Against speed reading

There are at least three different types of reader, with those people who make frequent backward glances to earlier subject headings and key sentences, demonstrating the better comprehension for what they’ve just read. The two other types of reader are slow and fast ‘linear readers’, who tend to read continuously from one line to the next, making few backward glances. The finding comes from an analysis of the eye movements of 44 undergraduate students by Jukka Hyönä and Anna-Mari Nurminen at the University of Turku in Finland, who say their finding has implications for the teaching of reading.

“This finding demonstrates the usefulness and functionality of the look-back and rereading fixations”, the researchers said. Jukka Hyönä told the Digest: “Our study clearly shows that the advocates of speed reading are wrong in saying that regressions are a sign of poor reading and a bad habit. We have shown that selective looking back is in fact a sign of strategic reading”.

Hyönä and Nurminen drew their conclusions after recording the students’ eye movements as they read a 12 page on-screen text about animals in danger of extinction. They classified 16 per cent of students as ‘topic structure processors’ who spent more time rereading earlier parts of the current sentence, as well as going back to earlier subject headings and the first sentences of paragraphs. Eighteen per cent of the students were classified as fast linear readers, and 66 per cent as slow linear readers. After reading the text, the students wrote down as many of the main points as they could think of, with the readers who performed more rereading tending to produce a more comprehensive summary of the text.

A later questionnaire showed that the students had good insight into the kind of reader they were, accurately estimating how fast they read compared to other people, and how often they looked back over earlier text.

Jukka Hyona told the Digest “The smart processing strategy that we found could easily be taught to children or adults. In fact, I understand some teachers are actually teaching something similar to our ‘topic structure processing strategy’”.

Hyona, J. & Nurminen, A-M. (2006). Do adult readers know how they read? Evidence from eye movement patterns and verbal reports. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 31-50.
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Detecting psychological distress from where a patient sits

from Laterality, 11, 90-100Patients suffering from depression or anxiety are more likely to choose to sit to their left when visiting the GP, an observation that has implications for the detection of psychological distress among patients. That’s according to a study by Dr. Peter Luck, at Christmas Maltings Surgery in Suffolk.

“The seating arrangement I now use in my surgery allows patients to choose their spatial orientation (left/right) with me during face-to-face consultations. I use this system to alert me, when patients choose to sit to their left, that there is a greater possibility that they may be suffering from psychological distress “, Dr. Luck told the Digest.

During Luck’s research, a GP’s consulting room was arranged for five months so that two chairs were positioned an equal distance to the left or right of the GP’s desk. The choice of chair made by 756 patients seeing their GP was recorded, and after their consultation each patient was tested for anxiety and depression using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. Their handedness was determined according to the hand they wrote with.

Among the 674 right-handed patients, Dr. Luck found that those who scored positively for anxiety or depression (358 of them) were significantly more likely to sit in the left-hand chair facing the GP (59 per cent of them did) than those who weren’t anxious or depressed (27 per cent of them sat on the left). A similar effect was not found among the 82 left-handers, possibly because they were too few in number.

The right-handed patients who weren’t depressed or anxious tended to choose the right-hand chair, reflecting their attentional preference for the left side of space, consistent with past research. Somehow, psychological distress seems to affect this usual attentional bias, thus explaining the Dr. Luck’s pattern of results. The finding adds to past research showing that depressed mothers tend to cradle their baby on their right, the opposite of the usual bias among mothers to hold their baby on the left (see Digest issue 26, item 1).
Luck, P. (2006). Does the presence of psychological distress in patients influence their choice of sitting position in face-to-face consultation with the GP? Laterality, 11, 90-100.
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How we misunderstand evolution

Everyone thinks they understand natural selection, but very few do, Richard Dawkins surmised in his 1987 book The Blind Watchmaker. “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism”, he wrote.

Indeed, in a new study, Andrew Shtulman found the majority of 42 Harvard undergraduates misunderstood evolution, seeing it in terms of the transformation of the essence of a species. Such students tended to believe, for example, that a parent adapts to her environment before passing her acquired characteristics onto her offspring.

Just to remind you, Darwinian evolution is a two step process based on variation within species populations: chance mutations and sexual recombinations introduce differences between individual organisms, and whether or not these are retained depends on the success or not of an individual organism’s reproduction.

Shtulman tested the students’ understanding of evolution with a comprehensive battery of questions on variation, inheritance, adaptation, domestication, speciation and extinction. For example, the students had to choose the most Darwinian explanation for why a youth basketball team did better this season than last. Students who understood evolution picked the answer “more people completed trials for the same number of team places this year”, whereas students who had an incorrect, ‘transformational’ understanding of evolution chose answers such as “each returning team member grew taller over the summer”.

As has been found with naïve students’ understanding of other scientific theories such as in thermodynamics, acoustics and cosmology, the kind of misunderstandings shown by the students here tended to parallel the development of evolutionary perspectives through history, for example mirroring aspects of theories put forward by Lamarck, Cope and Haeckel.

Could the widespread misunderstanding of evolutionary theory explain the appeal of Intelligent Design creationism? It seems not. Students who understood evolutionary theory were no more likely to believe it was the best explanation for how a species adapts to its environment than those students who misunderstood evolution.
Shtulman, A. (2006). Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 52, 170-194.

Link to paper in TICS that discusses the implications of this and related research for understanding the Intelligent Design controversy.
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How being ill can be good for you

The characters of people who recover from physical or psychological illness are strengthened by the experience. That’s the suggestion of an internet-based study by positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and colleagues, who say longitudinal research is now needed to confirm their results.

Two thousand and eighty-seven participants logged onto a research website and completed a 240-item questionnaire about their character strengths (see here). It was only at the end of the questionnaire that participants were asked about any previous physical or psychological illness they had suffered. “Thus, our participants were not explicitly primed to respond in terms of a survivor identity”, the researchers said.

Peterson’s team found that compared with the participants who had always been well, the 422 participants who had recovered from a physical illness scored slightly higher on bravery, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, humour, kindness, love of learning, spirituality and appreciation of beauty. Meanwhile, recovery from psychological illness was associated with slightly increased appreciation of beauty, creativity, curiosity, gratitude and love of learning. The researchers said these small but significant effects were notable “given the prevailing emphasis on the psychologically scarring effects of illness and disorder”.

The illnesses most frequently cited by the participants were allergies, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. A history of illness was associated with lower life satisfaction but only among participants who hadn’t recovered.

The participants who had recovered from physical illness were more likely to report higher lifer satisfaction if they also scored highly on bravery, kindness and especially humour. For those who’d recovered from psychological illness it was appreciation of beauty and love of learning that was associated with more life satisfaction. “We suggest that deliberate interventions to increase these particular strengths may help people flourish following a major health crisis”, the researchers concluded.
Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 17-26.
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Dissecting good parenting

How affectionate parents are towards their children, and how they respond to their children’s distress are two distinct aspects of good parenting that each have a unique effect on a child’s development, psychologists at the University of Toronto have reported.

From studying 106 children aged between six and eight, and their parents, Maayan Davidov and Joan Grusec found that parents’ sensitivity to their children’s distress was associated with how well their children could manage being upset (with mothers, this association only held for sons) and how much empathy their children had. In contrast, a parent’s warmth and affection were not related to these factors.

On the other hand, unlike parental sensitivity to distress, parental warmth and affection were associated with how well children could manage positive emotions and how many friends they had (again, with mothers this association only held for sons).

“…[A] differentiated approach to positive parenting can further our understanding of child development, by uncovering the different paths through which parents can promote their children’s competencies by being sensitive and caring in different ways”, the researchers concluded.

Regarding the fact that for mothers, some of the associations only applied to sons, not daughters, the researchers said: “It is thus possible that boys are more susceptible than girls to variation in maternal interventions…this possibility is also consistent with findings indicating boys’ increased vulnerability to a variety of developmental and behavioural problems".

The results were derived from a combination of measures including parental reports, teacher reports, some videoing of parents interacting with their children and also tests of the children’s empathy using dolls in mock scenarios. The cross-sectional nature of the research means the children’s behaviour could have affected their parent’s parenting style, rather than the other way around, a fact acknowledged by the researchers who called for longitudinal research to clarify the results.
Davidov, M. & Grusec, J.E. (2006). Untangling the links of parental responsiveness to distress and warmth to child outcomes. Child Development, 77, 44-58.
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Successful therapists focus on their clients' strengths

Research is increasingly showing that the success of therapy depends not on the theoretical orientation of the therapist, but on key therapeutic processes that cross theoretical boundaries. Two such processes are ‘problem activation’ – helping the client to face up to their problems, and ‘resource activation’ – reminding the client of their strengths, abilities and available support. In a new study, Daniel Gassmann and the late Klaus Grawe have shown that for therapy to be successful, simply using these mechanisms is not enough; rather, success depends on how and when the mechanisms are brought into play.

Gassman and Grawe’s research team studied videos of 120 therapy sessions conducted with 30 clients who had a range of psychological problems. The success of each therapy session had also been reported by the clients and therapists on a session-by-session basis.

From minute-by-minute analysis of the sessions, the researchers found that unsuccessful therapists tended to focus on their clients’ problems, but neglected to focus on their strengths. Moreover, when the unsuccessful therapists did focus on their clients’ strengths, they tended to do so at the end of a therapy session, too late to have a positive effect. Successful therapists, by contrast, focused on their clients’ strengths from the very start of a therapy session, before moving onto dealing with their problems. “They created an environment in which the patient felt he was perceived as a well functioning person”, the researchers said. “As soon as this was established, productive work on the patient’s problems was more likely”. Successful therapists also made sure they ended sessions by returning to their clients’ strengths.

The researchers concluded that a prerequisite for successfully dealing with a patient’s problems is to remind them of their strengths and available support. “The therapist can achieve this not only by establishing a good therapeutic bond”, they said, “but also by focussing more explicitly on the healthy parts of the patient’s personality”.

Gassman, D. & Grawe, K. (2006). General change mechanisms: The relation between problem activation and resource activation in successful and unsuccessful therapeutic interactions. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 1-11.
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Happy Valentine's Day!

Looking for a date for Valentine's day? Christopher Bale and colleagues have just published a study in Personality and Individual Differences on what 142 female and 63 male undergraduates thought of 40 chat up lines as featured in mini stories about a man attempting to woo a woman.

It was thumbs down to jokes, empty compliments and sexual references ("Well hey there, I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I bet I can make your Bed Rock!") and thumbs up to lines revealing helpfulness, generosity, athleticism, culture ("It's a fine instrument wouldn't you say? A Steinway concert grand if I'm not mistaken", he said pointing to a nearby piano) and wealth ("Hi, my name's William, I'm one of the owners here, would you like to dance?").

The student participants gave their verdicts by saying how likely the woman was to continue the conversation.

Surprisingly perhaps, the male and female participants tended to agree on which lines were likely to be successful. The poor ratings for jokey chat up lines were unexpected but the researchers said that could be due to their failing to give different categories to wit - "spontaneous jokes that fit the context exactly, are genuinely funny, and require intelligence", and humour - "the pre-planned jokes and one-liners which were ineffective and do not demonstrate intelligence".

Link to abstract.
Link to Christopher Bale talking about the work (last five minutes or so of the recording).
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Upcoming events for psychology teachers in the UK

Marking Essays, Making Lectures Interesting, and Getting Students to Participate in Small Groups. 15 February 2006, University of West England, Bristol.

Flexible Delivery - What Does it Mean and What are the Implications for Teaching Psychology? 24 February 2006, Strathclyde University.

Teaching Neuroscience within Psychology. 27 February 2006, University of Sheffield.
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Scared of flying?

"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 29.09.03.

If so, join the gang - apparently 10-15 per cent of us are significantly scared while flying. Flight courses run by the major airlines are a successful remedy, but expensive. What about using virtual reality (VR)?

Andreas Muehlberger (University of Tubingen, Germany) and colleagues recruited 45 participants with a 'substantial fear of flying'. They found that 6-months later, participants who had received VR treatment and cognitive therapy reported greater reductions in their flying fear than participants who had received cognitive therapy only. It seems VR had played a vital role.

Moreover, VR was equally effective whether or not it included motion/vibration simulation together with visual and acoustic effects. According to the authors this "is of great practical relevance because the simulation of motion is the most demanding technically, and the most expensive component of VR".
Muehlberger, A., Wiedemann, G., & Pauli, P. (2003). Efficacy of a one-session virtual reality exposure treatment for fear of flying. Psychotherapy Research, 13, 323-336.
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Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?

So you need some fresh, innovative ideas. What do you do? Get a group of your best thinkers together to bounce ideas of each other…? No, wrong answer. Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity”. But why does this illusion persist?

Bernard Nijstad and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam argue it’s because when we’re in a group, other people are talking, the pressure isn’t always on us and so we’re less aware of all the times that we fail to think of a new idea. By contrast, when we’re working alone and we can’t think of anything, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re failing.

To test their theory, they recruited hundreds of students and asked them, either on their own, or in differently sized groups, to think of as many ways as possible to boost tourism to Utrecht. Afterwards the students in groups reported feeling more satisfied with their performance, and feeling that they had experienced fewer failures to come up with new ideas, than did the students who’d worked alone.

In a second study, Nijstad’s team found further support for their theory by showing that the illusion of group productivity could be undermined if different members of a group had to think of ideas for different projects. In this case, the students’ satisfaction with their performance and their sense of how much they had failed to think of new ideas, resembled the experience of students who worked alone.

The researchers said “We suggest that working in a group may lead to a sense of continuous activity. This may provide group members with the idea that they are productive, because they feel that the group as a whole is making progress, even if they themselves are not contributing”.

Other possible reasons for why people think they work better in groups include ‘memory confusion’, the idea that after working in groups people subsequently mistake other people’s ideas for the own, and ‘social comparison’, the idea that in groups people are able to see how difficult everyone else has found it to come up with ideas too.
Nijstad, B.A., Stroebe, W. & Lodewijkx, H.F.M. (2006). The illusion of group productivity: A reduction of failures explanation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 31-48.

Link to related research report (page 3 of 4):
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First ever example of teaching by an animal

A form of teaching by a (non-human) animal has been demonstrated for the first time. No, it wasn’t by a chimp or a dolphin, it was one ant teaching another.

Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson at the University of Bristol argue that for a behaviour to be classed as teaching in the strictest sense, it must be shown that, at some cost to itself, the ‘teacher’ changes its behaviour in the presence of a naïve ‘pupil’, together with evidence that the ‘pupil’ learns something from the interaction.

Franks and Richardson videoed what’s been dubbed ‘tandem running’, in which an ant (of the Temnothorax albipennis variety) that knows the route from the nest to food, leads the way, teaching the journey to a follower as it does so. During this behaviour, the teacher only continues its run to the food when it can feel the tapping on its legs and abdomen of the following ant’s antennae.

The cost for the teacher ant is that the journey from the nest to the food when it’s teaching is four times slower than when it completes the route on its own. The researchers showed the benefit to ants in the role of pupil was that they consistently found the food more quickly when tandem running behind a teacher, compared with when searching alone. Moreover, the ‘pupil’ ants later became teachers themselves when they subsequently passed knowledge of the route onto other naïve ants.

“Our demonstration of teaching behaviour in an ant shows that a big brain is not a prerequisite”, the researchers said.
Franks, N.R. & Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants. Nature, 439, 153.

Link to movie of the teaching ants in action
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Brain scans reveal revenge is sweet for men but not women

How your brain responds to the sight of someone you don’t like having pain inflicted on them could depend on whether you’re a man or woman. Researchers at University College London have observed increased activity in the reward pathways of men’s brains, but not women’s, while they watched someone they didn’t like being hurt.

Tania Singer and colleagues first asked 16 men and 16 women to play a kind of bargaining game in which they were conned by one researcher but aided by another. Later questions confirmed that the participants disliked the person who conned them, but liked the person who helped them.

Next, Singer’s team scanned the participants’ brains, firstly while they had a painful electric shock applied to their hand, secondly while they saw a shock applied to the person who conned them, and finally, while they saw the shock applied to the person who had cooperated with them.

Consistent with past research, the brain scans showed that the same or similar brain areas (the anterior insula, the anterior cingulated cortex) were activated when participants witnessed someone else being hurt, as when they experienced pain themselves. But crucially, for men, this neural simulation of another person’s pain only occurred when they liked the person. If they didn’t like who was being hurt, the male participants instead showed increased activity in the reward pathway of their brain (in the nucleus accumbens). Moreover, this reward-related activity was greater in those male participants who expressed a stronger desire for revenge on the researcher who conned them.

In contrast, the female participants showed an empathic brain response whether they liked the person who was being hurt or not, and their brains did not exhibit reward-related activity when someone they disliked was hurt.

The researchers advised that their findings be treated with caution: “It is possible that our experimental design favoured men because the modality of punishment was related to physical threat, as opposed to psychological or financial threat”. But they added: “Alternatively, these findings could indicate a predominant role for males in the maintenance of justice and punishment of norm violation in human societies”.
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Klass, E.S., Dolan, R.J. & Frith, C.D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.

Link to previous related Digest item
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Collaborative task reveals spared memory ability in amnesics

Shared experiences mean much of our communication is short-hand. If I told you the world will never be the same again after 9/11, you would know exactly what I was talking about, even though my statement contained little explicit information. Psychologists call this shared information “common ground”.

Now Melissa Duff and colleagues at the Beckman Institute have made the surprising discovery that, despite their severe memory deficits, amnesic patients are capable of using this kind of shared information to succeed as well as controls at a challenging task which, on the face of it, depends on memory ability.

Each amnesic participant was paired with a researcher and given a set of 12 Chinese tangrams (similar to those pictured). The researcher also had their own identical set, and without being able to see each other’s tangrams, the researcher and patient had to work together in conversation to arrange their tangrams in the same order as fast as possible. The patient-researcher pairs repeated the task several times over two days, and just as when healthy controls took part, they gradually became quicker and quicker at the task, as together they developed labels for the different icons. Amazingly, six months later, the amnesic patients still remembered 80 per cent of the tangram labels they had developed during the task.

In contrast, during a control task, the amnesic patients were woefully impaired at remembering arbitrary labels allocated to a different set of 12 tangrams. After several learning sessions over two days, the patients could only remember an average of 5 out of 12 of the labels. Yet, healthy controls had learned all 12 labels early on the first day.

So how is it that the amnesic patients – most of whom had brain damage to their hippocampus caused by asphyxiation – were so capable of learning labels for the icons during the collaborative task, and yet so impaired at more straightforward learning? The researchers said it was because in the collaborative task, labels for the icons evolved gradually and had personal meaning to the amnesics, rather than being arbitrarily allocated by the researchers. They also said: “It may be that the learning, and the common ground, occurred on linguistic, conceptual or semantic, and perceptual levels”, and that this multidimensional learning was likely based more on ‘procedural’ mechanisms (like learning to ride a bike), presumably preserved in the patients because such mechanisms do not depend on a fully functional hippocampus (the brain’s usual repository for newly learned facts).
Duff, M.C., Hengst, J., Tranel, D. & Cohen, N.J. (2006). Development of shared information in communication despite hippocampal amnesia. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 140-146.
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Why it's best not to expect the worst

Go through life expecting the worst and then you’ll never be disappointed. And on those rare occasions when something goes right for you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It sounds like a sensible philosophy, but according to Margaret Marshall and Jonathon Brown at the universities of Seattle Pacific and Washington, it doesn’t work that way.

They asked 81 students to complete a word association task. Before the task the students said how well they expected to do based on some sample questions.

Afterwards, the researchers found that the students who expected to do well, but in fact did badly, actually felt better about themselves after the task than the poorly performing students who expected to do badly.

On the other hand, the students who expected to do well and did do well, felt happier about themselves after the task than the students who did much better than they expected.

What was going on? One clue came from other questionnaires the students filled in. These showed that the students who expected to do well were more positive about life in general. Another possibility was that the students with high and low expectations differed in what they attributed their success or failure to.

In a second study using the same task, the researchers found the high-scoring students who expected to do well, put their success down to their ability, more than the high scoring students who hadn’t expected to do well. On the other hand, the poor performers who expected to do well, but did badly, tended not to see their failure as caused by their lack of ability (unlike the poor performers who expected to do badly).

The great American psychologist William James recommended lowering your expectations. “Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet”, he wrote. But combined with previous work showing that pessimism undermines people’s performance, this research suggests that it’s probably best not to think the worst.
Marshall, M.A. & Brown, J.D. (2006). Emotional reactions to achievement outcomes: Is its really best to expect the worst. Cognition and Emotion, 20, 43-63.

Link to William James' classic text
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How seeing a conversation helps people remember what was said

Numerous psychology experiments have demonstrated the limitations of eyewitness memory. But less researched is ‘earwitness’ memory – how well people are able to recall criminal conversations.

Now Laura Campos at the University of Granada and Maria Alonso-Quecuty of the University of La Laguna have tested the ability of 80 students to recall a conversation between two people discussing a planned theft. Some of them saw and heard a videotape of the ‘criminals’ in conversation as captured by campus CCTV. The other students were played an audiotape of the conversation only. “This issue is important for the psychology of testimony”, the researchers said “because in some cases a criminal conversation takes place under circumstances in which the participants in the conversation cannot be seen, for example the area is in darkness, but what they say is heard”.

When asked to recall the conversation four days later, those students who saw and heard the conversation recalled far more correct information (the gist of what was said) than the students who only heard the conversation, and they also recalled fewer false memories for things that were never said. However, all the students were poor at recalling parts of the conversation word for word.

Rather than being tested four days later, some of the students were asked to recall the conversation just 15 minutes after being presented with it – they too recalled little verbatim information, although they recalled more correct information than the students tested later.

Based on their findings, the researchers said “…accounts of ‘earwitnesses’ who could only listen to a criminal conversation should be treated with extreme caution in court”.
Campos, L. & Alonso-Quecuty, M.L. (2006). Remembering a criminal conversation: Beyond eyewitness testimony. Memory, 14, 27-36.

Link to related article in The Psychologist mag
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