Men with brown eyes are perceived as more dominant, but it's not because their eyes are brown

White men with brown eyes are perceived to be more dominant than their blue-eyed counterparts. However, a blue-eyed man looking to make himself appear more dominant would be wasting his time investing in brown-coloured contact lenses. A new study by Karel Kleisner and colleagues at Charles University in the Czech Republic has found that brown iris colour seems to co-occur with some other aspect of facial appearance that triggers in others the perception of dominance.

Sixty-two student participants, half of them female, rated the dominance and/or attractiveness of the photographed faces of forty men and forty women. All models were Caucasian, and all of them were holding a neutral expression. Men with brown eyes were rated consistently as more dominant than blue-eyed men. No such effect of eye-colour was found for the photos of women. Eye colour also bore no association to the attractiveness ratings.

Next the researchers used Photoshop to give the brown-eyed men blue eyes and the blue-eyed men brown eyes. The photos were then rated by a new batch of participants. The intriguing finding here was that the dominance ratings were left largely unaffected by the eye colour manipulation. The men who really had brown eyes, but thanks to Photoshop appeared with blue eyes, still tended to be rated as more dominant.

This suggests there's some other aspect of facial appearance that tends to co-occur with brown eyes, which is responsible for the perception of dominance. An analysis of the men's facial configurations showed that the brown-eyed men tended to have broader, bigger chins, bigger noses, eyes closer together, and larger eye-brows than blue-eyed men, so it's possible some or all of these facial features are responsible for the perception of dominance. Certainly previous research has shown that men with wider faces are perceived as more aggressive.

Kleisner's team can't say at this point why eye colour co-occurs with certain facial features and with the appearance of being more dominant or submissive. However, one suggestion they make is that boys with blue eyes come to be seen as less dominant by a process of social feedback. 'It is possible that subjects with blue eyes are treated as a small child for a longer period than brown-eyed children,' the researchers said. 'Such early social experience may have been literally "inscribed" into their faces, preserved until adulthood, and finally bring on the perception of higher submissiveness.'

ResearchBlogging.orgKleisner, K., Kočnar, T., Rubešová, A., & Flegr, J. (2010). Eye color predicts but does not directly influence perceived dominance in men. Personality and Individual Differences, 49 (1), 59-64 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.03.011
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The psychological barriers facing MMR promotion campaigns

A focus group study of parents' attitudes towards interventions promoting uptake of the MMR vaccine suggests it is better for health advice to be seen as independent from government.

The findings come after the General Medical Council ruled yesterday that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who first suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, was guilty of serious professional misconduct.

The MMR vaccine protects children against measles, mumps and rubella. Unfortunately the number of UK parents vaccinating their children plummeted in the wake of Wakefield's 1998 Lancet study, since discredited and un-replicated, which purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Today vaccination rates remain at around 85 per cent, compared with the desired rate of 90 to 95 per cent required for herd immunity (whereby even the unvaccinated are safe).

For the new study, Benjamin Gardner and colleagues analysed five focus group interviews they held with 28 parents in London. The parents were asked for their responses to three 'motivation-based' interventions (a website; an information pack; and parent-led group discussions) and three 'organisational interventions' (health care workers acting as immunisation champions; mobile vaccination units; legislation to penalise non-compliers).

Five key themes emerged. Parents felt they didn't have enough information, especially in relation to the dangers associated with not vaccinating. Government sources were not trusted. By contrast, other parents were trusted: 'Parents trust advice from other parents,' one mother said. '[You] take it on board. You listen to them.' Parents also revealed they were biased towards risk-related information. And they misunderstood balance, believing that pro- and anti-MMR arguments should be given equal weight even though the scientific evidence overwhelming favours MMR vaccination.

Gardner's team said a number of practical implications emerged from their findings. In particular, promotional MMR campaigns are likely to be better received if they appear to be independent of government and if they are fronted by parents. More information is needed about the risks of non-vaccination. And care should be taken when highlighting the small risks associated with vaccination - parents are likely to zoom in on these.

The researchers acknowledged their study has some limitations, most notably that the majority of the parents involved had actually vaccinated their children. Nonetheless, they said their results 'highlight important psychological barriers and facilitators that may determine whether MMR promotion interventions are effective.'

ResearchBlogging.orgGardner B, Davies A, McAteer J, & Michie S (2010). Beliefs underlying UK parents' views towards MMR promotion interventions: a qualitative study. Psychology, health & medicine, 15 (2), 220-30 PMID: 20391239

Also on the Digest: How to promote the MMR vaccine.
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Doubt cast on the maxim that time goes faster as you get older

Time gets faster the older you are. Or does it? When William Friedman and Steve Janssen asked 49 New Zealand undergrads (average age 21) and 50 older adults (average age 68) to say how fast time passed for them, including the last week, month and year, very few differences emerged. Most participants felt time passed quickly but it was only when considering the speed of the last ten years that the older adults said time had gone by more quickly than the younger participants, and even here the effect of age was small.

This finding, and another like it involving German and Austrian participants published in 2005, casts doubt on some of the classic explanations for time speeding up with age, including William James' suggestion that time feels slower when younger because it is packed with more memorable events. If true, you'd expect the effect to apply over time periods shorter than ten years.

Friedman and Janssen's initial study also undermined a novel explanation for time speeding up known as 'telescoping'. This is the idea that time feels faster when we look back on past events and discover that we underestimated how long ago they occurred. Earlier in the study, the researchers had asked their participants to estimate when 12 newsworthy events from the past had occurred, including Saddam Hussein's capture in 2003. By giving them false feedback on their accuracy, the researchers exaggerated or reduced the telescoping effect but this didn't have any effect on participants' subsequent ratings of how fast time goes by.

A second study, conducted on the internet, tested a novel explanation for time seeming faster to some people than others: feeling rushed. Nearly two thousand Dutch participants aged between 16 and 80 rated the speed of time and how rushed they felt in life. Once again, very few age differences emerged, with only the ten-year period being judged to have passed more quickly by older participants.

Age accounted for four per cent of the variance in how quickly participants said the last ten years had passed and just one per cent of the perception of time's speed in general. By contrast, how busy and rushed people reported feeling accounted for ten per cent of the variance in subjective speed of time. Consistent with this, women reported feeling more rushed than men, on average, and they perceived time to go by more quickly.

Quite why the idea that time speeds up with age is so widely believed requires further study, the researchers said. 'Another significant question,' they continued, 'is why age differences in the subjective speed of time are found when adults are asked to consider the last ten years but not present or only very weak when they report on the last year or more recent intervals.' The effect over ten years, they suggested, could simply be the self-fulfilling effect of the cultural belief that time speeds up with age.

'The answers to these questions,' Friedman and Janssen concluded, 'may shed light on a topic that has engaged philosophers and psychologists for more than 100 years.'

ResearchBlogging.orgFriedman, W., & Janssen, S. (2010). Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica, 134 (2), 130-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.01.004
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Opera singing in the brain scanner

The idea that the brain changes and adapts according to how you use it, including through adulthood, is now widely accepted in psychology and neuroscience. Some of the most striking examples of this have come from studies of musicians. It's been shown, for instance, that string and keyboard players have more neural tissue given over to the control of the hands and fingers than do non-musicians. However, little researched until now is the brain re-organisation associated with professional singing.

Like the playing of a musical instrument, singing involves skilled muscle movements - indeed, more than 100 muscles are used - but there are also some differences between singing and instrument playing. For example, you can watch your own fingers tap out a tune on a keyboard but you can't 'see' your muscle coordination whilst singing.

Boris Kleber's team had 10 professional opera singers, 21 singing students and 18 non-singer controls lie in a brain scanner and sing 6 phrases from the first stanza of the Italian aria 'Cara mio ben'.

The most striking finding was that greater experience with opera singing was associated with more activation of the somatosensory cortex whilst singing. This part of the brain processes incoming signals from the body and the finding suggests that singing expertise is particularly associated with enhanced processing of where the vocal muscles are positioned in space. This makes sense given that you can't 'see' yourself sing and must instead rely on feedback from the vocal muscles.

As you might expect, studies with people who can play musical instruments have generally found increased activation of the primary motor cortex - a key brain area involved in sending commands to the muscles. However, in the current study, it was only the most experienced opera singers who showed exaggerated activity in this brain area.

Another neural characteristic associated with expertise in opera singing was more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in working memory. The researchers speculated this could be because opera singing usually involves singing and acting at the same time, so the experts may have developed 'more resources for performance monitoring'.

More singing experience was also linked with more activation in the inferior parietal cortex, possibly reflecting comparison of 'the actual kinesthetic feedback with the kinesthetic "expectation" for the produced sound', and with greater activation of the cerebellum - that's the cauliflower shaped structure hanging off back of the brain, which is known to be involved in coordination.

'Opera singers must routinely adapt their vocal system to unusual postures during singing as part of their stage play,' the researchers said. 'It is likely that this group has a particularly developed adaptive system to cope with such demands, which might require increased cerebellar involvement.'

ResearchBlogging.orgKleber, B., Veit, R., Birbaumer, N., Gruzelier, J., & Lotze, M. (2009). The Brain of Opera Singers: Experience-Dependent Changes in Functional Activation. Cerebral Cortex, 20 (5), 1144-1152 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhp177
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Can a fear of blushing be cured in a weekend?

You may have heard of weekend workshops in creative writing or first aid but what about a weekend course to reduce your fear of blushing? Could such a brief, intensive intervention help people for whom a dread of turning red ruins their social lives and undermines their success at work? According to a new, preliminary study - the answer is a tentative Yes.

Samia Chaker and colleagues recruited through adverts in a German pharmacy magazine 27 people with social phobia, and in particular a fear of blushing. The weekend course began on a Friday at 2pm and ran until 9pm the following evening.

The focus was on 'task concentration training'. Research has shown that a fear of blushing develops through and is worsened by excess focus on the self. A person feels self-conscious, they redden, they feel the warmth in their cheeks and the cycle of self-focus is perpetuated. Through reading stories, role-playing and watching themselves on video, the participants practiced turning their focus away from themselves and to the task at hand - be that the words of a conversational partner or the reading of a story. The participants were also given advice on how to practice re-directing their attention over the coming six weeks, first in non-threatening situations and then in more difficult social contexts.

At the end of the weekend compared with at baseline, 37 per cent of participants showed clinically significant improvement in their fear of blushing. By six month follow-up this had risen to 56 per cent of the sample. Improvements were greater in those who said they had practiced re-focusing their attention in difficult situations in the weeks following the weekend workshop.

The results are only preliminary: the lack of a control group is a major limitation as is the inability to tease out the most important parts of the intervention. However, feedback from the participants showed the course to have been well-received and worthwhile of future investigation. 'The time-efficient nature of such an intensive treatment could hold great appeal and practicality for working professionals who are short on time, those who prefer a less "therapy-like" experience, or individuals with geographic restrictions,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgChaker S, Hofmann SG, & Hoyer J (2010). Can a one-weekend group therapy reduce fear of blushing? Results of an open trial. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 23 (3), 303-18 PMID: 19557558

Earlier on the Digest: Thinking that you're blushing makes you blush even more.

The puzzle of blushing (open access article in The Psychologist).
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Interrogations and confessions (Law and Human Behaviour).

Attachment theory and research (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships).

Treating rural and isolated clients (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Advances in the research of social anxiety and its disorder (Anxiety, Stress and Coping).

Researcher allegiance in the psychological therapies (European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling).
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European Summer School in Social Cognition

This year's EFPSA* Summer School takes place in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria 17 to 24 July and the theme is Social Cognition. There are just a few days left for students to apply, with the deadline extended to this Friday, 21 May.

From the Summer School website: "Are you Interested in getting international research experience? Would you like to face the challenge of international team work and meeting students from all around Europe? The EFPSA European Summer School (ESS) gives you this opportunity! The ESS is a week-long research-focused programme since 2007. Each year 35 Psychology students learn from excellent academics and conduct cross-cultural research with other Psychology students supervised by PhD students or PhD. However, the ESS embodies more than just academic work - you will experience multicultural social activities, make new friends, introduce your own culture and embrace the diversity of Europe."

*European Federation of Psychology Students' Associations.
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Why you really should avoid upsetting the big, drunk guy

There are some obvious practical reasons why you might want to avoid provoking the big, drunk guy in the bar. After all, he's bigger than you. However, according to a new study, there's another more psychological reason to be wary - heavier men are, on average, more likely to be aggressive when drunk than are lighter men. Nathan DeWall and colleagues say their finding is consistent with evolutionary theory and research on embodied cognition.

Over five hundred women (average weight 149 lb) and men (average weight 183 lb), aged 21 to 35, consumed either an alcoholic beverage or a placebo drink before taking part in a reaction time contest. The winner of each round had the opportunity to inflict an electric shock on their opponent. Their choices of how strong and long a shock to inflict was the measure of aggression. Unbeknown to the participants, their opponent was fictitious and the game was fixed so that they won fifty per cent of the rounds.

The key finding was that among the male participants only, alcohol interacted with body weight to predict aggression. That is, heavier men who had an alcoholic drink tended to be more aggressive than those who had an alcohol-free placebo drink. By contrast, having an alcoholic vs. placebo drink made little difference to the aggression of lighter men.

Another way of looking at the results was that, among men who had the alcoholic drink, those who were heavier tended to be more aggressive. For the female participants, their weight bore no relation to their aggressiveness. These same findings were replicated in a second study with a further 327 men and women.

It makes sense in terms of evolutionary theory that bigger men should be more prone to aggression, the researchers said, because 'they're more able than weaker men to inflict costs on others in conflict situations.' The same isn't true for women because even those who are larger will usually be smaller and weaker than potential male adversaries.

An association between weight and aggression is also predicted by embodied cognition, the researchers said. This is the idea that the way we think about abstract concepts is rooted in physical metaphors. One example is that we think about importance in terms of weight, thus leading heavier people to feel more important and entitled to special treatment.

Consistent with both these theoretical arguments, past research has indeed found that physical size is related to aggression. However, DeWall's team said their new study is the first to show that weight is a predictor of alcohol-induced increases in aggression. 'It seems that alcohol reduced the inhibition for heavy men to "throw their weight around" and intimidate others by behaving aggressively,' they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgDeWall, C., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., & Webster, G. (2010). The big, the bad, and the boozed-up: Weight moderates the effect of alcohol on aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (4), 619-623 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.02.008
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Introspection reborn!

Introspection - people reporting their subjective experience of their own mental processes - was a favoured technique among psychology's founding fathers. Today, by contrast, it has a poor reputation, often dismissed as unreliable and unscientific. But in a new paper, Sebastien Marti and colleagues argue that introspection can be accurate and illuminating, providing a useful addition to objective measures.

Ten participants completed a simple dual-task paradigm. First they listened to an auditory tone and pressed one of two keys as fast as possible to indicate whether the tone was high or low pitch. Straight after, they pressed one of two keys as fast as possible to indicate whether a 'Y' or 'Z' had subsequently appeared on a computer screen. When the second decision stage comes too soon after the first, reaction times to the second stage are prolonged - an established effect known as 'the psychological refractory period'.

The key twist in this study is that the researchers didn't just record participant reaction times, they also asked them to make several subjective estimates after each trial: how long they'd taken to respond to the tone; how long they'd taken to respond to the letter; how soon the letter appeared after the tone; and whether the letter appeared before or after they'd made their decision about the tone. Reaction times didn't vary on introspection versus control trials, suggesting, importantly, that introspection didn't interfere with the basic cognitive processes required to complete the task.

Participants displayed the usual 'psychological refractory period' and their subjective estimates of their own reaction times and other factors, although under-estimates, were mostly highly correlated with the objective measures. The accuracy of introspection only went awry when the letter appeared too soon after the auditory tone or simultaneously with it. On these trials, not only did participants' reaction times to the letter slow down, it seems they weren't able to start an internal recording of the duration of their reaction time (to the letter) until they had finished processing the tone. Their estimates of the gap between the tone and letter also became inaccurate. It's as if they weren't able to consciously perceive the letter until they'd finished processing the tone. It was a similar story regarding their judgment about whether the letter appeared before or after their auditory decision. Participants were accurate when there was a big enough time delay between tone and letter, but their insight was compromised when the letter appeared too early.

'For the first time, we were able to reconstruct the sequence of conscious events in a psychological refractory period trial based on subjects' introspection,' the researchers said. 'Overall, the present study showed that quantified introspection is a powerful tool. After each trial, participants can answer multiple questions that provide remarkably coherent data which are not always objectively true, but can be used to paint a consistent picture of the subjective phenomenology of an average trial during a cognitive task.'

ResearchBlogging.orgMarti S, Sackur J, Sigman M, & Dehaene S (2010). Mapping introspection's blind spot: reconstruction of dual-task phenomenology using quantified introspection. Cognition, 115 (2), 303-13 PMID: 20129603
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Ghana launches its first ever mental health journal

When BPS member, Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Adam Danquah went to work in Ghana, one of the things he did there was help found the country's first ever journal devoted to mental health - The Ghana International Journal of Mental Health. The inaugural issue has just been published and the journal's website has gone live.

There are only five psychiatrists in Ghana, a country of 22 million citizens, and there are no clinical psychologists working in public health. Research output in the area of mental health is also extremely limited. 'It is in this light that the birth of this journal gladdens our hearts and adds to the indicators of a new day in the life of mental health care and research in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa,' writes Dr Akwasi Osei in a commentary for the new journal.

Authors instructions appear on the new site. To subscribe, email or write to C. Charles Mate-Kole, Editor-In-Chief, Ghana International Journal of Mental Health, Department of Psychology, University of Ghana, P. O. Box LG 84, Legon, Ghana. Ghana International Journal of Mental Health (ISSN) is published bi-annually – in April and November.

Link to Ghana International Journal of Mental Health.
Link to Dr Adam Danquah's account of his time working in Ghana, published in The Psychologist (scroll down to view or open the PDF).
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

When people are confronted by a scientific finding that contradicts their existing beliefs, they tend to conclude that the topic in question isn't amenable to scientific study.

The effects of altitude on brain development.

What influences the favoured therapeutic orientation of clinical psychology trainees - their training or their personality?

Betrayal: A psychological analysis.

We have a better memory for things that appear on the left.

Few people regret viewing the body of a loved one killed in traumatic circumstances.

Nature Neuroscience editorial on the use of students in psychology and neuroscience.

Where people vote affects how they vote.

Female dieters, but not male dieters or non-dieters, equated the sweetness of a drink with it being highly calorific.

A mother's voice on the phone can provide as much relief as a hug, at least in terms of oxytocin release.

A light physical touch from a female stranger can increase financial risk-taking.

A boost of glucose increases dogs' self-control just as it does in humans.
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Why it's time for the media to help our politicians believe they can succeed

A psychology study fresh off the presses shows the importance of positive expectations for the successful resolution of awkward negotiations. The results couldn't be more timely as our senior politicians negotiate over terms for a new coalition British government - the first since the 1970s. The finding suggests that the media has a vital role to play. By fostering optimism in the likely success of the negotiations, the media could help increase the likelihood of a successful resolution.

In an initial experiment, Varda Liberman and colleagues had undergrads negotiate with a postgrad (actually a confederate working for the researchers) over the division of university funds between the undergrad and post-grad student populations. Crucially, half the 34 participants were told that every single previous negotiating pair had managed to reach an agreement (the 'Positive Expectations' condition), whereas the other half of the participants acted as a control and were merely told to try their best to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. The negotiations followed a format whereby the confederate made an offer, the participant responded with a counter-offer, and the confederate replied with a final offer that the participant could either accept or reject. The confederate's offers were the same across the two conditions.

The key finding was that all 17 participants in the Positive Expectations condition accepted the final offer compared with just 5 out of 17 participants in the control condition. The Positive Expectations students also rated the offers of their negotiating partner, the confederate, as fairer and they felt more satisfied with the negotiation outcome.

The tension was raised in a second experiment which involved Jewish Israeli Business School students negotiating with an Arab Israeli woman over the division of funds between Israel and Palestine. Again, the positive expectations of half the students was manipulated by telling them that virtually all previous negotiations of this kind had ended in agreement. This time, 31 out 38 students in the Positive Expectations condition accepted their negotiating partner's final offer compared with just 13 out of 38 students in the neutral, control condition. Moreover, the Positive Expectation students were far happier about the negotiation outcome than the control students.

What was going on? Why should the knowledge that comparable prior negotiations ended in success change the way that people negotiate? One reason seemed to be that raised expectations of success led the students to make a more generous counter-offer which meant the gap between their counter-offer and the final offer was smaller. Positive expectations also seemed to change the way that the other party's offers were interpreted. The researchers said that under more pessimistic conditions the other party's offers are interpreted as likely to be in that party's own self interest. By contrast, positive expectations about the negotiation outcome foster a sense that the other party's offers are being made in a more constructive spirit, because they know 'that we need to reach an agreement'.

A problem when it comes to translating the lessons from this research to real life and particularly to the current negotiations among Britain's senior politicians, is that there isn't always a history of success available to inspire optimism. In fact Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath's attempt to form a coalition with the Liberals in 1974 ended in failure. However, Liberman's team said this needn't be a fatal stumbling block - there are other means of encouraging a sense of optimism and positive expectations for a successful outcome, including 'mutual expressions of goodwill and commitment' or reference to successes in 'previous negotiations between the parties on other, more limited issues.' So far, that's exactly the spirit in which the negotiations seem to be taking place, with politicians on all sides making encouraging comments.

The researchers concluded: 'If our present research gives some basis for optimism about the possibility of bringing theory and research to bear in overcoming barriers to dispute resolution in a strife-worn world, we hope that such optimism will indeed prove to be self-fulfilling, and that practitioners and theorists will be able to find common ground in their efforts to resolve disputes peacefully.'

ResearchBlogging.orgLiberman, V., Anderson, N., & Ross, L. (2010). Achieving difficult agreements: Effects of Positive Expectations on negotiation processes and outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (3), 494-504 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.12.010

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
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Doctors are desensitised to other people's pain

When you see someone else in pain, the pain network in your own brain winces as if you were experiencing their pain yourself. This is great for everyday empathy, but not necessarily so useful if you're a doctor. When you're the one wielding the needle or planning a treatment regimen, you need to make sure your concern for your patient's pain doesn't distract you from the task at hand. According to Jean Decety, doctors get around this conflict by reducing their sensitivity to other people's pain.

Decety's team used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor the electrical activity arising from the brains of 15 doctors and 15 controls while they looked at dozens of static pictures of people being pricked in various body parts by a needle or prodded by a cotton bud.

When a person looks at someone else in pain, their EEG response typically shows two distinct characteristics: a frontal component after 110ms, which is thought to reflect an automatic burst of empathy, and a more central, parietal component after about 350ms, which reflects a conscious evaluation of what's been seen.

As expected, the control participants showed an enhanced early and later phase EEG response to the needle pictures compared with the cotton bud pictures. The doctors, by contrast, showed no difference in brain response to the two categories of picture.

This suggests that even the very early, automatic brain response to other people's pain is suppressed in doctors, as is the later more evaluative response. Decety and his co-authors said that from a practical perspective, this is a good thing: 'Effective emotion regulation is essential for physicians exposed to the suffering of others because it dampens counterproductive feelings of alarm and fear and frees up processing capacity to be of assistance for the other.'

However, the researchers warned that the constant need to suppress their natural emotional response could prove stressful for doctors and place a strain on their relationship with their patients. 'Physicians face the challenge of devoting the right balance of cognitive and emotional resources to their patients' pain experience,' Decety's team said. 'They must try to resonate and understand the patient without becoming emotionally over-involved in a way that can preclude effective medical management.'

ResearchBlogging.orgDecety J, Yang CY, & Cheng Y (2010). Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: an event-related brain potential study. NeuroImage, 50 (4), 1676-82 PMID: 20080194
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How to increase voter turnout

The political parties don't agree on much but what they do all agree on is that the more people who exercise their right to vote, the better. Psychology can help. A new study shows that phone calls to encourage people to vote can be made more effective by a simple strategy - that is, by asking the would-be voter to spell out what time they plan to vote, where they will be coming from prior to voting and what they will have been doing beforehand.

David Nickerson and Todd Rogers targeted 155,669 voters on the electoral roll in Pennsylvania. Frequent voters had been excluded, so these were people who'd chosen to vote only once between 2000 and the time of this study, which took place just prior to the 2008 presidential primary.

Would-be voters received one of three kinds of phone call: either they were encouraged to vote and reminded of their duty; they were asked whether they intended to vote; or they were asked more detailed questions about when, where etc they planned to vote. A control group received no phone call.

A classic study in the 1980s found that simply asking people if they intended to vote ended up making them more likely to vote - a phenomenon known as the 'self-prophecy effect'. However, this effect wasn't replicated here. Would-be voters in the current study, who were simply asked whether they planned to vote or not, were barely more likely to vote than the control group. Same story for the participants who received a call with encouragement to vote. By contrast, would-be voters who were asked questions about the when and where of their voting intentions were, on average, 4.1 per cent more likely to vote than controls.

There's a further twist. Digging deeper the researchers realised that the detailed questions about voting intentions only exerted an influence on would-be voters who were the sole eligible voter in their household. Focusing on just these people, the detailed voting intentions phone call led to an average 9.1 per cent increase in turnout. For people living in a household with multiple eligible voters, by contrast, the same kind of phone call was completely ineffective. Nickerson and Rogers think this difference probably arose because people living in a household with other eligible voters had already had conversations about when and where they planned to vote.

'This research contributes to a growing body of work using behavioural science to facilitate socially important behaviours,' the researchers concluded. 'Campaign professionals can use psychological science more widely to help citizens follow through on their intentions to vote.'

Nickerson DW, & Rogers T (2010). Do you have a voting plan?: implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (2), 194-9 PMID:

Link to more Digest posts on the psychology of politics.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

The Economics and Psychology of Football (Journal of Economic Psychology).

Psychobiology of Respiration and the Airways (Biological Psychology).

International Perspectives on Psychopathy, An Update (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Special Section on Epigenetic Perspectives on Development: Evolving insights on the Origins of Variation (Developmental Psychobiology).

The Role of Literacy Assessment and Intervention in Special Education (Psychology in the Schools).
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The cure for procrastination? Forgive yourself!

There are so many things you'd rather be doing than what you ought to be doing and what happens is that you delay doing what you ought. All the evidence shows that this procrastination is bad for you, for your productivity, your school grades, for your health. But still we keep putting things off. Until. Tomorrow. Now Michael Wohl and colleagues have proposed a rather surprising cure - self-forgiveness. That's right, forgive yourself for you have procrastinated, move on, get over it and you'll be more likely to get going without delay next time around.

Wohl's team followed 134 first year undergrads through their first mid-term exams to just after their second lot of mid-terms. Before the initial exams, the students reported how much they'd procrastinated with their revision and how much they'd forgiven themselves. Next, midway between these exams and the second lot, the students reported how positive or negative they were feeling. Finally, just before the second round of mid-terms, the students once more reported how much they had procrastinated in their exam preparations.

The key finding was that students who'd forgiven themselves for their initial bout of procrastination subsequently showed less negative affect in the intermediate period between exams and were less likely to procrastinate before the second round of exams. Crucially, self-forgiveness wasn't related to performance in the first set of exams but it did predict better performance in the second set.

'Forgiveness allows the individual to move past maladaptive behaviour and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts to hinder studying,' the researchers said. 'By realising that procrastination was a transgression against the self and letting go of negative affect associated with the transgression via self-forgiveness, the student is able to constructively approach studying for the next exam.'

ResearchBlogging.orgWohl, M., Pychyl, T., & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (7), 803-808 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029
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