How predictably irrational are you?

The Independent newspaper recently featured an article and interactive quiz by behavioural economist Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, about - you guessed it - how irrational we are.

Most articles or books on this topic begin by saying something about the way we generally view ourselves as consistent and logical, and about how traditional economics assumes we are rational decision-makers. But with behavioural economics thriving, and so many books being published showing that we're anything but rational, and instead prone to a series of intriguing heuristics and biases (Nudge, Mistakes were made but not my be, Why smart people make big money mistakes, A mind of its own, Intuition ... the list goes on), it makes me wonder how much longer it will be before our profound irrationality becomes common knowledge.

That said, this new article provides a neat round-up of some examples of how irrational we can be. For example, there's the seduction of things that are free:

"We asked people to choose between an expensive Lindt truffle and a much cheaper equivalent, a Hershey's Kiss. When we set the price of the truffle at 15 cents and the Kiss at one cent, 73 per cent chose the truffle, and 27 per cent chose the Kiss.

Then we offered the Lindt truffle for 14 cents and the Kisses for free. The humble Hershey's Kiss was still 14 cents cheaper – just as it had been – but suddenly it became a big favourite. 69 per cent chose the Kiss, forgoing the opportunity to get the Lindt truffle for a very good price."
There's also a fun quiz which lets you gauge just how irrational you are. Apparently I hedge my bets, being neither wholly irrational or wholly rational. See how you do.

Link to article.
Link to quiz.
Link to Predictably Irrational.
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The truth about video games

Prospect magazine's latest (and free!) cover feature provides a welcome defence of video games, arguing that they are more intellectually, socially and aesthetically stimulating than many critics seem to realise.

Consider the game "Eve" which involves players banding together to build spaceships. "One of the first of the largest class of such ships took a consortium of around 22 guilds —just under 4,000 players in total — eight months to complete, a task that involved complexities of training, materials, role allocation and management that would put many companies to shame."

Or marvel at the sheer freedom and reality available in GTA IV: "It's quite a be moved by the beams of an unreal sun setting behind a not-quite-Manhattan skyline".

Tom Chatfield's article is in part a response to the writings of people like neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, whose latest book argues that increasing amounts of screen time could be harmful to children's moral and intellectual development. He attacks her prose: "a near-continuous train wreck of redundancies, mixed metaphors and self-contradictions" and believes her arguments will only serve to "harden opinion on both sides of the debate".

However, having celebrated the complexity of video games and provided a refreshingly realistic account of what they involve, Chatfield does end with a word of caution: "the doomsayers are right in one important respect. If we do not learn to balance the new worlds we are building with our living culture, we may lose something of ourselves."

Link to Prospect magazine article.
Link to Susan Greenfield discussing her new book on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.
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Harsh discipline makes aggressive children worse

Parents should avoid harsh, combative ways of disciplining their aggressive children. That's according to psychologists whose new research shows that harsh parenting makes children more aggressive in the long run.

Michael Sheehan and Malcolm Watson followed 440 children and their mothers for five years. On four occasions during that time, the mothers answered questions about their own style of parenting and their children's behaviour. At the start of the study, the children's average age was 10 years and by the final assessment their average age was 15.

The results revealed two-way influences between children's behaviour and their mothers' parenting style. On the one hand, children's aggressive behaviour at younger ages predicted more disciplining by mothers, including more use of combative discipline (both verbal and physical) and more use of reasoning techniques. On the other hand, a greater use of harsh, aggressive discipline by mothers predicted increased future aggressive behaviour by their children.

Crucially, unlike aggressive parenting, the greater use of calmer reasoning techniques for disciplining children was not associated with a subsequent increase in the children's aggression (although it didn't reduce aggression either).

"Educating parents about positive, less harmful forms of discipline could help keep children (even aggressive ones) from becoming ever more aggressive adolescents," the researchers said.

A weakness in the research, acknowledged by the authors, is that all their measures were from mothers' self-report. One implication of this is that the observed associations could simply come from the fact that mothers who use more aggressive discipline are more likely to report their children's future behaviour as aggressive.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSheehan, M.J., Watson, M.W. (2008). Reciprocal influences between maternal discipline techniques and aggression in children and adolescents. Aggressive Behavior, 34(3), 245-255. DOI: 10.1002/ab.20241

UPDATE: On the topic of aggression, the A-level exam board OCR has just told me that they're currently (May '08) running a prize draw with the chance to win one of 25 BoZo dolls, similar to the BoBo dolls used in a seminal study on the transmission of aggression by Bandura and Ross (which happens to be one of the core studies in OCR's syllabus).
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Sounds like the auditory cortex has a "what" and a "where" pathway too

For some time now we've known that in the brains of humans, monkeys and cats, visual information is processed by two separate streams - one for working out where things are and the other for processing what they are. Now Stephen Lomber and Shveta Malhotra have conducted an experiment on cats and provided perhaps the strongest evidence to date that, in the mammalian brain, sounds too are processed via two separate "what" and "where" streams.

Lomber and Malhotra used a new cooling method to reversibly knock-out specific areas of the cats' auditory cortex - the part of the brain used for processing sound. The new technique involves surgically implanting small tubes into the cat's brain, through which chilled menthol is passed. In mammals, communication between brain cells stops when temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius, so cooling of the implanted tubes can be used to inhibit activity in a chosen localised brain region.

Tests on three cats showed that cooling of the more frontal part of their auditory cortex impaired their ability to localise sounds (the "where" function), but didn't affect their ability to discriminate between sounds (the "what function"). By contrast, cooling of a rear part of the auditory cortex had the opposite effect: it impaired the cats' ability to discriminate sounds, but didn't affect their sound localisation skills.

This pattern of results is known as a double dissociation and is the gold standard test in classic cognitive neuropsychology for demonstrating that two separate brain regions are responsible for independent functions. Before now, the evidence for "what" and "where" pathways in the auditory cortex was far weaker, having been based largely on recordings of single cell activity in monkeys or brain imaging in humans.

In a commentary on this new research, Christian Sumner and colleagues agree that this is strong evidence, but they caution that the complete picture may turn out to be more complicated. "'What' and 'where' are appealing concepts," they wrote, "but it seems probable that cortical processing is more refined and more plastic."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLomber, S.G., Malhotra, S. (2008). Double dissociation of 'what' and 'where' processing in auditory cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 609-616. DOI: 10.1038/nn.2108
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

A person's hand movements affect the way we perceive their facial expression.

The neural mechanisms that may mediate the enormous influence of social status on human behavior and health.

The effect of repeated concussion on rugby players.

Comparing attitudes towards animal testing in Britain and the USA.
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It's content first, style later, when it comes to people's perception of art

When you look at a painting, what do you think you process first - the painting's content or its style? According to Dorothee Augustin and colleagues it is the content of a painting that we register first, with dazzling speed - within 10 ms (less than a hundredth of a second) - while processing of a painting's style comes later, from 50ms onwards.

Non-expert student participants were presented with pairs of paintings that differed in either their content, their style or both. Content included trees, flowers, a house or a man. Different styles were represented by one of four artists: Cezanne, Chagall, Kirchner or Van Gogh.

The pairs of paintings were presented for either 10ms, 50ms, 200ms, or 3000ms (3 seconds), and the participants' task was to say how similar the paintings in each pair were to each other.

After just 10 ms exposure, a pair of paintings were rated as more similar to each other if they had identical rather than contrasting content, but style had no bearing at this brief viewing time. This suggests content but not style was already being processed after 10ms exposure.

With 50ms exposure, content exerted an even larger influence on similarity judgments and style also began to play a part. Beyond 50ms, content exerted no more of an influence, suggesting all content information had been extracted by this stage. However, style continued to exert a growing influence beyond 50ms, with paintings matched for style being judged as progressively more similar with increasing viewing times, relative to paintings not matched for style.

The researchers said their results were "astonishing" if you consider that artistic style is presumably reflected in "visual or sensory features including colours, brushwork, and treatment of lines" - features which would appear to correspond to the most basic visual elements of a scene that perceptual theories say are processed first, long before whole object recognition kicks in.

The research also shows that even people without any expertise in art are impacted early on by the artistic style of a painting. "If we consider style the characteristic of art," the researchers concluded, "this characteristic needs some time to unfold - but still, it unfolds quicker than you may think."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAUGUSTIN, M., LEDER, H., HUTZLER, F., CARBON, C. (2008). Style follows content: On the microgenesis of art perception. Acta Psychologica, 128(1), 127-138. DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2007.11.006
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web for the latest psychology journal special issues so you don't have to:

Child anxiety theory and treatment (Cognition and Emotion).

The Interface Between Neuroscience and Psychology (Current Directions in Psychological Science). From the editorial: "The aim of this special issue is to highlight just how intimate the dialog between psychological and neural science has become. The papers in this special issue demonstrate the breadth with which neuroscientific methods and data have penetrated psychology, as well as the ways in which psychological theory has served to foster neuroscientific advances."

The liberal state and mental health (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).

Convergence of cross-cultural and intercultural research (International Journal of Intercultural Relations).
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Introducing the "psycho-neuron-surgeon"

I'm all for disseminating psychological knowledge but a brave attempt to apply Daniel Kahneman's and Amos Tversky's Prospect theory to Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) may have been a step too far (watch the clip).

That's right, hot on the heels of the Times newspaper diagnosing Gordon Brown with a personality disorder, the Daily Politics programme on BBC 2 invited Steve Martin (author of "Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion") to analyse the behaviour of Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, during PMQs.

By the way, PMQs is a weekly half hour slot held at the Houses of Parliament during which MPs are able to ask questions of the PM. Martin attempted to apply the idea of loss aversion - the fact that we are more influenced by the prospect of losses than gains (part of Prospect Theory) - to an exchange between Cameron and Brown.

It's nice to see psychology being deployed in political analysis, but I fear that Martin was applying this particular theory inappropriately, at the wrong level of analysis, in a way that made it sound like he was just stating the obvious. Just to add insult to injury, the clip is labelled on the BBC site as "'Emotional Intelligence' at PMQs" - of course emotional intelligence is a quite separate concept from Prospect Theory, but never mind.

However, despite all this, it's well worth watching the clip, just to witness the sheer exasperation of Lord Charlie Falconer who was a guest on the show. He labels Martin a "psycho-neuron-surgeon", and his analysis as nothing more than "psychobabble".

Although Falconer's reaction was amusing, it's a shame that psychology was portrayed in this way. On the one hand, Prospect Theory is a hugely influential part of behavioural economics for which Kahneman and Tversky won the Nobel Prize - it just wasn't really relevant to analysing PMQs. On the other hand, political psychology is also a thriving sub-discipline, which has plenty to say about the way leaders present themselves, how they should form their arguments and about how voters behave. I haven't read it myself, but a review in the latest Psychologist magazine suggests this book could be a quality example of that.

Am I being too harsh on Martin? Do you think psychology came out of this looking bad? I'd love to know what you think: Watch the clip and have your say via Comments.

Link to clip from The Daily Politics Show broadcast on BBC 2 yesterday.
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How to interview children

Children are often called on to give evidence in court and it's crucial that we identify the most appropriate ways of questioning them. According to new research by Jehanne Almerigogna and colleagues, whether or not the interviewer is smiling and fidgeting can have a profound impact on children's answers.

Eighty-six children, aged 8 to 10, took part in a ten minute lesson on how the vocal chords work, before being interviewed about the session a week later. Some of the children were interviewed by a woman who smiled and did not fidget. The others were interviewed by the same woman, but in their case she was not smiling and she fidgeted by tapping her hand or foot.

One of the questions asked the children whether or not they had been touched by the teacher during the lesson. Only eight children said falsely that they had - all of them had been interviewed by the woman when she was unsmiling and fidgeting. Moreover, significantly more of the children interviewed by the woman when she was unsmiling and fidgeting answered misleading questions incorrectly. "Children may be less prone to oppose an adult who they view as distant and strict," the researchers said.

The children interviewed by the fidgeting, unsmiling woman also said they didn't know the answer to questions far less frequently than did the children interviewed by the same woman smiling and not fidgeting. Perhaps the former group of children felt "more vulnerable and anxious" and therefore "more compelled to give an answer even when they did not know it," the researchers said.

"Better understanding of the effects of interviewers' behaviours should allow professionals to control and manipulate them in interviews so as to increase the reliability of eye witness reports," Almerigogna and colleagues concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchALMERIGOGNA, J., OST, J., AKEHURST, L., FLUCK, M. (2008). How interviewers' nonverbal behaviors can affect children's perceptions and suggestibility. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 100(1), 17-39. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2008.01.006
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Happy Birthday Nature Neuroscience

The review journal Nature Neuroscience turned ten this month, and to celebrate, has made access to the most highly cited papers from each year of its existence, as well its top-ten most cited papers overall, freely available until the end of May. (Update: Unfortunately, something's not right here, I just checked whether I could access these papers without using my subscriber account and I couldn't get past the pay-wall).

Among its most cited papers is a study of psychological interest, published in 2004, which uncovered the biological mechanisms underlying the effect of a rat mother's rearing style on its pups future sensitivity to stress. Specifically, pups who are licked and groomed more by their mothers are less sensitive to stress in adulthood. The mechanism for this was found to be epigenetic - the grooming style changes the expression of a key gene in the pup's hippocampus. Epigentics is a hot area of research in neuroscience and psychology, as discussed by Mind Hacks.

Also of note is this observation made by the Nature Neuroscience birthday editorial regarding how the research papers the journal receives for publication have changed over the last few years:

"Early on, it was straightforward to assign any paper as being molecular, cellular, systems or cognitive. Recently, with researchers determining the cognitive effects of gene alleles or the cellular basis of functional imaging, it has become difficult to distinguish one field from another. We welcome this increase in interdisciplinary approaches and continue to encourage submissions from all areas of neuroscience."

The editors also mention that their journal has joined a "neuroscience peer review consortium to reduce the workload of referees by allowing their reviews to be used at multiple journals". I've not heard of this idea before: I wonder, does such a consortium exist in psychology? If not, should one be set up?

Link to Nature Neuroscience.
Link to paper on effects of rat mothers' rearing style on pups' response to stress.
Link to list of most highly cited papers from last ten years (access should be free until the end of May).
Link to Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium (should psychology follow suit?).
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Women's memories are more speech-filled than men's

To gasps of surprise from some quarters, a spate of recent studies have shown that women don't talk any more than men do. But now Richard Ely and Elizabeth Ryan have looked at people's autobiographical memories and found that while women may not talk more than men, their recollections do tend to be more speech-filled.

Sixty female students and 48 male students were asked to write about their earliest memory, an early childhood memory, a learning experience, a recent low point, a recent high point and a self-defining memory.

Their answers showed what an important part speech plays in our memories, with an instance of speech recalled once in every 100 words on average, reflecting about 8 per cent of the participants' text.

The amount of speech recalled in participants' memories varied with gender and personality. People who scored highly on measures of openness, agreeableness and/or expressivity all tended to include more examples of speech in their memories. And women were found to recall more speech than men even after controlling for gender differences in personality and other factors.

The researchers surmised that women may recall more speech than men because of differences in the way boys and girls are spoken to by their parents. "Parents are more elaborative and more emotional when conversing with daughters than with sons," they said.

Another finding to emerge from the study was the tight association between emotion and speech-related memories. The more negative a participant said a memory was, the more likely this memory was to contain speech.

This was consistent with the number of speech-related memories that had obviously had a momentous effect on participants' lives. Take this example, in which a participant recounted the time he accidentally injured a team-mate in baseball, and went to see if he was okay: "The coach just turns to me and says 'Get out of here you little bastard, you have done enough.' I didn't play baseball for five years after that."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchEly, R., Ryan, E. (2008). Remembering talk: Individual and gender differences in reported speech. Memory, 16(4), 395-409. DOI: 10.1080/09658210801949869
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Does Gordon Brown have a personality disorder?

Yesterday, The Times published an article of questionable virtue by its resident medical columnist, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, in which he implies that both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have personality disorders.

"...[I]t is interesting that Tony Blair, charming and charismatic as he is, scores a full house of ticks for a histrionic personality disorder, and scores in the boxes of a few other personality disorders too" writes Stuttaford.

And he observes that Prime Minister Brown:
"...shows symptoms of the personality disorders grouped together in DSM4 as cluster A disorders. He is likely to be demanding, self- absorbed, have difficulties in relationships with others, suffer discomfort in social situations with unfamiliar people, have vaguely unsettling inappropriate gestures or facial expressions and may be so focused that he finds it difficult to concentrate on subjects other than that which has caught his immediate attention."
Stuttaford's main thesis is that it takes someone a bit odd to reach the very top. Whilst there may be a kernel of truth to that claim, I'm not convinced that anyone wins from this kind of arm chair diagnosis: It surely detracts from the suffering of those people who really do have a personality disorder, and feeds the cynicism of those who think psychiatrists are desperate to slap a diagnosis on everyone and his dog.

Link to Times article about leaders and personality disorders.
Link to British Psychological Society report on personality disorders (for a roundup, see this article from The Psychologist magazine).

PS. The views expressed in this post are my personal views. I'm not speaking for the Society.
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We're more likely to listen to expensive advice

Whether its political spin doctors or orange-skinned health gurus, there seems no shortage of people seeking to charge others good money for the benefit of their wisdom. Regardless of the quality of this advice, one thing is for sure: The fact that someone has paid for it, means it is more likely to be heeded.

That's according to Francesca Gino at Carnegie Mellon University, whose new study shows that we're more likely to use advice we've paid for than advice that's free, even if there's no difference in quality between the two sources.

Dozens of students were asked questions about American history and received small cash prizes for correct answers. The students were either given the option of receiving advice on the correct answers, or advice was imposed on them. Sometimes this advice was free; other times it was paid for out of the students' winnings. Crucially, the advice always came from the same source - in the form of the answer that a student from a pilot session had given to the same question - so the quality of advice was held constant regardless of whether it was free or paid for.

Throughout the study, the participants took more account of advice they had paid for than advice they were given free, even though it was made clear to them that the advice was of the same quality. A final study showed the students took even more account of advice if it was made more expensive.

Gino said her findings could be explained by a phenomenon in decision-making theory known as the sunk cost fallacy. This is our desire to justify our past investments through our present and future behaviour - it's why that expensive pair of shoes that you never wear is still cluttering up your cupboard. In the case of advice, it seems we feel compelled to use guidance we've paid for, so as to justify the expense. And perhaps it explains why expensive frauds can sometimes be so influential.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGINO, F. (2008). Do we listen to advice just because we paid for it? The impact of advice cost on its use. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2008.03.001

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A portrait of the brain - a chance to hear the author

In his recent book "A Portrait Of the Brain" neurologist Adam Zeman seeks to explore the brain all the way from its atoms to the soul. He does this Oliver Sacks-style, by discussing patients he has encountered, one of whom, for example, manifests psychological problems which are caused by a simple, yet devastating DNA abnormality, while another suffers physical problems (blackouts) which are actually psychological in their origin.

Now you can hear Zeman (mp3) discussing case examples from his book, via an audio recording from a recent seminar he gave at the Royal Society of Arts in London. He runs out of time before getting to grips with the soul, but fortunately an audience member asks him about this approximately 33 mins into the recording. Zeman's view is that we won't ever find the answer to what it feels like to be human by only looking in the brain. "The brain is an instrument, it's not the sole source" he says (I think the pun was unintended). This is a view shared by Professor Ray Tallis, who was chairing the lecture and whose new book Kingdom of Infinite Space deals with this very issue. Tallis has also given an RSA lecture recently and I'll post here when the audio becomes available.

Link to audio of Zeman's lecture (mp3).
Link to Adam Zeman.
Link to publisher's website for A Portrait of the Brain.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web for the latest psychology journal special issues so you don't have to:

Verbalising visual memories (European Journal of Cognitive Psychology).

Pediatric psychopharmacology: Issues and Viewpoints (International Review of Psychiatry).

New perspectives on subjective memory complaints (Aging and Mental Health).

Leadership and fairness (European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology).
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Just how non-clinical are so-called non-clinical community samples?

A practice common to psychology research is to take some measure - let's say amount of support from friends and family - and to compare people with mental health problems and people without mental health problems, on this measure. The trouble, according to Idia Thurston and her co-workers, is where to find people without mental health problems.

The tactic used by most researchers is to recruit from the wider community, for example by advertising in the local paper. But Thurston's team argue a large proportion of the general community actually have their own mental health problems, and many of them are receiving therapy, something many researchers fail to screen for. This means that what research papers describe as a "non-clinical community sample" may not be so "non-clinical" after all.

Thurston and her colleagues assessed 224 families recruited through adverts in local newspapers in south eastern USA as part of a larger study. They found 11 per cent of the teenagers, 20 per cent of the mothers and 13 per cent of the fathers met the diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders. Moreover, 12 per cent of the teenagers, 20 per cent of the mothers and 11 per cent of the fathers were currently in therapy. These two groups didn't completely overlap - for instance, there were 25 mothers who met diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder but who weren't in therapy.

Thurston's team said their findings have implications for research validity. Differences previously identified between clinical and so-called "non-clinical" groups may be caused by a factor other than the clinical status of the two groups.

Researchers should screen their community participants to find out if they are currently experiencing mental distress or participating in therapy, Thurston's team advised. But as regards whether such participants should then be excluded from research, Thurston and her colleagues said: "There is no perfect answer, but rather, researchers must weigh the costs and benefits of their exclusionary criteria in relation to the goals of the study."

Link to related Digest item.
Link to Psychologist magazine article on student participants.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThurston, I.B., Curley, J., Fields, S., Kamboukos, D., Rojas, A., Phares, V. (2008). How nonclinical are community samples?. Journal of Community Psychology, 36(4), 411-420. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20223
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Statistically significant t-shirts

I just came across this range of great stats-themed t-shirts from Surely a must have gift for the stats lecturer in your life.

Link to
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A positive kind of lying?

Telling lies about our past successes can sometimes be self-fulfilling, at least when it come to exam performance. That's according to the New York Times, which reports on studies by Richard Gramzow at the University of Southampton and colleagues.

Their research has shown that, when asked, many students exaggerate their past exam performance, and that those students who do this tend to go on to perform better in the future.

What's more, a study published in February (rtf doc) showed that when these exaggerators are interviewed about their past academic performance, they don't show any of the physiological hallmarks associated with lying, but rather their bodies stay calm. It's almost as though this is a different kind of lying, aimed more at the self, with the hope of encouraging improved future performance.

As the New York Times says:

"...such exaggeration is very different psychologically from other forms of truth twisting. Touching up scenes or past performances induces none of the anxiety that lying or keeping secrets does, these studies find; and embroiderers often work to live up to the enhanced self-images they project. The findings imply that some kinds of deception are aimed more at the deceiver than at the audience, and they may help in distinguishing braggarts and posers from those who are expressing personal aspirations, however clumsily."
Link to New York Times report
Link to rtf of study showing that students stay calm when exaggerating.
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Are people with borderline personality really more empathic?

People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are emotionally fragile, impulsive, suffer from low mood, have intense unstable personal relationships and - according to a handful of studies - they also have enhanced empathy.

But new research by Judith Flury and colleagues shows the idea that BPD patients have enhanced empathy is a spurious finding reflecting the methodological design of prior studies combined with the fact BPD patients are particularly difficult to read.

The 76 lowest and highest scorers on the Borderline Syndrome Index were selected from among 789 students. These 76 were then arranged into pairs of low and high borderline participants. The members of each pair were videoed chatting to each other for ten minutes, after which each person completed a personality questionnaire about themselves, and about how they thought their partner saw themselves. This latter part of the design mirrors the methodology of earlier studies that seemed to show BPD is associated with enhanced empathy.

As in the earlier studies, it turned out that the high borderline students were better than the low borderline students at predicting how their partners scored their own personalities - a sign of empathy, you'd think. But further analysis showed that this finding was caused by the fact that all the students tended to score their partners' personalities in a fairly stereotypical way. This tactic worked if a participant's partner was low borderline (with a less unusual personality profile), but not if they were high borderline with an unusual personality profile - hence the apparent finding that high borderline scorers are more empathic.

The students also watched the videos of themselves meeting their partners, and recorded the main thoughts and feelings they had experienced during the encounter. They then watched the video again and attempted to predict what their partner had reported thinking and feeling during the encounter. Again, the high borderline students scored better at this task, but as before, this simply reflected the fact that within each of the student pairs, it was the low borderline students who had the more predictable, less outlandish thoughts and feelings.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFLURY, J., ICKES, W., SCHWEINLE, W. (2008). The borderline empathy effect: Do high BPD individuals have greater empathic ability? Or are they just more difficult to "read"? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(2), 312-332. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.05.008
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Hearing music that isn't there

You've probably been tormented by a catchy song playing over and over in your head. Spare a thought then for those people for whom this phenomenon is taken to the next level: the song or songs sound real and they play round the clock. They have what's called 'musical hallucinosis'.

Besides hearing music that isn't there, such people often have no other psychological complaints. Now Ramon Mocellin and colleagues have described three typical cases and proposed a tentative neurobiological account of why the condition occurs.

Case one was an 82-year-old patient who lived in a remote farm house. She reported loud music to the police and even sent her husband driving round the neighbourhood looking for the source. She eventually realised the music was a 'trick of her imagination'. Apart from deafness, the woman had no other neurological or psychiatric abnormalities.

Case two was a 62-year-old surfer. He heard the opening bars of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child for six months, when there was really no sound there. This man had mild deafness and smoked cannabis but otherwise had no other relevant medical history.

The last case, a 78-year-old, was profoundly deaf, had Alzheimer's disease and lived in a care home. He heard hymns and songs that were popular in the 1940s and 50s. Although he had cognitive impairments associated with dementia, he had no other psychotic symptoms besides hearing music that wasn't there.

Ramon Mocellin and his colleagues explained that people with musical hallucinosis generally realise that their auditory experiences are a trick of the mind, thus distinguishing their symptoms from the hallucinations experienced by people with psychosis, who generally believe their unusual perceptions are real.

As demonstrated by the above cases, musical hallucinosis is often associated with deafness and Mocellin's team think the condition may reflect the spontaneous, aberrant firing of those brain cells whose job is to process music, if there were any to be heard. Higher brain levels then seek to make sense of this spontaneous firing, often drawing on musical memories in the process - hence the common experience of perceiving music from previous eras.

Link to article on musical hallucinosis published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2004.

Mocellin, R., Walterfang, M., Velakoulis, D. (2008). Musical hallucinosis: case reports and possible neurobiological models. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 20(2), 91-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1601-5215.2007.00255.x
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Watch Laurie Santos discuss her research showing that monkeys, like humans, can be extremely irrational

A while back we reported on some research that showed monkeys and young children demonstrate the effects of cognitive dissonance in the same way that adult humans do. In particular, monkeys who were forced to make an arbitrary choice between equally appealing M&M sweets, subsequently showed reduced preference towards the colour of M&M that they'd earlier rejected. The research shows how arbitrary decisions affect our future preferences, as we struggle to create psychological consistency out of our own actions.

Now courtesy of you can watch lead researcher Laurie Santos of Yale University discuss this work with philosopher Josh Knobe of UNC-Chapel Hill. In the discussion, embedded below, Santos also describes some planned work to see if monkeys are less prone to the effects of cognitive dissonance when they are feeling better about themselves, as has been observed in humans. How do they plan to make the monkeys feel better about themselves? See if you can guess before finding the answer in the clip.

Santos also describes her research showing that monkeys, like humans, appear to be loss averse. Loss aversion is our tendency to suffer more pain from losses than reward from gains, and is one of the many biases in human decision making discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Again check out the clip to discover how creative Santos and her colleagues have been in their studies of this phenomenon in monkeys. It has to be said, it's great to see a scientist like Laurie Santos taking the time to explain her work in an engaging format like this - thanks Laurie!

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Eye-catching articles that didn't make the final cut:

What's the point of an elaborate recruitment process if employers are biased by what they already know about candidates? A new study looks at whether recruiters are able to ignore this preliminary information.

Can people who hear voices be led to perceive those voices as less hostile and malevolent? Compassionate mind training could be one solution.

Changing women's feelings about maths.

Making choices is mentally exhausting, such that it leaves us with less self-control (pdf).
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Nudging people towards the right decisions

Time magazine has a review of a new book from the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and his colleague, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

This is the latest in a spate of books which collectively detail the myriad ways in which humans are far from rational in their decision making. According to the review, Thaler and Sunstein show how these irrationalities can be exploited for the betterment of society - "protecting people from cognitive and social forces that lead them to decisions that even they would describe as poor."

To take a couple of examples from the review, it turns out that people can be encouraged (or "nudged") to use less gas and electricity, simply by letting them know how much they use in comparison with their neighbours. Similarly, the numbers of people signed up as organ donors could be massively increased by making it an opt-out system rather than an opt-in system, as we currently have here in the UK.

As you'd expect, the book is accompanied by a slick website and blog. I noticed the latter features at least one video of the authors in conversation, as well as an analysis of the decision making processes involved in Milgram's classic obedience study.

Link to Time magazine book review.
Link to Nudge website.
Link to decision making research covered on the Digest blog.
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Space is compressed by a fast turn of your head

The raw immediacy of our waking lives leaves us feeling as though our five senses give us a true, undistorted perception of the world. But a catalogue of psychology experiments has shown this sense of experiencing the world "as it is" couldn't be further from the truth. Now with the latest demonstration of the tricks our minds play, Johahn Leung and colleagues have reported that moving our heads fast has the effect of compressing auditory space - that is, sounds emitted just before a head turn are sucked perceptually towards the target of the head movement.

Participants held their bodies still while shifting their heads as fast as possible to a light that appeared either 30 degrees to the left or right. Just before the start of their head turn, a sound was emitted from a mobile speaker that could be located a range of distances beyond or nearer than the light. Judged against a second comparison sound, the participants consistently mislocated the first sound as being nearer the target of their head turn than it really was. It's as though auditory space was compressed towards the light at the moment just before they moved their heads.

The finding replicates a similar spatial compression effect that occurs just before people make fast saccadic eye movements. In this case, experts think the compression is caused by brain cells adjusting their receptive fields in anticipation of where the eyes are going to be pointing after they've finished moving. Leung and colleagues said a similar process probably explains the current findings.

In a final twist, the compression of auditory space didn't occur if participants indicated the location of the sound by pointing their nose in its direction. Indicating the sound location in this way (rather than by perceptual comparison with a second sound) probably relies on the brain's action pathway, which is known to be less affected by perceptual illusions.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLeung, J., Alais, D., Carlile, S. (2008). Compression of auditory space during rapid head turns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710837105
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It matters how much blood video games have in them

Hype surrounding the global release of the gangster-themed video game Grand Theft Auto IV has renewed the long-standing debate over whether violent games make players more aggressive. Now Christopher Barlett and colleagues have provided a fresh angle on the issue by specifically testing whether the amount of blood in a game makes any difference to its effects on aggression.

The researchers took advantage of the fact that the game Mortal Combat: Deadly Alliance allows players to select one of four blood levels, from none to maximum (in which copious amounts of blood spurts everywhere and gets trodden by characters around the playing area).

Of 74 students who played the Mortal Combat game for 15 minutes, those who played on the maximum blood level experienced larger increases in hostility after playing (as judged by their agreement with statements like "I feel furious") and larger increases in arousal as measured by their heart rate, than did the players on the lower or zero blood levels.

Those students who played the game with blood also showed higher levels of aggression, compared with those who played without blood, as indicated by their greater use of their character's weapon in the game, which they'd been told would inflict more damage on their opponents.

A second experiment with 31 students showed that playing Mortal Combat on the maximum blood level, as compared with the no blood level, activated more aggression related thoughts, as measured by participants' choice of how to complete ambiguous word stems like KI-- (e.g. KILL vs. KISS).

"...[T]he violence, plus the high amount of blood, primes more aggressive thoughts in memory compared with just playing the violent game without the blood," the researchers said.

Link to the recently published Byron review on the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games.
Link to related Digest item: Violent video games slow our processing of faces.
Link to blog dedicated to discussing the psychological effects of video games.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBARLETT, C., HARRIS, R., BRUEY, C. (2008). The effect of the amount of blood in a violent video game on aggression, hostility, and arousal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 539-546. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.10.003
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Have psychotherapies been overhyped?

The Pulse website for GPs features a new debate between the psychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt and the clinical psychologist Dr Stephen Pilling, regarding whether psychotherapies have been overhyped.

The debate comes as the UK government rolls out its "Improving access to psychological therapies" programme across the country, with the promise of massive investment in more therapists to help deliver approved treatments, particularly CBT, to everyone who needs it, including those with problems such as anxiety and depression. This project has also coincided with a cultural backlash against drug treatments for depression and anxiety, amid fears that anti-depressants may do more harm than good, and with a recent high-profile study suggesting such drugs are no more effective than placebo.

Professor Nutt says that psychotherapies are not tested by the same strict criteria faced by drug treatments. He also fears that rates of abuse by therapists of their clients may be as high as 40 per cent. He writes: "Most of the support for psychotherapy is based on a mixture of the desire for it to work and the false supposition that it does. It is doubtful if any form of psychotherapy has yet fulfilled the stringent criteria required for licensing drug treatments."

Dr Pilling retorts that Nutt is simply wrong: high quality randomised controlled trials have demonstrated the superior efficacy of psychological treatments for anxiety and depression. Moreover, he argues, the research shows that psychological treatments may actually have longer lasting benefits than drugs. And he adds that a supervision system should help keep abuse of therapy clients to a minimum. He concludes: "Let us move beyond rhetoric and focus on delivering an effective evidence-based programme of psychological treatments that complements pharmacological interventions, is delivered by competent professionals, is rigorously evaluated and offers real choice to patients."

Link to debate on Pulse website.
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