Gesturing unlocks children's maths skills

Encouraging children to gesture when they are working on maths problems helps them benefit more from subsequent maths tuition. Sara Broaders and colleagues, who made the observation, say this is because gesturing activates children's implicit maths knowledge, which they are not yet able to consciously access or talk about.

In an initial study, 106 children aged nine to ten years were asked to solve problems like 6 + 3 + 7= ? + 7 and talk through their solutions. Later on, some of the children were also told that they must use their hands when explaining their answers. All the children got the maths problems wrong, but the hand movements of the children told to gesture revealed they had insight into new, often appropriate strategies, which they hadn't previously spoken of.

For example, the researchers said a sweeping movement of a child's palm, first under the left, then under the right side of the problem revealed that they understood both sides of the equation needed to be the same.

A second study with 70 children showed that the activation of this implicit knowledge in gesture has actual practical benefits. Again the children were presented with maths problems and asked to explain their answers; again some were told they must gesture when explaining, while others were told not to gesture. As before, the children told to gesture revealed novel strategies in their hand movements, even though they continued to get the answers wrong. Next, the children received some tuition in how to solve the problems. Critically, in a final test, the children previously told to gesture solved an average of 1.5 more problems correctly than the kids told not to gesture - in other words they seemed to have benefited more from the tuition.

The researchers concluded that being told to gesture reveals "previously unexpressed implicit knowledge that, in turn, makes learning more likely".

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBroaders, S.C., Cook, S.W., Mitchell, Z. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2007). Making children gesture brings out implicit knowledge and leads to learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 539-550.
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The psychology of choking under pressure

Once anxiety extends its tendrils into the sportsman or woman's mind, the results can be disastrous. But what causes this choking under pressure?

There are two rival theories - one states that anxiety is so distracting it stops performers from being able concentrate on what they're doing. The other argues that anxiety causes the sportsman or woman to become overly conscious of their movements - skilled actions that had become automatic are made excruciatingly explicit, thus causing the athlete to regress to their standard as a novice.

Now Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock have tested these rival theories with twenty experienced Australian golfers, who have handicaps ranging from 0 to 12. The golfers performed putts in three conditions - they either had to focus on three words that represented components of their technique (e.g. "arms", "weight", "head"); focus on three irrelevant words, for example three colours; or focus on just one word that summed up their putting action, such as "smooth".

They did all this in a low anxiety context first, and then the whole thing was repeated with the pressure cranked up by the offer of cash rewards for the best performances. Would the anxiety of the high pressure context cause the golfers' performance to deteriorate?

The added anxiety only caused the golfers' performance to deteriorate when they were focusing on three words that represented components of their putting action. By contrast, their under-pressure performance actually improved slightly when they were thinking of irrelevant words or just one word that holistically represented their action.

These findings appear to support the idea that anxiety affects performance by causing people to think too much about their actions, not because it is distracting per se. If anxiety was a problem by virtue of being distracting, then having to focus on three irrelevant words should have compounded the problem just as much as three words related to the putt.

Overall, the golfers' performance was most accurate when they focused on a single, holistic word that represented their putting action. The researchers said this finding, though preliminary, suggests expert performers should be encouraged to "adopt more global, higher-level cue words that collectively combine the mechanical process of their technique, which may act as either a schematic cue or a conscious distraction."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGucciardi, D.F. & Dimmock, J.A. (2008). Choking under pressure in sensorimotor skills: Conscious processing or depleted attentional resources? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 45-59.
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Merry Christmas

The BPS Research Digest wishes you a jolly old time over Christmas and a most salubriously successful 2008. Normal posting will resume after the festive break.
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Would you take a pill to boost your brain power?

Is there any difference between drinking coffee to pep yourself up and taking a drug like Modafinil, which has been shown to increase alertness, planning and memory? There could be side effects and if everyone else in your office or class was popping Modafinil then perhaps you'd feel pressure to take it too. Is there anything wrong with that? Is such a scenario inevitable?

Drugs like Ritalin are already used routinely to help children with ADHD, and cholinesterase inhibitors are used to help people with Alzheimer's disease. Now in an open-access commentary for Nature magazine published today, psychologists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir of the MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge, say they are aware many of their healthy colleagues are taking Modafinil to fight jet lag or enhance their productivity. There are also reports of the drug being used by ever greater numbers of healthy university students.

Sahkian and Morein-Zamir are calling on society to start discussing the implications of cognitive enhancers now and Nature is hosting a forum on the topic where experts and readers can discuss the ethical issues raised. In particular Sahkian and Morein-Zamir say regulation needs to catch up with the science: "Rather than individuals purchasing substances over the internet, we believe it would be better to ensure supervised access to safe and effective cognitive-enhancing drugs, particularly given dangerous drug-drug interactions."

This latest endeavour comes just weeks after a British Medical Association discussion paper raised many of the same issues, in some cases going further, to discuss the ethics of using transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and genetic manipulation for the purposes of cognitive enhancement.

Indeed there have been several signs over the last few years of a powerful sense among the scientific and medical community that progress is racing so fast in psychology and the neurosciences that the public urgently needs to be kept up-to-date and intimately involved in the decisions that will surely shape all our futures.

Two years ago, the UK Government's Foresight programme published a report "Drug Futures 2025" that claimed "We are on the verge of a revolution in the specificity and function of the psychoactive substances available to us". We should take action now, the report said, in anticipation of the impact these advances will have on three key areas: mental health treatment; addiction and recreational drug use; and the use of a new breed of drug called cognitive enhancers.

Also, from 2004 through to this year, a European-wide project "Meeting of Minds" consulted 126 citizens from nine countries, allowing them to discuss the implications of brain science developments with leading experts.

Neuroscientific progress may be moving at shuttle-speed but fortunately it is easier than ever to keep abreast of new developments in psychology and the neurosciences - there's the Research Digest of course, but for a list of many other psychology/neuro blogs, take a look at the blog roll in the left-hand column of the Research Digest blog homepage.

Link to Nature commentary "Professor's little helper" on the use of cognitive enhancers (open access).
Link to Nature forum on the use of cognitive enhancers.
Link to BMA discussion paper on cognitive enhancements.
Link to Government Foresight report.
Link to Meeting of Minds.
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Eye catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The Implicit Association Test, thought to reveal people's true attitudes, can be faked. (See earlier).

How winning one prize can be better than winning two.

Can trauma lead to compulsive hoarding? (See earlier).

The media and psychiatric profession continue to promote the unproven notion that psychiatric illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain; open access. (See earlier).
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The mere sight of alcohol impairs drinkers' memories

For students who like a tipple or three, the mere sight of a bottle of Jack Daniels can have a detrimental effect on their memory. Dennis Kramer and Stephen Schmidt, who made the observation, said this is probably due to the emotional salience alcohol has for those who drink a lot.

One hundred and twenty students performed a task reminiscent of the Generation Game, which involved them observing pictures of 15 everyday objects, such as a hammer or a banana, and then attempting to recall them 5 minutes later. After the memory task, the students were split into high and low drinkers based on their average number of drinks per month.

For some of the students, the eighth item in the memory test was a bottle of Jack Daniels, while others saw a bottle of Pepsi Cola in its place. It turns out that among the high drinkers only, memory performance was significantly affected by the the nature of this eighth item.

Firstly, the high drinkers, but not the low drinkers, were more likely to recall the Jack Daniels than the Pepsi Cola. Moreover, the high drinkers who saw whiskey in the eighth position, were far less likely to recall the next three items in the memory test, than were the high drinkers who were shown Cola. This memory-impairing effect of whiskey was not observed among the low drinkers.

The researchers said this is consistent with the idea that alcohol had acquired an emotional salience to the high drinkers, leading to an attention-narrowing effect that impaired their encoding of the items that followed the picture of whiskey. A similar effect was observed in an earlier study when a nude picture was inserted among a series of to-be-remembered items.

The researchers concluded that a test like the one used in this study might be helpful in measuring how effective alcohol interventions have been at changing people's feelings towards drink.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKramer, D.A. & Schmidt, S.R. (2007). Alcohol beverage cues impair memory in high social drinkers, 21, 1535-1545. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1535-1545.
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The effect of, er, hesitations in speech

We'd all like to speak with unobstructed lucidity, but for most of us speech hesitations and pauses are unavoidable. Now psychologists have asked what effect these oral hiatuses have on listeners.

Martin Corley and colleagues played recordings of English sentences, which either did, or did not, include a hesitation before the final word, to 12 participants. The listeners had electrodes placed on their heads, so that the researchers could look out for a negative change in voltage over the centro-parietal region of the scalp - the N400 - which is typically observed when people have to process a word they aren't expecting.

For example, given a spoken sentence stem like "Everyone's got bad habits and mine is biting my...", the final unexpected word "tongue" would usually be associated with the N400.

Crucially, the researchers found that a spoken hesitation "er..." before a sentence's final word had the effect of reducing the difference in N400 observed for an unexpected final word compared with an expected one. It seems that the hesitation had made the unexpected word easier to process, although an alternative, less likely explanation is that the hesitation made expected words harder to process.

Hesitation also had an effect on the listeners' memories. About 55 minutes after the listening part of the study, the same participants were presented with all 160 of the words that had come at the end of the experiment's sentences, intermingled with 160 new words, with their task to say which words were new and which were old. The listeners were slightly, but significantly, more likely to correctly recognise final words that had come after a hesitation, than final words that had come at the end of a fluently spoken sentence.

These findings suggest hesitations might serve some advantages to public speakers. Orators like President Bush are mocked for their disfluent style, but perhaps by hesitating at strategic moments in his speech, Bush is hammering home key points.

Co-author on the study Lucy MacGregor said there could be some truth in this, but she had a couple of warnings for budding speakers thinking of adopting a stop-start style. First of all, too much disfluency will likely swamp listeners' attentional systems. Also, past research has shown that speakers who hesitate are generally perceived to be less knowledgeable. "This means," MacGregor said, "that although (used carefully/sparingly), hesitations may help listeners remember what a speaker has said, listeners may be left with a less than favourable impression of a speaker's knowledge."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCorley, M. MacGregor, L.J. & Donaldson, D.I. (2007). It's the way that you, er, say it: Hesitations in speech affect language comprehension. Cognition, 105, 658-668.
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Psychology-related radio clips, podcasts, magazine features and more, for when you've had enough of journal articles.

Richard Wiseman and the Daily Telegraph seek your help to find out how much information we really do garner from first impressions.

The Wellcome Collection are hosting an exhibition all about sleep and dreaming.

ABC Radio's All in the Mind continued with a programme that followed up on brain surgery patient Kia, another tackling the issue of whether psychiatrists and psychologists should be involved in interrogation, and mostly recently an episode that asked 'Who speaks for the chained and incarcerated?'(Links are to MP3 audio files).

Are twins still just as special now that there are so many more of them?

Can a 'will to live' really influence a patient's survival chances?

BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind continued with programmes featuring a new 'babble test' for schizophrenia, another focusing on the role of carers and mostly recently an episode with a focus on epilepsy.

Malcolm Gladwell dissects the IQ - race controversy (hat tip: Mind Hacks).

Professor James Flynn, discoverer of the eponymous Flynn Effect - the tendency for average IQ scores to rise over time - was a guest on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.
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How thoughts of death turn to joy

Most of us don't want to die, we want to live long and prosper. And yet, we're not paralysed by the terrifying thought that it's only a matter of time - one day our number will be up. Why is this?

According to Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumeister, it's because we have an inbuilt psychological immune system that works tirelessly beneath our conscious awareness, tuning our mind to a more positive channel whenever we think about death.

In one study, dozens of students were asked to complete word stems like "jo_", which can either be completed to become a positive word "joy" or a neutral word like "jog". Students who had previously been asked to contemplate their own death were far more likely to form positive words than were other the students who'd been asked to contemplate a painful visit to the dentist. It seems thinking about death had somehow turned the students minds to positive words, a finding consistent with what psychologists call 'terror management theory' - our denial of morbid reality.

And yet this appeared to be a subconscious process - both the death and dentist contemplation students scored the same on a self-report mood questionnaire given to them between the contemplation task and the word completion task.

The finding was replicated in a second study using a word similarity task. Students were presented with a target word (e.g. joke) and had to say whether it was more similar to an emotionally related comparison word (e.g. sunbeam) or a semantically related alternative (e.g. speech). When it came to happy target words, but not fearful or sad ones, students who had thought about dying were far more likely to choose the emotionally related comparison word rather than the semantically related one, but no such effect was observed among the students who thought about the dentist - they were just as likely to pick the emotionally or semantically related words.

A final experiment demonstrated how counter-intuitive these findings are, and helped explain why we are so poor at predicting how events will affect us emotionally. Contrary to the actual results observed in the first two experiments, students asked to imagine the effects of contemplating death failed to predict that they would be more tuned to positive words, and they overestimated how badly their mood would be affected.

"Death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts," the researchers said. "Moreover, this occurs immediately and outside of awareness".

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDeWall, C.N. & Baumeister, R.F. (2007). From terror to joy. Automatic tuning to positive affective information following mortality salience. Psychological Science, 18, 984-990.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We look out for the latest journal special issues so you don't have to:

Subjectivity and the body (Consciousness and Cognition).

Mediated communities: Considerations for applied social psychology (Journal of Community and Applied Society Psychology).

The development of self-regulation: Toward the integration of cognition and emotion (Cognitive Development).

Work and mental health (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).
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Why gym design is all wrong

Walk into any gym these days and you're confronted by a bank of exercise machines facing a wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Yet new research suggests this could be the worse possible set-up for sedentary women braving the gym for the first time.

Kathleen Martin Ginis and colleagues invited 92 women to exercise at their lab where they allocated them to one of four conditions: to cycle for 20 minutes on an exercise bike alone with no mirror; to cycle alone in front of a mirror; to cycle with two to four other women with no mirror; or to cycle with two to four other women in front of a mirror.

None of the women usually completed more than 15 minutes of exercise a week and they were asked to dress with baggy shorts and a t-shirt to avoid any effect clothing might have on the results.

Compared with the women in the other groups, the women who exercised with others in front of a mirror appeared to suffer - they felt less revitalised afterwards, more exhausted, and more self-conscious. The researcher said it's probable the presence of mirrors and other exercisers encouraged comparison of oneself against others or against some physical ideal.

The researchers cautioned that their study was not conducted in a real gym environment, but they advised women new to exercising to sample a range of environments to see what suits them best. "An exercise initiate may feel better working out in a private, unmirrored environment, or outdoors, instead of partaking in a group exercise class in a mirrored aerobics studio," they said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Martin Ginis, K.A., Burke, S.M. & Gauvin, L. (2007). Exercising with others exacerbates the negative effects of mirrored environments on sedentary women's feeling states. Psychology and Health, 22, 945-962.
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Our need to know ourselves can sour unexpected success

Our need to feel as though we know ourselves is so strong that unexpected success can leave us feeling anxious and undermine our future performance. That's according to Jason Plaks and Kristin Stecher who looked specifically at the issue of whether people believe intelligence is fixed or subject to change.

About 100 students performed a verbal intelligence test before being given a fixed result and lessons on how to improve their performance. They then repeated the test and once again were given false feedback.

Those students who previously endorsed the idea that intelligence is fixed, reported feeling more anxious after they were given feedback showing they had improved or deteriorated, compared with others holding a fixed view of intelligence who were told their performance had stayed the same.

By contrast, students who previously endorsed the idea that our intelligence is malleable, suffered more anxiety when their final test performance appeared to show no change, relative to deterioration or improvement.

The students whose 'performance' didn't match their view of intelligence also showed signs of wanting to reassert their ability to predict future outcomes. When asked to work out whether it was their pressing of a keyboard button that was controlling a changing screen display, the students whose view of intelligence had previously been contradicted, spent significantly more time testing out whether they were controlling the screen or not.

Another experiment showed that similar effects were observed when students views on intelligence were manipulated using an article, ostensibly from a psychology magazine, to make them think that intelligence is fixed or malleable. These students showed increased anxiety when their subsequent test performance contradicted the account they'd read.

A final study showed that students who received intelligence test feedback that contradicted their views on intelligence didn't just experience increased anxiety afterwards, their subsequent intelligence test performance also suffered compared with the students whose earlier feedback had matched their views.

"Participants exhibited a motivation to confirm their working lay theory [of intelligence] and even reacted in potentially self-defeating ways after experiencing an outcome that violated that theory," the researchers concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchPlaks, J.E. & Stecher, K. (2007). Unexpected improvement, decline, and stasis: A prediction confidence perspective on achievement success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 667-684.
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Robert the Bruce's skull size shows he had high IQ

Fig. 2. (a) The cast of Robert Bruce's skull used for manual measurement of width and length (b) The cast of Robert Bruce's skull used for magnetic resonance imaging measurement In a paper featuring an irresistible mix of history and psychology, researchers have estimated Robert the Bruce's IQ from his skull size and concluded that he was a highly intelligent man.

Ian Deary and colleagues first established the relationship between IQ and skull size among 48 men (aged 71-76) living in Edinburgh. The researchers scanned the men's brains using MRI and had them complete the National Adult Reading Test, known to be strongly related to full IQ test performance and designed especially for use with older participants.

Consistent with past research showing that head size and brain volume correlate with IQ, the new analysis revealed that skull size was significantly related to the men's IQ.

Next, the researchers scanned and measured a plaster cast of Robert the Bruce's skull, as well as measuring its size with callipers (see image above). Extrapolating from the statistical relationship between skull size and IQ found among the Edinburgh participants, the researchers estimated that Robert the Bruce, with his larger than average skull, had an impressive IQ of about 128, and possibly higher.

This would make Robert Bruce of similar intelligence to other military leaders as estimated by Catharine Cox in 1926, including Cromwell with an estimated IQ of 135, Napoleon at 145 and Washington at 140.

Robert Bruce is famed for his defeat of a full English army led by Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314, as well as his later efforts to consolidate Scotland's international position, culminating with the declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

"The IQ estimate for Robert Bruce accords with his military, political and intellectual achievements, especially given the highly personal nature of kingship in the Mediaeval period," the researchers concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDeary, I.J., Ferguson, K.J. Bastin, M.E., Barrow, G.W.S., Reid, L.M., Seckl, J.R., Wardlaw, J.M. & MacLullich. (2007). Skull size and intelligence, and King Robert Bruce's IQ. Intelligence, 35, 519-525.

Image credit and copyright: Ian Deary.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We look out for the latest journal special issues so you don't have to:

Current directions (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Language-vision interaction (Journal of Memory and Language).

Attachment in Adolescence: Reflections and New Angles (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives (Brain and Cognition).
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Without knowledge of the position they play, women consistently rate the faces of goalkeepers and strikers as more attractive than their teammates.

Cognitive scientists need to polish up on their brain anatomy and establish a consensus for how to report the localisation of brain function.

Women with anorexia have a preoccupation with detail, which partly contributes to their poor abstract thinking performance.

Cataloging children's nighttime fears.
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Behind the news

Connecting you with the psychological science behind the news:

Hips do lie, women's sway can't be trusted (Daily Telegraph).
Sexy walks keep men off scent (BBC News Online).

Link to the journal source.
Link to the lead author.

Men motivated by superior wage (BBC News online).
Relative wealth 'makes you happier' (Daily Telegraph).

Link to the journal source.
Link to key author.

The science of love: look into the eyes (The Independent).
Love at first sight just sex and ego, study says (The Guardian).

Link to the journal source.
Link to the lead author.

Brain wiring link to paedophilia (BBC News online).
'Wiring fault' in child sex abusers (Daily Telegraph).

Link to the journal source.
Link to the lead author.
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Maybe more satisfied employees don't perform better after all

Contented employees perform well, unhappy ones don't. It seems simple enough. In fact, the association between "job satisfaction" and "job performance" has even been dubbed the "Holy Grail" of organisational psychology. But now Nathan Bowling at Wright State University, Ohio, has upset the party. His new analysis suggests the relationship between satisfaction and performance at work is largely spurious, with both factors having more to do with an employee's personality and self-esteem than they have to do with each other.

Bowling re-examined five previous meta-analyses (papers that combine data from multiple studies) that controlled for the "Big Five" personality traits while examining the relationship between job satisfaction and performance. He also conducted a meta-analysis of his own, focusing on studies that controlled for organisation-based self-esteem and work locus of control. In all, these analyses involved data from thousands of staff at numerous different organisations.

Organisation-based self-esteem refers to how valued workers believe themselves to be as an organisational member and is measured by agreement with statements like "I count around here". Meanwhile, work locus of control refers to the extent that staff believe they can control rewards in relation to their work, and is measured by agreement with statements like "People who perform their jobs well generally get rewarded".

Bowling found that taking account of general personality traits and/or work locus of control both slightly reduced the relationship between job satisfaction and performance. Crucially, however, controlling for organisation-based self-esteem reduced the relationship between job satisfaction and performance to a level that, though statistically significant, was so small as to be practically meaningless.

"Organisational efforts to improve employee performance by exclusively targeting job satisfaction are unlikely to be effective," Bowling concluded.

But Bowling warns this doesn't mean companies should ignore the job satisfaction of their staff. "Satisfied employees may still directly benefit the organisation through other means," he said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBowling, N.A. (2007). Is the job satisfaction-job performance relationship spurious? A meta-analytic examination. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 71, 167-185.
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