Why we tip and how to get a bigger tip

Stats from the USA suggest that $40 billion is spent on tips every year. Yet from the traditional economic perspective, which sees us as rational agents operating in our own interest, tipping waiters, barbers, taxi drivers and other service workers is crazy. You don't have to so why do you? That's if you do. Not everyone does. In an effort to explore our motivations for tipping, Stephen Saunders and Michael Lynn sent out 29 fieldworkers to survey 530 South African citizens after they'd had an encounter with a car guard. These unpaid workers are a common sight in South Africa at shopping centres, hospitals and schools. They help with parking, protect the car from vandalism and assist drivers with loading shopping and luggage.

One explanation for why we tip is that we're trying to encourage good service in the future. However, Saunders and Lynn found no evidence that people who used a car guard more were more likely to tip, as you'd expect if this were their true motive. By contrast, perceived service quality was associated with both the likelihood of giving a tip and the amount tipped, thus suggesting that participants were using tipping as a form of reward. Similarly, those who said they thought it was important to help others in need tended to tip more (although they weren't any more likely to tip), suggesting altruism was another motive. Finally, social norms were a key factor - participants who said their friends and relatives thought it was important to tip were more likely to tip themselves, especially if there were more people with them at the time of questioning. Size of tip was not associated with this factor, perhaps because it's only the act of tipping that's visible to others, rather than the amount tipped.

'Hopefully this paper will encourage more economists to look beyond the apparent irrationality of tipping and to study it from both a behavioural economics and psychological perspective,' the researchers said.

In a separate study, based in Utah, John Seiter and Harry Weger tested the effects of ingratiation on food servers' tips. They had two waiters and two waitresses go about their usual duties but with a twist: for half the parties they served they were instructed to compliment the customers, telling them that they'd made an excellent choice in what they'd ordered. Counting the tips received from 348 dinner parties showed that complimenting customers on making a shrewd order led to tips that were three per cent greater on average than when no compliment was made - a statistically significant boost.

'A roughly 3 per cent increase may seem a small amount,' the researchers said, '[but] an additional $1 to $5 per shift could translate into hundreds of dollars per year for each food server.'

More in-depth analysis showed that complimenting customers on their order only led to bigger tips for parties of two to three people. It made to no difference with a party of four and actually led to smaller tips for groups larger than this (the research involved parties of up to seven). It also turned out that one of the waiting staff had received smaller tips after complimenting customers (even though the group average was for larger tips in this condition). Seiter and Weger surmised this could be because she didn't come across as sincere.

This study builds on earlier research showing that use of mimicry, light touches on customers' shoulders, happy faces on the bill and squatting to customers' eye level can all help provoke larger tips.

ResearchBlogging.orgSaunders, S., & Lynn, M. (2010). Why tip? An empirical test of motivations for tipping car guards. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31(1), 106-113 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2009.11.007

Seiter, J., & Weger, Jr., H. (2010). The Effect of Generalized Compliments, Sex of Server, and Size of Dining Party on Tipping Behavior in Restaurants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00560.x
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What kind of Internet user are you?

Before Kraft's Executive Board had even heard of Cadbury's, there used to be an advert on British television that showed people eating Cadbury's cream-eggs in a number of odd and inventive ways. The tag-line was 'How do you eat yours?' Now a pair of researchers based in Turkey, Leman Tosun and Timo Lajunen, have taken a similar tack with Internet use, asking hundreds of undergrad students how they use their time on the global interweb.

More specifically, the researchers were interested in whether the students used the Internet for the benefit of their existing face-face relationships - for example for arranging meet-ups and sharing photos - and how much they used it for establishing new friendships or conducting Internet-only relationships. The researchers also wanted to know whether the students found it easier to express their true selves online than in the flesh. The point of all this was to see whether people with certain personality types tend to use the Internet in particular ways.

Using Eysenck's classic personality test, Tosun and Lajunen found that students who scored high on extraversion (agreeing with statements like 'I am very talkative') tended to use the Internet to extend their real-life relationships, whereas students who scored high on psychoticism (answering 'yes' to statements like 'does your mood often go up and down?' and 'do you like movie scenes involving violence and torture?') tended to use the Internet as a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Students who scored high on psychoticism were also likely to say that they found it easier to reveal their true selves online than face-to-face. The personality subscale of neuroticism (indicated by 'yes' answers to items like 'Do things often seem hopeless to you?) was not associated with styles of Internet use.

'Our data suggest that global personality traits may explain social Internet use to some extent,' the researchers concluded. 'In future studies, a more detailed index of social motives can be used to better understand the relation between personality and Internet use.'

ResearchBlogging.orgTosun, L., & Lajunen, T. (2010). Does Internet use reflect your personality? Relationship between Eysenck’s personality dimensions and Internet use. Computers in Human Behavior, 26 (2), 162-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2009.10.010
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Attractive women tend to be happier, but only in cities, not the countryside.

Near-conversational synthetic speech generated via brain-machine interface.

Review of eight meta-analyses of psychodynamic psychotherapy effectiveness: 'The perception that psychodynamic approaches lack empirical support does not accord with available scientific evidence and may reflect selective dissemination of research findings.'

The individual and situational factors that predict work place bullying. Men and victims of bullying are more likely to bully. Stressful work places with role conflict and interpersonal conflict also host more bullying.

Women process multisensory emotion expressions more efficiently than men.

Lookism in a Facebook age: 'The results indicated that both male and female subjects were more willing to initiate friendships with opposite-sex profile owners with attractive photos.'

Lusting while loathing: 'We show how being “jilted”—that is, being thwarted from obtaining a desired outcome—can concurrently increase desire to obtain the outcome, but reduce its actual attractiveness'.

Dreaming and the brain: 'It is now possible to ... address fundamental questions: how conscious experiences in sleep relate to underlying brain activity; why the dreamer is largely disconnected from the environment; and whether dreaming is more closely related to mental imagery or to perception'.

Wiley has a new cognitive science review journal.
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Time flew by ... I must have been enjoying myself

Have you ever been in the cinema and felt the time drag? It's happened to me. A glance at my watch and then the thought that I can't be enjoying the film all that much or else the time would surely have flown. My experience matches the findings from a series of studies by Aaron Sackett and colleagues. The folk psychology belief 'time flies when you're having fun' is so powerful and ubiquitous, the researchers say, that whenever we feel an event has passed more quickly than we expected, we infer that we must have been enjoying ourselves, and vice versa for events that drag.

The researchers first had dozens of undergrads look through passages of text and underline any words with adjacent repeats of a particular letter. Crucially, the researchers told the participants that the task would last ten minutes, but in reality it lasted either five minutes or twenty minutes, thus creating the illusion of time flying or dragging, respectively. A sneaky switch of stop-watches helped create the illusion. Afterwards, the participants who'd experienced the sense of the time flying rated the task as far more enjoyable than did the participants who'd experienced the sense of time dragging.

Further experiments showed that provoking the feeling of time flying led participants to be more tolerant of an irritating noise, and led them to enjoy their favourite song more than usual. This last finding was important because there was a possibility that it would feel unpleasant for a pleasurable activity to end earlier than expected.

If people really do use the 'time flies when you're having fun' adage to evaluate their own enjoyment, then challenging or encouraging the truth of the adage ought to affect the kind of findings described above. That's exactly what Sackett's team found. When participants read a scientific article challenging the 'time flies' adage, speeding up their subjective sense of time no longer increased their enjoyment of a word-based task.

It was a similar story when participants were given an alternative explanation for why time might have raced by. Participants were given ear plugs, which they were told could speed people's time perception. Again, the illusion of time flying didn't lead these participants to enjoy a task more, presumably because they attributed the sense of time flying to the ear plugs rather than to their enjoyment.

'Taken together, these findings have important implications for understanding and changing hedonic experience,' the researchers said. The Digest got in touch with lead author Aaron Sackett, Marketing Professor at the University of St. Thomas, to ask him how this might apply in the real world. He said the first thing to do is minimise people's access to accurate time cues. Next, alter their subjective time perception. There are numerous ways to do this. For example, physiological arousal speeds time perception so a free coffee at the start of a long queue could work (as long as no clocks were in sight). Even music that's incongruent with the context (e.g. Chinese music in an English restaurant) has been found to speed time. Finally, you need the surprise moment, when people are alerted to the true passage of time. That provokes in people the sensation of time having flown, followed by the gratifying inference that they must therefore have been enjoying themselves.

ResearchBlogging.orgAM Sackett, LD Nelson, T Meyvis, BA Converse, & AL Sackett (2010). You're having fun when time flies: The hedonic consequences of subjective time progression. Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797609354832
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I'm not lying: Brain stimulation boosts people's deception skills

There's been so much excitement and hyperbole surrounding the promise of brain imaging as a lie detection technique, but what about the needs of the cads, thieves and vagabonds of this world? Has contemporary cognitive neuroscience nothing to offer them? It has now. In an exciting development for fibbers everywhere, Ahmed Karim and his team have shown that the application of transcranial direct current stimulation over the anterior prefrontal cortex - the front bit of the brain - improves people's lying skills.

Twenty-two participants role-played stealing money from an office before being interrogated by a researcher acting the role of police detective. The participants were given extra incentive to deceive the 'detective' with the promise that they could keep the money if they succeeded. Crucially, the participants answered some questions with a mild electric current applied over their prefrontal cortex via scalp electrodes. The effect of this 'cathodal' stimulation, which lasted about 13 minutes, was to inhibit brain activity in the affected area, thus creating a kind of temporary, 'virtual' lesion. By contrast, they answered other questions in a 'sham' condition, involving all the same kit but with the current switched off after just thirty seconds. The interrogator and participants couldn't tell whether they were in the stimulation or sham condition.

Past brain imaging research has shown that some forms of lying are associated with increased activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex, and one prediction was that inhibiting this region would impair people's lying skills. In fact, compared with the sham condition, the stimulation improved participants' lying ability: they lied more skillfully in terms of only lying when they needed to; lied more quickly; and remained calmer whilst lying, as reflected by their sweating less.

A second study used 'anodal' stimulation, which unlike 'cathodal' stimulation, excites rather than inhibits underlying brain cells. This had no effect on the participants' lying ability. A third study showed that 'cathodal' stimulation had no effect on the famous Stroop task, which requires participants to name the ink colour that a colour word (e.g. blue) is written in. In other words, the effect of the stimulation appears to be specific to deception, not to cognitively demanding tasks in general.

So why does knocking out prefrontal cortex activity improve people's deception skills? The researchers can't be sure, but stated crudely, one possibility is that the stimulation puts the conscience to sleep, freeing the mind to lie without the usual inconvenience of moral conflict. This would appear to tally with research suggesting that psychopaths have reduced grey matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex and also with a recent study showing that people with brain damage to this region make more utilitarian moral decisions.

'If neuroscience research can demonstrate that deceptive behaviour and moral cognition are not only associated with the activation of specific brain areas, but may even be modulated by noninvasive stimulation of these areas, what implications will such findings have on our concept of personal responsibility?' the researchers asked.

ResearchBlogging.orgKarim, A., Schneider, M., Lotze, M., Veit, R., Sauseng, P., Braun, C., & Birbaumer, N. (2009). The Truth about Lying: Inhibition of the Anterior Prefrontal Cortex Improves Deceptive Behavior. Cerebral Cortex, 20 (1), 205-213 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhp090
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Early risers are more proactive than evening people

I've always envied early risers, those who spring out of bed at the crack of dawn, ready, it seems, to take on the world. Of course their early vitality could be short-lived. Morning friskiness gives the impression of a positive nature but are 'larks' really more proactive people than 'owls'?

Yes, according to Christoph Randler who surveyed 367 student participants and found a correlation between their self-reported 'morningness' (as revealed by their answers to questions about how easy they find it to get up in the morning and how alert they feel) and their self-reported proactivity (measured by their agreement with statements like 'I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself' and 'I feel responsible for my own life'). The correlation was relatively weak (.11, where 1 would be a perfect match) but was statistically significant.

Randler also found proactivity to be (inversely) correlated with so-called 'social jetlag'. This is caused by the mismatch between one's biological time-keeping and the demands of social time, as betrayed by the difference in students' choice of rise times between weekdays and weekends.

These findings suggest that morning people really are more proactive. What's not clear is why - whether it's because they really do have an inherent energy and drive or if instead it's simply easier for morning people to be proactive in a world that is generally tailored towards rising early, rather than working late.

'... [W]hether evening people could be more proactive in their lifestyles if they had less restrictive schedules (e.g. they could start work later in the day)' is a question for future research, Randler said.

This is far from being the first study to look for associations between people's sleep habits and other personality factors. Prior research suggests that evening people are more extraverted, pessimistic and creative, whilst morning people are more conscientious. Twin studies suggest that genetic differences explain a lot of the variation in people's morningness and eveningness.

ResearchBlogging.orgRandler, C. (2009). Proactive People Are Morning People. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39 (12), 2787-2797 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00549.x
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Mirror Neurons: Prospects and Problems for the Neurobiology of Language (Brain and Language).

Computerised treatments of depression (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).

The Role of Prevention Science in Advancing Research and Practice in the Schools (Psychology in The Schools).

Remembering Robert Solomon (Emotion Review).

Multi-Dimensional Work Performance: Festschrift for Michael Frese (Applied Psychology).
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Scared face processed more quickly when seen out of the corner of the eye

The brain processes fearful faces more quickly when seen out of the corner of the eye than when viewed straight on. Dimitri Bayle and colleagues, who made their finding using magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain scanning, believe this bias has probably evolved because threats are more likely to come from side-on.

Eleven participants had their brains scanned while they judged whether faces on a computer screen were happy or not. Unbeknown to the participants, each of these visible faces was actually preceded by a subliminally presented fearful face, either straight ahead or in the periphery.

The striking finding was that a peripherally presented fearful face led to much quicker activation of brain regions known to be involved in emotion processing. Specifically, a peripherally presented fearful face was followed by increased activation in the right anterior fronto-medial region - including the famous amygdala - within just 130ms. By contrast, a fearful face presented straight on triggered activity in these emotional-processing centres only after 210ms.

Bayle's team think that fearful stimuli seen out of the corner of the eye are processed more quickly because of the preponderance of so-called 'magnocellular' receptors in the eye's periphery. These feed into the magnocellular visual pathway, known for its fast and dirty processing, which routes subcortically via the superior-colliculus. In contrast, stimuli viewed straight ahead in our full attentional glare are preferentially processed by the so-called parvocelluar pathway, which is more thorough and travels rather more leisurely via the visual cortex at the back of the brain.

The researchers concluded: 'An adaptive advantage is conferred by the fast automatic detection of potential threat outside the focus of attention, as danger in the external world mostly appears in the peripheral vision, requiring a rapid behavioural reaction before conscious control.'

ResearchBlogging.orgBayle DJ, Henaff MA, & Krolak-Salmon P (2009). Unconsciously perceived fear in peripheral vision alerts the limbic system: a MEG study. PloS one, 4 (12) PMID: 20011048
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Witnessing school bullying carries its own psychological risks

We hear a lot about the harmful consequences to children of seeing their parents argue or watching violence on TV, but very little about the potential harm of witnessing school bullying. But now Ian Rivers and colleagues have published findings suggesting that being a bystander to bullying can often be just as psychologically harmful as being directly involved.

The researchers asked just over 2000, predominantly white, children aged 12-16 at 14 state schools in the north of England about how much they'd been bullied, been a bully or witnessed bullying, over the last school term. Bullying appeared to be part of the daily lives of most of the children, with 63 per cent saying they'd seen bullying going on; 20 per cent admitting that they'd bullied someone else and 34 per cent reporting they'd been bullied.

The pupils were also asked questions about their mental health and their use of cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. The findings showed that being a witness to bullying was associated with increased mental health problems and substance abuse, above and beyond the effects of being directly involved in bullying. In other words, witnessing bullying was still significantly associated with psychological measures like anxiety and depression, even after the potential influence of being a bullying victim or perpetrator was factored out. Pupils who'd witnessed bullying (but not been a victim or bully) also tended to report drinking more alcohol than victims or those not at all involved in bullying.

The researchers acknowledged that their study was not longitudinal so it only offered a snapshot of the relations between the various bullying roles and mental health measures. And there's also a need to treat pupils' self-report data with caution. Nonetheless, Rivers' team said their study suggests school psychologists should consider the effects of bullying on bystanders, not just on those directly involved.

Possible reasons why witnessing bullying could be psychologically harmful include being reminded of one's own past experiences of being bullied; being made to feel that one is at risk of being bullied; and also feeling guilty for not intervening to help the victim.

'It’s well documented that children and adolescents who are exposed to violence within their families or outside of school are at a greater risk for mental health problems ...' said Rivers. 'It should not be a surprise that violence at school will pose the same kind of risk.'

ResearchBlogging.orgRivers, I., Poteat, V., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (4), 211-223 DOI: 10.1037/a0018164
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Psychology researchers aren't paying enough attention to debriefing their participants

Deception was a fundamental part of some of the most famous experiments in psychology - just think of Milgram's obedience studies, in which participants thought they were administering an electric shock, or Asch's conformity research, during which participants were tricked into believing everyone else in the room thought a line was a different length than it was. Although ethical standards have been tightened, deception is still used widely in psychology. It's not uncommon for even the most sedate studies to involve giving participants false test feedback or misleading them about the true aims of the research. A vital element of psychological science, therefore, is to debrief participants after experimenting on them - telling them the truth about what happened and why, and listening to their feedback.

Even studies that don't deploy trickery have the potential to leave a lasting impression - consider all the tests of new interventions aimed at outcomes from improving memory to ameliorating depression. We know from past research that simply asking someone about a behaviour, such as drug taking, increases their likelihood of indulging in that behaviour. Of course, telling participants too much up front can be detrimental to the results, and fully informed consent is therefore far rarer than most researchers would care to admit. That's why it's so important to debrief them fully afterwards. And yet, having said all this, an alarming new survey of researchers by Donald Sharpe and Cathy Faye suggests that debriefing is a neglected practice in contemporary psychology. Ironically for a science that's supposed to be about people and behaviour, there's also scant research on what kinds of debriefing are even effective - for example is it enough to tell participants they were given false feedback or should they have the chance to complete a real test?

Sharpe and Faye surveyed over two hundred researchers who'd published during a twelve month period from 2006 to 2007, either in the American Psychological Association's flagship social psychology journal The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology or in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Just one third of articles in the social psychology journal had mentioned debriefing and fewer than one in ten of the trauma journal articles had done so. Those mentionings that were found were usually cursory, such as 'Participants in this and all following experiments were debriefed prior to dismissal.' If the purpose of a particular study was obvious, the survey suggested most researchers considered debriefing to be unnecessary, with nearly all their focus placed instead on informed consent prior to the study.

Set against this worrying picture, Sharpe and Faye make a strong case for just how vital debriefing ought to be to good quality research. Taking their lead from a provocative article published on this topic thirty years ago by Frederick Tesch, the pair say that effective debriefing is vital not only for the ethical reasons outlined above, but for educational and methodological functions too.

Explaining to participants why and how a study was performed ought to be given far higher priority, they argue, especially when one considers how many studies are performed on psychology students. Even with non-psychology students, the exercise of carefully explaining the rationale, methodology, and perhaps even results, of a study, could help to promote the scientific cause. 'Participants would learn about doing research, the joys and frustrations, and the excitement of discovery,' Sharpe and Faye said.

Regarding the methodological benefits of debriefing, the authors said that the process ought to be two-way, and that information garnered from participants can illuminate study findings and help improve future procedures. 'Researchers would learn about how participants view the experimental task, what makes sense and what does not, and what the participants think it was all about,' Sharpe and Faye said.

Their paper ends with seven recommendations for how to improve the situation, including greater discussion of debriefing in the research literature; more thorough reporting of debriefing practices in journals' methods sections; use of online overflow pages for discussing debriefing; and formalising the debriefing procedure. 'Progress will be made when researchers recognise the importance of debriefing or when some unfortunate circumstance forces such recognition,' the authors said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSharpe, D., & Faye, C. (2009). A Second Look at Debriefing Practices: Madness in Our Method? Ethics & Behavior, 19 (5), 432-447 DOI: 10.1080/10508420903035455
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Extras and Quotes

Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Witnessing Alzheimer's through diary and poem: Dear Alzheimer's why did you pick our sheltered lives to visit?

Are violent people more likely to have low self-esteem or high self-esteem?

Amputees “Neglect” the Space Near Their Missing Hand.

Empirically supported religious and spiritual therapies.

The most important of all the organs: Darwin on the brain.

Psychology quotes in the news:

'Here are some great examples of how harnessing the insights of behavioural economics and social psychology can help you achieve your policy goals in a more effective and light-touch way ... ,' Leaked strategy bulletin from Cameron advisor Steve Hilton.

'Malcolm Corbett, vice-chairman of the NFU national livestock board, said yesterday that sheep might have lost their inbred knowledge of how to cope with periods of prolonged snow after a succession of mild winters,' Independent newspaper article discusses the effect of the cold snap on farm animals.

'Almost every health professional comes into contact with patients who have dementia,' says the report, 'yet there is no required basic training in how to understand and support them,' BBC News Online discusses report showing that National Dementia Strategy for England is failing.

'If he has come to believe these words (and God knows, that's a big job) there must be very powerful psychological forces at work,' The Independent's political sketch writer recognises the power of cognitive dissonance in Alistair Campbell's performance at the Iraq Inquiry.

'What matters most to a child's life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting,' David Cameron speech on 11 January.
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How to brag

No one likes a show-off. But to get ahead in this world, you're going to need to let at least some people know what you're capable of. Thankfully Nurit Tal-Or has arrived with a pair of studies that offer some insight into how to brag without coming across as big-headed.

Over a hundred undergrads were presented with the script of a conversation between two people - a 'show-off' called Avi who boasted about his A-grade in stats exams, and his friend. Crucially, there were four versions of the conversation, with each undergrad participant reading just one version. In two versions, the friend raised the topic of the exam before he either did or did not ask Avi what grade he got; in the other two versions, Avi first raised the topic of the exam, which either did or did not provoke a question from his friend about his grade. In every version Avi ended up boasting that he got an 'A+'. Afterwards, the students rated Avi's character based on the version they'd read.

The crux of it: context is everything when it comes to boasting. If Avi's friend raised the topic of the exams, Avi received favourable ratings in terms of his boastfulness and likeability, regardless of whether he was actually asked what grade he got. By contrast, if Avi raised the topic of the exams, but failed to provoke a question, then his likeability suffered and he was seen as more of a boaster. In other words, to pull off a successful boast, you need it to be appropriate to the conversation. If your friend, colleague, or date raises the topic, you can go ahead and pull a relevant boast in safety. Alternatively, if you're forced to turn the conversation onto the required topic then you must succeed in provoking a question from your conversation partner. If there's no question and you raised the topic then any boast you make will leave you looking like a big-head.

The study author Tal-Or thinks the asking of the question is all-important because of our usually mindless approach to conversations. As a kind of mental short-cut we assume that if a conversant asks a question on a topic then they were probably the ones to have raised that topic in the first place. And once a topic has been raised, a subsequent boast is not seen as such a social sin because it's in context.

Tal-Or tested this idea with a second study, almost identical to the first, but instead of the participants rating Avi's character, they were given a memory test on the conversation. As Tal-Or expected, when participants read the story version in which Avi's friend asked Avi about his grades, they tended to mistakenly remember that the friend had also raised the topic in the first place, even when he hadn't.

'In situations ranging from a first date to a job interview, people commonly face the dilemma of how to make their listeners aware of their success without being perceived as braggers,' Tal-Or said. 'The present research provides a possible solution to this dilemma.'

Before you takes these tips onto the streets, there's one major caveat worth noting. Tal-Or only looked at the perception of the boaster in the eyes of onlookers, not in the eyes of one's actual conversation partner.

ResearchBlogging.orgTal-Or, N. (2010). Bragging in the right context: Impressions formed of self-promoters who create a context for their boasts. Social Influence, 5 (1), 23-39 DOI: 10.1080/15534510903160480

If you enjoyed this, you'll probably enjoy our earlier report 'How to name drop'.

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Morbid warnings on cigarette packs could encourage some people to smoke

Every now and again a finding comes along that provides perfect ammunition for psychologists confronted by the tiresome claim that psychology is all 'common sense'. Researchers have found that death-related health warnings on cigarette packs are likely to encourage some people to smoke. The surprising result is actually consistent with 'Terror-management Theory', according to which thoughts of mortality cause us to cling more strongly to our cultural beliefs and to pursue ego-boosting activities.

Jochim Hansen and colleagues first measured how important smoking was to the self-esteem of 39 student smokers. Example questionnaire items included 'smoking allows me to feel valued by others'. Next, the smokers were divided into two groups: one group looked at two cigarette packs that featured death-related warnings, such as 'Smokers die earlier'. The other group looked at cigarette packs that featured death-neutral warnings, such as 'Smoking makes you unattractive.'

Fifteen minutes later all the students reported their attitudes to smoking; the questionnaire included items such as 'Do you intend to quit smoking?'. Among the students for whom smoking was important to their self-esteem, those who looked at packets with death-related warnings subsequently reported more positive attitudes to smoking compared with those who looked at death-neutral packets. The exact opposite pattern was found for students for whom smoking was not important for their self-esteem.

In other words, for smokers who derive a self-esteem boost from smoking - perhaps they see it as a key part of their identity or they think it makes them look cool - a death-related cigarette packet warning can have the ironic effect of making them want to smoke more, so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality. The findings suggest that for these kinds of smokers, packet warnings that target positive beliefs about smoking (e.g. 'Smoking makes you look unattractive') could well be more effective.

'To succeed with anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs one thus has to take into account that considering death may make some people smoke,' the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgHansen, J., Winzeler, S., & Topolinski, S. (2010). When the death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 226-228 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.007
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Prejudice towards migrants stems partly from the fact that they're awkward to think about

Survey research consistently shows that people tend to have a poor view of migrants. It's unpalatable but psychologically-speaking, it's no great surprise. After all, the odds are stacked against new-comers: most of us display inherent biases against people who we perceive to be in a different social group from our own - the so-called 'out group bias' - together with a similar aversion to people who are members of a social minority. Migrants usually fit both these descriptions.

Now Mark Rubin and colleagues have tested a third, even more elemental reason for prejudice against migrants, one that has to do with what's known as 'cognitive fluency'. People generally favour things that they find easy to process, as demonstrated, for example, by their preference for investing in companies with easy-to-pronounce names and their fear of chemicals with gobbledygook labels. Rubin and his colleagues argue that, in a purely abstract way, there's something cognitively awkward when it comes to thinking about the notion of migrants, and this mental difficulty biases us against them. 'An Algerian who has moved to the United States would be more difficult to process than an Algerian who is living in Algeria,' they wrote.

The researchers recruited hundreds of students to perform various thought experiments. The students imagined a group of people in a room and that this first group was divided arbitrarily into two smaller groups, A and B, with a minority of each group then sent to the other group. The group swappers were the 'migrants'. The researchers balanced out the effects of out-group and minority bias by asking the participants to imagine they were themselves either in the migrating group, control group, or not involved. They next asked the students to rate the character of a typical control group member (one who stayed in his or her original group) and a typical migrant (who'd swapped groups), and then they asked the students to rate how easy they'd found it to think about members of the different groups.

Students who guessed the purpose of the study were excluded from further analysis. The key result: despite the abstract nature of the task, the students rated migrating group members more negatively than control group members and this was partly because they'd found it more difficult to think about the migrants compared with the control members. This effect also worked backwards: there was some evidence that the students found it more difficult to think about migrating group members because they'd rated them more negatively. A second study showed that group members who were excluded from their original group, rather than swapped to another group, were also rated negatively and described as awkward to think about.

The researchers said their finding showed prejudice against migrants can partly be explained by the cognitive awkwardness of thinking about a person who lives in one place but hails from another. 'An obvious next step in this line of research is to investigate the influence of processing fluency on evaluations of migrants in the real world,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgRubin, M., Paolini, S., & Crisp, R. (2010). A processing fluency explanation of bias against migrants. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 21-28 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.006
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Siblings as agents of socialisation (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

Serotonin: New Aspects of its Functions in the Brain (The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology). This issue is free to access.

Word learning and lexical development across the lifespan (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B). Like all Royal Society journals, this issue is free to access until the end of Feb, in celebration of their 350th anniversary.

Rationality and emotions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B). Like all Royal Society journals, this issue is free to access until the end of Feb, in celebration of their 350th anniversary.

Children and research: 'voice', agency and intergenerational relationships (Children and Society).
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What do young children know about managing fear?

The recent film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things are prompted much debate about whether it's appropriate to subject children to material which they could find frightening. It's rather topical then that a new research paper has looked at young children's understanding of fear reduction strategies, finding them to be more precocious than previously realised.

Liat Sayfan and Kirsten Lagattuta presented 48 children aged between 4 and 7 years with picture-based short stories. The children were asked to imagine that they were the central character. The stories involved the child, either alone or with a companion, catching sight of a possible threat - either what could be a dangerous creature, such as a bear, or what might be an imaginary frightening creature, such as a ghost. The pictures were drawn such that the presence or not of the threats was ambiguous.

Even the youngest children recognised that people differ in how vulnerable they are to fear, seeing adults as being less prone than children and men less prone than women. The girls were more sensitive to these differences than the boys.

Another gender difference was that, at all ages, the girls tended to propose more avoidant fear reduction strategies - such as running and hiding - compared with the boys' suggestion of more aggressive strategies, including going on the attack.

Surprisingly perhaps, children at all ages suggested that the story characters could use psychological (e.g. 'imagine that my mummy is there') as well as behavioural (e.g. 'go to my room') strategies to overcome their fears, although this tendency did increase with age. Another developmental change was that the older children proposed more 'reality affirming strategies' (e.g. 'I can remember that ghosts aren't real') whereas the four- and five-year-olds proposed more so-called 'positive pretense' strategies (e.g. 'I'll use a sword to fight the dragon').

'These data advance current knowledge about the development of children's understanding of mind, emotion, and coping during childhood,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgSayfan L, & Lagattuta KH (2009). Scaring the monster away: what children know about managing fears of real and imaginary creatures. Child development, 80 (6), 1756-74 PMID: 19930350
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Students behave in a more helpful manner after listening to Michael Jackson's Heal The World and other songs with prosocial lyrics.

Contributions of Societal Modernity to Cognitive Development: A Comparison of Four Cultures.

'...children of 4 years find a question about what they themselves will need to play in the future harder to answer than a similar question posed about another child.'

The Dodo Bird Verdict - controversial, inevitable and important: a commentary on 30 years of meta-analyses. (The Dodo Bird Verdict is the finding that different therapeutic approaches are generally of similar efficacy.)

What judges, the general public and experts believe about the testimony of eye-witnesses.

Alison Gopnik reviews Stanislas Dehaene's 'Reading in the brain, The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention'.

How Sigmund Freud, his nephew and a box of cigars forever changed American marketing.
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Hospital staff make better decisions using textual information rather than medical charts

Whether from first-hand experience or from TV and film, we've probably all seen those medical charts that hang at the bottom of hospital beds. A new study makes the surprising claim that it might be better if these graphical charts were replaced or complemented with short passages of text conveying the same information. Marian Van Der Meulen and colleagues say that graphs are prone to misinterpretation by inexperienced, distracted staff and text leads to more accurate courses of action. Of course translation of medical charts into text-based summaries is labour intensive to an impractical degree, as the researchers freely acknowledge. But they say new software that can automatically translate data into text-based summaries could potentially solve this problem.

Van Der Meulen's team presented 35 nurses and doctors from the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh with real data from 24 infant patients. The participants' task was to scrutinise the data and decide on what the next course of action should be. The data, which provided information on factors like blood pressure and temperature, as well as previous actions taken by staff, was either presented via time series graphs, in the conventional manner; as text-based summaries translated from the graphs by medical experts; or as computer-generated text. It's important to note that both forms of text summary provided no clinical interpretation, they merely summarised the salient information in the graphical data.

Remarkably, the participating nurses and doctors chose significantly more appropriate courses of action after looking at the textual summaries written by an expert as compared with looking at the standard time-series graphs. Decisions made after looking at the computer-generated text were poorer than decisions taken after the human-generated text but were just as accurate as decisions made from the graphs.

'Overall, these results confirm that in a neonatal ICU, human generated descriptions of time series physiological measures are better able to support medical decision-making than graphs with trend lines,' the researchers said.

These findings will only have relevance to real-life hospital settings if a way can be found to make the computer-generated text as effective as the text written by a human expert. The researchers are confident that this can be achieved. A research paper they have in press has compared the two types of text to look for differences that could help improve the BT-45 software that was used in this study. Such differences include the human text having a more coherent grammatical structure and narrative and a tendency to group physiological measures together.

'...[F]urther development of this technology is likely to be extremely fruitful in supporting complex real-world cognition,' the researchers concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgvan der Meulen, M., Logie, R., Freer, Y., Sykes, C., McIntosh, N., & Hunter, J. (2010). When a graph is poorer than 100 words: A comparison of computerised natural language generation, human generated descriptions and graphical displays in neonatal intensive care. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), 77-89 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1545

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