Can physical exercise really improve reading ability?

Bouncing on a gym ball, spinning round, and other physical exercises can help improve the reading ability of children at risk of dyslexia. That's according to David Reynolds and Roderick Nicolson, whose latest claims have attracted robust criticism from other experts in the field.

A few years ago, 35 children at risk of dyslexia (six with an actual diagnosis), aged between seven and ten years, were recruited and tested on a range of mental and physical tasks. For six months, 18 of these children then undertook 5-10 minutes of exercise therapy twice daily, every day; the remaining children acted as a control group. The exercise children subsequently showed larger improvements (relative to the average ability for their age group) in dexterity, postural stability and some aspects of reading, than did the control group.

Now Reynolds and Nicolson have published a follow-up study in which the original control group also received six months of exercise therapy (starting from the end of the first study), and with both groups then re-tested a year after that had finished. At this final testing, there were improvements (again, relative to average performance for their age) across both groups in some aspects of reading ability, but not others, as well as in dexterity and postural stability.

The researchers said the persistence of these improvements beyond the end of the exercise therapy, showed their initial findings were not down to a general feel-good effect (i.e. placebo) triggered by the exercises. They also said the fact that the initial control group have now shown improvements, undermines earlier claims that the original results were due to the initial control group having more serious reading problems than the initial exercise group.

Although the new findings don't address the underlying processes, proponents of the exercise approach believe dyslexia may be associated with dysfunction in a region of the brain - the cerebellum - that is involved in physical coordination and learning. And they argue physical exercise may help dyslexia sufferers' reading by improving function in this brain region.

"The research reported here confirms that the exercise treatment did indeed lead to lasting benefits, but the issue of why requires further studies", the researchers said.

However, writing in the same journal, John Racks and colleagues said the lack of a placebo-controlled group; the paucity of children in the study actually diagnosed with dyslexia; and the misuse of statistical tests, fatally undermined the study findings. "We do not see how the current results have advanced our knowledge of the possible links between exercise-based therapies and academic achievement", they said, also adding they had concerns about commercial involvement in the project.

Reynolds, D. & Nicolson, R.I. (2007). Follow-up of an exercise-based treatment for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 78-96.

Rack, J.P, Snowling, M.J., Hume, C. & Gibbs, S. (2007). No evidence that an exercise-based treatment programme (DDAT) has specific benefits for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 97-104.
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Want to achieve something? Picture yourself doing it from a third-person perspective

'Visualise yourself doing it' is a common slice of advice for people seeking to achieve something. But there are two ways of visualising yourself in a scene: from a first-person perspective as in real-life, or from an external perspective, as an observer might see you. Now Lisa Libby and colleagues have demonstrated that it's this latter, third-person perspective that is far more effective in raising the likelihood we will go on to perform a desired behaviour.

One hundred and forty-six undergrad participants, all of whom had registered to vote, were asked to imagine themselves going to the polling booth to vote the next day, in what were then the upcoming 2002 presidential elections. Just under half were instructed to do this from a first-person perspective, the remainder were told to do it from a third-person perspective.

Next they answered questions about their attitudes to voting: how important it is to vote, and the lengths they would go to make their vote. Already differences appeared – those students who had visualised themselves voting from a third-person perspective displayed a stronger pro-voting mindset.

But most vitally, 95 of the participants were followed up a few weeks later (an equal proportion from each of the visualisation conditions), and 90 per cent of the participants who'd imagined themselves voting from a third-person perspective reported that they had indeed gone on to vote, compared with just 72 per cent of the first-person perspective participants – a statistically significant difference.

The researchers said these findings extend prior work showing that we tend to interpret other people's actions as saying something about them, whereas we interpret our own actions as saying more about the situation we're in. So, when we picture ourselves acting in the third-person, we see ourselves as an observer would, as the 'kind of person' who performs that behaviour. "Seeing oneself as the type of person who would engage in a desired behaviour increases the likelihood of engaging in that behaviour", the researchers said.

Libby, L.K., Shaeffer, E.M., Eibach, R.P. & Slemmer, J.A. (2007). Picture yourself at the polls. Visual perspective in mental imagery affects self-perception and behaviour. Psychological Science, 18, 199-203.
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Toddlers find photos easier to learn from than drawings

It's a quintessential part of many a childhood: sitting atop mum or dad's knee while they read in soothing tones from a beautifully illustrated picture book. But just how much can young children learn from picture books, and does the quality of the pictures matter?

Gabrielle Simcock and Judy DeLoache read a picture book aloud twice to dozens of children (aged either 18, 24 or 30 months), ensuring they drew the children's attention to the pictures. The book described how a rattle could be made using a stick, a jar and a wooden ball. The experimenters then presented the children with the materials and observed whether they built the rattle.

If the book was illustrated with photos, then regardless of their age, the children got a lot further building the rattle (although few completed it) than a control group of children who weren't exposed to the picture book. Crucially, however, if the book was illustrated with coloured line drawings, then only the 24 and 30-month-old children showed signs of learning from the book whereas the 18-month-olds did not.

The researchers explained their finding was consistent with the idea that the older children get, the better they become at realising the connection between abstract representations and their real-life counterparts. Eighteen-month-old kids it seems could recognise this connection in photos but not drawings.

A second study tested a new group of 24- and 30-month-old children's ability to learn from black and white line drawings. In this case only the eldest children showed any evidence of learning how to build the rattle.

Dr Simcock told the Digest that these findings show “the degree to which very young children learn new information from interacting with a picture book depends on iconicity - how similar the pictures are to the real objects and events they depict”.

So for very young children, should parents be using books with photos rather than drawings? “If the goal of using a particular book is for very young children to learn something from it, parents and teachers would do better by choosing books with highly realistic pictures” Simcock told us.

Simcock, G. & DeLoache, J. (2006). Get the picture? The effects of iconicity on toddlers' reenactment from picture books. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1352-1357.
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Can God make people more aggressive?

Reading violent scripture that's been taken out of context can increase people's aggressiveness, especially when God is said to sanction violence, a new study suggests.

Brad Bushman and colleagues presented hundreds of students with an obscure, violent passage from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. It tells the story of an Israelite man plotting revenge on a murderous mob from Gibeah, eventually leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides.

Crucially, half the students read a version of the passage that included the Israelite man and his associates praying 'before the LORD', together with the sentence: 'The LORD commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD'. The remaining students read the exact same story but excluding these two sentences that mentioned God.

Next, the students donned headphones and played a reaction time game with a hidden 'partner'. They were told the loser of each round would be blasted with noise over the headphones, and that they had to choose prior to each round how much noise they wanted their 'partner' to be blasted with (on a scale of 0-10 from no noise up to 105 db). This was the measure of aggression.

Overall, the most aggression was shown by those students who read the bible passage that included God sanctioning violence, and furthermore, among that group, it was those who said they believed in God and the Bible who were most aggressive.

“Even among our participants who were not religiously devout, exposure to God-sanctioned violence increased subsequent aggression” the researchers said. “To the extent that religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding, one might expect to see increased brutality”.

Evans, G.W. & Wener, R.E. (2007). When God sanctions killing. Effects of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science, 18, 204-207.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl through the journals so you don't have to...

Free will (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

The hindsight bias (Social Cognition). Contributing editor Dr Blank tells us "the hindsight bias is about cognitive distortions of the past, in particular past events appearing more foreseeable and inevitable than they seemed before. The special issue tries to give a broad overview of this phenomenon and the research that has been conducted in the last 30 years".

Human contingency learning (Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology).

Bipolar disorder (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

...but if you are aware of a forthcoming journal special issue in psychology, please let me know.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Apparently the Danes are the happiest people in Europe - can they teach us their secrets?

Has neuroscience made psychology redundant?

Is there any psychological science involved in jury selection? Psychology Today News Editor, Matt Hutson, who wrote this piece, told us: "Yes, the practice of jury selection is evolving, becoming more rigorous and sophisticated thanks to social scientists and statisticians - but it's still largely based on gut and chance. And sometimes all it takes is a juror with haemorrhoids to throw off your whole game".

What is it like to have schizophrenia?

If you've spotted a freely-available psychology-related magazine or newspaper article on the web, or indeed if you've written one, please get in touch.
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Studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Playing video games enhances spatial resolution of players' vision.

The personality types who voted for George W and those who voted for Kerry.

The neuropeptide oxytocin mediates the 'I love everyone' feeling induced by taking ecstasy, a rat study suggests.

Marginalised youths may be far more engaged with society than we realise.

Please send in links to noteworthy studies you've spotted.
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An introduction to psychophysics

In the third of our ongoing series of guest features for students, Dr. Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield introduces psychophysics.

How far away can you see a candle at night? Why can't you see it at the same distance during the day? How much do I have to turn up the volume before something seems twice as loud?

All these questions are about measuring the relation between physical qualities and the psychological impressions they cause. Psychophysics is the part of psychology which involves the systematic and precise investigation of these relationships.

Founded in the laboratory of German Gustav Fechner, psychophysics is one of the parents of modern experimental psychology. It demonstrated that mathematical analysis could be applied to subjective reports, and that principled relationships could be discovered between physical quantities and subjective impressions.

Let's take a close look at a famous example: Weber's Law, named after Ernst Weber, a colleague of Fechner's. This formula describes how changes in the subjective perception of stimulus intensity (e.g. how heavy a weight feels) are related to the actual change in stimulus magnitude (how much something actually weighs). You can look up the mathematics of this if you're interested, but a plain-language interpretation is that to increase the perceived intensity of a stimulus you need to increase its physical magnitude by a constant proportion, not a constant absolute amount.

Imagine: you can make an empty bag feel heavier by putting in a book, but a single book won't make a bag full of bricks feel heavier, even though in both cases you are adding the same amount of weight. Weber's Law gives you a mathematical way to calculate how much you would need to increase or decrease the physical weight to produce a subjective impression of a change in heaviness. It also allows you to compare sensitivity between the senses – showing, for example that we are more sensitive to brightness than loudness, because the proportional change needed to create a noticeable difference for lights is smaller than that needed for sounds.

As well as discovering many of the few laws that exist in psychology, psychophysics has generated methods and theories which are applied across all of experimental psychology, not just in the investigation of sensation and perception. In applying scientific measurement to subjective experience, the early psychophysicists were demonstrating a faith in empiricism, but they were also throwing themselves upon a dilemma - the attempt to relate the world of the measurable and objective to the subjective inner world of sensation. That dilemma is still just as relevant and profound today in all areas of psychology, and psychophysics is still vital as a toolkit for addressing it.

Read an excerpt of Fechner, G. (1860). Elements of psychophysics (HE Adler, Trans.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Link to the psychophysics introduction by Webvision.
Check out the other articles in this ongoing series, including "Why psychologists study twins", "A lyrical guide to using the web" and "Podcasts - a clickable list". Forthcoming in the series: "Systematic reviews" and "Virtual reality and online games" - stay tuned!
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Adults are unable to tell when children are lying

With their wide eyes and innocent hearts, you might think it's easy to tell when a child is lying. Oh no it isn't. Not according to Leif Stromwall and colleagues, who found adults were useless at detecting when children were lying.

Thirty children aged between 11 and 13 were told they were going to be interviewed about one event that had really happened to them, and about another that they'd never experienced (an earlier questionnaire identified which life experiences the children had actually had). The children's task was to talk about both events as if they had experienced them both.

So next the children were interviewed about two such experiences (e.g. the time they were bitten by a dog, or the time they found a dead bird) by one of three female researchers who were blind to which experiences the children had and had not really experienced. Half the children were given two minutes to prepare for talking about the experience they'd never had, the others had to make up their account on the spot.

The children's parts in the interviews were video-taped and played to 60 undergrads (average age 26 years) whose task was to identify which accounts were truthful and which were fabricated. Overall, the undergrads were correct 51.5 per cent of the time – no better than chance. They were slightly better at spotting the unprepared made up accounts, identifying 55.6 per cent of these.

It's no wonder the undergrads were so poor at spotting the children's lies - the children seemed to anticipate their lie-detection strategies. For example, the most commonly used cue the undergrads said they looked for was a lack of detail in the children's accounts, but meanwhile the children's most commonly cited strategy for appearing convincing was to add detail to their accounts by drawing on information they knew about from other people's experiences. The undergrads also said they had looked for signs of nerves, while the children said they had tried to stay calm.

Children are often witnesses in criminal cases so these findings have serious, practical implications. “It should be acknowledged that detecting deception in children is a difficult task, perhaps as difficult as detecting adults' lies”, the researchers said.

Stromwall, L.A., Granhag, P.A. & Landstrom, S. (2007). Children's prepared and unprepared lies: Can adults see through their strategies? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 457-471.
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Self-help book better than group-CBT for teenagers at risk of depression

These days, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) seems to be the psychological treatment of choice for all manner of mental disorders. But according to a new study, when it comes to preventing depression in teenagers, a self-help book might actually be more effective.

Eric Stice and colleagues recruited 225 adolescent school pupils at risk of depression. These teenagers reported experiencing sadness and had raised scores on a measure of depression, but they weren't actually depressed.

Some of the teenagers then took part in four sessions of group CBT, while others participated in supportive-expressive group therapy (a forum for discussing feelings in a safe environment), expressive writing sessions or diary writing. The remaining students either received 'bibliotherapy' in the form of a self-help book called 'Feeling Good', or they acted as 'waiting list' controls and received no intervention at all.

On the one hand, CBT outperformed most of the other treatments – its benefit versus no treatment was still apparent at two months follow-up, whereas the benefit of supportive-expressive therapy, expressive writing and diary writing only lasted one month.

But on the other hand, it was only the students given the 1980 edition of the book 'Feeling Good' who continued to show reduced depressive symptoms at six-month follow up. “The findings have public health implications”, the researchers said “because interventions such as bibliotherapy are very inexpensive and easy to disseminate relative to CBT and supportive-expressive interventions, which require skilled therapists”.

Moreover, drop out was greatest among the CBT teenagers, while being lowest among the teenagers engaged in supportive-expressive sessions or expressive writing, with bibliotherapy drop out being intermediate. “The finding that drop out rates were lowest for two interventions that focussed on emotional expression suggests that these types of programmes are perceived by participants to be particularly worthwhile”, the researchers said.

Stice, E., Burton, E., Bearman, S.K. & Rohde, P. (2007). Randomised trial of a brief depression prevention programme: An elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 863-876.
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The downside of being good-looking AND wealthy

A rich, good-looking man seeking a wife might do well to play down his wealth. That's the implication of a study by John Lycett and colleagues suggesting that some women are wary of men who are both attractive and wealthy.

One hundred and eighty-six female students rated the attractiveness of several men whose photographs were displayed on slides together with 'lonely-hearts' style profiles.

The men's faces were taken from theatrical and modelling agencies and had been categorised earlier as either unattractive, of average attractiveness or highly attractive. The accompanying profiles were standard fare (e.g. “likes socialising, good sense of humour”) but also included the men's careers. These were deliberately chosen to imply high (e.g. Architect), medium (e.g. Teacher) or low (e.g. Postman) status and wealth.

The female students were asked to rate the men for their attractiveness as long-term partners. Overall, the better looking men were rated as more attractive, as were those men with higher status.

Crucially, however, there was an interaction between facial attractiveness and status, such that good-looking men with high status were actually rated as less attractive than good-looking men of medium status. The researchers said this reflected the female strategy of avoiding men who are more likely to be unfaithful in the future.

“We provide the first evidence that a subtle shift in preference takes place at the more desirable end of the mate-choice continuum,” the researchers concluded, “ showing greater preference for physically attractive males of lower status, females may be slightly adjusting their preferences away from males who are potentially more likely to cheat”.

Chu, S., Hardaker, R. & Lycett, J.E. (2007). Too good to be 'true'? The handicap of high socio-economic status in attractive males. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 1291-1300.
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Is the benefit of exercise a placebo effect?

The next time you're doing the housework, try donning a tracksuit, cranking up the Rocky sound-track and viewing the whole thing as an exercise session – doing so could have a positive effect on your health.

That's according to Alia Crum and Ellen Langer, who assessed the health of 84 female hotel cleaners, all of whom worked between 32 to 40 hours per week, cleaning approximately 15 rooms per day.

The researchers then told half the cleaners, via verbal presentations, handouts and posters, that the cleaning work they perform counts as exercise and means they effectively lead an active lifestyle, easily fulfilling government recommendations for daily exercise. The remaining cleaners acted as controls.

A month later the health of the cleaners was assessed again. Crucially, those who had been reminded how much exercise they engage in at work, showed health improvements in terms of weight, body mass index, body-fat, waist-to-hip ratio and blood pressure. The control cleaners showed no such improvements.

What caused this health boost? Those cleaners reminded that their work counted as exercise didn't change their smoking, drinking or eating habits over the month, nor did they start exercising more in their spare time. However, as intended, the intervention did lead them to perceive that they engaged in more exercise at work.

“These results support our hypothesis that increasing perceived exercise independently of actual exercise results in subsequent physiological improvements”, the researchers said.

In the same way that some medicines work not because of any particular ingredient, but because of patients' belief in their healing power, the researchers concluded their findings show some of the benefits of exercise are also related to beliefs - otherwise known as the placebo effect.

Crum, A.J. & Langer, E.J. (2007). Mind-set matters. Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18, 165-171.

You know what they say about all work and no play? Don' be dull, find a great
health club to play in. We also have fitness tips, a fitness glossary and we will help you find the best health clubs in your area at
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Is working from home more stressful for women than men?

Working from home ('teleworking') sounds cushdy: after all, you're your own boss, the commute entails crawling out of bed to your desk, and you don't have anyone checking how long you took for lunch. But at what cost? That's the question posed by Terry Hartig and colleagues who investigated the possibility that teleworking compromises the home as a place of refuge and restoration.

When the Swedish National Energy Administration relocated from Stockholm to Eskilstuna, 60 miles away, employees who stayed in their jobs were given the option to work from home for up to three days a week. Hartig and colleagues surveyed 58 employees who took the teleworking option, together with 43 employees who continued doing all their work in the office. The researchers were particularly interested in how much overlap the employees experienced between their work and home lives.

To their surprise, the researchers found that overall, the teleworking employees didn't experience any greater overlap between their work and home lives compared with the employees who always worked at the office. However, there was a crucial difference between the sexes. Whereas male teleworkers actually reported experiencing less overlap between their work and private lives than the male employees at the office, the reverse was true for female teleworkers, for whom working at home had led to increased work/life overlap.

“This result bears on the possibility that women are more susceptible to the costs of telework”, the researchers said. The finding is consistent with research published in 2000 that found female teleworkers tended to spend more time engaged in domestic chores than male teleworkers with the same work load.

Another finding from the current study was that setting aside a room in the home for work doesn't necessarily prevent work/life overlap. While teleworkers who set aside a room reported less 'spatial overlap' between their work and private lives, they didn't report any less mental overlap. “Out of sight need not mean out of mind”, the researchers said.

Hartig, T. Kylin, C. & Johansson, G. (2007). The telework tradeoff: Stress mitigation vs. constrained restoration. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56, 231-253.
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Why train designers should avoid three-seat rows

Train companies should consider designing bigger carriages with pairs of seats only, and should avoid rows consisting of three seats. That's according to Gary Evans and Richard Wener whose new study demonstrates that it's not the overall number of people on a carriage that affects how cramped we feel, rather its the number of people in our immediate vicinity. That's why so many of the middle seats are left empty in three-seat rows.

One hundred and thirty-nine train commuters travelling from New Jersey to Manhattan, New York City were assessed after a typical journey into work. The researchers took two measures of crowding: overall carriage density, based on the total number of people on the carriage divided by the number of seats; and nearby density, based on the number of people in each participant's row, relative to the number of seats in that row.

Nearby density was found to have a significant impact on the participants' self-reported mood, concentration (based on a proof-reading task) and stress levels (measured via a cortisol swab). By contrast, overall crowding in the carriage wasn't significantly related to any of these factors.

As well as avoiding three-seat rows, the researchers advised public transport designers to include “territorial props” such as arm rests and small tables in between seats, to help prevent commuters feeling that their personal space is being infringed.

Evans, G.W. & Wener, R.E. (2007). Crowding and personal space invasion on the train: Please don't make me sit in the middle. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27,90-94.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

How we learned to stop having fun.

The man who grew roses.

The mystery of consciousness.

Don't kid yourself, we can all be evil.

Mixed feelings: See with your tongue...navigate with your skin.... (via Mind Hacks).
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The Special Issue Spotter

Agency and human development in times of social change (International Journal of Psychology).

Exploring the Intersection of Organization Studies and Community Psychology (Journal of Community Psychology).

Conventionality in Cognitive Development: How Children Acquire Shared Representations in Language, Thought, and Action (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

Relational psychology in Europe (Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling).

Please email me links to forthcoming psychology journal special issues.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Comparing how teenagers from across Europe cope with everyday stresses.

Visual illusion reveals Karate athletes have enhanced eye movement control.

The sad truth about depressive realism.

Identifying those who are likely to drop out of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences celebrates its tenth anniversary, the editor has invited leading experts to reflect on the most exciting discovery in the field in the past ten years, and what they think will be the most promising research area in the next ten.

Please email me links to eye-catching studies you've spotted.
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Is unrealistic optimism leading you to pick the wrong credit card?

Given their high interest rates, why do so many people continue to borrow money on credit cards? According to Sha Yang and colleagues, part of the answer has to do with people being unrealistically optimistic about paying off their balance each month.

Two hundred and seventy-one credit card users were surveyed repeatedly about the cards they used, their intention to pay off their monthly balances, and what their actual credit balances were.

From a pragmatic perspective, people who allow debt to accumulate on a card would be better off using a card with a cheap interest rate, even if the annual fee were large. However, the researchers found that people who said they intended to pay off their balance, but didn't, were more likely to use cards with higher interest rates, and less likely to use cards with a higher (one-off) annual fee.

The researchers said: “These findings show that people who are more subject to unrealistic optimism will be more prone to select cards that do not serve their interests”.

A second study involved 75 participants who made hypothetical choices between rival credit cards and also completed a questionnaire that revealed their propensity for wishful thinking. Consistent with the first study, people prone to wishful thinking were less bothered by a high interest rate, but more concerned with a avoiding a higher annual fee.

“We show that unrealistic optimism may be one of the psychological explanations underlying why some consumers prefer credit cards with features that are not in their best interest, which has long been a puzzle for both researchers and credit card marketers”, the researchers said, adding that public policy may be needed to protect such people.

Yang, S., Markoczy, L. & Qi, M. (2007). Unrealistic optimism in consumer credit card adoption. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 170-185.
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