Is behavioural economics such a big deal?

The latest issue of Prospect magazine features a freely available, hard-hitting debate on whether or not behavioural economics is all its cracked up to be.

Standard economics sees people as selfish, rational decision-makers. Traditional economic models predict that, provided people have the necessary information to hand, they will tend to choose those options that are in their own best interest. By contrast, behavioural economics is less psychologically naive, recognising that people are often far from rational, and are influenced by such human foibles as having a sense of fairness.

Behavioural economics is all the rage these days, not least because of the interest politicians like Barack Obama and David Cameron have started to show in the way its principles can be exploited to change people's behaviour - as advocated and explained in books like Nudge.

In this new Prospect debate, Pete Lunn (author of Basic Instincts: Human Nature and the New Economics) argues that behavioural economics will "deliver a revolutionary new way of understanding the world." In response Tim Harford (author of The Logic of Life: Uncovering the New Economics of Everything) plays down the impact of behavioural economics, arguing that the field's lab studies rarely translate well into the messiness of the real world:
"No doubt you are familiar with the laboratory work on how workers respond to wage offers. In one celebrated experiment, behavioural economists divided their subjects into 'employers' and 'workers.' They discovered that when the 'employers' paid unexpectedly generous 'wages,' the 'workers' reciprocated by working unexpectedly hard.

It’s a classic of the field. But the real world remains intractable. The economists John List and Uri Gneezy recently repeated the lab study in the field, advertising real jobs, hiring real workers and paying real hourly rates. They used a controlled trial to see what happened when workers were paid unexpectedly generous rates. And they discovered that the lab results were evanescent: after a couple of hours the gratitude evaporated and the workers slacked off, reverting to the rational self-interested behaviour described in those pesky textbooks. I would not advise personnel departments to rewrite salary scales on the basis of an effect that does not survive past lunch on day one."
Behavioural economics and its advocates are so much the rage these days that I for one found Harford's scepticism refreshing. That said, he did seem overly aggressive at times: "You are too vague: arguing with you feels like trying to arm-wrestle a hologram" he tells Lunn, adding later: "I realise it is tedious to be so specific, but your handwaving is getting us nowhere." Still, if you like a lively debate, as I do, Harford's approach does juice things up nicely.

Link to Prospect debate: "Behavioural economics: Is it such a big deal?" (Open Access).
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Armchair experts have their limits

Armchair commentators take note: when it comes to predicting whether players are going to make a shot, it really does make all the difference if you currently play the sport yourself.

Salvatore Aglioti and colleagues filmed a player attempting to throw a ball into a basketball hoop, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They then showed portions of the film to elite basketball players, non-playing experts (coaches and journalists) and novices. Rather than being shown in full, the video was paused at various stages of the player's attempt, either before or after he had released the ball, and the participants' task was to say whether or not his attempt would be successful.

The elite players were significantly more accurate at making this prediction than the non-playing experts and the novices, but only for the short duration video clips that finished before the ball had left the player's hand. This shows the elite players were uniquely capable of using the way the ball was handled to judge whether the shot would be successful. By contrast, the non-playing experts and novices displayed the same accuracy as each other, regardless of the video length.

A second study involved the participants predicting whether a basketball shot would be successful, and also involved them making the same prediction for a football shot. This time, as the participants watched the videos, transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to stimulate their motor cortex and recordings of muscle activity were taken from their hands and forearms.

The muscles of the basketball experts - players and non-players - twitched more in response to the basketball videos than they did to the football videos or to a static image of a basketball player. By contrast, the novices showed an equivalent increase in muscle twitching in response to either action video relative to the static image. Crucially, only the elite players showed a distinct burst of muscle activity prior to the release of an ultimately unsuccessful basketball shot. This shows that their hand muscles, but not those of the other participants, were already twitching in anticipation of the ball bouncing free from the basket.

The researchers said their results show "that although mere visual expertise may trigger motor activation during the observation of domain-specific actions, a fine-tuned motor resonance system subtending elite performance develops only as a consequence of extensive motor practice." In other words, armchair expertise is no substitute for time currently spent on the court or field.

Aglioti, S.M., Cesari, P., Romani, M., Urgesi, C. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience, 11(9), 1109-1116. DOI: 10.1038/nn.2182
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:
Men with more attractive girlfriends or wives are more likely to engage in so-called "mate retention behaviors" – these are behaviors designed to thwart a woman’s infidelity and include refusing to introduce their partners to male friends; reading their partners' personal mail; and buying their partners small gifts.

Studying magic tricks to find out more about human cognition.

Prior research suggesting that sex and violence don't sell, was flawed, a new study claims, because it failed to control for other aspects of programme content.

Improving team creativity.
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Forget everything you thought you knew about Phineas Gage, Kitty Genovese, Little Albert, and other classic psychological tales

The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine has just been published online and it features two open-access articles (here and here) that together drag psychology's classic tales out from the back of the cupboard, dust them down and cast them in a new, refreshing light.

For example, Phineas Gage is traditionally described as having been transformed by his brain injury into a "restless, moody, unpredictable, untrustworthy, depraved, slovenly, violently quarrelsome, aggressive and boastful dissipated drunken bully, displaying fits of temper, and with impaired sexuality" and yet the historical record shows that he went on to work as a coach driver which would have required him to "deal politely with the passengers, load their luggage (up to 50 pounds each), and collect fares, and so on, before beginning a 13-hour journey over 100 miles of poor roads, often in times of political instability or frank revolution." In his intriguing article, Malcolm Macmillan, Professorial Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, wonders if Gage might actually have shown significant recovery from his injuries. Such a conclusion would "add to current evidence that rehabilitation can be effective even in difficult and long-standing cases. But it would also mean that theoreticians of frontal lobe functioning would have to consider whether the lobes themselves and their functions were much more plastic than we now think," Macmillan writes.

From the second article we discover that some of the bystanders who allegedly watched Kitty Genovese's murder without helping, may actually have been more altruistic than we realised. We also learn that Asch's experiments in some ways demonstrated people's powers of independence, not their propensity for conformity; that Little Albert really didn't develop a fear of all things furry; and that the Hawthorne Effect has become a catch-all term with such vague meaning as to be useless.

Link to Phineas Gage – Unravelling the Myth (open access).
Link to Foundations of Sand (open access).
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Neighbourhoods with too much or too little social cohesion may increase risk of schizophrenia

The idea that social breakdown in a neighbourhood can increase the risk that some residents will develop schizophrenia may not come as too much of a surprise, but the notion that too much social cohesion might also be a risk factor, probably will.

James Kirkbride and colleagues sent questionnaires to over 16,000 people in South London to obtain their views on the social cohesion of their neighbourhoods. For example, participants answered questions about how much graffiti was in their area, how many thefts there were and whether someone was likely to help their neighbours. Just over 4000 people replied.

The data on neighbourhood social cohesion was then compared with new diagnoses of schizophrenia made in those areas over a period of twenty-four months, as recorded several years earlier by a separate study.

The researchers found that neighbourhoods with either below or above average social cohesion, tended to have had more new incidences of schizophrenia, even after taking into account differences between neighbourhoods in the age, gender and ethnicity of the local populations.

The harmful effect of low social cohesion is easier to explain: in socially fragmented neighbourhoods, people at risk of schizophrenia are less likely to receive the support they need to prevent them from developing psychosis. But what about the harmful effect of too much social cohesion? The researchers speculated that it's likely "some residents in neighbourhoods measured as having 'high' social capital were excluded from access to that social capital, conversely increasing their risk of schizophrenia." Another possibility is that schizophrenia is more likely to be detected in more socially cohesive neighbourhoods.

Incidentally, although this study design can't prove that neighbourhood social cohesion directly causes changes in rates of schizophrenia, the researchers said it's unlikely that the causal relationship runs in the opposite direction, simply because absolute rates of schizophrenia are so low.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKirkbride, J., Boydell, J., Ploubidis, G., Morgan, C., Dazzan, P., McKenzie, K., Murray, R., Jones, P. (2008). Testing the association between the incidence of schizophrenia and social capital in an urban area. Psychological Medicine, 38(08) DOI: 10.1017/S0033291707002085
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You're not as big-headed as you think you are

The chances are, you're not as big-headed as you think. I don't mean you're modest. I mean, literally, that the physical size of your head is smaller than you think it is.

I say this because a team of psychologists led by Ivana Bianchi have shown that students overestimated the size of their own heads, but not other people's, by between 30 and 42 per cent, on average. Other people's head sizes were also overestimated if their size was judged from memory - although the overestimation was not as large as when the students' judged their own heads. Similar results were found whether the students indicated head size by drawing an outline on paper or by demonstrating size with a tape measure.

As a comparison task, students estimated the size of their own and other people's hands. If anything, this led to underestimation.

The overestimation of head size was almost entirely removed when students made their estimates with the help of a mirror, and also if they wore a headband from the top of the head to the chin (thus providing proprioceptive feedback).

In a neat, final study, the researchers compared the size of heads in portraits and self-portraits dating from the fifteenth to twentieth century. Head size was bigger in the self-portraits.

The researchers don't really know why we overestimate our head size. The fact we can't see it directly no doubt has something to do with it. However, another possibility, according to Bianchi's team, is that thinking our heads are bigger than they really are is actually just another self-serving delusion - similar to the way most of us think we're cleverer and more attractive than is really the case.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBianchi, I., Savardi, U., Bertamini, M. (2008). Estimation and representation of head size (people overestimate the size of their head – evidence starting from the 15th century). British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1348/000712608X304469

Link to related Digest item: "Does my head look big in this?"
Link to related Digest item: "Robert the Bruce's skull size shows he had high IQ"

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How the fluency of your own actions affects your judgment of others

Last year the psychologists Steven Tipper and Patric Bach asked students to perform an identification task with a difference. Two men were shown either kicking a ball or typing at a keyboard. Crucially, the students had to signal their recognition of the men by either pressing a keyboard key or pushing a foot-pedal. The interaction between the men's activities and the students' mode of response led to some intriguing effects.

If a man was shown typing and students had to respond with a keyboard key, they were not only faster and more accurate, they also subsequently rated that man as more academic than other students who responded with a foot-pedal. (Similarly, a foot-pedal response to a man kicking a football led him to be rated as more sporty).

At first Tipper and Bach interpreted these effects in terms of the brain's mirror-neuron system, which is active when someone else is seen performing a given movement or that movement is enacted by oneself. The idea was that the sight of a man typing triggered neural, key-pressing activity that was then accentuated by the student's own use of a key. All this key-pressing activity was then thought to bias judgement over how academic the man was.

But now a follow-up study has debunked that explanation and shown that the effects have to do with response fluency, rather than having anything to do with the specific actions performed.

This time students always responded with a computer key, but sometimes the key was on the same side that the men's heads appeared in the photos, while other times their heads and the key were on opposite sides. This kind of stimulus-response compatibility is known to influence how quickly and easily participants can respond.

For instance, one man's head might be presented on the same side as the student's key response when he was shown typing, but on the opposite side when he was depicted kicking a ball. This man would then be identified more easily when shown typing on the keyboard than when kicking, and would subsequently be rated as more academic and less sporty than if the key / head position arrangements had been the other way around.

In other words, the researchers think the students were sensing how easily they had responded and that was then subconsciously impacting their judgement of the men's characters. It's as though the students had confused the fluency of their own response with how fluently they believed the men had performed their key press or football kick.

"Such findings have implications for how people interact, especially during joint activities," the researchers told us. "For instance, if you want your boss to think you are particularly skilful at some joint task, it is best to perform this in a way that allows him to undertake his aspect of the task easily. Your boss's more fluent processes will be attributed back to your performance."

TIPPER, S., BACH, P. (2008). Your own actions influence how you perceive other people: A misattribution of action appraisals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 1082-1090. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.11.005
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Pathological computer use is a real problem, a psychiatrist argues

Standpoint magazine, the new right-wing intellectual monthly published by the Social Affairs Unit, has a thoughtful, if tendentious, essay on pathological computer use.

Psychiatrist Jerald Block believes more should be done to recognise "pathological computer use" (PCU) and to devise ways to treat it. PCU is not yet formally recognised as a psychiatric diagnosis but the "condition" may find its way into the next edition of DSM - the psychiatry's diagnostic bible.

Block says it's been proposed that four criteria be met for a diagnosis of PCU: Computer use must be excessive (taking context into account); there must be signs of tolerance (a need to spend more time on a computer or games console to achieve the same level of satisfaction); the computer use must be mood altering; and finally and most importantly, the computer use must have led to problems, for example with relationships.

Block believes that because therapists are generally interested in people rather more than technology, they are often ill-equipped to help people suffering from excessive computer use. "As a result," he warns, "the therapist will readily find the concomitant diagnoses without realising there is the compounding issue of pathological computer use." Radical interventions in Korea apparently involve sending people to technology-free rural retreats. Yet a week of bucolic bliss has been found to provoke a computer binge on return.

One reason some people spend hours at a computer is to play massive online role-playing games. Block says the ways these games blur the distinction between reality and fiction reminds him of the difficulties faced by people with schizophrenia:
"Given enough exposure to virtual reality, people cannot help but begin to question whether their real lives are merely simulations of life. The concept is subversive and potentially toxic to the human mind. More-over, it combines in a particularly noxious way with compulsive computer use. When technology is used compulsively, it soaks up at least 10 to 12 hours a day; it redefines relationships to include virtual entities and objects, like the computer itself; it encourages processing emotion through the computer."
Block is also concerned by the ethical issues raised by the concept of virtual sex, which often involves players' digital representations (their "avatars") meeting in a virtual bedroom to watch real-life blue movies together. But as Block explains, things can get ethically messy:
"...people sometimes prostitute out their avatars. They participate in sex for virtual money. What if someone only selected virtual prostitutes that were designed to look like children? Certainly this is an enactment of which a therapist should be aware. Would this suggest a risk of paedophilia in real life? Or does discharging the impulse in the virtual world in effect prevent it from emerging in the real world? We can theorise, but we do not actually know. This is not some thought experiment; it happens and we need answers."
Link to Standpoint essay (open access).
Link to Mind Hacks post on why there is no such thing as internet addiction.
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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:

Advice for a happy life (Journal of Happiness Studies).

Dynamics and psychology (New Ideas in Psychology). "Recently...the hegemony of computationalism has given way to a diversity of theoretical approaches. Among the most promising of these is dynamicism, the view that cognitive processes are best modelled as dynamical systems rather than as information processing systems."

Health and well-being (Applied Psychology).

Treatment Pressures and Coercion in Mental Health Care (Journal of Mental Health).
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Negative false memories are more easily implanted in children's minds than neutral ones

Children develop false memories for a negative event more readily than they do for a neutral one. Henry Otgaar and colleagues, who made the new finding, said their work has real world implications for anyone working with child witnesses: "The argument that is sometimes heard in court - i.e. this memory report must be true because it describes such a horrible event - is, as our data show, on shaky grounds."

Seventy-six children aged between seven and nine years were asked to recall details about a true event that had happened to them the previous year (e.g. that their class had to perform a musical), and either a neutral fictitious event (moving classrooms) or a negative fictitious event (being wrongly accused of copying a classmate's work).

The children were asked about the events, true and fictitious, during two interviews held a week apart. If at first the children were unable to recall any further details, they were asked to concentrate and try again. They were also asked to reflect on the events during the week between interviews, to see if they could flesh out any further details.

Altogether, 74 per cent of the children developed false memories for the fictitious event - that is, they said they remembered the event and added extra details about what happened. Crucially, those asked to recall the time they were accused of copying a classmate were significantly more likely to develop a false memory than were those asked to recall the time they had to switch classrooms.

The researchers speculated that children might be more prone to developing false memories of negative rather than neutral events because the two kinds of information are stored differently in the brain. "Negative information is more interrelated than neutral material," they explained. "As a result, the presentation of negative information – either true or false – might increase the possibility that other negative materials become activated in memory. This, in turn, could affect the development of a false memory for a negative event."

OTGAAR, H., CANDEL, I., MERCKELBACH, H. (2008). Children's false memories: Easier to elicit for a negative than for a neutral event. Acta Psychologica, 128(2), 350-354. DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2008.03.009
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Using Piagetian tasks to test the elderly.

Dreams are more negatively biased than reality.

Children's false memories: The tooth fairy has a lot to answer for.

Are autism and psychosis opposites?

Don't tell Rover: Nursing home residents don't always benefit from dog visits.
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All about music and the brain

Today's Science Weekly Podcast from The Guardian is a fascinating special on music and the brain.

Music is found in every human culture and one theory is that it was an evolutionary precursor to language.

Whereas language allows us to make propositional, "information rich" statements, music is far vaguer but arguably provides a superior means of conveying emotion. The podcast describes how this emotional power is being harnessed to help people with Alzheimer's. We also hear how singing can help stroke patients rediscover their lost voices.

However, my favourite discovery from the podcast is that birds can dance.

Link to today's Guardian Science podcast.
Link to Youtube video of a dancing bird.
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Volunteer staff are surprisingly committed

Despite the obvious value of volunteers, managers often have reservations about hiring unpaid staff because of doubts over their commitment. There's a sense that they can leave at any time and there's no paid contract to keep them in line. But a new study turns these ideas upside down, finding that volunteers are actually more committed than their fully paid up colleagues.

Mark van Vuuren and colleagues surveyed hundreds of paid and volunteer workers at a Dutch charity for the blind and partially sighted. Questionnaire items tapped three aspects of organisational commitment, including the employees' emotional commitment ("I feel a strong sense of belonging to my organisation"); their sense of obligation and loyalty ("Even if it were to my advantage, I do not feel it would be right to leave my organisation now"); and what's known as "continuance commitment" - their sense that leaving isn't an option ("I believe that I have too few options to consider leaving this organisation").

It transpires the volunteers were more emotionally committed (especially if they felt there was a close fit between their values and the values of the charity) and also felt more loyalty and obligation to the organisation than did the paid staff. The researchers were particularly surprised at this latter finding, which they said could have to do with the fact the volunteers tended to be older. "Older people are motivated to volunteer because of their wish to fulfil an obligation or commitment to society," they said.

Van Vuuren's team said these results have several implications for managers. For example, it's important for organisations wishing to attract volunteer staff to "communicate how their goals, values and culture are congruent to the individual's beliefs..."

"This study showed that the absence of the 'stick of paid work' does not lead to the situation that volunteers leave their tasks very easily," the researchers continued. "As indicated by their commitment, there seems to be an interdependence, even though volunteers are not paid for their contribution. They may need the organisation as much as the organisation needs them."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research van Vuuren, M., de Jong, M., Seydel, E. (2008). Commitment with or without a stick of paid work: Comparison of paid and unpaid workers in a nonprofit organization. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(3), 315-326. DOI: 10.1080/13594320701693175
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Dear World: What kind of a person blogs?

Blogging - they call it the democratisation of the media. Any Tom, Dick or Harriet can log-on and broadcast their inner-most thoughts to the world. For many, the high-tech diary has become a harmless hobby, in some cases even leading to fame and lucrative book deals. For others, the irresistible lure of sharing their secrets has proven costly; they've lost their jobs. But who are these bloggers? Are some personality types more likely to blog than others?

Rosanna Guadagno and colleagues asked over three hundred students about their blogging habits and asked them to complete the now industry-standard Big Five Personality Inventory.

Around 20 per cent of the students blogged, mostly about their personal experiences. Among female students only, those who scored highly on neuroticism (i.e. anxious, insecure characters) were more likely to blog. This is consistent with work on internet usage that also found an association with neurotic personality types, but only among women. The researchers surmised that nervous women may blog to "assuage loneliness or in an attempt to reach out and form social connections with others."

Among both men and women, those who were more open to experience were also more likely to blog - perhaps unsurprisingly given that blogging is a relatively new phenomenon and given that this personality dimension is associated with creativity.

The researchers cautioned their findings may only be applicable to college students in America and called on future research to look at why people blog. "It is important for social scientists to continue to examine this phenomenon to fully understand its affects on psychological processes that differentiate it from other similar forms of self-expression," they said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchGUADAGNO, R., OKDIE, B., ENO, C. (2008). Who blogs? Personality predictors of blogging. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 1993-2004. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2007.09.001
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Selection of Dalai Lama reveals psychological essentialism in non-western culture

the 14th Dalai Lama as a boyIf you believe that there's something inherently doggy about all dogs, or fishy about fish then you're really indulging in a spot of psychological essentialism - the idea that entities are imbued with some kind of innate characteristic that marks them out as distinct. In one form this thinking can become mystical. Is there something special about Michael Jackson's sequined glove or is it just a hand-shaped piece of material like any other glove? If you think it's special then you're seeing the history of the item as part of its essence.

The sentimentality we feel towards heirlooms or holiday souvenirs shows that even the more materialist among us can be prone to the occassional essentialist flutter. Now in a short letter to the journal Trends in Cognitive Science (TICS) the psychologists Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman have argued that the way the current Dalai Lama was selected demonstrates that essentialist belief is also apparent in non-Western cultures.

Referring to eye-witness accounts of the search for the 14th (current) Dalai Lama, Bloom and Gelman write:

"The relevant section concerns the testing of a particular two-year-old boy in his remote home village. A group of bureaucrats brought with them the belongings of the late 13th Dalai Lama, along with a set of inauthentic items that were similar or identical to these belongings. When presented with an authentic black rosary and a copy of one, the boy grabbed the real one and put it around his neck. When presented with two yellow rosaries, he again grasped the authentic one. When offered two canes, he at first picked up the wrong one, then after closer inspection he put it back and selected the one that had belonged to the Dalai Lama. He then correctly identified the authentic one of three quilts."
The psychologists say their point isn't that these objects were imbued with some mystical essence, but rather that the Tibetan bureaucrats believed they were. "We take this as evidence of the ubiquity, naturalness and importance of psychological essentialism," they concluded.

Link to full-text of letter to TICS (via Paul Bloom's lab website).
Link to Wikipedia entry on essentialism.
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Worldwide, pride and shame are expressed in the same way

image reproduced with permission from Jessica TracyThe sight of proud athletes stood tall, arms raised, chests puffed out will be ubiquitous over the next few weeks of the Olympics. We'll also see the less successful with their heads slumped. According to a new study, these emotional displays of pride and shame are not learned, culturally defined habits. Rather, just like the core emotions of happiness, sadness, fear and disgust, the ways we display pride and shame are innate and have probably evolved to either shore up our status or convey our acceptance of another's dominance.

Jessica Tracy and David Matsumoto analysed photographs of 140 judo competitors from 36 nations taken at the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic games, after either a loss or victory. Crucially, 53 of these competitors were blind, 12 of them from birth. The way these congenitally blind competitors responded to a loss or victory was of particular interest to the researchers because they will never have seen how other people display their pride or shame.

All the competitors, regardless of their country of origin or whether they were sighted or blind, tended to demonstrate their pride (head tilted back, chest expanded, arms raised) and shame (slumped shoulders, narrowed chest) in the same fashion. There was just one exception: sighted competitors from North America and Western Europe tended to conceal their shame, presumably because of cultural-specific pressures to maintain an air of self-confidence whatever the circumstances.

"...[T]he emotions of pride and shame may have evolved innate nonverbal expressions, challenging the long standing assumption in the emotion literature that only a small set of emotions fit within the Darwinian framework," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTracy, J.L., Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802686105

Note: Image reproduced with the permission of lead author Jessica Tracy.
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Is the internet changing our brains?

We hear so much these days about the plasticity of the human brain - its ability to adapt to changing demands and circumstances. If our neural architecture is forever being redrawn to meet our daily challenges then it makes you wonder about the inordinate amounts of time many of us now spend surfing the internet, flicking feverishly from one link to the next. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr believes our new digital habits are having real psychological effects:

"I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

This description certainly strikes a chord with me. When I go on holiday and subject myself to a self-imposed internet ban, I'm sure it takes me several days to overcome the information withdrawal that ensues. Carr too thinks we're growing dependent on a constant stream of information:
"...the Net seems to be...chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Carr isn't the first person to recognise the possible psychological effects that the internet might be having on us. For some time, neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has been warning that the immediacy and short-term excitement of screen interaction is stripping away our ability to follow a narrative and to understand context (you can hear Greenfield discuss her worries on Radio 4's Start the Week).

However, it's easy to forget that humans have always adapted to changing technologies. There's nothing to suggest that the impact of the internet or computer use on our brains and behaviour will be on a different scale to previous new technologies.

Indeed, over at Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell recently uncovered an article about the 19th century neurologists George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell who were worried about the pace of life and the harmful effect new technologies were having on the brains of American citizens.

As Vaughan says, the article provides "a lovely illustration of the fact that since the dawn of popular medicine, our cultural concerns about changes in society are likely to be expressed in the language of illness and disease."

"This is not to say that all fears about new technologies are unfounded," he adds "but it's clear that they are quickly medicalised and get far more prominence than the evidence supports, both in the 19th century and in the 21st."

Link to Atlantic Monthly article.
Link to Nicholas Carr's Blog.
Link to Susan Greenfield describing her concerns on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.
Link to Vaughan Bell providing some historical context at Mind Hacks.
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Why so many people perish needlessly in emergencies

The stress caused by an emergency situation impairs people's attentional control, leaving them unable to pursue the actions necessary for their survival. That's according to John Leach and Louise Ansell who said their research helps explain "at least one anomaly that exists in survivorship: why so many people perish when there is no need". The pair cite the example of air crash passengers who fail to withhold inflating their life-jackets until the appropriate time, thus imperilling their lives.

Leach and Ansell tested the cognitive abilities of 14 RAF crew while they were out on a two-week survival exercise in Northern England. The exercise simulated an "aircraft down incident" and took place during the Winter with conditions of hail and snow.

A task that required the crew to identify locations on a map was used as a measure of selective attention. This showed that, once deployed in the field, the crew were impaired when compared against a control group of colleagues back at base, and also against their own classroom-based performance prior to the survival exercise. Their ability recovered after about three days in the field.

Once deployed, the crew also showed impaired sustained attention. This was measured by their ability to spot lottery numbers appearing in a boring ten-minute read-out of numbers.

"This form of cognitive impairment makes flexible interaction with the survival environment difficult and the victim’s behaviour becomes dominated by environmental cues at the expense of wilful, goal-directed survival behaviour," the researchers concluded. "The often witnessed result is of a victim who is cognitively unable to aid his own survival."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLeach, J., Ansell, L. (2008). Impairment in attentional processing in a field survival environment. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(5), 643-652. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1385
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Why conservatives are happier than liberals

Psychologists at New York University say they've found the answer to why people with right wing political views are happier than left-leaning liberals (as previously indicated by survey research). In short, conservatives are less upset by inequality because they believe people generally get what they deserve in life.

Jaime Napier and John Jost gave questionnaires to over a thousand Americans and found that conservatives were happier than liberals even after controlling for the possible influence of demographic differences, such as in wealth and religiosity. Crucially, they found that at least some of the difference in happiness was explained by the conservatives being less bothered by inequality.

A second study found a similar pattern in nine other countries, including New Zealand, Norway and Spain. This time the greater happiness of conservatives was associated with their meritocratic beliefs - for example, their belief that, in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life.

A final study showed that liberals in America have grown less happy as inequality has risen, whereas the happiness of conservatives has remained unaffected. This appears to confirm Napier and Jost's contention that right wing political beliefs can guard against the potentially upsetting effects of inequality.

The pair concluded that beliefs can have a protective effect on happiness in other walks of life too. "Research suggests that highly egalitarian women are less happy in their marriages compared with their more traditional counterparts apparently because they are more troubled by disparities in domestic labour" they said.

Napier, J.L., Jost, J.T. (2008). Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?. Psychological Science, 19(6), 565-572. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02124.x

Also on the Digest:
Conservatives are less creative than liberals
People sensitive to disgust are more likely to hold right-wing views
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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:

Cognitive ethology: A new approach for studying human cognition (British Journal of Psychology).

International perspectives on videoconferencing and the law (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Innovations in the study of the work - family interface (Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology).

Play and playfulness (European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling).
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Paralysed by humour? Don't make me laugh

Yesterday the BBC reported the case of Kay Underwood, a 20-year-old student who can't help collapsing if she's made to laugh. Underwood says her friends think she's putting it on, but in fact she has cataplexy. This is a condition that affects a minority of patients with narcolepsy (a tendency to fall asleep in the day). It involves the muscles weakening in response to certain emotional triggers, most often humour. Other documented cases include a man who experienced weakness and trembling when it was his turn during a game of draughts.

Fortunately for those curious to know more about cataplexy, two open-access articles have been published this year, both of which report the results of brain scans taken of patients with the condition while they were exposed to cartoons or funny pictures.

Their findings are slightly contradictory, in that the first by Sophie Schwartz and colleagues found decreased activity in the hypothalamus of the patients compared with controls, whereas the second paper by Allan Reiss' team found increased activity in this brain region.

However, both papers agree that the condition appears to reflect abnormally intense activity in at least some of the brain's emotion network when exposed to humour (for example both studies found exaggerated activation of the amygdala and nucleus accumbens).

The paper by Allan Reiss made several other notable observations: (1) the patients with cataplexy reported finding the cartoons significantly less funny than the controls. This may reflect their attempt to avoid a cataplectic attack by stifling their emotional response to the cartoons. (2) The patients showed greater activity in a region on the right-hand side of the front of the brain, known to be involved in inhibitory control - again suggesting some kind of damping mechanism aiming to keep a lid on the over-reaction of the brain's emotional areas. (3) The researchers managed to grab a brain scan of one patient caught in the midst of a full-blown cataplectic attack. This revealed significantly reduced activity in his hypothalamus. Based on this, the researchers said "massive suppression of hypothalamic activity may be an essential component of a cascade of neural events leading to muscle atonia" (i.e. the weakening that leads Kay Underwood to collapse).

In other words, it sounds like people with cataplexy have an exaggerated emotional response and that sometimes their brains overcompensate for this with such a powerful inhibitory mechanism that it literally leaves them flattened.

Link to BBC News item.
Link to study of man who grew weak when playing draughts.
Link to Brain article on imaging patients with cataplexy (open access).
Link to PLoS One article on the same (open access).
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Therapy more effective when psychologists focus on their clients' strengths

There's a growing body of evidence showing that, rather than just focusing on problems, it can be beneficial for psychologists to remind clients of their strengths - an approach sometimes known as "resource activation".

Now Christoph Fluckiger and Martin Holtforth have taken this a stage further. They've found that getting psychologists to think about their clients' strengths for a few minutes before a therapy session is great for the quality of the therapist-client relationship and leads to improved recovery for the clients.

Twenty trainee psychotherapists practising an eclectic form of therapy, including CBT, each saw a client for twenty sessions. Before and after each of the first five sessions, the therapists had a five minute chat with a colleague about their client's strengths and how successfully they had managed to remind their client of his or her strengths.

The researchers dug out comparison data on twenty similar therapist-client pairs treated at the same clinic in the past. Compared with these previous therapist-client pairs, the trainee psychotherapists primed to think about their clients' strengths subsequently had a better relationship with their clients (as judged by videotapes of their sessions) and their clients showed greater improvement by their twentieth session.

"Future studies need to investigate further which specific resource-activating therapist behaviours are most effective for which patients and for which specific therapist," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFluckiger, C., Grosse Holtforth, M. (2008). Focusing the therapist's attention on the patient's strengths: a preliminary study to foster a mechanism of change in outpatient psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(7), 876-890. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20493
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Accounts of post-traumatic symptoms in the bible.

Can brain imaging be used to identify whether claims of dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder) are genuine?

How mood affects group decision making.

Don't go shopping when you're feeling low.

Forensic inpatients with tattoos are more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, to have been sexually abused in the past, to have attempted suicide and to have a history of substance abuse.
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Why we think we're better than the rest - it's not all vanity

Ask any driver how skilled they are at the wheel and they're bound to say they're above average (even though a large proportion of drivers must, by definition, be below average). This is just one example of what psychologists call a "self-serving bias" or the "above average" effect. It's part of the general tendency most of us have to view ourselves in a particularly favourable light.

The obvious, egocentric explanation for why we do this is that it makes us feel better about ourselves. But there are at least two other more innocent explanations, which are based on subtle flaws in our thinking.

The first possibility is that we find it easier to consider the favourable evidence for a single person than we do for a whole group. Consistent with this is the finding that people tend to be biased when comparing any single individual, not just themselves, against a group of others.

There's also the possibility that we're biased towards the "target" in any comparison. The "target" is the entity that is being measured up against some benchmark. Following this logic, if I asked you how good all other drivers are compared with you (thus making other drivers the "target" of the comparison and you the benchmark), then this ought to reduce the bias you'd show towards yourself.

A new study has tried to get to the bottom of what causes the "above average effect" by pitching these three explanations against each other. Zlatan Krizan and Jerry Suls Dozens asked dozens of undergraduates to list a group of friends or acquaintances, to take one member of that group and then compare that individual with the rest of the group on some attribute - say, generosity.

The researchers varied the contribution of the three factors thought to cause the "above average effect" by altering whether the student or another individual was the target of the comparison, by varying whether the student was or wasn't left among the remaining group members to be compared against, by varying the size of the group, and by switching whether it was the group or the individual who was the target of the comparison.

The researchers' conclusion after inviting the students to perform all these comparisons was that the obvious egocentric explanation for the "above average" effect is actually far weaker than has previously been assumed.

For example, asked to compare the generosity of an individual with the generosity of the rest of the group, students still showed a preferential bias toward the individual, even if they were themselves one of the members of the rest of the group. This remained true even if the group (which the student was themselves a member of) was made the target of a comparison against an individual. In other words, it is the difficulty we have thinking about the favourable evidence for groups, as opposed to individuals, that seems to be the crucial factor underlying the "above average effect".

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKRIZAN, Z., SULS, J. (2008). Losing sight of oneself in the above-average effect: When egocentrism, focalism, and group diffuseness collide. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 929-942. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.01.006
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