The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web so you don't have to:

Individual and group counseling in the practice of school psychology (Psychology in the Schools).

Charles Darwin and Psychology (American Psychologist).

Trauma, resilience and growth (Counselling and Psychotherapy).

New directions in the psychology of justice: International perspectives (Australian Journal of Psychology).

Intelligence and the brain (Intelligence).
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Women really are better than men at processing faces

Often, if a film features two characters who look vaguely similar - for instance both are tall, dark-haired, middle-aged men - I will find myself confusing the two, as I struggle to form a distinct impression of each of their faces. Maybe it's to do with the fact I'm male. New research by Ryan McBain has built on previous, more equivocal studies by showing that women are better than men at spotting a face in a display, and better at distinguishing between faces.

In an initial experiment, 35 women and 27 men had to say as fast as possible where on a screen a line drawing of a face appeared. The drawing was basic, showing only the outline of eye-brows, a nose, mouth and chin, and was embedded among other random lines. The female participants were more accurate than the men for this face-spotting task, whereas both sexes performed equally well during a control task that required them to spot trees.

A second experiment required 18 men and 18 women to look at a briefly presented target face and then say which of two subsequent faces, presented together, was the same as the initial target face.

When the conditions were easiest - with a short (half a second) interval between the target and subsequent faces, and the faces were displayed crisply - the male participants matched the performance of the female participants. However, as the task was made more difficult, either by extending the retention interval (to 3 seconds), or by reducing the visual quality of the images, the female participants began to outperform the men.

Previous research on this topic has suggested women, rather than being superior at face processing in general, might be better only at processing emotional facial expressions, or only at processing female faces. By using emotionally neutral and gender neutral faces, the present research suggests that women have a general face processing advantage, especially in more difficult viewing conditions.

McBain's team said it was at present unclear how much sex differences in face processing are innate or learned. "Future investigations which compare face recognition performance in male and female children and adults may provide insight regarding the extent to which culture (e.g. gender role socialisation) influences gender-related differences in face perception," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgR MCBAIN, D NORTON, Y CHEN (2009). Females excel at basic face perception. Acta Psychologica, 130 (2), 168-173 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2008.12.005
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BOLD-faced lie detection

You wouldn't know it from the claims of companies like No Lie MRI, but we're a long way off being able to use brain scans to detect reliably whether a person is lying or not. Nonetheless, cognitive psychologists are busy beavering away in the background, testing the ways that brain activity varies when people lie compared with when they tell the truth. One such study has just been published, claiming to be the first to investigate deception in the context of face recognition.

Sujeeta Bhatt and colleagues scanned the brains of 18 participants undergoing a simple task designed to simulate a police line-up. The researchers compared brain activity across three conditions: when the participants pointed out truthfully which face from three they'd seen earlier; when they lied and pointed to a new face rather than the one they'd seen earlier; and finally a condition where all the faces were new but the participants lied and pretended to have seen one of them before.

No single brain area was active when the participants lied compared with when they told the truth. However, a network of frontal and parietal regions were more active in the lying conditions. This network included the dorso- and ventro- lateral prefrontal cortices, the superior frontal gyri, and the anterior cingulate gyrus, all of which are found at the front of the brain. These areas are known to be involved in working memory, response selection and error monitoring. In the parietal lobe, the precuneus - an area known to be involved in visual imagery- also showed increased activity during lying.

"It is possible that the frontal and parietal area activation seen in the current study is a result of the complex interplay of working memory, response inhibition, sustained attention, and mental calculations necessary for our subjects to make a deceptive response," Sujeeta Bhatt and her colleagues said.

However, they further acknowledged that like other studies in this field, their findings are limited by the fact that their participants were not under anything like the kind of pressure that is normally associated with lying in real life. Also, don't forget studies like this one are looking at average group differences in lying versus truth-telling conditions, rather than studying an individual, as would presumably be required most often in real-life settings. That said, this study makes a worthy contribution to an emerging field that piece by piece will surely one day soon lead to a brain-based lie detection system - watch this space!

ResearchBlogging.orgBhatt, S., Mbwana, J., Adeyemo, A., Sawyer, A., Hailu, A., & VanMeter, J. (2009). Lying about facial recognition: An fMRI study Brain and Cognition, 69 (2), 382-390 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2008.08.033

There are plenty of popular science articles about the potential of brain-based lie detection. Here's a sample:
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Turning talking therapies into doing therapies

There's plenty of research evidence for the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but for some reason it doesn't always seem to work so well in real-life settings. In what many psychologists will surely find a readable and helpful paper, CBT expert Glenn Waller outlines why this is often the case, providing solutions along the way.

The biggest single problem, according to Waller, is that real life clinicians often fail to deliver proper CBT with all its active ingredients. For example, one of the most important aspects of CBT is behavioural change, yet clinicians often shy away from encouraging clients to adopt the changes they need to make, especially when such changes are likely to provoke increased anxiety in the short term.

"Many clinicians make the effort to reduce or to avoid immediate patient distress (and hence their own anxiety about whether they are doing the right thing) by being 'nice' to the patient," Waller explained. "However, this short-term strategy means that we do not press for critical therapy tasks to be done, thus leading to long-term therapeutic immobility".

Waller reminds clinicians they need to work with their clients to agree on a formulation, and an agreed plan of action, with both parties recognising that this plan, while bringing long-term benefit, might well be difficult in the short term.

Clinicians also need to be assertive in bringing structure to sessions. Many clients may well arrive at therapy sessions keen to discuss immediate crises in their life - but spending each session reacting to these crises rather than working through the long-term goals of CBT will prevent any progress being made.

It's a similar story with so-called "therapy interfering" behaviours - many clinicians find themselves complicit in a client's avoidance of homework even though this is a crucial part of CBT. Clinicians should remind clients of the rationale for the home-work and how vital it is for lasting change to be achieved.

Waller says one reason clinicians will often avoid challenging their client's avoidant behaviours, especially if this is stressful for the client, is because they fear being negatively judged. "The clinician needs to know that he or she is not being judged by short-term, necessary negative transitions (e.g. increased patient anxiety)," Waller said. "Rather he or she needs to be helped in supervision to focus on the value of long-term outcomes that probably depend on those negative short-term steps."

Other advice in the paper includes recognising when therapy isn't working and bringing it to an end, and resisting switching, without a clear rationale, to so-called "third-wave" therapies, such as schema therapy, which often lack a behavioural change element.

ResearchBlogging.orgWaller, G. (2009). Evidence-based treatment and therapist drift. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47 (2), 119-127 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2008.10.018
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

How to critically appraise an article.

What can magicians teach us about the brain?

Exploring the way anxiety may be passed from parents to their children.

Comparing the brain activity of architects and non-architects looking at buildings.

Distinguishing leaders from followers, among fish.

How to interview children.
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The empathic powers of those who can't feel pain

A popular account for how we empathise with other people's physical pain involves the idea that we perform a mental simulation of their suffering, using the pain pathways of our own brain. Support for this comes from research showing that when I see you in pain, the pain areas of my own brain are pricked into activity.

Now an intriguing study by Nicolas Danziger and colleagues has tested this simulation account with the help of patients with congenital insensitivity to pain - that is, they've grown up with abnormal pain fibres, thus rendering them unable to feel physical pain. The findings may require us to rethink the way we characterise some brain areas associated with pain processing.

Thirteen patients with the inability to feel pain, plus 13 healthy controls, had their brains scanned while they viewed videos of body parts being injured and people's painful facial expressions.

Even though the patients had never felt pain themselves, the sight of other people's pain triggered activity in the insular and anterior mid-cingulate cortex of their brains - areas which have previously been associated with pain processing, and which were also activated in the brains of the controls.

"These findings challenge the frequently advanced hypothesis that activity in these regions during observed pain corresponds to the automatic engagement of the observer's own pain circuits through a mirror matching mechanism," the researchers said.

Danziger's team argue that activity in these regions may instead reflect processing of the aversive emotional significance of what the patients were witnessing. Consistent with this account are findings showing that the insular and mid-cingulate cortex are also associated with psychological pain, induced by social exclusion or grief. Perhaps the patients in this study drew on their experience of this kind of pain so as to empathise with the physical pain of others.

This fits with the fact that the control participants, but not the patients, showed more physical arousal when their insular and mid-cingulate cortex were more active, whereas the patients did not. The implication being that the control participants were simulating the pain seen in the clips in a more "embodied" way than the patients.

A further finding was that for the patients only, their scores on an empathy questionnaire correlated with the extent to which the pain-related video clips triggered activity in midline brain regions known to be involved with taking the perspective of others (e.g. the medial pre-frontal cortex). Danziger and his colleagues said this could further reflect the fact that the patients were relying on emotional perspective taking to compensate for their inability to simulate the sensory aspects of pain.

ResearchBlogging.orgNicolas Danziger, Isabelle Faillenot, Roland Peyron (2009). Can We Share a Pain We Never Felt? Neural Correlates of Empathy in Patients with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. Neuron, 61 (2), 203-212 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.11.023
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Digest on Twitter

For links to the latest psychology radio shows, art exhibitions, podcasts, and all that malarkey, sign-up to the Research Digest on Twitter (this is a trial in the first instance).
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What's in a baby's smile?

Watch a nine-month-old baby playing with his mother and it's already apparent that the child is a truly social being. You'll doubtless see him smiling and directing his mother's attention to share what he's interested in. But according to Meaghan Parlade and colleagues, not all babies at this age have equal social skills - subtle differences in their social behaviour can be discerned and are predictive of social and emotional adjustment eighteen months later.

One such behaviour that varies between babies is what the researchers call "anticipatory smiling" - the act of looking at an object, such as a toy, smiling, and then gazing at mum, dad, or some other social partner, with that smile still in place. By way of contrast, a "reactive smile" is where the baby looks at a toy, turns to their mum and smiles only after making eye contact. The "anticipatory smile" is deemed a more advance social skill because it reflects a motivation to engage others using positive emotion.

Parlade's team videoed babies interacting with their care-givers when they were six, eight, ten, twelve and thirty months old. What they found was evidence of a clear developmental trajectory: babies at six months who smiled more at a suddenly unresponsive parent (a test known as the "still face" procedure) also tended to employ more "anticipatory smiles" between the age of eight and twelve months, and in turn, those babies who used more "anticipatory smiles" tended to be more socially competent at thirty months, as judged by such things as their ability to play well with other children and talk about feelings. By contrast, earlier use of "reactive smiles" did not have this association with later social competence.

"These associations suggest a line of continuity between infants' emotional expressivity during early social situations and later adaptive relatedness with others," the researchers said. "Anticipatory smiles may signify an awareness of the separate attentional state and affective availability of the other."

ResearchBlogging.orgM PARLADE, D MESSINGER, C DELGADO, M KAISER, A VANHECKE, P MUNDY (2009). Anticipatory smiling: Linking early affective communication and social outcome. Infant Behavior and Development, 32 (1), 33-43 DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.09.007
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Want to know how you'll feel? Ask a friend

We're useless at predicting how we'll feel in future situations. What we dread usually doesn't leave us feeling so bad after all, and events we relish often end up leaving us cold. Now Dan Gilbert and colleagues have shown that our predictive powers can be improved in a rather simple way: by learning how someone else in our social network found the same experience. The trouble is we seem to have a persistent mental block about this, believing that our own best guess will be more insightful than information on how another person found the experience.

In an initial experiment, female undergrads predicted their enjoyment of a five-minute speed date. Those students who were told how much another female student had enjoyed speed-dating the same man subsequently forecast their own enjoyment far more accurately than did students who made their forecast based on factual information about the man. Despite this, at the end of the experiment, the participants still believed that information about a future dating partner would be a more useful aid to predicting their dating enjoyment than information about another woman's experience.

In a second experiment, students predicted how they would feel after having their personality categorised on the basis of a story they'd written. Consistent with the first experiment, those students who were told how another student had felt after the same experience subsequently forecast their own reaction far more accurately than did students who were instead given detailed information about the personality categorisation system.

"When we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbour's experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess," Gilbert and his colleagues said.

The Digest asked Prof Gilbert why we make this systematic error. "My best guess," he told us, "is that we overestimate our uniqueness and thus don't think that other people's experiences can tell us much about our own."

Link to podcast interview with study author.
Link to previous Digest post about Dan Gilbert.
Link to earlier Digest post: We're useless at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally.
Link to earlier Digest post: Overestimating the impact of future events.

ResearchBlogging.orgD.T. Gilbert, M.A. Killingsworth, & R.N. Eyre (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science, 323, 1617-1619 DOI: 10.1126/science.1166632
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web so you don't have to:

Stress-induced depression and comorbidities: From bench to bedside. (PLoS One).

Mathematics in brain imaging. (NeuroImage).

Assortment structure and choice (Psychology and Marketing).

Episodic memory and healthy ageing (Memory).

Coming soon: Celebrating a century of psychological research (British Journal of Psychology). Over the past 100 years, the British Journal of Psychology has helped to shape the history of psychology with influential articles written by world class researchers. Volume 100 celebrates with a special issue.

And don't forget the Perspectives on Psychological Science special issue on how we can improve psychological research.
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Are these the most important discoveries in the history of psychology?

From The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker:
"The three laws of behavioural genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology. Yet most psychologists have not come to grips with them... It is not because the laws are abstruse: each can be stated in a sentence, without mathematical paraphernalia. Rather, it is because the laws run roughshod over the Blank Slate [the idea that everything is learned, nothing innate], and the Blank Slate is so entrenched that many intellectuals cannot comprehend an alternative to it, let alone argue about whether it is right or wrong.

Here are the three laws:
  • All human behavioural traits are heritable.
  • The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  • A substantial proportion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families."
Later Pinker explains the implications the laws have for psychological research. For example:
"The First Law implies that any study that measures something in parents and something in their biological children and then draws conclusions about the effects of parenting is worthless, because the correlations may simply reflect their shared genes (aggressive parents may breed aggressive children, talkative parents talkative children)."
Previously on the Digest: Switching the parents around.
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Treating schizophrenia without drugs

There's no doubt the discovery of anti-psychotic drugs was a breakthrough. Previously people with schizophrenia could expect hospital confinement and little in the way of actual treatment. Today's anti-psychotics are safer than the early versions, but they still have serious side-effects and because their prescription for psychosis is so routine, there's a danger that some people, who might otherwise recover with psychological help only, are taking them unnecessarily.

This is a difficult area to study because any research that denies patients the drugs they need will rightly raise alarm bells. John Bola and colleagues scoured the literature looking for studies where drug treatments for schizophrenia were delayed for a set period of time, in conditions where patients received plentiful psychological and social support. They found five such studies involving 261 participants with schizophrenia, many of whom were not given anti-psychotic medication immediately. Their outcomes were compared between one and three years' later with patients who were treated with drugs straight away.

These studies included the Rappaport Agnews State Hospital Project (pdf), the Soteria project and Soteria Bern Project (pdf), the Finnish API Project and the Cullberg Parachute Project. Across all these studies, the psychosocial treatments varied, but in general patients were provided with a community-based therapeutic milieu with ample social support, a relaxing environment, and with family therapy often also included.

Among the patients for whom drug treatment was delayed, about one-third actually ended up recovering without needing to take medication at all, and longer-term, their outcomes tended to be superior to those patients who were treated with drugs immediately.

Bola's team said these findings show that in a residential care context (where medication can be prescribed swiftly if needed) it is possible to research drug-free approaches to schizophrenia in a safe and ethical way. And they added that that the findings point to a sub-type of schizophrenia that is associated with spontaneous recovery, in contrast to the trend for deterioration shown by the majority of patients.

"The above cited studies at least highlight the fact that no disadvantages and several advantages have been noted with no or a low-dose anti-psychotic medication in combination with psychosocial interventions for first episode schizophrenia spectrum patients," the researchers said.

Previously on the Research Digest: "Caring for psychotic patients with maximum kindness and minimum medication".

ResearchBlogging.orgJR Bola, K. Lehtinen, J Cullberg, L Ciompi (2009). Psychosocial treatment, antipsychotic postponement, and low-dose medication strategies in first-episode psychosis: A review of the literaturePsychosis, 1 (1), 4-18
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Early visual areas of the brain may have a role in memory

The traditional view is that perceptual information is processed in early sensory regions of the brain, such as primary visual cortex, before being passed on to memory systems subserved by "high-order" brain areas, such as the prefrontal and inferotemporal cortices. Aside from being an oversimplification, a further problem with this account is that the the high-order brain regions don't have the precision to handle visual detail, thus leading to the conundrum of how exactly we store visual detail in short-term memory.

Past research has shown that activity in primary visual cortex often decays rather rapidly after a visual stimulus disappears, thus seeming to preclude these regions from serving a memory function. However, a new study by psychologists Stephenie Harrison and Frank Tong suggests that early visual processing areas do in fact hold visual information in storage - a finding that suggests we need to have re-think about the functional roles we ascribe to early visual cortex.

Harrison and Tong scanned the brains of six volunteers while they watched two "gratings" (i.e. scrolling bars; see image above) presented in succession on a computer screen, each with a different orientation. A cue then indicated which grating should be remembered, and finally a third test grating appeared after a delay and the participants had to say whether the test grating matched the earlier grating they were cued to remember.

Remarkably, the researchers were able to decode the orientation of the to-be-remembered grating using activity patterns they'd recorded from the participants' early visual cortices during the retention period, between the disappearance of the first two gratings and the appearance of the test grating. And they were able to do this with astonishing accuracy (80 per cent and upwards, where chance performance would be 50 per cent). This remained true even though activity levels in these regions dropped dramatically for half the participants - as has been found in past research.

"This indicates that maintaining an orientation in working memory is associated with widespread changes in orientation selective activity throughout the early visual system, including V1 [primary visual cortex], the first stage of orientation processing," the researchers said.

In a second experiment, the researchers again recorded activity patterns in the participants' early visual cortices when they were exposed to gratings, but this time the gratings were irrelevant to the task at hand. The patterns of activity in early visual cortex triggered by the irrelevant gratings matched closely the patterns found when the gratings were held in memory in the first experiment. In other words, storing an orientation in working memory seems to recruit many of the same orientation-selective neuronal subpopulations as when the same grating orientation is merely observed but not attended to.

The researchers said: "We find that early visual areas are not only important for processing information about the immediate sensory environment, but can also maintain information in the absence of direct input to support higher-order cognitive functions."

ResearchBlogging.orgStephenie A. Harrison, Frank Tong (2009). Decoding reveals the contents of visual working memory in early visual areas. Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature07832
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Botox patients help emotion researchers

The idea that the mere act of smiling can cheer us up is traceable to Darwin's "facial feedback hypothesis" and also to the work of famous American psychologist William James, who believed that muscular as well as more visceral bodily feedback influences our emotional state.

Modern research showing the influence of facial expression on mood has supported these classic theories, but an aspect that remains unclear is whether it is the neural command to pull a given facial expression that influences emotion centres in the brain, or if instead or additionally, it is feedback from the skin and muscles regarding the position of our facial features.

Now Andreas Hennenlotter and colleagues have devised an ingenious way to test these possibilities, by conducting experiments on women who'd received botox (botulinum toxin) injections to their face for cosmetic reasons, thus rendering them unable to flex the frown muscles of their face (corrugator supercilii).

Thirty-eight women had their brains scanned while they imitated pictures of sad or angry facial expressions. Crucially, half of them were tested prior to receiving botox injections to their frown muscles, while the other half were tested two weeks afterwards when the effects of botox are greatest.

As expected, imitating an angry or sad facial expression provoked increased activity bilaterally in the amygdala region of both groups of participants - this is a structure of the brain known to be critically involved in emotions.

However, for angry expressions, activity in the left amygdala was lower in the women who'd already received botox compared with those who hadn't yet had it. This suggests that pulling an angry expression has an effect on the amygdala, via both the neural command to flex the face muscles and via feedback from the positioning of the facial muscles and movement of the skin (the latter being absent for the botox-injected women).

There was no difference in amygdala activation between the two groups when they pulled sad facial expressions, but there were differences in orbitofrontal cortex activity - this is a region involved in evaluating the emotional value of touch signals.

"Our findings provide evidence that peripheral feedback from face muscles and skin during imitation modulates neural activity within central circuitries that are known to be involved in the representation of emotional states," the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgHennenlotter, A., Dresel, C., Castrop, F., Ceballos Baumann, A., Wohlschlager, A., & Haslinger, B. (2008). The Link between Facial Feedback and Neural Activity within Central Circuitries of Emotion--New Insights from Botulinum Toxin-Induced Denervation of Frown Muscles Cerebral Cortex, 19 (3), 537-542 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhn104
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How can we improve the science and practice of psychological science?

The journal Perspectives on Psychological Science has published an unmissable open-access issue all about how we can improve psychological research. There are 26 articles in all, focusing on how psychological research is conducted, reviewed and published, as well as papers on the teaching of psychology and the application of psychology in the real world.

Perhaps most enjoyable is a piece by David Trafimow and Stephen Rice of New Mexico State University who imagine the kind of editorial reviews famous scientific papers of the past would have received, had they been reviewed by contemporary psychologists. Among the papers Trafimow and Rice believe would have been rejected are Einstein's paper on relativity and William Harvey's paper on systemic circulation of blood!

Based on current review practices, they predict a rejection letter to Einstein from a typical contemporary psychological editor would include the following: "At best, your theory provides an incremental contribution, which is not sufficiently strong to justify publication in a journal as competitive as ours."

To William Harvey, Trafimow and Rice imagined the following editorial conclusion: "Although your argument is extremely clever, your dependence on entities that cannot be directly measured and the general inability of your theory to make predictions that might be falsified preclude publication in a journal as competitive as ours happens to be. You might consider sending your work to a philosophical journal, where speculative arguments such as yours might be evaluated more favorably."

Apart from its entertainment value, the purpose of Trafimow and Rice's exercise is to demonstrate the biases and rules of thumb that pervade the way psychologists review each other's work, from subjectively evaluating the importance of new ideas, to expecting new research to be connected to previous literature. Addressing their psychological colleagues, the pair conclude "Above all, do not be the next person to squelch a potentially great work because of ill-considered criticisms, even if the criticisms are standard in the field."

Elsewhere Edwin Locke argues it's time to bring introspection - the act of reflecting on one's own mental processes - out of the closet, after an unofficial ban lasting over 100 years. "The anti-introspection bias discourages psychologists themselves from introspecting, and not only because colleagues would probably frown upon it," he says. "Virtually no top journal would consider introspective reports to be publishable. Yet, introspection could provide valuable raw material for building theories, especially if psychologists worked together to stimulate one another’s thinking."

Shelley Taylor argues that psychology journals need to become a little savvier in this age of online publishing and cross-fertilisation between scientific disciplines. "Many of our papers are simply too long. Does anyone actually read them?" she asks. "For example, the flagship journal of social psychology, the Journal of Personality of Social Psychology, is often characterized by multiple studies that differ from each other in tiny ways, making the review process tediously long and the articles tediously dull. Other journals are increasingly adopting a word limit between 2,500 and 6,000 words, and psychological journals might profitably do the same."

In what is surely one of the most important contributions to the special issue, Ludy Benjamin Jr. and David Baker call for the history of psychology to become a compulsory element of doctoral courses in psychology, arguing that such a move would provide a vital antidote to the fragmentation of the discipline into ever more specialisms. "As psychologists, we share a connection, and that connection is found in our shared history. We owe it to our students and our discipline that a framework exists that causes us to see beyond the narrowness of our daily endeavors."

All the papers in the issue are worth checking out, but the last one I'd like to mention here is by Gregory Walton and Carol Dweck, who argue that psychology is failing to meet its potential to help address social problems. Psychology, they argue, is uniquely placed to help, offering as it does rigorous methodology combined with insight into psychological processes. Walton and Dweck point to psychology's identification of "stereotype threat", in the context of group differences in performance, as one example, and decision framing, in the context of organ donation, as another. "When people are required to opt-out if they do not want to donate their organs, the suggestion is that opting-in is the favored choice," they write.

"It is hard to think of an important social problem that does not have a psychological component," Walton and Dweck conclude. "Yet sometimes in the general clamor of the public discourse, psychological issues and solutions are lost. With a sustained emphasis from researchers and journal editors, psychologists can begin to illuminate the psychological dimension of other seemingly intractable social problems. By exploring these social problems, psychologists may identify novel psychological phenomena, join interdisciplinary teams of problem solvers, and display the strength and unique contributions of our field."
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Experts point to lack of gesturing as reason for smaller vocabulary in poor children

Psychologists at the University of Chicago say one explanation for why children from poorer families have smaller vocabularies is that their parents communicate with them using a narrow range of gestures.

The use of gestures, such as pointing, has been recognised as an important aspect of child development for some time. For example, the amount a child gestures at a young age predicts her later vocabulary size.

In this study, Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow observed 50 families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in the Chicago area. They first measured the variety of gestures and speech used by parents and their children during a 90-minute session when the children were 14 months old, and then they measured the children's vocabulary when they were aged 54 months.

Rowe and Goldin-Meadow found that parents and children from poorer backgrounds (i.e. of low socioeconomic status) used a narrower range of gestures when they interacted with each other compared with parents and children from more affluent backgrounds. This link between socioeconomic status and child gesturing disappeared when parental gesturing was controlled for statistically, thus suggesting, but by no means proving, that parental gesturing could be playing a causal role.

Next, Rowe and Goldin-Meadow found a link between family socioeconomic background and children's vocabulary at 54 months - an association which was weakened when the children's range of gesturing at 14 months was taken into account. In other words, at least part of the reason children from poorer backgrounds have smaller vocabularies seems to be because they use a narrower range of gestures when they're aged 14 months. Combining this observation with the earlier finding about the role of parental gesturing, implies but by no means proves, that one reason children from poor backgrounds develop smaller vocabularies is because their parents gestured to them less when they were younger.

"Given our findings, it seems fruitful for future research to explore whether parents and children can be encouraged to increase the rate at which they spontaneously gesture when they speak," the researchers said.

Link to earlier related Digest post.

ResearchBlogging.orgMeredith L. Rowe, Susan Goldin-Meadow (2009). Differences in Early Gesture Explain SES Disparities in Child Vocabulary Size at School EntryScience, 323, 951 - 953.
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Thoughts of revenge can backfire

Who doesn't indulge in a few revenge fantasies from time to time? Unfortunately, when it comes to a dastardly colleague bullying you at work, the temptation to plot revenge, though irresistible, may well backfire.

Bernardo Moreno-Jiménez and colleagues surveyed 511 employees at three telecommunications firms in Madrid. Other researchers have tended to focus on organisational and situational factors that increase the likelihood of workplace bullying. Moreno-Jiménez's team took a different approach - they were interested in how the same bullying situations can affect people differently depending on their traits.

The surveys showed that stress at work, for example induced through having a conflict of roles, was related to a greater likelihood of being bullied, but that this association was reduced among people who were able to detach themselves from work, and those who reported spending less time thinking about revenge.

It was a similar story for the link between being bullied and suffering psychological strain, with those employees who were able to detach themselves, and those who spent less time fantasising about revenge, also tending to report less psychological strain in response to bullying.

As well as considering situational factors, Moreno-Jiménez and his colleagues said firms should also consider ways to help individuals deal with bullying at work, for example by encouraging them to avoid negative thoughts, such as of revenge.

Although there may be wisdom in the researchers' conclusions, this research is seriously hampered by its correlational design. It's perfectly feasible, for example, that thoughts of revenge are a consequence of bullying-induced psychological strain rather than a cause of it.

ResearchBlogging.orgB MORENOJIMENEZ, A RODRIGUEZMUNOZ, J PASTOR, A SANZVERGEL, E GARROSA (2009). The moderating effects of psychological detachment and thoughts of revenge in workplace bullying. Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (3), 359-364 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.10.031
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Who's the Daddy? Fathers invest more in children who resemble them

Dads who say their children resemble them also tend to report being emotionally closer to their children than do fathers who see their kids as looking less like them.

Marianne Heijkoop and colleagues made these observations after surveying 90 Dutch parents with children aged between eight and nine years. They argue the findings provide tentative support for the evolutionary-based idea that men will be more motivated to invest in children who look like themselves than those who don't. The theory is that men, unlike women, can never been wholly certain that a child is theirs, thus leading them to depend on cues, such as physical similarity, when deciding whether to invest in a given child.

The new findings support the idea that even today fathers are influenced by this innate tendency to invest more in children who resemble them. However, the cross-sectional methodology means that the case is far from closed. One alternative explanation for the results is that being emotionally closer to their children leads men to think their children resemble them more. 

Incidentally, physical resemblance had no association with the closeness of mothers to their children, but personality similarity did.

ResearchBlogging.orgMarianne Heijkoop, Judith Semon Dubas, Marcel van Aken (2009). Parent-child resemblance and kin investment: Physical resemblance or personality similarity? European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 6 (1), 64-69 DOI: 10.1080/17405620802642306
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A gift for students from The Psychologist magazine

The Psychologist magazine has trawled its archives and put together a special digital issue as a gift to students.

The digital format allows you to flick through the pages as if you had the publication in your hands. Inside you'll find articles on psychology's myths, the influence their names can have on people's lives, how psychology can save the world, what psychologists do, what makes a good lecturer, plus information on the benefits of becoming a student member of the British Psychological Society.

The Psychologist magazine is the Society's flagship publication, see the homepage for this month's issue, our latest news, a readers' forum and access to the online archive.

The Psychologist is free to members of the British Psychological Society
(join here), or just £60 per year (£70 overseas) for non-members (e-mail sarah.stainton [@]
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Visual illusion could help prevent falls

Visual illusions are not only fun, they also help show how the brain works by exploiting its shortcomings. But what about using visual illusions for practical benefit? By making a step look taller than it really is, David Elliott and colleagues have demonstrated a way of doing just that.

Trips on steps are nasty for anyone, but for the elderly they can be fatal. Two thousand elderly people die in the UK every year following a fall, with the majority of these falls happening on stairs.

Elliott's team asked twenty-one students to judge the height of two steps, one of which was decorated with horizontal bars on its leading face, thus making it look shorter; the other was decorated with vertical bars, thus making it look taller (the right-hand step on the image above). Both steps were actually the same height. Asked to estimate the height of the steps, the students guessed the height of the vertically decorated step to be just over 5 mm higher than the other step.

Most importantly, an eight-camera motion capture system showed that when the students stepped onto the steps, they lifted their foot higher for the vertically decorated step compared with the horizontally decorated step by a distance of about 5 mm. This was true whether the students looked with both eyes, or just one.

Most people trip on stairs because their toes clip the edge of the step, so an illusion that leads people to exaggerate the clearance they give to a step, even by only a small amount, could have significant benefits in terms of reducing falls. Ideally the researchers ought to have included a 'control' step that didn't feature any decoration. However, this was a preliminary study and the researchers anticipate the illusion will be enhanced through future tests, increasing foot clearance still further.

As well as having practical implications, this study also has theoretical importance. An influential account of visual processing posits that there are two pathways in the brain: the dorsal "where" pathway and the ventral "what" pathway, with only the latter being prone to visual illusions. In support of this account, some experiments have shown that people's perception can be tricked by an illusion (such as the size of an object) while their motor system is unaffected, as demonstrated by the person using an appropriate grip size. The current observation that both perception and action were tricked by the design of the steps, challenges this dual pathway account.

"The most parsimonious explanation of our results is that visuomotor actions are directed by the visual system without the need to invoke two wholly separate pathways for action and perception in the dorsal and ventral streams respectively," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgDavid B. Elliott, Anna Vale, David Whitaker, John G. Buckley (2009). Does My Step Look Big In This? A Visual Illusion Leads To Safer Stepping Behaviour. PLoS ONE, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004577
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the web so you don't have to:

Women and Criminality (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).

Cognitive Neuroscience of Drawing (Cortex). From the editorial: "From at least 30,000 years ago, humans pictured animals, such as rhinoceroses, horses, and lions, on the walls of the caves in which they lived. In spite of controversies over the level of cognitive evolution underlying such cave paintings, drawing is a distinguishing skill of human beings. ...[D]espite the ever-changing conventions of artistic representation, artists and painters may provide deep insights into principles governing brain processes, such as visual processing. Yet, drawing has received little attention in the neurosciences, possibly because so many processes are involved. ... To rekindle interest in investigating the cognitive and neuroscientific aspects of drawing, we proposed to Cortex to set up a special issue covering the different theoretical and methodological perspectives, hence this issue on Cognitive Neurosciences of Drawing."

Couple Relationships: a Missing Link Between Adult Attachment and Children's Outcomes (Attachment and Human Development).

State of the Art Research into Cognitive Load Theory (Computers in Human Behaviour).
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Txtng associated wiv superior reading skills

"It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped." John Humphreys, writing in the Daily Mail.
The growing use of mobile phones to send text messages, often with abbreviations and symbols (i.e. "textisms"), has been blamed by many for the alleged decline in correct English usage. But now Beverly Plester and colleagues have shown that young children who use more textisms also tend to be better readers.

Eighty-eight children aged between ten and twelve years were asked to compose text messages describing ten scenarios - for example, explaining to a friend that they'd missed the bus and would be late. Those children who used more textisms in their messages - including abbreviations like "bro", unconventional spellings like "skool" and so-called accent stylizations like "wiv" - also tended to score more highly on a reading task.

The study also showed that girls tended to use more textisms than boys, and that the earlier a child first started using a mobile phone, the more superior their reading ability tended to be.

The researchers think greater use of textisms may be a sign of increased phonological awareness - that is, awareness of the sounds that words are made of - a skill that's been linked with literacy for some time. However, this can't be the whole story - greater use of textisms was associated with better reading ability even when the influence of other factors, such as age, working memory and phonological skill were taken into account. One possibility is that texting could be associated with superior reading because it exposes children to printed text, which in itself is known to be beneficial to reading.

The researchers themselves acknowledge that these findings must be interpreted with caution. This is a correlational, rather than longitudinal, study so it doesn't prove that using textisms leads to superior reading. Also factors like socio-economic status weren't taken into account. Children who use more textisms may do so because their parents are better off and they've had more chance to send instant messages on computer. Another issue is that the researchers didn't study texts that the children had composed spontaneously in everyday life.

"As the possession of mobile phones touches younger and younger children by the year, continuing research into the ways using these phones contributes to developing linguistic competence will be very important," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeverly Plester, Clare Wood, Puja Joshi (2009). Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X320507
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