Acupuncturists are insensitive to other people's pain (in a good way!)

When we witness other people undergoing a painful experience, our brains respond as though we are experiencing that pain ourselves. We're simulating their trauma in our own pain pathways. This is pretty handy when it comes to empathy but could be a problematic distraction for people, such as dentists and acupuncturists, who have to dish out pain as part of the help they provide to their clients.

Yawei Cheng and colleagues wondered if medical professionals learn to suppress their emotional brain response to the sight of other people's pain, thus allowing them to plough on with their professional handiwork undeterred.

Fourteen professional acupuncturists and 14 controls had their brains scanned while they watched needles being inserted into mouths, hands and feet, or less eye-wateringly, while blunt 'Q-tips' were touched against the same areas.

Consistent with past research, when the control participants watched the needle insertions, the pain regions of their brains leaped into action, as though they themselves were experiencing the pain. By contrast, there was barely a flicker of pain-related activity in the brains of the acupuncturists. Instead, their brains showed activity in frontal regions, known to be involved in emotional control, as well as memory-related areas. (When it came to the pain-free images featuring blunt Q-tips, the brains of the acupuncturists and controls responded in the same way).

The behavioural data fitted well with these brain imaging results: the control participants reported finding the needle images far more unpleasant and painful than did the acupuncturists.

It's not that the acupuncturists are a sadistic bunch: personality scales showed they were just as sensitive and empathetic as the control group. Instead, the researchers said their results show that rather than "responding on the basis of automatically activated stimulus-response linkages...humans regulate their emotions by relying on higher cognitive processes involving knowledge in working memory, long-term memory and meta-cognition."

The researchers said that, in the case of doctors, such emotional control was necessary for "successful professional practice", allowing medical professionals to "regulate their feelings of unpleasantness generated by the perception of pain in others."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCHENG, Y., LIN, C., LIU, H., HSU, Y., LIM, K., HUNG, D., DECETY, J. (2007). Expertise Modulates the Perception of Pain in Others. Current Biology, 17(19), 1708-1713. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.09.020
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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:

Clinical supervision (Australian Psychologist).

Use of electrophysiological measures in reading research (Journal of Neurolinguistics).

The infant's relational worlds: Family, community, & culture (Infant Mental Health Journal).

Social cognition, emotion, and self-consciousness (Consciousness and Cognition).
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Not all psychopaths are criminal

Experts have recognised for some time that not all psychopaths are violent criminals. Many of them live inconspicuously amongst us (see item 4 here). But according to Mehmet Mahmut and his colleagues, these more benign psychopaths have been relatively uninvestigated. It's not even clear how comparable they are to their more notorious counterparts.

One hundred university students completed a self-report measure of psychopathy that probed four key areas - lack of empathy, grandiosity, impulsivity and delinquency. The top 33 per cent and bottom 33 per cent of scorers subsequently formed high and low psychopathy groups. The low and high psychopathy groups then completed the kinds of neuropsychological tests that have often been used on research with criminal psychopaths.

The high psychopathy students, as well as recording low empathy on the self-report test, also scored poorly on the Iowa Card Gambling task (relative to the low psychopathy students), reflecting the same kind of performance seen in criminal psychopaths. This gambling task is thought to measure functioning in a specific frontal region of the brain called orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is known to be involved in emotion and decision-making.

Yet despite this deficit, the high psychopathy students showed normal executive function and IQ, just as most criminal psychopaths do. The researchers said their findings show that criminal and non-criminal psychopaths share the same neuropsychological profile.

So what is it that makes criminal psychopaths get into trouble, while non-criminal psychopaths do not? The researchers speculated that criminal psychopaths may be steered towards criminality by their backgrounds, in particular a lack of early parental supervision, deprivation and having a convicted parent.

"An increased research focus as to the nature of psychopathy across non-criminal and criminal populations is important in that it may reveal factors protecting non-criminal psychopaths from becoming criminal psychopaths and hence reduce the emotional and financial havoc they can wreak" the researchers concluded.

Link to related Digest item on psychopaths.
Link to another related Digest item.
Link to yet one more related item.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMAHMUT, M., HOMEWOOD, J., STEVENSON, R. (2008). The characteristics of non-criminals with high psychopathy traits: Are they similar to criminal psychopaths?. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 679-692. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.09.002
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Resources for A-level teachers and students following the AQA spec B syllabus

This post is for students and teachers following the AQA spec B, 2008 specification for psychology. It provides a selection of links to material from the Research Digest blog and The Psychologist magazine (marked with a 'P') that ties in with the AS/A2 syllabus for this exam board. This list is far from comprehensive: students and teachers looking for more material are urged to use the Digest blog's search facility (see box to the right) and The Psychologist magazine's search facility (see box in top left-hand corner), and remember that new material is being added all the time.

AS topics



Research Methods

Social Psychology

Cognitive Psychology

Individual differences

A2 topics

Cognition and the law

Schizophrenia and mood disorders


Substance abuse

Forensic psychology

Debates in psychology

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Speed matters when it comes to imagining the perfect putt

You've probably heard that imagining yourself performing a skilled action can actually help you pull off the move in real life. New research builds on this idea, by showing that - at least when it comes to golf putting - how fast you should imagine yourself performing the action depends on your level of expertise. Novices should imagine themselves putting slowly, while pros should imagine themselves putting fast.

Sian Beilock and Sara Gonso tested the putting accuracy of 15 novice student golfers and 13 students with at least ten years golfing experience (the latter all had a handicap of 8 or less).

The students completed their putts after one of two imagery tasks: either ten imaginary putts performed as fast and as accurately as possible, or ten imagined putts performed as accurately as possible, taking as long as they wanted.

The skilled golfers performed their real life putts with more accuracy after the fast imagery task compared with after the slow imagery task. The opposite was true for the novices, who putted more accurately after imagining slow putts.

This chimes with research on the effects of speed on real life actions. Experienced athletes can benefit from executing moves quickly because it stops them from thinking too much about actions which have become automatic and "procedural". Novices, by contrast, typically benefit from taking their time and thinking about actions which are not yet familiar. _________________________________

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBeilock, S., Gonso, S. (2008). Putting in the mind versus putting on the green: Expertise, performance time, and the linking of imagery and action. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(6), 920-932. DOI: 10.1080/17470210701625626
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Is the brain irrelevant to psychology?

Cognitive neuroscience explores how our mental faculties emerge from, and are organised in, the slimy tissue of our brains, and it's currently a thriving field. But some critics argue it's a dead-end, that biology is irrelevant to psychological accounts of how our minds work. In the words of philosopher Jerry Fodor, "If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north?"

Now, writing in a special journal issue on the interface between psychology and neuroscience, language expert Peter Hagoort has hit back, arguing that knowing something about the biology of cognition can help to shape psychological models.

Hagoort cites two key examples to support his claims. A little background is required.

When we encounter an unexpected word in a sentence ("He spread his warm bread with SOCKS."), a negative spike in electrical activity recorded from the surface of the scalp is detectable 400ms later and is thought to reflect the extra brain processing required for the surprise word.

Meanwhile, when we encounter a grammatical anomaly (e.g. "The boys kissES the girls") - there is a positive, more posterior, spike of activity, 600ms afterwards. This latter effect is observed even with nonsense sentences that violate grammatical rules, thus showing that the spike is independent from the processing of meaning.

Taken together, Hagoort says these findings have implications for psychological models of language processing because they endorse the idea that meaning and grammar are not handled by a "general-purpose language processor", as he puts it, but rather they are "domain specific" - in other words, processed independently.

For his second example, Hagoort points to a brain imaging study that showed the pleasantness of a smell was rated differently depending on whether it was accompanied by the label "cheese" or "body odour". Crucially, the brain imaging data showed the verbal label affected processing in the actual smell centre of the brain. "This example illustrates something that would not so easily be found out with a behavioral method: that language information acts directly in the olfactory input system," Hagoort said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHagoort, P. (2008). Should Psychology Ignore the Language of the Brain?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(2), 96-101. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00556.x (Access is currently free).
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Short arms and legs linked with increased susceptibility to dementia.

Complaints against therapists.

Introducing hedonomics: a mix of decision-making research with happiness research.

The role of eye contact and gaze direction in babies' developing communication skills.
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Biofeedback training can boost concentration power

Psychologists have developed a form of training, involving biofeedback, that can boost people's ability to concentrate. The system shows potential as a way to help people with ADHD (i.e an attention deficit). The work was inspired by research showing that brain areas involved in arousal overlap with those involved in sustained attention.

Participants were first tested on a boring concentration task, during which single numbers between 1 and 9 appeared on a computer screen hundreds of times. The task was to press the left mouse key in response to any number that appeared, except for 3.

Half the participants then undertook the biofeedback training, during which they were shown how their arousal levels - as indicated by a computer reading of the sweatiness of their skin - increased when the researcher clapped his hands and called "wake up". With practice, the participants used the computer feedback to learn to create that burst of arousal entirely by themselves, in time with their own utterance of the word "now".

The remaining participants, instead of completing this training, played a computer game, and acted as a control group.

All the participants then repeated the boring concentration task. For the participants who'd completed the training, the prompt to boost their own arousal was indicated by a number appearing in grey rather than the usual black (controls also saw this, but for them it did not act as an arousal prompt).

The participants who'd undertaken the biofeedback training, including several with ADHD, showed substantial improvements in their ability to concentrate relative to the controls. This was indicated by a reduction in the number of errors they made (i.e. how many times they pressed the mouse button in response to the number 3), and the fact that their reaction times didn't become more variable with time, whereas the reactions of the control group did.

Redmond O'Connell and colleagues, who conducted the research, said: "This experiment has demonstrated that a relatively simple cognitive intervention can lead to substantial neuropsychological improvements."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOCONNELL, R., BELLGROVE, M., DOCKREE, P., LAU, A., FITZGERALD, M., ROBERTSON, I. (2008). Self-Alert Training: Volitional modulation of autonomic arousal improves sustained attention. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1379-1390. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.018
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What do your thoughts reveal about you?

Psychologists have spent a great deal of time investigating how much of our personalities we reveal publicly: in the clothes we wear, the arrangement of our offices, the design of our websites. But what if it were possible to tap into someone's thoughts? How much of their personality would be revealed? Shannon Holleran and Matthias Mehl attempted to find out.

Ninety students spent twenty minutes in private typing into a computer whatever came into their minds, reporting their thoughts, feelings and sensations. They were told their commentaries would be kept private and anonymous, linked only with their scores on a personality test. Nine judges then read these twenty-minute bursts of thought and attempted to rate the personalities of the students who had written them.

The judges rated the students' personalities with a high degree of accuracy (as compared with the students' self-ratings), especially for the essays judged to be most private, as opposed to public, in their content. In fact, accuracy of the personality judgements was higher than for comparable studies that have investigated how much personality is revealed in people's daily activities, their websites or offices.

Accuracy was highest for the Big Five personality dimensions of Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability, while being somewhat lower for Extraversion and Openness to Experience.

"Empirically, the findings from this study suggest that a person's private thoughts and feelings provide good information for the accurate judgement of private personality characteristics," the researchers said.

Of course, this study was awash with methodological issues. Most notably, it is questionable just how open the students were in their 20 minute "stream of thought" essays, despite the promise of anonymity. Would you be prepared to write exactly what came into your head for a psychology experiment?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHOLLERAN, S., MEHL, M. (2008). Let me read your mind: Personality judgments based on a person's natural stream of thought. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 747-754. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.07.011
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The boy who thought 9/11 was his fault

Researchers in London have documented the case of a ten-year-old boy with Tourette's syndrome and obsessive compulsive symptoms, who believed the terror attacks of 9/11 occurred because he had failed to complete one of his daily rituals.

Mary Robertson and Andrea Cavanna claim this is the first ever case reported in the literature of a person believing they were responsible for causing a major disaster of the proportion experienced in America in 2001.

The boy - described as "extremely pleasant and likeable" and with good school grades - was first referred for consultation a year before 9/11 took place. As is characteristic of people with Tourette's syndrome, the boy displayed several forms of uncontrollable tics, including excessive blinking and vocal outbursts, and he also showed obsessive tendencies and attentional problems.

Robertson next saw the boy two weeks after 9/11, at which point he was in a terrible state - "tortured", as he put it, by his tics, and wracked with guilt, believing that 9/11 occurred because he had failed to walk on a particular white mark on a road.

This was just one of the many rituals the boy had developed during the course of the year. Others included so-called "dangerous touching" rituals, including the need to feel the blade of knives to check their sharpness, and to put his hand in the steam of a kettle to check its heat.

Importantly, the researchers said the boy's beliefs about 9/11 were distinct from the kind of delusions expressed by people with psychosis, and instead reflected an extreme form of the anxiety that people with obsessive compulsive disorder often experience when they fail to complete their rituals.

Fortunately, a mixture of drug treatments and reassurance (including explaining to the boy that his missed ritual actually occurred after 9/11, given the time difference between the USA and UK), led to him realising that he was not responsible for the attacks.

Robertson and Cavanna said this case study brings attention to the way our modern media - "immediate, realistic, and evocative" - can lead to terrorist attacks and other disasters having harmful effects on vulnerable people miles away from the immediate environment of what happened. "Only time will reveal the many further psychosocial sequelae of 9/11, as well as the Madrid and London terrorist bombings," they said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchRobertson, M., Cavanna, A. (2008). The Disaster was my Fault!. Neurocase DOI: 10.1080/13554790802001395

Update: Following our coverage of this case study, BBC Radio Four's All in the Mind followed up the story and spoke to Dr Andrea Cavanna in July 2008 about the boy.
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The neuroanatomy of fairness

Sharing resources fairly can be a tricky business. Is it better to dish out more of something good, such as food or money, even if only some people receive this benefit, or is it more important to ensure that everyone receives at least some gain, even if the total goodness that's dolled out is actually lower?

Ming Hsu and colleagues scanned the brains of 26 participants as they made decisions like this between efficiency on the one hand, and equity on the other.

The researchers had donated a certain amount of money to orphans in Uganda but unfortunately some of this money had to be withdrawn. In a series of choices, participants had to say whether they wanted a smaller sum to be withdrawn, with the downside that it would all be taken from just one child, or if instead they'd prefer a larger amount overall to be withdrawn, with the advantage that the burden of loss would be shared between two children.

Consistent with past research into similar moral decisions, the participants showed a bias for choosing equity (that is, a larger amount withdrawn, but with the burden shared) over efficiency (less withdrawn, but all from one kid).

What's new is that the researchers were able to determine that an emotion-related region called the insula was responsible for encoding the equity of each option, whilst a reward-based region called the putamen was involved in encoding efficiency. In fact, differences in how sensitive each participant was to these two concerns was reflected in their levels of brain activity in these two regions.

The findings provide a biological perspective on age-old philosophical questions about distributive justice, and appear to support the view of thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith who argued that emotions play a fundamental role in moral decisions of this kind.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHsu, M., Anen, C., Quartz, S.R. (2008). The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1153651
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Could live theatre help prevent eating disorders in children?

Children seem to be worrying about their weight and body image at an ever younger age. Part of the problem for professionals who wish to help is finding a positive message that is relevant to children and which engages their attention. New research by Jess Haines and colleagues suggests live theatre could be one way to do this.

Eighteen children at an ethnically diverse school in Minneapolis volunteered to help develop and perform a play about body image and healthy eating. One day a week for ten weeks the children worked with a local theatre production company to write the script and rehearse the play, before performing it in front of other pupils, teachers and parents.

Preparations for the play involved the children writing a poem about their favourite body part to be included in the script, and writing a story about teasing at their school, also to be acted out in the play. According to the researchers, the final script "communicated messages about feeling good about your body, alternative ways to communicate with peers other than teasing, and options for healthy eating and being physically active."

After the final performances, Haines and her colleagues interviewed 15 of the participating children in three focus groups of five. Qualitative analysis of the children's comments suggested they had enjoyed the process and that the play had been beneficial to them in several ways, including improving their body satisfaction (“You should be happy with your body," one child said) and increasing their resilience to derogatory remarks made by others.

A key feature of the intervention was that it appeared to engage the children and they reported finding it particularly relevant to their lives. This echoes other health research showing that involving participants in the development and delivery of an intervention leads to it being more relevant and culturally sensitive to its intended audience. Another bonus was that the play was well attended by parents, thus engaging them with the health message too.

The researchers cautioned that their sample size was small, and that randomly controlled trials are needed to provide "more objective measures of behavioural change [that] would provide stronger evidence of the effectiveness of programme as a behaviour change strategy."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHaines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Morris, B. (2008). Theater as a Behavior Change Strategy: Qualitative Findings from a School-Based Intervention. Eating Disorders, 16(3), 241-254. DOI: 10.1080/10640260802016829
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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:

Ethics in psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Integration of Human Factors in Networked Computing (Computers in Human Behaviour).

Language production (Language and Cognitive Processes).

Androgens in Health and Disease: new insights into roles and mechanisms of action, 12th Annual Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology Meeting (Hormones and Behaviour).
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How two-year-olds work out who owns what

If you think about it, ownership is a rather slippery concept, one based on all sorts of abstract social and economic principles. Now in one of the first studies of its kind, Ori Friedman and Karen Neary have investigated whether and how two-, three- and four-year-olds determine who owns what.

Their findings suggest that young children judge ownership based on who is first in possession of a given object. In an initial study, children aged between two and four were told a simple story about a boy and a girl playing with a toy, after which they were asked to say who owned the toy. If the story described the girl as playing with the toy first, then the children tended to say she owned the toy, and vice versa if the boy was described as playing with the toy first.

But what if the children were simply attributing ownership to whichever person was first associated with the toy, rather than in possession of it? A further experiment involved telling the children that the girl likes the toy, and then that the boy likes the toy. However, in this case, the children were no more likely to say the girl owned the toy than the boy did, even though the girl had been associated with the toy first (the same was true with the sexes reversed).

Finally, Friedman and Neary wanted to see how easily the first possession rule could be overcome in the context of gift giving. When the young children were told that the boy has a ball which he then gives to the girl as a present, they still tended to say that the boy owns the ball (the reverse being true if the story began with the girl in possession). However, when the gift giving was made more explicit (a wrapped present on the girl's birthday), then the first possession rule was broken, and the young children correctly realised that the girl now owned the gift.

The researchers said the most important next step was to find out where young children get this rule about first possession from. They surmised that it could be learned from hearing utterances like ‘‘It’s her doll, she had it first’’, or it could be innate, the product of a "cognitive system dedicated to reasoning about ownership."

FRIEDMAN, O., NEARY, K. (2008). Determining who owns what: Do children infer ownership from first possession?. Cognition, 107(3), 829-849. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.002
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We see things differently when they're near our hands

You don't see all parts of the world equally well. An obvious example is the way your peripheral vision is much fuzzier than your central vision. Now Richard Abrams and colleagues have provided a far more curious example - apparently the mere presence of our hands alters the way we process visual information in their vicinity.

On hundreds of trials, 52 participants sought to identify as fast as possible whether it was an 'H' or an 'S' that was hidden among a crowd of 'E's and 'U's displayed on a computer monitor.

Bizarrely, participants were significantly slower at the task when their hands were placed either side of the computer screen (nearer the stimuli), as opposed to being located on their laps.

Importantly, the hands' proximity to the stimuli still exerted this effect even when they were hidden behind cardboard, and also when participants responded using foot pedals. In other words, it was the hands' mere location in space that affected visual processing - it wasn't the sight of them, or to do with their being used to respond.

A second experiment showed that the presence of the hands near the computer screen made participants take longer to disengage their attention from a target that appeared abruptly on the screen. A final experiment, showed that the presence of the hands led to a prolonged 'attentional' blink - this is our tendency to miss the second of two targets appearing in a stream, if the second appears too soon after the first.

Across all three experiments, the message seems to be that the presence of the hands makes it harder for us to disengage our visual attention from a target. Why should this be? "One possibility," the researchers said, "stems from the fact that objects that are near the hands are likely candidates for physical manipulation [such as a tool or food]...In those circumstances, extended analyses of objects near the hand may facilitate the production of accurate movements."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchABRAMS, R., DAVOLI, C., DU, F., KNAPPIII, W., PAULL, D. (2008). Altered vision near the hands. Cognition, 107(3), 1035-1047. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.09.006
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

A profile of 50 women who developed an eating disorder at the age of 40 or older.

Are you conducting research on emotion? Need some musical samples for evoking sadness, happiness, fear or peace? Check out this paper.

An evolutionary account of morality.

Just how much of a role does chance play in who we become friends with?
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UK Universities arrive at Itunes

Two of the UK's most prestigious universities have joined their American counterparts by offering free lecture movies and audio downloads via the Itunes digital music platform.

Content from UCL, the OU and from Trinity College Dublin can now be accessed for free, with plenty more material promised in the future.

A quick glance through the offerings shows UCL has a movie of face-blindness expert Brad Duchaine talking about what it is like to live in a world without face recognition (see screen-grab). As yet there doesn't appear to be any further psychology content from the UK and Irish universities, although the OU has plenty of sociology on offer. No doubt more psychology will be available soon - definitely worth keeping an eye on.
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Promoting forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Across the world, whether it's the troubles of Northern Ireland or the tense situation in Israel and Palestine, forgiveness is often the greatest hurdle to achieving peace. When two groups have each committed such terrible acts against each other, how can the cycle of resentment ever be broken?

Sabina Cehajic and colleagues examined this question in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, where, between 1992 and 1995, hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were raped and killed by predominantly Serb forces (many Serbs also lost their lives too).

Today, the country is composed of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats and other ethnic groups, and politics there is dominated by nationalistic parties representing the separate ethnic groups.

Cehajic and her team surveyed 180 Bosnian Muslims about their attitudes towards Bosnian Serbs in the wake of the earlier conflict. They found that Bosnian Muslims who had more Serb friends and who identified more with a sense of being "Bosnian", rather than "Bosnian Muslim" or "Bosniak", also tended to show more empathy for Serbs as a group, to be more trusting of Serbs, and to see Serbs as more varied - all of which predicted greater levels of forgiveness and more positive attitudes towards the Serbs.

This pattern is consistent with what's known as the "contact hypothesis" in social psychology, which states that more high quality contact between groups promotes intergroup reconciliation.

Cehajic's team said their findings have policy implications. "One practical suggestion for restoration of damaged intergroup relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina could be the creation of a new constitution with centralized government," they said. "Such a new unified political structure might promote both more frequent intergroup contact and the creation of a politically and psychologically meaningful common-ingroup identification [i.e. at the level of 'Bosnian']".

However, a key weakness of the study, which often undermines research in this field, is its cross-sectional design. It's possible that the direction of causality between the observed variables flows in the other direction - perhaps it is forgiveness that leads to greater trust and empathy towards the outgroup, and thence to greater contact with them. If so, we're back to square one: just how can we help foster that initial forgiveness?

Cehajic, S., Brown, R., Castano, E. (2008). Forgive and Forget? Antecedents and Consequences of Intergroup Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Political Psychology, 29(3), 351-367. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00634.x
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Twenty-six things

Inspired by the kind of memory games used in psychology research, the artist Marion Coutts has created a film "Twenty-six things" featuring artifacts from the Wellcome Collection. You can watch the film for free at the Wellcome Collection in London until June 29.

Then on Thursday 19 June at the same venue, Coutts will be joined by, among others, the psychologist Hugo Spiers whose own research focuses on human memory, in a discussion of the film.

In recent years the Wellcome Trust has made a special effort to unite the arts and sciences in collaborative ventures, most obviously via its former SciArt funding scheme, which has now be broadened out to allow eligibility for any art form .

Link to 26 things.
Link to event: 26 things explored.
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Real-life examples may not be best for teaching maths

You may think the sign of a good teacher lies in their ability to provide engaging real life examples for abstract concepts. But a new study by Jennifer Kaminski and colleagues at Ohio State University, suggests that when it comes to maths, it's probably best to keep things abstract.

Students were taught the rules governing mathematical relations between three items in a group. All students were able to learn these, but crucially only those taught using abstract symbols were able to transfer what they'd learned to a novel, real-life situation. Students taught with the metaphorical aid of water jugs, slices of pizza or tennis balls in a container, were unable to transfer what they'd learned.

Another experiment compared the effectiveness of a purely abstract teaching approach with an approach that provided concrete examples first, followed by an abstract illustration. Students in the purely abstract condition outperformed their peers who were given the concrete/abstract mix.

Kaminski's team said that although concrete examples might be more engaging, it seems they may also constrain students' ability to transfer relevant knowledge to a different situation.

The researchers concluded: "If a goal of teaching mathematics is to produce knowledge that students can apply to multiple situations, then presenting mathematical concepts through generic instantiations, such as traditional symbolic notation, may be more effective than a series of 'good examples'."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKaminski, J.A., Sloutsky, V.M., Heckler, A.F. (2008). LEARNING THEORY: The Advantage of Abstract Examples in Learning Math. Science, 320(5875), 454-455. DOI: 10.1126/science.1154659
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