The power of blobs on the brain

The media love those colourful brain images - the ones adorned by blobs purportedly showing which areas are most active when the experimental participant is thinking about something specific like cheese on toast. Now researchers in America have shown just how persuasive these images can be.

David McCabe and Alan Castel presented university students with 300-word news stories about fictional cognitive research findings that were based on flawed scientific reasoning. For example, one story claimed that watching TV was linked to maths ability, based on the fact that both TV viewing and maths activate the temporal lobe. Crucially, students rated these stories to be more scientifically sound when they were accompanied by a brain image, compared with when the equivalent data were presented in a bar chart, or when there was no graphical illustration at all.

McCabe and Castel repeated the experiment with a control condition featuring a topographical activation map - it's just as visually complex as a brain image but it doesn't look like a brain. These stories were rated as more credible when accompanied by a brain image compared with a topographical map, showing that the allure of brain images is not merely down to their complexity.

A final study used a real-life news story taken from the BBC: "Brain scans can detect criminals". This time the students were more likely to agree with the conclusions of the news report when it was accompanied by a picture of the brain.

McCabe and Castel said their results show people have a "natural affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena, such that physical representations of cognitive processes, like brain images, are more satisfying, or more credible, than more abstract representations, like tables or bar graphs."

These new results come after earlier research showing that the mere mention of cognitive neuroscience data leads people to judge scientific findings to be of higher quality.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMCCABE, D., CASTEL, A. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343-352. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.07.017
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How group cooperation varies between cultures

Researchers use economic games to investigate how people cooperate in real-life. Now a team led by Benedikt Herrmann, at the University of Nottingham, have identified striking differences in the way university students from different countries play one such game known as The Public Goods Game. Compared with students from developed Western nations, students from less democratic countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Belarus tended to punish not only free-loaders, but also cooperative players, with the result that cooperation in their groups plummeted.

In 16 countries, researchers gave 20 tokens each to thousands of students who were arranged into groups of four anonymous players. On each round, the students, who interacted via computer screens, had to choose how much to invest in the group kitty, such that every member would be paid 0.4 tokens for every token invested in the kitty, regardless of whether they themselves had contributed.

The nature of the game means that if everyone contributes the maximum amount, all members can gain by receiving a return of 32 tokens each. However, there is also the temptation to be selfish, to 'free-load'. For example, if one member contributes nothing to the kitty, while everyone else contributes the maximum, that selfish member will receive 44 tokens.

Crucially, after each round, players can see the choices of the other players, and in one version of the game they were able punish others if they wanted to, by sacrificing a token of their own so that another player loses several of theirs.

When players had the option to punish, the groups tended to display more cooperation, which is consistent with past research showing that the ability to punish can help foster cooperative behaviour. However, in some countries, 'selfish' players also punished cooperative players, perhaps as a means of revenge for punishments they had suffered, or maybe as a way of punishing do-gooders for showing them up. The researchers called this 'anti-social punishment', and the groups where this occurred tended to cooperate less.

Anti-social punishment occurred more in those countries, including Belarus and Saudi Arabia, shown by surveys to have less faith in the rule of law and less belief in civic cooperation. In a commentary on the findings, published in the same journal, Herbert Gintis of the Sante Fe Institute, said the results challenge the way people have tended to view capitalist democracies. "The success of democratic market societies may depend critically upon moral virtues as well as material interests, so the depiction of civil society as the sphere of 'naked self-interest' is radically incorrect," he wrote.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHerrmann, B., Thoni, C., Gachter, S. (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies. Science, 319(5868), 1362-1367. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808
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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:

The neurobiology and therapeutics of antidepressant-resistant depression (Biological Psychiatry).

Instructional support for enhancing students' information problem solving ability (Computers in Human Behaviour).

From individual to collective memory: Theoretical and empirical perspectives (Memory).

From philosophical thinking to psychological empiricism, Part II (Perspectives on Psychological Science).
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More evidence that fear of snakes is hard-wired

Slithery, scaly, and downright terrifying is how many people view snakes. Even in Britain, which has only one species of poisonous snake, people are often afraid. Some experts have suggested the snake's public relations problem is based on the fact humans have a hard-wired fear of snakes and other threatening creatures like spiders. Now this argument has found fresh support from a series of experiments showing that, like adults, pre-school age children have a superior ability for detecting snakes compared with innocuous creatures.

Dozens of children aged between three and five years were presented with 3 x 3 grids on a computer screen. Their task was to touch the one square containing a snake as fast as possible while ignoring the squares which all contained either flowers, caterpillars or frogs, depending on the particular experiment. For a comparison condition, the children had to touch the one square containing either flowers, a caterpillar or frog (again, it depended on the experiment), while ignoring all the other squares which contained snakes.

Throughout, the children were significantly faster when the task was to spot a snake from among distractors than when the task was to spot flowers, frogs or caterpillars. Crucially, in many cases the children's parents said their offspring had never experienced snakes and were unaware of the dangerous reputation they have -yet the kids still showed this selective advantage for spotting snakes.

The researchers Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache said their findings were consistent with the idea that humans have a fear module in the brain which is selectively sensitive to evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli. "The evolutionary claim," they said "is that [in the past] individuals who more rapidly detected the stimulus attributes signifying the presence of a poisonous snake or spider would have been more likely to escape the danger and hence to survive and reproduce."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLoBue, V., DeLoache, J.S. (2008). Detecting the Snake in the Grass: Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli by Adults and Young Children. Psychological Science, 19(3), 284-289. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02081.x
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

A crying baby is perceived to be in more distress if the adult listener has just thought about someone who betrayed them.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) not effective for treating depression.

TMS - the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?

Women's experiences and expectations of pain relief in labour.

What studying brain-damaged patients with anosognosia (who deny they have anything wrong with them) can reveal about the way the brain monitors its movements and sensations.
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Other people's misfortune alleviates our own regret

There can be few feelings worse than that pang of regret when you know you've made a bad decision. The perfect antidote, according to psychologists in Holland, is hearing about the misfortune of others....unless, that is, the future offers us a chance to make amends for our earlier mistake.

Frenk van Harreveld and colleagues first invited nearly one hundred students to place either a large or small bet on how well they thought they'd do at a trivia quiz. The procedure was fixed so that students opting for a safer, small bet were given an easy quiz, whereas the students who chose a large bet were given an impossible quiz, thus inducing both groups to regret their choice of bet.

Afterwards, some of the students were given fake information showing that they'd actually fared pretty well financially compared with the majority of other students -news that helped alleviate their regret. By contrast, hearing that other students had fared better did not serve to increase regret.

In a second experiment, Frenk van Harreveld and colleagues showed that the best antidote for regret depends on whether or not the future offers a way for us to make amends. Students once again bet on their performance at a trivia quiz - not for cash this time, but rather to determine how long they'd have to spend on a forthcoming arduous memory task.

The procedure was again fixed so that those betting conservatively (for the prize of a short rather than long memory test) were given easy quiz questions, while those who bet riskily (for the prize of no memory test at all) were given impossible questions, thus inducing both groups to experience regret.

Next, half the students were told that yet another quiz would give them a chance to earn some money. With the prospect of a second quiz, the students tended to shun hearing about the relative misfortune of other students at the previous quiz, choosing instead to hear information on likely future quiz topics. In this case, the researchers said, useful information was a better antidote to regret than hearing about others' misfortune.

"When there is no chance to do better in the future, misery seems to love (and even actively look for) company," the researchers concluded. "If however, there is a subsequent opportunity, regret can motivate us to do better next time."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Researchvan Harreveld, F., van der Pligt, J., Nordgren, L. (2008). The relativity of bad decisions: Social comparison as a means to alleviate regret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47(1), 105-117. DOI: 10.1348/014466607X260134
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Why the same words keep getting stuck on the tip of your tongue

Not being able to think of a word that you know you know can be so frustrating. What's extra annoying about these tip-of-the-tongue states is that often we'll keep experiencing them for the same word. That's despite the fact that the relief we experience on finally discovering an elusive word often leads us to feel that we'll surely never forget it again.

The reason we continue struggling with the same words isn't just because they are unusual or awkward. No, according to Amy Warriner and Karin Humphreys, when we're in a tip-of-the-tongue state, we're actually learning the wrong way of retrieving the word, thus making it less likely that we'll successfully recall it in the future.

Thirty students attempted to retrieve words based on definitions given to them by the researchers. Here's an example: What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves? Answer: abacus. If the students reported experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state, then they were either given 10 seconds before being told the word, or 30 seconds.

When, two days' later, the students were tested with the same definitions again, they were more likely to have a repeat tip-of-the-tongue state for a given word, if they'd previously experienced 30 seconds of having the word on the tip of their tongue, than if they'd previously only been in that state for 10 seconds.

The researchers said this finding was consistent with the idea that when the tip-of-the-tongue participants were previously made to wait 30 seconds, they were effectively spending more time learning that erroneous state - thus reinforcing the incorrect pattern of activation that was causing their tip-of-the-tongue sensation.

"Metaphorically speaking, this is akin to spinning one's tyres in the snow, resulting in nothing more than the creation of a deeper rut," the researchers explained.

The Digest asked Karin Humphreys what implications her results have for stopping tip-of-the-tongue-states from perpetually reoccurring. "If you can find out what the word is as soon as possible [by looking it up, or asking someone], that's great. If someone tells you the correct word, you should actually say it to yourself. It doesn't even need to be out loud, but you should at least say it to yourself. So by laying down another procedural memory, you can help to ameliorate the effects of the error. However, even with this, it doesn't get rid of the effect entirely. One other possibility is if you just can't figure it out, stop trying, you are just digging yourself in deeper."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWarriner, A.B., Humphreys, K. (2008). Learning to fail: Reoccurring tip-of-the-tongue states. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(4), 535-542. DOI: 10.1080/17470210701728867
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

Are you happy? Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, says research on happiness is hampered by the variety of interpretations of what exactly it means to be happy. Her essay is a response to books on happiness by Dan Gilbert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Eric G. Wilson, and Jerome Kagan.

Has science found a way to end all wars?

Daniel Ben-Ami in Spiked has had enough of the enoughism espoused by Oliver James and others.

In Psychology Today: How even the most hard-core skeptic thinks magically, believing in karma, luck, curses, and tempting fate.

Depression, illustrated.

The Am I Normal? series on BBC Radio 4 has continued with episodes on dyslexia, dyscalculia and insomnia.

The nature of consciousness debate has continued on ABC Radio's All in the Mind series (part 1 here).

Also on BBC Radio 4: Celebrating 70 years of Relate, the world's largest counselling organisation for relationships.
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Smokers ignore "what might have been"

Thankfully, most of us don't keep plumbing for the same option in life, over and over, regardless of how rewarding it might seem to be. No, we take into account what might have happened if we'd taken a different path, made a different decision. These so-called 'fictive' thoughts can lead us to change the way we behave in the future. But now Pearl Chiu and colleagues have shown this ability is lacking in smokers - a finding they say could have implications for treating addiction.

Thirty-one smokers and 31 non-smokers had their brains scanned as they played an investment game. They were given $100 with which to invest in stocks and shares and after each round they were told how much money they'd made, relative to how much money they could have made if they'd invested the maximum amount in their chosen shares.

Discovering how much money they could have made if they'd invested a larger amount affected the subsequent decision-making of the non-smokers but not the smokers. It's not that the brains of the smokers didn't register this information - they, like the non-smokers, showed increased activity in a part of the brain called the caudate when shown what they'd missed - it's just they didn't act on it. Pearl Chiu and co-workers say this cognitive anomaly helps explain why smokers carry on puffing away without regard for the positive outcomes that could have ensued had they have given up.

Co-author Read Montague told The Digest: "It's not at all clear from our work yet whether subjects who end up smoking (chronically) start out with a weak coupling between fictive error systems and behavioural control or whether this connection weakens as they become addicted to nicotine. We are gearing up to do a longitudinal study to find this out."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchChiu, P.H., Lohrenz, T.M., Montague, P.R. (2008). Smokers' brains compute, but ignore, a fictive error signal in a sequential investment task. Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn2067
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Aesthetic appreciation on the line

Seeking to understand aesthetics from the perspective of brain processes is all the rage these days, and has given birth to the nascent field of neuroaesthetics. Now Valeria Drago and co-workers have shown that people who are able to more accurately bisect a line, also tend to be more emotionally sensitive to paintings.

The researchers tested the ability of 17 right-handed participants to accurately bisect 100mm horizontal lines - that is, to mark the midpoint of the lines. The participants also looked at 10 paintings by the relatively unknown abstract artist Stephen Duren, before indicating how moved they were by each picture.

The more accurate a participant was at the line bisection task, the more moved they tended to be by the pictures. Moreover, when the participants were divided into two groups according to their accuracy at the line task, it was those in the more accurate group who were more emotionally affected by the paintings.

Valeria Drago at University Florida College and her truly international team of colleagues, based in Italy, Argentina, Korea, Japan and New Zealand, said this pattern of findings was consistent with the idea that the right hemisphere of the brain is associated both with attentional skills (underlying accurate line bisection) and the perception of emotion.

"For subjects to obtain the full evocative impact, it might have been important for the viewer to be attentive to the entire painting and this might explain why the [more accurate line bisection group] experienced a greater evocative impact," the researchers said.

A flaw in the study is that participants were asked to rate their emotional response to the paintings by marking a point on a horizontal line from little emotional impact on the left, to high impact on the right - a similar procedure to the line bisection task. However, in the bisection task, the less accurate participants tended to mark the midpoint further to the right than the more accurate participants, so if anything they should have shown a bias towards rating the paintings as more emotionally evocative. "It might be useful for future research to...use verbal ratings of evocative impact," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDRAGO, V., FINNEY, G., FOSTER, P., AMENGUAL, A., JEONG, Y., MIZUNO, T., CRUCIAN, G., HEILMAN, K. (2008). Spatial-attention and emotional evocation: Line bisection performance and visual art emotional evocation. Brain and Cognition, 66(2), 140-144. DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2007.06.005
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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:

Psychoanalysis and Social Psychology: Historical Connections and Contemporary Applications (Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology).

Youth mental health (Clinical Psychologist).

Attentional capture (Visual Cognition).

Consciousness and Perception: Insights and Hindsights - A Festschrift in Honour of Larry Weiskrantz (Neuropsychologia).
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Music can help people recover from stroke

Given its power to move us, perhaps it's no surprise that a great deal of research has focused on whether or not music can help people with depression or anxiety. Now researchers in Finland have asked whether music can benefit people recovering from stroke. Their study is notable for its sound methodological quality, and the results are promising: music does indeed appear to make a difference to patients' cognitive recovery.

Soon after their hospitalisation, 60 stroke patients were allocated randomly to one of three groups. Those in the music group were provided with a portable CD player and asked to listen to their favourite music for at least an hour a day for two months. Patients in the audio book group spent at least an hour a day for two months listening to audio books of their choosing. A final control group were not given a listening task.

Compared to the patients who listened to audio books and the control patients, the patients who listened to music daily showed superior performance when tested three months and six months later on measures of verbal memory and focused attention. Crucially, the psychologists who performed these neuropsychological assessments were unaware of which groups the patients had been in - making this a single-blind, randomised, controlled trial. The music and audio book patients also showed reduced depression and confusion compared with the control patients.

Teppo Sarkamo and colleagues who conducted the research said that music may exert these benefits by virtue of its wide-ranging impact on brain activity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that listening to music "naturally recruits bilateral temporal, frontal and parietal neural circuits underlying multiple forms of attention, working memory, semantic and syntactic processing, and imagery," the researchers said. By contrast, the brain activity triggered by speech without music is less extensive and more focused on the language-dominant hemisphere (usually the left).

The new finding is consistent with research on animals showing that a stimulating environment can speed recovery after stroke. Yet the researchers noted with regret that many stroke patients are left in their rooms without much stimulation or interaction. "We suggest that everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients' care," they concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSarkamo, T., Tervaniemi, M., Laitinen, S., Forsblom, A., Soinila, S., Mikkonen, M., Autti, T., Silvennoinen, H.M., Erkkila, J., Laine, M., Peretz, I., Hietanen, M. (2008). Music listening enhances cognitive recovery and mood after middle cerebral artery stroke. Brain, 131(3), 866-876. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn013
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"Just looking at a cake makes me feel fatter"

Have you ever caught yourself staring at sumptuously-formed cake, only to come away with the guilty feeling that the mere act of looking has led you to put on weight? If so, you're not alone.

Following research showing that people with eating disorders are prone to these irrational thoughts, Jennifer Coelho and colleagues have now confirmed that people without an eating disorder experience them too, though to a lesser extent.

However, that was not the aim of their research. Coelho's group conducted this study because at least one expert has suggested that people with eating disorders displace their emotional problems onto their bodies, thereby experiencing increased fatness when they're distressed. To test this, Coelho's team investigated whether for people with eating disorders, it is specifically thinking about food that can lead to guilty feelings about weight gain, or if anxiety in general can have the same effect.

The researchers asked women with eating disorders and female university students without an eating disorder, to imagine eating a naughty food. As a control, other women with eating disorders and other female university students imagined giving a public presentation.

Imagining eating large quantities of a naughty food led the eating disordered participants, and to a lesser extent the university students, to experience guilt and feelings of weight gain. By contrast, the participants who imagined giving a public presentation did not report these feelings, thus undermining the idea that for people with an eating disorder, it is any kind of anxiety that leads to guilt and a sense of weight gain.

A further, counter-intuitive finding was that a subgroup of the university students - those who reported restricting what they ate - actually did not experience guilt or feelings of weight gain after imagining a naughty food. The researchers said this could be because this group deliberately suppress their food-related thoughts.

The researchers concluded that future research should examine whether it is beneficial for treatment approaches to target the kinds of irrational thoughts examined in this study, or if instead such thoughts will reduce naturally as people recover from their eating disorders.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCOELHO, J. (2008). "Just looking at food makes me gain weight": Experimental induction of thought-shape fusion in eating-disordered and non-eating-disordered women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(2), 219-228. DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2007.11.004
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More resources for A-level students

New podcasts and classroom posters are available for download from the OCR exam board, following two events held in association with the British Psychological Society in January.

The resources relate to the core studies part of OCR's new syllabus starting in September 2008, but all psychology students and teachers will hopefully find them useful.


MP3 of Mark Griffiths talking about his research on problem gambling.
MP3 of Stephen Reicher talking about research that is leading experts to reconsider the psychology of tyranny.
MP3 of Alexander Haslam talking on the same topic.

A3 Posters:

PDF: Spontaneous symbol acquisition and communicative use by pygmy chimpanzees.
PDF: Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study.
PDF: Navigation related structural change in the hippocampi of London taxi drivers.
PDF: Another advanced test of theory of mind: evidence from very high-functionality adults with autism or Asperger Syndrome.
PDF: The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling.

Link to podcasts and posters via OCR resources page.
Link to previous Digest post dedicated to the OCR core studies module.
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Behind the news

Connecting you to the psychological science behind the news:

Prozac, used by 40m people, does not work say scientists (The Guardian).
Anti-depressants 'no better than dummy pills' (Daily Telegraph).

Link to the journal source (open access).
Link to the lead author.

How dream of reading someone's mind may soon become a reality (The Independent).
Test shows possibility to see what others do (Reuters).

Link to journal source.
Link to lead author.

Happiness Is In The Genes, Say Scottish Scientists (Daily Record).
Genes 'play key happiness role' (BBC News Online).

Link to journal source.
Link to lead author.

Scientists discover way to reverse loss of memory (The Independent).
Memory restoration breakthrough offers hope of Alzheimer's treatment (The Times).

Link to journal source.
Link to lead author.
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Little comedians

Toddlers as young as 19 months are able to distinguish jokes from mistakes - a skill that lays the groundwork for their later ability to recognise lies and false beliefs. That's according to Elena Hoicka and Merideth Gattis, who tested a large group of children aged between 19 and 36 months.

Children were asked to copy actions made by the researcher - for example stirring a spoon in a cup, or combing their hair. Next, the researcher performed a range of joke actions (e.g. putting a boot on their hand), which they did laughing, and mistakes (e.g. putting a lid on a sugar jar so that it was not quite in place), after which they said "oops!".

All the children, from 19 months upwards, copied the joke actions, but corrected the mistakes - a sign, the researchers said, that they were able to tell the difference between a mistake and a joke.

After this, things got trickier. The researchers performed actions that could either be interpreted as a mistake or a joke: for example, putting a hat on so that it covered their eyes, or brushing their teeth with the wrong end of the brush. Half the time the researchers laughed afterwards, the rest of the time they said "oops!" The idea is that the ambiguous nature of the actions meant that, to know if a joke or mistake had occurred, the children had to be able to interpret the researcher's vocal response.

This time an age-difference emerged. The proportion of occasions that the 19 to 24-month-olds copied or corrected these actions did not vary according to whether the researcher laughed or said "oops!". By contrast, the children aged 25 months and upwards, corrected more when the researcher said "oops!" and copied more when they performed the action laughing - a sign, the researchers said, that children of this age are able to distinguish humorous intent from mistakes.

Elena Hoicka and Merideth Gattis said this means that the ability to recognise humorous intent comes after the ability to recognise jokes, but before the ability to recognise pretense and lies. "We propose that humour understanding is an important step toward understanding that human actions can be intentional not just when actions are right, but even when they are wrong," they concluded.

HOICKA, E., GATTIS, M. (2008). Do the wrong thing: How toddlers tell a joke from a mistake. Cognitive Development, 23(1), 180-190. DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.06.001
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The notices in hotel rooms asking if you want to reuse your towels should be rewritten to emphasise the fact that most people do reuse their towels - that way you will be more likely to do the same.

Mathematical models of human decision making are more accurate when they factor in the important role played by regret.

Comparing the ways we gesture when speaking face-to-face, on the telephone, or dictating to a voice recorder.

What internet predators are really like (pdf).
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Don't ditch your paper maps just yet

You might think that hand-held global positioning systems (GPS), which can provide a live update of your location and surroundings, would make the benefit of a paper map redundant. But in a new study, Toru Ishikawa and colleagues have shown that people using a GPS device make more errors and take longer reaching their destination than people using an old-fashioned map.

Sixty-six participants on foot attempted to find their way to six locations in an urban environment. The routes were relatively short (between 157 and 325 yards) and each involved three turns. Twenty-two participants used a mobile phone with a GPS capability, 23 used an A4-sized map, and the remainder were taken along the routes by a researcher, before having to find their way on their own.

Not only did the GPS participants make more stops, walk further and more slowly than the map users, they also demonstrated less knowledge of the routes when asked to sketch a map of them afterwards. The most proficient participants were those who'd been shown the routes by the researchers - they arrived at their destinations faster and stopped fewer times than both the GPS and map users.

So why was the use of GPS inferior to using a paper map? The researchers said part of the explanation might be a lack of familiarity with the technology. Also, unlike the paper map, the size of the GPS screen meant it wasn't always possible to see one's own location and the destination at the same time. Finally, using GPS, which constantly updates itself, encourages people to stare down at the screen, rather than looking around at their environment. "We believe that for the development of effective navigational aids, continued empirical research on these issues is needed," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchISHIKAWA, T. (2008). Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(1), 74-82. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002
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For when you've had enough of journal articles:

A new series is starting this evening on BBC Radio 4, entitled Am I normal? The series asks how professionals draw the line between someone who is OK and someone who isn't? The first episode tackles Social Phobia.

Psyblog explains why psychology is not all common sense.

Mind Hacks flags up an article in Time magazine on expertise showing that it's all about practising the hardest bits.

ABC Radio's series All in the Mind continues with episodes on women offenders and the nature of consciousness (links are to MP3 audio files).

A New York Times article argues that it helps if therapists have had the humbling experience of having been in therapy themselves.

The RSA's online journal asks whether there's a link between ADHD and entrepreneurship.

Over at the Predictably Irrational website, you can try out the door game, which demonstrates how our desire to keep our options open can backfire. See this New York Times article for commentary.

According to an article in the New Republic, behavioural economist Richard Tyler is advising the Obama campaign team (via Mind Hacks).

Life before death - a forthcoming exhibition from the Wellcome Trust "reveals the preciousness and transience of life, and make us question what we often take for granted."

Watch interviews with some of the world's leading experts on consciousness via the website of the Mind and Reality conference, held in February 2006.

Can depression contribute to society? - Lewis Wolpert and Paul Keedwell discuss on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (link is to audio file).

You know what they say about men with long ring fingers. The Times has an interview with John Manning who researches the link between finger ratios and behavioural traits.

Listen to the academic and city trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week: He argues that the existence of highly improbable events which have a massive impact and are nearly impossible to predict - Black swans - mean we should ignore ‘experts’, stop reading newspapers and learn to take advantage of uncertainty. Also, catch him talking at the Uni of Oxford today, or at LSE tomorrow.
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Why it matters if there's a flickering light in the court room

Aspects of the environment that indicate danger - from flashing lights to a mere exclamation mark - lead us to make faster and more extreme judgements about fairness.

Kees van den Bos and colleagues say this happens because when we sense a threat, and what they call the 'human alarm system' is activated, we tend to form faster and more extreme reactions, with justice-related decisions being no exception.

In one experiment, university students stared either at an exclamation mark for one minute, or at a line with a dot above it - the latter serving as a control condition. Next the participants played a computer-based task with what they thought was another participant, but was really just a computer programme. Afterwards, some participants were asked how lottery tickets - a reward for taking part - should be shared between themselves and their playing 'partner', based on their performances. The remaining participants were told the lottery tickets would be distributed without seeking their opinion. Finally, the participants were asked to indicate how fair this system of ticket allocation was.

Amazingly, the mere act of staring at an exclamation mark significantly affected the participants' reactions. The difference in fairness judgments between those who'd been given a say and those who hadn't was greater among the participants who'd previously stared at an exclamation mark than among the control participants - in other words their judgments were more extreme (those who'd been given a say responded more positively, those who hadn't, responded more negatively, relative to the control participants who had and hadn't been given a say).

Another experiment asked dozens of shoppers on the streets of Amersfoot in the Netherlands to imagine a scenario in which their colleague had either received the same or a larger bonus than they had. Half the shoppers were asked near to a flashing road-work light - their subsequent judgements on the fairness of the bonus allocation were more extreme than those asked with the light switched off.

The researchers concluded it is now up to future research to test the real-world applications of these findings. "For example, future research might assess how people react to fair and unfair treatment by their management, when the business context may make the human alarm system more vs. less active," they said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchVANDENBOS, K., HAM, J., LIND, E., SIMONIS, M., VANESSEN, W., RIJPKEMA, M. (2008). Justice and the human alarm system: The impact of exclamation points and flashing lights on the justice judgment process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 201-219. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.03.001
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Existential angst can deter women from checking their breasts

American statistics show that breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, and yet only a third of women regularly check their breasts for signs of the disease*.

Now research by Jamie Goldenberg and colleagues suggests existential angst could be a key factor that is putting women off self-checking.

In a morbid context, being reminded that we're made of flesh and bone, just like other animals, can exacerbate existential angst. In an initial study, Goldenberg's team showed that female university students who read an essay about the similarity of animals and humans, and who were asked to think about their own mortality, were subsequently less likely than a control group of students (who imagined a painful dentist visit) to say they planned to check their breasts.

Another experiment timed how long women checked their breasts for after they either read an essay about the similarity of animals and humans, or about the uniqueness of humans. There was a trend for the group who read about the similarity of animals and humans to spend less time self-checking.

There was a further twist to this last experiment. Earlier on, the women had been asked to taste a new proto-type health drink, with half of them told it was supposed to be calming and the other half told it was an energy drink, which may cause nervousness.

Among the women who read the essay about the similarity of humans and animals, and who were therefore expected to experience existential angst, only those who had drunk the calming drink spent a reduced amount of time checking their breasts. The researchers said this is because whereas all these women were presumably feeling uncomfortable, thanks to existential angst, those who'd tasted the energy drink were able to attribute their discomfort to the anticipated nervous effect of the energy drink, thus leading them to persevere longer with their self-checking.

"Applied health workers only stand to gain by considering whether interventions and instructional materials can be delivered in ways that reduce the likelihood of casting breast self-examination in a creaturely light [i.e in ways that don't remind women of their mortality]," the researchers concluded.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGOLDENBERG, J., ARNDT, J., HART, J., ROUTLEDGE, C. (2008). Uncovering an existential barrier to breast self-exam behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 260-274. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.05.002

* In the UK, the NHS encourages breast awareness rather than routine self-examination.
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