Maybe having kids is a good idea after all

Who'd ever have thought it could be so difficult to measure happiness? Most large-scale studies rely on so-called "global measures". People are asked to rate how satisfied they are with their life, or something similar. The problems here are obvious: people's answers are likely to be swayed by their current mood, and we probably all interpret labels like "satisfied" in our own way. So along came Nobel prize-winning uber psychologist Daniel Kahneman, with his "day reconstruction method" (DRM). Participants divide the last day up into discrete episodes and rate their feelings during each one. It's a more nuanced measure but it's thrown up some bizarre results. According to the DRM, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things they claim not to enjoy, like spending time with their children, and commuting. Now Mathew White and Paul Dolan, two British academics, have waded into the morass of happiness research, arguing that the DRM can be improved by measuring thoughts, not just feelings.

Six hundred and twenty-five participants completed an online questionnaire about their previous day, generating an average of ten episodes per person, including eating, reading, time with children, watching TV, and commuting.

Just as in the original DRM research, the participants rated each episode according to the feelings they experienced at the time, thus giving a measure of "pleasure". Unlike the earlier research, they also rated their thoughts about each episode (for example, by rating their agreement with sentences like "I feel the activities in this episode were worthwhile/meaningful"), thus giving a measure of "reward".

In terms of pleasure, the results confirmed earlier findings, suggesting that we spend an awful lot of time doing things we don't find pleasurable, including "work" and "shopping". Out of 18 key activities, "time with children" and "sex" both came in around mid-table, far below "outdoor activities" and "watching TV". However, consideration of the ratings for "reward" (as opposed to pleasure) told a rather different story, with "work" now the top scorer, and "time with children" not far behind.

"If one looks only at pleasure, one could come to the same conclusion as Kahneman et al [about time spent with children]" White and Dolan said "that this is relatively 'bad time', but when reward is also considered, time spent with children is relatively 'good time'. Perhaps the statement that 'I enjoy my kids' is not so wrong after all, if enjoyment is interpreted in a broader sense that includes reward in addition to pleasure."

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was no new insight when it came to "commuting": participants rated this activity low on pleasure and low on reward.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhite, M., & Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the Richness of Daily Activities. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02392.x

Further reading:
Think having children will make you happy? [link]
Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will. [link]
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

Ten Perspectives on Emotional Experience(Emotional Review).

The Next Big Questions in Psychology (Perspectives on Psychological Science).

Research Quality in Sport & Exercise Psychology (Psychology of Sport and Exercise).

Design Patterns for Augmenting E-Learning Experiences (Computers in Human Behaviour).

European Personality Reviews 2009 (European Journal of Personality).
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The surprising benefits of time pressure at work

The modern office job has made struggling jugglers of us all. Emailing, phoning, writing, accounting, project-swapping, browsing, not to mention snacking, and day-dreaming, all at once.

It helps to have the self-discipline to focus on one task at a time, but even that isn't always enough because thoughts about a previous task can linger and spoil our performance on our current task.

Now Sophie Leroy has made a counter-intuitive finding that could have implications for reducing interference between successive tasks. She's shown that completing a prior task (rather than leaving it unfinished) helps prevent its interference with a later task, but this benefit arises specifically when that initial task was completed under strict time constraints.

In an initial experiment, 84 undergrads performed a word task and then a second task based on appraising candidate CVs. The ease of the initial word task was manipulated by the researcher - one version could be completed; the other was impossible to complete. Also, time pressure was imposed on half the participants by saying that other people had struggled to succeed in the five minutes available.

Crucially, in between the two main tasks, participants performed a series of "lexical judgements" - deciding whether strings of letters were real words or not. Among the real words that were presented, some were taken from the first main task. The whole point of this was that particularly speedy performance with letter strings taken from the first task would be a sign that a person's attention was still lingering on that first task.

Leroy's first key finding was that participants who completed the initial word task under time pressure (as opposed to those who didn't complete it, or who completed it without time pressure) showed fewer signs that their attention was still stuck on the first task.

A second experiment with 78 undergrads was similar to the first, but this one looked at the effect that being mentally stuck on the first word task had on the second (CV appraisal) task. This time, participants who completed the initial word task under time pressure performed better at the subsequent CV appraisal task, than did participants who hadn't finished the first task, or who had finished it without time pressure.

Leroy further showed that participants who'd completed the first task under time pressure showed the greatest amount of confidence, when asked, that they'd fully completed the first task. Her theory is that task completion under time pressure fosters a sense of cognitive closure, allowing us to fully shift our focus onto subsequent tasks.

ResearchBlogging.orgLeroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (2), 168-181 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002
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Calendar calculating savants with autism - how do they do it?

Savants with autism are people who exhibit an exceptional ability whilst also having social and cognitive impairments. One such ability is calendar calculating - being able to say, with astounding accuracy and alacrity, what day of the week a given date falls on. Just how some savants with autism are able to achieve this feat has baffled researchers. It's been suggested that they use complex algorithms, but this seems implausible given that the same individuals often struggle with maths.

To help solve the mystery, Anna Dubischar-Krivec and colleagues recruited three savant calendar calculators with autism and pitted their calendrical skills against three neuro-typical calendar calculators recruited through a Swiss science TV show.

The participants were tested with questions that took the following form: "Is it true that 6 November 1974 = Thurs?". The savants with autism beat the neuro-typical calendar experts, in terms of speed and accuracy, for past dates (these went back fifty years) and dates from the current month. By contrast, the performance of the two groups was matched for future dates, which were taken from up to fifty years ahead.

As usual, the savants were unable to say how they achieved their calendar skills. However, the researchers said the pattern of results implies that the savants were using different strategies from the neuro-typicals. Whereas the neuro-typicals relied on algorithms for past, present and future dates, the savants probably relied on rote memory for past and present dates, the researchers said, hence their superior speed and accuracy for these, whilst they probably fell back on some kind of algorithmic system for future dates.

These conclusions were supported by the fact that the savants' answers seemed too quick, at least as regards dates in the current month (their average response time was less than three seconds), for them to have performed algorithmic calculations. Also they appeared to have made use of memory "anchor dates" based around the month of December, as betrayed by their reaction times tending to be quicker for months later and earlier in the year.

However, the mystery remains far from solved. For example, if the savants were relying on memory for their astonishing calendrical feats, you'd think a memory test would reveal their unusual memory ability. Yet a standard psychometric comparison of memory performance between the savant and neuro-typical calendar calculators found no differences, except the neuro-typicals were better on a form of working memory.

ResearchBlogging.orgDubischar-Krivec, A., Neumann, N., Poustka, F., Braun, C., Birbaumer, N., & Bölte, S. (2008). Calendar calculating in savants with autism and healthy calendar calculators. Psychological Medicine, 39 (08) DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708004601
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How romantic jealousy hijacks the mind

"Jealousy can no more bear to lose sight of [its] objects than love" George Eliot (1860)
The mind is altered by the fear that a lover is about to be lured away. Attention and memory systems are hijacked, turned to focus on attractive rivals. That's according to Jon Maner and colleagues who say theirs is one of the first studies to look at how romantic jealousy alters low-level cognitive functioning.

Maner's team conducted four studies with hundreds of heterosexual student participants. All began and ended in a similar way. Infidelity concerns were triggered in half the participants by asking them to write about four or five incidents in which they'd felt romantically jealous. The remaining participants acted as controls and wrote about an anxiety-provoking scenario that had nothing to do with infidelity. Meanwhile, all the studies ended with a test of chronic jealousy. Participants were categorised as jealous according to how jealous they said they would feel in a range of ambiguous scenarios - for example, seeing their partner smile to someone of the opposite sex.

Here are the key findings. The first study required participants to shift their attention away from pictures of faces to make judgements about shapes located in a different part of the computer screen. Prompting concerns about infidelity caused jealous participants to find it difficult to drag their attention away from photos of attractive people of the same sex as themselves. It was as if their minds had become focused on romantic threats. Their attention to average looking people, by contrast, was unaffected.

The second study involved a card game a bit like "pairs" or "concentration" and showed that infidelity concerns prompted jealous participants to have superior memory specifically for attractive faces of people of the same sex as themselves - again, suggesting that their minds were suddenly wired up to detect romantic threats.

The final two studies showed that writing about infidelity caused jealous participants to suddenly develop subconscious negative attitudes towards attractive people of the same sex. For example, they were quicker to respond when attractive faces and negative words were associated with the same response key. This is the opposite to the usual finding that attractive people are viewed more positively.

"The current work provides a rich picture of the cognitive processes that may be involved in protecting relationships from potential romantic rivals," the researchers said. "Priming the threat of infidelity promoted intrasexual vigilance - a functionally organised cascade of lower-order cognitive processes aimed at preferentially processing highly attractive, and therefore highly threatening, members of one's own sex."

ResearchBlogging.orgJon Maner, Saul Miller, Aaron Rouby, & Matthew Gailliot (2009). Intrasexual vigilance: The implicit cognition of romantic rivalry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 74-87. [link to pdf of study via author's website.]
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The influence of genes on exceptional mental ability

We know a great deal about the relative genetic and environmental influences on average intelligence and on learning disabilities, but far less about the role of genes in exceptional cognitive ability – in lay terms, what we might call genius or innate talent.

A new "mega-analysis" of 11,000 twin pairs, aged between 6 and 71, has helped to plug that gap. The results suggest that genes exert a significant influence on exceptional cognitive ability, similar in magnitude to their influence on the normal range of intelligence. The findings challenge versions of the "discontinuity hypothesis" – the idea that the relative contribution of nature and nurture changes for exceptional ability.

Claire Haworth and colleagues, of the newly-established Genetics of High Cognitive Abilities (GHCA) consortium, combined data from six studies, involving twins from four countries – the UK, Netherlands, Australia and United States. Combining so much data altogether allowed them to restrict their analyses to participants in the top 15 per cent for intelligence performance, whilst still maintaining enough power for statistical tests.

By comparing intelligence differences between pairs of identical twins (who share all their genes) and non-identical twins (who share half their genes like normal siblings), the study showed that genetic differences explained approximately half the variation found in high intelligence, whilst shared environmental factors - those experienced by both twins in a pair, such as education and parenting style - explained just 28 per cent of the variation. The remaining influence is down to unique environmental influences (experienced by one twin but not the other) and other unknown factors.

The observed level of genetic influence on exceptionally high intelligence is similar to that found by the researchers for the normal range of intelligence in the same sample of twin pairs, and supports the idea that exceptional cognitive ability is on a continuum with the normal range of intelligence, and is likely subject to the same genetic and environmental influences. However, final proof that the same genes affect high intelligence and the normal distribution won’t be found until specific genes are identified through DNA testing of gifted and control participants.

It should be noted that the cited contributions of genes and the environment aren’t necessarily fixed. Rather these estimates reflect the amount of variation explained by genetic and environmental factors for this particular group of twin participants at one particular time. The generalisability of the findings are, however, enhanced by the large size and cross-national nature of the sample. Another caveat is that investigating the top 15 per cent of intelligence test performers may not be high enough to capture any influences that uniquely affect exceptional cognitive ability.

"We hope that our study, the many interesting and unanswered questions about high cognitive ability, and the importance of studying the high end of the distribution of ability as well as the low end, will stimulate much-needed research on the genetics of high cognitive ability," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHaworth, C., Wright, M., Martin, N., Martin, N., Boomsma, D., Bartels, M., Posthuma, D., Davis, O., Brant, A., Corley, R., Hewitt, J., Iacono, W., McGue, M., Thompson, L., Hart, S., Petrill, S., Lubinski, D., & Plomin, R. (2009). A Twin Study of the Genetics of High Cognitive Ability Selected from 11,000 Twin Pairs in Six Studies from Four Countries. Behavior Genetics, 39 (4), 359-370 DOI: 10.1007/s10519-009-9262-3
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The mangled butterfly: Rorschach results from 45 violent psychopaths.

For people with low self-esteem, repeating the statement "I'm a lovable person" can make them feel worse.

“It's like you are just a spectator in this thing”: Experiencing social life the ‘aspie’ way.

The weapon or object a person is holding can attract our attention so much that it impairs our memory for the person - especially when stereotypes mean we associate the object they're holding more with a person of the opposite sex. So, a knife held by a woman impairs memory for the woman, a held knitting needle impairs memory of a man.

Increasing the number of competitors can decrease competitive motivation.

Crime, Hysteria and Belle Époque Hypnotism: The Path Traced by Jean-Martin Charcot and Georges Gilles de la Tourette. "Gilles de la Tourette's strong and public interest in hypnotism nearly cost him his life, when a young woman who claimed to have been hypnotized against her will shot him in the head at his own home in 1893. It was subsequently shown that hypnotism had nothing to do with it." [hat tip: mind hacks]

The moral psychology of indirect agency: "Acting indirectly through another can hide the fact that one has caused harm, hide the fact that one knowingly chose to cause harm, and hide the extent of one’s control over the harmful outcome".
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Realistic view of their popularity protects children against effects of social rejection

Human immodesty knows no bounds. Most people think they're better looking than average, more intelligent, better at driving and less likely to get ill. Psychologists seeking to explain this common delusion have suggested it serves a protective role: a shield against the depressing realities of fate, fallibility and social spite. However, a surprising new study by Sander Thomaes and colleagues directly contradicts this account. Their investigation with older children suggests that a realistic self view is more protective.

Two hundred and six children aged between nine and twelve years rated how much they liked each of their classmates and how much they thought each of their classmates liked them. This gave the researchers a measure of how realistic each child's self-view was. Two weeks later, the children were invited to play a "Survivor Game" - a kind of internet popularity contest in which the least popular of four players would be voted out of the group. The game was fixed and half the children were told that they were the least popular. The other children received neutral feedback: another child had been voted out.

Using a measure of mood before and after the game, the researchers found that children with a more realistic view of their popularity at school were the least badly affected by rejection in the Survivor Game. By contrast, children with an inflated view of their popularity, or a deflated view, experienced a far greater drop in their mood after being told they'd been voted out.

"Our results suggest that vulnerable children holding positively or negatively distorted self-views may benefit from interventions that target their biased social-reasoning processes," Thomaes and his colleagues concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgThomaes, S., Reijntjes, A., Orobio de Castro, B., & Bushman, B. (2009). Reality Bites-or Does It? Realistic Self-Views Buffer Negative Mood Following Social Threat. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02395.x
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Speaking without Broca's area

Psychology is moving away from a view of the brain that ties functions to specific brain areas. Instead, researchers recognise that the brain is made up of dynamic, flexible networks, in which diverse regions are recruited according to task demands. Complementing this account is a growing recognition of the brain's ability to adapt to damage, even in adulthood - a characteristic known as plasticity. These views are captured in a new clinical case study that documents the recovery of language performance in a man known as "FV". He'd had a tumour removed from a relatively large section of his brain, including "Broca's area" - considered since the nineteenth century to be a vital neural centre for speech production.

Broca's area is named after the nineteenth century French surgeon Paul Broca for his work with a patient who, following localised damage to the rear part of his left frontal lobe, lost the ability to produce speech, with the exception of the syllable 'tan', hence his nickname 'Tan tan'. The man's comprehension, meanwhile, remained intact, leading to the popular conclusion that Broca's area is important for speech production, but not comprehension.

Monique Plaza and colleagues thoroughly tested FV's language skills before, during and after his tumour was surgically removed. Importantly, additional to standard neuropsychological tests, the researchers used a narrative task that required FV to tell the story played out in a children's picture book - a test the researchers said was sensitive to deficits not detected by standard measures.

The researchers found that FV's tumour and its subsequent removal did not lead to the severe language deficits that would be expected based on a traditional localisation approach to brain function. Because his tumour had grown slowly, the researchers said other areas of FV's brain, adjacent to Broca's area, had been able to take over language functions, including the premotor cortex and the head of the caudate nucleus. FV showed some expected deficits after surgery, but quickly regained most of his speech production abilities.

However, the narrative task did expose some intriguing, subtle deficits that FV's brain obviously hadn't been able to shop out to adjacent brain areas. These included an inability to represent speech within speech - that is, FV didn't seem to be able to talk about other people's speech.

The researchers said: "The present case confirms the relevance of connectionist approaches [to language] based on studies of slow-growth tumours, which demonstrate that compensatory mechanisms start before surgery, in reaction to tumour infiltration, and consolidate during and after surgical procedures."

ResearchBlogging.orgPlaza, M., Gatignol, P., Leroy, M., & Duffau, H. (2009). Speaking without Broca's area after tumor resection. Neurocase, 15 (4), 294-310 DOI: 10.1080/13554790902729473
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First ever photo of Phineas Gage is discovered

A pair of photograph collectors in Maryland, USA, have uncovered what they believe to be the first and only ever photographic record of Phineas Gage - the railway worker who survived an iron tamping rod passing straight through the front of his brain, following an explosives accident in 1848.

The story of Gage and the effects of his injury on his behaviour and personality have become one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychology, inspiring plays, books and songs.

Jack and Beverly Wilgus have had the photograph - known as a daguerreotype after the Parisian photographic pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre - in their possession for over thirty years, but have only just confirmed its identity.

The photograph shows Gage as a scarred, handsome, proud man, smartly dressed, with one eye closed, wielding the tamping iron that made him famous. Jack and Beverly Wilgus originally thought the image was of a whaler, but after posting the picture on Flick-r, they soon learned from expert whaling commenters that this was not the case (it was not a harpoon that he was holding), and they followed up on an alternative suggestion that perhaps the image was of Gage.

By carefully comparing the photograph with a life mask taken of Gage's head when he was alive, and the actual tamping iron, both of which are at the Warren Anatomical Museum, the Wilgus's confirmed that the photo is indeed of Gage. For example, an inscription on the real-life tamping iron is visible in the photograph, and scars visible on Gage's life mask perfectly match up with the scars shown in the photograph.

The new photo is bound to intensify the debate over the effects of Gage's injuries on his personality and behaviour. "One theory about Gage — that his personality might have changed because his appearance was made grotesque by the accident (e.g., Kotowicz, 2007) — no longer seems credible to us," the Wilgus's said.

The article is not yet publicly available but is due for imminent publication at the Journal of the History of Neurosciences. You can see the photo and read more about Gage here.

[Image credit: Photograph by Jack Wilgus of a daguerreotype of Phineas Gage in the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus.]


ResearchBlogging.orgJACK WILGUS, & BEVERLY WILGUS (2009). Face to Face with Phineas Gage. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences (In Press).
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Resting brain activity may be involved in motor learning

Most brain imaging experiments tend to follow a similar pattern - instruct the participant to perform some task, or show them a picture, or play them a sound, and then see which areas of their brain light up. This approach has propagated a misconception that the brain has to be prodded into action. But the reality is that the brain constantly beavers away and guzzles just as much energy when we're resting doing nothing, as when we're engaged in an externally focused task. In fact, there's a default network that actually ramps up its activity levels during rest compared with when we're outwardly engaged. Such findings have prompted speculation about what all this resting brain activity is for. Possibilities include preparing for the future and mind-wandering. A new study, however, provides evidence that resting brain activity is involved in motor learning.

Neil Albert and colleagues scanned the brains of 24 participants twice: when they were resting before a joystick task and then again resting afterwards. Crucially, half the participants performed the tracking task with a dodgy joystick that became progressively disconnected from its cursor. These participants had to adapt continuously to the changing de-synchronisation between joystick and cursor. The remaining control participants used a normal joystick. All participants also performed an irrelevant four-minute visual task prior to the final resting brain scan. This was to rule out any effects on the second resting scan that may have been caused by the participants still thinking about that dodgy joystick.

The initial scan of the participants at rest revealed a number of resting state networks: suites of inter-connected brain regions pulsing away in unison. In the brains of the participants who had to adapt to the dodgy joystick, but not the control participants, the strength of one of these - a fronto-parietal network - was greater in the second resting scan, as if it was still particularly busy consolidating the earlier motor learning. A second resting network, incorporating the cauliflower-like cerebellum at the back of the brain, also grew in strength in the brains of the participants who had to adapt to the dodgy joystick, whereas this network wasn't even present in the control participants.

These findings suggest that it was specifically learning to control the dodgy joystick, not joystick use per se, that led to increased activity in two resting state networks. "We have shown that motor learning, but not motor performance, can modulate particular resting state networks," the researchers said. "Our results add a new dimension to our understanding of the resting brain and potentially provide a powerful new technique to examine the neuronal machinery of off-line processing," they concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgAlbert, N., Robertson, E., & Miall, R. (2009). The Resting Human Brain and Motor Learning. Current Biology, 19 (12), 1023-1027 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.04.028
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Can we deliberately forget specific parts of what we've read?

The majority of research on memory is focused, as you might expect, on the remembering side of things - how much, how accurate and so on. There is, however, a parallel, but less known, line of investigation into our ability to deliberately forget. This is no mere academic curiosity. The ability to forget selectively that to which we've been exposed would be, if we had it, an extremely useful ability - a kind of refuse collection service for the mind.

In one of the first studies of its kind, Peter Delaney and colleagues have now shown that people are indeed capable of reading a series of sentences and then selectively forgetting just some of those sentences, whilst remembering the rest.

Dozens of undergrad students were first told to memorise an initial list of 16 sentences about the imaginary men, Tom and Alex. Afterwards, half the students were unexpectedly told to forget the Tom sentences, so as to better remember the Alex sentences. The remaining students acted as controls and didn't receive this additional instruction. Finally, all the students attempted to memorise a second list of 14 random sentences about another man, Joe. A 90-second multiplication test acted as a filler task before the students were tested on their ability to recall as many sentences as possible from the two lists.

The key finding was that the students were able to follow the forget instruction so long as the sentences about Tom and Alex were of random meaning, with no discernible theme. In this case, students told to forget the Tom sentences subsequently recalled just 28 per cent of them, in a two-minute free recall test, whereas the control students recalled 39 per cent. Moreover, there was also a non-significant trend for the students who deliberately forgot the Tom sentences to remember more Alex sentences (37 per cent) relative to the controls (32 per cent) - showing that their deliberate forgetting really had been selective for the Tom sentences. Memories of the second test list (sentences about Joe) were unaffected by the forget instruction.

Another version of the experiment had the Tom and Alex sentences gradually forming discernible themes - Alex as a writer who liked snow sports and Tom as a lawyer and family man, or vice versa. Curiously, in this version, the students were not able to deliberately and selectively forget the Tom sentences. The researchers aren't sure why, but one possibility is that remembering just one sentence in a theme involuntarily cues all the other sentences, thus hampering attempts to forget.

So how do we deliberately forget a portion of previously-seen material? One possibility is that the forget instruction prompts people to cease mental rehearsal of to-be-forgotten items, in favour of extra rehearsal of the to-be-remembered items. Another possibility is that items are selectively inhibited at the retrieval stage. "Future studies should use recognition tests to determine whether forgotten items are available in memory but blocked from access, or if they are less well learned," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgDelaney, P., Nghiem, K., & Waldum, E. (2009). The selective directed forgetting effect: Can people forget only part of a text? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (8), 1542-1550 DOI: 10.1080/17470210902770049
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

What makes for a Good Life? International and interdisciplinary perspectives (Journal of Positive Psychology).

Uncertainty and Risk in Everyday Life (Health, Risk and Society).

The Experience of Time: Neural Mechanisms and the Interplay of Emotion, Cognition and Embodiment (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B).

Ethical Issues in Forensic and Correctional Psychology (Aggression and Violent Behaviour).

Models of Mental Health and Human Rights in Celebration of The 60th Anniversary of The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for All (Counselling Psychology Quarterly).

Parkinson's Disease, Language and Cognition (Cortex).
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Understanding why girls underperform at science

Like a sand-castle crumbling away in the rising tide, the once-popular idea that there are innate gender differences in science and maths aptitude is being undermined by a succession of new research findings.

Earlier this year, for example, Stephen Ceci and colleagues sifted through more than 400 relevant journal articles and concluded that far from there being any evidence for a sex-linked difference in science aptitude, the principal factor affecting the relative absence of women in science is their life choices, especially in relation to having children.

Now a new study, by Brian Nosek and colleagues, has looked at the number of people in different countries who hold implicit gender-science stereotypes, and compared this with gender differences in international school science test scores. The researchers' finding is that the two are mutually reinforcing - a culture's implicit belief that females are not associated with science can actually harm girls' and women's science performance, they argue.

To recap, if something about being female really does predispose a person to be weaker at science, then across the world, girls should under-perform, on average, relative to boys. However, whilst this is true in some countries, other countries actually show the opposite pattern, with girls outperforming boys.

Inspired by such observations, Nosek's team wondered whether cultural beliefs about gender and science might negatively affect girls' science performance. They used a version of the implicit association test, hosted on a website, to record implicit beliefs about gender and science among more than half a million people from 34 countries. By allocating categories (e.g. "male-related words" and "science-related words") to either the same or different response keys, the test shows how easily people associate those categories in their mind. Around the world, 70 per cent of participants exhibited an implicit stereotype - associating science with males more than females.

The researchers then looked at international science test scores recorded in 1999 and 2003 for children aged about 12 years. They found a correlation with the implicit stereotype scores, so that in those countries where more people held stereotyped beliefs about gender and science, girls tended to under-perform at science relative to boys.

Taken in the context of previous research showing that awareness of gender stereotypes can harm people's performance (e.g. girls perform worse at maths after being reminded of the stereotype that females are inferior at maths), the researchers said their correlational findings support the idea that a culture's implicit beliefs about science stereotypes can affect girls' science performance in a mutually reinforcing fashion.

"National policy initiatives addressing both factors simultaneously stand the best chance to maximise national scientific achievement," they said. "Education campaigns attempting to bolster women's participation and performance must overcome the pervasive implicit stereotypes that are already embodied in individual minds."

ResearchBlogging.orgNosek, B., Smyth, F., Sriram, N., Lindner, N., Devos, T., Ayala, A., Bar-Anan, Y., Bergh, R., Cai, H., Gonsalkorale, K., Kesebir, S., Maliszewski, N., Neto, F., Olli, E., Park, J., Schnabel, K., Shiomura, K., Tulbure, B., Wiers, R., Somogyi, M., Akrami, N., Ekehammar, B., Vianello, M., Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2009). National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (26), 10593-10597 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809921106

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How tools become part of the body

When admiring a brilliant sportsman or woman, commentators often describe a wielded tennis racquet, cricket bat or other sporting appendage, as having become like an extension of the athlete's own body, so fluid and deft is their control of the lump of metal or wood. It's a metaphor we should be able to relate to, since all of us, champion athlete or not, absorb tools into our inner representation of our own bodies - what cognitive psychologists call our "body schema".

That's according to Lucilla Cardinali and colleagues who demonstrated this graphically in a new study in which participants reached with their hand for a small block, both before and after using a 40-cm long grasping device (similar to those used for picking up rubbish) to reach for the same block.

After several minutes using the grasping tool, the participants subsequent reaching movements with their hand were slower to start and stop, making them longer-lasting overall, compared with before the tool use - as if their own arm was now perceived as longer. Moreover, when the participants were subsequently blindfolded and asked to point to where they'd just been touched by the researchers, on the tip of the middle finger and on the elbow, the places the participants pointed to were further apart, compared with before tool use, again suggesting that they now perceived their arm to be longer.

These effects lasted for at least 15 minutes after tool use, but the researchers haven't yet tested the duration of the effects systematically.

Psychologists have known for some time that our representation of our bodies must be dynamic. You can't get to where you want to go without knowing where you are to start with, so before moving the limbs, the brain and spinal cord need to know the limbs' current location. What's more, the force needed to perform an action appropriately depends on the length of the muscles, which is also affected by the position of the limbs. There are also changes to the body brought about by growing, ageing and injury that must be accommodated for accurate movement control. Given this adaptability it should perhaps come as no surprise that tools can be seamlessly and rapidly incorporated into the body schema.

Lead author Lucilla Cardinali told the Digest that her lab are currently exploring whether expertise affects the way tools are incorporated, such as when a tennis player wields a racquet.

ResearchBlogging.orgCardinali, L., Frassinetti, F., Brozzoli, C., Urquizar, C., Roy, A., & Farnè, A. (2009). Tool-use induces morphological updating of the body schema. Current Biology, 19 (12) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.009
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Detecting consciousness in a totally locked-in patient

Alert to your surroundings but helpless to respond. It's difficult to imagine a worse situation, but this is the terrifying reality for a minority of brain damaged patients with total locked-in syndrome. Fortunately, researchers are developing ways to reveal consciousness trapped inside a lifeless body. Such techniques will hopefully prevent conscious, yet utterly paralysed, patients from being misdiagnosed as comatose.

In this new study, Caroline Schnakers used bed-side electroencephalography (EEG) to detect consciousness in a 21-year-old woman who fell into a coma-like state following a stroke. Twenty-five, 39 and 49 days after her brain was damaged, the researchers uttered the woman's own name to her, together with a short list of irrelevant names, all the while recording the surface electrical activity of her brain with EEG. The important twist was that they sometimes instructed her to pay special attention to her own name, or to one of the unfamiliar names.

During the first two testing sessions, the woman's brain recordings betrayed no signs of awareness. On the third session, however, when she was instructed to pay special attention to her own name, the woman's EEG signal showed an exaggerated P300 response to her name, compared with when she was instructed to just listen passively. The P300 is a spike of activity recorded from the parietal lobe, which is thought to be a marker of consciousness or decision making. This suggests the woman had heard and heeded the task instruction - a sign that she was conscious inside her paralysed body. Fourteen days later, she began to show behavioural signs of awareness, for example by moving her finger in response to instructions.

The researchers said: "In conclusion, this active auditory event-related paradigm (requiring explicit comprehension of auditory-verbal instructions) provides an interesting tool for detecting voluntary brain activity in patients that behaviourally would be diagnosed as comatose". More research is now needed to validate this procedure, they added.

The new case-study comes after research published in 2006 that used functional brain imaging to detect consciousness in a patient in a persistent vegetative state. The EEG used in the current study has the advantage that it can be administered bed-side.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchnakers, C., Perrin, F., Schabus, M., Hustinx, R., Majerus, S., Moonen, G., Boly, M., Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Bruno, M., & Laureys, S. (2009). Detecting consciousness in a total locked-in syndrome: An active event-related paradigm. Neurocase, 15 (4), 271-277 DOI: 10.1080/13554790902724904
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Babies as young as 14 months show signs of altruism.

Psychological factors that predict adjustment and coping in people with multiple sclerosis.

Neurotic people spend more time than others looking at the eyes of fearful faces.

The confirmation bias is not unstoppable (pdf).

How to report effect sizes in psychology.

Ramachandran reviews his research that's used mirrors to help brain-damaged patients.

The role of decreased oxytocin release in the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Oxytocin is a hormone that's previously been associated with trust and the forming of social bonds.

Applying neuroscience and psychology to the design of buildings. The Digest loves this topic. (For more see here).

From "not a big deal" to "hellish": Older people's diverse experiences with dementia.
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Fear really does have a smell

People often talk with some drama about the smell of fear, and yet who among us could describe what the odour is like? This vagueness seems to support the idea that fear as a smell is metaphorical - a way raconteurs through the ages have conveyed the tendency for fear to spread rapidly and invisibly from one person to the next. A new study, however, suggests there is, after all, a literal truth to the idea of fear being communicated through our sense of smell.

Alexander Prehn-Kristensen and colleagues bottled the smell of fear by placing cotton pads under the arms of students waiting to give an assessed oral presentation. For comparison the researchers also collected fear-free sweat from the armpits of students performing cycling exercises.

Next the researchers scanned the brains of 28 students while the two sources of odour were delivered to their noses using an adapted oxygen mask. Half the time, the students couldn't even perceive an odour. They were also unable to distinguish between the two odour sources, rating them as equally pleasant. Crucially, however, the participants' brain responses to the two odours did differ significantly.

The smell of sweat taken from students anxiously awaiting an oral exam led to proportionately greater activation in the participants across a swathe of brain areas known to be involved in empathy, emotion, representing other people's mental states and distinguishing the self from other. These included the insula, the precuneus, the cingulate gyrus, the fusiform cortex and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

This finding, of the smell of fear triggering an emotional brain response in the absence of any conscious awareness, could help explain why we're sometimes moved by a whiff of fear in the air, without registering any accompanying sensory experience. "It is concluded that the human brain automatically guides physiological adjustments to chemosensory anxiety signals, without being dependent on conscious mediation," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgPrehn-Kristensen, A., Wiesner, C., Bergmann, T., Wolff, S., Jansen, O., Mehdorn, H., Ferstl, R., & Pause, B. (2009). Induction of Empathy by the Smell of Anxiety. PLoS ONE, 4 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005987
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It's called sfdkshfsk ... Stand back!

If you want people to recognise that a substance is dangerous - give it a complicated, hard-to-pronounce name. That's the implication of a new study that suggests we use a simple rule-of-thumb when judging risk. If something is easy to process and digest - for example, by virtue of being easy to pronounce - we tend to assume that it's familiar and safe. By contrast, if it seems hard to process, we assume it's novel and likely to be risky. These kinds of mental short cuts are known as heuristics and psychologists enjoy uncovering them because they show how our minds have evolved to cope with the constant storm of information and stimulation hurled their way.

In an initial study, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz found that student participants rated made-up food additives as more harmful if the they had hard-to-pronounce names such as Hnegripitrom, as compared with easier to pronounce names like Magnalroxate. A follow-up study suggested that this effect was partially explained by perceived novelty. That is, easy-to-pronounce additives were judged to be more familiar as well as being safer.

Another explanation for the effect of fluency on risk perception is that we enjoy fluency, which biases us to see things as less risky because risk is negative. A third study undermined this account. Student participants rated easy-to-pronounce fairground rides as less risky, even in the context of that risk being a good thing - in this case "exciting and adventurous".

"From an applied perspective, our findings suggest that fluency manipulations may offer a promising avenue for the management of perceived risk," the researchers said. "For example, disfluent product names may alert consumers to the risks posed by potentially hazardous products."

These findings add to a growing literature on the effects of fluency on our decision making. In 2006, for example, Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer showed that people tend to invest more in companies with easy-to-pronounce names. Meanwhile, a 2005 study showed that writers who adopt a simple style are perceived to be more intelligent.

Link to full-text pdf via author website.

ResearchBlogging.orgSong, H., & Schwarz, N. (2009). If It's Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky. Psychological Science, 20 (2), 135-138 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02267.x
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A computerised learning tool helps boost study effectiveness

Much of psychology's efforts over the last few decades have been spent on understanding the nature of memory. Increasingly, though, psychologists are beginning to apply what we've learned about memory, so as to help enhance people's performance. In 2007, the Digest reported on a study that investigated the optimal interval to leave between study periods if you want to remember material long term. Now Claudia Meltzer-Baddeley and Roland Baddeley have tested a related approach to study, known as adaptive training, and found that it too helps boost learning.

Adaptive training is a strategic form of study that ensures the learner spends more time focused on material they know less well and less time focused on already mastered material. This means that less familiar material is re-examined more frequently, while better mastered material is gradually left for longer and longer periods. It's possible to employ this kind of system by using stacks of learning cards, whereby correctly answered cards are placed on piles that are re-tested less often. However, there are computerised tools like "SuperMemo" that simplify and enhance this process, allowing the learner to say how confidently they answered each item, which in turn influences the likelihood of that item appearing again.

Meltzer-Baddeley and Baddeley tested the ability of 32 undergrads to learn Spanish vocabulary using the SuperMemo software. Crucially, they compared the learning effectiveness of two versions - one employed adaptive training, whilst the other version simply randomised the presentation of the study items. The researchers found that the adaptive training version significantly boosted performance on a vocab test given immediately after training and two weeks' later, compared with performance using the simple randomised presentation of study items.

The size of the adaptive training benefit was modest but the researchers said "in real life situations, in which motivated people may come back to material repeatedly across larger periods of times, we would expect much bigger advantages of adaptive spacing." They concluded that adaptive computer based training programmes could prove to be a useful tool "to enhance memory in healthy individuals, as well as people with learning and memory problems."

ResearchBlogging.orgMetzler-Baddeley, C., & Baddeley, R. (2009). Does adaptive training work? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (2), 254-266 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1454
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