Children with autism demonstrate superior change detection skills

Developmental disorders are usually thought about in terms of their impairments. But a welcome trend in recent years is to document their advantages too. I'm not talking about dramatic savant skills like calendar calculating, but rather advantageous manifestations of basic cognitive differences. For example, investigators have shown that children with Tourette's syndrome - a condition involving involuntary tics - have superior cognitive control and timing, compared with children without Tourette's. Now Sue Fletcher-Watson and her team have added to this literature with a new study showing that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are quicker than neurotypical children and adults at detecting subtle changes to a visual scene.

The task required that children with ASD and neurotypical children (aged 11 to 16; most were male), and non-ASD adults, look at pictures of non-social scenes (e.g. a furnished room) on a computer. Each scene appeared for just under half a second, the screen would go blank, then the scene would reappear with one subtle change. The changes could be located centrally in the scene or in the periphery, and they could be a change in colour of an object, a change in an object's presence or absence, or location. The participants' task was to spot the change as quickly as possible and say what it was.

The headline result is that the 11 children with ASD were often significantly faster at detecting scene changes than the 29 neurotypical kids and the 20 adults. Specifically, they were faster than the neurotypical children at spotting central location changes and peripheral colour and location changes. They beat the adults at colour changes in the periphery. The difference in speed was often dramatic - for example, for a colour change in the periphery, the average response time of the ASD group was just over 5 seconds. For the typically developing children, it was just over 8 seconds, and for the non-ASD adults it was just over 7 seconds.

The researchers said theirs was the first study to show "somewhat enhanced" performance in change detection among children with ASD, "providing further welcome evidence of strengths in this population". The cautious tone is due to a major caveat in the results. As well as being quicker at change detection, the ASD children were also less accurate - being more likely to describe a change that hadn't actually happened. This points to a simple speed-accuracy trade-off as explaining the group differences in performance. But the researchers don't think this is the case. Supporting their claim, they demonstrated that the ASD kids were faster whether all responses were analysed or only accurate responses were analysed. However, they conceded that more research was needed to clarify this issue.

Intriguingly, studies with adults with ASD have actually found that they are relatively impaired at detecting changes in complex scenes, compared with neurotypical participants. Fletcher-Watson and her colleagues wonder if this is because they've learned through education and therapeutic interventions to focus more on social information in scenes at the expense of their instinct for focusing on local details. "Since the attentional system can only give enhanced processing to about five items in a scene at once, a focus on social information would have the effect of removing attention from other, non-social features," the researchers said.
_________________________________ Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S., Connolly, B., Collis, J., Findlay, J., McConachie, H., and Rodgers, J. (2011). Attenuation of change blindness in children with autism spectrum disorders. British Journal of Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02054.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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What exactly are candidate selection measures measuring?

This post originally appeared on our offspring title, the BPS Occupational Digest, written by Dr Alex Fradera. It's like the main Research Digest but focuses on psychology in the work place.

While we know that modern selection procedures such as ability tests and structured interviews are successful in predicting job performance, it's much less clear how they pull off those predictions. The occupational psychology process – and thus our belief system of how things work - is essentially a) identify what the job needs b) distil this to measurable dimensions c) assess performance on your dimensions. But a recent review article by Martin Kleinman and colleagues suggests that in some cases, we may largely be assessing something else: the “ability to identify criteria”.

The review unpacks a field of research that recognises that people aren't passive when being assessed. Candidates try to squirrel out what they are being asked to do, or even who they are being asked to be, and funnel their energies towards that. When the situation is ambiguous, a so-called “weak” situation, those better at squirrelling – those with high “ability to identify criteria” (ATIC) - will put on the right performance, and those that are worse will put on Peer Gynt for the panto crowd.

Some people are better at guessing what an assessment is measuring than others, so in itself ATIC is a real phenomenon. And the research shows that higher ATIC scores are associated with higher overall assessment performance, and better scores specifically on the dimensions they correctly guess. ATIC clearly has a 'figuring-out' element, so we might suspect its effects are an artefact of it being strongly associated with cognitive ability, itself associated with better performance in many types of assessment. But if anything the evidence works the other way. ATIC has an effect over and above cognitive ability, and it seems possible that cognitive ability buffs assessment scores mainly due to its contribution to the ATIC effect.

In a recent study, ATIC, assessment performance, and candidate job performance were examined within a single selection scenario. Remarkably it found that job performance correlated better with ATIC than it did with the assessment scores themselves. In fact, the relationship between assessment scores and job performance became insignificant after controlling for ATIC. This offers the provocative possibility that the main reason assessments are useful is as a window into ATIC, which the authors consider “the cognitive component of social competence in selection situations”. After all, many modern jobs, particularly managerial ones, depend upon figuring out what a social situation demands of you.

So what to make of this, especially if you are an assessment practitioner? We must be realistic about what we are really assessing, which in no small part is 'figuring out the rules of the game'. If you're unhappy about that, there's a simple way to wipe out the ATIC effect: making the assessed dimensions transparent, turning the weak situation into a strong, unambiguous one. Losing the contamination of ATIC leads to more accurate measures of the individual dimensions you decided were important. But overall your prediction of job performance measures will be weaker, because you've lost the ATIC factor which does genuinely seem to matter. And while no-one is suggesting that it is all that matters in the job, it may be the aspect of work that assessments are best positioned to pick up.

Kleinmann, M., Ingold, P., Lievens, F., Jansen, A., Melchers, K., and Konig, C. (2011). A different look at why selection procedures work: The role of candidates' ability to identify criteria. Organizational Psychology Review, 1 (2), 128-146 DOI: 10.1177/2041386610387000
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Animal-sensitive cells discovered in the human brain

A part of the human brain that's involved in emotion gets particularly excited at the sight of animals, a new study has shown. The brain structure in question is the amygdala: that almond-shaped, sub-cortical bundle of nuclei that used to be considered the brain's fear centre, but which is now known to be involved in many aspects of emotional learning.

Florian Mormann and his colleagues didn't use a brain scanner for their main study. Instead they inserted electrodes directly into the brains of 41 patients with epilepsy, who were undergoing neurosurgery as part of their treatment. This allowed the researchers to present the patients with different pictures and to record the resulting activity of nearly 1,500 individual brain cells, located in the amygdala, hippocampus, and entorhinal cortex (all regions are found in the medial temporal lobe; the latter two are involved in memory).

The dramatic result was that cells in the right-sided amygdala, but not the other regions, were far more likely to respond to pictures of animals, and to be aroused more powerfully by them, as compared with pictures of people (mostly celebrities), landmarks and objects (e.g. food and tools). By contrast, hippocampus cells responded similarly to the different picture categories, whilst the entorhinal cortex cells showed a reduced likelihood of response to pictures of people.

Cells in the right-sided amygdala weren't only more likely to respond to the sight of animals than other pictures, and to do so more powerfully, they also did so extra fast, with a mean latency of 324ms. This wasn't true for the other brain regions. Although this suggests the sight of animals is processed with extra efficiency by the amygdala, the latency is not so short as to suggest bypassing of the cortex (the crumpled, outer layer of the brain associated with conscious processing).

Because the amygdala is involved in fear learning, among other functions, it's tempting to interpret these findings alongside fossil evidence showing that early hominids were preyed on by carnivores, and alongside findings relating to "prepared learning" - this is our innate or early predisposition to have our attention grabbed by threats, such as snakes, faced by our ancestors rather than by contemporary threats like guns. Other research shows that animals are more likely to be detected, than vehicles or even buildings, in change blindness tasks, in which an object or animal appears in a scene that remains otherwise unchanged. However, Mormann's team noted that there was no relation between the likelihood or speed of response of amygdala cells and the nature of the animal pictures as either threatening or harmless.

The researchers said the differential response to animals by amygdala cells is "truly categorical" and "argues in favour of a domain-specific mechanism for processing this biologically important class of stimuli.

"A plausible evolutionary explanation," they continued, "is that the phylogenetic importance of animals, which could represent either predators or prey, has resulted in neural adaptations for the dedicated processing of these biologically salient stimuli."

ResearchBlogging.orgF. Mormann, J. Dubois and 10 others (2011). A category-specific response to animals in the right human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience, In Press.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits from the world of psychology:

The problem with twin studies (via @mrianleslie). A tendentious view from Slate magazine. For an alternative view, check out the Digest's own guest post on "Why psychologists study twins".

The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine is out now, is open access, and has a special focus on Milgram's classic obedience studies. There's also a feature on the psychology of better meetings, and much more.

Also, on Milgram - check out this original 1974 Psychology Today interview with Milgram by Carol Tavris.

Free book chapter from The Analysis of Failure: An Investigation of Failed Cases in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Further info.

New Scientist has a special feature on animal senses.

Cognopedia is a free online brain and cognition encyclopedia. Via @mocost

26 days left to watch the latest episode of Horizon on how the first 9 months of our lives (in the womb) have a far reaching influence on our health and personalities.

The excellent series of "Out of Mind" columns for Prospect magazine, by neuropsychologist Paul Broks, are now free to access and come highly recommended. "Alternately whimsical, profound and poetic, [the column] recounted ephemeral scenes from meetings with brain altered individuals and spun them into reflections on the science and philosophy of human nature," says @vaughanbell, also rather poetically.

New book: "Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media" by Davi Thornton.

Confidence intervals made easy. Ben Goldacre makes stats accessible in a column about the media reporting of unemployment stats. Tim Harford replies (and there's a comment from Ben lower down).

Guardian research suggests Twitter used mainly to react to, rather than orchestrate, the recent English riots.

BBC Radio Four's Material World had a segment on time perception (from 11 minutes in, although it felt longer).

Reports and news from the Association for Psychological Science's recent annual convention.

Get your diaries out: 12 September, Charles Fernyhough, novelist and psychologist, is speaking at the School of Life about memory; 17 Nov Catherine Loveday, neuropsychologist, is giving an open lecture at Uni of Westminster on the brain and music.

Our off-spring title The BPS Occupational Digest has an interesting post on how work technology at home can make it more difficult to unplug psychologically from the office.

Important articles from the 100-year archive of the British Journal of Psychology made free to access.

The latest edition of Head to Head on BBC Radio Four revisited a debate between B F Skinner and Donald Mackay on the question of free will and social control. Contemporary psychologists reflect on the classic debate. via @BPSOfficial

5 "Mindshifting talks on happiness" from TED.

That's all folks. If you prefer your psychology news on the fly, follow @researchdigest. For links to eye-catching studies that we didn't have time to Digest for you, go to Extras; for links to the latest journal special issues in psychology, try our aptly named Special Issue Spotter
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Prolific gossipers are disliked and seen as weak

Gossip might be the social glue that binds us, but prolific proponents of tittle-tattle should beware - gossipers are perceived not just as unlikeable but also as lacking social influence.

Sally Farley made her finding after asking 128 participants (mostly female students) to think of someone they knew, who either did or didn't gossip a lot, and to rate that person for likeability and social influence, plus there were 21 other distracter items. To further conceal the true aims of the study, the actual word "gossip" was never used. Instead, participants were told the research was about "informal communication" and the specific instruction was to think of someone who "spent a lot of time (or little time) talking about other people when they were not around". Among those participants asked to imagine a gossiper, a further detail was to imagine someone who either said negative things or positive things about people in their absence.

Prolific gossipers were liked less than non-gossipers, and negative gossipers were liked least of all. On a 13-item liking scale, with each item scored between 1 and 9, the negative gossipers averaged 37 points, the non-gossipers averaged 47. Moreover, prolific gossipers were perceived as less socially powerful than non-gossipers, especially if they were negative gossipers.

These findings actually contradict some prior research showing, for example, that it is girls with more friends who are more likely to gossip. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has even likened gossiping to the mutual grooming performed by non-human primates, with both activities serving to enhance social bonds. "Perhaps high gossipers are individuals who we welcome into our social networks for fear of losing the opportunity to learn information, but we tend to keep them at arms length," Farley said, attempting to reconcile her results with this earlier research. Another possibility is that the relationship between gossiping and social power is curvilinear, with low and high levels harming one's social status, but the act of moderate gossiping attracting more favourable judgements.  Unfortunately, the current study only asked participants to imagine high and low gossipers.

Another related line of research has documented a common-sense effect known as "the transfer of attitudes recursively", which simply put has found that people who say nice things about others in their absence are judged as more likeable, whereas those who slag people off behind their backs are judged more harshly. The current study effectively extends this to show that negative gossipers are not only disliked, but also seen as socially weak.

"Despite the shortcomings of the present study, it represents one of a few empirical investigations into how gossipers are perceived by others," Farley concluded. "Future research should consider other important moderators of gossip such as inclusion in the gossip, topic of the gossip, and motivations for gossip (group-serving versus self-serving)."

ResearchBlogging.orgFarley, S. (2011). Is gossip power? The inverse relationships between gossip, power, and likability. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (5), 574-579 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.821

Previously on the Digest: How our visual system is guided by gossip radar.

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Investigating the personality of companies

When we think about other people, we do so in terms that can be boiled down to five discrete personality dimensions: extraversion, introversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness and agreeableness (known as the Big Five factors). A new study suggests that a similar process is at work in our perception of companies and corporations. Google and Apple have personalities too, it seems.

Philipp Otto, Nick Chater and Henry Stott quizzed thousands of people about their perception of hundreds of companies and they've found that our view of companies is encapsulated by four fundamental dimensions: honesty, prestige, innovation and power. These perceived characteristics correlate with traditional economic measures of company performance, but they offer something more.

"With the introduction of personality factors for companies, a new way of describing companies is provided," the trio said, "which directly reflects the public understanding of companies ... Tracking measures of corporate personality might add important dimensions to economic measures of company performance and could be used both in shaping marketing and brand strategy, and potentially also in evaluating and predicting company success."

Otto's team kicked off its investigation by using George Kelly's Repertory Grid technique. Six participants named nine well-known companies and then, taking three at a time, they identified an adjective on which two companies in that group differed from the third (a process known as "triadic elicitation"). The idea of this approach is to cultivate responses from participants without putting ideas into their heads. Named companies included Tesco, BT and Chanel, and popular themes were quality, price, general appearance and experiences with the companies.

For a second study, the adjectives from the first were combined with adjectives taken from the existing literature on categorising objects, giving a total of 118. Twenty students then rated 20 companies on all these 118 adjectives. Any inconsistency or instability was weeded out. So, adjectives were retained if they distinguished between companies (an adjective is useless if all companies score the same on it), and if different participants tended to give the same company a similar rating on the same measure. This whittling led to a list of 31 adjectives. In turn, these 31 were analysed for clustering so that highly correlated adjectives like "luxurious" and "upper class" were part of the "prestige" dimension.

Next, thousands of participants recruited via the I-points web-service rated sixty-four companies along four of the 31 adjectives, and 10 more social adjectives like "friendly" and "helpful". Again, the superordinate factors of honesty, prestige, innovation and power fitted the results well and were found to correlate with traditional economic factors: for example, prestige correlated with company size and profit; innovation correlated with company growth. The final phase of the study repeated this exercise precisely a year later (in 2006) with many of the same companies, to investigate the stability of the measures. There was a high correlation in the factor scores the companies achieved, although there were also some interesting changes in the relative rankings of the companies on these measures - for example, German car manufacturers showed gains in perceived innovativeness.

"The proposed methodology not only has substantial commercial value in helping companies understand and track their public perception, but scales of this type can potentially guide and manage the decision-making of individuals or groups inside and outside rated organizations, thus influencing their organizational culture," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgOtto, P., Chater, N., and Stott, H. (2011). The psychological representation of corporate ‘personality’. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (4), 605-614 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1729

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The woman misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's, and how we can all be affected by the suggestion that we have psychological problems

Psychologists in the Netherlands have documented the case of a 58-year-old woman who was misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. The would-be patient consulted a neurologist at a stressful time in her life, in the knowledge that her mother had had the illness. A brain scan indicated reduced activity at the front of her brain ("hypofrontality"), and the neurologist also estimated her performance on a test of cognitive impairment as poor (though no formal test was conducted). On this basis he diagnosed Alzheimer's*.

The woman was devastated and thereafter her condition deteriorated significantly, to the point that she was permanently confused and, at one point, suicidal. Some months later, after receiving advice from an Alzheimer's helpline, the woman consulted a different neurologist for a second opinion. She completed comprehensive memory tests and undertook a further brain scan. All results were normal. This neurologist surmised that her earlier hypofrontality was associated with depression. He also went to great lengths to explain the good news about her results and the misinterpretation of her earlier scan, but it proved extremely difficult to assuage her concerns.

Years later, Harald Merckelbach and his team have interviewed the woman and they report that she continues to experience intrusive thoughts about the misdiagnosis and to catastrophise her memory lapses. Merckelbach's group believe the effect of a misdiagnosis has parallels with the implantation of false memories. Just as false memories are difficult to reverse, so too are mistaken diagnoses. "Conferring a diagnostic label is far from a neutral act," they said. "Many diagnostic labels have strong stereotypical connotations and sometimes, these will automatically shape the experiences and behaviour of patients, a phenomenon called 'diagnoses threat'."

To test these ideas further, Merckelbach, with colleagues Marko Jelicic and Maarten Pieters, gave 78 undergrads a psychological symptoms questionnaire to complete. Afterwards the students performed Suduko puzzles as a distraction. Next, the researchers went through some of the students' answers with them. During this review, the researchers inflated two of the answers they'd given to anxiety items. For example, imagine a student had originally indicated that she never had trouble concentrating. The researcher would inflate that answer by two points on the scale, as if she'd said that she sometimes had trouble concentrating, and they then asked the student to explain why she'd given that answer. Remarkably, 63 per cent of the participants failed to notice that their answers had been altered, and they proceeded to describe their experience of the symptoms (readers may notice parallels here with a phenomenon known as "choice blindness", in which people seem to have little insight into a recent choice they made).

Ten minutes later, and again after one week, all the students re-took the psychological symptoms questionnaire. At both time points, students who'd earlier failed to notice that two of their answers had been altered, now gave higher ratings to those two items, as if they considered themselves to have those symptoms. Such an effect was not observed among the minority of students who'd earlier noticed that their answers had been altered. An analysis of all the students' original baseline answers uncovered higher average baseline symptoms among those who would fail to notice the inflation of their answers. "Apparently a non-zero symptom intensity level introduces ambiguity; thereby raising the probability that misinformation is accepted," the researchers said. However, it's not the case that the influenced participants were simply more keen to give answers that the researchers wanted - they scored just the same on a test of social desirability.

The results from this study are consistent with past research showing how misinformation about physical symptoms can shape how people feel: for example, false feedback about asthmatic wheezing can trigger breathlessness in children with asthma.

Harald Merckelbach and his colleagues said their findings had particular significance for the way medical professionals interact with patients with unexplained symptoms, including those labelled with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain. "... Expressing concern about the possibility of an underlying illness and, related to this, excessive investigation and attending patient support groups may all contribute to symptom escalation. What these interventions have in common is that they convey the message to the patient that his or her symptoms might be more intense and severe than he/she thinks they are. Our study suggests that blindness to unintended misinformation about the severity of the symptoms may underlie escalation of symptoms."

The researchers recommend that medics avoid mentioning the whole spectrum of possible symptoms when interviewing patients with medically unexplained symptoms. They also pointed to interesting avenues for future research. For example, notwithstanding the ethical issues involved, could patients benefit from receiving misinformation that lowered their symptom ratings? Also, is the inflated self-reporting of symptoms observed here based purely on exaggerated report, or is it grounded in an altered experience of symptoms?

ResearchBlogging.orgMerckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., and Jonker, C. (2011). Planting a misdiagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in a person's mind. Acta Neuropsychiatrica DOI: 10.1111/j.1601-5215.2011.00586.x

Harald Merckelbach, Marko Jelicic and Maarten Pieters (In Press). Misinformation increases symptom reporting – a test – retest experiment. J R Soc Med Sh Rep.

*Many years later, the neurologist was found guilty of having misdiagnosed several patients with Alzheimer's and 26 malpractice suits were filed against him (the woman featured in this case study was not part of that litigation).

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits in psychology:

"What happened in the basement of the psych building 40 years ago shocked the world. How do the guards, prisoners and researchers in the Stanford Prison Experiment feel about it now?" (Stanford Magazine). And catch Zimbardo, one of the guards, and a prisoner speaking to BBC Radio 4.

Why cities are like brains. Jason Goldman explains on his Thoughtful Animal blog. His post is part of a larger special issue of Scientific American, all about the science of cities, including plenty of psychology.

Get your diary out: more psychology at the One Culture festival of literature and arts at the Royal Society in October.

Also, this month, there's a show at the Edinburgh Fringe inspired by the amnesiac HM, plus a chance to meet neuroscientists who worked with HM, and who sliced up his brain (after he died, in 2008).

The proportion of scientific papers being retracted has increased sharply over recent years. Neuro-writer Jonah Lehrer reflects on why.

Even urban pockets of greenery can have a rejuvenating effect on well-being, says Wray Herbert for the Association for Psychological Science.

Some people are affected for longer than others by positive and negative events - what Alex Fradera for the Occupational Digest blog calls "Emotional Hangovers".

False confessions: "People have a strange and worrying tendency to admit to things they have not, in fact, done" says the Economist.

We've updated our round-up of the psych commentary on the English riots.

A new 2-part series on BBC Radio 4 explores human cultural and genetic evolution and how they interact (features Steve Pinker and others).

The contents of visual working memory can affect our perception of incoming sensory stimuli - says an intriguing post from Mo Costandi at his Neurophilosophy blog.

A hair-thin electronic skin that can monitor brain activity and enable remote computer control, plus lots more. Ed Yong on an exciting technological innovation.

If you prefer your psychology news on the fly, follow @researchdigest. For links to eye-catching studies that we didn't have time to Digest for you, go to Extras; for links to the latest journal special issues in psychology, try our aptly named Special Issue Spotter
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Empathy breeds altruism, unless a person feels they have low status. A brain-scan study with a lesson for riot-hit England

In a defining image of the recent English riots, a man helped an injured youngster to his feet while an accomplice stole from the same victim's bag. This sheer lack of empathy on the part of the perpetrators has shaken observers to their core. How could humans display such a lack of altruism toward their fellow man?

A possible clue comes from a new brain imaging study that has examined links between the neural correlates of empathy, an act of altruism, and participants' subjective sense of their social status. Among people who feel they have low status, the study finds, increased neural markers of empathy are actually related to reduced altruism. The researchers surmised this is because any feelings of empathy are quashed by a grudging sense of low status. This could be a kind of defence mechanism whereby self-interest dominates over empathy for others. A possible lesson is that by reversing people's feelings of low status, through educational opportunities and other interventions, we all gain, by reinstating the usual link between empathy and altruism.

Yina Ma and her team at Peking University scanned the brains of 33 student participants while they watched numerous video clips of people being pricked painfully in the face or hand by a needle, or touched on those same parts by a cotton bud (referred to as a Q-tip in the US). Extra activity in the brain, in response to the needle clips versus cotton bud clips, was taken to be a neural marker for empathy (seeing someone else in pain is known to trigger activity in the pain matrix of one's own brain).

The participants also rated their own empathy levels and their subjective sense of their socio-economic status. They were shown a ladder with ten rungs, with the top rung representing people with the best jobs and education and most money; participants then indicated which rung they saw themselves as occupying. Although the participants were students at the same university they varied in their subjective sense of status. Finally, the participants were left alone in a room with an anonymous donation box, labelled as raising money to help impoverished patients with cataracts.

Among patients who considered themselves privileged in terms of socio-economic status, there was a positive relationship between empathy and altruism. The more neural signs of empathy they displayed in the scanner (based on extra activity in the left somatosensory cortex when viewing needle clips), the more empathy they said they had, and the more money they chose to donate to charity. By contrast, among participants who considered themselves lower in socio-economic status, the opposite pattern was observed. The greater their empathy-related brain activity in the scanner (based on extra right somatosensory cortex and inferior frontal cortex activity in response to needle clips), the less empathy they said they had, and the less money they chose to donate to charity. The researchers said the empathy-related inferior frontal cortex activity observed in these participants could be a sign of inhibitory processes quashing the emotional impact of seeing another person in pain.

Note, there was no absolute difference in the amount of money donated by participants who self-identified as low or high socio-economic status. The finding is more subtle and suggests empathy has a differential effect on our altruistic behaviour depending on how we see our standing in the world.

"Our findings have significant implications to the social domain," the researchers said, "in that, besides improving objective socio-economic status, raising subjective socio-economic status via education may possibly manifold altruistic behaviours in human society."

The findings add to a complex literature that suggests lower socio-economic status is sometimes associated with more empathy and altruism, but sometimes associated with reduced empathy.

ResearchBlogging.orgMa, Y., Wang, C., and Han, S. (2011). Neural responses to perceived pain in others predict real-life monetary donations in different socioeconomic contexts. NeuroImage, 57 (3), 1273-1280 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.003

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:

A longitudinal study of children's text messaging and literacy development.

First ever mapping of women's genitals as represented in the sensory cortex of the female brain. "Vaginal, clitoral, and cervical regions of activation were differentiable, consistent with innervation by different afferent nerves and different behavioral correlates. Activation of the genital sensory cortex by nipple self-stimulation was unexpected, but suggests a neurological basis for women's reports of its erotogenic quality."

Being mistreated in childhood linked with recurring, hard-to-treat depression in adulthood.

Links found between a person's spatial skills and their social acumen.

A meta-analysis of the bystander effect - the dilution of social responsibility when we're in a group. But there are also situations in which helping is increased in groups.

In a random sample of 274 U.S. married individuals, 40% of those married over 10 years reported being “Very intensely in love.”

Human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic.

The influence of regional accents on job interview outcome.

You probably think this paper's about you: Narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation.

Much-needed longitudinal evidence for the contact hypothesis - the idea that intergroup contact reduces prejudice.

How teens with autism spectrum disorder spend their time.

After bad luck, people are more willing to take risks again if they've had a chance to wash their hands.

The dynamic interplay between negative and positive emotions in daily life predicts response to treatment in depression: A momentary assessment study.

Yet another dark side of chivalry: Benevolent sexism undermines and hostile sexism motivates collective action for social change.

"it is suggested that we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play." (pdf)

If you like this Extras post, you might also like our new Feast feature (our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits in psychology news), and the Special Issue Spotter (with links to the latest journal special issues in psychology).

[Compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.]
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Take vitamin pill, eat cake. How supplements can encourage unhealthy behaviour

Have you ever had that feeling, after an energetic gym session, or perhaps a long walk, that you've earned the right to a mountainous slice of cake, or to lounge lazily in front of the telly? Psychologists call these licensing effects and a new study has documented a similar phenomenon following the simple act of taking a vitamin pill. The researchers say the finding could help explain why the explosive rise in the consumption of dietary supplements (approximately half the US population take them, according to recent data) has not led to a commensurate improvement in public health.

Wen-Bin Chiou and his colleagues gave an inert pill to 82 participants recruited via posters in the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. Half the participants were told it was a placebo; the other half were told it was a vitamin pill. They were instructed to suspend their usual intake of supplements, if any, for the duration of the study.

Afterwards, compared with placebo participants, the participants who thought they'd taken a vitamin pill rated indulgent but harmful activities like casual sex and excessive drinking as more desirable; healthy activities like yoga as less desirable; and they were more likely to choose a free coupon for a buffet meal, as opposed to a free coupon for a healthy organic meal (these associations held even after controlling for participants' usual intake of vitamin pills. Participants also said at the end that they hadn't guessed the purpose of the study).

The vitamin-takers also felt more invulnerable than the placebo participants, as revealed by their agreement with statements like "Nothing can harm me". Further analysis suggested that it was these feelings of invulnerability that mediated the association between taking a postulated vitamin pill and the unhealthy attitudes and decisions.

A second study with student recruits was similar to the first, but this time, participants who'd taken what they thought was a vitamin pill opted to walk a shorter distance to return a pedometer to a researcher located elsewhere on campus (even though they'd just been reminded of the health benefits of walking). Again, this association, between the vitamin pill and behaviour, was mediated by feelings of invulnerability.

"People who rely on dietary supplements for health protection may pay a hidden price: the curse of licensed self-indulgence," the researchers said. "Policy interventions that remind individuals to monitor the licensing effect may help translate the increased use of dietary supplements into improved public health."

ResearchBlogging.orgChiou, W., Yang, C., and Wan, C. (2011). Ironic Effects of Dietary Supplementation: Illusory Invulnerability Created by Taking Dietary Supplements Licenses Health-Risk Behaviors. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611416253

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Fantasy-prone children struggle to apply lessons from fantasy stories

Part of being human is the ability to imagine other worlds, to fantasise. It's a vital talent that underlies many others, including planning, lying and problem-solving. But we need to be able to keep fantasy distinct from reality - a lesson I learnt at a young(ish) age when I dived off the sofa head-first, attempting to imitate Superman.

To be fair to my younger self, you'd think the notion of fantasy worlds would be confusing for young children. Yet many studies have shown children are often precocious in this regard. For example, kids as young as four can tell the difference between fantasy characters and real characters, and they realise that pretending something exists doesn't make it real. They even understand that fantasy worlds are separate from each other. One charming study showed how three- to six-year-olds believed Batman could touch Robin, but couldn't touch SpongeBob.

Now Rebekah Richert and Erin Smith have expanded this literature by looking at pre-schoolers' ability to transfer solutions learned from fantasy stories to real-world problems - a pertinent question given that fantasy stories are often used to teach young children. The researchers' somewhat counter-intuitive finding is that the more immersed a child tends to be in fantasy and pretend play (a trait the researchers call "fantasy orientation"), the less likely they are to transfer solutions from fantasy to reality. It's as if these children have built a mental barrier between the two worlds, thus preventing them from transferring lessons from one to the other.

The first study involved 33 children (aged three to five) being read a story by a researcher, one-on-one. Half the children heard a fantasy story involving a boy and astronaut rescuing other astronauts, while avoiding an enemy robot. The other children heard a real-world story involving boys playing hide-and-seek with their baby-sitter, and retrieving a small toy. Crucially, both stories conveyed solutions to the same two basic problems - hiding by locating oneself behind an object, and pulling an object closer by attaching a rope or string to it.

Afterwards, the children were tested on whether they could remember the solutions, and if they couldn't, they were reminded of them. Next, they were presented with two new, real-world dilemmas that could be solved using the solutions conveyed in the earlier stories. The key question was whether the children would transfer the solutions from the stories they'd heard. Children were significantly more likely to transfer one or more of the two solutions successfully if they'd earlier been told a real-world story, as opposed to a fantasy story (1.36 average correct solution transfers vs. 0.64). This was the case even though children in both story groups had earlier displayed the same average memory for the solutions.

A second study with 51 pre-schoolers was similar to the first except that the two story types were told in a class setting - this was to encourage children in the fantasy story condition to believe they were being presented with useful information. Despite this, the results were the same: children who heard a real-world story were again far more likely to transfer the solutions to novel, real-world problems.

This time, among kids who heard the real-world story, being older and having a better memory for the solutions were both associated with more successful solution transfer. By contrast, among kids who heard the fantasy story, these factors didn't matter. Instead, it was those who were typically less engaged in fantasy worlds (e.g. spent less time playing pretend games; didn't have an imaginary friend) who were more likely to transfer the solutions to the real world. An important detail here is that "fantasy orientation" was not correlated with measures like cognitive ability or memory, so it's not the case that the children typically more engaged in fantasy were less bright than the other kids.

"The children with the most experience in fantasy worlds were the least likely to use the fantasy story as a resource for real-world problem solving strategies," the researchers said. "Until children have a firm grasp on what kinds of principles can overlap between real and fantasy worlds and what kinds of principles cannot, it may be beneficial for children to keep fantasy and real worlds separate from each other."

ResearchBlogging.orgRichert, R., and Smith, E. (2011). Preschoolers’ Quarantining of Fantasy Stories. Child Development, 82 (4), 1106-1119 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01603.x

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits from the world of psychology:

The Greenfield saga continues. Recall that Baroness Susan Greenfield recently restated to New Scientist her fears that technology is harming children's brains, and that Professor Dorothy Bishop subsequently wrote an open letter objecting to Greenfield's claims, especially to the suggestion that technological changes are responsible for the rise in autism. [update: Bishop has just published an email exchange she's had with an academic who defends Greenfield and is critical of her (Bishop's) open letter].

Something we missed last week was Martin Robbins' spoof blog post "Facebook will destroy your children's brains".

Susan Greenfield has since clarified her position in an interview with the Guardian: "I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That's all."

This style of argument has now been immortalised as a Greenfieldism, as celebrated by this new website.

Unabashed, Greenfield has defended her techno-warnings this very morning, in a new article for The Independent [update: Neuroskeptic has attempted to engage in the debate that Greenfield has called for].

Thankfully a useful article at the Atlantic Wire highlights some actual research studies showing possible benefits and harms associated with Facebook use (written by Rebecca Greenfield: no relation to Susan we assume).

In other news:

The excellent Neurophilosophy blog by Mo Costandi has arrived at its new home on the Guardian, and kicks off with a post on attentional blindness.

Philip Zimbardo has given a TED talk on why boys are struggling.

A new post on the BPS Occupational Digest reports that the social networks of extraverts are bigger, but no more intimate.

Carol Tavris reflects on the psychology of smiling (in a review of a new book "Lip Service" by Marianne LaFrance).

Get your diaries out. Daniel Kahneman and Steve Pinker are visiting these shores in October/November, including talks at the Royal Institution and LSE.

Our own round-up of psych and social commentary on the English riots. Social psychologist Clifford Stott also appeared on the latest episode of Material World on BBC R4 to discuss the psychology of mobs.

The second episode of Channel 4's excellent series "The secret life of buildings" is available on Channel 4 On Demand, focusing on the design of offices, factories and schools.

The latest episode of Horizon on the BBC focused on the psychology of colour perception (available on iPlayer for one month).

A new book tackles the puzzle of left-handedness.

Five myths about memory and why they matter in court (more excellence from Ed Yong's blog).

"...a flurry of recent dream studies in people with disabilities are challenging our understanding of why we dream" - intriguing feature from New Scientist (requires free registration).

It's 50 years since Milgram's classic research on obedience to authority. Social psychologist Alex Haslam spoke to Material World about the research on BBC Radio Four. Look out for September's issue of The Psychologist magazine, which will be a special issue on Milgram.

Can't wait for each week's issue of Morsels, try following: @ResearchDigest @Psych_Writer @PsychMag and @JonMSutton

Feast is a new experimental weekly feature on the Digest blog - if you find it useful please register your approval via comments (many thanks to readers who did so last week).
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It doesn't always pay to be pretty

The beautiful people have it all, or so we're usually told. According to research, they're seen as friendlier, more intelligent, and they earn more. But a pair of new journal articles tells a different story, outlining some contexts in which being pretty doesn't pay.

Maria Agthe and her team had 400 students appraise one of four job candidates based on his or her CV, with their photo attached. Although the detailed CVs suggested all the candidates were equally qualified for the job, appearances affected the results. Participants judging a candidate of the opposite sex showed the positive bias you'd expect for highly attractive candidates, being more likely to recommend them for the job. By contrast, participants judging a same-sex candidate showed the opposite pattern, exhibiting a negative bias towards same-sex good lookers. This pattern was mediated partially by the desire for social contact with the candidates - that is, participants were more likely to say they wanted to work with and be friends with opposite-sex beauties, but showed the opposite pattern for good-looking, same-sex candidates. Men and women were similarly prone to negative bias against attractive specimens of their own sex (the effect size was -.5 and -.39, respectively).

The investigation continued with another set of participants appraising candidates shown in a video interview, and again there was a negative bias against attractive same-sex candidates. A final study with yet more participants included a measure of their self-esteem. This showed that high self-esteem participants displayed a positive bias not only towards attractive opposite-sex candidates but also towards attractive candidates of their own sex. Agthe and her colleagues said this suggests the usual negative bias against same-sex beautiful people is all to do with the threat they represent, a threat that those with high self-esteem are immune to.

What are the practical implications of all this? Agthe's team said that the practice of including photos with CVs should be discouraged (it's standard practice to include a photo in several countries including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland), and that assessment panels should be comprised of a mix of men and women, to help cancel out any beauty-based biases.

Coincidentally, another new journal paper has looked at the interaction between attractiveness, gender and forgiveness. April Phillips and Cassandra Hranek had dozens of heterosexual college students imagine a hypothetical scenario in which they were let down by a female student with whom they were meant to be giving a joint class presentation. Participants were shown a picture of this "offender" and told that she either had or hadn't apologised. So long as she apologised, male participants were more likely to forgive an attractive female offender than an apologetic unattractive one. But female participants showed the opposite pattern, being more likely to forgive an apologetic unattractive female student. A follow-up study replicated this result and found that women were more forgiving of an unattractive female student because they found her apology more sincere, whilst men thought the same thing about the attractive offender's apology.

"For female offenders, being attractive can be an asset or a hindrance, depending on the gender of the victim," the researchers said. "A male victim, who might want to pursue a relationship with her in the future, can preserve this possibility if he is willing to offer forgiveness in some circumstances, whereas a female victim who perceives the offender to be a potential rival might be less likely to offer forgiveness."

ResearchBlogging.orgAgthe, M., Sporrle, M., and Maner, J. (2011). Does Being Attractive Always Help? Positive and Negative Effects of Attractiveness on Social Decision Making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (8), 1042-1054 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211410355

PHILLIPS, A. and HRANEK, C. (2011). Is beauty a gift or a curse? The influence of an offender's physical attractiveness on forgiveness. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01370.x

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Why you should go for a brisk walk before revising

The exam season may be over, but here's a simple piece of advice for next semester. Go for a brisk walk before studying and your memory of the material is likely to benefit.

Carlos Salas and his colleagues had dozens of students study 30 nouns, each displayed for 6 seconds. Some of the students went for a ten-minute walk before being presented with the words. They were told to adopt "the walking speed one would use when late to an appointment, but without the anxiety caused by such a scenario". Other students spent the same time sitting quietly looking at pictures of natural landscapes. After the study phase, some of the students went for another ten-minute walk before attempting to recall as many of the words as they could; other students sat quietly for ten minutes before their recall attempt. This meant there were four experimental groups (walk-walk, walk-sit, sit-sit, and sit-walk, depending on how the participants behaved before the study and recall phases).

The key finding is that those students who went for a walk before the study period recalled 25 per cent more words correctly compared with students who sat still before the study period. By contrast, walking versus sitting before the attempt at recall made no difference to the students' performance.

Past research has shown context-dependent effects on memory. For example, if you chew gum while learning, your recall performance will benefit if you also chew gum when attempting to retrieve memories. No evidence for this was found in this study in the sense that the students' performance was no better when their pre-recall activity (walk vs. sit) matched their pre-learning activity, perhaps because the recall test followed too soon after the learning phase, so that the effects of the earlier walk or sitting period were still ongoing.

Another detail of this study is that the researchers asked the students to report their levels of arousal and tension after the periods of sitting or walking. Arousal was higher after walking than sitting, but tension was no different. So increased arousal is a possible physiological mechanism underlying the benefits of a pre-study walk (see earlier Digest item: "Memory performance boosted while walking").

Salas and his team also looked at meta-memory: this is people's insight into their own memory processes. During the study phase, after each word appeared, the participants were asked to indicate their likelihood of recalling it correctly. Students who sat for ten minutes before studying tended to significantly overestimate their later performance. By contrast, the walkers were much more accurate. However, there was no absolute difference in the predictions made by the two groups. In other words, it seems the walkers only had superior meta-memory because walking boosted their performance to match their confidence.

"Overall, these results suggest that individuals can gain a memory advantage from a ten-minute walk before studying," the researchers said. "Given [these] positive results ... and [their] potentially important practical applications, we hope that researchers will continue to explore the relationship between walking, memory, and meta-memory."

ResearchBlogging.orgSalas, C., Minakata, K., and Kelemen, W. (2011). Walking before study enhances free recall but not judgement-of-learning magnitude. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 23 (4), 507-513 DOI: 10.1080/20445911.2011.532207

If you liked this post, you might also like our round-up of 9 evidence based study tips.

[This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.]
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Riot round-up

The nation's columnists and behavioural experts are attempting to make sense of the recent anarchy in English cities. Here's a handy round-up of some of the best psychological and sociological comment so far (please do use comments to highlight articles you've come across):

Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks blog explains how the social psychology of crowd control, which has informed policing of protests and sports events, struggles to shed much light on the current violence and looting.

Several psychologists and criminologists are quoted in this BBC featurette "What turns people into looters?"

New Scientist describes the recent events as the UK's "first networked riots".

Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars, explains the riots as a combination of social alienation and technology-assisted mimicry.

Social psychologist Clifford Stott criticises the idea that the acts of violence and rioting are meaningless. [Stott is the psychologist who's work was mentioned in Vaughan's Mind Hacks post].

Zoe Williams for the Guardian offers wide-ranging thoughts and commentary on the whys and wherefores of the riots.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, says large numbers of youths feel disconnected from their local communities.

Michael McCarthy for the Independent blames the riots and immoral behaviour on a loss of a sense of unwritten cultural norms.

UPDATE (16.50 Aug 10)

Grabbed from comments: "These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers" (Social Europe Journal).

The Week has gathered together 5 theories on what caused the riots.

Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide) offers his perspective: "We just don’t know how [mobs] matter, or why a group of hooded young men is capable of such awful deeds"

UPDATE (Aug 18)

"Nobody riots on their own": social psychologists Steve Reicher and Clifford Stott are quoted in Scientific American applying social identity theory to rioting.

Tom Stafford on Mind Hacks discusses some fascinating research in moral psychology as he reflects on the moral outrage shown by some commentators, not just towards the looting, but towards any attempt to explain the looting as anything other than simple criminality.

Clifford Stott (again) and media psychologist Pamela Rutledge talk to the New York Times about England's struggle to understand why the rioting occurred.

This is a special edition of the Digest's new Morsels feature.
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Let me help you with that ... How women suffer from benevolent sexism

What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called "benevolent sexism"* and it finds that they're caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.

Across three studies Julia Becker and her colleagues presented dozens of German students with a vignette (either in prose or as a comic strip) in which a male office worker offers to help a female colleague set up a computer server. As he makes his offer, he says: "Oh, the network server, that's so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you." Some students read a version in which the woman accepts the offer; others read a version in which she rejected it, saying "I can do it. It's not a problem for a woman".

If the woman rejected the offer she was rated as more competent, but less warm (compared to a story version in which her reply wasn't revealed). If she accepted the offer, she was judged as more warm, but less competent. These effects also influenced the participants' decisions over her job suitability. If she rejected the offer of help she was judged less suitable for a care-home job that depends on emotional skills. If she accepted the offer then she was judged less suitable for a managerial position.

By contrast, men aren't caught in the same double-bind. Other participants read a different version of the story in which a woman offered technical help to a man. In this case, participants judged the man as more competent, but no less warm, if he rejected the offer.

An important caveat was identified once the researchers began measuring the participants' endorsement of benevolent sexism, as revealed by their agreement with statements like "Women should be cherished and protected by men". The perception of an independent woman as competent but cold was only formed by those participants who endorsed benevolent sexism.

Another aspect the researchers looked at was perceptions of the help-giver. Here they found that advocates of benevolent sexism perceived a male help-giver as particularly warm and competent when his offer of help was accepted.

"Nowadays, sexist behaviour has become more subtle because of changing social norms, and patronising offers come in subtle guises," the researchers said. "This exacerbates a woman's dilemma about how to respond and increases the likelihood that she will be viewed as 'cold' if she declines paternalistic help."

ResearchBlogging.orgBecker, J., Glick, P., Ilic, M., and Bohner, G. (2011). Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't: Consequences of accepting versus confronting patronizing help for the female target and male actor. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.823

*There's a lot of resistance to the idea of benevolent sexism. Find out what happened when lead author of this research, Julia Becker, appeared on BBC Radio Five (the column originally appeared in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society).

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Introducing a new Digest feature: "Feast", our occasional round-up of links to recent psychology news, gossip, podcasts, blog-posts and radio/tv shows:

BBC 2's Newsnight had a featurette on memory on Wednesday evening (from 30 minutes, 40 seconds onwards), to coincide with the 5th International Conference on Memory at The University of York.

The Developmental Neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop has written an open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield, urging her to stop peddling unfounded claims about the internet and autism.

Deader than dead: people in vegetative states are viewed as deader than corpses, reports Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The Centre Forum think tank calls for a national parenting campaign to teach the population basic parenting skills, reports the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. (PDF of the report Parenting Matters: Early Years and Social Mobility).

The August issue of The Psychologist magazine is out now and includes open-access articles on the psychology of holidays and a brief-history of gory brain-injuries.

Higher education is burning out its employees, says new research covered by Alex Fradera at the BPS Occupational Digest.

Psychology Press has launched a new journal: Religion, Brain and Behavior - the first issue is free to access.

The latest Neuropod podcast has hit the wires, including segments on gut neurons and bird grammar.

Ben "bad science" Goldacre presented a show for BBC Radio 4 on longitudinal research and you can listen to it on iPlayer.

The American Psychologist is due to publish a special issue to mark ten years since 9/11. The Indy and other outlets are reporting that the terror attacks exposed how inappropriate psychological debriefing can exacerbate trauma.

Hear Freud, Jung, Skinner, Milgram and other great thinkers in their own words. New BBC Four series is underway with the first episode available on iPlayer.

The 2011 Royal Institution Xmas Lectures, entitled Meet Your Brain, are to be delivered by psychologist Bruce Hood.

Channel 4 has started a new 3-part series looking at how buildings affect our health and behaviour. The first episode is available via 4oD.

Psychological commentary from NPR radio on the US debt-ceiling negotiations.

Scientific American Mind reviews The Rough Guide to Psychology, by Digest editor Christian Jarrett.

A short from RadioLab features Bob Milne, a ragtime pianist whose brain appears to run on a dual-core processor (listen to find out why!)

PS. Most of these links are taken from the BPS Research Digest Twitter feed: @researchdigest

PPS. This is an experimental format: if you'd like us to continue compiling similar posts on a regular basis, please register your approval via comments. Thanks!
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