Closing our eyes affects our moral judgements

We experience emotion more intensely with our eyes closed
The simple act of closing our eyes has a significant effect on our moral judgement and behaviour. Eugene Caruso and Francesca Gino, who made the observation, think the effect has to do with mental simulation, whereby having our eyes closed causes us to simulate scenarios more vividly. In turn this triggers more intense emotion.

Throughout the study, Caruso and Gino concealed the true aim of the research from participants by telling them that part of the investigation was about judging the quality of head-phones. Participants were asked to listen to the rest of the study instructions through a pair of head-phones with a view to rating the sound quality. Crucially, half the participants were asked to listen to the different instructions and scenarios with their eyes closed - ostensibly to help their judgment of the sound quality - whilst the remainder listened with their eyes open.

Across the first three studies, the following effects were observed: participants with their eyes closed who heard a hypothetical scenario in which they deliberately over-estimated hours worked (so as to charge more) judged the act as more unethical than participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Participants who heard the instructions for a simple financial game with their eyes closed subsequently shared money more fairly than participants who heard the instructions with their eyes open. And participants who listened to a hypothetical scenario with their eyes closed, in which nepotism and self-interest had biased a recruitment decision they'd made, judged that act as more unethical than did participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Follow-up questions showed that the eyes-closed participants had visualised the scenario more vividly.

A fourth study was similar to the last except that some of the participants were given an explicit instruction to visualise the nepotism scenario as vividly as they could. This instruction led the eyes-open participants to judge the nepotistic act more harshly, similar to the eyes-closed participants. Overall, there was no evidence that the eyes-closed participants had simply paid more attention to the scenario than the eyes-open participants, but they did experience more negative, guilt-based emotion and it's this effect that probably underlies the study's central finding.

'Although scholars from different fields have provided important insights in understanding why people commonly cross ethical boundaries, little research has examined potential solutions that are easily implementable,' the researchers said. 'Here we identified a simple strategy: closing one's eyes, people are likely to simulate the decision they are facing more extensively and experience its emotional components more vividly. As a result ... people may be more sensitive to the ethical nature of their own and others' decisions, and perhaps behave more honestly as a result.'

ResearchBlogging.orgCaruso, E., and Gino, F. (2011). Blind ethics: Closing one’s eyes polarizes moral judgments and discourages dishonest behavior. Cognition, 118 (2), 280-285 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.008
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Apocalyptic climate change warnings can be counter-productive

Many people believe implicitly that the world is fair, that bad things by and large don't happen to good people. When presented with evidence to the contrary, they ignore or downplay it. According to Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, this is exactly what happens when such people are presented with dire warnings about global warning.

Feinberg and Willer had 97 undergrads read one of two versions of a newspaper-style article about global warming and its likely consequences. Both articles began in the same way with findings reported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but then one of them went on to describe apocalyptic consequences whereas the other was more upbeat and described potential technological solutions.

The effect of the articles on the participants' global warming scepticism depended partly on their strength of just-world beliefs, as measured at the study start (by their agreement or not with statements like 'I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve'). Those participants with stronger just-world beliefs were actually made more sceptical about global warming by the more shocking newspaper article. By contrast, the more upbeat article reduced participants' scepticism regardless of the strength of their just-world beliefs.

A second study provoked just-world beliefs in some participants by having them de-scramble sentences that spelt out phrases such as 'somehow justice will always prevail'. Control participants also de-scrambled sentences but they weren't related to just-world beliefs. Next, all the participants watched a 60-second dire message video clip about climate change. It featured a train hurtling towards a child and children making tick-tock clock noises - the message being that future generations of children will suffer from global warming's consequences. After watching the video, the participants primed with just-world phrases reported more scepticism about global warming compared with the controls, and less willingness to change their own behaviour.

This is the latest in a string of studies that suggest fear-based messages can backfire if they clash with people's underlying beliefs. For example, morbid anti-smoking messages can actually encourage smoking in those for whom the habit is tied to their self-esteem. In relation to climate change, there's evidence that framing environmentalism as patriotic can be more effective than playing on people's fears.

'We believe that our findings should be informative for politicians and environmental advocates who are interested in understanding public reaction to climate-change research and advocacy efforts,' the researchers said. 'More generally, our research responds to recent calls for psychologists to become actively involved in the study of climate-change attitudes and behaviour and complements the small but growing body of insights psychology has contributed to this topic.'

ResearchBlogging.orgFeinberg, M., and Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34-38 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911
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Introducing the forthcoming Occupational Digest

The BPS Research Digest is proud to announce the pending birth of an offspring title - the Occupational Digest.

About the forthcoming Occupational Digest

The BPS Occupational Digest is a new blog and email produced by the British Psychological Society, reporting on psychology in the workplace. Building on the successes of the BPS Research Digest, it is funded by the Division of Occupational Psychology and aims to reach occupational psychology practitioners together with a wider audience who care about putting psychology to work, including HR professionals, managers, and anyone with an interest in the field. Subscribe to the Occupational Digest monthly email.

About the new Occupational Digest editor

Dr Alex Fradera is a Chartered Psychologist whose interest in human thought and behaviour runs back as far as he can remember. After a PhD in Psychology studying memory and cognitive ability, he made a move from academia into the practice of occupational psychology, taking a role at at the talent assessment organisation SHL. When not editing the Occupational Digest, Alex deals directly with clients as well as through a number of consultancies. Alex's other passion is improvisation, and he can be found putting it into practice in organisations, in training rooms, with scientists, designers, on stage, at festivals and in front of market stalls. Follow Alex on Twitter.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (American Psychologist).

Free access to the most read and most cited articles of 2010 in Developmental Science.

Special Issue: Celebrating 25 years of Applied Cognitive Psychology (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Current issues and new directions in Psychology and Health: The potential contribution of health psychology to developing effective interventions to reduce tobacco smoking (Psychology and Health).

The Intersubjective Newborn (Infant and Child Development).

Developmental social neuroscience: An introduction (Social Neuroscience).
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How reliable is our memory for our own previous intentions

Why did I buy this?
The fallibility of eye-witness memory is well documented. But what about people's memories of their own past intentions? This is an unexplored issue in memory research with real-life implications.

Consider the copyright infringement case in 2002, in which French composer Jacques Loussier sued Eminem, claiming that the track Kill You sampled beats from Loussier's work. Loussier further claimed that the success of the album was due in large part to the popularity of that specific track. Eminem's team responded by conducting a survey of people who'd bought the album in the last three years, only one per cent of whom stated they'd bought the album for the specific song Kill You.

The survey appeared to undermine Loussier's claim, but the trouble is that without any research on the topic, we don't know whether those survey responses can be trusted. Now a team led by Suzanne Kaasa and including Elizabeth Loftus has made a start on plugging this gap in the literature.

Nearly six hundred undergrads answered open-ended questions about why they'd purchased, downloaded or copied their most recently acquired album (the vast majority had acquired one within the last two weeks), and then they provided the same information again six months to a year later. The participants' answers fell into five main categories: because they liked the artist, liked the music, liked a specific song or songs, someone had recommended the album, or they needed the album for a specific purpose.

The key finding was that only one in five participants gave a consistent reason or reasons at both time points. The researchers had anticipated that memory for some reasons might prove more durable over time than others, but this wasn't the case. Overall, the most common form of change was simply to invent new reasons at the later time point. Sometimes participants also forgot reasons they'd mentioned earlier. Unsurprisingly perhaps, participants who recalled more reasons at the first time point tended to be more prone to forgetting reasons when quizzed again later. This was also true of participants who reported liking their CD more, perhaps because they'd felt less need to dwell on their motives at the time they acquired the album.

A subset of 82 of the participants also gave their reasons at a third time point, approximately six months to a year after the second time of questioning. Although still evident, changes in memory between the second and third time points were far reduced compared with between the first and second time points. This is important for real-life legal situations because consistency of answers across later interviews could be interpreted as a sign of memory reliability. 'It appears critical to have an accurate and complete record of the very first interview given by a witness,' the researchers said.

The study had some limitations, including the fact that the precise time between album acquisition and the first questioning session was unknown. However, the researchers observed that 'although individuals may not be able to accurately recall the reasons for their behaviours ... the real world continues to rely on self-reported motivations in a variety of circumstances, including police investigations and court proceedings.'

ResearchBlogging.orgKaasa, S., Morris, E., and Loftus, E. (2011). Remembering why: Can people consistently recall reasons for their behaviour? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (1), 35-42 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1639
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The newborn infant: a missing stage in developmental psychology.

I can't believe this isn't wood! An investigation in the perception of naturalness.

Chemical signal in women's tears puts men off sex.

Meta-analyses of brain areas needed for numbers and calculations.

The role of passion in musical achievement - you need to make sure you have the harmonious variety rather than the obsessive kind.

A critical look at the research on psychological debriefing after stressful incidents. Past research suggests it can be harmful but this paper is sceptical. 'We call for reviewers to recognize the limitations of debriefing research and not to overgeneralize their conclusions.'

The disease of the moon: The linguistic and pathological evolution of the English term “Lunatic”

What do we infer about people from the style of their email messages?

Oops! If-then implementation plans with a negating style (e.g. If I am sad, then I won't eat chocolate) can back-fire increasing the to-be-avoided habit.

Exposure to the Confederate flag could have put people off voting for Obama.

Sex differences in dark side traits.

How much do US clinical psychologists know about online research resources?

Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity.

Speech errors of amnesic H.M.: Unlike everyday slips-of-the-tongue - possibly one of the last studies H.M. took part in.
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Other people may experience more misery than you realise

You are not alone ...
Have you ever had the feeling that everyone else seems so sorted, so at ease? You look about you and see friends chatting over lunch, people laughing on their mobiles, others escaping contentedly through novels or newspapers. According to Alexander Jordan and colleagues, most of us have such a tendency to underestimate other people's experience of negative emotion. In turn the researchers think this skewed perception perpetuates a collective delusion in which we all strive to present an unrealistically happy front because we think that's the norm.

Jordan's team began their investigation by asking 63 undergrads to describe recent negative and positive emotional experiences they'd had. As expected, the negative examples (e.g. had an argument; was rejected by a boy/girl), more than the positive examples (e.g. attended a fun party; had a great meal), tended to occur in private and to provoke emotions that the students had attempted to suppress.

The most frequently cited of these experiences were then put to a separate set of 80 students whose task was to say how many times in the last two weeks they had lived through something similar, and to estimate how often their peers had. The important finding here was that the students consistently underestimated their peers' experience of negative events (by an average of 17 per cent) whilst slightly over-estimating their peers' experience of positive situations (by 5.6 per cent).

What about close friends - surely we have a more accurate sense of their emotional lives? A third study was based on emotional weekly blogs kept by over 200 students, which they used to rate their experience of various positive and negative emotions over the course of a term. Each blog student then nominated a close friend or romantic partner who had to estimate the range of emotions the blogger had experienced that term. Consistent with the study's main message, close friends and partners tended to underestimate the bloggers' experiences of negative emotions and to overestimate their experiences of positive emotions. A deeper analysis of the data suggested the underestimation of negative emotion was partly mediated by the bloggers' deliberate suppression of their negative emotions.

A final study showed that students with a greater tendency to underestimate their peers' negative emotions also tended to feel more lonely, less satisfied with life and to ruminate more, thus suggesting that underestimating others' misery could be harmful to our own well-being. Of course the causal direction could run the other way (i.e. being lonely and discontented could predispose us to think everyone else is happier than they are), or both ways. The researchers acknowledged more research is needed to test this.

Assuming the present results can be replicated, an enduring mystery is why we continue to underestimate other people's misery whilst knowing full well that most of our own negative experiences happen in private, and that we frequently put on a brave, happy face when socialising. Why don't we reason that other people do the same? Jordan and his colleagues think this is probably part of an established phenomenon in psychology - 'the fundamental attribution error' - in which people downplay the role of the situation when assessing other people's behaviour compared with their own.

A fascinating implication of this research is that it could help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books. 'In fictional tragedy, people are given the opportunity to witness "the terrible things in life" that are ordinarily "played out behind the scenes",' the researchers said (quoting Checkhov), 'which may help to depathologise people's own negative emotional experiences.'

ResearchBlogging.orgJordan, A., Monin, B., Dweck, C., Lovett, B., John, O., and Gross, J. (2010). Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210390822
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How Michael Jackson's Heal The World really could help heal the world

"Heal The World
Make It A Better Place
For You And For Me
And The Entire Human Race"
So much research has looked at the effects of violent music lyrics and video-games on people's aggressiveness, but what about the effects of media with a positive message? Can songs like Michael Jackson's Heal the World and Bob Sinclair's Love Generation change people's behaviour for the better? Tobias Greitemeyer says this side of the media-behaviour equation has been neglected before now, but in a series of five studies conducted in Germany and the UK he's shown that 'pro-social' music reduces people's aggression. What's more, he's demonstrated that it appears to do so through its effect on mood and emotion rather than via changes to thoughts and cognition.

Greitemeyer's general approach was to have half his participants listen to a few pro-social songs, the others listen to neutral songs, and then all of them complete various questionnaires or tasks, depending on the specific experiment.

Further examples of pro-social songs used in the experiments include Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's We Are The World (among the biggest selling singles of all time) and U2's Vertigo. Among the neutral songs used were Michael Jackson's On The Line and Bob Sinclair's Rock This Party. Greitemeyer deliberately chose some pro-social and neutral songs by the same artists so as to control for the effects of the actual singer and general style.

Participants who listened to pro-social songs subsequently showed reduced aggressive cognitions - for example they were less likely to complete ambiguous word stems (e.g. 'schla_' in German) with violent endings (e.g. 'schlagen', to hit), choosing instead more peaceful endings (e.g. 'schlafen' to sleep). They also exhibited reduced aggressive mood, being less likely to say they felt angry or irritated.

Most importantly, participants who listened to Heal the World and other pro-social songs were less likely than participants who listened to neutral music to actually be aggressive. This was tested indirectly by having participants evaluate a job candidate. Apparently this is a common measure in the aggression field, with harsh judgements being taken as a sign of indirect aggression. Aggressive behaviour was tested directly in another experiment by giving participants the chance to choose how much chilli sauce another student would have to eat, having heard that he or she hated chilli. This student had earlier given the participants an unfair essay evaluation so there was a temptation to be aggressive.

In the final experiment, when Greitemeyer looked to see whether it was cognitions or mood that mediated the effect of pro-social songs on aggressive behaviour, he found it was mood or 'affect' that was key. Intriguingly, this is the opposite to what's been found for video-games, in which case it's changes to cognitions, not affect, that mediates the influence, for better or worse, of violent or pro-social games on subsequent aggression.

'Music exposure is omnipresent in our daily life,' Greitemeyer concluded. 'Thus, the present findings are not only of theoretical significance, but have important practical implications as well, in suggesting that depending on the context of the song lyrics music exposure may reduce aggressive encounters.'

ResearchBlogging.orgGreitemeyer, T. (2011). Exposure to music with prosocial lyrics reduces aggression: First evidence and test of the underlying mechanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 28-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.005
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How is autobiographical memory divided into chapters?

How does the mind file life's episodes?
Autobiographical or 'episodic' memory describes our ability to recall past experiences and is distinct from semantic memory, which is our factual knowledge about the world. So far so good, but according to Youssef Ezzyat and Lila Davachi, psychology until now has largely neglected to investigate exactly how the brain organises the continuity of lived experience into a filing system of discrete episodes.

Ezzyat and Davachi have made a start. They had 23 participants read six narratives containing dozens of sentences about a protagonist performing everyday activities. Each sentence was displayed one at a time on a screen. Crucially, a minority of sentences began: 'A while later ...', thereby conveying a temporal boundary in the narrative; the end of one episode and start of another. For comparison, a small number of control sentences began: 'A moment later ...', indicating that the ensuing sentence was part of the same episode, not a new one.

After a ten minute break, the participants were given a surprise memory test. Presented with one sentence from the earlier narratives, their task was to recall the sentence that had followed. The key finding here was that the participants were poorer at recalling a sentence that came after a temporal boundary. It's as if information within an episode was somehow bound together, whereas a memory divide was placed between information spanning two episodes.

A second study was similar to the first except that nineteen participants had their brains scanned during the initial read-through of the sentences. Ezzyat and Davachi identified patterns of neural activity in distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex and the middle-temporal gyrus that either correlated with within-event processing or with forming boundaries between events. These neural activity patterns were more distinct in those participants who showed larger behavioural effects of episode boundaries in their memory performance.

'Our experiments are an important step toward understanding how event perception and segmentation influence the structure of long-term memory,' the researchers concluded. 'The behavioural results support the hypothesis that event segmentation shapes the organisation of long-term memory; the fMRI [brain scanning] results link these memory effects to brain activity consistent with information maintenance and integration within events.'

ResearchBlogging.orgEzzyat, Y., and Davachi, L. (2010). What Constitutes an Episode in Episodic Memory? Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610393742
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Coffee helps women cope with stressful meetings but has the opposite effect on men

For men working together, stress plus coffee could be toxic
If a meeting becomes stressful, does it help, or make things worse, if team members drink lots of coffee? A study by Lindsay St. Claire and colleagues that set out to answer this question has uncovered an unexpected sex difference. For two men collaborating or negotiating under stressful circumstances, caffeine consumption was bad news, undermining their performance and confidence. By contrast, for pairs of women, drinking caffeine often had a beneficial effect on these same factors. The researchers can't be sure, but they think the differential effect of caffeine on men and women may have to do with the fact that women tend to respond to stress in a collaborative, mutually protective style (known as 'tend and befriend') whereas men usually exhibit a fight or flight response.

The study involved 64 male and female participants (coffee drinkers at the University of Bristol with an average age of 22) completing various construction puzzles, negotiation and collaborative memory tasks in same-sex pairs. They did this after drinking decaffeinated coffee, which either had or hadn't been spiked covertly with caffeine (the equivalent of about three cups' worth of coffee). Stress was elevated for some of the pairs by telling them they would shortly have to give a public presentation, and by warning them that their participation fee would be performance dependent.

How large were the caffeine effects? The men's memory performance under stressful conditions with caffeine was described by the researchers as 'greatly impaired' whereas caffeine didn't affect women in the same situation. For the construction puzzles, caffeine under high stress conditions led men to take an average of twenty seconds longer (compared with no caffeine) whereas it led women to solve the puzzles 100 seconds faster.

A short-coming, acknowledged by the researchers, was that there were overall few effects of stress on the participants' performance, no doubt in part because they'd been told they could bail out any time they liked (although none of them did). Further research is clearly need to replicate the findings and explore the possible underlying mechanisms. Such work is urgent, the researchers concluded, 'because many ... meetings, including those at which military and other decisions of great import are made, are likely to be male-dominated. Our research suggests that men's effectiveness is particularly likely to be compromised. Because caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world, it follows that the global implications are potentially staggering.'

St. Claire, L., Hayward, R., and Rogers, P. (2010). Interactive Effects of Caffeine Consumption and Stressful Circumstances on Components of Stress: Caffeine Makes Men Less, But Women More Effective as Partners Under Stress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (12), 3106-3129 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00693.x
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What makes revenge sweet?

Does it matter if the punished don't understand what they did wrong?
 'To bring him back to a more just sense of what he owes us, and of the wrong that he has done to us, is frequently the principal end posed in our revenge, which is always imperfect when it cannot accomplish this.' Adam Smith
What makes revenge satisfying? Is it merely ensuring the transgressor receives their just deserts, or is it also about ensuring that they understand the error of their ways. Mario Gollwitzer and colleagues have attempted to find out in a series of studies in which students were tricked into thinking they'd been treated unfairly by a fellow student.

Eighty-three student participants wrote a short essay before swapping it with a partner located in another room so that they could mark each other's work. The participants were led to believe they'd received an unfairly harsh mark, although in reality there was no other student and the mark was a fabrication. Participants were told that receiving this poor mark had implications for the remuneration they would receive. Another twist to the set-up was that the participants took part in a last-minute lottery which either led to their partner losing some money (chance retribution) or gave the participants the choice over whether to punish their partner or not (by reducing their payment). Finally, some participants were given a chance to send their partner a message and to receive one back.

Results from this first study were mixed. On the one hand, participants whose partners lost money by chance reported feeling just as satisfied afterwards as participants who were given the chance to exact deliberate revenge on their partner. On the other hand, among the avenging students, those who received a message back from their partner, which suggested they'd seen the error of their ways, tended to report feeling more satisfied than those who received no such message. The first outcome suggests the sweetness of revenge is mostly about restoring a sense of justice, whereas the latter finding suggests that there's also need for offenders to understand what they did wrong.

A second study attempted to resolve some of these contradictions. It was similar to the first except it was course credits rather than payment that was on the line, and in this case there was no chance for deliberate revenge, only a lottery that led to the unfair partner losing course credit (chance retribution) or gaining even more course credit. Again, some participants had the chance to exchange messages with their partner. Participants whose unfair partners ended up losing course credit only felt more satisfied (than participants whose partners gained credit) if they also received a message from their partner acknowledging that they'd got their just deserts for being unfair earlier. This outcome supports the idea that the sweetness of revenge comes from the offender recognising the error of their ways.

The final study was the least equivocal. This time the participants played a collaborative anagram game with a partner who was in another room. Again, in reality there was no other partner. After the game, the participants and their 'partners' had to choose how to share their raffle ticket rewards. The scenario was fixed so although the participants and their partners had contributed equally, the partners proposed that they were given the lion's share of the raffle tickets. The participants were given the direct opportunity to punish their partners by reducing their ticket allocation - some took this opportunity and some didn't. All participants then exchanged messages with their partners. The key finding this time was that participants who opted for revenge felt more satisfied than those who didn't, but only if they received a message from their partner which suggested he or she had understood the punishment.

Gollwitzer's team concluded that retributive justice is about more than just an equalisation of suffering, it's also about making the offender aware that his or her actions were wrong. 'Achieving such a form of understanding can therefore be regarded an effective element in restorative justice or mediation procedures,' the researchers concluded. 'Revenge can be satisfactory to victims, but only if offenders understand why punishment has been inflicted on them.'

ResearchBlogging.orgGollwitzer, M., Meder, M., and Schmitt, M. (2010). What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge? European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.782
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A biological mechanism that protects against rape?

When sex researchers compare men and women's genital arousal in response to various stimuli, they generally find that men tend only to be aroused by stimuli that match their declared sexual preferences and subjective feelings, whereas women tend to be aroused by a broad array of sexual material (even involving chimps), irrespective of their declared preferences and subjective feelings. A new study by Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere tests the claim, which will surely prove controversial, that this pattern of responding in women is an evolutionary vestige which served in the past to protect women from the genital injury that can come from unwanted sex.

'Substantial ethnographic, historical, and comparative evidence suggests that the threat of unwanted sexual activity has been considerable over human evolutionary history,' the researchers said. Their specific proposal is that women's indiscriminate genital arousal leads to lubrication which reduces the likelihood of injury occurring when unwanted sexual encounters take place.

To test this claim, Suschinsky and Lalumiere presented 15 heterosexual men and 15 heterosexual women (average age in their early twenties), all currently in a sexual relationship, with 14 two-minute audio recordings of various narratives read by a woman from her own perspective. The narratives varied in whether or not a sexual encounter occurred between a man and a woman, whether or not violence took place, and whether or not the activities were consensual.

Consistent with past research, the men's genital arousal was far more specific, tending to occur most strongly in response to a consensual, non-violent sexual encounter, which was also the scenario they said they found most arousing. By contrast, the women's genital arousal was far more uniform across all the sexual scenarios. There was one anomaly - their genital arousal to non-consensual, but otherwise nonviolent, sex was lower than for consensual, non-violent sex, but was still significantly higher than their response to neutral scenarios. Like the men, the women's subjective feeling of arousal was far more targeted, being much higher for the consensual, non-violent scenario than the others. Both sexes reported finding the violent or non-consensual scenarios unpleasant and anxiety provoking.

Suschinsky and Lalumiere said their results support what they call the 'preparation hypothesis', adding to past research showing, for example, that some women report experiencing genital lubrication during rape. The researchers acknowledged some limitations in their study. In particular, the scenarios were all told from a woman's perspective. However, they said that past research had shown men tend to find this narrative perspective particularly arousing, so this methodological imbalance is unlikely to explain the results. The researchers also acknowledged that their sample were young and sexually active, and likely to be fairly sexually liberal given that they'd volunteered for a study of this kind. 'We recommend that this study be replicated with a larger and more diverse sample,' they said.

Given the sensitivity of this research topic, and in particular the possibility that its message might be exploited to justify immoral acts, it's worth heeding the words of Mary Roach in her book Bonk:
'It is important to remember,' she writes, that 'it is the mind that speaks to a woman’s heart, not the vaginal walls... Rape offers a plangent illustration of this fact. I learned in a paper by Roy Levin that rape victims occasionally report having responded physically, even though their emotional state was a mixture of fear, anger and revulsion. ... Regardless of the mechanisms that may or may not explain a rape victim’s physical state, a rapist’s defense based upon evidence of arousal has, to quote Levin, "no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded".'

ResearchBlogging.orgSuschinsky, K., and Lalumiere, M. (2010). Prepared for Anything?: An Investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610394660
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Organizational interventions: Issues and challenges (Work and Stress).

Reading Comprehension: Assessment and Intervention for Understanding (Psychology in the Schools).

The cognitive neuroscience of confabulation (Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society) - scroll down to 'symposia'.

Students’ Emotions and Academic Engagement (Contemporary Educational Psychology).
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Three-year-olds show a bias for spotting snakes in a striking posture

Have we evolved to detect this threat?
We humans seem to have an innate predisposition to fear dangerous animals and other hazards that would have imperilled our ancestors - a phenomenon called 'prepared learning'. For example, when researchers in the 1980s used loud noises to condition people to fear the sight of snakes and guns, they found that people acquired a fear of the snakes much more easily, even though the noises matched the sound made by guns. A new study has built on that classic work by showing that children as young as three seem to be particularly adept at spotting snakes in a 'striking pose'.

Nobuo Masataka and his colleagues presented their participants with three-by-three arrays of pictures of snakes and flowers on a touch-screen. On each trial, eight of the pictures were of flowers with one snake picture, or vice versa, and the task was to touch the odd-one-out picture as quickly as possible. Twenty three-year-olds, 34 four-year-olds and 20 adults took part.

Participants of all ages were significantly quicker at the task when spotting a snake among flowers than when spotting a flower among snakes. For example, the three-year-olds took an average of 2735ms when a snake photo was the target compared with an average reaction time of 3283ms when the target was a flower. This was the case even though the children's parents said their offspring hadn't previously been exposed to real or toy snakes.

What's more, all the participants were extra quick at the task when the target picture was a snake in a striking pose: with the body coiled, the neck held in an s-curve and the head poised to strike. The three-year-olds' average reaction time for snakes in a strike pose was 2452ms compared with 2519ms for snakes in a resting position.

The new finding builds on the classic research into prepared learning by suggesting that there is a prototypical snake posture that humans are innately sensitive to. 'When a striking posture is taken by snakes,' the researchers explained, 'they display their specific morphological characteristics as signals towards the presumptive signal receivers so that the receivers will categorise them as snakes as efficiently as possible, be threatened and withdraw.'

An interesting question for future research is whether this is an evolutionary adaptation in snakes or in humans. In other words, did snake appearance and behaviour evolve in a way that exploited existing perceptual biases in humans and other animals, or did the human perceptual and attentional system evolve in such a way to become particularly attuned to snakes and snake behaviour?

ResearchBlogging.orgMasataka, N., Hayakawa, S., and Kawai, N. (2010). Human Young Children as well as Adults Demonstrate ‘Superior’ Rapid Snake Detection When Typical Striking Posture Is Displayed by the Snake. PLoS ONE, 5 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015122
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Physical distance boosts the success of computer-based negotiation

A sense of physical distance encourages more abstract thought 
Negotiations that take place over computer, without face-to-face contact, have more chance of success when those negotiating think there is greater physical distance between each other. That's according to Marlone Henderson who says the new finding is compatible with Construal Level Theory. This is the discovery that people think about things more abstractly when they perceive that they're further away in time or space (e.g. see earlier). In terms of negotiations, thinking more abstractly is beneficial because it encourages negotiators to reflect on and express their underlying motives and priorities.

Across two studies, Henderson had over a hundred undergrads form pairs and negotiate via AOL Instant Messenger about either the purchase of a motorcycle, or ways to split several shared prizes. Crucially, some of the pairs were led to believe that their partner was located in a sister lab on the floor below, whereas other pairs were told that their partner was located thousands of feet away in a sister lab on the other side of town. The terms of negotiation were arranged such that each partner had different priorities, so it was possible in theory to reach vary degrees of mutually agreeable outcome.

Overall, the negotiating pairs who thought their partners were located further away, on the other side of town, tended to reach more mutually agreeable terms. To test if this benefit was to do with thinking about one's priorities more abstractly, as Construal Level Theory would predict, Henderson conducted a further study in which some of the negotiating pairs were explicitly instructed to reflect on the motives underlying their negotiation goals. Receiving these instructions led participants who thought their partner was nearby to negotiate just as successfully as participants who thought their partner was on the other side of town, consistent with the idea that the perception of physical distance exerts its usual benefit by encouraging more reflective and abstract thought about negotiation goals. Other explanations for the main result - such as that partners located nearer to each other were more concerned they might bump into each other afterwards - were ruled out by participants' questionnaire answers.

'Our findings imply that negotiators might benefit from waiting until circumstances create a large amount of distance between them before they start negotiating,' Henderson said. However, he concluded with a more profound message. 'More and more, cultures are incorporating increased physical distance into fundamental aspects of human interaction, including distant learning and education, distant therapy and treatment, and distant political participation,' he said. 'Critically, social conflict can arise in any of these areas. The current research helps to understand whether increased geographical distance offers the potential to facilitate social harmony or magnify the social ills of our society, and represents the beginning of a systematic investigation of such issues.'

ResearchBlogging.orgHenderson, M. (2011). Mere physical distance and integrative agreements: When more space improves negotiation outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 7-15 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.011
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Thermal imaging as a lie detection tool at airports.

'In comparison to their younger counterparts, older adults generally reported and expressed greater sympathy while observing the target persons' - age changes in three facets of empathy.

Participants were able to identify whether a stranger was a Mormon or not, merely based on their facial appearance (and controlling for the presence or absence of facial hair). [open access]

Why do we yawn?

Fact and fiction in the use of cognitive testing in staff recruitment.

Placebos are effective even when patients are told that it's a placebo (at least, for patients with IBS). [open access]

Cortical hubs in the infant brain.

How physical posture affects our feelings of power and our thinking style.

People with larger amygdalae (a temporal lobe structure involved in emotional learning) tend to have larger social networks. [open access]

People high in 'trait positivity' more often rejected unfair offers in an economic game, perhaps because they have a stronger sense of self-worth. [open access]

Rat study shows that stress can re-activate memories that are unrelated to the stressful experience. [open access]

How to deceive your research participants ethically - a guide for researchers.

The woman who experiences no fear.
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Why are we less willing to help the victims of man-made disaster?

Women at an Ethiopian refugee camp
People are more willing to donate money to help victims of natural, as opposed to man-made, disasters. Hanna Zagefka and her team found this is because people generally perceive victims caught up in man-made disasters to be more responsible for their predicament and to be less active in helping themselves, as compared with victims of natural disasters. The findings have implications for the future design of fund-raising campaigns run by charities and NGOs.

Zagefka started by asking 76 participants (average age 50 years) to read one of two accounts of a fictitious flooding disaster. One account implied there was a man-made element to the disaster because the island's dams hadn't been built effectively. The other account implied the disaster was caused by the storm being of unusual intensity. The main finding here was that the participants who read the former account were far less willing to donate money to the victims.

A follow-up study with over 200 students gauged their willingness in 2005 to donate to one of two real-life disasters - the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Darfur civil war taking place at the same time. The description of the Asian disaster emphasised that it was caused by a big tidal wave. In contrast, the description of the Darfur war emphasised that the situation was caused by ethnic conflict. Again, the participants generally expressed less willingness to donate to victims caught up in the man-made disaster, an effect that appeared to be mediated by their perception that the victims in Darfur were more to blame for their predicament and doing less to help themselves.

Two further studies with hundreds more student participants built on these findings by actually giving them a chance to donate some or all of their participation fee. Again, participants who heard about more natural-sounding disasters tended to donate more money. Using fictional accounts, one of these studies also directly manipulated how blame-worthy the victims sounded, and how much they were reportedly doing to help themselves (by building their own make-shift accommodation, or not). Again, when victims appeared more blame-worthy and less active in helping themselves, participants were less willing to donate.

Zagefka and her colleagues said that not all victims caught up in man-made disasters were necessarily to blame for their predicament - far from it - nor do they necessarily help themselves less than the victims of natural disasters. And yet these new findings suggest that many people make precisely these assumptions, thus biasing them against the victims of man-made disasters.

'For humanly caused disasters, appeals could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting,' the researchers advised. 'Similarly appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves. This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.'

ResearchBlogging.orgZagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., de Moura, G., and Hopthrow, T. (2010). Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.781

Previously on the Digest: We're more generous to a suffering individual than the needy masses. See also: the Scope-Severity paradox, which is our tendency to think crimes that affect more people are less harmful [pdf].
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A psychological problem with snacking in front of the telly

TV snacks are easily forgotten
Besides how hungry we feel, all sorts of other factors also affect how much we eat, including portion size and social convention. Another factor is memory for how much we've already eaten. The much-studied amnesic H.M. readily sat down to eat a second meal having just finished one, presumably because he'd forgotten he'd already eaten. Now Dolly Mittal and her team have shown that snacking while watching TV, as opposed to snacking while not watching TV, can lead us (well, women at least) to eat more later on, partly because the effect of the TV is to affect our memory for how much we snacked on earlier.

Thirty-two non-dieting women of unexceptional weight spent 20 minutes in the morning consuming as much snack food as they could, including chocolate balls, crisps and coke/orange squash. Half of them did this while watching Friends or Seinfeld, the others while sitting quietly. There was no difference in the amount of snack food the two groups consumed. Approximately an hour later, the women sat down to eat a lunch of sandwiches, biscuits, crackers and dip. The key finding is that the women who'd earlier snacked while watching TV ate significantly more of this later meal, than did the women who'd earlier snacked without TV. What's more, the TV group were also less accurate at recalling how much they snacked on in the morning. The implication seems to be that watching TV while snacking affects our memory for how much we've snacked on, thereby leading us to eat more later on.

A follow-up study was similar to the first except the researchers investigated the effects of different types of TV show - boring TV (a Lawn Bowling Contest - apologies to bowling fans), sad TV (a scene from the film Dead Poets Society), and funny TV (a Friends episode). The main finding from the first experiment was replicated as regards snacking whilst watching TV leading to more eating later on, but the specific type of TV show made no difference.

An anomaly in the results is that TV versus no TV had a larger effect on the amount eaten later on compared with its effect on recall memory. This suggests that TV has some other effect besides impairing memory for snack consumption, or else it affects memory in more ways that just impairing recall. Another issue is that the effect has so far only been demonstrated for women. When a pilot study was attempted with men, Mittal's team explained, they 'treated the experiment as an opportunity to consume as much food as possible, so the design may not be optimal for this group.'

'...[O]ur data suggest that TV probably exerts some as yet unspecified effect on participants' ability to recall earlier bouts of food consumption, leading to over-consumption on a later TV free test meal,' the researchers said. 'As TV viewing is associated with eating in so many different ways, and as overconsumption of food is a major problem in most industrialised nations, it would seem important to study exactly how this occurs.'

ResearchBlogging.orgMittal, D., Stevenson, R., Oaten, M., and Miller, L. (2010). Snacking while watching TV impairs food recall and promotes food intake on a later TV free test meal. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1760
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