When clients in therapy show sudden, dramatic improvements

There's growing evidence that people who undergo psychological therapy often demonstrate sudden, dramatic improvements, almost as though they've had a revelatory change of outlook and thinking style. What's more, these sudden changes appear to be clinically meaningful. People who exhibit sudden improvements from one session to the next are more likely than other clients to show greater and more sustained improvement after they've stopped participating in therapy.

Now Elise Clerkin and colleagues at the University of Virginia have investigated the significance of sudden gains among 30 clients undertaking 12 weeks of group Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for panic disorder - a context in which the sudden-improvement phenomenon has yet to be studied.

Clerkin's team found that 43 per cent of clients exhibited at least one dramatic burst of improvement during the course of therapy. Approximately half of these clients showed this improvement between the first and second sessions, while the other half showed their gains later on.

The timing of the sudden improvement proved to be significant. Only those clients who showed dramatic gains after the second session or later tended to show better symptom outcomes at the end of the course of therapy relative to non-dramatic improvers. This makes sense given that the first session was really just an introduction and didn't include any of the active ingredients of CBT.

Moreover, the later dramatic improvers showed a greater reduction in their fear of anxiety-related symptoms (e.g. a racing heart-beat) at the end of the course of therapy (and at six months' follow-up) than did the very early dramatic improvers. This suggests that when a dramatic improvement occurred after the second session or later it probably had to do with the clients changing how they interpreted their anxiety symptoms - one of the key goals of CBT. By contrast, very early dramatic improvement may have reflected a meaningless fluctuation of symptoms.

The researchers said more work is needed to find out what psychological processes underlie the effects of a dramatic improvement during therapy. "We suspect these effects occur because of changes in self-efficacy that follow a large, dramatic improvement, which likely engenders hope for further recovery, and enhances commitment to the therapy," they surmised. "In fact, the sudden gain itself may confer a critical belief change regarding the patient's ability to overcome symptoms of panic."

ResearchBlogging.orgE CLERKIN, B TEACHMAN, S SMITHJANIK (2008). Sudden gains in group cognitive-behavioral therapy for panic disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2008.08.002
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Taking psychology into space

"The whirr of fans, the taste of old air. Day after day cramped in perpetual, monotonous orbit with the same three colleagues, isolated hundreds of miles from family and friends. Life in space has glamorous, adventure-filled connotations, but the reality is a gruelling psychological challenge..."

Continue reading my new Psychologist magazine feature on space psychology, available open-access.
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We're better at spotting fake smiles when we're feeling rejected

The last thing you need if you're feeling rejected is to waste time pursuing friendships with people who aren't genuinely interested. That's according to Michael Bernstein and his colleagues, who say we've actually evolved a perceptual adaptation to rejection that helps prevent this from happening.

Bernstein's team provoked feelings of rejection in students by asking them to write about a time they felt rejected or excluded. These students were subsequently better at distinguishing fake from real smiles as depicted in four-second video clips, than were students who'd either been asked to write about a time they felt included, or to write about the previous morning.

"These results are among the first to show that rejection can lead to increases in performance at the perceptual level, provided that the performance supports opportunities for affiliation," the researchers said.

However, I wonder if this increased ability to detect fake smiles is as adaptive as the researchers imply. In the same way that unrealistically positive beliefs about the self can guard against depression, perhaps it would be more helpful to a socially excluded person to tone down their sensitivity to fake smiles. After all, just because a stranger gives you a fake smile doesn't mean they aren't a potential friend - they may just have had a bad day.

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael J. Bernstein, Steven G. Young, Christina M. Brown, Donald F. Sacco, Heather M. Claypool (2008). Adaptive Responses to Social Exclusion: Social Rejection Improves Detection of Real and Fake Smiles Psychological Science, 19 (10), 981-983 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02187.x
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Spotting Malcolm Gladwell

You'd probably have more luck avoiding media coverage of the financial crisis than you would Malcolm Gladwell, so busy has the man been promoting his new book Outliers. To save you drowning in all the reviews and interviews, the Digest lays out links to some of the best bits:

Gladwell appeared on BBC Radio 4's Start The Week on Monday. This programme had the added bonus of also featuring neuroscientist Semir Zeki discussing his new book on neuroesthetics and the neurobiology of love.

There's The Guardian's official review, but if you want something more irreverent, you can check out the Digested Read column ("Out-li-er, noun, 1: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample. 2: yet another attempt to cash in by presenting a whole load of seemingly counterintuitive facts to tell you something you basically already knew.)

New York Magazine carried an extensive interview conducted in Gladwell's kitchen.

The Guardian again - with extracts, and an underwhelmed review of Gladwell's talk at the Lyceum theatre in London - a venue that usually hosts the Lion King ("You end up wondering "why am I here with all these people in expensive spectacles sending text messages?", and, more insidiously, "wouldn't I prefer to be watching The Lion King?")

Here is the New York Times review.

Here is an interview with the Independent.

Here are the ten secrets to Gladwell's success, thanks to The Times.

From the blogs, Marginal Revolution say Outliers is a good and fun book despite the snarky reviews, while Blogcritics say "buy at your discretion and with a grain of salt".

And in the video below, CBS reporter Katie Couric has the gall to ask Gladwell if his work is stating the obvious:

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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:

Pseudoscientific Policing Practices and Beliefs (Criminal Justice and Behaviour).

The Mirror Neuron System (Social Neuroscience).

Cross-national Comparisons of Psychosocial Aspects of Childbirth (Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology)

Imitation in Typically Developing Children (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology)

Personality Testing and Industrial–Organizational Psychology (Industrial and Organisational Psychology).
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Patients on secure wards are more likely to be aggressive towards staff of their own sex

Secure ward managers may be able to reduce patient aggression by carefully monitoring the sex ratio of the staff relative to the patients. That's according to Susan Knowles and colleagues who've found that mental health patients held on a medium secure ward were more likely to exhibit physical or verbal aggression to staff of the same sex as themselves.

The researchers analysed incident report records kept between 2004 and 2006 by two male-only and two female-only wards at a medium secure unit in the North West of England.

During this time, 192 physical acts of aggression by patients were reported - 84 on the male wards, 108 on the female wards. One hundred and sixty-five cases of verbal aggression were also reported - 82 on the male wards, 83 on the female wards.

Crucially, these aggressive acts were far more likely to occur between patients and staff of the same sex. For example, 64 per cent of male physical aggression was against male staff, while 70 per cent of female physical aggression was targeted at female staff.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many more male staff work on male wards and vice versa for female wards. However, statistically controlling for this bias showed that male patients were still significantly more likely to be aggressive towards male staff and female patients more likely to target female staff.

Knowles team said their findings could be interpreted in terms of an effect / danger ratio - people are more likely to be aggressive if they think their desired effect can be achieved with the least danger to themselves. By this account, men avoid aggression towards women because of the likely social censure that will ensue, whereas women will avoid targeting men because of their tendency to have greater strength. Evolutionary psychological theory also predicts that men will target other men, rather than women, because of competition for resources and partners.

The findings have obvious practical implications. The researchers said more opposite-sex staff should be introduced on secure wards. "This may reduce aggressive behaviour by simply reducing the number of potentially appropriate targets," they said. However, they also cautioned that there could be a risk of aggressive behaviour being targeted at the remaining same-sex staff, rather than diminishing overall, so any staffing changes should be "closely monitored".

ResearchBlogging.orgSusan Knowles, Sarah Coyne, Stephen Brown (2008). Sex differences in aggressive incidents towards staff in secure services Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 19 (4), 620-631 DOI: 10.1080/14789940801962130
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The role of self-esteem in Obama's electoral success

Voters are more willing to vote for male political candidates whom they perceive to have high self-esteem - a finding which could help explain President Elect Barack Obama's electoral success.

In Autumn 2007, Virgil Zeigler-Hill and Erin Myers asked 209 undergraduates to rate the self-esteem of the eight potential democratic candidates for president (including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) and the ten republican candidates (including John McCain and Mitt Romney), and to also indicate their willingness to vote for each of them.

As you'd expect, the students' own political affiliations played a key role in their willingness to vote. Beyond this partisan influence, however, the participants were generally more inclined to say they'd be willing to vote for those candidates whom they perceived to have higher self esteem.

The exceptions were female republican students: they said they'd be less willing to vote for those democratic male candidates whom they perceived to have high self esteem, and they also said they were unwilling to vote for Clinton regardless of how they perceived her self-esteem.

A second study was similar to the first except that 293 undergrads were given fake self-esteem data for each of the candidates, ostensibly derived from analyses of speeches they'd given. Participants were generally more willing to vote for candidates who'd been allocated high self-esteem ratings. Again, however, there were exceptions: male democrats were actually more willing to vote for Clinton if she was given a low self-esteem rating, while female republican participants were less willing to vote for her if she was given a high self-esteem rating.

Overall, the findings are consistent with Zeigler-Hill's implicit theory of self-esteem, which states that we (perhaps subconsciously) assume that people with high self-esteem also have other positive traits. The theory complements the "sociometer model" that purports self-esteem has evolved as a marker for people's social status.

Somewhat presciently, in the first of the current studies, Obama was actually rated as having the highest self-esteem of all the candidates, a fact that chimes with his performance during the presidential campaign during which he conveyed immense self-belief, whilst also acknowledging his weaknesses.

"Obama’s ability to convey his feelings of self-worth to others may have helped him project the image of competence and confidence that voters found so compelling," Zeigler-Hill told the Digest.

But what about the findings suggesting participants were less willing to vote for Hillary Clinton if she was perceived as having high self-esteem? Should female candidates play down their self-esteem? "Female candidates are often caught between conflicting demands," Zeigler-Hill said. "If they are portrayed as having high self-esteem, they may be disliked because they are considered aggressive or domineering. However, if they appear to have low self-esteem, female candidates may be viewed as less competent than their male counterparts. I am optimistic that these conflicting demands for female candidates will be reduced to some degree in the future as voters become more comfortable with women in elected positions."

ResearchBlogging.orgV ZEIGLERHILL, E MYERS (2009). Is high self-esteem a path to the White House? The implicit theory of self-esteem and the willingness to vote for presidential candidates. Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (1), 14-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.018
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The psychological effects of chronic illness: "...more emphasis should be given to medical conditions in training programmes for psychologists".

When you revise, make sure you take practice tests and get feedback. A study comparing the benefits of testing with either an open or closed-book policy found that "testing enhanced long-term retention more than restudying".

How many internal clocks do we have?

Not everyone is happy with the Mental Health Act 2007: "These ideological changes [in mental health legislation] are set alongside important changes in services, but signify a new potential for mass preventive detention that will confuse detaining professionals, result in unnecessarily complex legal questions, and create a new potential for blame within a profession that has recently been inquiry (and blame) laden".

Brain differences between those who are able to master the sounds of their second language and those who aren't.
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How to give directions

You've probably been there. You're late, lost, and you ask an innocent passer-by for directions. It begins undauntingly enough: "Left at the lights, straight ahead, third right," ... but then your head starts to spin ... "then follow the corner round until you reach the park, then second right, then first left, you can't miss it" ... You nod and thank them politely while panic privately sets in. There's no way you can remember all those details.

According to Alycia Hund and colleagues at Illinois State University, there are two ways to give directions. One is using a so-called "route perspective", as in the example above. This adopts a first-person spatial perspective and is characterised by references to turns and landmarks. The other is a so-called "survey perspective", which gives directions as if looking down upon a map. This type of direction giving is characterised by references to cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) and precise distances.

When Hund's team used a fictitious model town made of plywood to test the ability of undergraduates to follow directions, they uncovered a curious anomaly. The students reported finding route perspective directions easier to follow and yet they steered a toy car to a destination more quickly and effectively when they were following cardinal directions.

One explanation is that detailed route descriptions sound appealing, but when it comes to actually following directions, it helps if the instructions are concise and vague enough so that if you take a wrong turn you still know the general direction you ought to be following.

Lead author Hund told the Digest that the best wayfinding directions bring together a variety of features that help people reach their goals. "It is important to provide complete, yet concise details regarding the route to follow," she said. "Often, streets or other segments are highlighted, with particular attention to details (landmarks) at choice points, such as intersections. People want enough details so they can follow, but not extraneous details that will be difficult to remember or follow. Moreover, it is important for direction givers and followers to work together to be sure their goals and preferences are taken into account."

Indeed, in relation to Hund's last point about cooperation, the good news is that people do appear to have a natural ability to tailor their direction-giving to a traveller's needs. Another experiment in the current paper showed that students tended to give more route-perspective style directions when helping an imaginary car driver but more cardinal-directions when helping a fictitious person in possession of a map.

ResearchBlogging.orgAlycia M. Hund, Kimberly H. Haney, Brian D. Seanor (2008). The role of recipient perspective in giving and following wayfinding directions Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22 (7), 896-916 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1400
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Just remember the benefits of exercise

Michael Greenberg, who wrote a memoir recently about his daughter's experience of bipolar disorder, has now written a fascinating review in the New York Review of Books (NYRoB) of a new tome on memory "Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research" by Sue Halpern.

As with so many reviews in the NYRoB, Greenberg's account gives you a wonderfully informative snapshot of Halpern's book - providing a glimpse of how she subjected herself to psychological experimentation; the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease; and the desperate scientific hunt for an effective medical treatment.

Oh and in case you are wondering, the optimism in the book's title, Greenberg explains, comes from the discovery of the power of exercise:
"During the years that she was writing this book, one incontrovertible means of neurogenesis came to light: aerobic exercise. The mechanics of the process couldn't be simpler: exercise promotes new cell growth in old brains by increasing their blood volume, and cell growth improves memory. It was true for mice with cognitive impairment and it was true for humans with MCI [mild cognitive impairment]. It didn't take away amyloid plaque [a neuropathological hallmark of Alzheimer's], but it improved cognition anyway. 'In addition,' explains Halpern, 'exercise...increased the amount of the chemical BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) circulating in the brain, and it was BDNF that stimulated the birth of new brain cells.... BDNF also enhanced neural plasticity, which was to say that it enabled the brain to prosper. In diseases like Alzheimer's, depression, Parkinson's, and dementia more generally, BDNF levels were low. In people who exercised, BDNF levels rose.'

Link to NYRoB review of "Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research" by Sue Halpern.
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Consciousness is a crazy mess, so why don't novels portray it that way?

The portrayal of conscious thought in novels has about as much resemblance to the reality of our mental lives as stick men have to true anatomy. That's according to celebrated novelist and essayist Will Self who gave the opening lecture at this year's BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival (Link is to free video; UK access only).

If you haven't encountered Will Self before, you should prepare to be dazzled by his mastery over the English language. Each of his words feels as though it's been selected with all the patience and delectation of an expert sommelier choosing a fine wine.

This is an intense, must-see lecture for anyone who is interested in the nature of thought (made all the more atmospheric by the filming that renders Self as though disembodied). Self attacks the novelistic conventions that mean many of our most cherished authors present a kind of cartoon version of what it is like to be a conscious being.

Challenging his audience to consider what they're thinking "RIGHT NOW" - it becomes clear how inadequately language is able to capture the "clotted and crazy" reality of our mental lives. Indeed, it's only by attempting to report what we were thinking that we shoe-horn our thoughts into the unrealistic, list-like structure so frequently found in novels.

Self goes further and argues that readers enjoy lapping up this unreal version of conscious thought because we find it reassuring in the face of the more chaotic reality. Psychotic thought is comfortingly presented as something experienced by unwell people, safely sectioned away from the rest of us.

What's more, Self says this diet of unnatural "naturalistic fiction" has affected our ability to think freely. Those who present thought as "scumbled, psychotic and deeply irrational" as it really is are condemned as "elitist, wilful obscurantists with inclement mental hygiene". By contrast, those who present an exaggerated fantasy of "sagacity, lucidity and perspicacity are lauded as the greatest humanitarians of all."

I wonder if popular cognitive neuroscience, the "blobs on the brain" approach that makes the front pages of the newspapers, might well be guilty of a similar charge to that which Self levels at novels - what do you think?

If you enjoy this lecture you might also enjoy audio files available from the same festival, including Susan Blackmore on free will and Ben Fletcher on turning thoughts into action.

Link to Will Self Lecture "Naturalism and Sanity: Is the Mind Really as it's portrayed?" (Link is to free video; unfortunately UK access only)
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Older people have more black and white dreams

If you dream in colour, you're not alone: the majority of people today claim to have colourful dreams. But it wasn't always thus. Research conducted in the early part of the last century consistently found that people reported dreaming most often in black and white.

According to Eva Murzyn at the University of Dundee, there are at least two possible explanations for this strange anomaly.

The first is methodological. The early studies tended to use questionnaires, whereas more modern studies use dream diaries (filled in upon rising in the morning) or so-called "REM-awakening", which involves interrupting people's dream-filled periods of sleep to find out what they were dreaming about. People's memories of their dreams are likely to be less accurate using the questionnaire approach and more likely to reflect lay beliefs about the form dreams generally take.

The second explanation has to do with black and white television and film. It's possible that the boom in black and white film and television during the first half of the last century either affected the form of people's dreams at that time, or affected their beliefs about the form dreams generally take.

According to Murzyn's findings, it's the explanation based on media exposure that carries more weight. She used both questionnaire and diary methods to study the dreams of 30 older (average age 64) and 30 younger people (average age 21).

The methodological technique made no difference to the type of dreams people reported. Crucially, however, across both questionnaires and diaries, the older participants (who had had significant early life exposure to black and white media) reported experiencing significantly more black and white dreams over the last ten days than the younger participants (22 per cent vs. 4 per cent).

Another finding was that older participants reported black and white dreams and colour dreams to be of equal vividness. By contrast, the younger participants reported that the quality of black and white dreams was poorer. This raises the possibility that the younger participants didn't really have any black and white dreams at all, but were simply labelling poorly remembered dreams as black and white.

Several awkward questions are left unanswered by this study. It's not clear if the older participants really are experiencing more black and white dreams or if it's their memories or beliefs about dreams that is influencing their reports. Related to this, we don't know if early exposure to black and white media has really affected the form of the older participants' dreams or simply their beliefs about dreams. Finally, if differences in media exposure really do explain the current results, we're still left with the question of how and why early exposure to black and white TV and film has had such an effect on the older participants, even after so many years of exposure to colour media and given that they live every day in a colourful world.

ResearchBlogging.orgE MURZYN (2008). Do we only dream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media Consciousness and Cognition. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.002
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Dazzled by digits: how we're wooed by product specifications

From megapixels and gigabytes to calorie counts and sun protection factors, there's barely a product out there that isn't proudly boasting its enviable specs to would-be purchasers. A new study suggests these figures exert a powerful, irrational effect on consumers' decision-making, even overriding the influence of a person's direct experience with a product.

In an initial experiment, Christopher Hsee and colleagues asked 112 students to choose between one of two hypothetical cameras: one boasted better resolution, the other having superior vividness. Based on sample photos taken by the two cameras, but without detail on the precise resolution specs, most participants (74 per cent) chose the camera that took more vivid photos. By contrast, when given the resolution specs as well as the sample photos, many more participants chose the camera with higher resolution. 

Moreover, participants were influenced by the same information being presented differently - in this case they were particularly swayed by the ratio of the resolution stats. When resolution was described in terms of total dots (thus conveying a larger ratio difference), 75 per cent of participants chose the superior resolution camera compared with just 51 per cent when given the relative resolution specs in terms of the number of diagonal dots (conveying a smaller ratio difference).

Further experiments showed that specifications exerted a similar influence even when they were derived from the participants' own ratings of the product (towel softness) and when participants were told that a given specification (the aromatic Xiangdu index of sesame oil) represented a rank order only, rather than revealing the relative difference between products.

Finally, two studies involving mobile phones and crisps showed that although specifications can influence product choice, they don't influence actual enjoyment. For example, participants told about the relative thickness of crisps and asked to choose in advance how much of each version to eat, tended to say they'd prefer to eat more of the thicker version. By contrast, participants who tasted the crisps first before making their choice of crisp, were far less affected by knowledge of which was the "thicker" crisp.

The researchers concluded with some advice for consumers: "First, they should seek experience, not just numbers," Hsee's team said. Secondly, the researchers advised people should avoid direct comparisons between products, remembering that your real-life experience of a product will most likely be in isolation rather than side by side with its rivals.

ResearchBlogging.orgChristopher K. Hsee, Yang Yang, Yangjie Gu, Jie Chen (2008). Specification Seeking: How Product Specifications Influence Consumer Preference Journal of Consumer Research DOI: 10.1086/593947
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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:

Social Networking on the Internet - Developmental Implications (Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology).

Neuropsychology of Paranormal Experiences and Beliefs (Cortex).

The anti-aging enterprise: science, knowledge, expertise, rhetoric and values (Journal of Aging Studies).

Fundamental Dimensions of Social Judgment (European Journal of Social Psychology)
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Pregnancy affects women's memory for what they plan to do

Anecdotal reports of women experiencing memory problems during pregnancy have recently been supported by lab research showing that pregnant women under-perform on tests of retrospective memory, such as word learning tasks. What's not been established clearly until now, however, is whether prospective memory is also impaired: that is, the ability to remember to do those things when one planned to - such as keeping appointments and taking medication.

Peter Rendell and Julie Henry tested twenty pregnant women and twenty non-pregnant women on a board game called "Virtual Week" and also on a real life task. The game involves participants remembering to carry out daily tasks and is designed to reveal prospective memory problems. The real life task required the women to "check in" with a portable device at the same four times each day, for a whole week.

Although the pregnant women showed no impairment on the board game, they were significantly impaired at the real life task compared with the non-pregnant women. Moreover, this impairment remained even when the women were tested again 13 months later, after they had given birth. However, a difference at this later testing session was that although they missed the same number of "check-ins", they tended to realise later on the same day that they had done so.

Rendell and Henry told the Digest that pregnant women may be advised to adopt strategies to improve their prospective memory functioning in daily life. "Specific strategies," they said, "include creating external physical cues or imagining vivid cues that can function as alerts, for example: leave a prominent reminder note next to the lock on your office door to help you remember to take home something from work and set a timer to remove food from the oven on time. Another specific strategy is to not delay carrying out an intended task once it has been brought to mind. Research has shown that even brief delays involving several seconds can substantially reduce the chances of the intended action being successfully carried out."

ResearchBlogging.orgPeter Rendell, Julie Henry (2008). Prospective-memory functioning is affected during pregnancy and postpartum Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 30 (8), 913-919 DOI: 10.1080/13803390701874379
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Win an expenses-paid trip to the British Psychological Society's London Lectures or Annual Conference!

It's time to don your thermals, grab your compass and set off on a most intrepid expedition of a psychological nature - it's this year's BPS Student Writer Competition!

Here's the standard spiel:

The Psychologist, the Professional Practice Board and the Research Board are again sponsoring the Annual Student Writer Competition. There are two categories - undergraduate and postgraduate - with one winner from each. Winners will have their articles published in The Psychologist, and will also get an expenses-paid trip to the Society's London Lectures or Annual Conference (UK travel, hotel and registration).

Students from all over the world are eligible, but the prize only covers UK travel expenses. 

Max 1500 words, deadline 30 Jan 09 (more info).
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Judging a car's personality from the way it looks.

Rugby players may be affected by all those knocks on the head.

How cynicism spreads at work.

"The more debts people had, the more likely they were to have some form of mental disorder".
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Physical warmth affects our judgments of others and our behaviour towards them

We often draw on physical metaphors when we think and talk about our feelings. We might describe someone as having a warm heart. Or we'll speak of a wrong-doer as washing their hands of a crime.

Past research has shown that this mental link with the physical world may be due partly to the fact that the same brain regions that represent bodily states such as warmth, also respond to their psychological equivalents like trust.

Now Lawrence Williams and John Bargh have taken things further by providing a compelling behavioural demonstration of how physical and psychological warmth are linked, and specifically how the former can actually influence our judgements of others and our behaviour toward them.

In an initial experiment, 41 participants held either an iced coffee or a hot coffee for 10 to 15 seconds while travelling in a lift towards a psychology lab. The coffee was passed to them by a research assistant as she took down their names. Once upstairs, the participants assessed two cars (to distract them from the true purpose of the study) and then rated the personality of a fictional "person A" who they were told was intelligent, skillful and industrious.

The intriguing finding is that the participants who'd earlier held a hot coffee rated the man more "warmly", for example describing him as more good-natured and generous, than the participants who'd held an iced coffee. Personality ratings unrelated to warmth/coldness, such as attractiveness or talkativeness, were unaffected by which coffee had been held, thus showing that this wasn't just a non-specific effect on mood. Also, none of the participants guessed the true purpose of the study.

A second experiment followed a similar pattern except participants were asked to rate a hot or iced therapeutic pad, and then to choose a reward for their time. Crucially, compared with the participants who rated the ice pad, those who rated the hot pad were subsequently more likely to choose (as a reward for participating) a drinks or ice-cream gift-voucher for a friend than to opt for a free drink or ice-cream for themselves.

"Experiences of physical temperature per se affect one's impressions of an prosocial behaviour toward other people, without one's awareness of such influences," the researchers said. The new results also appear to support Solomon Asch's intuition, published in the first half of the last century, that the warm-cold dimension is central to the first impressions we form of other people.

ResearchBlogging.orgL. E. Williams, J. A. Bargh (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth Science, 322 (5901), 606-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162548
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Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will

Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people's sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures.

This capacity to adapt to life circumstances and return to baseline levels of happiness has been dubbed the "hedonic treadmill", and while it is reassuring in the face of bad events, the implication for policy makers is that there is little they can do to improve the population's happiness.

According to Daniel Mochon and colleagues, however, this is not the full story. Mochon's team have tested the idea that whereas rare, massive events have no lasting effect on happiness, the cumulative effect of lots of little boosts may well have the power to influence happiness over the longer-term.

An initial study questioned the happiness of 2,095 participants as they were either entering or leaving a place of worship. Across 12 different religious denominations, the results were the same: those people questioned after a religious service were happier than those questioned before. Moreover, the more times a person said they'd attended a service in the last month (the average was four times), the happier they tended to be.

A second study found similar results for people attending a gym or yoga class. Again, those questioned on leaving were happier than those questioned on arrival. Moreover, the more times someone reported going to the gym in the last month, the happier they were.

"Our findings imply that, in contrast to the notion of an inescapable hedonic treadmill, it is not pointless for people to seek to improve their well-being," the researchers said. "However, improvement may not come from major events such as winning the lottery, despite the seemingly life-changing nature of such examples. Rather it seems like the key for long lasting changes to well-being is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."

So what are the policy implications for this new research? The researchers said single-shot events such as a tax cut will probably have little impact on people's happiness. By contrast, "policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."

ResearchBlogging.orgD MOCHON, M NORTON, D ARIELY (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being Journal of Economic Psychology, 29 (5), 632-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004
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Employees should be taught political skills

Psychologists in America have called on organisations to train their staff in political skills. Vickie Gallagher and Mary Laird made their recommendation after reporting evidence that the job satisfaction of staff with low political skill suffers when they are operating in what they perceive to be a highly political work environment - that is, one where employees tend to form pacts and to make organisational decisions that are in their own interest.

Gallagher and Laird asked 220 staff at a financial-management firm about their political skills, their sense that organisational decisions are taken politically, and their job satisfaction.

Political skill was measured by participants' agreement with statements like "I spend a lot of time and effort at work networking with others". A sense that the organisation's decisions are influenced by internal politics was measured by participants' agreement with statements like "I have seen organisational decisions based on things other than business necessity, like the wants of a certain few." Finally, job satisfaction was measured as you'd expect by agreement with statements like "I feel fairly well satisfied with my present job."

One hundred and five staff (average age 44 years) returned their answers to these questions. Among staff with high self-reported political skills, a sense that decisions were affected by internal politics had no association with their levels of job satisfaction. By contrast, among staff with low self-reported political skills, a perception that organisational decisions were affected by politics was associated with their having lower job satisfaction.

The researchers said political ability remains an under-researched area in organisational psychology and that their findings have practical implications for the training, selection and communication procedures of organisations. "By taking proactive measures to develop employees' political skill, considering the skills and abilities of new hires, and communicating the nonpolitical reasons for decisions, organisations can help individuals to maintain a productive level of job satisfaction," they concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgVickie Coleman Gallagher, Mary Dana Laird (2008). The Combined Effect of Political Skill and Political Decision Making on Job Satisfaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38 (9), 2336-2360 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00394.x
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How parasites spread religion

Several theories have been proposed for why religions and religious beliefs have evolved, but before now none of them have involved parasites.

Previous theories have suggested that religions help enforce group cooperation. Another suggestion is that religious thoughts and practices are a side-effect of mental abilities that have evolved for other purposes. For example, prayer is a small step from our evolved ability to rehearse what we plan to say to someone who isn't physically with us right now.

Crucially, none of these accounts can readily explain why the diversity of religions varies so much around the world. Brazil, for example, has 159 religions compared with Canada's 15, even though both countries are of comparable size.

Now Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill have tested the idea that religious diversity is a side-effect of the fragmentation of cultures that tends to occur in the face of increased threat from infectious disease.

Fincher and Thornhill used the World Christian Encyclopedia and the Global Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Network to compare the spread of infections and religions across 219 countries. Their results were clear: in regions with a greater variety of infectious parasites, the diversity of religions also tends to be greater. This association held strong even after exploring the impact of other potential factors, such as differences in democratisation and histories of colonisation.

The researchers say the association between religion and parasites occurs because reducing contact with outsiders can help protect against disease. In turn, when cultures fragment and groups avoid making contact with each other, more religions are likely to spring up.

"Although religion apparently is for establishing a social marker of group alliance and allegiance, at the most fundamental level, it may be for the avoidance and management of infectious disease," Fincher and Thornhill said. The pair also believe that the diversity of languages and parasites tends to co-vary across the globe for similar reasons.

ResearchBlogging.orgCorey L. Fincher, Randy Thornhill (2008). Assortative sociality, limited dispersal, infectious disease and the genesis of the global pattern of religion diversity Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275 (1651), 2587-2594 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0688
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