The Special Issue Spotter

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

Scientific method, abduction, and clinical reasoning (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Studies of co-occurring disorders in the criminal justice system (Behavioral Sciences & the Law).

The biology of time (Current Biology).

Stress and the heart (Stress and Health).
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Practice, practice, practice ... the benefits are ongoing

Whether you're talking about sport, chess or music, a surfeit of research has shown that the best performing experts practice more than their less able colleagues.

What's unclear is whether the benefits of this practice are ongoing throughout a person's career and secondly, whether the benefits of practice vary with a person's level of skill. Are the most elite performers of such a high standard because of all the practice they do, or is it because of their superior talent that this practice is beneficial?

These questions are addressed in a new study of elite teenage chess players in the Netherlands, taking advantage of what's known as linear mixed methods analysis to compare the effects of multiple factors over time, both within and between separate groups.

Anique de Bruin and colleagues were particularly interested in comparing the effects of deliberate, focused practice on those teenagers who remained in the Netherlands' elite chess training programme, compared with the effects of practice on the performance of those who continued competing but who dropped out of the national training.

Forty-eight elite teenage players who stayed in the training scheme and thirty-three who dropped out answered questions about how many hours a week they spent practising. Their performance over the years was measured via their official chess ratings, collected between two to four times a year.

The headline result is that the benefits of practice are ongoing through the years - not just once a person has become elite - and that the players who dropped out performed less well, not because they benefited less from practice, but because they practised less. Assuming these findings translate to other domains of skill besides chess, these findings have implications for all of us.

"Irrespective of skill level, stimulating deliberate practice will likely improve performance," the researchers said.

The Digest caught up with co-author Niels Smits and asked him about the statistical approach taken in this study:
"Linear mixed models are a very elegant method of analyzing longitudinal data. They are very flexible for at least three reasons. First, in contrast to older methods such as repeated measures (M)ANOVA, they do not ask for complete data on all time points for all subjects. Consequently, one does not have to deal with missing data such as removing observations or imputing data points. Second, they do not ask for equal time intervals between the measurements; therefore subjects are allowed to differ in the moment of measurement. Time of measurement is simply entered as a covariate in the model to allow for a time effect. A third virtue, is that time varying covariates can be easily added to the model to determine how changes in these them influence the dependent variable."
For more information on linear mixed models, see:

This talk given to the BPS Student Memebers' Group by Thom Baguley.
The Centre for Multilevel modelling at the University of Bristol.
The Adequacy of Repeated-Measures Regression for Multilevel Research (journal article).


ResearchBlogging.orgAnique B., Niels Smits, Remy, M., J., P. Rikers, Henk G. Schmidt (2008). Deliberate practice predicts performance over time in adolescent chess players and drop-outs: A linear mixed models analysis British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1348/000712608X295631
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Human memory capacity is mahusive!

Human memory capacity is many orders of magnitude more impressive than previously realised, psychologists have shown (the study can be accessed for free).

Timothy Brady and colleagues presented 14 participants with 2,500 mundane objects, presented one at a time for three seconds each. The whole study phase took over five and a half hours. The participants' motivation was maintained by asking them to look out for repeats. Ten minutes after the study phase, the participants showed astonishing accuracy when they were presented with three hundred pairs of objects, one at a time, and tasked with identifying which of the objects in each pair they'd been shown earlier (try out the task).

"These results indicate a massive capacity-memory system, in terms of both the quantity and fidelity of the visual information that can be remembered," the researchers said.

Landmark studies in the 1970s showed that after viewing tens of thousands of scenes, people could afterwards say which of two images they'd seen before with high accuracy. However, the original scenes were paired with completely different scenes (e.g. a wedding versus a beach), leading many commentators to argue that these results only said something about our ability to remember the gist of what we've seen.

By contrast, during the test phase of this new study, the original images were paired up with three different types of memory foil: an object from a completely different category than all previously seen objects; a physically similar object from a previously seen object category; and finally, an object identical to one seen earlier, but in a different state or pose (for example, a side-cabinet with one of its doors open rather than closed). This latter condition particularly was designed to test the participants' memory for visual detail, not just gist. Remarkably, accuracy was found to be 92 per cent, 88 per cent, and 87 per cent, respectively across these foil types.

The researchers said these accuracy levels mean they have yet to find the upper limit of visual long term memory. "Here we raise only the lower bound of what is possible," they said, "by showing that visual long-term memory representations can contain not only gist information but also details sufficient to discriminate between exemplars and states."

Link to online demo of the memory test.
Link to classic study from the 1970s.

ResearchBlogging.orgT. F. Brady, T. Konkle, G. A. Alvarez, A. Oliva (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803390105
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The method by which pain relief is delivered could help alleviate post-operative cognitive problems (patient controlled epidural led to fewer neuropsych problems than patient-controlled intravenous).

A mother's social anxiety is transmitted to her child.

Do languages evolve in a similar way to species?

American girls are now doing just as well as boys at maths.

Baby steps are big.
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What does crying do for you?

Nearly all of us cry sometimes. But what makes us cry, how often we do it, and how it makes us feel varies hugely from person to person. According to Jonathan Rottenberg and colleagues, crying in general, and particularly how crying makes us feel, are surprisingly under-researched aspects of human behaviour.

Rottenberg's team asked 196 adult Dutch women (aged between 17 and 84 years) to answer questions about their personalities, their mental health, their propensity for crying and how crying made them feel.

Consistent with past research, people who reported being more neurotic, extravert and/or empathic tended to cry more often and more easily. The research was correlational, so it's not clear if having these personality types leads to more crying, or if crying more contributes to these personality types. Perhaps surprisingly, mental health, in terms of reported depression, anxiety and so forth, was not associated with how often or easily people said they cried.

When it came to the effects of crying, the pattern was the other way round. Aspects of personality were not associated with how the participants said crying made them feel, but mental health was. While the majority of the participants (88.8 per cent) said that crying brought them relief, a minority, especially those with depression, anxiety, anhedonia (a loss of the ability to experience pleasure), and/or alexithymia (a difficulty expressing or processing emotions), said that crying left them feeling worse or just the same.

The researchers said more work was needed to find out why crying brings relief to some people but not others. "Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that learning how to cry and how to derive positive effects from it could help people who are having difficulty expressing sadness or crying," they wrote.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ ROTTENBERG, L BYLSMA, V WOLVIN, A VINGERHOETS (2008). Tears of sorrow, tears of joy: An individual differences approach to crying in Dutch females Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (5), 367-372 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.006
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The sorry souls who danced til they dropped, literally

No matter how much of a raver you are, the idea of dancing and dancing until death by exhaustion no doubt sounds horrific. Tragically, that's exactly what happened to several victims of the dancing plague in Strasbourg in 1518. John Waller, who's written a book about it, described the events in the Guardian last week:
"In the year 1518, about 400 citizens of Strasbourg danced for days or weeks in succession. This time the authorities intensified the epidemic by encouraging the afflicted to keep dancing in the misguided belief that doing so would cure them. They had the dancers taken to a specially constructed stage where musicians played pipes and drums and hired dancers held them tight to prevent them from flagging. Soon people were dying of exhaustion."
The Strasbourg dancing plague is an example of mass hysteria - a kind of psychological contagion with physical consequences. Outbreaks are usually triggered by periods of prolonged stress. In Strasbourg in 1518, the community had recently suffered from famine. Meanwhile the physical manifestation of mass hysteria are usually influenced by the beliefs of the day. Waller explains:
"...the inhabitants of Strasbourg were reeling from severe famine, their morale already shattered by syphilis, smallpox and plague. They danced in their misery because people living along the Rhine and Moselle rivers had a longstanding fear of devils and saints who inflicted a terrible, compulsive dance. Having fallen into a trance state, they acted in accordance with these supernaturalist beliefs: dancing wildly for days on end."
Outbreaks of mass hysteria still occur to this day. For example, around two weeks ago, a classroom in Tanzania descended into chaos as many of the girls fell victim to a mass fainting fit.

A particularly quaint British example of mass hysteria was "railway spine": 19th century rail passengers reported feeling faint and suffering back pain - a psychological reaction that experts at the time said was due to the effect of 30 mph speeds on the human body.

Episodes of mass hysteria often seem to involve women more than men, but that certainly isn't the case with koro: the phenomenon, observed largely in S.E Asia and China, whereby men believe their penis is shrivelling completely into their body, with death the ultimate feared outcome. Koro has tended to spread during economic crises.

Link to Guardian article: Falling down.
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How ambitious mothers breed successful daughters

"I always knew our Karen would do well"... these words, so typical of a proud mother, have taken on profound significance following a new study by Eirini Flouri and Denise Hawkes at the Institute of Education in London. Their research shows that a mother's expectations about about her daughter's future educational attainment may actually affect that child's future success at work, as well as her sense of control in life.

Flouri and Hawkes used data collected from 1,520 men and 1,765 women as part of the British Cohort Study, which began in 1970. When the study participants were aged ten, their mothers were asked when they thought their child would leave school: at age 16, 17 or 18.

Crucially, those female participants whose mothers predicted that they would stay in school longer, tended to earn more money at the age of 26, and to report having a greater sense of control over their lives at 30, than the female participants whose mothers predicted they would leave school early.

"Given that women are particularly at risk for poor psychological and economic outcomes in adulthood... this is an important conclusion," the researchers said.

This association between mothers' expectations and their daughters' later occupational success and psychological confidence remained even after controlling for a raft of other relevant factors. In other words, mothers' expectations appeared to be exerting an independent effect quite separate from other influences, such as the child's ethnicity or general ability, that might have have simultaneously influenced both the mothers' expectations and their daughters' outcomes.

In contrast to these findings, mothers' expectations had no association with the later occupational success or psychological confidence of sons.

ResearchBlogging.orgEirini Flouri, Denise Hawkes (2008). Ambitious mothers - successful daughters: Mothers' early expectations for children's education and children's earnings and sense of control in adult life British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78 (3), 411-433 DOI: 10.1348/000709907X251280

Link to related feature article in The Psychologist magazine (open access).
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Exposing some holes in Libet's classic free will study

Benjamin Libet's classic 1983 experiment purported to show that preparatory brain activity precedes our conscious decision to move - a controversial finding interpreted by some as evidence that free will is illusory.

In Libet's study, participants reported the time on a clock at the instant they had decided to move a finger. This is less straightforward than it sounds. Visual processing is sluggish whereas participants were presumably instantly aware of when they'd made a conscious decision to move. This would have led them to report a decision time that was too early (i.e. at the instant of their decision, the participants' brains would only just have been getting round to processing an earlier time on the clock).

Libet's team realised this, so in a separate control condition they also asked participants to report the timing of an electrical stimulus applied to their hand - the error in this time estimation was then used to apply a correction to participants' estimates of when they'd made a movement decision.

But in a new study, Adam Danquah and colleagues point out that our different sensory modalities operate at different speeds. They copied the control condition of Libet's experimental set-up, but they asked participants to report not just the timing of a mild electric shock, but also of a flash in the centre of the clock, and the sound of a click (delivered through headphones).

The researchers found that the participants' estimates were less accurate (i.e. even earlier) for the visual flash and auditory click than for the electric shock. In other words, Libet would have arrived at a different estimate of when participants had made a decision to move if he'd used a visual or auditory control task to make his adjustment.

"The degree of variability in bias across modalities and studies means that it is very difficult to know what correctional standard, if any, can be applied to awareness times of endogenous events [e.g. decisions]," the researchers wrote.

However, defenders of free-will shouldn't take comfort in these new results. Danquah and his colleagues added an important note about the implications of their work: "the magnitude of the biases reported here suggests that they [Libet's team] underestimated the degree to which... [preparatory brain activity] preceded the intention to move!"

In a second experiment, Danquah and his colleagues also identified another problem with the Libet paradigm. The clock used by Libet featured a dot that circled the clock-face, rather like a second-hand. Danquah's team showed that the speed at which the dot circled the clock face also affected participants' time estimations - the faster the dot, the more accurate participants' estimates became.

"The results reported here have implications for the whole tradition of having participants locate temporally subjective events using the clock paradigm," the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgA DANQUAH, M FARRELL, D OBOYLE (2008). Biases in the subjective timing of perceptual events: Libet et al. (1983) revisited Consciousness and Cognition, 17 (3), 616-627 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2007.09.005

Disclaimer: I was a participant in this study several years ago, during my student days in Manchester.
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Watching death

BBC News have this morning reported that doctors at 25 UK and US hospitals plan to test people's experiences of near death - those cases where a heart attack brings a person to the brink of death before they are revived.

This was one of the 'Most important psychology experiments that's Never been done' cited by Dr Susan Blackmore in our special anniversary feature last year.

Apparently the new experiment will involve placing images on high-up shelves that will only be visible to patients if their consciousness really does leave their body. The researchers, led by Dr Sam Parnia, also plan to image the brains of the patients.

The official press release refers vaguely to 'cerebral monitoring techniques', which may not match the accuracy of PET or FMRI. Nonetheless, what's planned does sound very close to the experiment proposed by Blackmore at the BPS Research Digest last year. She wrote:
The most important experiment that’s never been done is to take fMRI or PET scans of people as they die; either those who really do go on to die, or those who suffer clinical death but are resuscitated. If this were done we would be able to test theories about how Near Death Experiences and mystical experiences are generated in the dying brain, and answer questions about the timing of the experiences. Perhaps even this would not resolve the final question once and for all, but it would certainly bring us a lot closer to knowing what happens when we die.
If evidence were found for patients' consciousness existing beyond the confines of the body, we would obviously have to re-write everything we know about the link between the mind and brain. I expect the results will show that Near Death Experiences are caused by brain activity during the heart attack, and that no patients will see the images placed on the shelves.

Link to Southampton University Press release.
Link to Susan Blackmore writing for our special feature 'Most important psychology experiment that's Never been done'
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A quick guide to Free Will

I've just discovered a quick guide to free will (pdf) written by neuroscientist and decision-making expert P. Read Montague for the July issue of Current Biology, which he's made freely available on his website.

Unlike many academic journals, Current Biology publishes articles in a range of engaging formats, including interviews, news, reviews, reports and quick guides.

In his quick guide, Montague argues that free will in the traditional sense is beyond the realms of scientific description: "Free will is the close cousin to the idea of the soul" he writes, "- the concept that 'you', your thoughts and feelings, derive from an entity that is separate and distinct from the physical mechanisms that make up your body."

However, he explains that although we can't possess free will in the traditional sense, it's clear that we do possess a capacity for flexible choice. He goes on to describe how contemporary scientific research is uncovering how we place values on the finite range of choices that are available to us - an approach that among other things is casting fresh light on the nature of addiction.

"Such models portray addiction as a valuation disease, where the nervous system over-values cues associated with drugs or drug taking. However, there is a point here: the addicted nervous system is choosing highly valued options, a rational manoeuvre; but the valuation of the drug-associated cues is pathologically high."

Link to quick guide at publisher's website.
Link to PDF of quick guide at P. Read Montague's website.
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Judging others by our own capabilities

Psychologists in America have documented an unusual form of egocentrism that affects us all. University students who were asked to judge how high an unencumbered women would be able to jump, made lower estimates when they had weights attached to their own ankles, compared with when they didn't.

Veronica Ramenzoni and colleagues interpreted their finding in terms of Gibson's ecological theory of perception. This is the idea that our perception of the world is intimately affected by what we are capable of doing in it. The new finding suggests our assessment of how we can act in a given environment biases our judgement of how other people will be able to act too.

Participants indicated their own and the woman's maximum jump height by adjusting the height of a plastic cylinder suspended from a pulley. Half the participants made this estimate twice: once stood stationary with ankle weights on, and then again after walking for five minutes with the weights on. The participants' second estimate was lower for both themselves and, importantly, for the woman (even though she wore no weights).

"...observers apprehend the actions afforded themselves and another actor by the layout of environmental surfaces with regard to their own capacity to produce action," the researchers said. In other words, the burden of the ankle weights led these participants to perceive the cylinder as higher - a bias that affected their estimate of their own jumping ability and also the woman's.

The other half of the participants served as a control group. They didn't wear weights but they did do the walking. Their jump estimates, for themselves and the woman, were the same before and after the walking.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchRamenzoni, V., Riley, M., Shockley, K., Davis, T. (2008). Carrying the height of the world on your ankles: Encumbering observers reduces estimates of how high an actor can jump. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17470210802100073
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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:

Chronic exposure to catastrophic war experiences and political violence (International Journal of Behavioural Development).

Theory based behaviour change (Applied psychology).

Globalization and diversity: contributions from intercultural research (International Journal of Intercultural Relations).

Collaborative Discourse, Argumentation, and Learning (Contemporary Educational Psychology).
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An Oliver Sacks case study brought to life on stage

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing the play Reminiscence at Jacksons Lane theatre in North London. It tells the story of Mrs O'Connor, an 88-year-old woman whose stroke-induced seizures caused her to hear music that wasn't there and relive childhood memories that may or may not have actually happened.

The lady was first described by Oliver Sacks in his collection of case studies entitled "The man who mistook his wife for a hat." But whereas Sacks describes the case from the perspective of a doctor, the play attempts to portray what Mrs O'Connor's experiences must have been like for her.

My favourite scene occurs towards the end of the play, when Mrs O'Connor is aware of her doctor's real presence, but is also experiencing the sensation of inhabiting a memory from her childhood. This sense of having two conscious experiences at once is known as mental diplopia.

As you can imagine, representing experiences like these on stage is no easy task, but it's a challenge risen to admirably by the small, multi-talented cast with the aid of some ingenious props and effects.

The play raises a number of intriguing issues, not least the question of whether the memories and music that Mrs O'Connor experiences, while being caused by neurological changes in her brain, are also subject to psychological motivations. Given the blandness of her nursing home existence, together with her sense of a lost childhood (she was orphaned at age five), Mrs O'Connor actually finds relief in her symptoms and turns down the offer of medication to eradicate them.

Just as rewarding as the play was the science forum held afterwards. The audience had the opportunity to hear from the director Michael Callahan, members of the cast, as well as the mesmerisingly encyclopedic Dr Vaughan Bell of King's College London, who acted as unpaid scientific consultant to the play.

The show runs for another week, including a matinee on Wednesday that will be followed by the second and final science forum.

Link to Reminiscence at Jacksons Lane theatre.
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Background TV disrupts children's play

Image is from WikipediaIt's a rainy afternoon, there's a TV quiz show jabbering in the background, a young child plays sweetly with her toys, and Mum (or Dad) flicks idly through the newspaper - what could be wrong with this domestic scene? According to Marie Schmidt and colleagues, the background TV could well be disrupting the child's play, which in turn could have a negative impact on her cognitive development.

Fifty children aged between one and three years were videoed playing in a room for an hour while their mother or father sat nearby reading magazines. For either the first or second half of the session, a 21-inch TV in the room displayed the adult quiz show "Jeopardy!". Past research has tackled the question of whether children's TV shows are harmful or beneficial, but this study was interested in the effects of an adult TV show buzzing away in the background (see Psychologist magazine news item for more on TV effects). 

When the TV quiz show was on, all three age-groups of children played less overall, each of their playing episodes was shorter, and their bursts of focused attention were shorter, compared with when the TV was off. However, the maturity of their play (for example whether or not it incorporated imaginary objects) was unaffected.

Schmidt's team described the disruptive effects of the background TV as "real but small". While the current study doesn't say anything about the possible developmental consequences of TV-disrupted play, previous research has shown that shorter play episodes and less focused attention tend to be associated with poorer developmental outcomes. Moreover, a previous unpublished study by the present team of researchers showed that background TV reduces how often parents interact with their children. "Taken together," the researchers said, the new and previous findings lead us to "hypothesise that background television, as a chronic influence, is by itself an environmental risk factor in children's development."

ResearchBlogging.orgMarie Evans Schmidt, Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Anne Frankenfield Lund, Daniel R. Anderson (2008). The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children Child Development, 79 (4), 1137-1151 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01180.x
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What it's like for pregnant women to be rushed to hopsital with high blood pressure

For a pregnant woman to be rushed suddenly to hospital with high blood pressure can be terrifying - both she and her unborn child could be at serious risk. To help hospitals plan procedures for making the experience as comforting and supportive as possible, health psychologist Julie Barlow and her colleagues interviewed twelve pregnant women about their experience of being hospitalised with high blood pressure. The interviews were held within three days of the women's hospital admission.

Qualitative analysis of the women's comments uncovered four key themes. The women were searching for meaning in what had happened to them. For example, several of them reported feeling like frauds because they hadn't experienced any symptoms (their condition had been identified by routine tests). "It's to do with preeclampsia" one woman said, "but I didn't understand what that is cos I'm fine in myself and the baby's fine... and you're thinking 'why can't I go home?'"

The women tended to search for the possible causes of their condition, especially in relation to stressful events. One woman said it would be beneficial to learn relaxation techniques.

There were several comments pointing to the problem of inconsistent information from clinical staff. "I'm fed up with it," one woman said. "They tell you different things...when I got brought in, they says, you'll be in for a fortnight and you'll probably have the baby. And next'll probably have the baby in two to three days."

Evidence also emerged for what the researchers labelled social factors - the perceived benefit of support, especially from husbands, and the tendency for the woman to compare themselves to others at the hospital who were either better off than they were (so-called "upward social comparison") or less well off ("downward social comparison"). For example, one woman felt reassured by the sight of another patient having a normal delivery and appearing fine.

The researchers cautioned that this research is only preliminary; nevertheless, some practical implications were already apparent. For example, the researchers said hospital staff should be aware that "fear, anxiety and being in strange surroundings could interfere with women's ability to absorb information." Relationship support from partners and parents also seemed important, they said, and the introduction of relaxation techniques to the ward could be beneficial.

ResearchBlogging.orgJulie Helen Barlow, Jenny Hainsworth, Stephen Thornton (2008). Women's experiences of hospitalisation with hypertension during pregnancy: feeling a fraud Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 26 (3), 157-167 DOI: 10.1080/02646830701691384
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Finally, a clear guide to the most effective actions you can take to curb climate change

In America, a whopping 38 per cent of energy is consumed by private households - far more than is consumed by the entire industrial sector. Now, in a new article for Environment magazine, a pair of US-based psychologists have published a list of the most effective ways for households to reduce their energy consumption.

Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern argue that most (American) people believe in the idea that human activity is responsible for climate change, and most people are motivated to reduce their energy use. But they say that thanks to a lack of clear information on the most effective ways to reduce energy consumption, many people engage exclusively in activities, such as turning off lights, or turning down the thermostat, that while highly visible, are actually relatively ineffective.

Part of the problem is that many campaigns strive to increase people's motivation, without giving adequate information on what behaviours to change. High profile publications like "The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook" have tended to produce checklists of green behaviours without giving any indication of which steps will have the most impact.

In general, Gardner and Stern say that curtailing certain activities - the idea that we must make sacrifices to save the planet - is generally ineffective. By contrast, taking active steps to become more energy efficient will lead to much larger reductions in energy use.
"...efficiency-improving actions generally save more energy — and reduce carbon emissions more — than curtailing use of intrinsically inefficient equipment. For example, buying and maintaining a highly fuel-efficient vehicle saves more energy than carpooling to work with another person, lowering top highway speeds, consolidating shopping or errand trips, and altering driving habits in an existing gasoline-inefficient motor vehicle. This general finding challenges the belief that energy savings entail curtailment and sacrifice of amenities. Not only is efficiency generally more effective than curtailment, but it has the important psychological advantage of requiring only one or a few actions. Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort."
With rising fuel prices and the credit crunch, the publication of this article is certainly timely. It also seems that the U.K. government may be on the right tack, seeing as they've announced today a scheme to fund half the cost of insulation for all households.

Gardner and Stern's list is broken down into separate categories, taking into account that while costly actions might be more effective, there is also a need for people to know the relative effectiveness of cost-free or low cost actions.
  • For individuals/households, the most effective low cost/short-term green behaviour in relation to transportation is to share car journeys or "carpool"; in relation to the home, it's to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs.

  • For longer-term benefits, with a higher financial cost, the most effective action in relation to transport is to buy low-rolling resistance tyres. The next most effective action is to buy a more fuel-efficient car. The latter action is complicated by the issue of whether one's current car is still useable. If it is, then the energy cost of producing the new car counts against any gains.

  • Finally, for home-owners (as opposed to tenants who can't really do these things), the most effective low-cost/short-term action is to weather strip the house, while the most effective, but more costly, longer-term action is to buy a more efficient heating system.
For the full list of 17 actions, see the original article. By some estimates, if people complete the whole list, they'll cut their energy use by a half.

Link to full text (open access) of article: "The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change".
Link to the Energy Saving Trust, a UK-based organisation who provide advice on saving energy.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Is OCD a form of hypermorality?

Can children aged five to six years discriminate between accents?

The wonderfully named "Silver Lining Questionnaire" used to measure the idea that some good can come from illness.

Older people are less prone to the "sunk-cost fallacy": our tendency to keep pursuing failed projects so as to justify earlier losses.

Virtual reality used to help troops recover from PTSD.
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Want to make a complicated decision? Keep thinking

"Want to make a complicated decision? Just stop thinking", was one of hundreds of headlines spawned by a study published in 2006 by Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues. The team of Dutch researchers reported that students made "better" decisions after being distracted by an anagram task, compared with when they spent the same number of minutes deliberating over their choices.

While the conscious mind was busy solving anagrams, the researchers claimed the unconscious, with its unlimited process capacity, was left free to sift through the information pertinent to making the best decision. 

But now, Ben Newell and colleagues have copied the experimental set up used by Dijksterhuis and failed to find that the outcome of unconscious deliberation is any better than consciously chewing over a decision.

Student participants were presented with a choice of apartments or cars (depending on the experiment), and were told whether each available option ticked the box or missed the mark for one of ten attributes, such as security or rent. Participants then made their favoured choice either immediately, or after a 4 or 8 minute period of conscious deliberation or distraction.

The actual "best" choice was identified later, by asking the participants to score how much each attribute mattered to them on a scale of one to ten. For each item, the weight of those attributes it lacked was subtracted from those it performed well at, thus revealing the "best" option.

Regardless of how participants made their choice - immediately, or after either conscious or subconscious deliberation - they tended to choose the best option. "In stark contrast to claims in the literature and the media," the researchers wrote, "we found very little evidence of the superiority of unconscious thought for complex decisions."

In fact, a final experiment suggested that we make our choices "on-line" as new information is gathered, rather than after deliberation, conscious or unconscious. Moreover, a period of unconscious deliberation led participants to place disproportionate weight in the most recently acquired information. This suggests "that a period of distraction can enhance recency effects and, in this case, lead to poorer choices," the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgBen Newell, Kwan Yao Wong, Jeremy Cheung, Tim Rakow (2008). Think, blink or sleep on it? The impact of modes of thought on complex decision making The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-1 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802215202

Link to PDF of this paper via the first author's website. 
Link to more than 20 prior Digest blog posts on decision making.
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Sally's "abysmal elation" in the Summer of 1996

Best-selling writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks has written a, by turns, heart-warming and educational book review on the topic of bipolar disorder (previously known as manic-depression) for the New York Review of Books.

The target of the review is Michael Greenberg's memoir "Hurry Down Sunshine", which tells the story of his daughter Sally's experience of her first manic episode in the Summer of 1996, when she was aged just 15.

Bi-polar disorder is characterised by dizzylingly intense highs and deeply dark lows. With Sacks as our erudite, lyrical guide we learn how the early stages of mania can appear revelatory, seductive even:
"One may call it mania, madness, or psychosis—a chemical imbalance in the brain—but it presents itself as energy of a primordial sort. Greenberg likens it to "being in the presence of a rare force of nature, such as a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too." Such unbridled energy can resemble that of creativity or inspiration or genius—this, indeed, is what Sally feels is rushing through her—not an illness, but the apotheosis of health, the release of a deep, previously suppressed self."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some evidence suggesting a link between mania and creativity. Sacks points to famously creative people who probably lived with the condition: "Schumann, Coleridge, Byron and Van Gogh among them".

But what's difficult for those of us without the condition to understand is that rather than being like opposite poles, the depression and mania of bi-polar disorder are rather more like the ends of a circle closing back in on itself. Sacks tells us how Greenberg conveys the paradoxical aspects of the condition: 
"He [Greenberg] speaks of Sally's 'pitiless ball of fire' her 'terrified grandiosity,' of how anxious and fragile she is inside the 'hollow exuberance' of her mania....the 'abysmal elation' Sally sometimes feels 'in the throes of [her] dystopic mania'."
Particularly moving, is Greenberg's description of his daughter's recovery from her manic episode as expressed through her wonderfully unemotional, dispassionate acceptance of his offer of a cup of tea. "It's as if a miracle has occurred," Greenberg writes. "The miracle of normalcy, of ordinary existence."

Ultimately, Sacks is unsparing in his praise of Greenberg's book. "In its detail, depth, richness, and sheer intelligence, Hurry Down Sunshine will be recognised as a classic of its kind...What makes it unique is the fact that so much here is seen through the eyes of an extraordinarily open and sensitive parent - a father who, while never descending into sentimentality, has remarkable insight into his daughter's thoughts and feelings, and a rare power to find images or metaphors for almost unimaginable states of mind".

Link to Oliver Sacks' review in the New York Review of Books (Open Access).
Link to publisher's page for Hurry Down Sunshine.
Link to information on bi-polar disorder at the NHS online encyclopedia.
PS. I've just seen that Sacks' review also caught the attention of Vaughan over at Mind Hacks.
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Why female business owners are less successful but just as satisfied

The proportion of businesses owned by women is on the increase in many countries. These female-run firms tend to be less successful in financial terms than businesses run by men, and yet limited evidence suggests female business owners are just as satisfied with their careers as their male counterparts - a phenomenon dubbed: "the paradox of the contented female business owner".

Gary Powell and Kimberly Eddleston surveyed 201 business owners in America (43 per cent were female) and found fresh evidence for this paradox. Compared with the male owners, the female business owners reported that their firms were less successful than rivals', in terms of traditional measures such as growth and profit. And yet, the female owners reported being just as satisfied with their business success as the men.

One explanation for the paradox is that female business owners have lower expectations for success because they recognise that they're bringing less to the business in terms of working hours and experience. However, no evidence for this explanation was found. For example, the female owners reported being better educated than the men and had been in their current position just as long.

An alternative explanation is that female business owners value business outcomes that aren't related to the traditional objectives of growth and sales. It's possible for example that female entrepreneurs are more concerned by achieving their own work-life balance, or by ensuring customer loyalty and satisfaction. Preliminary support for this explanation was found. The male business owners reported placing a much higher value on achieving business success than did the women, and for men, but not women, satisfaction tended to be higher, the greater their own business success.

Powell and Eddleston said more research was needed to uncover the values held by female business owners, but they argued their findings have immediate implications for the current "one size fits all" approach to business education. "It should not be assumed that all business owners seek to grow their businesses, or that business success necessarily leads to business owner satisfaction," they wrote.

ResearchBlogging.orgG POWELL, K EDDLESTON (2008). The paradox of the contented female business owner Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73 (1), 24-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2007.12.005
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Would you get undressed in front of a robot?

image is from WikipediaAt the end of the film Terminator 2, as the Terminator robot sinks into a vat of molten metal to inevitable destruction, it aims a thumbs up sign at the humans John and Sarah Connor. The deadly robot reveals glimpses of humanity earlier in the film, but this gesture leaves the audience with the strongest sense yet that there must be some kind of a soul in the machine.

This question of when we do and don't perceive robots and computers as having their own minds is the subject of a new brain imaging study. Soren Krach and colleagues began by introducing 20 male participants to a human opponent, a computer opponent, a functional robotic opponent and an anthropomorphic robot opponent (see figure below, taken from the journal paper doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002597.g002), all of which were 'sat' in a briefing room. The functional robot looks like a computer wired up to two robot arms designed to press the necessary keys to play the game. The anthropomorphic robot, by contrast, resembles a small child.

Afterwards, the participants had their brains scanned while they played the four opponents one at a time (a picture was flashed up before each game showing who their next opponent was). The participants witnessed the cable from their opponents' computers in the briefing room being plugged into the monitor in the brain scanner - thus giving them the strong impression they really were playing these opponents. In reality, the game decisions made by the human, computer and robots were fully randomised, to ensure that any effects on the participants' brain activity were not triggered by variations in playing style.

Regardless of who their opponent was, the participants exhibited activity in the regions of their brains associated with representing other people's minds. Crucially, however, this activity was stronger the more human-like their opponent, being strongest for the anthropomorphic robot and human.

These brain differences were also reflected in the participants' reports on how they found the games. For example, they enjoyed playing the human and human-like opposition more than the computer and functional robot. They also rated the human-like robot as more competitive and less cooperative than the computer and functional robot.

"...[T]he more an...agent or entity exhibits human-like features, the more we build a model of its 'mind'," the researchers said. "This process occurs irrespective of its behavioural responses and independently of whether we interact with real human partners of 'just' machines."

Perhaps another way to test our representation of robot minds would be to see at what point people begin exhibiting embarrassment in their presence. Undressing in front of your desk-top PC is unlikely to make you blush, but perhaps the presence of a human-like android would.


ResearchBlogging.orgSören Krach, Frank Hegel, Britta Wrede, Gerhard Sagerer, Ferdinand Binkofski, Tilo Kircher, Edwin Robertson (2008). Can Machines Think? Interaction and Perspective Taking with Robots Investigated via fMRI PLoS ONE, 3 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002597
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Falsely diagnosing women with mental illness was a scandal in the 1850s - so how did Freud get away with it?

I'm currently enjoying The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - the real-life English country house murder story by Kate Summerscale - and to my delight I've discovered that it contains some wonderful insights into Victorian attitudes to mental illness.

We learn, for example, that the Victorians believed madness was generally passed down from the mother, and that the most likely recipient was the daughter. Summerscale writes: "Another theory - psychological rather than physiological - was that brooding on one's hereditary taint of madness could itself bring it on."

What particularly surprised me the other day was a passage in the book suggesting that one of the characters, a doctor, could face reprisals for his suggestion that a young girl in the story was likely to be mad simply because her mother had suffered from mental illness. "In the 1850s" Summerscale explains, "several medical men were found to have consigned sane women to asylums - the ease of getting a doctor to testify a women's madness had become a national scandal. A parliamentary select committee investigated the phenomenon in 1858, and the Women in White [murder mystery novel] was dramatising it in 1860. The public was familiar now, with the figure of the physician who falsely declared a woman insane."

Remember this is some decades before Fraud (oops, see here) Freud started applying the diagnosis of conversion disorder or hysteria to so many women, many of whom probably had organic illnesses. So the timeline seems odd somehow. How did a society that apparently recognised the scandal of falsely diagnosing women with mental illness, give way to Freud and all his shenanigans? Or am I being unfair to Freud? If anyone can explain, I'd love to hear from you via comments...

Link to official website of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
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We remember more from our teens and early twenties than from any other time of life

Research shows we're better at recollecting events that occurred during our teens and early twenties than during any other period in our lives - an anomaly that experts call the "reminiscence bump". One explanation for the bump, according to Steve Janssen and colleagues, is that our memories work more efficiently during our teens and early adulthood relative to other periods in our lives.

The problem with testing that biological account, however, is that it is possible events are more memorable from our teens and early twenties simply because they were more meaningful to us. Just think, your first driving lesson or first kiss will obviously be more memorable than subsequent ones.

As a way round this, Janssen's team invited over 1000 people aged between 16 and 75 years to complete an internet-based test of events that had occurred in the news between 1950 and 2006. For example, "In which city was US President John F Kennedy assassinated in 1963?"; and "What was the name of the hurricane that flooded New Orleans in 2005?".

The computer programme that ran the test ensured that each participant answered 30 questions from three periods: from before they were ten years' old; from the era when they were aged 10 to 25 years; and from when they were older than 25 years. Some questions were multiple-choice, whereas others were free recall.

Among the younger participants, the recency effect (our tendency to better recall more recent events) and the reminiscence bump could be confused, so the researchers removed the influence of the recency effect from the data. Having done that, the researchers found clear evidence that participants of all ages tended to have a better memory for events that occurred during their teens and early twenties than at other times. This was particularly the case for the free-recall questions.

The researchers said their finding backs up the idea that events are stored better in adolescence and early adulthood because the brain works at an optimum during those periods (although they acknowledged this doesn't mean that other explanations don't also play a role). The new finding is also consistent with research showing that people tend to recall books, films and music from their teens and early twenties when asked to name their favourites.

What remains unclear is why memory works optimally during adolescence and early adulthood. "Is this effect caused by changing levels of hormones or neurotransmitters?" the researchers asked. "Or does working memory have a larger capacity in adolescence, enabling more memories to be stored? More work, by psychologists as well as neuroscientists, will be required to answer this question."
Janssen, S., Murre, J., Meeter, M. (2007). Reminiscence bump in memory for public events. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 20(4), 738-764. DOI: 10.1080/09541440701554409
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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:

New Media: mobile advertising and marketing (Psychology and Marketing).

Spiritual development (New Directions for Youth Development).

Bilingualism: Functional and neural perspectives (Acta Psychologica).

Genetics and imaging in neuroscience (Biological Psychology).

Honouring Irving E. Siegel's contributions to the field (Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology). "Siegel (founder of the journal and long-time editor) sought to infuse developmental science with considerations of basic human values such as social justice and caring for others. Seigel maintained that human values underlie beliefs and actions and in a fundamental way propel them. He championed commitment to these values with openness in his own lifelong quest for a better world and he also inspired many of us to do likewise. Irv's legacy includes a balanced appreciation for the importance of understanding development and seeking to find better ways to enhance child development and family functioning."
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Mirrors suppress people's prejudice

People exhibit less prejudice when they're in the presence of a mirror, Dutch researchers have shown. Carina Wiekens and Diederik Stapel said this effect occurs because mirrors make us more aware of our public appearance, and therefore remind us of the need to fall in line with social norms.

An initial study with 164 students tested the effect of two manipulations: either being in the presence of a mirror, or scanning a passage of text for first-person pronouns like "I", "me" and "mine".

The pronoun task activated the students' private self-awareness, increasing their agreement with statements like "I am trying to figure myself out". The presence of a mirror similarly increased private self-awareness, but also increased public self-awareness, leading students to agree more with statements like "I am aware of my appearance".

Another experiment then tested the effect of these two manipulations on the prejudice of students towards Surinamese people (a significant ethnic minority in Holland). One hundred and twenty-seven students read an ambiguous story about a Dutch man or a Surinamese man that could either be interpreted positively (the man was sociable) or negatively (he was irresponsible).

Students who'd revealed their prejudice in an earlier questionnaire were more likely to rate the Surinamese man in a negative way after they'd completed the pronoun task than were control students who didn't perform that task. By contrast, students sat in the presence of a mirror were less likely to rate the Surinamese man in a negative way, compared with control students who didn't have a mirror near them.

The researchers concluded: "Our results suggest that when both private and public selves are activated [by the mirror] they do not cancel each other out when it concerns their input for normative behaviour. Rather, public concerns "win" and people show more appropriate, norm-driven behaviour."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWIEKENS, C., STAPEL, D. (2008). The Mirror and I: When private opinions are in conflict with public norms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 1160-1166. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.02.005
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