The Special Issue Spotter

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

Parental and Young People's Substance Misuse (Child Abuse Review).

A Hundred Years of Eye Movement Research in Psychiatry (Brain and Cognition).

Core Competencies to Prevent Problem Behaviors and Promote Positive Youth Development (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

Impulsivity and the Law (Behavioral Sciences & the Law).
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Thou shalt not grow a beard

Psychologists in America have interviewed ten male members of the Latter-day Saints Church (i.e. Mormons) who've grown beards despite their church preferring members not to have facial hair. Michael Nielsen and Daryl White argue the stories these men tell provide rich material for exploring issues of social control and individual identity.

In the early years of the LDS church, it was actually common for leaders to wear beards. However, since 1951 when the clean-shaven David McKay became president, the church has urged its members not to wear facial hair, and in some situations (e.g. formal voluntary work in its temples) facial fair is forbidden. Today, the church leadership consider being clean shaven to be associated with purity and devotedness. Moreover, since 1969, Brigham Young University - owned by the LDS church - has formally forbidden its students and staff from having beards (see image on right, taken from the University's webpages, via Wikipedia).

One of the men, Alan, doesn't rule out ever shaving his beard, but says he would have to check with God first: "I'd have to spend some 'knee time' to find out if that's what I was supposed to do. Cause my own heart tells me that ain't so, that I don't need to do that."

Another man, Frank, explains that his beard is central to his identity. "It's me! It's me! I would not be me if I shaved my beard off."

Although he'd worn a mustache for ten years, another interviewee, David, agreed to shave when offered a senior position in the church. "I'd probably still have a mustache," he said. "I might still have it, but I decided not to create any friction with the leaders here."

The researchers say these cases show men attempting to manage "contradictory senses of self".

"Faced with unnecessarily invasive requests to shave, requests that sometimes took the shape of ultimatums, some men expressed resentment at having to choose between a mere show of compliance and deeply felt, even intimate identities: discomfort, embarrassment, and shame are exchanged for a token show of obedience, with resentment likely to follow."

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Nielsen, Daryl White (2008). Men's grooming in the Latter-day Saints Church: A qualitative study of norm violation Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11 (8), 807-825 DOI: 10.1080/13674670802087286
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How "card credit" and "you thank" appear as "credit card" and "thank you"

In an experiment reminiscent of French Connection's successful FCUK advertising campaign, psychologists in America have documented a new word illusion using what they call the "fast pairs" method.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris and Alison Morris have found that participants presented very briefly with familiar word pairs in the unfamiliar order, tend to report that the words appeared in their usual order (read the title to this post quickly enough and you might experience a similar effect).

For example, in an initial experiment, when 22 Boston University students were presented first with the word "day" for 45 milliseconds and then with the word "every" for the same length of time, and asked to report what they'd seen, they tended to get the order the wrong way around, believing that they'd seen the words in the order "every day" rather than "day every". By contrast, they made far fewer reversal errors when the words were actually presented in their usual order.

Analysis of the frequency with which word pairs occur in a given order, using a Google search, showed that the participants made the reversal mistake more often for pairs that have a greater tendency to appear in a given order.

Intriguingly, people don't seem to realise that they're making this error. In fact, a pilot study in which participants were asked to report their confidence in the word order had to be abandoned because they grew so irritated with having their confidence repeatedly questioned.

The researchers believe the technique provides a great example of how entrenched expectations can bias our perception in conditions where sensory information is weak. "This illusion is relevant to theories of top-down effects in recognising words in context, and suggests that familiar word pairs may come to have unitised storage," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgC CALDWELLHARRIS, A MORRIS (2008). Fast Pairs: A visual word recognition paradigm for measuring entrenchment, top-down effects, and subjective phenomenology☆ Consciousness and Cognition, 17 (4), 1063-1081 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.004
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Signs of petty crime, such as litter and graffiti, really do encourage more serious law-breaking

The Broken Windows theory of crime reduction, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book The Tipping Point, has received new robust empirical support from a series of studies by Dutch researchers.

According to the theory, more serious crimes can be averted by reducing low level crime such as littering and graffiti. Gladwell attributed the dramatic fall in crime in New York in the 90s to the zero tolerance approach of the police at that time, which effectively put into practice the advice from the Broken Windows theory.

In the new studies, Kees Keizer and colleagues altered various signs of orderliness in a social scene and then observed whether passers-by conformed to some other social norm, such as not dropping litter. Their main finding throughout was that signs of petty anti-social behaviour really do have a powerful effect on people's tendency to disobey basic rules, even increasing their tendency to steal.

Here's the complete list of effects: bicycle owners in an alley were more than twice as likely to drop litter (a flier attached to their handlebars) if the walls were covered in graffiti; people were more than twice as likely to squeeze through a forbidden entrance to a car-park if nearby bikes were illegally chained to a fence; they were far more likely to litter (a flier attached to their windscreen) if trolleys were not returned to a shop, or if fireworks were illegally set off nearby; and finally, passers-by were far more likely to steal a money-containing envelope protruding from a postbox if litter was on the ground, or graffiti was on the postbox.

"There is a clear message for policymakers and police officers," the researchers said. "Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder. Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behaviour (e.g.,litter or stealing)."

ResearchBlogging.orgK. Keizer, S. Lindenberg, L. Steg (2008). The Spreading of Disorder Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1161405

Link to podcast interview with lead author.
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A spontaneous experience of a sensed presence caught on EEG

Serendipitous timing has allowed researchers in Canada to capture the brain activity of a woman experiencing a spontaneous sense of someone else being in the room with her, when really she was alone.

This feeling of sensed presence is rather common. For example, more than half of patients who suffer a head injury without loss of consciousness go on to experience a sensed presence during the subsequent year. It's also common among people with temporal lobe epilepsy. Curiously, the presence is perceived to be a person of the opposite sex on more than ninety per cent of occasions. Patients usually describe the feeling as distressing and in some cases it can trigger depression. Others interpret the sensation as a religious experience.

Michael Persinger's research team have been interested for many years now in understanding the neural correlates of a sensed presence and other unusual perceptual experiences. They've argued a sensed presence is associated with aberrant electrical activity in the temporal lobes of the brain - that's why people with temporal lobe epilepsy report the feeling so often. Among other supportive findings, Persinger's team have also documented aberrant electrical activity occurring in the temporal lobe of an expert meditator while she reported a powerful sense of presence.

In the current study, a woman who'd two years' previously suffered head injuries in a car crash, was undergoing routine neuropsychological tests, which included having the electrical activity of her brain recorded by electroencephalogram (EEG).

This woman had been known to experience incidents of a sensed presence since her injury, and in this case, somewhat serendipitously, she experienced the phenomenon while her brain activity was being recorded.

It began with a feeling of an electric shock in her right hand, was followed by her arms and hands feeling icy cold, then vibrations went through her body, before she experienced the feeling that a man was in the room with her, even though she was actually alone.

A look at the EEG scans showed that a burst of electrical activity, similar to that observed in an epileptic seizure, occurred in her left temporal lobe at approximately the same time that she reported the sensed presence on her right-hand side.

"Although over the last 20 years we have assessed hundreds of patients who reported the emergence of a sensed presence ... this is the first time the reports of a strong ‘sensed presence’ and related sensations occurred ‘spontaneously’ while our screening electroencephalographic measurements were in progress," said Persinger and his coauthor Sandra Tiller.

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Persinger, Sandra Tiller (2008). Case report: A prototypical spontaneous 'sensed presence' of a sentient being and concomitant electroencephalographic activity in the clinical laboratory Neurocase, 14 (5), 425-430 DOI: 10.1080/13554790802406172
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The official verdict on UK psychology research

The results of the latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) are in, and they show that 11 per cent of the UK's psychological research, as submitted by 76 universities, was judged to be of the highest 'world leading' 4* standard.

The results of the RAE, the last of which was in 2001, are a sensitive issue because they affect how much research funding departments will receive in the future from funding bodies – with higher rated institutions due to be awarded more money.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had the highest proportion (35 per cent) of psychological research awarded the 'world leading' grade. Not far behind, 30 per cent of psychology research at UCL received this grade, as did 25 per cent of research at Birmingham, Birkbeck and Cardiff.

Considering the top two grades – 4* 'world leading' and '3* 'internationally excellent' – 45 per cent of psychology research at UK institutions achieved this level. The University of Cambridge had the highest proportion (85 per cent) graded in these top two categories. The Universities of Oxford and Birmingham followed with 80 per cent, UCL at 75 per cent, and Birkbeck, Cardiff and Royal Holloway with 70 per cent.

The results should be interpreted with caution given that the exercise allowed institutions to choose how many of their staff to submit to scrutiny. For example, the University of Cambridge submitted 24 psychology researchers to the exercise compared with Cardiff University's submission of 59 – the highest number for a single psychology department. How to interpret these figures is not clear, however, because the RAE haven't published the proportion of eligible staff who were submitted from each department.

It should also be noted that clinical psychology had the option of being assessed separately from the rest of psychology, in a grouping with psychiatry and neuroscience. Just 17 institutions submitted research to the exercise under this subject heading, with the University of Cambridge having the most research rated as 'world leading' (40 per cent), and the equal highest amount of research (80 per cent) rated as either 'world leading' or 'internationally excellent', with Cardiff University also achieving this proportion. Across all institutions, 57 per cent of research in this area was judged to be of 'world leading' or 'internationally excellent' standard.

Note: all cited department gradings are based on non-weighted means available on the RAE website.

Link to RAE website.
Link to RAE results for psychology.
Link to RAE results for clinical psychology.
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Why you should take extra care when buying a Xmas gift for a man

As you go shopping for Christmas presents this holiday, bear in mind that buying the wrong gift for a man could put your relationship with him in jeopardy, whereas buying a bad gift for a woman is far less dangerous.

That's according to Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues who asked dozens of participants to rate their preference for twelve different stores, and to then choose a gift for their partner, in the form of a chance to win vouchers from one of those stores.

The researchers fixed the results so that half the participants were told their partner had chosen, as a gift, the chance for them to win vouchers from their favourite store, as indicated earlier (i.e. a good gift), whereas the other half were told their partner had chosen for them the chance to win vouchers from their least favourite store (i.e. a bad gift).

When the experiment was conducted with research partners who'd only met for four minutes, the results were as you might expect. Both the men and women who received "bad gifts" rated their research partner as less similar to themselves, compared with the recipients of a "good gift".

Past research has shown that perceived similarity with a partner is associated with greater relationship satisfaction - we like to think our partners are similar to us. So this first study shows the potential harm that receiving a bad gift can do by damaging that sense of similarity.

Intriguingly, when the experiment was repeated with romantic partners, a gender difference emerged. As before, compared with male recipients of a good gift, male recipients of a bad gift subsequently rated their romantic partner as less similar to them. They also rated the prospects for the future of their relationship more negatively, saying, for example, that they would be less likely to get married! By contrast, compared with female recipients of a good gift, female recipients of a bad gift actually rated their romantic partner as more similar to them and they rated the outlook for their relationship as more rosy.

What was going on? The researchers think their findings are consistent with the tendency for women to act as guardians of relationships, and that their positive reaction to the receipt of a bad gift was a form of psychological defence against the disappointment of receiving a dud present.

"That is, in response to the relational threat posed by receiving a bad gift from a partner, women may be more motivated than men to protect their sense of similarity to the gift-giver," the researchers said, adding that this reflects "the broader tendency for women — more than men — to guard relationships against potential threats."

ResearchBlogging.orgElizabeth W. Dunn, Jeff Huntsinger, Janetta Lun, Stacey Sinclair (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships. Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481. DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.4.469. Via PsyBlog.
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I'm Still Here!

Alzheimer's disease is devastating and yet new research is highlighting the islands of function and ability that can and do survive the tide of illness (for example see these earlier Digest items). In a moving and inspirational forthcoming book, "I'm Still Here", John Zeisel - President of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care - has gathered together these findings and combined them with his own years of experience to create a positive, upbeat guide for how to relate to and care for people with Alzheimer's.

Take, for example, research showing that people with Alzheimer's retain their aesthetic tastes and even develop improved powers of creativity. As Zeisel explains:
"People living with Alzheimer's are artists, performers, and an attentive audience. An artist expresses himself from his heart, avoids being overly self-critical, and can unselfconsciously expressive his 'self' in his art. The lack of a fully functioning brain 'comparer' makes many people living with Alzheimer's better artists than they were before the disease. Just as inventive artistic personalities who have little regard for the rules of society are not deterred from their creative goals, even in the face of obvious difficulties, people living with Alzheimer's are often freer, more honest, and more expressive than most others."
One implication is that it can be a truly rewarding experience for patients and their carers to visit art museums and the book provides help and guidance for how to get the most out of these experiences.

Elsewhere, Zeisel draws on his expertise in architecture and design to provide advice on the kind of environment that is best suited for people with Alzheimer's. For example, making different rooms clearly different from each other can help patients understand where they are; clearly marking exits can make them feel less anxious; and allowing patients some private place to put their own photos and memorabilia, to stamp their own personality, has been shown to help reduce anxiety and aggression. Zeisel explains how the layout of a building can also make a difference:
"For people living with Alzheimer's the easier it is for them to comprehend and use an environment, the more empowered and independent they will be there. Naturally mapped residential settings and gardens, with visible landmarks indicating destinations and turning points, give them the opportunity to find their way. While wandering is often seen as a 'symptom' of Alzheimer's, it is more realistically a natural tendency that everyone has to explore, to search, and to have a goal. In a setting that has no obvious layout, people living with Alzheimer's wander. In a naturally mapped environment the same people walk."
Tragically, there is as yet no known cure for Alzheimer's and with an ageing population in the West, cases of the illness are set to spiral. Until a medical breakthrough occurs, this book - more of a personal guide than a dispassionate text - has the potential to offer comfort and practical advice in the form of non-pharmacological approaches, attitudes and interventions. As Zeisel says: "This book lays out a positive view of living with Alzheimer's that can lead to a life with quality for all involved as well as to effective treatment. The Alzheimer's glass is more than half full in this book."

Link to forthcoming book: "I'm Still Here".
Link to related Digest item: Alzheimer's patients retain their taste in art.
Link to another related Digest item: A flicker of light in a sea of darkness.
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Your personality could affect the age you live to

People with more conscientious personalities, who have greater ambition and discipline, live longer. That's according to Margaret Kern and Howard Friedman who combined data on this topic from over 20 previous studies, involving more than 8,900 participants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, Japan and Sweden - many of whom had illnesses like heart disease or cancer.

On average, people who scored higher on measures of conscientiousness (agreeing, for example, with statements like "I plan ahead" and disagreeing with statements like "My house is a mess") tended to live between two and four years longer than low scorers.

This influence of conscientiousness on longevity was found to be as large or larger than many better known factors affecting longevity, such as socio-economic status.

Among the sub-factors of conscientiousness, it was ambition and discipline that were particularly important for longevity, whereas responsibility and self-control were less important.

Past research has shown that people who are more conscientious are less likely to drink or smoke heavily but health behaviours aren't the whole story. For example, a previous study by the same research team found that conscientiousness measured in childhood predicted longevity over a 70-year period, regardless of whether the cause of death was health-related or not. Kern said it's possible that as well as affecting health behaviours, conscientiousness also influences the kind of people we end up mixing with and the situations we find ourselves in.

The researchers said that personality factors are too often ignored in a medical context and that their findings could one day have practical implications. “There is some evidence that people can become more conscientious, especially as they enter stable jobs or good marriages,” Kern said. “We think our findings can challenge people to think about their lives and what may result from the actions they do. Even though conscientiousness cannot be changed in the short term, improvements can emerge over the long run as individuals enter responsible relationships, careers, and associations.”

ResearchBlogging.orgMargaret L. Kern, Howard S. Friedman (2008). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychology, 27 (5), 505-512 DOI: 10.1037/0278-6133.27.5.505
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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:

Twenty Years of Exciting Neuroscience (Neuron). Happy Birthday Neuron! This is a must-read issue published to mark the 20th anniversary of the journal, and, so far as I can tell, the whole thing has been made open access. In its early years this journal was devoted to the study of brain cells at a molecular level, but in recent times it has evolved to cover the whole breadth of neuroscience, including cognitive studies of more psychological interest. 

For this issue, the editors have invited authors of articles published in the journal's first issue to look back on their earlier work and reflect on how the field has evolved. Other experts have been invited to provide an overview of advances in their respective fields, from stem cells and neuroimaging to neural interfaces. Finally, other experts have written a series of "NeuroViews": Essays that will provide a" venue for the discussion of issues and ideas that are at the interface of research neuroscience and our broader society". Topics here include the impact of neuroscience on philosophy and law, and of course everyone's favourite: neuroeconomics. These essays are set to become a regular feature of the journal - definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Social Influence and Creativity (Social Influence).

Advances in Morphological Processing (Language and Cognitive Processing).

Attachment Related Mental Representations (Attachment and Human Development).

A Neo-Eysenckian Personality Psychology for the 21st Century: Conceptualization, Etiology, Structure, and Clinical Implications (Journal of Personality).

Scientific reasoning -- Where are we now? (Cognitive Development).
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Sudoku puzzles show we're all capable of deductive reasoning

So much contemporary research in psychology focuses on the flaws in our thinking and the errors in our decision making. There is something refreshing therefore in a new study by Louis Lee and colleagues who have used the digit-placement puzzle Sudoku to argue, contrary to many others, that untrained people are capable of pure deductive reasoning - this is the ability to arrive at a logical conclusion by following the implications of one or more premises. 

In an initial experiment, ten Chinese Hong Kong university students who'd never played Sudoku before were presented with an easy, difficult and fiendish version of the puzzle. They were told the rules, but weren't given any advice on strategies to follow. As the participants filled in the missing digits, they were asked to explain how they'd identified their solutions.

The participants solved only two digits per puzzle, thus showing how hard the puzzle is for naive players. However, for the answers they did find, the students were able to explain their deductive reasoning. "...[T]he solution to the puzzle Sudoku yields an insight into human competence that is in stark contrast to many psychological theories," the researchers argued. "Reasoners readily acquire the ability to make deductions about abstract contents, which are far removed from the exigencies of daily life and from the environment of our evolutionary ancestors."

Further experiments by the researchers showed that the initial deductive reasoning strategies that players deploy can only get them so far. To solve difficult and fiendish puzzles, players have to deduce several possible missing digits at once, and use those possible digits to deduce the answers to other parts of the puzzle. Some of us give up before making this transition. But for those of us who move onto this more advanced stage, Lee's team said "this shift in strategy is analogous to shifting from proofs in the first-order predicate calculus to proofs in the first-order modal predicate calculus" - in other words, it's a pretty impressive display of logical prowess and further evidence of our ability to "make deductions about abstract matters remote from our mundane life".

ResearchBlogging.orgN.Y. Louis Lee, Geoffrey Goodwin, P. N. Johnson-Laird (2008). The psychological puzzle of Sudoku. Thinking & Reasoning, 14 (4), 342-364 DOI: 10.1080/13546780802236308
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Want to spend less? Ditch your credit card and don't shop when sad

As the recession bites, Newsweek magazine has a timely article on some of the brain processes underlying consumer decision making. The author Begley particularly emphasises research showing that people tend to be willing to spend more when they pay by credit card rather than cash:
"When you hand over a stack of 20s, you have less of something tangible: your billfold is lighter. That causes a brain region [the insula] that registers negative feelings (bad smells, unfairness, social ostracism) to become more active than when you charge a purchase. Humans have evolved to pay attention to the messages the insula sends, with the result that it hurts to pay cash. There is no such feeling of loss when you pay with plastic, so the insula doesn't react. Credit cards anesthetize the otherwise painful act of paying".
Begley goes on to quote this study (pdf) by MIT researchers in which participants were willing to pay significantly more for football game tickets or a restaurant voucher when using a credit card compared with cash.

Begley also highlights research by Cynthia Cryder and colleagues, showing that people are willing to pay more for products when they are feeling sad - perhaps because acquiring more stuff helps them feel better about themselves.

In short, it seems that if you want to reduce your spending this holiday season, you're best off carrying cash, not cards, and staying indoors if you're feeling blue.

Link to Newsweek article Inside the Shopping Brain by Sharon Begley.
Link to study showing people spend more when paying by credit card (pdf).
Link to study showing people spend more when miserable (pdf).
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January's Psychologist magazine - free for all!

The next issue of The Psychologist magazine has been made publicly available in its entirety via the digital platform Issuu (click mini version below to see full mag).

This service allows you to flick threw the pages online as if you had the magazine in your hands; to zoom in at will; print; share; and more. In fact this is very much a work in progress and the coming days will see the in-text weblinks go active, among other developments. We're aware of some problems with viewing the magazine in Internet Explorer and should have these ironed out in a jiffy.

January's issue features a particularly spicy cocktail of features, including articles on gossip, testosterone, stigma, obesity and an interview with Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. There's also the usual mix of news, views and reviews.

If you like what you see, why not take out a print subscription?

The editor Dr Jon Sutton would love to hear your views on the magazine, including what you think of this new digital format. Use comments, below, or email him direct on jon.sutton[at]

Link to the January issue of The Psychologist.
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Identifying the tools of persuasion used by the British National Party

We need to understand the tools of persuasion used by members of the far-right British National Party (BNP) if we are to combat the messages of prejudice they spread. That's according to Mick Finlay and C Wood, who analysed articles published on the BNP website after the terrorist bombings in London in July 2005, written by party leader Nick Griffin and the party's legal director Lee Barnes. Publication of this study is timely, coming as it does when the BNP are enjoying increased electoral success.

Quoting extracts from the BNP articles, Finlay and Wood say the arguments resemble a conspiracy theory and they identify the use of two tools of persuasion in relation to Muslims in Britain: the "accentuation effect", which is the attempt to portray outgroups as homogeneous and distinct from ingroups; and "essentialism", which is the idea that members of a given group all share important, essential qualities.

Griffin, for example, argues that there is a consensus among Muslims that the later, more violent verses of the Koran (the Muslim holy text) override the more peaceful, earlier verses. In reality, according to Finlay and Wood, there are clear, ongoing disagreements between fundamentalist and classical interpretations of the Koran.

Elsewhere, Barnes writes that all Muslims are in pursuit of the same aim - destruction of the British way of life - even if some of them seek to do it through violence, while others do so through peaceful preaching.

This practice of painting an "outgroup" as homogeneous has a long and dangerous history. The Nazis, for example, claimed that all Jews were part of a global conspiracy, and Hutu extremists in Rwanda claimed that all Tutsis were accomplices of the rebel forces.

Another theme of the BNP writings is to blame the London bombings on multi-culturalism and its liberal supporters.

Further tricks employed by the BNP writers include labelling Muslims and liberals as fascist and Nazi - labels usually directed at the BNP themselves. Griffin also uses what the researchers describe as a "show concession" - making an apparent admission (e.g. "yes, we're politically-incorrect") before invoking a morally superior motive (e.g. "but at least we're telling the truth"). Both BNP writers also use esoteric detail and scholarly references to increase the apparent validity of their claims. Barnes, meanwhile, makes use of rhetorical flourishes including making biblical references, invoking the symbolism of the flag and deploying alliteration (a poetic device that involves using a string of words that all start with the same letter).

"If social psychology is to offer suggestions as to how to reduce prejudice, it must also look at how to upset these malign sources of social influence," the researchers said. "As many anti-racist campaigners have pointed out, opposing right-wing extremism requires us to have a detailed knowledge of their arguments, so that effective counter-arguments can be made."

ResearchBlogging.orgC. Wood, W. M. L. Finlay (2008). British National Party representations of Muslims in the month after the London bombings: Homogeneity, threat, and the conspiracy tradition. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47 (4), 707-726 DOI: 10.1348/014466607X264103
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Scientists explain their work through the medium of dance

Forget Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson or Dirty Dancing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has announced the winners of its science dance-off contest. According to the AAAS, "the human body is an excellent medium for communicating science--perhaps not as data-rich as a peer-reviewed article, but far more exciting".

And I'm pleased to say it's great news for psychology: the winner in the Post-Doc category was Miriam Sach at the University of Duesseldorf in Germany for her groovy portrayal of "Cerebral activation patterns induced by inflection of regular and irregular verbs with positron emission tomography. A comparison between single subject and group analysis". Congratulations Miriam!

The research showed that irregular and regular verbs are processed in the same parts of the brain rather than by specialised cortical areas. Oops...what am I doing - you'll get a far better idea of what the research was about from the dance:

If you didn't quite follow that, here's some written guidance, which appears alongside the vid on youtube:

This piece is subdivided into 3 sections: 1.) Introduction of regular verbs, 2.) Introduction of irregular verbs, 3.) Common neural network of regular and irregular verb inflection.
1.) Regular verbs are represented by the walking at the very beginning of this piece.
The walking is simple, straight forward and without irregularities. It is accompanied by the sound of crackling fire a metaphor for the firing neurons.
2.) In contrast, irregular verbs are represented by a huge variety of different movements: jumps, slides, turns, rolls, level changes. Irregularities are also displayed musically by using syncopes and off-beat emphasis in percussion as well as further changes in instruments.
3.) The sound of the falling rain is a cleansing moment with no movements to introduce the final section of the dance: the common neural network of regular and irregular verb processing. It is the first time that symmetrical movements occur to emphasize the common network for both verb forms. In addition, both regular and irregular movements are shown to elucidate the presence of both entities in this network.
Overall, fiber connections in the brain representing the connections between regular and irregular verbs are shown by wavy arm movements.

Link to full results of the 2009 AAAS Science Dance Contest.
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Psychological titbits from the 38th Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting held in Washington DC last month

An afternoon nap could boost your associative memory skills. William Fishbein and Hiuyan Lau (City University of New York) tested participants' ability to remember the English meanings of familiar Chinese characters they'd learned earlier and to determine the meaning of unfamiliar characters that shared graphical elements called 'radicals' with the learned characters. Participants who took a nap between the learning and testing phase of the study were better able to identify the meaning of the unfamiliar characters. The findings suggest that a nap helps people connect separate and discrete pieces of information and to extract general concepts. "The role of sleep in memory formation is not passive; rather, it is a period that actively fosters deeper processing of what we learned during wakefulness," said Fishbein.

Brain imaging has revealed the neural power of enduring love. Bianca Acevedo (State University of New York) and colleagues found that the same brain regions associated with addictive reward were activated when either long term lovers (still in love after an average of 21 years' marriage) or short term lovers (together for an average of seven months) viewed images of their partners. "Those who experience long-term romantic love continue to crave union with their spouses and remain highly motivated to maintain, enhance and protect their relationships, just like those in early-stage intense romantic love," said co-author Helen Fisher (Rutgers University). There were some differences between the groups. For the long-term lovers only, regions associated with monogamous pair-bonds in animal studies were activated, as were regions associated with calmness and pain suppression. For the new lovers, regions associated with obsession were triggered.

A molecular mechanism has been identified which might explain the long lasting effects of childhood maltreatment into adulthood. Tania Roth and David Sweatt (University of Alabama at Birmingham) found that newborn rats raised by a stressed caregiver rat subsequently showed signs of what's called DNA methylation in their amygdala, right the way through into adulthood. Specifically, this 'epigenetic' chemical modification was found on the DNA associated with brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a protein which is important for the development of new brain cells and the support of existing ones. "This now opens the door for future studies to explore the significance of these epigenetic changes on [human] adolescent and adult emotional well-being," Roth said, "and importantly, to explore the efficacy of drugs aimed at reversing such epigenetic marks and addressing the behavioural deficits resulting from early mistreatment."

Researchers have discovered that there is more than one itch pathway to the brain – a finding that could open up new avenues for treatment. Frauke Kosteletzky (University of Erlangen-Nurnberg) and colleagues asked participants to report the sensations provoked by administration of either histamine or the tropical plant mucuna pruiens (cowhage). Cowhage was found to induce a sharper and more stinging sensation and also provoked stronger responses of the sympathetic nervous system. The two stimuli also responded differently to scratching which suggests they are processed differently in the brain. "Sticking cowhage spicules into healthy skin provokes a clear itch sensation, but not the 'flare reaction,' or reddening of the skin, characteristic of a histamine-mediated itch," said co-author Clemens Forster. "This suggests that other types of nerve fibres are causing the cowhage-induced itch."

The reward areas of cocaine addicts' brains are activated by 33 millisecond, subliminal presentation of drug-related paraphernalia, such as crack pipes and chunks of cocaine. Moreover, those addicts whose brains responded more to the subliminal presentation subsequently reported the strongest craving when shown visible cues. Anna Childress (University of Pennsylvania) and colleagues who made the new findings, said the areas activated by drug cues overlapped with brain areas normally activated by sexual images. "We have a brain hard-wired to appreciate rewards, and cocaine and other drugs of abuse latch onto this system," Childress said. "We are looking at the potential for new medications that reduce the brain’s sensitivity to these conditioned drug cues and would give patients a fighting chance to manage their urges."

Here's a tip if you don't want to gamble your money away: stay clear of on-line casinos and other betting opportunities when you haven't had a decent night's sleep. Vinod Venkatraman (Duke University) and colleagues found that after 24 hours without sleep, participants were drawn more to the possibility of large gains yet unfazed by the risk of heavy losses, compared with when they played the same gambling game after a good night's sleep. Moreover, these differences were supported by brain imaging data showing that sleep deprivation altered the participants' neural responses to losses and gains. "The advent of on-line gambling and 24-hour casinos have given us unprecedented opportunities for gambling into the night," said Venkatraman. "But it might be better for us to catch some sleep rather than staying up late gambling. We’re fighting more than just the unfavourable odds of the gambling machines."
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

All you ever wanted to know about the clinical and neurobiological aspects of the placebo effect.

Reasons for not owning a pet, as given by older people in Australia. (see earlier).

What men think of their bodies, including the private bits.

Checkmate! The use of board-games in child psychotherapy.

A tabloid headline you'll never see: "Mobile phones don't affect mental functioning!"

Those were the days: Nostalgia helps combat loneliness.
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How to name drop

Most of us have done it: dropped a name in a conversation and then waited for people to form the appropriate conclusions. "Wow, if Christian is friends with that guy, well then he must be really important/intelligent/popular". Unfortunately, it's a fairly transparent strategy. Indeed, according to Carmen Lebherz and colleagues, name-dropping will probably make you appear less likeable and less competent - unless, that is, you make your association with the famous name sound suitably distant and casual. Even then, it's only likely to do you any good as a kind of sympathy vote, after your audience have witnessed you fail.

Lebherz and her co-workers tricked dozens of undergrad students into thinking they'd been sent an introductory email from another student who they were going to be paired with later. In fact, the email was composed by the researchers and alongside information about age, where the student lived, the casual job they had, the email also included one of three degrees of name-dropping in relation to the star tennis player Roger Federer (particularly popular in his home country of Switzerland where this research was conducted). A control condition email made no mention of Federer.

After reading this introductory email, the participants rated their future research partners. Those participants who read an email from a student claiming to be friends with Federer, or both friends and an exercise partner of his, subsequently rated their future research partner as less likeable and less competent than participants who read an email from a student who simply said they were a Federer fan, or who didn't mention him at all.

The participants also rated how manipulative they thought their future research partner was and it was clear from these scores that claiming to be friends with Federer backfired because it led the name-dropping students to appear manipulative.

Students who mentioned they were merely a fan of Federer's were not judged so harshly, but neither did they benefit from the name-drop. However, previous research suggests that this kind of more distant association with an influential person can be beneficial if people have just seen us fail, and especially if we are prompted to reveal this association. Seth Carter and Lawrence Sanna, for example, found that people who'd just failed were rated more favourably after they were prompted to reveal that they were fans of a successful American football team.

"[N]ame-dropping as a self-presentational tactic has not been investigated so far, despite the fact that the term name-dropping is widely used in popular language," the researchers said. "We showed that name-dropping as a self-presentational tactic can backfire on the self-presenter."

ResearchBlogging.orgCarmen Lebherz, Klaus Jonas, Barbara Tomljenovic (2009). Are we known by the company we keep? Effects of name-dropping on first impressions. Social Influence, 4 (1), 62-79 DOI: 10.1080/15534510802343997

Image credit: James Marvin Phelps via Flickr (usage information here).
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Finding the right balance between calmness and anxiety

The New York Times raised some interesting psychological issues in an article published on Saturday by Kate Zernike about the ability to appear calm - a skill many people have recognised and praised in President Elect 'No Drama Obama'.

Calmness is linked with levels of "neuroticism" - one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists believe describe our characters. Like so many aspects of human nature, neuroticism is of course shaped by both our genes and experiences, but the main gist of Zernike's article is that even highly neurotic people prone to anxiety can learn to control their nerves and at least give the appearance of being calm.

In psychological jargon this is known as emotional "self-regulation" and it's increasingly being recognised as a key skill that explains why some people are more successful than others (see special issues of Cognitive Development and Applied Psychology on the topic).

Zernike's article describes how self-regulation can be achieved by identifying the beliefs you hold that link a given situation and your typical behavioural response. For example, an angry boss might lead you to break down because of your intervening belief(s) "my boss hates me, everyone hates me, I'm a failure". By changing your mental interpretation of the situation to a more rational version "my boss often gets angry with staff, this isn't personal, actually he praised me the other day" - the breakdown can be averted.  Indeed, attempting to break dysfunctional links between thoughts, feelings and behaviours is exactly how cognitive-behavioural therapy aims to help people deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

However, as the New York Times article points out, the story about calmness isn't completely straightforward. Too much calm can come across as aloofness and a person with no anxieties whatever risks becoming a person who simply doesn't care. Indeed, anxiety in moderation clearly has a vital function to play (there's even some evidence to suggest that anxious people have fewer fatal accidents).

As Zernike explains, when it comes to leaders of nations, they need to strike the right balance between offering calm reassurance, whilst also conveying the sense that they are human, that they do truly care.

Link to New York Times article "The Cool Factor: Never Let Them See You Sweat".
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A touch emotional

Researchers have documented a new form of synaesthesia - the brain condition that leads people to experience a crossing over of the senses.

While synaesthesia often involves letters or sounds triggering the perception of specific colours, celebrated brain scientist V.S. Ramachandran and his colleague David Brang have identified two young women who experience strong emotions when they feel the touch of certain fabrics or textures.

For 22-year-old AW, for example, the feel of denim provokes a powerful sensation of disgust. The researchers say their discovery provides further support for the idea that synaesthesia is caused by abnormal connections in the brain, rather than being a simple case of associative learning, as others have suggested.

As well as denim triggering disgust, AW also experiences perfect contentment and happiness at the feel of silk, guilt in response to sand paper, embarrassment for wax, and humour at the feel of ridged plastic, to name but a few of her touch-emotion combinations. Meanwhile, 22-year-old HS feels creeped out by contact with a textured glove, disgust at wax and fleece, disappointed by corduroy but calmed by ridged plastic. "Both individuals enjoy the freedom and ease of simply touching a 'positive' texture after experiencing a negative emotion" caused by a bad day or a fight, the researchers said.

Curiously, AW experiences different emotions depending on whether she touches a texture with her hands or feet (contact with other body areas triggers little or no emotion). The researchers said this shows that the phenomenon isn't simply a case of AW having come to associate certain materials with specific emotional experiences earlier in life. HS only experiences her touch-based emotions via her hands.

Filming of AW and HS by hidden video camera as they touched various textures showed that their facial expressions consistently matched their emotional reports. Recording of the sweatiness of their fingertips (a physiological indicator of emotional reactivity) also supported their claims. The same wasn't true for 18 normal control participants. Moreover, AW and HS's emotional reports stayed consistent when tested again up to 8 months later, even if the specific language they used changed.

Ramachandran and Brang believe the tactile-emotional synaesthesia they've documented is caused by heightened connectivity between the parts of the brain responsible for our sense of touch (the somatosensory cortex) and for emotion (the insula). The more subtle categories of emotion, such as jealousy and guilt, might be related to enhanced connectivity with the front of the brain.

ResearchBlogging.orgV. S. Ramachandran, David Brang (2008). Tactile-emotion synesthesia Neurocase, 14 (5), 390-399 DOI: 10.1080/13554790802363746
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