When castanets taste of tuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One way of solving the cocktail party problem.

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

Which is the world's happiest nation?

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

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

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

Breast feeding does not affect children's intelligence.

Elephants recognise themselves in the mirror.

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

The stigmatisation of smokers.

Everyday crimes by middle class people.

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

Depression linked with loss of bone mass.

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

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

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

Menstruation (Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyslexic students may be particularly prone to anxiety.

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

Have you seen a particularly noteworthy paper in psychology? Let me know on christian[@]psychologywriter.org.uk
You have read this article Extras with the title November 2006. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2006/11/extras_2.html. Thanks!

The Special Issue Spotter

Inequality and injustice: implications (Cognitive Development).

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

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

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

Visual search and attention. (Visual Cognition).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know - email christian[@]psychologywriter.org.uk
You have read this article Special Issue Spotter with the title November 2006. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2006/11/the-special-issue-spotter_2.html. Thanks!


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

The curse of the yips.

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

The psychology of fairground rides.

How to be a good journal referee.

How to win the Nobel prize (book review).

Nature Neuroscience launches a podcast.

Do microexpressions reveal what we're really feeling?

Gestures lend a vital hand to communication.

Are best friends a dying species for young men?
You have read this article Elsewhere with the title November 2006. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2006/11/elsewhere_2.html. Thanks!