Hello Digest Readers. I'm going on holiday, so there will be a break in posting to the blog. Normal service will resume in about two and a half weeks.

Christian Jarrett
Editor, BPS Research Digest.
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Our belief in psychological momentum and the laws of physics

Would you say a sportswoman is more or less likely than usual to win her next game if she won her last game? What about if she had won her last two games? If, like most people, you think her chances of future success are greater following a series of wins, you're demonstrating your belief in 'psychological momentum' – the idea of being on a roll, or on song. Now Keith Markman and colleagues have shown the way we think about psychological momentum is akin to the way we think about the physical momentum of objects.

One study showed that we believe psychological momentum given more 'mass' will have a greater effect on performance. Some students were told a basketball team had previously beaten their arch rivals in a hard-fought local derby. These students predicted the team's chances of winning their next league match to be much greater than did other students who were simply told the team had won their last match. The researchers said the context of an intense local derby gave the impression of the team's psychological momentum having greater 'mass'.

Imagine pushing a heavy weight along the ground but then losing your momentum. Another study showed we think progress will be harder after we've had psychological momentum but then lost it. Students were told a woman called Jane was working on a research paper before being interrupted by a phone call. Students who were told Jane had been focused and on a roll before the call, rated her chances of completing the paper after the phone call as far poorer than did other students who'd been told Jane was simply working at a steady pace prior to the interruption.

“We hope these studies stimulate further attempts to understand and investigate this fascinating psychological phenomenon”, the researchers said.

Markman, K.D. & Guenther, C.L. (2007). Psychological momentum: Intuitive physics and naïve beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 800-812.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Stigma and mental illness (International Review of Psychiatry).

Lay conceptions of mental disorder (Australian Psychologist). How the public views mental illness. "It is difficult to imagine a topic of more pressing relevance to practising psychologists, in their relation to the society and culture that surrounds them," says associate editor Nick Haslam.

Cortical control of higher motor cognition (NeuroImage). The anatomy, electrophysiology, neuropsychology and functional imaging of the neural bases of how we move ourselves.

New dimensions in the study of social movement leadership (American Behavioural Scientist). This is about things like the role of leaders in Jewish resistance to the Nazis.

Gesture, brain and language (Brain and Language). The brain science of gesticulation, so to speak.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Hollywood actress Natalie Portman is a cognitive neuroscientist.

Workaholics Anonymous has launched in America - the trouble is people are too busy to attend.

Does the language of the Pirahã tribe challenge Chomsky's theory of universal grammar?

Academic Benjamin Gray gives a first-hand account of what it's like to hear voices that other people can't hear. "I learned several important lessons: never admit you hear voices; certainly never answer them...."

Surviving boredom.

The psychology of suicide bombers. "It is hard to get our heads around the idea that someone who is great with children might, given the right (or wrong) situation, be more easily persuaded by extremists into killing (and being killed) for a cause. But that is the extraordinary lesson that we must take on board about the 7/7 bombers: that they were ordinary."

Following our guest feature on psychological research in virtual worlds, the online realm of Second Life was the focus of the Guardian's latest weekly science podcast.
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Studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

If you have an eating disorder, does the shape of your therapist matter?

Who's affected by email stress?

Rolling dice, number counting, and the colour stroop task - fun experiments to do with a number synaesthete.

Experiment demonstrates 'scientifically' that it's nice to sit near the window when you're at work.
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How remembering can lead to forgetting

Sometimes we're more likely to remember words that we were instructed to forget, while being more likely to forget words that we were instructed to remember. How can this be?

Fifty-six students were presented with four words from two different categories, (e.g. flower: lily; country: Russia; flower: tulip; country: Sweden). Crucially, half the students were told to remember these words, whereas the other students were told to forget them.

Next the students were asked to generate four novel examples from one of the previous categories (e.g. Flowers). To help, they were given the first two letters of a new example (e.g. Pa_ for pansy).

This whole process was repeated several times with different starting word pairings and categories. After a five-minute irrelevant distractor task, there was a final big recall test, in which the students were asked to recall as many of the original word pairings as possible. As you'd expect, overall, the students told to remember the original word pairings, did indeed remember more of them. But there is a twist.

For the students told to remember the original word pairings, generating novel word examples for a given category caused them to forget original words belonging to that same category. (They remembered 16 per cent fewer original words from categories for which new examples had to be generated). By contrast, the students told to forget the original words were not affected in this way.

The net result is that compared to the students told to remember, the students told to forget the initial word pairings actually remembered slightly more of the original words from categories for which new examples had to be generated.

A possible explanation is the students told to remember the original words, had mentally to inhibit these words when it came to generating fresh examples for a given category. This inhibition process affected their memory for these original words. By contrast, it seems students told to forget the original words didn't need to inhibit them during the word generation task – in a sense the original words had been protected from the inhibition process, making them more likely to be remembered later.

“Ironically, therefore, whereas the intention to remember may lead one to forget, the intention to forget, may lead one to remember,” the researchers said.

Storm, B.C., Bjork, E.L. & Bjork, R.A. (2007). When intended remembering leads to unintended forgetting. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60, 909-915.

Link to new research taking a biological approach to this idea.
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When it's dangerous to walk and talk

It's well established that talking on a mobile phone while driving is distracting and dangerous. But what about talking on a mobile phone while walking? After all, pedestrians can often be seen marching about town, phone clutched to their ear, blissfully disengaged from their surroundings. According to Jack Nasar and colleagues, this mobile phone induced disengagement can put pedestrians at risk when they're crossing the road, in a way that other devices, such as i-pods, do not.

The researchers staked out three campus road crossings for two hours from midday. During this time, they observed 127 people cross the road, 19 per cent of whom were talking on a mobile phone, 24 per cent were listening to an i-pod, and the rest were device free.

The road crossing behaviour of 48 per cent of the mobile phone users was categorised as unsafe – they tended to cross the road when a car was approaching, yet they typically stopped at the roadside when the traffic had stopped. By contrast, the road crossing behaviour of the i-podders was only categorised as unsafe 16 per cent of the time – they tended to stop before crossing regardless of the traffic situation. The device free pedestrians, whose behaviour was classified as unsafe 25 per cent of the time, tended to cross when the traffic had stopped and to wait if a car was approaching.

Moreover, an earlier experiment that tested pedestrians' awareness of unusual objects placed along a route, found people talking on a mobile phone were less likely to notice the target objects.

“Mobile phones have positive values, including use in emergencies to call for help, but we need to balance the positives with better knowledge on the ways in which mobile phone use may increase accidents and victimization,” the researchers said. Perhaps mobile phones could be designed to warn pedestrians of approaching traffic, they added.

Nasar, J., Hecht , P. & Wener R. (In Press). Mobile telephones, distracted attention, and pedestrian safety. Accident analysis and prevention.
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Tapping into people's earliest memories

When it comes to psychologists identifying people's earliest memories, the approach they take matters a lot. That's according to New Zealand psychologists Fiona Jack and Harlene Hayne who say their finding helps explain some of the mixed opinion in this area of study.

For example, whereas most experiments suggest our earliest memories come from between the ages of three and four, some experts, Freud included, have suggested so-called infantile amnesia extends to the ages of five and six. Yes, people can recall memories from age three and four, these experts argue, but the lack of quantity and quality of people's memories from before they were aged six suggests fully-fledged autobiographical memory doesn't kick in until then.

To test this, Jack and Hayne divided 160 undergraduate students into four groups. One group was asked to recall memories from any time in their lives. The earliest memories recalled by this group were from the age of 6 years and seven months, on average. This reflects Freud's experience with his patients and findings from previous studies which have taken this approach.

Another group was asked to recall childhood memories – the earliest memories they recalled tended to be from the age of 5 years, six months. Finally, two of the groups were specifically asked to recall their earliest childhood memories (either with the help of cue words or not) – their earliest memories tended to be from the age of around three years nine months, whether they were given cue words or not.

The researchers said: “These results add to a growing body of research which suggests that the age of adults' earliest memories is relatively malleable, and varies as a function of the way in which they are asked to recall their memories”.

The research also revealed that earlier memories tended to be more emotionally positive than later memories and that more emotional memories tended to have more detail.

Jack, F. & Hayne, H. (In Press). Eliciting adults' earliest memories: Does it matter how we ask the question? Memory.
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How many 'Doh!' moments does the average person have?

We've all run upstairs to get something, only to arrive and realise we've forgotten what we went up there for. But just how common are these moments of absent-mindedness? According to a new study by Icelandic psychologists, healthy people commit an average of 6.4 such lapses or “action slips” a week.

Maria Jonsdottir and colleagues asked 189 healthy participants aged between 19 and 60 to keep a diary of their lapses for a week. Of a total of 1217 “doh” moments, the most common types of error were what the psychologists dubbed “storage failures”, when action plans were forgotten, as in the example above.

Other errors included: “sub-routine failures” when components of an action were performed in the wrong order or switched for something else – for example, going out to buy coffee but coming back with all kinds of things bar coffee; “discrimination failures”, for example a man not realising he has put on a ladies jacket instead of his own; and “programme assembly failures”, for example, throwing a toy in the rubbish and putting the baby's used nappy on the shelf.

More errors were made on weekdays than at weekends, especially between the hours of 12 and 8. Surprisingly perhaps, younger participants made more errors than older participants.

The Icelandic researchers said establishing how common such lapses are in healthy people could help alleviate the concerns of those who have suffered a head injury or whiplash and believe they are making more mistakes than usual, despite performing normally on formal neuropsychological tests. In particular if patients completed their own diary of absent-mindedness, this could potentially “demonstrate that the number of actual memory lapses is smaller than estimated by the patient, and that they are not any different or more frequent than among healthy individuals,” the researchers said.

Jonsdottir, MK., Adolfsdottir, S., Cortez, R.D., Gunnarsdottir, M. & Gustafsdottir, A.H. (In Press). A diary study of action slips in healthy individuals. The Clinical Neuropsychologist.
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Climate change will damage your health!

The skies are crowded with planes, our sclerotic roads clogged with millions of cars – when will we wake up to the urgency of climate change?

Spreading the word about the effect climate change will have on human health. That could be the key.

A group of Swedish psychologists asked 621 participants aged from 18 to 75 whether 44 statements about climate change were true or false. These were arranged into several domains: facts about the state of the climate, the causes of climate change, and the consequences for the weather, sea, glaciers and human health.

For example, a true statement about human health consequences stated: “It is probable that mortality by lung oedema and heart problems during heat waves in Sweden will increase in the next 50 years.”

It was specifically the participants' knowledge about the consequences for human health that most strongly predicted how worried they were about climate change, and how likely they thought it was that serious negative consequences would affect Sweden and other countries in the future. Knowledge of the causes of climate change had a weak association with the participants' perception of risk, but not their concern about that risk.

“A practical implication is that in order to change people's behaviour, more research and focused educational programmes about health consequences should be beneficial,” Eva-Lotta Sundblad and colleagues wrote.

To the researchers' surprise, although women were more worried than men, most demographic factors did not predict participants' worry or sense of risk surrounding climate change. For example, parents were no more concerned than non-parents.

Sundblad, E-L., Biel, A. & Garling, T. (2007). Cognitive and affective risk judgements related to climate change. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 97-106.
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Using psychology to get people eating more fruit

Do you eat a piece of fruit on the way to work or school everyday without even thinking about it? Perhaps that is the full extent of your fruit eating? If so you're just the kind of person who won't be helped by public health information campaigns seeking to increase our fruit eating. That's according to a new study that suggests people who already eat fruit (though not enough) habitually are more likely to benefit from interventions that make fruit more easily available.

A dominant theory in health psychology is the Theory of Planned Behaviour, which states that our attitudes, our perception of social norms and our sense of control all impact on our intentions to perform a given health behaviour, and therefore the likelihood we will perform that behaviour.

Gert-Jan de Bruijn and colleagues applied this theory to the fruit eating tendencies of 521 participants, but unlike most prior research, they added in a measure of habit – that is, whether the participants said they often ate fruit automatically, without thinking about it.

Consistent with the Theory of Planned Behaviour, the Dutch psychologists found that among the participants who had either a weak or medium fruit-eating habit, their self-reported intentions to eat fruit were predictive of their fruit consumption measured five weeks later.

Crucially, however, this wasn't true for the participants who had a strong fruit-eating habit. The strongest predictor of their subsequent fruit consumption wasn't their prior intentions, but their sense of how easy it would be to eat fruit.

This has practical implications. The idea behind public health information campaigns is that they increase our intention to perform a given behaviour, via our attitudes, sense of social norms and feelings of control. However, if intentions are unrelated to future fruit eating in people who already eat fruit (though not enough) habitually, then information campaigns are unlikely to change their behaviour.

“Consequently, health behavioural change for those with strong habits may be more dependent on environmental manipulations – making healthy foods more readily available,” the researchers said.

De Bruijn, G-J., Kremers, S.P.J., De Vet, E., De Nooijer, J., Van Mechelen, W. & Brug, J. (In press). Does habit strength moderate the intention-behaviour relationship in the Theory of Planned Behaviour? The case of fruit consumption. Psychology and Health.
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Psychological research in virtual worlds

Nick Yee of Stanford University, with the fourth article in our series of guest features.

Virtual worlds (such as World of Warcraft and Second Life) have received a great deal of media and academic attention recently. While these virtual communities provide us with a new and fascinating area of study, it is also important to understand how these virtual environments provide us with new research tools.

Several lines of research in this area have emphasized the methodological possibilities of this emerging technology. One research paradigm known as Transformed Social Interaction purposefully breaks and alters the rules of social interaction in order to gain insight into communication and interaction processes. In the physical world, two people interacting in the same space necessarily share the same reality. On the other hand, in a virtual environment where users view the shared environment from their own computer terminals or virtual reality goggles, their realities need not be congruent. Thus, for example, I may perceive my avatar (a digital representation of myself) to be short while you perceive my avatar to be tall. These non-congruent reality scenarios open up a range of research questions in stereotype threat, behavioral confirmation, and self-perception theory among other psychological theories.

Virtual environments also allow us to endlessly recreate and customize how we appear. While it is difficult to alter a participant’s height (let alone race or gender) in a lab experiment, virtual environments make it easy to explore what it means to be in a different body. For example, a line of research known as the Proteus Effect has shown that users conform to stereotypes based on their avatar’s appearance. Thus, participants given attractive avatars provided more information about themselves to a confederate stranger than participants given unattractive avatars. In addition to putting participants in someone else’s body, virtual environments also allow participants to watch their avatar (i.e. themselves) do something they never did. The fluidity of our virtual bodies allows us to ask provocative questions related to identity, false memories, and cognitive dissonance.

And finally, virtual environments keep track of a great deal of behavioral data. Everything a user does in an online game can potentially be tracked and accumulated over time with a precision not possible in the physical world. While a great deal of psychology research focuses on individual, dyadic, or small group effects, virtual environments provide the opportunity to study social interaction and communication processes at a community level. For example, could altruism be engineered into a virtual community via non-congruent realities? Furthermore, these virtual environments could also allow experimental manipulations on a scale not previously possible in traditional lab settings.


Further Reading:

Bailenson, J.N., Beall, A.C., Loomis, J., Blascovich, J. & Turk, M. (2004). Transformed Social Interaction: Decoupling Representation from Behavior and Form in Collaborative Virtual Environments. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 13(4), 428-441.

Yee, N. & Bailenson, J.N. (2007, in press). The Proteus Effect: Self Transformations in Virtual Reality. Human Communication Research.

Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E. & Moore, R.J. (2006). "Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Games." In conference proceedings on human factors in computing systems CHI 2006, pp.407-416. April 22-27, Montreal, PQ, Canada.

The Digest needs you. If you'd like to write about your area of psychology research, please get in touch on: christian at
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The Special Issue Spotter

Infant observation: contributions from Italy (Infant Observation).

Courage (The Journal of Positive Psychology).

Implicit representations and personality (International Journal of Psychology).
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Do teenage friends share similar body image and eating problems?

The Capgras Delusion: Clues from patients' eye-movements.

The effect of situational context on how manly men feel.

Watching more TV linked to higher material aspirations and anxiety.
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Times newspaper special on depression.

What can psychologists do in response to the Virginia school massacre?

When to go with your gut instinct.

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Sitting upright is psychologically good for men, but is it good for women?

Stop slouching! Sitting with an upright posture can have a positive effect on your mood and improve your performance at a maths test, but only if you are male. That's the implication of a study by Tomi-Ann Roberts and Yousef Arefi-Afshar at Colorado College in America.

Sixty undergrads completed an intelligence test before being asked to assume either a slumped or upright posture for three minutes. During this time they were given fictitious feedback on the intelligence test, indicating they had scored in the top 25 per cent of all previous test takers. Returning to their natural posture, they then completed mood questionnaires and a maths test.

Among the men, those who'd been instructed to sit upright, subsequently scored better at the maths test, reported being in a more positive mood, and being happier with their intelligence test performance, than did the men who'd been told to sit slumped.

The opposite pattern was true among the women – those who'd been in a slumped position were happier with their IQ test performance and did better at the later maths test, than did the women who'd sat upright.

Why the gender difference? The researchers speculated that because of the gendered culture we live in, the women may have felt more natural in slumped position which is associated with lower status. Also, they said the act of sitting upright and pushing their chests forward may have made the women, but not the men, feel self-conscious.

The idea that our posture can affect our emotions is consistent with other research showing that pulling various facial expressions can alter our mood – for example smiling can make us feel happier (link is to pdf).

Roberts, T-A. & Arefi-Afshar, Y. (2007). Not all who stand tall are proud: Gender differences in the proprioceptive effects of upright posture. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 714-727.
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Why babies probably don't like dubbed movies either

If I presented you with a silent video of someone speaking – do you think that you'd be able to tell if they switched from English to French? Remarkably, between the ages of four and six months, babies can tell. However, it's a skill they lose by the age of eight months, unless they are raised in a bilingual environment.

Whitney Weikum and colleagues played 36 babies the same silent video of a person saying one sentence in one language (English or French), over and over again, until the babies grew bored of it and stopped looking at it so much.

Next they played them a test sentence which featured the same speaker uttering a new sentence in a new language. They compared how long the babies looked at this video with how long they looked at a control video that featured the same speaker, a new sentence, but the same language as in the video they'd grown bored of earlier. If they looked longer when the language had switched than at the control video, this would strongly suggest the babies had registered something different was going on when a new language was spoken – even though there was no sound.

And that's exactly what the researchers found: 4-month-old and 6-month-old babies looked longer at the new silent videos when the language being spoken had changed. Eight-month-old babies didn't register the change in language, unless - a second experiment showed - they were being raised as bilingual.

This study provides the latest example of a discriminatory ability that we start off life with, but then lose, as we adapt to our environment. Other examples include the ability to discriminate consonant and vowel sounds from foreign languages, to discriminate rhythms from other cultures' music, and to distinguish between the faces of individuals within a given animal species.

Weikum, W.M., Vouloumanos, A., Navarra, J., Soto-Faraco, S., Sebastian-Galles, N. & Werker, J.F. (2007). Visual language discrimination in infancy. Science, 316, 1159.

Link to example of English silent video
Link to example of French silent video
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