The type of interrogation likely to lead to false confessions

Not surprisingly, confessions are extremely persuasive in court, but according to Jessica Klaver and colleagues, all too often these confessions are false, leading to the wrong person being found guilty.

Now Klaver's team have used an elegant laboratory task to compare two types of interrogation technique and found that it is so-called 'minimising' questions and remarks - those that downplay the seriousness of the offence, and which blame other people or circumstances - that are the most likely to lead to a false confession.

Over two hundred Asian and Caucasian students were invited to take part in what they were told was a test of their personality and typing skills. During the typing part of the task, they were warned in advance that pressing the 'Alt' key would cause the computer to crash and a loss of all data. Subsequently, when the participants were required by the task to type 'Z' (near the 'Alt' key), the researchers contrived it so that the computer duly crashed, and the participants were accused of pressing the 'Alt' key.

Next the students were subjected to either 'minimising' remarks (e.g. "Don't worry. It was just an accident" and "This programme seems not to be working lately") or 'maximising' remarks that played up both the evidence for the student being guilty and the seriousness of the alleged error (e.g. "You must have pressed it" and "We have run over 50 people on this test in the past three weeks and the computer hasn't crashed once").

Overall, 43 per cent of the students subsequently signed a confession statement, stating falsely that they had indeed pressed the 'Alt' key. Crucially, the confession rate was four times higher among the students subjected to minimising remarks as opposed to maximising remarks.

The researchers said that in real life, minimising techniques "give the suspect a false sense of security using flattery, offering legal or moral face-saving excuses for actions, conceptualising actions as accidental, blaming the victim and underplaying the seriousness of the charges."

Further analysis showed the female students were more likely to falsely confess, as were those students who scored high on a test of suggestibility. Personality factors such as self-esteem were not related to the rate of false confession.

"A continued investigation of the factors that contribute to false confessions and confession behaviour in general will greatly inform our understanding of the phenomenon and aid in efforts to prevent the occurrence of false confessions and their liberty-depriving consequences," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKlaver, J.R., Lee, Z., Rose, V.G. (2008). Effects of personality, interrogation techniques and plausibility in an experimental false confession paradigm. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 13(1), 71-88. DOI: 10.1348/135532507X193051
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Eye-catching research that didn't make the final cut:

Glucose can increase our self control.

Psychological tests shouldn't be conducted at any old time of day (pdf).

Fifty years of research into the link between intelligence and speed of information processing.

Does cyberstalking differ from stalking in the real world?
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Differences in the way teen and adult mothers respond to baby cries

Teenage mothers don't respond in the same way physiologically as adult mothers do to the sound of babies crying. That's according to Jennifer Giardino and colleagues who say the difference is probably due to the neural immaturity of the teenage mothers' brains.

Fifty-six recently-pregnant teenage mothers (average age 18 years), 58 age-matched, non-parent teenage girls, and 49 recently-pregnant adult mothers (average age 31 years) were played audio tapes of babies crying either with hunger or pain. The participants were asked to indicate how the cries made them feel, and their heart rate and cortisol levels were also recorded, the latter via a saliva swab. Afterwards the mothers were also videoed playing with their own baby for 15 minutes.

From a physiological perspective there was no difference in the way the teenage mothers and the teenage non-mothers responded to the sounds of the babies' cries. However, the teenage mums reported feeling more sympathy and being more alert to the babies' cries.

When the teen mums were compared with the adult mothers, the opposite pattern emerged. The teenagers said the cries made them feel the same way as the adult mothers did, but physiologically there were differences. The adult mothers showed increased heart rate and cortisol in response to the cries, whereas the younger mothers did not.

These physiological differences appeared to be reflected in the way the two groups of mothers played with their children - the teenage mothers spent less time interacting with their child when videoed, and more time looking away.

The overall pattern of results held even after controlling for the time of day that testing took place and the socio-economic status of the fathers.

Taken together, the researchers said their results suggest teenage mothers are less attuned to infants behaviourally and physiologically, perhaps due to the fact their own brains are still developing. "In addition to the social and economic challenges confronting teenage mothers that may explain some of the present results," they wrote, "there is also a substantial literature indicating that the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain region important for planning and executive functioning, is still developing through the teenage years..."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGiardino, J., Gonzalez, A., Steiner, M. & Fleming, A.S. (2008). Effects of motherhood on physiological and subjective responses to infant cries in teenage mothers: A comparison with non-mothers and adult mothers. Hormones and Behaviour, 53, 149-158.
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Among the elderly, slower walkers have slower brains

Older people who walk more slowly also perform less well on tests of mental performance - an association researchers say could prove useful for diagnosis and therapeutic interventions.

Having excluded participants with major neurological impairment or obvious cognitive difficulties, Kevin Duff and colleagues timed 675 older adults (average age 73.2 years) walking 25 feet in one direction and then back again. The participants also completed the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), which tests a range of abilities including language, memory and attention.

The participants were divided into three groups based on their walking speed (50 feet in less than 14 seconds; between 14 to 17 seconds; more than 17 seconds) and it turned out they differed in their cognitive performance, with the slowest walkers performing least well cognitively.

Although it is not clear whether walking speed impacts cognition, if cognition affects walking speed, or indeed if some other factor is responsible for both slow locomotion and thinking, the researchers said their observation was nonetheless useful. "In less than 30 seconds, clinicians have the opportunity to indirectly assess cognition," they said, adding that that their finding "might also guide interventions, as training in physically frail elders can improve walking speed and quality of life, and perhaps cognition."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDuff, K., Mold, J.W. & Roberts, M.M. (2008). Walking speed and global cognition: Results from the OKLAHOMA Study. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 15, 31-39.

Link to earlier related Digest item.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

"He was bad, so they put an ice pick in his brain" - Elizabeth Day of The Observer newspaper meets Howard Dully, who was subjected to frontal lobotomy at the age of 12.

"You must remember this" - Penelope Lively at the FT reviews 'Memory: An Anthology', edited by Harriet Harvey Wood and A.S. Byatt.

The Independent asks: Is pain all in the mind? Two doctors visit other cultures in search of drug alternatives to pain relief.

Time magazine asks: Why do we flirt?

Would you vote for a politician who has experienced mental health problems? From the Guardian's Joe Public blog.

Sensory deprivation - The Times discusses what happens when the brain is deprived of all sensory input. The article was written in anticipation of a recent episode of Horizon on the same topic.

What is intelligence? Listen to Prof James Flynn's recent talk at the RSA (MP3 audio file).
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Just how representative are the people who volunteer for psychology experiments?

People who volunteer for psychology experiments are more stable and outgoing than those who don't - a finding that has wide-ranging implications for the integrity of psychological research.

Jan-Erik Lonnqvist and colleagues in Finland approached dozens of military officers who had completed mandatory personality tests three years earlier as part of the army recruitment process. The researchers mailed 158 of these men a survey on values and, as an incentive, told them they'd be given feedback on how their answers compared to the general population.

According to their earlier personality test results, the 61 officers who returned the new survey were lower in the Big Five personality dimension of Neuroticism and higher in Conscientiousness, and they also showed a tendency to be higher in Extraversion and Agreeableness, than did the officers who didn't take part in the new survey.

In a second study, the researchers used data gathered as part of a larger epidemiological survey. Siblings from 15 families assessed the personality of their brothers and sisters and were also asked to volunteer for further neuropsychological tests and interviews. Consistent with the study of military officers, the sibling ratings revealed that the 55 participants who volunteered for the further stage of the study scored higher on Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness and lower on Neuroticism, than did the 29 who declined to participate further.

The researchers said their findings have important implications for psychology research. For example, it's been shown that people, like those choosing to volunteer, who are lower in Neuroticism, are more likely to show a positive response to drug treatments for depression and panic disorder. Also, when someone completes a personality test, for example as part of a job application process, the idea is that their score is compared against a population average, but this study suggests the personality averages (or norms) that have been calculated for tests are likely to be skewed because they're based on the scores of volunteers.

To combat these problems when recruiting participants, Lonnqvist and colleagues said researchers should "make the research as attractive as possible to potential volunteers" and "attempt to evaluate the representativeness of the volunteer sample against the relevant population on the variables of interest."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLonnqvist, J-E., Paunonen, S., Verkasalo, M., Leikas, S., Annamari, T-H. & Lonnqvist, J. (2007). Personality characteristics of research volunteers. European Journal of Personality, 21, 1017-1030.
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How to promote the MMR vaccine

Rather than stressing its benefits, health promotion campaigns for the MMR vaccine should emphasise the protection that is lost by failing to have a child inoculated.

That's according to Purva Abhyankar and colleagues who said finding the most effective way to promote the triple jab is of vital importance because uptake has dropped in the UK in the wake of health fears that the vaccine is associated with side-effects such as autism.

One hundred and forty-two women, some were mothers, some not, with an average age of 35 years, were asked to imagine that they had to decide whether or not to have their child vaccinated with MMR. They were then presented with one of two possible messages about the MMR vaccine (alternative wording is in brackets):

"By vaccinating (not vaccinating) your child against mumps, measles and rubella, you will be able to (fail to) protect your child against contracting these diseases and take (will fail to take) advantage of a safe and lifelong immunization, which will make you feel less anxious (anxious) and safe (unsafe)."

Afterwards, the women presented with the message version that emphasised the protection and reassurance that would be lost if the vaccine were not given, were significantly more likely to say that they intended to give their child the vaccine, than were the women who read the alternative version. This difference was particularly pronounced among the women who had vaccinated their children previously in real life.

The researchers said their finding can be understood in terms of Prospect Theory - our willingness to take risks in the context of possible losses, in contrast to our aversion to taking risks in the context of possible gains. In other words, because people tend to see the MMR vaccine as risky, Prospect Theory suggests it is better to promote the vaccine in terms of what will be lost if that risk isn't taken, rather than in terms of what might be gained - a prediction that is supported by the current results.

The researchers concluded their finding shows: "that interventions aimed at promoting high perceived risk prevention behaviours are likely to be more effective if designed in terms of messages emphasising the disadvantages of failing to perform the behaviour."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAbhyankar, P., O'Connor, D.B. & Lawton, R. (2008). The role of message framing in promoting MMR vaccination: Evidence of a loss-frame advantage. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 13, 1-16.
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Introducing the brain's memory bouncer

With a deft mix of brain imaging and memory testing, researchers in Sweden believe they've identified neural activity that is responsible for controlling what information is allowed into our working memory - the mental store we use over brief periods, such as when dialling a phone number.

This activity, which was observed in the globus pallidus (part of a larger cluster of subcortical cells called the basal ganglia) acts as a kind of bouncer to working memory, keeping out the irrelevant riff raff.

Twenty-five female participants had their brains scanned while they memorised the location of squares and/or circles in a circular grid. An instruction before each trial informed them whether the circles, if present, were on the guest list - that is, whether they should be remembered or ignored.

Brain activity observed during these instructions increased in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the globus pallidus - reflecting the metaphorical bouncer readying himself for action.

The amount of filtering activity shown by the bouncer (in this case, in the globus pallidus, but not the prefrontal cortex) was related to how much memory-related activity was observed near the crown of the head, in the parietal cortex, when the participants were presented with a mix of squares to be remembered and circles to be ignored. That is, participants who showed less bouncer-type activity subsequently showed more memory-store activity when to-be-ignored circles were present. This makes perfect sense because it suggests more irrelevant material had been allowed into their working memory.

Of course, storing irrelevant material is inefficient and in a separate memory test, outside of the brain scanner, the participants with the more active 'memory bouncers' were found to have more working memory capacity.

"The present results therefore reveal a specific neural mechanism by which an individual's ability to exert control over the encoding of new information is linked to their working memory capacity," Fiona McNab and colleagues concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMcNab, F. & Klingberg, T. (2007). Prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia control access to working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 103-107.
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What makes a good psychology lecturer?

If you think you know the answer and you fancy the chance to win £250, and possibly even a shiny new Toshiba laptop, then put fingers to keyboard and tap out 1000 words on the subject as invited by this essay competition from the Higher Education Academy, sponsored by the British Psychological Society. Only open to UK psychology students in higher education. Closing date is 28 March. Good luck!

Link to essay competition.
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Comparing European attitudes to immigration

"If we make the right decisions, we can advance even further and faster...with a British job on offer for every British worker." Gordon Brown, September 2007.

People in Britain tend to have a meritocratic attitude to immigration, while across the continent, Eastern and Southern European countries have the least tolerant attitudes, according to an analysis of over 36,000 Europeans by Eva Green at Utrecht University.

Green identified three groups: 'lenient gatekeepers', who are happy for anyone to immigrate; 'individualist gatekeepers' who think people should be rejected because of characteristics like their skills or beliefs, which it is possible for them to change; and 'strict gatekeepers' who believe people should be rejected on the basis of immutable characteristics like their skin colour, as well as their skills and beliefs.

On an individual level, 'strict gatekeepers' tended to be less educated, more financially vulnerable and more prejudiced, whereas 'lenient gatekeepers' tended to be younger and had more immigrant friends.

Comparing between countries, Western European nations like Britain and France tended to have more intermediately tolerant 'individualist gatekeepers', which Green said was consistent with their long histories of importing labour as well as their colonial pasts. Northern European nations like Norway and Sweden had the most lenient attitudes to immigration, while the Eastern and Southern countries of Europe had the strictest attitudes.

Green said there were a number of likely reasons why people in Southern and European countries are the least tolerant of immigration, including the revival of nationalism in Eastern Europe in the post Cold War era, the fact many such countries were part of the former USSR, and because of a fear of becoming an immigration 'buffer zone' on behalf of the European Union, given their location on the edge of the continent.

"The patterns of gatekeeping attitudes reflected in this paper reflect crucial aspects of public opinion that need to be addressed in current political debates on immigration in Europe," Green concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGreen, E.G.T. (2007). Guarding the gates of Europe: A typological analysis of immigration attitudes across 21 countries. International Journal of Psychology, 42, 365-379.
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Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

Neurocognitive approaches to developmental disorders: A Festschrift for Uta Frith (The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology).

The life and work of John Bowlby: A tribute to his centenary (Attachment and Human Development).

Young Children's Narratives in the Context of Clinical Work (Attachment and Human Development).

Cognitive inhibition across psychopathologies (Applied and Preventive Psychology).
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In search of the Big One

Nice, nasty, charming, chatty, vulpine, vulgar...when we get down to it, just how many personality traits are there? It's a question psychologists and philosophers have been wrestling with for centuries.

In recent years, researchers have tended to agree that personality is pretty much summed up by the Big Five factors of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness. Now Janek Musek at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia has waded into the debate with the suggestion that there exists an overriding personality characteristic - he calls it the 'Big One' - with which all other personality traits are correlated.

Musek tested hundreds of participants using numerous personality measures, including the Big Five Inventory, the Big Five Observer and the Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS).

Using a statistical technique called factor analysis, Musek found that a single factor explained much of the variance in people's scores on the Big Five Dimensions of personality. This means that someone who scores highly on one of the five factors (in the case of neuroticism, scores are reversed so that a 'high score' reflects emotional stability) is also more likely to score high on the others. In other words, there seems to be some key trait that captures the essence of all these dimensions.

What does this mean in psychological terms? The Big One seems to reflect a contrast between the socially desirable and undesirable components of the Big Five. "The Big One unifies positive aspects of conformity (stability) and non-conformity (plasticity) within a single superordinated dimension," Musek wrote.

And according to Musek there could even been a physiological basis for the person who scores high on the Big One - "combining low levels of the functioning of the central serotonergic system and higher levels of the functioning of the ascending rostral dopaminergic system."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMusek Janek (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 1213-1233.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The effect of pregnancy on memory.

How close are we to detecting lies using functional brain imaging? (See earlier).

Older people define themselves through more positive memories than do university students. (See earlier).

Online psychological surveys are just as valid as traditional paper and pencil tests. (See earlier).
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Affection for our own names and initials can lead us to failure

Our tendency to like our own names and initials - sometimes referred to as a form of implicit egotism - can have relatively trivial consequences, such that Britney will be more likely to move to Brighton than Sheffield, and Jack more likely to buy a Jaguar than a Ferrari. But now, in a series of intriguing studies (pdf), Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons have shown how, from baseball performance to Law School, our affection for our own names can have bizarrely detrimental consequences.

First off, an analysis of strike outs (failing to hit the ball three times in a row) in American baseball from 1913 to 2006 showed that players whose first or last names began with K suffered significantly more strikeouts than other players. Why? Because in baseball scoring, K is used to denote a strikeout - "For players with this initial, the explicitly negative performance outcome may feel implicitly less aversive," the researchers said.

Next, an analysis of 15 years of MBA students' grades at a large American University showed that students with the initials C or D achieved significantly lower grades than students whose initials were unrelated to grade scores, and students with the initials A or B.

Was this due to the students' self-preference for their initials or was it the examiners showing the bias? To test this, Nelson and Simmons, asked hundreds of other undergrads to report their liking for the different letters of the alphabet. A subsequent analysis of their exam scores again showed that students with the initials C or D performed less well, but only if they had previously shown a preference for these letters. This shows that affection for one's own initials really is playing a role in the patterns being observed here.

Another study showed how far-reaching these effects can be. An analysis of 392,458 lawyers who studied at 170 law schools showed that as the quality of law schools declined, so too did the proportion of lawyers with the initials A or B who had attended.

So far all the evidence has been based on archival research. A final experimental study asked 284 students to perform an anagram test online. At the bottom of the screen were two buttons, each marked with a letter - one was to be pressed if the participant felt they had failed to solve all the puzzles; the other was to be pressed if they felt they'd solved all the puzzles.

The results were clear: students whose first initial matched the button associated with poorer performance, were more likely to press this button, giving the impression they had performed less well, and leading them to receive a lesser prize.

"When people's initials match negative performance outcomes," the researchers concluded, "performance suffers."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchNelson, L.D. & Simmons, J.P. (2007). Moniker maladies. When names sabotage success. Psychological Science, 18, 1106-1111.
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Our bodies fail to adjust to seasonal clock changes

The UK and other countries have been altering their clocks with the seasons since at least the beginning of the last century.

The argument in favour of Daylight Saving Time (DST), or British Summer Time as it's called in the UK, is clear: daylight hours are effectively shifted from the early morning to the evening, so that there is more time for sport and leisure in the summer months.

Increasingly, however, there have been calls for Britain to remain on British Summer Time throughout the year - to stay coordinated with Europe, and to reduce energy consumption in the dark winter months. Now Thomas Kantermann and colleagues have added to the debate with a study showing that the ability of our bodies to acclimatise to the natural changes in sunrise onset is lost following the artificial shift of the clocks forward each Spring.

Kantermann's team took advantage of self-report data from more than 55,000 people gathered as part of the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. This showed that the timing of people's sleeping and waking tracks the natural changes to dawn time that occur during the Winter months (i.e. during standard time) but fails to show the same adjustment after the introduction of Daylight Saving Time in the Spring.

In another study, the researchers used actimeters (gadgets strapped to the wrist that measure movement) to track the sleep patterns of 55 volunteers for four weeks prior to, and four weeks after, the clock changes in the Autumn and Spring of 2006-2007. Again, this confirmed that after the advancement of clocks in the Spring, people's sleep patterns failed to adjust to the seasonal shifting of sunrise, as they had been doing before the clock change. This was especially the case for 'owls' - people with a preference for the evening who find it difficult to get up in the morning.

These results reflect the way people suffer more from jet leg when travelling westwards and time is advanced, compared with travelling eastwards, 'backwards' in time.

Co-author Till Roenneberg said: "It is much too early to say whether DST has a serious long-term impact on health, but our results indicate that we should consider this seriously and do a lot more research on the phenomenon."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKantermann, T., Juda, M., Merrow, M. & Roenneberg, T. (2007). The human circadian clock's seasonal adjustment is disrupted by daylight saving time. Current Biology, 17, 1996-2000.
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Time magazine describes what it's like for the siblings of children with autism.

Bad Science on how pill pushers and the media medicalise social problems (scroll down for link to MP3 audio file).

The Guardian explores the healing power of books.

What everyone should know about their own minds: Introspective insights from PsyBlog.

Decoding consciousness video webcast - watch Prof Geraint Rees give the latest Francis Crick Lecture at the Royal Society (via Real Player).

Who is more admirable: Bill Gates or Mother Theresa? Stephen Pinker raises the question in his search of our moral instinct, in an article for the New York Times. (Hat Tip Mind Hacks).
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Children see obesity as contagious

Young children see obesity as if it were a kind of contagious illness. That's according to Paul Klaczynski who says his research helps explain why the stigmatisation of fat people is so prevalent, and why obesity prejudice is committed by children as young as three.

Dozens of seven-year-old and ten-year-old children, some White American, some Chinese, were asked to sample drinks from an imaginary company that they were told had recruited other children to help with the development of new products. Each drink came in a bottle with a label showing a photo of the obese or average-weight child who had helped develop it, together with made-up nutritional information.

All the bottles contained the same fruit juice mix, but the children, old and young, White and Chinese, rated the drinks developed by obese children as having a less pleasant taste and as more likely to cause sickness. Crucially, this pattern of ratings was more pronounced if, before tasting the drinks, the children had been told an unrelated story about a child contracting a contagious illness.

Also, later on, when the children were tricked into thinking that they had previously been told that the ill child in the story was one of the drinks creators, they were more likely to falsely recall that it was one of the obese children, as opposed to one of the average-weight children.

"Children, likely at an implicit level, recognise the similarities between the symptoms of obesity and those of known contagious illnesses and, at a more explicit level, perceive 'something wrong' with the obese," Klaczynski concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKlaczynski, P. (2008). There's something about obesity: Culture, contagion, rationality, and children's responses to drinks "created" by obese children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 99, 58-74.
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Would the jazz greats have been so great without drugs?

"I think that trumpets and drugs have always gone hand in hand," Mark Ronson speaking on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, December 07.

Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane - the list of jazz greats who battled drug and alcohol addiction goes on and on. Contemporary stars like Amy Winehouse seem to be following the same pattern. Now in a review of the psychological and biographical literature, Gerald Tolson and Michael Cuyjet have rejected the romantic notion that musical genius needs the succour of drugs in order to thrive.

A survey conducted in 1957 by Nat Hentoff of 409 New York City jazz musicians confirmed the extent of the problem: More than half had tried heroin, with 16 per cent being regular users. Over half used marijuana.

Tolson and Cuyjet said the jazz greats turned to drugs to release their creativity, to enhance the natural high of performing, and to cope with the strain of a disapproving society. The musicians of the 40's and 60's spent much of their lives in nightclubs where drug use was rife. They further had to contend with racism, often being required to arrive through the service entrance of clubs and were often forbidden from mingling with the patrons, many of whom were white.

As psychologist Charles Winick wrote in the 60's "The substances they imbibed may have been instrumental in liberating these artists mentally from preoccupation with their life circumstances and subsequently, may have provided the opportunity for these artists to tap into their utmost level of creativity."

Yet tragically, for many of the jazz stars, their addictions invited trouble with the law, and led ultimately to poor health and early death. Saxophonist Charlie Parker, for example, died age 34 and Billie Holiday age 44. "The untapped potential that was languished on drugs and alcohol by these artists shall never be fully revealed," Tolson and Cuyjet wrote.

Indeed, book critic Jonathan Yardley, said reading Jazz Anecdotes led him to feel that "alcohol has been in jazz an instrument of distraction and debilitation masquerading as inspiration."

In truth, the link between drug use and creativity has yet to be fully empirically tested, Tolson and Cuyjet concluded, but they said that whatever the creative benefits may have been, "the reality is that for most jazz artists, particularly during the creative period from 1940-1960, substance abuse did more harm than good, and rather than being the road to creative genius, it was the pathway to premature death."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTolson, G.H. & Cuyjet, M.J. (2007). Jazz and substance abuse: Road to creative genius or pathway to premature death. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30, 530-538.
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Putting the spotlight on exposure therapy

dentistIt's long been known that exposing people to what they fear can sometimes help them overcome their anxieties. It's called exposure therapy. But there's an aspect of this approach for which the evidence remains inconsistent - that is, should the person being exposed to their fear, focus on it, or try to ignore it?

Imagine a spider phobic being exposed to spidey pics. The rationale for focusing on the pictures is that in relative safety, the person would gradually learn that their fear response is disproportionate, thus uncoupling spiders and "yikes!" in their mind. By contrast, the rationale for teaching the person to distract themselves from the pictures is more of a coping strategy, in that the person would gradually learn how to master being confronted with spiders without being overwhelmed by anxiety.

The evidence in favour of these approaches is mixed, but tends to suggest that distraction is better in terms of subjective feelings, whereas focusing is more effective in terms of physiological measures.

Now Gudrun Sartory and colleagues have tested both approaches with 63 people with a dentist phobia. The participants were shown four images of dental instruments and were either told to focus on them, or they were encouraged to learn how to distract themselves, helped by the researcher who played a puzzle game with them while the pictures were shown.

An assessment before the exposure treatment, and then a week after it, showed both exposure approaches were equally beneficial as judged by changes to the participants' heart rate when shown dentist-related pictures. However, in terms of dentist-related fearful thoughts and anxieties, the focusing approach to exposure was more effective, although all participants showed benefits.

So it seems this study supports a focusing approach to exposure therapy, but such a conclusion is undermined by the study's weaknesses: there was no control group, and no way of checking during exposure just how much the participants did or did not focus on the dental instrument pictures.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSchmid-Leuz, B., Elsesser, K., Lohrmann, T., Johren, P. & Sartory, G. (2007). Attention focusing versus distraction during exposure in dental phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2691-2703.
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journal articlesEye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

In terms of driving safety, napping has a more rejuvenating effect on younger people aged 20 to 25 than on the middle-aged (40-50 years old). (See earlier).

'The KKK won't let me play' - ostracism is painful no matter who's doing the rejecting. (See earlier).

You've got to love this article title: "I know what you did last summer (and it was not CBT): A factor analytic model of international psychotherapeutic practice in the eating disorders". Here's the referenced movie. (See earlier).

How we acquire music. (See earlier).
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Alternative rewards could help the battle against addiction

The claws of addiction are hard to escape because other more salubrious rewards, like food and relationships, gradually lose their value - so goes the popular belief. But now Magalie Lenoir and Serge Ahmed have conducted studies on heroin-addicted rats that show the opposite is true - to the more highly addicted rodents, food was actually more of a beneficial distraction than it was to less addicted rats. The finding needs to be replicated in humans but has clear implications for treating addiction.

From 24 rats (see earlier), the researchers created two groups, one of which was given just one hour's access to self-administered heroin a day, and became weakly addicted. The other group had five hours' access a day, and as expected, the rats in this group became progressively more addicted, administering escalating amounts of the drug.

Next, to test the strength of the two groups' addiction, the researchers made it so the rats had to work ever harder, by pressing a lever more times, to receive a dose of heroin. This confirmed that the group given greater exposure to heroin were prepared to work harder for the drug.

Crucially, the researchers then introduced the option of food at the same time as heroin was available. To the researchers' surprise, this had the effect of reducing how hard the more strongly addicted rats were prepared to work to get heroin, whereas the more weakly affected rats were unaffected by the availability of food.

"These observations clearly showed that food consumption can act as a potent substitute for heroin use in individuals that have escalated their heroin use..." the researchers said.

The Digest asked co-researcher Serge Ahmed to comment more on the implications of this finding. "If our rat data were extrapolable to humans," he said, "then it would mean that a drug substitute exists in humans - a conclusion that should justify and encourage a search for real world drug substitutes."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLenoir, M. & Ahmed, S.H. (2007). Supply of a nondrug substitute reduces escalated heroin consumption. Neuropsychopharmacology, Advance Online Publication.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's psychology journals so you don't have to:

Becoming a mother (Infant Observation).

New directions in young children's socio-emotional measures (Infant Mental Health Journal).

On cognition and the media (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Masculinity and aging (Journal of Aging Studies).
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Gender stereotypes can distort our memories

girl doing mathsPlenty of research has shown that some stereotypes are not only offensive, they can also have a detrimental effect on people's behaviour.

For example, women's maths performance suffers after they are reminded of the stereotype that men are better than women at maths.

Now Armand Chatard and colleagues have taken this line of research a step further by demonstrating that being reminded of gender stereotypes can distort students' memories of their prior exam performance.

An initial study with 73 high school students (34 boys) showed that those students who more strongly endorsed gender stereotypes in relation to maths and the arts, subsequently showed more biased recall of their past exam performance. That is, girls who endorsed the stereotypes underestimated their past maths performance, while boys who endorsed the stereotypes tended to underestimate their past arts performance.

A second study with 64 high school students gave some a highly salient reminder of gender stereotypes - that is, they rated their agreement with statements like "Men are gifted in mathematics" and "Women are gifted in the arts", before rating their own abilities. Others were given what was considered a weaker reminder of gender stereotypes - they rated their own performance first, before evaluating men and women in general. Finally, all the students recalled their past exam performance.

Girls given a more salient reminder of gender stereotypes underestimated their actual past maths exam performance while boys in this condition overestimated their maths performance. No such difference was observed in the weak reminder condition. Regarding the arts, all students overestimated their performance, but among those given a salient reminder of stereotypes, the girls overestimated their arts performance more, and the boys far less.

The researchers said these findings could have real world implications: "It is possible that women are less likely to embrace scientific careers than men because gender stereotypes lead them to underestimate their past achievement."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchChatard, A., Guimond, S. & Selimbegovic, L. (2007). "How good are you in math?" The effect of gender stereotypes on students' recollection of their school marks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 1017-1024.

Photo credit: Alexander Redmon
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Psychology-related radio clips, podcasts, magazine features and more, for when you've had enough of journal articles:

ABC Radio's All in the Mind series has continued with programmes on panic, blindness and the brain, and the neurobiology of suicide (links are to MP3 audio files).

Mind Hacks has a reductionist analysis of the cognitive dissonance research recently featured by the Digest.

Edge magazine's question for 2008 is "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" Several psychologists are among the respondents, including Daniel Kahneman, Geoffrey Miller, Simon Baron-Cohen, Susan Blackmore, Daniel Goleman, David Buss, Gerd Gigerenzer, Steve Pinker, Jon Haidt, Dan Gilbert, Marc Hauser and Martin Seligman.

BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind has continued with a programme on the British psychoanalytic movement, plus discussion of suicide bombers and chocolate cravings.

Bookslut has an interview with Christopher Lane, author of "Shyness: How normal behaviour became a sickness".
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Can psychologists tell jurors anything they don't know already?

Some judges in America have allowed the introduction of psychologists in court to help jurors understand eye-witness suggestibility - that is, how prone their memory is to distortion, for example by misleading questioning. But other judges have refused such expert testimony, on the basis that jurors ought to be able to rely on their common knowledge and intuition.

In a way, this represents a real-life example of the charge often made at psychology that it is all just common sense.

Now Bradley McAuliff and Margaret Kovera have put the issue to the test by taking a number of recognised factors from the research literature on suggestibility, and comparing the knowledge and understanding of these factors shown by 58 psychologist experts, 157 jurors and 220 undergrad students.

The psychologists correctly recognised that witnesses actively involved in an incident will be less prone to suggestion, as will witnesses questioned about central rather than peripheral details. The psychologists also recognised that misleading questions from a source lacking authority will be less damaging than such questioning from a source with some prestige. By contrast, the jurors and students failed to recognise the impact of any of these factors on witness suggestibility.

However, like the experts, the jurors and students did recognise that pre-school children will be more suggestible than young children and adults, although they underestimated the size of this difference. The jurors and students, like the experts, also realised that witnesses warned about the dangers of suggestion will be less prone to it, and that witness accuracy will be poorer, the longer ago a given incident occurred - no doubt because these factors really are common sense.

Ultimately, all the participants, experts and lay people alike, agreed that when it comes to witness suggestibility, expert testimony would be appropriate and helpful. "Certain information about witness suggestibility exceeds jurors' common knowledge and understanding," the researchers concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMcAuliff, B.D. & Kovera, M.B. (2007). Estimating the effects of misleading information on witness accuracy: Can experts tell jurors something they don't already know? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 849-870.
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