Would you kill one person to save the lives of others?

Are morals based on facts and knowledge, or are they grounded in emotions? In other words, if you programmed a computer with the right information, would it make the same moral judgements as a person? 'No', is the answer suggested by new research suggesting some moral decisions are based on emotions rather than explicit moral rules.

Six patients with damage to their ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), an area involved in emotions, were recruited. The patients, who have normal IQ and knowledge of social and moral norms, were presented with: impersonal moral choices (Do you divert a runaway trolley off its track, saving the lives of five workmen but imperilling a single workman on the other track?); personal moral choices (Do you kill a fellow hostage in order that you and eight children can escape from terrorists?); and non-moral decisions (Do you buy a branded product or buy a supermarket's own version?).

The choices made by the patients with prefrontal cortex damage were compared with those made by healthy controls and by patients with damage to parts of the brain not associated with emotion.

The groups didn't differ in how they made impersonal moral choices and non-moral decisions. Crucially, however, the patients with prefrontal cortex damage tended to answer more ruthlessly than the other participants when it came to 13 out of 21 personal moral decisions. These decisions tended to pit the welfare of the majority against the participant having to commit deliberate harm to others. Repulsion at committing such deliberate harm caused the control participants to sacrifice the well-being of the majority, whereas the patients with prefrontal cortex damage tended to make more 'utilitarian', logical choices, harming one person to save the many.

“What is absolutely astonishing about our results is how selective the deficit is” said co-author Marc Hauser. “Damage to the frontal lobe leaves intact a suite of moral problem solving abilities, but damages judgements in which an aversive action is put into direct conflict with a strong utilitarian outcome”.

Koenigs, M., Young, L., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., Hauser, M. & Damasio, A. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements. Nature.

Link to full list of the moral decisions (pdf).
You have read this article Brain / Decision making / Morality with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/would-you-kill-one-person-to-save-lives.html. Thanks!

Courtroom confidence backfires when a witness makes an error

Confidence is extremely convincing – many studies have shown that both real jurors and mock jurors are more likely to believe a courtroom witness who appears confident. But what if a confident witness is seen to make an error? New research by Elizabeth Tenney and colleagues shows that in this case, confidence backfires: confident witnesses who make mistakes are perceived to be the least reliable of all.

Forty-eight students read one of four versions of a courtroom transcript. As expected, participants who read about a key witness who said they were absolutely sure of their testimony, found that witness more credible than did participants who read about an equivalent witness who admitted being uncertain.

Crucially, however, half the students read versions in which the witness was seen to make an error – claiming a campus thief left the victim's room an hour and half earlier than the victim said he had. In this case, the confident version of the witness was judged less credible than the uncertain version. In fact, a prosecution witness who made a mistake but who admitted being uncertain, was as likely to provoke a guilty verdict among participants as an error-free confident witness. It seems people are deemed trustworthy when their confidence matches their accuracy.

The finding was replicated in a second study in which 103 participants judged the credibility of two witnesses, one confident, one uncertain, giving conflicting testimony about a car accident. At first, the confident witness's testimony was found to be more credible. However, it was then revealed that both witnesses had made a mistake about what they'd been doing earlier on the day of the accident. Now it was the unconfident witness who was judged to be more credible.

“People giving testimony, advice, or opinions should therefore be careful to express appropriate degrees of confidence in their assertions”, the researchers said. “Otherwise, the thirteenth stroke of the clock will cast the other twelve in doubt”.

Tenney, E.R., MacCoun, R.J., Spellman, B.A. & Hastie, R. (2007). Calibration trumps confidence as a basis for witness credibility. Psychological Science, 18, 46-50.
You have read this article Forensic with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/courtroom-confidence-backfires-when.html. Thanks!

Depression linked with impaired spatial ability

Depression has a detrimental effect on people's ability to find their way around, according to researchers. Husseini Manji and colleagues compared the performance of 30 depressed patients and 19 healthy controls on a virtual reality spatial navigation task. The participants had to navigate their way around a virtual town, in a task that resembled a first-person perspective video game. Participants familiarised themselves with the town one day, and then the actual testing, which involved finding locations in the town, took place three days later.

The performance of the depressed patients was impaired relative to the healthy controls. Moreover, the more depressed a patient was (as measured by a psychiatric rating scale) the worse they tended to perform at the navigation task. Performance did not vary according to the kind of depression participants were suffering from: uni-polar or bi-polar.

The patients and controls did not differ on IQ or on a traditional pen and paper spatial task, suggesting such tests are not sensitive enough to pick up on the spatial deficit revealed by the current virtual reality task.

Past research has shown the virtual reality navigation task used here is associated with neural activity in the hippocampus. Meanwhile other studies have reported reduced hippocampal volume in patients with depression, so it's tempting to conclude that the patients were impaired at the navigation task because of hippocampal abnormalities. However, further research is needed to confirm this.

On a related note, stimulating neural regrowth in the hippocampus could be a new target for anti-depressants.

Gould, N.F., Holmes, M.K., Fantie, B.D., Luckenbaugh, D.A., Pine, D.S., Gould, T.D., Burgess, N., Manji, H.K. & Zarate, Jr., C.A. (2007). Performance on a virtual reality spatial memory navigation task in depressed patients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 516-519.
You have read this article Cognition / Mental health with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/depression-linked-with-impaired-spatial.html. Thanks!

Improve your memory: wiggle your eyes back and forth

Moving your eyes from side to side can help improve the accuracy of your memory. That's according to psychologists Andrew Parker and Neil Dagnall, who say the beneficial effect could be related to sideways eye movements increasing interactive neural activity across the front of the two brain hemispheres.

One hundred and two participants listened to 150 words, organised into ten themes (e.g. types of vehicle), read by a male voice. Next, 34 of these participants moved their eyes left and right in time with a horizontal target for thirty seconds (saccadic eye movements); 34 participants moved their eyes up and down in time with a vertical target; the remaining participants stared straight ahead, focussed on a stationary target.

After the eye movements, all the participants listened to a mixture of words: 40 they'd heard before, 40 completely unrelated new words, and 10 words that were new but which matched one of the original themes. In each case the participants had to say which words they'd heard before, and which were new.

The participants who'd performed sideways eye movements performed better in all respects than the others: they correctly recognised more of the old words as old, and more of the new words as new. Crucially, they were fooled less often by the new words whose meaning matched one of the original themes - that is they correctly recognised more of them as new. This is important because mistakenly identifying one of these 'lures' as an old word is taken as a laboratory measure of false memory. The performance of the participants who moved their eyes vertically, or who stared ahead, did not differ from each other.

“Bilateral eye movements appear to enhance true memory and decrease the extent to which subjects rely or make use of gist based false memory”, the researchers said. These findings for recognition memory build on earlier work showing sideways eye movements improve the accuracy of recall.

There is actually a type of therapy for trauma - eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing - which some people believe works via the connection between eye movements and memory, although this is controversial.

Parker, A. & Dagnall, N. (2007). Effects of bilateral eye movements on gist based false recognition in the DRM paradigm. Brain and Cognition, 63, 221-225.
You have read this article Brain / Cognition / Memory with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/improve-your-memory-wiggle-your-eyes.html. Thanks!

Brain damage turns man into human chameleon

In his 1983 fake documentary 'Zelig', Woody Allen plays a character, Leonard Zelig, a kind of human chameleon who takes on the appearance and behaviour of whoever he is with. Now psychologists in Italy have reported the real-life case of AD, a 65-year-old whose identity is shaped by his environment - a behavioural style that began after cardiac arrest caused damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of his brain.

When with doctors, AD assumes the role of a doctor; when with psychologists he says he is a psychologist; at the solicitors he claims to be a solicitor. AD doesn't just make these claims, he actually plays the roles and provides believable accounts for how he came to be in these roles.

To investigate further, Giovannina Conchiglia and colleagues used actors to contrive different scenarios. At a bar, an actor asked AD for a cocktail, prompting him to immediately fulfil the role of bar-tender, claiming that he was on a two-week trial hoping to gain a permanent position. Taken to the hospital kitchen, AD quickly assumed the role of head cook, and said he had to concoct special meals for diabetic patients. He maintains these roles until the situation changes. However, he didn't take on the part of a laundry worker at the hospital laundry, perhaps because it was too far out of keeping with his real-life career as a politician.

AD's condition is a form of disinhibition, but it appears distinct from other well-known disinhibition syndromes such as utilisation behaviour, in which patients can't help themselves from using any objects or food in the vicinity. For example, AD didn't touch anything in the hospital kitchen.

His tendency to switch roles is exacerbated by anterograde amnesia (a loss of memory for events since his cardiac arrest) and anosognosia – a lack of insight into his strange behaviour.

“AD seems to have lost the capacity to keep his own identity constant, as he adapts himself excessively to variations in the social contexts, violating his own identity connotations in order to favour a role which the environment proposes”, the researchers said.

Conchiglia, G., Rocca, G.D. & Grossi, D. (2007). On a peculiar environmental dependency syndrome in a case with frontal-temporal damage: Zelig-like syndrome. Neurocase, iFirst, 1-5.

UPDATE: Rumour has it that this blog posting inspired the Mirror Mirror episode of House.
You have read this article Unusual case studies with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/brain-damage-turns-man-into-human.html. Thanks!


For when you've had enough of journal articles:

'A head injury changed my life': a former army cadet recalls life after a car crash.

Is it wrong to teach children about feelings?

The boredom epidemic affecting workers.

A marriage devoted to the mind-body problem (pdf via Mind Hacks).

Can virtual reality help troops recover from PTSD? (podcast).

Is a life without meaning the only route to happiness? (blog post & podcast).

Is there a biological basis to our sense of right and wrong? (podcast).
You have read this article Elsewhere with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/elsewhere.html. Thanks!

The Special Issue Spotter

Positive psychology (International Coaching Psychology Review, forthcoming April issue).

Commentaries on the placebo effect in psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Sickle cell disease: brain injury by blood (Child Neuropsychology).

Happiness advice (Journal of happiness studies).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know via comments, or email.
You have read this article Special Issue Spotter with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/the-special-issue-spotter.html. Thanks!


Other eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

How losing a close friend to cancer affects our own long-term decision making.

We use a person's distinctive facial movements to help us recognise them.

Does heading the ball affect the cognitive function of female football players?

Chimps create their own weapons for hunting; females and youngsters more than adult males.

Please send us links to eye-catching studies you've seen.
You have read this article Extras with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/extras.html. Thanks!

When a good leader is a bad thing

For organisations that have an excellent customer service ethos, strong team leaders can actually have a detrimental effect. That's the paradoxical finding of Harry Hui and colleagues who investigated 511 employees comprising 55 teams at a range of Chinese companies, including two hotels and a telecommunications firm. The finding suggests companies should be careful to ensure team leaders are in tune with their organisation's wider service culture.

Employees rated the customer service ethos of their organisation by reporting their agreement with statements like “the business does a good job keeping customers informed of changes that affect them”. They rated the strength of their team leader via their agreement with statements like “Your supervisor often introduces unique insights and plans”.

For organisations with a poor ethos, strong team leaders had a beneficial effect on customer service. But if an organisation's service ethos was good, then the effect of a strong team leader on external customer service was negligible, while his/her effect on internal customer service (i.e. involving contact between colleagues) was detrimental. The researchers said this “challenges the deep-seated belief that an effective leader and a favourable climate should be additive in their positive impact”.

The apparent paradox of a good leader having a bad effect could be caused by the leader being out of synch with the organisation's broader service climate. For example, the company may prescribe standardised ways of dealing with customers, while the strong leader may preach innovation. Regarding internal relations: it may be that when leadership is poor, staff compensate by “cultivating a collegial spirit” but that this isn't necessary with a strong leader.

The findings come with a large caveat, acknowledged by the researchers: customer service (internal and external) was rated by the team leaders who were themselves the focus of the investigation. It's possible that stronger leaders had higher expectations regarding customer service, and so rated their team members' performance more harshly.

Hui, C.H., Chiu, W.C.K., Yu, P.L.H., Cheng, K. & Tse, H.H.M. (2007). The effects of service climate and the effective leadership behaviour of supervisors on frontline employee service quality: A multi-level analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 80, 151-172.
You have read this article Occupational with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/when-good-leader-is-bad-thing.html. Thanks!

Psychology podcasts: a clickable list

Updated 12 May 12, please use comments to send me news of new podcasts or dead links etc.

Psycomedia (recently added)

The Psychology Faculty (recently added)

Psychtalk (recently added)

Psychology of attractiveness podcast (recently added)

Royal College of Psychiatrists

Mind Podcast

The American Journal of Psychiatry

My Three Shrinks

Shrink Rap Radio

All in the Mind (ABC Radio)

Neuropod (from the journal Nature in association with the Dana Foundation)

Cognitive Daily

University of Nebraska
Autism podcast

The Dana Foundation

The Institute of Psychiatry

The University of California Berkeley - 1, 2, 3

Psychology Press

University of Connecticut

The PsychFiles

The National Institutes of Health

This Week in the History of Psychology

Coach radio (work psychology)

Psychjourney podcasts

Brain science podcast with Dr Ginger Campbell

General science podcasts (they often feature psychology) :

The New York Academy of Sciences

Scientific American

Seed Magazine

New Scientist


BBC Focus

Science Times (link opens in iTunes), from the New York Times

If you know of a psychology-related podcast that I've omitted, please let me know via comments and I'll add it to the main list.

This list wouldn't have been possible without Mind Hacks' Vaughan Bell.
You have read this article Student features with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/psychology-podcasts-clickable-list.html. Thanks!

Manual training for a mind-bending task

Rotating objects in our mind's eye is a bit like doing it in the real world. For example, when asked to judge if one shape is a rotated version of another, the time it takes us to answer correlates with the angular discrepancy between the two shapes. It's as if we manipulate objects in our imagination, as we would turn real objects in our hands.

Now Gunnar Wiedenbauer and colleagues have investigated whether manual rotation training, using a joystick to rotate shapes on a screen, can improve participants' mental rotation skills. Past research has shown that people become much improved at mental rotation with practice, but this is thought to be due to their learning the different shape configurations, so that the task effectively becomes a test of memory rather than mental rotation. Indeed, after extensive practice, the usual correlation between rotated angle size and reaction time disappears.

Sixty-four participants performed two mental rotation tests in which they had to judge as fast as possible whether one shape was a rotated version of a second shape. In between the two tests, half the participants underwent manual rotation training, manipulating shapes on a screen with a joystick to match target shapes. Half the shapes in the second test were featured in the manual training, half were new.

The results were mixed. Participants who underwent the manual training did indeed perform more quickly in the second mental rotation test than the control subjects, but only for the shapes that were featured in the training. If the training really had improved mental rotation ability, the trained participants ought to have outperformed the control participants on all the shapes.

And yet, during the second test, the trained participants' extra-quick judgment time (for shapes that had featured in the training) still correlated with angular discrepancy. This suggests that for these shapes, the trained participants weren't just relying on memory - they really had improved their mental rotation ability. “It seems that mental rotation is a complex multilayer process that has to be further investigated”, the researchers said.

Wiedenbauer, G., Schmid, J. & Jansen-Osmann, P. (2007). Manual training of mental rotation. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 17-36.
You have read this article Cognition with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/manual-training-for-mind-bending-task.html. Thanks!

A reader writes...

In our 4 Jan Elsewhere post, we flagged up a Guardian article concerning what might be the first account of successful psychotherapy in European prose literature.

This prompted reader Anu de Monterice to write in:

The Buddha (around 500 BCE) treated King Pasenadi, who was prone to
overeating. I first came across this story in the paperback book, "Beyond
Therapy", edited by Guy Claxton (Prism Press, UK, 1996), in the chapter
"Buddhism and Behaviour Change: Implications for Therapy," by Padmal de Silva (p 217- 231).

The reference de Silva quotes is "Dhammapada Commentary", HC
Norman, ed, Pali Text Society, London. The story is also freely available on the
internet. For example, the account by Andrew Olendzki, which points up the cognitive component, the Dhammapada verse, which specifies the behavioral therapy component, and a commentary, on the account from the Samyutta Nikaya (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha), by a Maylasian monk.
You have read this article with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/a-reader-writes.html. Thanks!

Teenage delinquency and absent fathers

Following a spate of gang shootings in London last month, in which three teenagers were killed, opposition leader David Cameron claimed part of the blame lay with family breakdown, particularly absent fathers. Now a breaking study from America appears to support his case.

Rebekah Coley and Bethany Medeiros interviewed 647 teenagers and their mothers in 1999 and then again in 2001. The sample consisted of poor urban families in which the father was not resident. The average age of the teenagers at the first interview was 12.5 years, and most were African American or Hispanic, living in Boston, Chicago or San Antonio.

Fatherly involvement appeared to have a protective effect. The teenagers who saw more of their fathers at the first interview, and/or who had more communications with him, were less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviour, such as stealing and drug use, at the second interview.

Coley and Medeiros said: “...non-resident fathers who had more regular contact and conversations with their children and who took greater responsibility for their children's care and behaviours had adolescents who showed relative decreases over a 16-month period in their levels of delinquency and problem behaviour”.

Another finding concerned the teenagers' effect on their fathers' behaviour. When teenage delinquency rose between the first and second interviews, so too did fatherly involvement, especially among the African American families. This contradicts some earlier research suggesting problem teenager behaviour can repel parental involvement. “African American fathers, faced with a history of discrimination and unequal intervention by the justice system may be more reactive to delinquent activities in their adolescents than middle-class advantaged parents”, the researchers said.

Coley, R.L. & Medeiros, B.L. (2007). Reciprocal longitudinal relations between non-resident father involvement and adolescent delinquency. Child Development, 78, 132-147.
You have read this article Developmental / Forensic with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/teenage-delinquency-and-absent-fathers.html. Thanks!

Nature video is more calming when viewed on a big screen

The idea that nature can have a rejuvenating effect is of course not new. “There's joy in the mountains; There's life in the fountains; Small clouds are sailing; Blue sky prevailing”, wrote William Wordsworth back in 1802.

But if we can't reach the countryside, what about the benefit of looking at nature in photos or on TV? Yvonee de Kort and colleagues believe that crucial to such media having a beneficial effect is how immersed in the simulated natural environment an observer feels.

To test this, 80 participants watched a ten-minute nature film after being stressed out by an arithmetic task conducted in a noisy environment. Half the participants watched the video on a massive 72-inch screen, the other half on a 31-inch screen. Measures of the participants' skin conductance and heart beat showed participants who watched the big screen calmed down more quickly after the maths test than did participants who watched the small screen.

The researchers said: “If a relatively moderate and simple screen size manipulation is effective, a more immersive environment – that is, extensive, multimodal or interactive – should definitely have potential, for instance for therapeutic use”.

de Kort, Y.A.W., Meijinders, A.L., Sponselee, A.A.G. & Ijsselsteijn, W.A. (2007). What's wrong with virtual trees? Restoring from stress in a mediated environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 26, 309-320.
You have read this article environmental with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/nature-video-is-more-calming-when.html. Thanks!

We're more generous to a suffering individual than the needy masses

Within days of TV presenter Richard Hammond's high speed car crash last September, over £100,000 had been donated by well-wishers to the air ambulance service that took him to hospital. It was just another example of the disproportionate generosity we tend to show towards individuals relative to the scale of suffering occurring elsewhere in the world.

It's not just about celebrity status. For example, during the Iraq war, £275,000 was quickly raised to aid the plight of the wounded Iraqi boy Ali Abbas, who captivated the news media in Europe at the time.

This bias is good for the individuals in question but from a pragmatic perspective it represents an inefficient distribution of charitable funds given the spread of need across the globe. Deborah Small and colleagues wondered what would happen if people were educated about this bias.

After completing an irrelevant questionnaire, hundreds of participants were invited to contribute their participation fee to Save the Children. As expected, control participants donated more if the charity was promoted using a story about the plight of a 7-year-old girl than if it was promoted using statistics about the millions facing starvation in Zambia. This discrepancy disappeared when participants were educated about the bias (either explicitly, by describing the bias to them, or implicitly by presenting suffering statistics alongside a single case-study). Crucially, however, the discrepancy was removed because participants subsequently gave less after reading about a single case-study, rather than because they gave more after reading about widespread suffering.

“Thinking about problems analytically can easily suppress sympathy for smaller-scale disasters without, our research suggests, producing much of an increase in caring for larger-scale disasters”, the researchers said. "Insight, in this situation, seems to breed callousness".

Small, D.A., Loewenstein, G. & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 102, 143-153.
You have read this article Decision making with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/we-more-generous-to-suffering.html. Thanks!

Brain scan can read your intentions

Researchers have shown they can read a person's intentions from the patterns of activity in the front of their brain. John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues said their findings could have important technical and clinical applications, “such as the further development of brain-computer interfaces, that might now be able to decode intentions that go beyond simple movements and extend to high-level cognitive processes”.

Eight participants decided privately whether to add or subtract two numbers that appeared between 2.7 and 10.8 seconds after they had made their decision. Shortly after that, a response screen appeared, featuring the two possible answers, plus two other numbers, in randomly-arranged positions.

The participants had to press a button corresponding to the number on the response screen that matched the act of subtraction or addition they had previously decided to make (thus revealing what their prior intention had been).

The researchers were interested in the brain activity that occurred after the participants had formed their intention, but before the appearance of the two numbers that were to be added or subtracted. Crucially, because the answers and distractors were arranged randomly on the response screen, the participants could not start preparing the specific button press response they would need to make until the response screen appeared. This helped ensure relevant brain activity reflected the participants' chosen intention rather than motor preparation.

The researchers found patterns of activity in several regions of the prefrontal cortex predicted whether the participants had chosen to add or subtract. In particular, decoding the spatial distribution of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex was able to predict the participants' intention with 70 per cent accuracy. There was no difference in overall levels of activity between the addition and subtraction decisions.

An important question for future research is whether “the medial prefrontal cortex is generally involved in encoding specific tasks during intentional choices or whether encoding in this region is specific for tasks such as the preparation of addition and subtraction”, the researchers said.

Haynes, J-D., Sakai, K., Rees, G., Gilbert, S., Frith, C. & Passingham, R.E. (2007). Reading hidden intentions in the human brain. Current Biology, 17, 323-328.

Link to headline newspaper coverage of this study prior to its publication.
You have read this article Brain with the title March 2007. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2007/03/brain-scan-can-read-your-intentions.html. Thanks!