Learning to distinguish between other-race faces could help beat racism

Most of us find that people from other races look more similar to each other than people from our own race - a phenomenon dubbed the 'other race effect'. Sophie Lebrecht and colleagues reasoned that this perceptual bias could feed into people's implicit, non-conscious racial stereotypes. Now in an exciting new study they've shown that training people to distinguish among other-race faces can help reduce implicit racism.

Twenty White participants completed a test of their implicit racism towards African American people. As expected, the participants were quicker at identifying a negative word after presentation of an African American face than they were at identifying a positive word.

Half the students then received training in discriminating among African American faces, after which they re-took the implicit racism test and showed significantly reduced evidence of implicit racism. The other students, who acted as control group, were exposed to as many African American faces in the training period, but received no practice at discriminating among them. On re-testing, their implicit racism was unchanged.

The finding suggests that by improving people's ability to discriminate among other-race faces, their implicit racial biases can be reduced. This makes intuitive sense. After all, if people from a given race all seem to look alike, then it's not so hard to believe that they are similar in other ways too. In contrast, learning to see the visible differences between people of another race, makes it harder to lump them altogether in social and cultural ways.

"Our findings have great potential for how we understand and address the real-world consequences of racial stereotyping," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, James W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215
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How the weather can affect your memory

Psychologists have known for some time that mood can have an effect on memory: for example, we're more likely to remember events that are consistent with our current state of mind, and a bad mood is known to reduce the likelihood of people recalling false memories.

In the latter case, the theory is that a bad mood triggers a more sceptical, careful mode of processing, in contrast to the less vigilant, conceptual thinking style that characterises a good mood. Now Joseph Forgas and colleagues have taken this line of work out of the lab and into the real world, showing how the weather can affect our memory via its effects on our mood.

The researchers employed the help of a newsagents shop in Sydney and tested the ability of 73 shoppers to recall ten objects, including a piggy savings jar and toy cars, that were placed around the counter. The shoppers were quizzed after they left the store, with half of them tested on rainy, cloudy days and the others tested on bright, sunny days.

A mood questionnaire confirmed that the shoppers tested on rainy days were in a worse mood than those tested on a sunny day. And the memory test showed the rainy-day shoppers correctly identified three times as many items as the participants tested on a sunny day. Moreover, the rainy-day shoppers were less likely to have false memories for objects that hadn't been around the counter.

"This finding suggests that some allowance for such mood effects could be incorporated in applied domains such as legal, forensic, counselling and clinical practice," the researchers said.

A possible methodological flaw is that the rainy-day shoppers might have spent longer in the store, but a follow-up study showed that shoppers spent no longer in the shop on rainy days relative to sunny days.

This appears to be the latest example of an emerging trend among memory researchers to take their work out of the lab - just last year, researchers at Goldsmith's College performed an experiment at the London Dungeons to examine the effect of fear on eye-witness memory.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ FORGAS, L GOLDENBERG, C UNKELBACH (2009). Can bad weather improve your memory? An unobtrusive field study of natural mood effects on real-life memory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 254-257 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.014
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The social power of brands.

Link observed between rates of eye blinking and the personality dimension of psychoticism.

Another follow-up on Libet's classic free will study. This one suggests that we infer when we must have made our decision to move, rather actually being able to sense when we made the decision.

People who spend more time divorced or separated don't live as long.

Sports coaches are biased towards judging the early part of an athlete's performance - but a new study shows this bias can be eliminated with the right instructions.

The competition between learning new material and remembering old.

How 9/11 affected some of the children living nearby.

The brain basis of social conformity.

Victorian novels may have encouraged prosocial behaviour. (PDF).

Patterns of facial injury can help in the detection of partner violence against women.
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"Hello, it's me!"

There are some people, who, when they telephone, say "Hello, it's me!" Although rather endearing, such people, by doing this, aren't being sensitive to the needs of people with phonagnosia - the inability to recognise a person's identity from the sound of their voice.

Previously, phonagnosia had only been documented in people who had developed the condition after sustaining a brain injury. Now LĂșcia Garrido and colleagues have provided what they believe is the first ever description of a case of developmental phonagnosia - that is, the presence of the condition in a woman with no apparent brain damage.

KH, a female, aged 60 at the time of her testing, told the researchers that she had always had difficulty recognising who people were from the sound of their voices. Garrido's team confirmed this in a series of comprehensive lab tests. KH was unable to tell famous voices, such as David Beckham's, from non-famous ones and was unable to learn to associate new voices with the names of their owners. By contrast, she was able to identity environmental sounds, recognise familiar music and infer emotions from both non-verbal sounds and speech.

It seems phonagnosia can join a growing list of specific impairments that can either be acquired through brain injury or present from birth or early childhood. Others include prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces; until recently it was thought this condition only arose through injury), dyscalculia (a deficit with numbers), dyslexia, amusia (a musical deficit) and specific language impairment.

The researchers said the existence of phonoagnosia provides support for a modular account of voice processing - this is the idea that different aspects of voices, such as emotion and identity, are processed independently in the brain.

"Other selective developmental conditions have shed light on the cognitive, neural, developmental and genetic basis of particular abilities," they concluded, "and we expect that developmental phonagnosia will provide a means to address these issues for voice processing."

ResearchBlogging.orgL GARRIDO, F EISNER, C MCGETTIGAN, L STEWART, D SAUTER, J HANLEY, S SCHWEINBERGER, J WARREN, B DUCHAINE (2009). Developmental phonagnosia: A selective deficit of vocal identity recognition. Neuropsychologia, 47 (1), 123-131 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.08.003
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Would you give way at the photocopier?

Back in the 70's, a classic study (PDF) showed that people using a photocopier were just as likely to give way to a line-pusher who gave the nonsense excuse "because I need to make copies", as they were to one who gave the more sensible excuse "because I'm in a rush". Ellen Langer and colleagues interpreted their finding as showing how mindless we often are. As soon as we hear the word "because", we assume the excuse that follows is justified and respond accordingly. Now Scott Key and colleagues have replicated this classic study, with the further aim of finding out if some personality types are more likely than others to give way.

Key's team were interested in two key personality factors. The first was "need for cognition", a strange-sounding term that refers to a person's tendency to engage their brain. It's measured by agreement with statements like "I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours", and it's been shown that people who score highly on this measure tend to be more resistant to persuasion. In this case, to the researchers' surprise, the factor was found to be irrelevant. Of the 129 students who were tested, the high scorers on "need for cognition" were just as likely to give way as low scorers.

The second factor was "self-monitoring", which as you'd expect describes the extent to which a person tends to keep a check on their own behaviour, especially in relation to social rules. The researchers thought that students who scored highly on this measure would be more likely to give way at the photocopier, in order not to cause a scene, but the opposite turned out to be true. High self-monitors were less likely to give way. Perhaps their concern to obtain the photocopies they'd been instructed to get trumped any worries about causing a social scene.

"We hope that our research ... spurs future research into what appears to be a neglected but important field of study: how individual differences moderate processes of behavior change," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgM SCOTTKEY, J EDLUND, B SAGARIN, G BIZER (2009). Individual differences in susceptibility to mindlessness Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (3), 261-264 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.10.001
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Another shock for brain imaging research - the signal isn't always linked to neuronal activity

The brain imaging community is about to experience another shockwave, just days after the online leak of a paper that challenged many of the brain-behaviour correlations reported in respected social neuroscience journals.

Now Yevgeniy Sirotin and Aniruddha Das have reported that blood flow changes in the brain - the signal measured by brain scanners - are not always linked to changes in neuronal activity. Experts have known for some time that the relationship between blood flow and neuronal activity might be rather complicated but this is the first time that such an extreme mismatch has been demonstrated.

Sirotin and Das used electrodes to directly record neuronal activity in the vision part of the brains of two awake monkeys, and at the same time they used a camera system and injected dyes to monitor blood flow to that region. This kind of thing couldn't be done with humans because it is too intrusive and physically harmful.

The monkeys were trained to look at a tiny dot when it was one colour and to relax when it was another colour. The dot alternated colours following a predictable rhythm, so the monkeys could predict when they'd need to concentrate and when they could relax. Sometimes, when the monkeys were required to fixate the dot, it was accompanied by intense visual stimuli, whereas on other trials there was nothing, leaving the monkeys in near darkness.

As you'd expect, when there was intense visual stimulation, the researchers observed increased neuronal activity in the visual area of the monkeys' brains and lots of blood flow to that region. But here's the important bit: they also observed increased blood flow to the visual brain even when there was nothing for the monkeys to look at, except for the minuscule dot, and even though neuronal activity was virtually silent. It's as though extra blood was being channelled to the visual cortex, in anticipation that there might be lots of visual material to look at.

There's a chance that this anticipatory blood flow could just reflect an increase in arousal, since the researchers also noted anticipatory changes to heart rate and pupil size just before an active phase of each trial was due to begin. However, Sirotin and Das were able to rule this out using an auditory task. Heart rate and pupil size changed in anticipation of the active phase of the auditory task, but there was no anticipatory blood flow to the visual parts of the brain.

The interpretation of human brain imaging experiments is founded on the idea that changes in blood flow reflect parallel changes in neuronal activity. This important new study shows that blood flow changes can be anticipatory and completely unconnected to any localised neuronal activity. It's up to future research to find out which brain areas and cognitive mechanisms are controlling this anticipatory blood flow. As the researchers said, their finding points to a "novel anticipatory brain mechanism".

Writing a commentary on this paper in the same journal issue, David Leopold at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, said the findings were "sure to raise eyebrows among the human fMRI research community."

ResearchBlogging.orgYevgeniy B. Sirotin, Aniruddha Das (2009). Anticipatory haemodynamic signals in sensory cortex not predicted by local neuronal activityNature, 457, 475-479.

Image shows blood vessel activation in the brain evoked by visual stimulus. White lightning bolt patterns outline arteries in the contraction phase of the anticipatory response; dark centre is the specific response to the visual stimulus. Credit Sirotin & Das.
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Fetal exposure to testosterone linked with presence of autistic traits in childhood

The idea that autism may be the manifestation of an "extreme male brain" has received support from a study showing that higher levels of fetal exposure to testosterone are associated with the later presence of autistic traits in childhood.

Bonnie Auyeung and colleagues found that among 235 mothers, those who had higher levels of testosterone in their amniotic fluid during pregnancy, subsequently rated their children, when aged between six and ten years, as showing more autistic traits, such as avoiding eye contact. This was true whether the children were studied as a group, or if the analysis was done on just girls or just boys.

It's not yet known for sure whether fetal exposure to testosterone causes the presence of these autistic traits or whether a third unknown factor affects both testosterone levels and the presence of the traits. It is also worth remembering that the children in this study were not actually diagnosed with autism. Fetal exposure to testosterone has only been linked by this study with the presence of autistic-like traits. However, the researchers are planning to test the significance of fetal testosterone exposure among children with an actual diagnosis of autism.

"If, according to the extreme male brain theory, autistic spectrum conditions are an extreme of male-typical behaviour, exposure to elevated levels of fetal testosterone could be one important factor that is involved with the development of the condition," the researchers said.

The findings from this study led to discussion in the media about the prospects of a fetal test for autism. For example, co-author Simon Baron-Cohen wrote this piece for BBC News online.

ResearchBlogging.orgBonnie Auyeung, Simon Baron-Cohen, Emma Ashwin, Rebecca Knickmeyer, Kevin Taylor, Gerald Hackett (2009). Fetal testosterone and autistic traits. British Journal of Psychology, 100 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1348/000712608X311731
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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:

Model Comparison (Cognitive Science).

Before the N400: Early Latency Language ERPs (Biological Psychology).

Psychotherapy with Religious and Spiritual Clients (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

The Rhythmic Brain (Cortex). From the editorial: "Considering its primacy in musical behaviour, rhythm has not yet received the scientific attention it deserves. Perhaps due to the rich harmonic complexity of our Western tonal system, the focus of much music psychology and music neuroscience research has tended towards the hierarchical structures of pitch, melody, tonality and harmony. However, if we consider the diversity of musical languages across society, across cultures and across history, rhythm soon comes to the forefront as a ubiquitous component of human behaviour. Many cultures emphasize rhythm, with melody playing a less significant role. In addition, many music therapists and educators emphasize the role of rhythm in their work."

The Alcohol Industry and Alcohol Policy (Addiction).
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Slumber quality important for learning

It's not just the amount of sleep we get that is so important for learning, but the quality of that sleep. That's according to a new study that made precise use of beeping noises to disrupt deep "slow-wave" sleep among 13 elderly participants (average age 60 years), without actually waking them up.

The beeping was used in such a way that although the participants' were deprived of deep sleep, their total sleep time and number of sleep stages were unaffected (compared with a comparison night of undisturbed sleep).

After a night of either shallow or deep sleep, the participants had their brains scanned while they viewed 50 images of houses and landscapes. The next day they had to say which of 100 images were repeated from the day before. The participants' performance was superior when a night with deep sleep had preceded the learning of the images, compared with a night of shallow sleep, even though total sleep time was the same in each case (36.6 images correctly identified versus 31.4 images, on average).

Moreover, the brain scans showed that during the initial viewing of images, activity in the hippocampus, the seat of human memory, was reduced after shallow versus deep sleep, but only for those images that were subsequently recalled. This suggests that shallow sleep somehow interferes with the way the hippocampus encodes new, explicit memories.

By contrast, so-called "implicit memory", appears to be unaffected by sleep quality. Regardless of the kind of sleep they'd had, participants showed superior performance at a sequence learning task when the sequence was fixed rather than random, even though they were consciously unaware of what the actual sequence was.

"The mechanism by which deep sleep affects hippocampal function is unclear," Ysbrand Van Der Werf and colleagues said, "but may involve local synaptic changes resulting from slow wave activity."

ResearchBlogging.orgYsbrand D Van Der Werf, Ellemarije Altena, Menno M Schoonheim, Ernesto J Sanz-Arigita, Jose´ C Vis, Wim De Rijke, Eus J W Van Someren (2009). Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature Neuroscience. In Press.
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Practising describing wines could help you become a connoisseur

"Hmm, it tastes peachy, gutsy, with a pinch of wild berries," the wine connoisseur says after swirling the Chiraz round her mouth and pulling a few rubbery facial expressions. Such attempts to verbalise the flavour of wine may come in for a deserved degree of scorn, but a new study suggests that describing wines may actually help us distinguish among them.

The psychologists Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes were actually attempting to replicate an inconsistently observed learning effect known as "verbal overshadowing". This is the observation that describing an item, such as a face or wine, can hinder the ability of people to subsequently identify that item from among a range of alternatives. The theory has been that verbalising a description prompts the observer to rely on an inferior verbal representation of the item as opposed to relying on their perceptual memory of it.

In this case, Hughson and Boakes asked 20 novice and 20 established, but non-expert, wine drinkers to taste a red wine, wait four minutes, and then attempt to identity that same wine from among a choice of four. Half the participants were asked to provide a written description of the target wine during the break, whereas the other participants completed a crossword.

The more experienced drinkers (they'd been enjoying wine for an average of nine years; not non-stop) marginally outperformed the novices, thus showing that mere exposure to wine, without explicit training, can improve people's ability to discriminate between wine tastes.

More importantly, given the study goals, describing the target wine was found to aid, not hinder, subsequent recognition of it, for both novices and experienced drinkers. Practising describing wines is a key part of wine training courses, and the researchers said their finding suggests "there is little reason to reduce the amount of label training" in these courses.

Two further details warrant a mention. First, like a fine wine, some of the detail in the write-up of this study is to be cherished: "participants were not required to spit out the wine after tasting," the procedure section tells us. Second, previous research has shown that completing a crossword can interfere with a subsequent face recognition task - perhaps the control condition in the current study was not as benign as one might imagine?

ResearchBlogging.orgAngus Hughson, Robert Boakes (2008). Passive perceptual learning in relation to wine: Short-term recognition and verbal description. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802214890
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Do you do voodoo?

They are beloved by prestigious journals and the popular press, but many recent social neuroscience studies are profoundly flawed, according to a devastating critique - Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience - in press at Perspectives on Psychological Science (PDF).

The studies in question have tended to claim astonishingly high correlations between localised areas of brain activity and specific psychological measures. For example, in 2003, Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California and her colleagues published a paper purporting to show that levels of self-reported rejection correlated at r=.88 (1.0 would be a perfect correlation) with levels of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.

According to Hal Pashler and his band of methodological whistle-blowers, if Eisenberg's study and others like it were accurate, this "would be a milestone in understanding of brain-behaviour linkages, full of promise for potential diagnostic and therapeutic spin-offs." Unfortunately, Pashler's group argue that the findings from many of these recent studies are virtually meaningless.

The suspicions of Pashler and his colleagues - Ed Vul (lead author), Christine Harris and Piotr Winkielman - were piqued when they realised that many of the cited levels of correlation in social neuroscience were impossibly high given the respective reliability of brain activity measures and measures of psychological factors, such as rejection. To investigate further they conducted a literature search and surveyed the authors of 54 studies claiming significant brain-behaviour correlations. The search wasn't exhaustive but was thought to be representative, with a slight bias towards higher impact journals.

Pashler and his team found that 54 per cent of the studies had used a seriously biased method of analysis, a problem that probably also undermines the findings of fMRI studies in other fields of psychology. These researchers had identified small areas of brain activity (called voxels) that varied according to the experimental condition of interest (e.g. being rejected or not), and had then focused on just those voxels that showed a correlation, higher than a given threshold, with the psychological measure of interest (e.g. feeling rejected). Finally, they had arrived at their published brain-behaviour correlation figures by taking the average correlation from among just this select group of voxels, or in some cases just one “peak voxel”. Pashler's team contend that by following this procedure, it would have been nearly impossible for the studies not to find a significant brain-behaviour correlation.

By analogy with a purely behavioural experiment, imagine the author of a new psychometric measure claiming that his new test correlated with a target psychological construct, when actually he had arrived at his significant correlation only after he had first identified and analysed just those items that showed the correlation with the target construct. Indeed, Pashler and his collaborators speculated that the editors and reviewers of mainstream psychology journals would routinely pick up on the kind of flaws seen in imaging-based social neuroscience, but that the novelty and complexity of this new field meant such mistakes have slipped through the net.

'...[I]n half of the studies we surveyed, the reported correlation coefficients mean almost nothing, because they are systematically inflated by the biased analysis,' Pashler's team wrote. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the papers they surveyed, it was the papers that used this flawed approach that tended to have published the highest correlation figures. '...[W]e suspect that while in many cases the reported relationships probably reflect some underlying relationship (albeit a much weaker relationship than the numbers in the articles implied), it is quite possible that a considerable number of relationships reported in this literature are entirely illusory.'

On a more positive note, Pashler's team say there are ways to analyse social neuroscience data without bias and that it should be possible for many of the studies they've criticised to re-analyse their data. For example, one approach is to identify voxels of interest by region, before seeing if their activity levels correlate with a target psychological factor. An alternative approach is to use different sets of data to perform the different steps of analysis used previously. For example, by using one run in the scanner to identify those voxels that correlate with a psychological measure, and then using a second, independent run to assess how highly that subset of voxels correlates with the chosen measure. "We urge investigators whose results have been questioned here to perform such analyses and to correct the record by publishing follow-up errata that provide valid numbers," Pashler's team said.

Matthew Lieberman, a co-author on Eisenberger's social rejection study, told us that he and his colleagues have drafted a robust reply to these methodological accusations, which will be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science alongside the Pashler paper (now available online; PDF). In particular he stressed that concerns over multiple comparisons in fMRI research are not new, are not specific to social neuroscience, and that the methodological approach of the Pashler group, done correctly, would lead to similar results to those already published. "There are numerous errors in their handling of the data that they reanalyzed," he argued. "While trying to recreate their [most damning] Figure 5, we went through and pulled all the correlations from all the papers. We found around 50 correlations that were clearly in the papers Pashler's team reviewed but were not included in their analyses. Almost all of these overlooked correlations tend to work against their hypotheses." 

ResearchBlogging.orgEdward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, Harold Pashler (2009). Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Perspectives on Psychological Science. In Press.

Update: Lead author of the Pashler-group Voodoo critique, Ed Vul, answers some questions about the group's paper here. He also answers a rebuttal here. Picked up from the comments, Lieberman's rebuttal is now also available online in full. 
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Resources for A-level teachers and students following the AQA spec A syllabus

This post is for A-level students and teachers in the UK following the new AQA Specification A for psychology. It provides a taste of relevant material available from the Research Digest blog and The Psychologist magazine (marked with a 'P'). For more material, use the Digest blog's search facility (see box to the right) and The Psychologist magazine's search facility (see box in top left-hand corner of its website), and please remember that new material is being added all the time.

AS topics

Research Methods
Social influence

A2 Topics

Biological Rhythms and sleep
  • State of the art: Sleep (P)
  • Link to Digest items related to sleep 
Eating Behaviour
Intelligence and learning
Cognition and development
Media Psychology
Anomalistic Psychology
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Psychological factors influencing how people caught up in the Kosovo war were affected by it.

How people with social phobia see themselves.

You probably saw this one in the news: the blind man who could navigate his way through an obstacle-strewn corridor. Not because of a sixth sense, as the media described it, but because much visual processing is subcortical and non-conscious, thus leaving some blind people with some intact visual abilities.

A review of research into emotion regulation.

Go and live there a while and you'll soon pick up the language, or so they say. But it doesn't work for everyone.

Can personality be changed?

Is crying beneficial?

Support for the UK government's policy of increasing patient choice.

Facial scars can increase a man's attractiveness to women.

A meta-analysis looking at the combined results of lots of research into the effectiveness of internet and computer-based cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety.
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Adult ADHD leads to more accidents and poorer performance at work

What happens when children with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) grow up and go to work? According to Ronald Kessler and colleagues, at least some of them continue to experience cognitive difficulties, thus impairing their work performance and increasing the number of accidents they are involved in.

Kessler's team surveyed 8563 staff, including office and manual workers,  at a major American manufacturing firm. They found 1.9 per cent of them met the criteria for Adult ADHD (based on self-report) and that those with the condition rated their own work performance lower than their colleagues rated theirs, took more time off work sick, and were twice as likely to have had an accident at work during the preceding year.

The results are complicated by the fact that staff with ADHD were also more likely to have depression, chronic pain, insomnia and/or chronic fatigue syndrome than their colleagues. However, adult ADHD was still associated with poorer work performance and more sick leave when the influence of these other conditions was taken into account.

Based on the extra sick leave the staff with ADHD took and their lower work performance, the researchers estimated that each staff member with ADHD was costing their employer $4336 a year in lost revenue.

Only four of the staff with ADHD were currently receiving treatment for their condition. Pointing to research showing the efficacy of drug treatments for Adult ADHD, Kessler and his co-workers argued there was a strong case for the screening and treatment of Adult ADHD at work. "Even if treatment led to no more than a 25 per cent reduction in conservatively estimated human capital loss, the financial value of this reduction would exceed the cost of treatment," they wrote.

It's worth noting that the acknowledgement section of the paper states that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, and that the lead author has acted as a consultant to them. Eli Lilly develop drug treatments for ADHD.

ResearchBlogging.orgR. C. Kessler, M. Lane, P. E. Stang, D. L. Van Brunt (2008). The prevalence and workplace costs of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in a large manufacturing firm Psychological Medicine, 39 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708003309
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The community role played by pubs

They used to be seen as the heart of the community, but today British pubs (short for "public houses") are closing at a rate of five a day. It is timely then that a Department of Health-funded study has published its findings on the views of 79 heavy drinkers about the role pubs play in the local community.

The participants had been recruited as part of a larger study, and were targeted for this research as they were seen by the researchers as "expert informants" on pub life.

While some of the participants said they used the pub as somewhere to be by themselves, the majority either saw the pub as its own mini-community or as a key part of the local community.

Many of the participants said they had been visiting the same pub for ten or even twenty years. They said it was somewhere to meet with friends and enjoy a sense of belonging; to take part in activities such as quizzes or darts; to hear gossip; to learn of cheap deals; buy goods; and receive social support during hard times. One participant described his pub as being like the "yellow pages".

Visiting the pub was a "way of bonding. . .everybody wants to drink and have fun so there’s a common purpose," said one participant. "I consider [the pub] a community in itself, you get to know each other’s personal details and share experiences," said another.

Other comments showed that the participants saw the pub as somewhere they could spend time that was separate from home and work. One person said it was a place to "to get away from reality". Others described the pub as "a neutral, levelling environment", "a great equaliser".

Many considered that local pubs were dying out, a trend that was often seen as reflecting the disintegration of "community" in general. The perceived reasons for this varied: some blamed drug dealers and trouble-makers, others pointed to commercial pressures and to people increasingly using pubs as somewhere to eat out rather than socialise.

"The clearest conclusion that we draw from these interviews," Jim Orford and colleagues concluded, "is that the pub was often viewed as more than just a setting for drinking, and, can in and of itself provide, for many, a real feeling of community."

ResearchBlogging.orgJim Orford, Alison Rolfe, Sue Dalton, Catherine Painter, Heather Webb (2009). Pub and community: The views of Birmingham untreated heavy drinkers. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19 (1), 68-82 DOI: 10.1002/casp.980
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How would you respond if you heard a racist slur?

How would respond if you heard someone being racist? If you're one of the majority who openly condemn racism, then you probably think you'd be perturbed and that you'd reject or reprimand the racist in some way. However, a new study by psychologists in Canada has found that students were largely unmoved when they heard a racist slur, and most of them failed to reject the perpetrator.

Dozens of multi-ethnic (but not black) students at York University in Canada were fooled into thinking that a white participant (actually an actor) in their group had responded in a racist way after a black participant (another actor) accidentally knocked his knee. Specifically, the white student participant was heard to say either: "Typical, I hate it when black people do that" or: "“clumsy *igger". In a control condition, no comment was made.

Afterwards, a brief mood questionnaire embedded among other irrelevant measures, showed that the students who heard one of the racist remarks were no more upset than the participants who heard no comment. Moreover, when asked to choose either the black or white participant to be their partner in a subsequent task, the majority of them chose the white participant, despite what he'd said.

By contrast, dozens of other students from the same University, who were randomly selected to imagine, but not participate in, these events, predicted that they would be distressed at hearing the racist comments and most said that they would subsequently choose the black participant to be their partner, rather than the racist white person.

A possible explanation for the mismatch could be that it is our non-conscious attitudes that influence our behaviour in a real situation - perhaps we harbour some latent racist beliefs - whereas we rely more our more conscious and deliberate attitudes when it comes to predicting how we'll behave.

"...despite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions," Kerry Kawakami and colleagues said, "one reason why racism and discrimination remain so prevalent in society may be that people do not respond to overt acts of racism in the way that they anticipate".

Kerry Kawakami, Elizabeth Dunn, Francine Karmali, John F. Dovidio (2009). Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to RacismScience, 323, 276-278

Link to podcast interview with lead author.
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Computer game could help prevent traumatic flashbacks

The idea of fire-fighters, rape victims and car crash survivors being led away from their trauma to play the jigsaw-style video-game Tetris is surreal, but could soon become a reality. That's because Emily Holmes and colleagues have shown that playing the game half an hour after watching traumatic scenes on video, led people to experience fewer flashbacks of those scenes.

We already have relatively effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Holmes' team, however, wanted to test a psychological intervention that might prevent the establishment of PTSD in the first place. To date, most research in this area has involved using drugs, like beta-blockers, to prevent the consolidation of traumatic memories, but these obviously have side-effects and could interfere with intentional memory recall, to the detriment, for example, of witness statements. Moreover, other research has shown that existing psychological interventions, such as debriefing right after a trauma, can actually cause harm.

The new study takes advantage of the fact that the shape arranging involved in the game Tetris requires the same visuo-spatial mental resources as flashbacks, together with the fact that new memories are known to be fragile for up to six hours before becoming fully consolidated.

Half an hour after watching scenes of surgery, drowning and traffic accidents, 40 participants were split into two groups: half played Tetris for ten minutes while the others just sat quietly.

During these ten minutes, the game-players reported fewer flashbacks to the movie scenes. Even more importantly, they also experienced fewer flashbacks during the whole of the following week, and also showed fewer clinical symptoms of trauma, than did the participants who just sat quietly. By contrast, both groups were equally capable of voluntarily recalling details from the film.

The researchers dubbed their intervention a "cognitive vaccine" and theorised that the game left conceptual processing of the scenes intact, but interfered with the sensory-perceptual processing of the scenes that can contribute to flashbacks.

ResearchBlogging.orgEmily A. Holmes, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, Catherine Deeprose (2009). Can Playing the Computer Game “Tetris” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004153 (open access).

Image is taken from the article.
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Are the police any better than us at judging the accuracy of eye-witness statements?

Plenty of research has been conducted into the ability of people, including police officers, to judge whether people are lying: most of us are useless, while new research suggests the police may be better. However, little research has been conducted into whether, deliberate deception aside, people can judge the accuracy of eye-witness statements. This is an important issue given how unreliable eye-witnesses can be, even when they think they're telling the truth.

Now Torun Lindholm has made a start at plugging this gap in the literature, by presenting lay people, detectives and judges with eye-witness statements about a kidnapping they were shown on video. The participants' task was to say which statements were true and which were false.

The results showed the judges and lay people performed little or no better than if they'd simply guessed at the accuracy of the statements. However, the police detectives performed better, showing a moderate to good ability to distinguish true from false eye-witness statements. All the participants showed a bias towards saying the statements were accurate and all reported using the same cues to make their judgements: the difficulty of the questions put to witnesses, the plausibility of the witnesses' answers and the witnesses' apparent confidence in their answers. It's possible the police officers' superior performance came from their use of cues that they didn't realise they were using.

Another finding was that the participants ability to judge the accuracy of eye-witness statements was better when statements were presented by written transcript rather than by video, perhaps because people focus on unreliable cues when viewing a video. Lindholm said this result, if backed up by further research, could have real-life implications for how witness statements are presented.

"The fact that current evidence suggests that testimony transcripts provide a better basis for accuracy judgements than does live or taped testimony raises concerns regarding the orality principle to which most legal systems adhere - that only testimony given orally at court should be considered in legal procedures," Lindholm wrote.

ResearchBlogging.orgTorun Lindholm (2008). Who can judge the accuracy of eyewitness statements? A comparison of professionals and lay-persons Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22 (9), 1301-1314 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1439
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

This sounds familiar: a memory-based account of deja vu (pdf).

The kind of streets older people like to walk down.

Examining why we remember so much more from adolescence and early adulthood than at other times of life - the so-called reminiscence bump.

Young children have difficulty recognising the facial expression of disgust.

How jurors interpret withdrawn confessions.

Allow me to introduce the reverse zombie: a person who has consciousness but no outward signs of awareness, as opposed to the classic zombie who appears to be conscious but is actually dead inside.
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Babies can tell the difference between happy and sad music

By nine months of age, babies can already tell the difference between jolly jingles and sad ones. You can probably imagine that demonstrating this was no mean feat for researchers, given the obvious difficulties of asking babies what they think.

Ross Flom and colleagues took advantage of the fact that babies tend to look longer at something that's novel. Of course, this depends on their ability to tell that something is new and different.

Dozens of babies aged between three and nine months were presented with a video image of a male or female actor with a neutral facial expression. Musical excerpts were played through speakers located near this face.

Each experimental trial always began with all happy or all sad music. After a while the babies stopped looking for so long in the direction of the face and music - they "habituated" to it. Soon afterwards, the researchers changed the music. If it had been happy at the start, they changed it to sad, and vice versa.

For three-month-olds, changing the mood of the music made no difference - they were still bored by it and didn't look much in the direction of the face and music. By contrast, for nine-month-olds, changing the mood of the music grabbed their attention. They realised it was different and started looking in the direction of the face and music more often. The results for five and seven-month-olds were mixed. A switch from sad to happy music grabbed their attention, but from happy to sad did not - the researchers aren't entirely sure why this is, but it may have something to do with sad music being inherently less interesting.

A couple of control conditions made the results more persuasive. Firstly, the 3-month-olds began looking more in the direction of the music if the display changed to show a spinning turtle - so their lack of a reaction to the musical change can't have been due to fatigue. Also, the attention of the older babies wasn't grabbed simply by playing a new piece of music of the same mood - the mood had to change.

Although the older babies recognised a change in the mood of the music, it's not clear how much this really meant to them. "We make no claims about whether infants perceived affect in the music or experienced either happiness or sadness while listening to it," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgR FLOM, D GENTILE, A PICK (2008). Infants’ discrimination of happy and sad music Infant Behavior and Development, 31 (4), 716-728 DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.04.004
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