into ones that were highly subjective (near winning ones). I also showed that this had implications for treatment (see Griffiths, 1993a). I also argued that this was just one part of a big jigsaw and that this one study shouldn’t be seen in isolation but read along with my observational studies (Griffiths, 1991a), my other experimental studies in an arcade examining heart rate arousal (Griffiths, 1993b; 1995), my semi-structured interview studies (Griffiths, 1990), surveys (e.g. Griffiths, 1993c), and my case studies (Griffiths, 1991b; Griffiths, 1993). All of these studies as a whole were featured in my first book (Griffiths, 1995b)."

BPS Resources: Griffiths’s ‘action plan’ on problem gambling.

Thanks to Dr Jon Sutton who helped compile all these links and comments.

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Finding consciousness within

It’s difficult to imagine anything worse than lying paralysed, being fully aware and yet unable to signal to your loved ones sitting around you that – yes, you can hear them, you are there. If only the doctors could scan your brain and see that you were listening and thinking. Remarkably, that’s what British researchers Adrian Owen and colleagues at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit claim to have done.

Owen’s team scanned the brain of a 23-year-old woman left in a coma by a car accident. She had emerged from coma into what’s known as a persistent vegetative state, characterised by periods of sleep and wakefulness but showing no outward signs of being consciously aware.

First they found the language parts of her brain responded to spoken sentences, and that ambiguous sounding words like creak/creek triggered activity in an area known to be involved in selecting between alternative meanings. More amazing, however, was what happened when they asked her to imagine either playing tennis or walking around her home. The tennis instruction prompted activity in the motor control parts of her brain, whereas the home instruction triggered memory-related activity associated with navigation – both in a way indistinguishable from the activity observed when healthy participants followed the same instructions.

“Her decision to cooperate by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings”, the researchers concluded.

However, commentators have advised caution in interpreting the results. “We should not generalise from this single patient, who suffered relatively few cerebral lesions, to most other vegetative state patients, who typically have massive structural brain lesions” said Lionel Naccache at the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, INSERM, writing in the same journal issue. “If this patient is actually conscious, why wouldn’t she be able to engage in intentional overt motor acts, given that she had not suffered functional or structural lesion of the motor pathways”, he asked.

Owen, A.M., Coleman, M.R., Boly, M., Davis, M.H., Laureys, S., & Pickard, J.D. (2006). Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science, 313, 1402.
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A new approach to help those who hear voices

When it comes to the ‘positive’ symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hearing voices, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has mostly be used to help reduce the distress and burden that they can cause. But now Jerome Favrod and colleagues in Switzerland have tested the idea that CBT could help tackle the cognitive deficit that some argue causes the voices to be heard in the first place.

One theory for why people with schizophrenia hear voices is that they mistake their own inner thoughts, or words they are planning to say, as being of external origin. Favrod’s team recruited a 38-year-old patient who heard voices that he believed belonged to an evil spirit. They tried to help him better recognise the source of the words he heard.

During training, the researchers would pick a category such as ‘fruit’, and then show the patient a picture of one fruit, name another fruit out loud, show him the written name of another fruit and finally ask him to name a fruit. Later they presented him with a list of all the fruits mentioned, and asked him to recall which fruit he had named, and which had been shown in a picture, written or named out loud. They taught him to better remember items he had suggested by using personal memories – for example if he suggested apple, to link this with an apple tree in his grandmother’s garden.

After 6 hours of training over 11 weeks, the patient was better at recognising his own suggestions, and better at recalling the personal memories he had tied them to. Crucially, his auditory hallucinations were also improved and continued to be improved at follow-up a year later.

“Even though we report a single case study, we think that the results definitely encourage the potential use of cognitive remediation for auditory hallucinations”, the researchers concluded.

Favrod, J., Vianin, P., Pomini, V. & Mast, F.W. (2006). A first step toward cognitive remediation of voices: a case study. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, 35, 159-163.
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How professional rugby players cope with performance stress

Image by jem on flickrProfessional rugby players are more worried about getting injured than anything else, including whether or not they win the match, or whether their opponents cheated. That’s according to Adam Nicholls and colleagues who succeeded in getting eight professional players to fill out a diary after each rugby match they played during a 28-day period in 2004.

The players, including a full international All-Black and three full Irish internationals, completed a check-list of potential stressors, described the techniques they’d used to cope, and reflected on how effective they felt these had been.

Twenty-four different stressors were cited at least once, but the three most frequently cited – worry about injuries, or about previous mental or physical errors – made up 44 per cent of all stressor incidents. The most frequently used coping strategies were putting the stressor out of mind, increasing one’s effort and reinterpreting things in a positive way. Crucially, however, the strategies the players reported using most often were not the same strategies that they said were the most effective (these included adapting techniques and improving communication), suggesting the players could benefit from guidance in choosing the right strategies. However, the picture was complicated by the fact strategies varied in effectiveness depending on the stressor in question.

“Given that a small number of stressors recur over time, we suggest that practitioners teach athletes three or four effective coping strategies that include at least one problem-focused, emotion-focused and avoidance strategy”, the researchers said. “This way, when faced with controllable or uncontrollable stressors, athletes always have a relatively effective coping strategy to deploy”.

Nicholls, A.R., Holt, N.L., Polman, R.C.J. & Bloomfield, J. (2006). Stressors, coping, and coping effectiveness among professional rugby union players. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 314-329.
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Your conscience really can be wiped clean

We talk about “washing away” our sins and “feeling dirty” after doing something naughty, but is this just a quirk of our language, or are moral and physical cleanliness really intertwined?

Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist first demonstrated that the two concepts really are linked in our minds. Participants asked to recall a recent unethical deed they had committed were subsequently more likely to convert word fragments (e.g. W__H) into a cleansing-related word (e.g. WASH vs. WISH) than were participants who recalled something ethical they had done.

Furthermore, participants who recalled an unethical deed were more likely than participants who recalled an ethical deed (67 per cent vs. 33 per cent), to choose an antiseptic wipe as a free gift rather than a pencil.

And it seems physical cleansing can actually clear our moral conscience. A different set of participants were again asked to describe something unethical they had done in the past. Some of them were then offered an antiseptic wipe to clean their hands. Next, all the participants were asked to volunteer to help a research student who desperately needed participants. Remarkably, fewer of the participants who’d wiped their hands clean volunteered – 41 per cent of them did compared with 74 per cent of the participants who hadn’t cleaned their hands. Apparently, their moral stains having been washed away, the participants who’d cleaned their hands subsequently felt less of a compulsion to compensate for their previous unethical deed.

The findings raise intriguing questions about the effect washing might have on people’s future moral behaviour. “Would cleansing ironically license unethical behaviour?”, the researchers asked. “It remains to be seen whether clean hands really do make a pure heart, but our studies indicate that they at least provide a clean conscience after moral trespass” they said.

Zhong, C-B. & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313, 1451-1452.
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Bullying still too narrowly defined by some teachers

A minority of teachers may still have an overly-narrow conception of what constitutes bullying, according to Paul Naylor and colleagues. They asked 225 teachers and 1,820 pupils (aged between 11 and 14) from 51 schools to write down what ‘they think bullying is’. Despite the fact the participating schools all had high-profile anti-bullying policies, 33 per cent of pupils and 10 per cent of teachers restricted their definition to direct physical or verbal abuse, failing to mention issues surrounding social exclusion, power imbalance, the bully’s intention to cause hurt, or whether the bullying was repetitive.

“The finding that even in the schools involved in this study where anti-bullying policies and practices are so high profile there are still many teachers who are working with very limited conceptions of bullying is cause for concern” the researchers said. “It may be that researchers have so far not been very successful in communicating their ideas about bullying to teachers”.

Girl pupils were twice as likely as boys to mention social exclusion in their definitions of bullying. Older pupils too tended to have a more sophisticated conceptualisation of what bullying is. Overall though, the pupils tended to give narrower definitions of bullying than teachers, and they were particularly less likely to mention the effect of bullying on the victim, all of which led the researchers to conclude that many children may not realise they are being bullied. “Adults who work with child targets of bullying should listen not only to the child’s allegations of the bully’s behaviour, but also to the effects that it has on him or her” the researchers said.

Naylor, P., Cowie, H., Cossin, F., de Bettencourt, R. & Lemme, F. (2006). Teachers’ and pupils’ definitions of bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 553-576.
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The way children with autism draw people

Drawings of humans by children with autism tend to lack variety, researchers have found, possibly reflecting the unusual way they think about and relate to other people.

Anthony Lee and Peter Hobson compared drawings by 14 autistic children (aged 8 to 15) with drawings by 14 non-autistic children who were learning disabled. When the children were asked to draw two houses followed by their own house, they all tended to draw three houses each looking different to the next. However, when the children were asked to draw a female person, a male person and to also draw themselves, crucial differences between the groups emerged – the non-autistic children tended to draw three distinct figures, but the autistic children tended to draw three human figures that varied little from one to the other. The autistic children’s drawings of people were just as detailed but they lacked variation.

“…[T]here is evidence that [autistic] children’s sense of individual kinds and characters of people, and their concepts of themselves, are less infused with personal qualities than are those of people without autism – and undifferentiated human figures would be one result”, the researchers said.

Lee, A. & Hobson, R.P. (2006). Drawing self and others: How do children with autism differ from those with learning difficulties? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 547-565.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

'Spot the book' and 'Spot the country' - new tests for estimating people's IQ prior to brain-related illness or injury.

The brains of men and women differ in how they respond to images of sexual and emotional infidelity.

Predicting which students will have drink problems based on psychological tests of mental control.

What is it like to discover you have mental deficits after suffering a brain injury?

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation to improve memory function in older adults. (open access).
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The Special Issue Spotter

Approaches to identifying students with specific learning difficulties. (Psychology In The Schools).

Mental representations of attachment. (Attachment and Human Development).

Inhibition of return (we're slower to return our gaze to the same place twice). (Cognitive Neuropsychology).

The nature of music. (Cognition).

Genes, brain and cognition - a roadmap for the cognitive neuroscientist. (Cognition).
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Coming very soon...

image by CrystlTo celebrate three years since its launch as an email newsletter (the blog came later), the BPS Research Digest will soon bring you a showcase of psychological science, as some of the world's best psychology bloggers discuss their favourite psychology studies from the last three years.

Among the attendees at this banquet of the mind will be Mind Hacks, the Relaxed Therapist, Cognitive Daily, the Staff Psychologist and several more...

Gate crashers welcome.
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Who's the daddy?

Image by Raimond SpekkingBeing a father profoundly alters the structure of your brain – at least it does if you’re a marmoset monkey. Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy and colleagues at Princeton University psychology department used staining techniques to compare the brain structure of male marmoset fathers with the brain structure of male marmosets who had never fathered an infant. Marmoset fathers are unusual among mammals because they care extensively for their offspring, spending large amounts of time carrying and feeding them.

The researchers found that compared with non-fathers, there was a marked increase in the connective branching between brain cells in the front of the marmoset fathers’ brains. Kozorovitskiy told The Digest that this could lead to enhanced information processing, thus promoting paternal behaviour. “Paternal behaviour in marmosets is a complex task, indeed – the infants must be watched over, picked up whenever necessary and handed back to the mother for feeding at regular intervals”, she said. The marmoset fathers’ brains also had an increased number of receptors for vasopressin, a hormone that’s known to be associated with bonding.

But how relevant is this research to human fathers? Kozorovitskiy again: “Since many human fathers are intimately involved in child-care, their brains might show somewhat similar changes. Yet, male marmosets are extremely engaged fathers and carry their offspring almost all the time during the first month or two of the infant’s life, and it remains to be seen how the brains of human dads measure up”.

In some ways this research is hardly surprising – from taxi-driving to juggling, countless studies have demonstrated how the brain’s structure changes to meet the demands placed on it. Indeed, Kozorovitskiy’s team are planning experiments to find out if the brain changes they observed in marmoset fathers will also be found among any marmoset that raises young, whether it’s the natural parent or not.

Kozorovitskiy, Y., Hughes, M., Lee, K. & Gould, E. (2006). Fatherhood affects dendritic spines and vasopressin V1a receptors in the primate prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, In Press. DOI:10.1038/nnl1753.

Marmoset image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
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Job candidates want the chance to perform

The last thing companies want after a big recruitment drive is to leave a trail of unsuccessful applicants bearing a grudge. The key to avoiding this is for employers to ensure failed applicants believe they were given ample opportunity to perform. That’s according to Deidra Schleicher and colleagues at Purdue University, who say this is even more important than making sure the recruitment process appears relevant to the job.

The researchers asked hundreds of job applicants to a US government agency how relevant they felt the recruitment process was; how well they were treated; and how much they’d been given the opportunity to perform (as judged by their agreement with statements like “I felt that I could show my skills and abilities through this test”). Feeling they’d had the opportunity to perform was important to all applicants, but among those who were unsuccessful, it was the single strongest predictor of how fair they judged the whole selection process to be.

So, what causes an applicant to feel they haven’t been given a fair chance to perform? Reasons offered by participants in this study included feeling the instructions were unclear; not having enough time to complete tasks; and having too many distractions around. These issues should be easy enough for recruiters to deal with. More problematic could be the finding that what works best for selection (e.g. structured interviews), doesn’t necessarily match what applicants feel gives them the fairest chance to perform (they preferred open-ended interviews).

Schleicher, D.J., Venkataramani, V., Morgeson, F.P. & Campion, M.A. (2006). So you didn’t get the job…Now what do you think? Examining opportunity-to-perform fairness perceptions. Personnel Psychology, 59, 590.
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Why season of birth is related to childhood intelligence

Countless studies have found that children’s intelligence appears to be related to the time of year they were born in. Some investigators have argued this is because seasonally varying environmental factors like temperature and infections can affect brain development. But now Debbie Lawlor and colleagues have analysed data from 12,150 children born in Aberdeen between 1950 and 1956, and they’ve concluded that the effect of season of birth is almost entirely explained by the age children happen to be when they start school.

Reading ability at age 9 and arithmetic ability at age 11 were both related to season of birth (children born in late Winter or Spring performed better), but this association virtually disappeared once age at starting primary school and age relative to class peers were taken into account. That is, season of birth was only related to later intelligence because it affected the age children started school, with those who started school younger or older than the average tending to score less well on later intelligence tests.

By contrast, the outside temperature when the children were conceived, during gestation, and at their birth, had no independent association with their later intelligence.

“We have found weak season of birth effects on some aspects of childhood intelligence, which appear to be explained by differences in age at school entry and/or age relative to peers”, the researchers concluded.

However, the story isn’t entirely straightforward. The researchers predicted that children who spent less time at primary school would perform less well on subsequent intelligence tests. Instead, they found the opposite pattern. “It is possible that those who had least time in primary school but most time at home were in fact given extra tuition by their parents”, they surmised.

Lawlor, D.A., Clark, H., Ronalds, G. & Leon, D.A. (2006). Season of birth and childhood intelligence: Findings from the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s cohort study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/000709905x49700.
You have read this article Cognition / Developmental / Educational / Intelligence with the title September 2006. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

What's different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

Only a minority of people who think about committing suicide actually go ahead and make a suicide attempt. Is there something different about these people – some way, perhaps, to identify those suicidal people who are at most risk?

Kate Fairweather and colleagues identified 522 people (aged between 20 and 44) from a massive community survey who said they had thought about taking their own life in the last year. Among these people, just under 10 per cent also reported that they had made an attempt on their life.

The researchers found those individuals who had actually attempted suicide, rather than just thinking about it, were more likely to have serious ill-health, to be unemployed and to have poor relationships with their friends and family. And these factors had a cumulative effect – a participant with two of these factors was three times more likely to have attempted suicide; someone with all three factors was 11 times more likely to have made an attempt.

Surprisingly perhaps, rates of self-reported depression and anxiety were no greater among the suicide attempters than among those who only thought about suicide.

There were also gender- and age-specific associations. For example, among men only, those reporting high levels of ‘mastery’ (feeling in control of the forces affecting their lives) were 20 per cent less likely to attempt suicide. “…[T]he male role prescribes autonomy, self-confidence and being goal-orientated. Accordingly, males who believe they are lacking in these domains may feel socially marginalised or incompetent”, the researchers said.

Among people aged between 40 and 44, unemployment was a particular risk, increasing the likelihood of a suicide attempt nine-fold. Perhaps people in this age group were particularly dependent on their workplace for social support.

“Contrary to the view that mental health differentiates suicide attempters from ideators…”, the researchers concluded, “…This [research] suggests that mental health professionals may be able to intervene in the progression of ideation into attempt if they identify recent instances of upsetting social interactions, diagnosis of a disabling physical illness or recent job losses”.

Fairweather, A.K., Anstey, K.J., Rodgers, B. & Butterworth, P. (2006). Factors distinguishing suicide attempters from suicide ideators in a community sample: social issues and physical health problems. Psychological Medicine, 36, 1235-1245.
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The expert mind of the burglar

image by kylemacThe way burglars select houses to target, and how they search once inside, reveal evidence of an expert mind at work. That’s according to Claire Nee and Amy Meenaghan who say the finding has implications for crime prevention.

Nee and Meenaghan interviewed 50 jailed burglars, all of whom had committed at least 20 burglaries in the last three years; half had committed more than 100.

In more scrupulous walks of life, a person is recognised as an expert when they no longer need to deliberately concentrate on what they’re doing – instead their performance becomes automatic and fast, freeing their mind up for other things. The researchers found this matched the way many of the burglars described searching inside houses. Over three quarters of them described searching as relatively routine, and 15 of them actually used terms such as ‘automatic’ and ‘instinctive’.

“People leave things in the same basic locations…could have done it with my eyes shut”, said one burglar. “…got to be totally focused on outside noises, sometimes sixth sense, the search is automatic”, said another. Two thirds of the burglars described the same search pattern, beginning with the master bedroom and finishing with the kitchen.

There was also evidence of expertise in the stereotyped way the burglars reported checking for relative wealth, occupancy, access and security when selecting houses to target.

“All in all, the processes involved in executing a burglary worth several hundred pounds in around 20 minutes strongly suggest the use of expertise in the burglar”, the researchers concluded. They added that recognising this fact could help burglary prevention. “There may be some situational crime prevention mileage in confounding burglars’ expectations by altering the usual internal layout of properties”, they said. “Expert burglars appear to be highly habit driven, and crime prevention specialists should capitalise on this”.

Nee, C. & Meenaghan, A. (2006). Expert decision making in burglars. British Journal of Criminology, 46, 935-949.
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The brain invigorated by light

Twenty minutes of bright white light delays sleepiness, and sends a stimulating wave through the brain, enhancing neural activity even during tasks that have nothing to do with vision.

Gilles Vandewalle and colleagues used an optic fibre to shine bright white light into either the left or right eye of 19 participants, and then left them to sit in the dark. For most of the participants, the light exposure delayed the onset of self-reported sleepiness. Brain imaging showed this sustained alertness was related to altered activity in the thalamus, a structure buried deep in the brain.

Brain imaging also showed the light enhanced the activity of brain regions engaged when the participants subsequently completed an auditory oddball task in the dark (i.e. listen out for odd tones that don’t match all the others). These regions included areas at the front and back of the brain known to be involved in paying attention.

The effects of the light exposure were short-lived, lasting less than 10 minutes beyond the end of the light stimulation. However, the researchers believe their observations are evidence that the brain has a “non-image” forming (NIF) system that responds to light but which is quite separate from vision. They argue the NIF system response outlasts light exposure, in contrast to the classic visual system which only responds during light stimulation. “These findings suggest that light can modulate activity of subcortical structures involved in alertness, thereby dynamically promoting cortical activity in networks involved in ongoing non-visual cognitive processes”, the researchers concluded.

Vandewalle, G., Balteau, E., Philips, C., Degueldre, C., Moreau, V., Sterpenich, V., Albouy, G., Darsaud, A., Desseilles, M., Dang-Vu, T.T., Peigneux, P., Luxen, A., Dijk, D-J. & Maquet, P. (2006). Daytime light exposure dynamically enhances brain responses. Current Biology, 16, 1616-1621.
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Studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Eating disorders in women linked with having an overly protective dad, or feeling rejected by one's dad.

The personality of people who choose not to participate in psychology research.

We find faces attractive if they appear to belong to the kind of person we'd like to be.

Students who are physically active feel less hassled.
You have read this article Extras / Special Issue Spotter with the title September 2006. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

The Special Issue Spotter

All about foreign accent syndrome, in which people start talking with a different accent following brain injury. Journal of Neurolinguistics.

Autistic spectrum disorders. Child Neuropsychology.

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know.
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Coming soon...

To celebrate its third anniversary, the BPS Research Digest will be bringing you a showcase of psychological science as the world's best psychology bloggers discuss their favourite study from the last three years.
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