The secret to remembering material long-term

The secret to remembering material long-term is not to cram and over-learn but rather to periodically review what you’ve studied. That’s according to Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler who have identified an intriguing relationship between how long to leave it before returning to previously studied material, and the ultimate duration for which you want to remember it for.

The technical definition for ‘over-learning’ is any time you spend continuing to study material which you have already mastered. So, for example, once you’ve correctly recalled a list of French vocab without any errors, any additional time you immediately spend learning that vocab is over-learning. The evidence shows that time spent over-learning is only beneficial over the short-term. For example, one study found over-learning was advantageous when tested a week later, but not when tested four weeks later.

According to Rohrer and Pashler, if your aim is long-term retention, time spent over-learning would be better spent reviewing material at a later date. Just how much later depends on how long you want to remember the material for. Their research suggests the optimal time to review material is after a period which is 10 to 30 per cent of the time for which you want to remember it for. Reviewing too soon, or too near the later test will be associated with poorer learning. For instance, one study that tested retention after ten days (always measured from the second ‘review’ session) found that from a range of 5 minutes to 14 days, the optimal time for review was after one day. Another study that looked at retention over 6 months, found the optimal time for reviewing material was one month.

The researchers say their observations have implications for the design of textbooks. For example, most maths books tend to end each chapter with numerous problems prompting over-learning of that chapter’s material. It would be more effective if a variety of problems were posed at the end of each chapter so that students were continually reviewing material studied in earlier chapters.

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2007). Increasing retention time without increasing study time. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 183-186.
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Cognitive dissonance observed in children and monkeys

Roast beef or chicken for dinner? Spain or Greece for a holiday? If we believe two or more options are equally appealing, yet we have to plump for just one choice, it can cause us psychological discomfort – what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Having made a decision, say, for chicken or Greece, what people often do to alleviate this dissonance, is update their attitudes to match the choice they made – the beef would have been too rare, Spain would have been too hot. Remarkably, psychologists at Yale University have now shown that young children and monkeys engage in these sorts of thought processes too.

Forty 4-year-olds used a scale of smiley faces to indicate how much they liked a range of animal stickers. For each child, the researchers identified three stickers which that child liked equally – let’s call these A, B, C. Each child then faced two choices – first to choose which of A or B they would like to take home. Afterwards, they then had to choose between sticker C and whichever sticker (A or B) they hadn’t selected before.

In the latter case, if the children liked the stickers equally, then on average they should have opted for sticker C over either A or B 50 per cent of the time, but in fact sticker C was selected in 63 per cent of such choices. The reason, the researchers say, is because, to reduce cognitive dissonance, the children had downplayed the appeal of whichever sticker (A or B) they had chosen not to pick earlier, thus tipping the balance in favour of C.

Moreover, the same pattern was found in an almost identical experiment with six capuchin monkeys who chose between different coloured, equally appealing M&M sweets. After a given colour was rejected, its future appeal suffered as the monkeys appeared to update their attitudes to match their earlier choices.

“Our findings hint that some of the mechanisms that drive cognitive-dissonance-reduction processes in human adults may emerge as a result of developmentally and evolutionarily constrained systems that are consistent across cultures, ages, and even species,” Louisa Egan and colleagues concluded.

Egan, L.C., Santos, L.R. & Bloom, P. (2007). The origins of cognitive dissonance. Evidence from children and monkeys. Psychological Science, 18, 978-983.

Hat tip to The Proper Study of Mankind where further discussion and analysis can be found.
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The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect

No doubt, you've all heard of the bystander effect and the real-life case of Kitty Genovese, murdered in front of 38 witnesses who did nothing to help. But now Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and colleagues say the Kitty Genovese crime didn’t happen that way at all.

They aren’t questioning the principle of the bystander effect – indeed, the Genovese case inspired a rich, persuasive evidence base for the phenomenon whereby being in a group can dilute people’s sense of individual responsibility. Rather, Manning’s group are saying that the Genovese crime has become an urban myth that has biased social psychological research away from studying the beneficial effects that groups could potentially have on helping behaviour.

For instance, take the idea that there were 38 witnesses. After the Genovese court case, Assistant District Attorney Charles Skoller has been quoted as saying “we only found about half a dozen [witnesses] that saw what was going on, that we could use.”

Moreover, there was an ambiguous context to the crime, with one witness saying Genovese and the man who later stabbed her were “standing close together, not fighting or anything”.

Indeed, none of the witnesses reported actually seeing the stabbing. And whereas the myth states that none of the apartment residents overlooking the crime intervened, in fact the murderer felt compelled to abandon his first attack after one of the witnesses shouted at him. This led to the actual murder taking place inside a nearby building where none of the trial witnesses could see. And a sworn affidavit by a former NYPD police officer – at the time a 15-year-old witness – claims his father did make a phone call to the police (bearing in mind this was before any 911 system was in place).

“By debunking the myth and reconsidering the stories that we present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping in emergency situations,” the authors concluded.

Manning R., Levine, M. and Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562. (link is to pdf via author's website).

Read more about Kitty Genovese in this Psychologist magazine article about psychology's myths.
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Behind the news

Connecting you with the psychological science behind the news:

1. Food cravings battle 'pointless' (BBC News online).
Revealed: Resisting chocolate just makes you want more, say psychologists (Daily Mail).

Here is the journal source. Here is the lead author.

2. Rogues 'flirt to hide their true nature' (Daily Telegraph).
Why do women fall for cads? It's love at flirt sight, reckon scientists (The Scotsman).

This is an unpublished study, first reported by New Scientist. The research was presented at a meeting of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Here is the lead author.

3. Elephants sense danger clothes (BBC News online).
Elephants colour code the human foe (The Guardian).

Here is the journal source. Here is the lead author.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Emotion and disorders of emotion (Nature Neuroscience).

Sociologies of problem gambling (American Behavioural Scientist).

Personality and personal relationship processes (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships).

Making instructional cartoons more effective (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Eating disorders and past traumatic experiences (Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention).
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Stuart Baker-Brown, a photographer and writer, discusses his life with schizophrenia.

Amazing visual illusion (the image is not animated).

Former anorexia sufferer Grace Bowman describes her experience of becoming pregnant.

Is there really a communication gap between men and women?

Guardian review of Steve Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought. Pinker was also interviewed by Discover magazine and was a guest on BBC Radio 4s Start the Week.

Is there such a thing as narcissistic personality disorder?

Do liberals lack the full complement of moral systems?

Can physiology-based lie detectors be trusted?

On the Guardian Science podcast, Mark Buchanan explained the study of social physics - the application of mathematical and scientific principles to the study of human behaviour.

On ABC radio's All in the Mind podcast, medical anthropologist Monique Skidmore discussed her field work in Burma, where she has carefully probed the ways the State manipulates the emotional life of the Burmese, and the psychological strategies they adopt to survive under a military regime.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The paradox of declining female happiness (pdf).

The cardiovascular toll of stress.

Neural correlates of paedophilia.

Ghost writing in the medical literature. "...because signs of their actual production are largely invisible--academic authors whose names appear at the tops of ghost-managed articles give corporate research a veneer of independence and credibility."

The way adults talk to babies is similar across cultures.

Is becoming a parent a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive disorder?
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The rule of three

Whether it's in the financial markets or on the football pitch, most people believe in runs or streaks of luck. We tend to think that if a stock has risen for several successive days, or if a team has put together a string of wins, then the chances of a future good outcome are increased. However this belief is often a fallacy because streaks are a natural part of any random sequence (and see here).

Now Kurt Carlson and Suzanne Shu report that the key moment we perceive a streak as having occurred is after three repeats – what they call the 'rule of three'. In other words, we don't read meaning into a repeat of two, and we don't read any additional meaning into streaks of more than three.

In one study, students were asked to decide how much fictional inheritance to invest in a stock. After hearing the stock had risen for one day or for two consecutive days, there was little increase in the amount they chose to invest. The largest jump in the students' investment decision came after they learned the stock had risen for three consecutive days. By contrast, hearing that the stock had risen for four, five or even six consecutive days didn't make any further impact on their decision making.

Other support for the rule of three came from an analysis of basketball data and of how streaks are discussed in sports journalism.

Carlson and Shu say the 'rule of three' has implications in real life. For example, in sports gambling, a team that has won three games in a row will be overpriced by the bookies (because most punters will have acted as though the team has an increased chance of winning), while a team that has lost three in a row will be under-priced. “A savvy gambler (who is aware of the rule of three) might do well to bet against teams that have won three games in a row and bet for teams that have lost three games in a row,” they said.

Carlson, K.A. & Shu, S.B. (2007). The rule of three: How the third event signals the emergence of a streak. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 104, 113-121.
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How ambiguous racism can be more harmful than the blatant variety

Ambiguous racism is more detrimental to African American students’ performance on a mental task than is blatant racism, psychologists have shown. By contrast, the reverse is true for White students, for whom blatant racism is more distracting.

Jessica Salvatore and Nicole Shelton say their results reflect the fact that Black students have coping mechanisms at hand to deal with blatant prejudice, but are more distracted by an ambiguous scenario. “Uncertainty about others’ prejudice leaves marginalised individuals unable to discern which coping strategies would be most appropriate to the situation,” they said.

The researchers asked 250 Princeton undergrads to read fictitious job candidates’ CVs, and the hiring decisions of the pretend company they had applied for. Shortly afterwards the students completed the famous Stroop test, which measures cognitive control by repeatedly asking participants to name the ink colour a word is written in, while ignoring the colour name spelt out by the letters.

The Black students’ performance suffered more after they read about a White employer selecting an inferior White candidate over a better qualified Black candidate (ambiguous racism), compared with when they read about a White employer saying they had rejected a superior Black candidate because he had been a member of too many minority organisations (blatant racism).

However, for White students it was the blatant racism that was more distracting. The researchers said this was because the White students weren't used to dealing with overt racism and didn't even notice the ambiguous racism.

Salvatore, J. & Shelton, J.N. (2007). Cognitive costs of exposure to racial prejudice. Psychological Science, 18, 810-815.
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How experimenters influenced participants in the ganzfeld parapsychology experiment

An analysis of conversations that took place during ganzfeld parapsychology experiments has revealed researchers may have exerted an influence on their participants.

Ganzfeld experiments involve a 'sender' trying to project images from a video clip to a 'receiver' who is incubated, blindfolded, in a sound-proof room. The 'receiver' reports the images they believe they are receiving to a researcher who notes them down. Crucially, the next stage involves the researcher reviewing these images with the 'receiver', before the 'receiver' attempts to identify the video clip seen by the 'sender' from among three decoys.

Robin Wooffitt analysed recordings taken from ganzfeld experiments held at the famous Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Edinburgh during the mid 1990s. He found that as the researchers reviewed the images reported by the 'receivers', they tended to respond in two distinct ways.

After a clarification by the 'receiver', researchers sometimes said “okay” and moved decisively onto the next item. Other times, however, they said “mm hm” with an inquiring tone. After hearing this, 'receivers' typically tried to expand on their description, and as they did so, often ended up casting doubt on the clarity of their own imagery.

Wooffitt said that a researcher's choice to respond with “okay” or “mm hm” might seem inconsequential, but in fact the latter utterance clearly had an effect on the 'receivers'' confidence in their imagery. Consequently, he said, “it is at least possible that they [the 'receivers'] will have less confidence in relying on their imagery to identify significant events or themes in the video clips.”

If the researchers did influence participants in this way, could it help explain why sceptical researchers have tended to report more negative results than believers? Wooffitt told the Digest: "I think it has much more to do with the nature of one’s interactional style, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with either sceptical or ‘pro-paranormal’ beliefs."

Wooffitt added that by furthering our "understanding of the impact of the social dynamics in psychology experiments more generally", his observations have implications beyond parapsychology research.

Wooffitt, R. (2007). Communication and laboratory performance in parapsychology experiments: Demand characteristics and the social organisation of interaction. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 477-498.
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Asian Americans and European Americans differ in how they see themselves in the world

The way we see ourselves in the world can affect how we answer ambiguous questions like: “Next Wednesday's meeting has been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now on?”

If you see yourself as moving through time, then you're more likely to think the meeting will be on Friday. By contrast, if you see time as passing you by, you're more likely to think the meeting has changed to Monday. Try it on your friends.

Now Angela Leung and Dov Cohen have used ambiguous questions like this to test the contrasting perspectives of Asian Americans and European Americans.

For example, participants from these racial backgrounds were told about a scenario in which they had gone to meet a friend at a skyscraper, but as they were in the lift going up to the 94th floor, their friend was in another lift heading down to the reception.

Next, the participants were given a map showing the city 'Jackson'. They were asked to mark the location of the city 'Jamestown', which they were told ambiguously was the next city “after” Jackson on the north-south highway.

The idea is that participants who imagined the skyscraper story from their own perspective would mark Jamestown as the next city north of Jackson (because they'd imagined going up in the lift in the story), whereas participants who imagined the skyscraper story from their friend's perspective would mark Jamestown as being south.

Taken together with other examples, the researchers found Asian Americans were more likely to adopt the perspective of their friend in these social scenarios rather than to adopt their own perspective. European Americans showed the opposite trend.

Leung and Cohen said this shows how our cultural values our embodied in the way we see ourselves in the world. Asian Americans who, they said, place value on “thinking how your actions will look to other people” tend to visualise social situations from a third person “camera angle”. European Americans, by contrast, who endorse values like “knowing what you want” tend to visualise situations from their own perspective.

Leung, K.L. & Cohen, D. (2007). The soft embodiment of culture. Camera angles and motion through time and space. Psychological Science, 18, 824-830.
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Being paid by the hour changes the way we think about time

'Time is money' goes the adage. But do you think of time as having a monetary value? According to Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford University in America, your answer could well depend on whether you are paid by the hour.

If someone sees their time as having a financial worth, then it follows that any time they don't spend earning money is essentially lost revenue. DeVoe and Pfeffer found that of over 10,000 employees, those who were paid by the hour were significantly more likely to say that, given the choice, they would choose to work more hours for more money, rather than fewer hours for less money.

This held true even after controlling for a raft of factors like current weekly income and number of hours worked.

In a second study, 62 employees on an annual salary reported how much of their working life they had spent being paid hourly. As expected, those who'd spent more of their lives paid hourly were more likely to display a financial view of time, saying they'd rather work more hours for more money.

Some of these 62 employees were also asked to translate their annual salary into an hourly rate. Doing this led employees who'd spent little, or none, of their life on an hourly salary, to view time as if they had previously worked on an hourly rate – again, being more likely to say they'd rather work longer hours for more money, than fewer hours for less.

The findings have implications for how we are paid and for the modern drive towards flexible working arrangements. You might think that the option of an hourly rate and flexible hours would free you up to spend more time on what really matters to you in life. But these results suggest such an arrangement would lead you to view time as money, making it hard to resist working longer hours.

DeVoe, S. & Pfeffer, J. (2007). When time is money: The effect of hourly payment on the evaluation of time. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 104, 1-13.
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Animals - a reminder of our own mortality?

Being reminded of our own mortality can sour our attitudes towards animals, psychologists have found.

Low self-esteem students who were reminded of their mortality and their similarity to animals subsequently reported more negative attitudes towards animals than low self-esteem students who weren't given these reminders. The researchers said that, to the first group, animals had come to represent human “biological vulnerability and mortality”, thus provoking aversion and negative attitudes. They argue this is consistent with "Terror Management Theory", which states we deliberately avoid stimuli that remind us of our biological state.

Ruth Beatson and Michael Halloran of La Trobe University, Australia, reminded some student participants of their mortality by asking them to describe what will happen to them physically when they die.

The researchers also reminded the students of their relation to animals by playing them a video about chimp reproductive behaviour and asking them to think about how similar it was to human sexual behaviour.

Those students reminded of their own creatureliness and mortality subsequently showed the most negative attitudes towards animals, but only if they had low self-esteem. The attitudes of high-self esteem students were apparently unaffected by the video and morbid question.

Regardless of their self-esteem, other students who were reminded of their creatureliness, but who were not asked to think about their mortality, showed more positive attitudes to animals, as did another student group reminded of their mortality but not their closeness to animals. In other words, negative attitudes were only provoked when the mortality and creatureliness reminders came together.

The researchers said their findings suggest anti animal-cruelty campaigns must emphasise the inter-relatedness of humans and animals in a “non-threatening manner”.

Beatson, R.M. & Halloran, M.J. (2007). Humans rule! The effects of creatureliness reminders, mortality salience and self-esteem on attitudes towards animals. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 619-632.
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What's the most important psychology experiment that's Never been done...?

To mark 100 email issues of the Research Digest - the British Psychological Society's free roundup of the world's best new psychology research - and to inspire the next generation of researchers, I asked leading psychologists and bloggers to write about 'The most important psychology experiment that's Never been done.'

This feature is sponsored by the not-for-profit Centre for Applied Positive Psychology. CAPP Press, their publishing arm, is proud to announce the forthcoming publication of two titles in its "Strengthening the World" series. See

I'd like to thank our contributors sincerely for taking their time to participate in this special feature and being prepared to put their ideas on the line.

We have 13 contributions in all, which have been published daily over the past fortnight.

1. Watching death, by Susan Blackmore
2. Reducing prejudice and discriminatory behaviour, by Pam Maras
3. Caring for psychotic patients with maximum kindness and minimum medication, by Richard Bentall
4. Personal psychology experiments, by Will Meek
5. Can psychology save the world? by Scott O Lilienfeld
6. Why is learning slow? by Richard L Gregory
7. Switching the parents around, by Judith Rich Harris
8. Expanding the frontiers of human cognition, by Chris Chatham
9. Testing foetal cognition, by Annette Karmiloff-Smith
10. Hiring private detectives to investigate paranoid delusions, by Vaughan Bell
11. Challenging the conclusions drawn from Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, by Alex Haslam
12. The Truman Show experiment, by Jeremy Dean
13. Changing the focus of psychotherapy to what is good in your life, by Martin Seligman

What do you think is the most important psychology experiment that's never been done? Have your say via comments.
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Changing the focus of psychotherapy to what is good in your life

Martin Seligman: "For one hundred years psychotherapy has been where you go to talk about your troubles. Looking over hundreds of controlled outcome studies, it is a moderately effective process. But does the troubles part matter?

We have recently been looking at a process—called Positive Psychotherapy—in which talking about what is good in your life is the central focus: strengths, virtues, flow, meaning, positive emotion, gratitude, hope and the like. We do not neglect troubles (depressed patients are socialized into the belief that troubles must be discussed and rapport would be undermined otherwise), but they are not the central focus and often form a segue into talking about strengths and meaning. Similarly trouble-focused psychotherapy does not wholly neglect the positive side of life, but damage and its repair are the central focus. Trouble-focused therapy, unlike strength-focus therapy, is not much fun (worse, sometimes patients unravel and cannot be ravelled up again), is stigmatizing, and has a considerable drop-out rate.

So let us finally test experimentally if it is troubles and repairing damage or building strength, meaning, and positive emotion that is the (more) active ingredient in psychotherapy: 200 depressed patients, randomly assigned to therapists, trained to deliver either trouble-focused or strength-focused psychotherapy. It could even be within subjects in an ABAB design. And how would these compare to medication or medication plus strength or trouble-focus?"

Dr Martin Seligman is Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written over twenty books and two hundred articles on motivation and personality.

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The Truman Show Experiment

Jeremy Dean: "While the greatest psychology experiment imaginable has never been done, it has been filmed. The film is The Truman Show in which the main character Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, lives in an entirely manufactured world, and has done since birth. The island on which he lives is a stage, his wife is an actress along with all his friends, neighbours and acquaintances - indeed everyone on the island is playing a part.

In the film, Truman's every move is broadcast to an adoring global audience of millions - a run-of-the-mill Hollywood dream. But in the psychologist's dream, Truman's every move would be broadcast back to a waiting team of analysts.

All breeds of psychologists would be in on the act. Developmental psychologists examining how Truman changes over his life-span, social psychologists testing his obedience, conformity and social identity and cognitive psychologists checking his memory and attention. All in a controlled environment, and over a controlled lifespan.

The problem is that a sample size of one doesn't play well in the academic journals. So more 'participants' would be required. Truman is soon joined by an ever-growing cast of participants. He would need a 'real' wife, 'real' children and 'real' in-laws. But as more participants are added, the environment becomes less controlled, more chaotic, open to the vagaries of human behaviour. All those nicely controlled experiments would start to break down as real participants interacted with each other in unexpected ways.

No, we need many Truman's all in separate artificial environments - each subjected to slightly different environments and having slightly different genetic make-ups...

Right, I'm off to write my grant application. Do you think a few billion pounds ought to cover it?"

Jeremy Dean is the author of PsyBlog.

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Challenging the conclusions drawn from Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment

Alex Haslam: "The invitation to design the 'most important experiment that’s never been done' is an interesting one, but one that entails a great many dangers. One of these is that by inviting researchers to focus on experiments per se, it encourages them to forget that the fundamental purpose of experiments is to test theoretically derived ideas. Really, then, the question should be 'what is the most important theoretical idea that has never been empirically challenged or supported?' An answer to this question needs to be informed by an analysis of both (a) ideas that dominate the field but which are misleading, and (b) ideas which offer an alternative, superior understanding. In my own field of social psychology, there are a great many candidates for (a), but relatively few for (b). In this regard, I would assert that the most important class of ideas that need to be challenged in our understanding of social life are those which lead us to believe that social problems encountered in the world at present (e.g. tyranny, prejudice, abuse, discrimination) are the ‘natural’ manifestation of inherent processes (e.g. evolutionary, socio-biological, or social psychological). The most important studies are therefore those which take influential studies that appear to support such ideas, and turn them on their heads.

In this regard, one study that I would like to conduct would involve using the paradigm of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE, Haney et al., 1973) as the basis for a study showing that, under certain conditions, people (e.g. prisoners) can resist oppression as well as commit and fall victim to it — thereby challenging the idea that tyranny is an inevitable consequence of assigning people to powerful and powerless roles. In fact we were given the opportunity to design and conduct just such a study several years ago (the BBC Prison Study — BPS; Reicher & Haslam, 2006). The findings to this both (a) challenged received models of tyranny, (b) supported an alternative analysis (derived from social identity theory; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and (c) bore striking resemblance to patterns of resistance displayed in real-life prisons (and elsewhere in society).

The problem here, though, is that because our findings diverged markedly from those of Zimbardo, he (and others) assumed that the study must have had an inherent design flaw. Of course, as an experiment the study had certain limitations (e.g. lack of a control condition, small sample size) that it would be good to try to address in follow up research. Indeed, it would be great to conduct an experiment which resolved this debate conclusively. Such a study might involve two conditions with multiple prisons in each: in one, the prisons would recreate and replicate patterns of tyranny observed in the SPE; in the other a relevant manipulation would heighten shared social and political identification among the prisoners while weakening that of the guards in order to show that, over time, this was a basis for resistance of the form displayed in the BPS (and in prisons like Robben Island and the Maze; Buntman, 2001; McEvoy, 2001).

Here again, though (as we have found out), there is a danger in thinking that the resolution of such matters is only ever an empirical issue — a question of ethics, resources, and careful design. These things are important, but ideology, politics, group memberships and vanity also have a role to play. You can lead an experimentalist to data, but you can’t always make them think. The most important experiments are those which make such disengagement harder, and which encourage fresh minds to change the world not just reproduce it.

Dr Alex Haslam is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, UK.
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Hiring private detectives to investigate paranoid delusions

Vaughan Bell: "In 1684, the famous writer, Nathaniel Lee, was becoming increasingly disturbed and was promptly admitted to Bethlem Hospital. While protesting his sanity, he described the situation as one where 'they called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.' Over three hundred years later, the difficulty of agreeing on whether someone's belief is a paranoid delusion, a sign of psychotic mental illness, is still troubling psychologists.

Delusions are broadly defined as false, fixed beliefs that are held despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, it's a clear-cut case. If someone believes they are dead, a condition known as Cotard's Syndrome, you can be confident that the belief is a delusion. On other occasions (and these occasions are by far the most common) the question relies on a judgement of how well the evidence supports the person's belief. This is where it gets tricky, because what counts as evidence, and what counts as 'well supported' are often a matter of opinion.

Someone goes to a mental health professional and says 'I feel awful. I'm being targeted by my neighbours, and they've implanted microphones in my house to listen to my breathing.' It certainly sounds strange, and maybe they've already been diagnosed with a mental illness in the past, so we might just think it sounds unlikely enough to count as a delusion. But we know, for example, that people diagnosed with schizophrenia are much more likely to suffer violence and discrimination. Perhaps, some of the paranoia is driven by genuine persecution.

So here's the experiment. Everyone who walks into a mental health clinic is interviewed and their seemingly paranoid beliefs are noted. The mental health professional is asked to make a judgement on how delusional the belief might be. Then, each client is assigned a world-class private investigator, who is given the job of checking out all aspects of the belief, no matter how unusual. Is anyone in the neighbourhood persecuting the person? Are there really microphones in the house? Is there anyone who might have an interest in listening to their breathing patterns?

At the end, the professionals' judgements are compared to the evidence from the investigation, and we get to see how good we are at distinguishing paranoia from realistic concerns. Just as importantly, the study would indicate where the borderlands of paranoia lie, giving us a better understanding of how the mind exaggerates our fears. Further research could look precisely at how genuine threats spark, ignite and become inflamed by the cognitive distortions of psychosis.

The experiment, of course, will never be run. Even ignoring the practical difficulties, it's simply too intrusive and risks breaking client confidentiality. To do their job, the private investigators would have to ask questions which would give away personal details. Thankfully though, good mental health care focuses on psychological distress, no matter what causes it, but the issue raises the important question of how much we rely on guesswork to judge other people's reality."

Dr Vaughan Bell is a researcher and clinical psychologist in training at the Institute of Psychiatry. He writes daily at the Mind Hacks blog.

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Testing foetal cognition

Annette Karmiloff-Smith: "Two lines of research have motivated my choice of a psychology experiment that has hitherto never been done. The first involves scientifically-controlled studies of the typically developing foetus during the last three months of intra-uterine life, pioneered in Belfast by Peter Hepper and his collaborators. Measurement of intra-uterine changes in rate of heart beat or of limb movement can be used to ascertain whether the foetus is sensitive to changes in auditory stimuli such as music, words, male/female voices. The second line of research comes from a PhD experiment in my lab (Paterson, et al., 1999) which indicated that infants and toddlers with Williams syndrome were as sensitive to changes in small numbers (1, 2, 3) as chronological-age-matched controls, whereas those with Down's syndrome (DS) performed more poorly than both chronologically age-matched and mental-age-matched controls. How could these seemingly disparate lines of research meet?

The experiment I propose has three steps:

Step 1) Hitherto, work on the foetus has not involved number. Can the typically developing foetus notice changes in small number in the auditory domain (we know, for instance, that young infants can do cross-modal matching of small numbers from auditory to visual stimuli)? If we repeatedly tap two sounds until the foetus habituates, will the foetus renew heart-rate or limb movements when we change to three sounds (or from repeated three to two sounds)?

Step 2) I would test the DS foetus in the final 3 months of intra-uterine life for sensitivity to changes in auditory stimuli, as has already been carried out with the typically developing foetus (music, language, etc.). Then I would test the DS foetus for sensitivity to changes in small number discriminability, as in step 1.

Step 3) If some of the DS foetuses are sensitive to auditory changes in numerosity, and subsequently perform well in the visual number domain, whereas those who fail to react to changes during intra-uterine life also fail to notice change in the visual domain after birth, a training study for the DS foetus would be set up to ascertain whether this induces changes in the trajectory of number development after birth.

This experiment is important in my view because it really takes development seriously, i.e., that the roots of all cognitive development are in low-level mechanisms operative at the very outset of development (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, 1998, 2007). There are, however, ethical issues involved. How would expectant parents of DS children react to a request to participate in research? In my view, parents who have decided to carry a Down syndrome foetus to term are likely to be happy to be involved in any research that might encourage their foetus to process auditory stimuli as a possible preparation for life outside the womb. Moreover, even if the training were not successful during intra-uterine life, the experiment might lay the foundations for postnatal research placing the focus on early training in the auditory and visual domains for both typically and atypically developing infants."

Dr Annette Karmiloff-Smith is Professorial Research Fellow in the Developmental Neurocognition Lab, Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London.
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