The dark side of swearing - it may deter emotional support from others

Each culture has its agreed-upon list of taboo words and it doesn't matter how many times these words are repeated, they still seem to retain their power to shock. Scan a human brain, swear at it, and you'll see its emotional centres jangle away.

Recent research has shown that this emotional impact can have an analgesic effect, and there's other evidence that strategically deployed swear words can make a speech more memorable. But it's not all positive. A new study suggests that swear words have a dark side. Megan Robbins and her team recorded snippets of speech from middle-aged women with rheumatoid arthritis, and others with breast cancer, and found those who swore more in the company of other people also experienced increased depression and a perceived loss of social support.

The sample sizes were small (13 women with rheumatoid arthritis and 21 women with breast cancer), but the technology was neat. The women wore "an electronically activated recorder" that periodically sampled ambient sounds, including speech. A lapel microphone recorded 50s every 18 minutes over two weekends for the arthritis sample and 50s every 9 minutes over one weekend for the breast cancer patients. Two months or four months after baseline the women repeated measures of their depression and perceived social support - the latter measured by agreement with statements like "I get sympathy and understanding from someone". The key finding is that higher rates of swearing in someone else's company, but not solitary swearing, were associated with an increase in depression symptoms and a drop in perceived social support. Moreover, statistical analysis suggested the effect of swearing on depression was mediated by the lost social support.

"This is one of the first studies to provide evidence of how swearing is implicated in the coping process," the researchers concluded. "It highlights a potential cost of swearing - that it can undermine psychological adjustment, possibly via repelling emotional support."

The study has its limitations, as the researchers acknowledged. For example, the methodology doesn't allow an alternative causal direction to be ruled out. Perhaps diminishing support or increasing depression provoked some of the women into swearing more. In that sense it was a shame the researchers weren't able to look for changes in rates of swearing. Another important limitation is the sample - perhaps swearing by middle-aged women has an adverse effect on their social support because of society norms, which dictate that women, especially of a certain age, shouldn't swear. The same study performed with young men may have produced a different result. "Swearing may even serve a bonding function among men, or younger people, and in different contexts," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgRobbins, M., Focella, E., Kasle, S., López, A., Weihs, K., and Mehl, M. (2011). Naturalistically observed swearing, emotional support, and depressive symptoms in women coping with illness. Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0023431

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Is male libido the ultimate cause of war?

"The face that launched a thousand ships ..." Dr Faustus retelling the legend of Helen and the Trojan War that was fought over her.
From the mighty clash of two stags rutting, to the dawn raid of a chimpanzee, much violence in nature is perpetrated by males fighting each other in competition for female mates. A new study claims it's a similar story with humans. Cultural differences, limited resources and technological developments all play a role, but a team of psychologists based in China and Hong Kong believe the ultimate cause of human war rests with the male libido. Historically, they argue that the lure of an attractive female primed the male brain for conflict with other males, an effect that persists in modern man even though its usefulness is largely outdated.

Across four experiments Lei Chang and his team showed that pictures of attractive women or women's legs had a raft of war-relevant effects on heterosexual male participants, including: biasing their judgments to be more bellicose towards hostile countries; speeding their ability to locate an armed soldier on a computer screen; and speeding their ability to recognise and locate war-related words on a computer screen. Equivalent effects after looking at pictures of attractive men were not found for female participants.

The effects on the male participants of looking at attractive women were specific to war. For example, their ability to locate pictures of farmers, as opposed to soldiers, was not enhanced. Moreover, the war-priming effects of attractive women were greater than with other potentially provocative stimuli, such as the national flag. Finally, the men's faster performance after looking at women's legs versus flags was specific to war-related words, as opposed to merely aggressive words.

"The mating-warring association, as shown in these experiments ... presumably unconsciously propels warring behaviour because of the behaviour's past, but not necessarily current, link to reproductive success," the researchers said. They conceded their study had several limitations, not least that war is a collaborative endeavour whilst they had studied individual responses. However, the new results chime with past lab research, showing for example that men, but not women, respond to intergroup threat by increasing their within-group cooperation. And they chime with anthropological research, which has found male warriors in traditional tribal societies have more sexual partners than other men, as do male members of modern street gangs.

"... This is among the first empirical studies to examine the potential mating-warring association," the researchers concluded. "As such this study adds to the diversities of evidence on the effects of mating motives in human males as well as motivating further discussions of the origins of human warfare."

ResearchBlogging.orgL Chang, H Lu, H Li, and T Li (2011). The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Mating-Warring Association in Men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211402216

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Introducing 30-Second Psychology

Approximately one year ago, a crack commando writing unit was dispersed around the world for reasons beyond their control. These men promptly collaborated and conspired via the global Interweb to produce an explosive book of psychological facts and ideas: 30-Second Psychology. That book has now been published. Today, still wanted by hidden forces, they survive as writers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire ...

Christian Jarrett, editor and contributing author. [@researchdigest]

Vaughan Bell, contributing author. [@vaughanbell]

Moheb Costandi, contributing author. [@mocost]

Dave Munger, contributing author. [@davemunger]

Tom Stafford, contributing author. [@tomstafford]

More about 30-Second Psychology (also available in the USA):
"The key ideas in Psychology explained, with colour illustrations, in half a minute. Pavlov's Dogs, Psychoanalysis, Milgram's Obedience Study, and Beck's Cognitive Therapy? Sure, you know what they all mean. That is, you've certainly heard of them. But do you know enough about these psychology theories to join a dinner party debate or dazzle the bar with your knowledge? 30-Second Psychology takes the top 50 strands of thinking in this fascinating field, and explains them to the general reader in half a minute, using nothing more than two pages, 300 words, and one picture. The inner workings of the human mind will suddenly seem a lot more fun, and along the way we meet many of the luminaries in the field, including William James, Aaron Beck, and (of course) Sigmund Freud. From Behaviorism to Cognitivism, what better way to get a handle on your inner demons?"
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Living in a city, or growing up in one, is associated with heightened brain sensitivity to social stress

Without fanfare or formal announcement, human civilisation has passed a momentous milestone. For the first time, more of us now live in cities than in rural communities. The benefits are numerous: more jobs, better access to educational and health services, more potential friends, and on the list goes. Yet city living has its dark side. Crime, deprivation and inequality are usually higher and so are rates of mental illness, including more anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. A new paper has made one of the first attempts to understand the neural effects mediating this link between urban life and mental strife.

Across several studies, Florian Lederbogen and his team (at the University of Heidelberg and Douglas Mental Health Institute) placed volunteers in a brain scanner and engaged them in a task designed to create social stress. Participants had to answer tricky arithmetic problems as fast as possible, whilst receiving negative, critical feedback from the researchers and others, via headphones or a video display. The crucial question was whether the effect of this task on the brain would vary as a consequence of whether each participant currently lived in a city, a town or the countryside, and also where they grew up. Some participants were recruited via local newspaper advertisements, but unfortunately the majority were university undergrads.

There were two striking results. The stressful task triggered more amygdala activity in city-dwellers than townies, and more amygdala activity in townies compared with rural folk. Second, the task aroused more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of those participants raised in a more urban environment, regardless of where they currently lived. These associations were highly specific - no other brain areas were differentially activated according to urban/rural status. A raft of demographic variables including household size, income, personality, and self-reported health, played no part in the results. Also, demanding tasks (memory and face recognition), with the social stress element removed, did not lead to differential activity in the amygdala or ACC according to participants' current urban/rural status or upbringing.

The amygdala, often likened to an almond, is part of the brain's limbic system and is involved in emotional processing. That this region was apparently sensitised to social stress in the city dwellers "can plausibly be related to epidemiological observations," the researchers said, such as the higher rates of anxiety disorder in cities. The ACC, meanwhile, is involved in stress regulation, among other things. It's also been called the "oh shit" centre, for its function in looking out for unexpected outcomes. The researchers pointed out that schizophrenia, which is more common in cities, is associated with reduced ACC volume and connectivity abnormalities with the amygdala. Schizophrenia usually emerges in adolescence so it's notable that the city-link with ACC activity was based on participants' upbringing location rather than their current dwelling location. A follow-up study by Lederbogen's team further established that an urban upbringing was associated with reduced connectivity between the ACC and amygdala.

There's no question these are interesting results but they are crude. For example, we don't know what aspects of city living led to sensitised amygdala activation, or what aspect of an urban upbringing is associated with ACC function. Moreover, cities vary hugely and these results are based specifically on German urban and rural environments - perhaps the results would be different if the study were replicated on a different continent (although the researchers predict their results would be even larger in countries where the rural/urban discrepancies are greater).

We also don't know what it means to have an amygdala that's more aroused by social stress, or whether that sensitivity is permanent or not. For some broader context, consider that people with larger, more complex social networks have been shown to have bigger amygdalae. Perhaps - and this is pure speculation - city living is associated with having a more complex social life, and therefore an enlarged, more sensitive amygdala. By this account, the amygdala finding in the current study has provided evidence of adaptive neural plasticity, just as much as it may have uncovered a pathological vulnerability. Consistent with this interpretation, it's notable that the study participants were all psychologically healthy (potential volunteers were excluded if they had past or present mental health problems). The cross-sectional nature of the current research also means we don't know if city living causes the observed brain differences, or if people with certain kinds of brain are drawn to urban versus rural environments.

A final short-coming is that the brain differences associated with urban life did not correlate with cortisol levels triggered by the stressful tasks. Cortisol is a biological marker of stress, so if heightened amygdala and ACC activity were indicative of sensitivity to stress you'd expect participants with extra activity in these brain regions to have shown corresponding increases in cortisol.

Lederbogen and his colleagues said their study had shown "neural effects of urban upbringing and habituation on social stress processing in humans" and was a first step in what they hope will be "a new empirical approach for integrating social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenges of urbanisation."

ResearchBlogging.orgF Lederbogen, P Kirsch, L Haddad, F Streit, H Tost, and six others (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature : 10.1038/nature10190

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Resilience and Adaptive Aspects of Stress in Neurobehavioural Development (Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews).

Research on Sexual Arousal (Hormones and Behaviour).

Saccade, Search and Orient (European Journal of Neuroscience).

Mind–Body Connections in Personal Relationships (Personal Relationships).

Psychobiological approaches to stress and health: Recent progress (Japanese Psychological Research).

How Does Learning Impact Development in Infancy? The Case of Perceptual Organization (special section in Infancy).

Intra-Individual Processes Linking Work and Employee Well-Being (Journal of Organizational Behaviour).

Visual search and visual world: Interactions among visual attention, language, and working memory (Acta Psychologica).

[This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest].
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

College students aren't very accurate at judging how drunk they are.

The effects of weather on walking rates in nine cities.

"Hey Mom, What’s on Your Facebook? Comparing Facebook Disclosure and Privacy in Adolescents and Adults".

Testing yourself over time, with long gaps between tests, is beneficial to memory. But the precise schedule of when those tests occur (e.g. with expanding, contracting or equal gaps between them) doesn't matter.

For girls, but not boys, greater consistency of hand preference in infancy was related to superior cognitive outcomes from age ten to 17, for example in verbal intelligence.

People who hoard animals.

Food automatically grabs people's attention, especially if they have low BMI.

Apolipoprotein E4 is a risk factor for Alzheimer's, but does it exert a benefit on cognitive function in healthy young adults?

Even bigots show reduced prejudice after inter-group contact.

Autism may have bestowed people with a survival advantage as skilled solitary foragers (PDF).

The cognitive consequences of envy.

Autism is twice as high in Eindhoven, the IT centre of the Netherlands, than in Haarlem or Utrecht.

Diet motivation in young women is driven more by fear than by hope.

You do not talk about Fight Club if you do not notice Fight Club: Inattentional blindness for a simulated real-world assault.

[This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest].
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Are people with social anxiety preoccupied by social rank?

People with a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder find social situations nerve wracking, from mixing with friends to speaking in public. A number of explanations have been proposed for why they feel this way, including that they are pre-occupied with creating the right impression. A new study makes a related but distinct claim, which is that people with social anxiety are overly concerned with social hierarchy, and struggle with what's called the affiliative side of relationships. In simple terms this means they tend to perceive social situations as competitive, judging themselves as having low rank compared with other people, and they also have difficulty forming close relationships.

Ora Weisman and her colleagues made their claims after surveying 42 social anxiety disorder clients at a public clinic in Israel and 47 community controls. Potential recruits to the client group were excluded if they had depression, schizophrenia or an addiction problem. Comparing the two groups, the researchers found that the clients with social anxiety tended to report more submissive behaviour (e.g. agreeing to being wrong, even when knowing they were right), saw themselves as having low social rank, were more sensitive to rejection, had less closeness to their friends, and avoided getting too attached to romantic partners.

A second study was similar to the first, except this time the researchers compared clients with a joint diagnosis of social anxiety and depression against clients with an anxiety diagnosis other than social anxiety (e.g. panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder) plus depression. Once again, it was the social anxiety group who scored higher on submissive behaviour, avoidance of attachment, lower perceived social rank and greater rejection sensitivity. Together both studies suggest that social anxiety is associated with these characteristics above and beyond the influence of depression.

Limitations of the study include its reliance on self-report and the fact that clients weren't followed up over time. This means it's difficult to tell if the measured characteristics (such as perceiving oneself as having low social rank) are a cause or a consequence of social anxiety.

Weisman and her team said their findings have treatment implications. Therapists should include techniques that focus on negative self-perception, they advised, including the use of video-feedback, and ways to overcome submissive behaviours. This work could extend to reducing the frequency of emotions such as shame and humiliation, they said, which may contribute to clients downplaying their social status. Also the affiliation side should be addressed too, Weisman's group said: "...issues such as sharing and self-disclosure can help achieve intimacy and closeness with others and reduce social anxiety."

ResearchBlogging.orgO Weisman, I Aderka, S Marom, H Hermesh, and E Gilboa-Schechtman (2011). Social rank and affiliation in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2011.03.010

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Feeling lonely? Have a bath

Wallowing in the bath, immersed in soothing warm water, the benefits are more than sensuous, they're social too. That's according to John Bargh and Idit Shalev, researchers at Yale University, whose new research shows that physical warmth can compensate for social isolation. Indeed, their study suggests that people subconsciously self-comfort against loneliness through the use of warm baths and showers.

Among 51 undergrads, those who reported being more lonely also tended to bath or shower more often, to do so for longer and with warmer water. Overall, 33.5 per cent of the variation in these measures was accounted for by loneliness. A similar result was found for a community sample of 16 women and 25 men. Perhaps lonely people simply have more time to take baths because they go out less, but the association with preferring warmer water is harder to explain away.

A second study confirmed the causal role that physical temperature can play in people's sense of social warmth. Students conducted what they thought was a product test of a small therapeutic pack, which was either warm or cold. Those who evaluated the cold pack, holding it in their palm, subsequently reported feeling more lonely than those who tested a warm version of the pack.

What about a direct test of the therapeutic benefit of physical warmth? Another study had students recall a time they'd felt socially excluded, then they went on to perform the same product test of a warm or cold pack used before. Recalling being excluded had the expected effect of making students desire friendly company and comforting activities like shopping. But this effect was eradicated if they'd product tested the warm pack. "...Warm physical experiences were found to significantly reduce the distress of social exclusion," the researchers said.

Our recognition of the link between physical and social warmth is reflected in our language - "a warm smile", "a cold shoulder" - and has been for centuries: Dante in the Inferno links the betrayal of trust with the punishment of being physically frozen. Yet Bargh and Shalev think this understanding remains largely unconscious. To test this they had participants rate the loneliness of a protagonist after reading one of two near-identical versions of a short story. Participants who read the version in which she took a bath and shower in the same day didn't perceive her to be any more lonely than those who read the version without the extra bathing.

These findings build on the broader literature on embodied cognition, which has shown the effects of physical states on our thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa (e.g. heavier books are considered more important; washing alleviates guilt). And they add to past research suggesting a specific link between physical and social/emotional warmth. One earlier study found that participants felt socially closer to a researcher when they were tested in a warm room. Other research has linked physical and social warmth to activity in the same brain region - the anterior insular.

But this new study is the first to suggest we subconsciously administer our own tonic of physical warmth to compensate for social rejection. And it's the first to provide causal evidence that physical warmth can ameliorate feelings of exclusion. Bargh and Shalev speculated their findings could even have practical applications ... "the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ Bargh, and I Shalev (2011). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0023527

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Good news and bad for a popular willpower-enhancing strategy

In rich countries, temptation is never far and many of us struggle to achieve our long-term aims of moderation, dedication and fidelity. An increasingly popular strategy for regaining control is to form so-called implementation intentions. Rather than having the vague goal to eat less or exercise more, you spell out when, where and how you will perform a given activity, and rehearse that thought regularly. For example, "when in the cafeteria at lunch I will buy orange juice rather than cola". A more specific variant is to form an 'if-then' plan, as in "if it is a Tuesday morning, then I will go for a run," and again, this is rehearsed mentally on a regular basis.

Past research has found these plans to be successful, helping people to live more healthily. There's even evidence that they are particularly beneficial to those who have had their willpower compromised by brain damage or by taxing laboratory tasks. Two new studies add to this literature, one of them cautionary, the other more hopeful.

Sue Churchill and Donna Jessop studied 323 students tasked with eating more fruit and vegetables. They found that implementation intentions helped students achieve this task over a 7-day period, but only if they scored low on a measure of "urgency", as revealed by their agreement or not with statements like "When I am upset, I often act without thinking." The researchers said this suggests implementation intentions may not be a panacea: "Ironically, people who possess poor self-regulatory skills insofar as they tend to act on impulse when distressed, who are arguably most in need of assistance in achieving their goals, may benefit least from behaviour change interventions based on implementation intention formation."

Why the contradiction with earlier research showing implementation intentions are most helpful to those with compromised willpower? Churchill and Jessop can't be sure, but they said one possibility could be because their task of eating more fruit and veg is more complex than some of the lab tasks studied previously.

That's the cautionary news. The good news comes from a study by Barbel Knauper and her colleagues who found that using mental imagery boosted the benefit of implementation intentions for students attempting to increase their fruit consumption over seven days. Rather than merely forming an if-then plan, such as "If I see orange juice at lunch, then I will buy it", they also imagined themselves performing this act, with as much sensory detail as possible. A promising result, and the researchers expressed their surprised that no-one had thought to investigate the combination of these two strategies before.

Here's a curious observation across both studies. Knauper's team failed to find the usual benefit of forming simple implementation intentions (without the addition of mental imagery) and her team said one possible explanation for this was the simplicity of their task of eating more fruit. Recall that Churchill and Jessop thought the same task (admittedly, also including vegetables) was relatively complicated compared with tasks used in earlier research. It just shows how much room there is for interpretation.

Both studies suffered from a reliance on retrospective self-report - the students told the researchers whether they'd managed to eat more fruit and veg or not over the preceding week. They also had short study durations - we need our newfound healthy habits to last longer than a week. But together the studies point to some interesting avenues for future research. Perhaps implementation intentions plus imagery will prove to be effective for people who have particularly weak willpower?
S Churchill, and D Jessop (2011). Too impulsive for implementation intentions? Evidence that impulsivity moderates the effectiveness of an implementation intention intervention. Psychology and Health DOI: 10.1080/08870441003611536

B Knauper, A McCollam, A Rosen-Brown, J Lacaille, E Kelso, and M Roseman (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology and Health DOI: 10.1080/08870441003

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Toddlers won't bother learning from you if you're daft

Infants of just 14 months already have a nonsense-detector that alerts them to unreliable people, from whom they'll no longer bother taking lessons.

Diane Poulin-Dubois demonstrated this in a study with 60 infants. In one "reliable" condition, the researcher smiled and exclaimed with delight on discovering a toy in a container, before then passing it to the infant to inspect. In the other "unreliable" condition, the researcher similarly expressed delight but there was in fact no toy. This was repeated several times.

Next, the same researcher produced a touch-on light, placed it on the desk and switched it on by leaning forwards and using her forehead. She repeated this three times then passed the light to the infant. The key finding is that infants in the "unreliable" condition were far less likely to bother imitating the researcher by switching on the light with their own forehead. Across two attempts, 34 per cent of infants in the unreliable condition used their forehead to turn the light on, compared with 61 per cent of infants in the reliable condition.

"Infants seem to perceive reliable adults as capable of rational action, whose novel, unfamiliar behaviour is worth imitating," the researchers said. "In contrast, the same behaviour performed by a previously unreliable adult is interpreted as irrational or inefficient, thus not worthy of imitating."

Other explanations for the finding were ruled out. For example, infants in both the reliable and unreliable conditions were equally attentive to the researcher's demonstration with the light, so it's not the case that they'd simply lost interest.

The new finding adds to a growing body of research showing children's selectivity in who they choose to learn from. For example, children prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are familiar with and who appear more certain, confident and knowledgeable. Prior research with infants found they were less likely to follow the gaze of an unreliable adult who'd earlier expressed delight at an empty container.

"These results add to a growing body of literature that suggests that infants are adept at generalising their knowledge about the reliability of other people across varying contexts," the researchers said. "The unique contribution of the present study shows that, similar to older children, infants are able to keep track of an individual's history of being accurate or inaccurate and use this information to guide their subsequent learning."

ResearchBlogging.orgD Poulin-Dubois, I Brooker, and A Polonia (2011). Infants prefer to imitate a reliable person. Infant Behaviour and Development DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2011.01.006

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Psychologically safe teams can incubate bad behaviour

The following is written by Dr Alex Fradera and is being cross-posted here and over at the new BPS Occupational Digest - a 'child' blog of the Research Digest with a focus on psychology at work.

When impropriety or corruption emerges in an organisation, some cry “bad apple!” where others reply “more like bad barrel!” Yet between individuals and organisations we have teams, the context in which decisions are increasingly made. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on what it takes for teams to behave badly.

Researchers Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis recruited 378 undergraduate management studies students (about 1/3 female), already organised into study groups of three who had collaborated for months. Participants were asked to rate themselves on items relating to different philosophical outlooks, the pertinent one being utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes. Previous research suggests individuals who highly value utilitarianism tend to behave more unethically, as they are more prepared to bend rules or mislead if they perceive the ends to justify the means. Pearsall and Ellis suspected the same to be true in groups.

Each team was given a real opportunity to behave unethically, by cheating in the self-evaluation of a piece of coursework. Buried within the scoring criteria was an issue that could not possibly have been covered in the assignment, meaning any team that ticked this off was faking it. As expected, teams with a higher average utilitarianism score were more likely to cheat, mirroring the effect found for individuals.

However, there is a protective buffer against acting unethically in a team. You may be willing to bend the rules, and even suspect others share your view... but do you really want to be the first to say so out loud? Pearsall and Ellis predicted that making this step requires a strong feeling of psychological safety, the sense that others will not judge or report you for speaking out or taking risks. It turns out that the cheating behaviour observed in teams with high utilitarianism scores was almost entirely dependent on a psychologically safe environment, as measured using items like “It is safe to take a risk on this team”. Lacking that safe environment, the highly utilitarian teams were almost as well-behaved as their lower-scoring counterparts.

The researchers note that academic cheating involves relatively low stakes, so this may be a constraint on how far we should generalise to other situations. They also emphasise that psychological safety is generally something we prize in teams, and rightly so: through facilitating open communication and consideration of alternate views it can enhance performance, learning and adaptation to change. However, this evidence suggests that it can also incubate unethical behaviour, and the researchers urge that the field continues to look beyond the traits of individual miscreants to consider state factors such as psychological safety, that allow bad behaviour to take root.

ResearchBlogging.orgPearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411 DOI: 10.1037/a0021503
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What colour is your breast-stroke? Or why synaesthesia is more about ideas than crossed-senses

People with synaesthesia experience odd sensations that make it seem as though their neural wires are crossed. A certain word might always come served with the same particular taste, or a letter or numeral might reliably evoke the same particular colour. But an emerging view among experts is that synaesthesia is grounded in concepts, not crossed senses. By this account, it's certain ideas, regardless of which sense perceives them, that trigger a particular concurrent experience. The latest evidence for this comes from Danko Nikolic and his colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research. They've documented two synaesthetes, HT and UJ, who experience different swimming strokes, whether performing them, watching them or merely thinking about them, as always being a certain colour.

HT and UJ, both now aged 24, began swimming competitively at an early age and the sport continues to be an important part of their lives. The first test that Nikolic's team performed was to present the pair with four black and white close-up photos of different swimming strokes and have them say which colour the strokes triggered using a book of 5500 colour shades. This was repeated four weeks later for HT and three weeks later for UJ. Three non-synaesthete control participants, all swimmers, were recruited for comparison. They similarly reported which colours the photos made them think of and they repeated the exercise after just a two-week gap.

The clear finding was that the difference from the first test to the second test in the precise colours chosen for each stroke by the synaesthetes was eight times smaller than the test-retest difference shown by the controls, thus supporting the synaesthetes' claim that different strokes always provoke the same colours.

Next the researchers administered a version of the Stroop test: the synaesthetes and controls were presented with the same swimming stroke photos as before, but this time they were shown with different coloured tones, for example in blue or yellow. The participants' task was to name the colour. If certain swimming strokes really do evoke particular colours for the synaesthetes then their colour naming ought to have been affected by the precise stroke/colour pairing on any given trial, such that you'd expect them to be quicker if the photo's colour matched the colour evoked by the stroke shown in the image. That's exactly what was found - UJ, for example, was 101ms slower when naming incongruent colours versus congruent ones. No such effect was observed for two control participants.

According to the classic view of synaesthesia as cross-wiring between senses, you'd think that swimming-style synaesthesia would require the act of swimming (via proprioception) to evoke a concurrent experience, but this study suggested it was enough to merely activate the concept of the different swim strokes by looking at pictures. This is consonant with past research showing, for example, that letter/number-colour synaesthesia can be triggered merely by imagining the necessary letter or number. Other research has documented synaeshetic experiences devoid of any particular sensory element, including so-called time-unit-space synaesthesia, in which units of time are experienced as existing in particular locations relative to the body.

"Hence, the original name of the presently investigated phenomenon syn + aesthesia (Greek for union of senses) may turn out to be misleading in respect of its true nature," the researchers said. "The term ideaesthesia (Greek for sensing concepts) may describe the phenomenon much more accurately." For more detailed discussion of how, when and why synaesthetic triggers and their concurrent experiences are acquired, it's worth checking out the full-text of the article.

ResearchBlogging.orgNikolić, D., Jürgens, U., Rothen, N., Meier, B., and Mroczko, A. (2011). Swimming-style synesthesia. Cortex, 47 (7), 874-879 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2011.02.008

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Digest passes milestone of two million visitors

In the early hours of Saturday morning the BPS Research Digest received its two millionth visitor since counting began in June 2005 (the blog launched in February that year with a posting on driver stereotypes).

To celebrate, we offered the two millionth visitor, or the closest to that number, a free signed copy of The Rough Guide to Psychology, a new book by the editor of the Digest. Two US readers arrived on the blog simultaneously at the crucial moment and were quick off the mark, sending in their screen-shots with the counter poised at two million and one. Both will receive a copy of the book.

Many thanks to them and the rest of you for your ongoing support and interest in the Research Digest. Here at Digest HQ we're eager to continue spreading the word about the latest fascinating and thought-provoking findings in psychological science, and we look forward to welcoming many more visitors. Please do comment on this post to let us know how we could improve the Digest blog in any way.

Don't forget, if you like what you see here, please do check out our off-spring title, the BPS Occupational Digest, which launched this year with a focus on psychology at work. Both the main Digest and the Occupational Digest are also available as email newsletters. And there's even more psychology for your delectation at the BPS monthly magazine The Psychologist, with plenty of free previews online.

Happy reading!
Christian Jarrett
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Is it time to rethink the way university lectures are delivered?

A more interactive, discussion- and quiz-based style of university teaching brings dramatic benefits to science learning, according to a new study. The interactive approach takes its inspiration from psychologist Anders Ericsson's theory of "deliberate practice", a highly motivated and thorough form of learning.

Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Carl Wieman parachuted into a physics course on week 12 and for half the year group (271 students) took over their three hours of lectures that week devoted to electromagnetic waves. A control group of 267 students were lectured by their usual, highly rated and energetic teacher following a conventional format (i.e. the students mostly sat and listened while he lectured). Both groups were set the same learning objectives.

Before the intervention, both groups had spent eleven weeks on the same course, albeit with different lecturers, and they were matched on mid-term exam performance and their engagement with, and attitudes to, class.

For the crucial week 12 lectures, the intervention students were led by Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have fairly limited teaching experience) and took part in a series of discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback. There was no formal lecturing. The aim, according to the authors, was:
" have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at 'thinking scientifically' in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others."
The control group students had their usual lectures, covering the same material as the intervention students and they were given the same pre-class reading.

Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.

In the first class after week 12, both groups were tested on what they'd learned in the previous week about electromagnetic waves. Also, two days before the test, students in both classes were emailed all the materials used by the intervention group: the clicker questions, group tasks and their solutions.

The results on the test were striking. The intervention group averaged 74 per cent correct, compared with 41 per cent correct in the control group. Factoring out the performance that could be achieved purely through guessing, the researchers said this meant the intervention group had performed twice as well as controls (the effect size was 2.5 standard deviations). Student feedback on the intervention was also overwhelmingly positive: 90 per cent of students said they'd enjoyed the interactive technique.

The researchers dismissed the idea that their findings could be explained by the Hawthorne Effect (i.e. a mere effect of novelty or of being observed). "While this experiment is introducing change in the student experience in one particular course (3 total hours per week) it provides little incremental novelty to their overall daily educational experience," they said.

The researchers' conclusion was upbeat: "We show that use of deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large laboratory physics course as compared with what was obtained with the lecture method ... This result is likely to generalise to a variety of postsecondary courses."

For a more critical analysis of this research, check out this NYT's article by Benedict Carey (thanks to an anonymous commenter for this link).

ResearchBlogging.orgDeslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Current Controversies on the Role of Gender in Partner Violence (Aggression and Violent Behaviour).

The Revision of DSM – Intended and Unintended Consequences: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Personality and Mental Health).

Migration: Vocational Perspectives on a Complex and Diverse Transition (Journal of Vocational Behaviour).

Multivariate Decoding and Brain Reading (NeuroImage).

Cognitive Robotics and Reevaluation of Piaget Concept of Egocentrism (New Ideas in Psychology).

Special Section: Long-term developments in individual work behaviour: Patterns of stability and change (Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology).

Special Section on Bayesian Data Analysis (Perspectives on Psychological Science).

Compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The neuroscience of batman, or how the human brain performs echolocation

Over the last few years it’s become apparent that humans, like bats, can make effective use of echolocation by emitting click sounds with the tongue and listening for the echoes that result. Now a team led by Lore Thaler at the University of Western Ontario has conducted the first ever investigation into the neural correlates of this skill.

Thaler and her colleagues first had to overcome the practical challenge of studying echolocation in the noisy environment of a brain scanner, in which participants are required to keep their heads still. The researchers established that two blind, experienced echo-locators, EB and LB, were able to interpret with high accuracy the recordings of tongue clicks and echoes they’d made earlier, and so this form of passive echolocation was studied in the scanner.

Among several remarkable new insights generated by the research, the most important is that EB and LB exhibited increased activity in their visual cortices, but not their auditory cortices, when they listened to clicks and echo recordings taken outside, compared with when they listened to the exact same recordings with the subtle echoes omitted. No such differential activity was detected among two age-matched, male sighted controls.

The finding suggests that it is the visual cortex of the blind participants that processes echoes, not their auditory cortex. This visual cortex activity was stronger in EB who was blind from an earlier age than LB, and is more experienced at echolocation. However the echolocation skill of both blind participants is remarkable. Both are able to cycle and they can identity objects, and detect movement. EB, but not LB, showed evidence of a contra-lateral pattern in his echo-processing brain activity, just as sighted people do with the processing of light. That is, activity was greater in the brain hemisphere opposite to the source of stimulation.

Just how the visual cortex extracts meaningful information from subtle echo sounds must await future research. The researchers best guess is that the relevant neurons perform ‘some sort of spatial computation that uses input from the processing of echolocation sounds that was carried out elsewhere, most likely in brain areas devoted to auditory processing.’ Establishing the functional role of the cerebellar processing that was also differentially activated by echo sounds in the echo-locators must also await future research.

‘… [O]ur data clearly show that EB and LB use echolocation in a way that seems uncannily similar to vision,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In this way, our study shows that echolocation can provide blind people with a high degree of independence and self-reliance in their daily life. This has broad practical implications in that echolocation is a trainable skill that can potentially offer powerful and liberating opportunities for blind and vision-impaired people.’

If this research has piqued your interest in echolocation, a previous research paper on the topic by Antonio Martinez and his co-workers explained that anyone, blind or sighted, is able to learn the skill. In fact they said that after two hours practice a day for two weeks you should be able to recognise blindfolded whether there is an object in front of you or not.

ResearchBlogging.orgL Thaler, S Arnott, and M Goodale (2011). Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts. PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020162

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Beware the "super well" - why the controls in psychology research are often too healthy

Many studies in clinical psychology and psychiatry are making the mistake of using healthy controls who are too healthy. That's according to a thought-provoking opinion piece by Sharon Schwartz and Ezra Susser - experts in the epidemiology of mental health.

Schwartz and Susser invite readers to consider a hypothetical study that samples participants from a wider group made up of people exposed to a virus prenatally and people not exposed to that virus. Imagine that a psychiatric registry is used to identify all the participants from this wider group who are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and they are compared with a slice of healthy participants recruited from the same source. The aim is to see what proportion of the participants with schizophrenia were exposed to the virus and what proportion of the healthy controls were exposed to the virus. If the history of exposure is higher among the schizophrenia participants, then this would suggest there may be an association between the virus and the later development of schizophrenia. In Schwartz and Susser's hypothetical scenario, there is no difference between patients and controls in rates of virus exposure and so the virus seems unassociated with schizophrenia. So far, so good - this is a classic case-controlled study.

The problem identified by Schwartz and Susser is that many such studies apply an exclusion criterion or criteria to the healthy controls that they don't also apply to the patient group. For example, they might rule out healthy controls with an alcohol problem, or depression, or even a physical disorder. The motivation for this is often the fear that these other disorders will obscure the potential link between the cause of interest and the condition of interest (virus exposure and schizophrenia in our ongoing example).

But to apply such exclusion criteria in a one-sided fashion (to the controls but not the patients), creates a serious confound. In our example, imagine that depressed "healthy" controls are excluded and imagine too that there is an underlying association between the virus exposure and depression. Excluding healthy controls with depression in this scenario would distort the results such that the virus appeared wrongly to be associated with schizophrenia (check out the full paper for the data behind this).

"With all the potential sources of bias in a biologic case-control study, why do we focus on the use of well controls?" the researchers asked. "We do so because the use of well controls is a common, and often recommended, method to select controls. Yet it is time-consuming and expensive, can cause considerable bias and does not improve study results."

If researchers include patient participants with other co-morbid diagnoses in their case-controlled studies, Schwartz and Susser went on to explain, then they must also include "healthy" controls who happen to have these other conditions. On the other hand, if researchers want to exclude other conditions, so as to clean up their investigation, then they must exclude both patient participants and controls with these other diagnoses.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchwartz, S., and Susser, E. (2011). The use of well controls: an unhealthy practice in psychiatric research. Psychological Medicine, 41 (06), 1127-1131 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291710001595

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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How our visual system is guided by gossip radar

The kind of negative tittle-tattle that appears daily in the tabloids seems to bear little merit. But experts believe that historically, paying attention to such gossip played an important role in our survival chances, such that today negative hearsay continues to bias our visual system.

Eric Anderson at Northeastern University in Boston and his colleagues have shown this in a new study that paired photos of neutral faces with lines of positive, negative or neutral gossip, and presented these to 61 participants on-screen. Typical lines of gossip were ‘threw a chair at his classmate’, ‘helped an elderly woman with her groceries’ and ‘passed a man on the street’. Each face was paired four times with its designated nugget of social information.

These faces were then presented in a binocular rivalry paradigm with pictures of houses. This means that using a piece of a equipment called a stereoscope, a face was presented exclusively to one eye and a house exclusively to the other, which would have led the two images to compete for access to the participant’s conscious awareness. For the participants, a fluctuating perceptual experience would then have ensued, first one image seen, then the other, and back again until the trial finished after ten seconds.

Participants were asked to press a keyboard key to indicate which image they could see at any given time and Anderson’s finding is that faces previously paired with negative gossip tended to dominate and be seen for longer, by more than half a second, than faces paired previously with positive or neutral gossip, or entirely new faces.

In case negative gossip was simply learned more effectively than the other gossip types, a second study controlled for how well participants learned the initial face-gossip associations and the main finding was replicated. This follow-up study also showed that neutral faces paired with negative gossip dominated in consciousness longer than neutral faces paired with non-social negative information, such as ‘had a root canal performed.’

Anderson’s team said it was easy to see the survival value in the brain prioritising the visual perception of people tagged with negative gossip, thereby allowing them to be seen for longer and for more information about them to be garnered. ‘Our results … [show] that top-down affective information acquired through gossip influences vision,’ the researchers said, ‘so that what we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place.’ The finding lends scientific credence to the established PR wisdom that for entertainers vying for the spotlight, there's no such thing as bad press.

ResearchBlogging.orgEric Anderson, Erika Siegel, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2011). The visual impact of gossip. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1201574

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

The science of stepping off a kerb.

Women's telephone calls last longer than men's.

What's it like to live with parents who have OCD?

Appealing to a sense of common humanity among the victims of historical atrocities increases their forgiveness of perpetrators, but there's a downside - it reduces their collective action to overcome inequalities and other social and practical obstacles.

Insight into infantile amnesia - very young kids can recall early first memories that they subsequently forget.

Fun food names increase children’s consumption of novel healthy foods.

Financial forecasts during the crisis: Were experts more accurate than laypeople?

Physical touch in psychotherapy: Why are we not touching more?

‘Not a neutral event’: Clinical psychologists' experiences of gifts in therapeutic relationships.

What does a great meta-analysis look like?

You probably think this paper's about you. Narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation. (ht: @j0ns1m0ns).

Validation of Dunbar's number in Twitter conversations.

The Ghosts of Counseling Psychology: Is Counseling Research Really Dead?

Poorer children have smaller hippocampi.

Humor in Romantic Contexts: Do Men Participate and Women Evaluate?

A longitudinal study of people's regrets.

The neural correlates of human echo-location. (more on this from Ed Yong).

How social influence spoils the 'wisdom of crowd effect'. (more on this from Jonah Lehrer, here and here).

This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Does retail therapy work?

It might not be possible to buy happiness, but you can buy relief from low mood. That's according to an investigation of retail therapy by Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy. Through three separate studies the pair concluded that retail therapy generally works, that people deploy the practice strategically, rather than impulsively, and that there are few if any negative emotional side-effects.

But before you head off for a quick spending spree, note the caveats: the study relied on US participants, mostly university students; measures of mood were self-report; and there was deviation into a study of chocolate consumption, as opposed to actual buying behaviour.

The investigation kicked off at a US shopping mall, with nearly two hundred shoppers surveyed on their way in and way out. This confirmed that people use retail therapy as a mood enhancer. Those participants who reported being in a bad mood on their way into the mall were more likely to admit on their way out to having made an unplanned self-indulgent purchase.

For a second study, dozens of students thought they were taking part in a taste test to do with developing new ice-cream flavours, for which they had the opportunity to sample a number of chocolate snack bars. Half these participants had been primed earlier with a short passage of text that said impulsive people are far less creative than more restrained folk. These same participants also completed an earlier word search task that included restraint-related words like "careful". All this was intended to set them a goal of wanting to be restrained.

The subsequent finding was that participants in low mood at the study outset tended to eat more of the sample snack bars, unless, that is, they'd been exposed to the restraint-based text and word-search. Eating more chocolate led to a lift for those in low mood at the study outset, but so too did succeeding at restraint for those primed with that goal. Atalay and Meloy said this result shows that consumers are strategic rather than impulsive. "If there are mood reparatory benefits associated with showing restraint, individuals are capable of not acting on their impulses," they said.

Lastly the researchers had 69 undergrads complete two retrospective consumption diaries, two weeks apart, documenting their purchasing behaviour, mood and regrets. All the participants admitted in the first diary to having bought themselves a treat (mostly clothes, but also food, electronics, entertainment products and so on). Sixty-two per cent of these purchases had been motivated by low mood, 28 per cent as a form of celebration. Surprisingly perhaps, treats bought as a form of mood repair were generally about half the value of treats bought for celebration, reinforcing the notion that retail therapy is constrained, not out of control. Moreover, according to the diaries, the retail therapy purchases were overwhelmingly beneficial, leading to mood boosts and no regrets or guilt, even when they were unplanned. Only one participant who'd made a retail therapy purchase said that she would return it, given the opportunity.

"It is not suggested here that every retailer suddenly make a small treat item available at checkout to tempt consumers, or that mall planners strategically locate candy stores near every mall exit," the researchers said. "What is suggested is that perhaps practitioners have it 'right' when they appeal to consumers with slogans that encourage them to buy themselves small splurges. There seem to be positive consequences to buying oneself a small treat; one does feel better."

ResearchBlogging.orgAtalay, A., and Meloy, M. (2011). Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood. Psychology and Marketing, 28 (6), 638-659 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20404

A related study was published recently: The Plastic Trap: Self-Threat Drives Credit Usage and Status Consumption.

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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