"Most people with a mental disorder are happy"

It's easy for us to slip into all-or-nothing mindsets. An example would be: a person has some psychological problems so their life must be miserable. But that's a mistaken assumption. So argue a team of Dutch positive psychologists, who've studied over seven thousand people over a three year period. Yes, those participants with a psychological disorder were less happy than those without, but the majority (68.4 per cent) of the mentally troubled said they "often felt happy" during the preceding four weeks (this compares with 89.1 per cent of those without a psychological problem). "The possibility of coexisting happiness and mental disorders is of clinical relevance," write Ad Bergsma and his team. "A narrow focus on what goes wrong in the lives of the client and forgetting what goes well, may limit therapeutic results."

The researchers recruited their sample, representative of the general population, from across the country. Trained interviewers questioned volunteers in person or over the telephone to establish signs of psychological disorder in the past month, with 16.5 per cent of the sample being judged to have a disorder based on psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Happiness was measured with a single question about frequency of happy moods over the preceding four weeks, on a scale from "never" to "always". Relying on people's reports of their own happiness, using this one question, is an obvious weakness of the study.

Not surprisingly, among those with a psychological problem, happiness was lowest in those with anxiety and depression (although still a significant minority of these people reported frequent happy moods). By contrast, happiness was highest in those with an alcohol abuse disorder, being nearly as frequent as in the healthy participants. There weren't enough cases of eating disorders and psychosis to examine these conditions separately.

By following their sample up over time, the researchers established that more happiness at the study start was associated with better outcomes later on, in terms of recovery from mental disorder. Further analysis suggested this was because higher happiness was a proxy for having fewer mental disorders, being younger, and having better "emotional role functioning" (as indicated by managing to spend time on work and other activities). The fact that happiness was associated with later outcomes provides some support for the validity of the way that happiness was measured.

"Our knowledge of mental disorders is incomplete if we only look at the negative side of the spectrum," the researchers said. "This study aims to broaden the view on positive functioning and human strengths in the context of mental disorders."

ResearchBlogging.orgBergsma, A., Have, M., Veenhoven, R., and Graaf, R. (2011). Most people with mental disorders are happy: A 3-year follow-up in the Dutch general population. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 253-259 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.577086

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Halloween links round-up

Happy Halloween! Here are a few psychology-related Halloween articles we've found on the web. Please use comments to alert us to any others and we'll add them in to the post.

The Lure of Horror, the Digest editor explores horror's appeal and why it takes the form it does.

Vampire Apocalypse: A Biocultural Critique of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Essay by Mathias Clasen - the literary scholar interviewed at length in the previous Lure of Horror article (check out his website for further excellent articles on horror).

Why fear is fun: Halloween special from Psychology Today.

Some people urinate when they're frightened. Other people can't urinate when they're nervous. What's going on?

How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse Using Science (Wired)

Why things go bump in the night: a blog post on sleep paralysis.

Horror Director Eli Roth Explores What Makes Good People Do Evil Things in TV Special

Six reasons we're so fascinated by zombies (Psych files podcast).

The Neurocritic discusses the pathological fear of being buried alive.

True Blood: The real vampire slayers (requires free registration)

Pregnant women control birth to avoid Halloween

What spooks the masters of horror? Top horror movie makers say which films scared them the most.

-Compiled by Christian Jarrett, with help from @jonmsutton
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How listening to an iPod shrinks your sense of personal space

There you stand on the daily commute, so close to the man in front that you can count each strand of his chin stubble. Behind you, the breath of another traveller gently warms your neck. For a species that likes its space, it's amazing how we cope with the claustrophobia of city life.

Anecdotally, one way we manage is by plugging ourselves into an iPod, creating an invisible, audio-fuelled layer of protection. Now Ana Tajadura-Jiménez and her team have tested this idea scientifically. They asked dozens of participants to walk towards an unfamiliar experimenter (a man or woman) until they got so close it felt uncomfortable. In another condition, the experimenter walked towards the participant, and again the participant indicated when it felt too close. Crucially, this procedure was followed in silence, listening to positive music or listening to negative music. The unfamiliar musical clips, composed for an earlier experiment, were in the style of instrumental movie music. Sometimes the music was played over headphones via an iPod, other times it was played over a speaker system in the room. After the experiment, the participants listened to the music clips again and rated how much they affected them emotionally.

Positive music played over headphones (but not speakers) had the effect of shrinking the participants' sense of personal space, so that the approaching experimenter could walk closer to them before they (the participant) felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, negative music played over speakers (but not headphones) expanded the participants' personal space, so they felt uncomfortable when the approaching experimenter was further away. These effects were most pronounced in the participants who afterwards reported that they'd been affected emotionally by the music to a greater degree. Music made no difference to the participants' sense of personal space when they were the ones walking towards the experimenter.

A possible weakness of the study is that the experimenters could hear the music that the participants were listening to, which may have had a subtle influence on their behaviour. The Digest put this to Dr Tajadura-Jiménez. She told us this was unlikely, since the experimenters were careful to maintain the same neutral expression throughout, and another researcher looked on to ensure consistency across conditions.

"Our study might help to understand the benefit that people find in using personal music players in crowded situations, such as when using the public transport in urban settings," the researchers concluded. "In situations in which there are little possibilities for personal mobility and personal space is constantly compromised, a portable device allowing for a change in the perceived space around would be highly desirable."

The findings chime with an earlier qualitative study in which a homeless man described how he used a personal radio to create his own sense of personal space - an "audio cave" - when out on the streets. The idea that music influences sense of personal space via its emotional effects also tallies with a recent study involving a brain-damaged patient. The woman S.M. had suffered damage to both her amygdala - deep brain nuclei involved in emotional processing - and appeared to have lost her sense of personal space as a result.

ResearchBlogging.orgTajadura-Jiménez, A., Pantelidou, G., Rebacz, P., Västfjäll, D., and Tsakiris, M. (2011). I-Space: The Effects of Emotional Valence and Source of Music on Interpersonal Distance. PLoS ONE, 6 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026083

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Four chances to win a free BPS-approved psychology textbook!


We've got two copies of An Introduction to Developmental Psychology (edited by Alan Slater and Gavin Bremner) and two copies of Applied Psychology (edited by Graham Davey) to give away, kindly donated by Wiley-Blackwell.

How to enter
To have a chance to win, please say why you like the BPS Research Digest: either in a Tweet (mention @researchdigest) or by using the comments function beneath this post. Include the initials DP or AP in your comment, so we know which book you'd prefer, should you win. Also, if you use the comments function here, make sure you leave a way for us to contact you. Next Friday 4 Nov, we'll pick four different entries (two people from Twitter and two from here) at random as the winners. Good luck!
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Our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits in the world of psychology:

"All through the night I'll save you from the terror on the screen
I'll make you see
That this is thriller, thriller night" Michael Jackson.

Why do we like scaring ourselves? The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine is online and has a cover feature on the lure of horror (free pdf), by Digest editor Christian Jarrett. Free digital preview of November issue. Full contents.

The Royal Society has made all journal articles in its archive over 70-years-old free-to-access.

Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has a new book out "Thinking fast and slow" (excerpts). Review by Jonah Lehrer.

Video gives advice on getting published in academic journals.

Do you never forget a face? New mass-experiment at London's Science Museum on the notion of super-recognisers.

Teach yourself charisma - new post over at our off-spring title The BPS Occupational Digest.

Can I borrow Mo's keyboard? Guardian blogger and Digest contributor Mo Costandi with a lovely report on new research showing how golfers' performance improves when they think they're using an expert's equipment (their perception of the size of the hole is affected too!).

Book claims Sybil faked her multiple personalities.

Digest friend and contributor Vaughan Bell with a balanced and illuminating review of Steve Pinker's new book on the decline of violence.

There's still time to hear BBC Radio 4 get inside the mind of Steve Pinker on Life Scientific (on iPlayer). Pinker also says how he'd run the world in Prospect magazine. He was also on the Colbert Report (US viewers only).

The Sound of Fear, on BBC iPlayer, explores scary sounds.

Digest friend and contributor Wray Herbert with an intriguing report on new research showing that some decisions are made more effectively by older people relative to younger folk.

Test Your Brain - TV series - continues on National Geographic Channel UK. Check the website for clips.

Brace yourselves for a feast of Mind and Brain programming next month on BBC Radio Four.

Inaugural podcast from the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Nearly forgot to say: The Memory Network has launched. "The Memory Network brings together researchers, authors and artists, and organisations to provoke and fuel original ways of thinking about memory."

Do you ever miss your phone? Maybe you have Misophonia. Sorry, my mistake, it's a condition that has to do with being troubled by subtle sounds.

The latest episode of the ever-popular Psychfiles podcast.

Cartoon animation of fascinating lecture by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on our divided brain.

Last, but not least, there's hope for us all: Scott Barry Kaufman debunks overly simplistic media reports that greatness depends more on working memory skill than practice. In fact, as his analysis shows, high working memory isn't necessary for greatness. "So next time you see a study that says some ability is necessary for some form of greatness," Kaufman says, "remember that this isn’t necessarily the case. You can personally get there, regardless of the group trend. After all, working memory is common, but greatness is rare."

PS. Feast is the new name for our new regular round-up of psychology on the web (previously known as Morsels).

--Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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People don't follow their own directions when walking from A to B

Walk with me while I tell you about a new study into the psychology of finding our way. The research has uncovered at least three mental strategies. When asked to plan ahead and describe the most efficient route between two locations, we apparently visualise connections between highly salient streets, which leads us to formulate a relatively longer route, with fewer turns. This is known as graph-based way-finding. But asked to actually walk between the same two points, we base our route more on direction, make more turns, take smaller streets, and navigate more efficiently, as ongoing feedback from the unfolding scene reminds us of short-cuts. This incremental approach is known as direction-based wayfinding. The third mental strategy is brought to bear when we give directions to a stranger, with reference made to the simplest possible route, with the fewest turns and passing the most salient landmarks.

Christoph Hölscher at the University of Freiburg and his colleagues said this is the first time that anyone has shown "how different planning and navigation conditions lead to different wayfinding strategies". They asked dozens of participants to plan, describe and walk routes through Freiburg. All those involved were highly familiar with the city. Asked to describe the shortest possible route between two city locations, and then asked to walk the shortest possible route between those same two points, not a single participant followed the path they'd actually described.

"It is noteworthy that none of the participants adhered to the route they had described only minutes ago," the researchers said. "They discarded their previously made plan directly after getting perceptual feedback about spatial properties, and showed little sign of trying to pursue an action sequence that they had previously identified as their own best solution."

The new results undermine earlier claims that routes are generally planned entirely in advance. "In addition," the researchers said, "the results highlight the importance of sensory (visual) feedback from the environment for route planning."

ResearchBlogging.orgHölscher, C., Tenbrink, T., and Wiener, J. (2011). Would you follow your own route description? Cognitive strategies in urban route planning. Cognition, 121 (2), 228-247 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.06.005

Further reading:

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Wine tastes like the music you're listening to

We often think of our sensory modalities as like separate channels. In fact, there's a lot of cross-talk and interference between them. Consider how the prick of a needle is more painful if you watch it go in. Under-researched in this respect is the way that sound can affect our taste of food and drink. We know that such interactions occur. For instance, crisps taste fresher when they make a louder crunching noise. In a new study, Adrian North has shown that when people drink wine to the accompaniment of music, they perceive the wine to have taste characteristics that reflect the nature of that concurrent music. If you want your Merlot to taste earthy and full-bodied, try savouring it to the tune of Tom Jones. To add a little zing to your Pinot, perhaps try some Gaga?

North tested out the taste perceptions of 250 university students as they drank either Montes Alpha 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (red wine) or Chardonnay (white wine) - both are Chilean. Crucially, some of the participants sampled their glass to the tune of music previously identified by a separate group of people as powerful and heavy (Carmina Burana by Orff); others drank their wine to music rated earlier as subtle and refined (Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker'); others to the tune of zingy and refreshing music (Just Can't Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague); and lastly, the remaining participants drank their wine with mellow and soft music in the background (Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook). There was also a control group who drank the wine with no music.

After they'd savoured their wine for five minutes, the participants were asked to rate how much they felt the wine was powerful and heavy; subtle and refined; mellow and soft; and zingy and refreshing. The results showed that the music had a consistent effect on the participants' perception of the wine. They tended to think their wine had the qualities of the music they were listening to. So, for example, both the red and white wines were given the highest ratings for being powerful and heavy by those participants who drank them to the tune of Carmina Burana.

It remains for future research to establish whether these effects would hold among participants who had a greater knowledge of wine (a factor not assessed in the current study). Also, it's not clear how much it's the cultural connotations of the music that influences the perception of the wine, or how much it's the physical properties of that music. Finally, it perhaps would have been better if the music had stopped whilst the wines were rated.

This research builds on some earlier, related findings. People buy more French wine when French music is playing (and ditto for German music and wine). Past research has also shown that people eat and drink their way to a higher dinner bill when the restaurant plays classical music as opposed to pop, presumably because of the "upmarket" connotations of the classical accompaniment.

ResearchBlogging.orgNorth, A. (2011). The effect of background music on the taste of wine. British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02072.x

Further reading:
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Psychology at the end of the world

Epic adventures into the world's last wildernesses often prompt poetic reflection about the triumph of the human spirit. Such expeditions also attract the scientific eye of psychologists, who are interested in studying what happens to the human psyche and social relationships under extreme conditions.

A new paper by Gloria Leon and her colleagues has gauged the psychological profile and experiences of two polar explorers - given the pseudonyms Bill (age 32) and Andrew (age 35) - who in 2009 became the first team from the USA to reach the North Pole without outside support. Starting out from Ward Hut Island in Canada, they reached their target in 55 days.

Personality profiles of the men prior to the challenge were largely as you might expect - they were both high-scorers in leadership and extraversion and low scorers on harm-avoidance. Andrew also scored low in conscientiousness, which may be unexpected given the preparation required for an expedition, and had a tendency to become highly engrossed in his own thoughts and surroundings.

The challenge itself was gruelling, with each man hauling a 300 pound sled. Temperatures ranged from minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the start to zero degrees Fahrenheit at the end. Both men lost significant amounts of weight. At one point, Bill fell through ice and was submerged up to his neck, only narrowly escaping hypothermia. The final leg of the trip was the most arduous as the duo fought to reach their destination before their helicopter arrived on Day 56 (it was to pick them up whether they'd reached their target or not). For the last 66 hours, the pair had just one hour of sleep for every 16 hours on the move. Throughout, the men filled out weekly questionnaires about their coping methods, their relationship, and mood. They were also interviewed a few weeks after their return and again six months later.

For the duration of the expedition both men scored high on positive mood and low on negative mood. They survived and succeeded by supporting each other and communicating effectively, and by adopting flexible coping strategies, including positive re-interpretation of challenges and use of relaxation and meditation. Their relationship hit a low point around day 40 when Andrew aired his grievances about planning for the trip, but they worked through this constructively. These observations contradict some earlier research suggesting that all-male groups suffer from excess competitiveness.

"We were basically one persona when it came to goal orientation," Bill said. "We had a high degree of self-care for each other and ourselves," he explained. Andrew said: "Anytime we expressed ourselves it brought us closer ... We talked more about recognising differences and embracing our similarities and we celebrated that it was really fun." Based on this, the researchers said it was important not to overgeneralise the effects of gender on group processes. "By focusing their interactions on supporting each other, competition between them was minimised or essentially eliminated," they said.

The men were affected somewhat differently by their adventure. Bill's changes were entirely positive: he felt more at peace spiritually and in his relations to other people. Andrew actually saw negative changes in his outlook, due largely to his personal circumstances on return, in terms of his work and relationships. "Seeing the same patterns emerge of the past which I did not want there anymore," was how he put it. However, both men experienced a greater sense of unity with nature and a reduction in their need for conventional achievement, in terms of social status and prestige.

Research of this kind is used to inform the training, selection and support of teams for challenging environments, including space exploration. To find out more, check out the features Psychology at the End of the World, about mind and behaviour in the Antarctic, and New Horizons, about the psychology of space travel, published in The Psychologist magazine in 2011 and 2008, respectively.

ResearchBlogging.orgLeon, G., Sandal, G., Fink, B., and Ciofani, P. (2011). Positive Experiences and Personal Growth in a Two-Man North Pole Expedition Team. Environment and Behavior, 43 (5), 710-731 DOI: 10.1177/0013916510375039

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

SenseCam: The Future of Everyday Memory Research? (Memory).

Violent and Antisocial Behavior in Women (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Synaesthesia (Journal of Neuropsychology).

Basic Emotion Theory (special section in Emotion Review).

Person Perception 25 years after Bruce and Young (1986) (British Journal of Psychology).

Current Issues in Training in School Psychology (Psychology in the Schools).

Understanding Non-Tenure Track Faculty: New Assumptions and Theories for Conceptualizing Behavior (American Behavioural Scientist).

Failure in psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

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Would you look where Berlusconi is looking?

"You should see what I'm looking at!"
Our attention is pulled in the direction of where we see other people looking. It happens so automatically that experts have assumed it's a reflex response, impervious to conscious factors, such as the particular identity of the gazer whose line of sight we're following. But a recent monkey study challenged this interpretation: high-status macaques were observed following the gaze of other high-status, but not low-status, monkeys. Inspired by this result, a team of Italian psychologists have examined whether our attention is influenced more by the gaze of politicians whose political persuasion matches our own.

Marco Tullio Liuzza and his colleagues recorded the eye movements of 28 participants sat at a computer screen. Approximately half were right-wing and half were left-wing. The task was to make a fast leftward saccade if a central square turned blue, or a fast rightward saccade if it turned orange. The interesting twist was that this central square was located in the middle of the eyes of a politician, who was shown staring straight ahead. Just before the central square changed colour, the politician's eyes shifted direction either in the same direction indicated by the square (potentially facilitating the participants' own eye movement) or in the opposite direction. The faces that were used belonged to Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing Italian Prime Minister; Bruno Vespa (right-wing commentator); Antonio Di Pietro (current left-wing leader); and Romano Prodi (former left-wing Prime Minister).

The gaze shift by the political faces made no difference to the speed of the participants' own eye movements, but did affect their accuracy. For right-wing participants, their accuracy was influenced far more by the gaze shifts of Berlusconi and Vespa (the right-wingers) than by Pietro or Prodi. The influence of Berlusconi's and Vespa's eyes was similar in magnitude. By contrast, the left-wing participants were not influenced by the gaze direction of the political faces, left-wing or right-wing. Another detail was that Berlusconi's gaze direction had a stronger influence on those participants who considered their own personality to be similar to his.

A potential confound is that Berlusconi wasn't just a right-wing character, he was also Prime Minister at the time of the study, and his party was the leading party. His influence (and perhaps Vespa's, by association) on right-wing participants might therefore have been related to his position of authority, not just his political leanings. Certainly past research has shown that conservatives are more sensitive to authority than liberals.

Specifically on the reason why left-wingers weren't influenced by Berlusconi's gaze - Liuzza and his team said this was consistent with "studies showing that Italian left-wing voters detest the right-wing leader."

The researchers concluded that their study shows how: "... a sophisticated blend of situational and dispositional factors underlies the capture of reflexive gaze-following exerted on voters by the gaze of politicians. Future studies on the plasticity of this effect may provide new insights in the fundamental aspect of the human tendency to coalesce in large groups and complex societies."

ResearchBlogging.orgLiuzza, M., Cazzato, V., Vecchione, M., Crostella, F., Caprara, G., and Aglioti, S. (2011). Follow My Eyes: The Gaze of Politicians Reflexively Captures the Gaze of Ingroup Voters. PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025117

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

Psychodynamic psychotherapy for children and adolescents: a critical review of the evidence base. [open access]

Why men and women dehumanize sexually objectified women.

"According to our findings, creative people and people suffering from mental disorders appear to share some common personality and cognitive traits"

Which is the more cooperative sex? A meta-analytic review uncovers some interesting findings, including: "Male–male interactions are more cooperative than female–female interactions (d = 0.16), yet women cooperate more than men in mixed-sex interactions (d = −0.22)."

Would you take a pill to ease your traumatic memories? Attitudes about memory dampening drugs depend on context and country.

More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state.

Chicks Like Consonant Music.

Beautiful babies are no more likely than average to grown into attractive adults.

Hungry like the wolf: A word-pattern analysis of the language of psychopaths.

"... men at risk of exhibiting sexually aggressive behaviour showed worse memory for women's sexual interest."

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Are we really blind to Internet banners?

Is this ad a waste of time?
It's a line of research that Google doesn't want you to know about. Many studies suggest people have a habit of simply ignoring web banners on Internet sites - a phenomenon known as banner blindness. The evidence for this ad avoidance is based largely on tests of people's explicit memory of ads after they've browsed a site. Of course that doesn't mean that the participants hadn't looked at the ads, nor does it mean that the ads hadn't lodged their message subconsciously.

Now Guillaume Hervet and his team have attempted to address these points in an eye-tracking study. Thirty-two participants read eight web-pages about choosing a digital camera. On the third, fourth, seventh and eighth pages, a Google-style rectangular text ad (180 x 150 pixels) was embedded in the right-hand side of the editorial content. The second ad was different from the first, and then the same two ads appeared on the seventh and eighth pages, respectively. Also, half the participants were exposed to ads that were congruent with the camera topic of the web-pages; the other half to incongruent ads. All advertised brands were fictitious.

The results may be of some consolation to Google and their advertisers. Eighty-two per cent of the participants did actually look at one or more of the ads. Or put another way: of the 128 ad exposures, 37 per cent were looked at once or more. Had the ad content made a lasting impression? To test this, after the browsing phase, the participants attempted to read the same ads presented in varying degrees of blurry degradation. Their performance was compared to a new group of control participants who hadn't done the earlier web browsing. If performance was superior among the participants who'd earlier been exposed to the ads, this would suggest they had a lasting memory of the ad content. In fact, performance was only superior for web-browsing participants who'd earlier been exposed to ads in a congruent context.

Another aspect to the results is how the participants' behaviour changed over the course of the web browsing. The first and third ads were looked at for longer than the second and fourth ads. This is probably because the second and fourth ads appeared on pages that had been preceded by a page with an ad on it in the same location - the participants seemed to have learned to ignore that area of the page. On the other hand, it seems a couple of pages without ads was enough to restore ad-looking behaviour.

The lessons for web advertisers are clear: don't advertise on every page, vary ad location, and make sure the ad topic is congruent with the web-site content.

ResearchBlogging.orgHervet, G., Guérard, K., Tremblay, S., & Chtourou, M. (2011). Is banner blindness genuine? Eye tracking internet text advertising. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (5), 708-716 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1742

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When humans play dead

When a rabbit or other animal is trapped by a predator, it will freeze and assess the situation. It might then flee or attack, what we usually call the "fight or flight response". If that fails, a last-ditch defence mechanism is to go completely immobile, to play dead.

Researchers in Brazil now say that in times of grave danger, this same automatic last resort is also exhibited by humans and is experienced as a terrifying feeling of being "locked-in". The team led by Eliane Volchan performed what they describe as the first lab-study of "tonic immobility" in humans, and they argue that greater awareness of the response could help our understanding of people's reactions in real-life situations. For example, rape victims often experience shame after not resisting physically, and in some jurisdictions their passive response is interpreted as a sign of consent. Similarly, police officers and related professionals may be condemned for not reacting proactively in danger situations.

Volchan and her colleagues recruited 33 trauma survivors (15 women), including 18 with a dignosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They were asked to describe their ordeals in minute detail and these accounts were transformed into a 60-second audio narrative presented by a male voice in the second-person, present tense (e.g. "You are walking home and a man appears ..."). Each participant's account was played back to them over head-phones while they stood on a platform that records body sway. Their heart rate was also monitored and afterwards they were asked questions about how they felt as they listened to the recording.

The results provided physiological evidence of "tonic immobility" in humans. Participants who reported a strong sense of being paralysed, frozen, unable to move or scream, tended to show less body sway, higher heart rate and less heart rate variability. This was true across both PTSD and non-PTSD patients, but it was the PTSD patients who were more likely to report feelings of paralysis whilst listening to the recording of their ordeal.

"We succeeded in experimentally inducing tonic immobility in humans and recording its biological correlates, indicating that tonic immobility is preserved in humans as an involuntary defensive strategy to life-threatening events," the researchers said.

"Tonic immobility still remains largely unrecognized in humans," they added. "Thus, essential steps to alleviate entrapment symptoms, guilt and prejudice in the aftermath of tonic immobility are the recognition of tonic immobility and dissemination of this knowledge to the public."

ResearchBlogging.orgVolchan, E., Souza, G., Franklin, C., Norte, C., Rocha-Rego, V., Oliveira, J., David, I., Mendlowicz, M., Coutinho, E., Fiszman, A., Berger, W., Marques-Portella, C., and Figueira, I. (2011). Is there tonic immobility in humans? Biological evidence from victims of traumatic stress. Biological Psychology, 88 (1), 13-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.06.002

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Our round-up of the latest juicy tit-bits in the world of psychology:

In the New York Times, The Gopnik siblings Alison (a psychologist) and Adam (a writer) discuss a new book on siblings - "The Sibling Effect" by Jeffrey Kluger. It's a wonderful discussion that ends up weighing the value of psychological research versus literature in the search for self-understanding.

Meet the Brain Donors ... a new Welcome Trust exhibition that examines the lives of brain donors and reveals what happens in brain banks.

BBC magazine article on the use of mental health labels as jokey insults.

The LSE has had some great public lectures recently, which you can listen to online, including: Katalin Farkas on how technology is extending our minds; Ben Rogers and Roger Scruton on whether architecture can promote well-being; and Robert Trivers on self-deception.

Two new TED talks worth watching: Alison Gopnik on babies, and Richard Seymour on beauty.

Psychologist and stats whiz Andy Field with an irreverent look at the top-five stats mistakes made by scientists.

It's time to rethink the way we educate people about alcohol, says anthropologist Kate Fox, because at the moment we're just reinforcing the false belief that being drunk necessarily leads to violence and aggression. "The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol," she says.

Brace yourselves for a feast of mind and brain radio shows on BBC Radio 4 next month.

New digital version of the American Psychological Association's Monitor mag.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Steve Jobs' gift to cognitive science

The ubiquity of iPhones, iPads and other miniature computers promises to revolutionise research in cognitive science, helping to overcome the discipline's over-dependence on testing Western, educated participants in lab settings.

That's according to an international team of psychologists who say the devices allow for experimentation on an unprecedented scale. "The use of smartphones allows us to dramatically increase the amount of data collected without sacrificing precision," say Stephane Dufau and his colleagues, "and thus has the potential to uncover laws of mind that have previously been hidden in the noise of small-scale experiments." In contrast, they argue that conducting cognitive psychology experiments over the internet has not been a great success because of problems obtaining the necessary precision of timing.

To illustrate their point, the researchers developed an iPhone/iPad App that replicates the classic "lexical decision task" used by psychologists to study the sub-second mental processes involved in reading. Participants are presented with a series of letter strings and simply have to indicate as quickly as possible whether each one is a real word or not. The App was launched as a seven-language international effort in December 2010 and after just four months data had been collected from over four thousand participants. By way of comparison, it took more than three years to collect a similar amount of data via conventional means. It will be easy to add further languages to the App, including non-Romanic alphabet languages like Chinese.

The free Science XL App presents the task to users as a test of word power and offers a choice of task lengths from two to six minutes. Once enrolled, participants use Yes/No buttons on the touch-screen display to indicate whether the letter strings that appear are real words or not. Each participant's performance stats are presented at the end and they are given the option of forwarding their results to the researchers via email. Extreme negative outliers were excluded from further analysis. There is the obvious issue of participants choosing to only send in favourable performance data. However, this doesn't spoil the ability to examine the effect of different factors on performance. For example, the data collected via the App matched many known features of lexical decision time data: reaction times were quicker for more common words and mean reaction times correlated with data collected in psychology labs.

Using smartphones "has wide multidisciplinary applications in areas as diverse as economics, social and affective neuroscience, linguistics, and experimental philosophy," say Dufau and his collaborators. "Finally it becomes possible to reliably collect culturally diverse data on a vast scale, permitting direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories."

This isn't the first time that psychology researchers have aired their excitement about the potential of mobile technologies to revolutionise their methods. A 2009 study used mobile phones to monitor participants' social movements and phone calls.

ResearchBlogging.orgDufau, S., Duñabeitia, J., Moret-Tatay, C., McGonigal, A., Peeters, D., Alario, F., Balota, D., Brysbaert, M., Carreiras, M., Ferrand, L., Ktori, M., Perea, M., Rastle, K., Sasburg, O., Yap, M., Ziegler, J., and Grainger, J. (2011). Smart Phone, Smart Science: How the Use of Smartphones Can Revolutionize Research in Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024974

-Thanks to Marc Brysbaert for the tip-off.

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Sweet-toothed and sweet natured - how people who like sweet things are sweet

"Honey", "Sweetheart", "Sugar": how come so many terms of endearment pertain to sweetness? Might the metaphor be grounded in a real link between sweet taste and pleasing personality traits and behaviour?

Brian Meier and his team had dozens of students rate the agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism of 100 people, based on pictures of their faces and a strap-line identifying each person's preference for a particular food, such as "I like grapefruit". People who said they liked a sweet food were judged by the students as more agreeable, suggesting that we implicitly recognise that a taste for sweet things is grounded in a sweet personality.

Are people right to make this implicit assumption? Further studies suggested so. Students who rated their own personality as more agreeable also tended to have a stronger preference (than their less agreeable peers) for sweet foods and drinks. Among a different set of students, a stronger preference for sweet foods correlated positively with their willingness to volunteer their time, unpaid, for a separate unrelated study - considered by the researchers as a sign of prosocial behaviour.

So, we assume that people who like sweet foods are nice people, and it turns out they are. Can this link be exploited? What if you give someone a sweet food to eat - will they feel more agreeable? Will they actually become more helpful? In two further studies, students given chocolate to eat (either a Hershey's Kiss or a piece of Dove Silky Smooth chocolate), rated themselves as more agreeable and actually volunteered more of their time to help an unknown researcher, as compared with students given a sour sweet or a water cracker.

"We are unaware of any studies showing that taste metaphors are consequential in predicting social functioning, and thus the findings are unique," the researchers said. Why is there this link between sweet taste and personality and behaviour? Meier and his team think one possible root cause may lie in breast-feeding. "... [H]uman breast milk is decidedly sweet in taste and chemical composition and feeding episodes are marked by a close bond of mother and child," they observed. "Thus, one of the earliest bases for later emotional attachments is also marked by a sweet-tasting ingested food."

The psychologists added that future research is needed to explore other potential links between tastes and personality. Might lovers of spicy foods have spicy personalities, for instance? Also, we need to find out if the same links pertain in languages other than English. "The general point is that taste-related metaphors may be useful in understanding other personality processes than those examined," they said.

Meanwhile, if wind of these results gets out, romantic liaisons could become a little more complicated. Has your partner given you that box of chocolates to make you "sweet", literally because they're after something and want you to be more amenable? On the other hand: maybe it's a test. If you turn your nose up at a chocolate, what will that tell them about your personality?

ResearchBlogging.orgMeier, B., Moeller, S., Riemer-Peltz, M., and Robinson, M. (2011). Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0025253

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Our round-up of the latest juicy titbits in the world of psychology:

All week long BBC Radio 3 has been running a series of programmes "The Darkest Hour" on insomnia.

The latest issue of the American Psychological Association's monthly mag, Monitor, is free online and includes a cover feature on "How the web is changing us".

"You love your iPhone, literally," claimed a risible neuro-nonsense op-ed column in the New York Times. Leading psychologists and neuroscientists aired their irritation in a joint letter to the paper. Neurocritic dissects the column's claims.

The mighty Steve Pinker has a new book out "“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". Scientific American Mind interviewed him about the book. Positive review from Slate magazine. Negative review in Prospect magazine.

The latest issue of our own Psychologist magazine is out now, and includes an open-access comment special on the recent English riots.

Science writing whiz, Ed Yong, has an excellent feature on neuroaesthetics in this month's Times Eureka science magazine (via free PDF or Times website).

Nature has a news feature on the increase in retractions of science papers.

NPR has an article and podcast about the way psychology helped locate the ship HMS Syndney, lost off Australia during World War II. [Read our own report on this research].

The latest episode of BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind is available on iPlayer and includes a chat with the researcher behind the "how to break a habit" research that we covered recently.

The latest Neuropod podcast is online and includes a feature on how the brain is adapted for reading.

Psychologist Aric Sigman wrote a tendentious article about the health risks of daycare for babies and young children. Developmental psych expert Prof Dorothy Bishop took him to task for scare-mongering and misrepresenting the literature. So too did the Guardian's Ben Goldacre. Read Sigman's response and the response from the editors of The Biologist, where the much-criticised article was published.

This year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 80-year-old Tomas Transtroemer, is a psychologist. Congratulations Tomas!

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Psychosis isn't always pathological

Unusual, psychotic-like symptoms, such as hearing voices, are not as rare among the general population as you might think. For example, it's estimated that ten per cent of us hear voices that aren't there, with only a small minority of hearers likely to ever receive a clinical diagnosis. According to a new study, this means that the factors that cause psychotic-like symptoms are likely different from those that lead to a diagnosis of pathological psychosis. Charles Heriot-Maitland and his colleagues argue that this distinction has been missed by the majority of past studies that hunted the causes of psychosis by focusing only on patients, neglecting those who live happily with their psychotic-like experiences.

To make a start rectifying this situation, Heriot-Maitland's team interviewed six patients with psychosis (recruited via psychosis teams in SE England) and six "healthy" non-patients, who reported similar unusual experiences (recruited via UK networks involved with spiritual or psychic phenomena). Across both groups, these experiences included: receiving visions from God, hearing voices, and feeling that their body had been taken over. Based on their symptoms alone, you couldn't tell which group a participant belonged to - clinical or non-clinical. The researchers asked all the participants open-ended questions about the circumstances that led to the onset of their unusual experiences, how they felt about them, and how their friends, relatives and other people had responded.

Using a qualitative method called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, the researchers looked for emerging themes in the participants' answers. Both similarities and differences emerged. In both groups, their unusual psychotic experiences had started after a period of negative emotion, most often accompanied by feelings of isolation and deep contemplation about the meaning of life. However, the groups differed in how they responded to and perceived their odd experiences. Members of the non-clinical group had been more aware of non-medical interpretations of their symptoms; they viewed them as transient and desirable; and people close to them shared this non-pathologising perspective. By contrast, the patients encountered invalidating, medical interpretations of their experiences and were themselves less able to accept their experiences and to incorporate them into their personal and social worlds.

From a theoretical point of view, Heriot-Maitland and his colleagues said there was a need for a more precise approach to the study of psychosis, which distinguishes risk factors for psychotic experiences from risk factors for actual clinical vulnerability. "It would seem that the more out-of-the-ordinary experiences are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences."

The researchers added that this has important clinical implications: "psychotic experiences should be normalised," they said, "and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their out-of-the-ordinary experiences with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them." They also acknowledged that more studies, including quantitative investigations, are needed to build on this initial work.

ResearchBlogging.orgHeriot-Maitland, C., Knight, M., and Peters, E. (2011). A qualitative comparison of psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.2011.02011.x

Further reading: The British Psychological Society's response to the planned changes to the DSM - psychiatry's diagnostic code. In its response the BPS airs its concerns about the over-medicalisation of people's experiences.

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Can friendship triumph over prejudice?

"I'm not a racist, many of my best friends are [insert ethnic minority identifier]" ... so goes the contemporary refrain. But how much does friendship really smooth inter-group interactions?

A wealth of research has shown that people typically feel more uncomfortable when dealing with someone from a different social group rather than someone from their own group. This can be for a range of reasons, including negative stereotypes, uncertainty about how they'll be evaluated or even fear that they'll be perceived as prejudiced. But little researched until now is the palliating effect of friendship on these kind of interactions. Now a US study led by Jonathan Cook has found that friendship removes the discomfort associated with interacting with someone of a different ethnicity, but fails to ameliorate all the anxieties associated with interacting with someone who has a different sexual orientation.

Sixty-four university and community participants used a handheld computer to record their social interactions for a week, including answering questions about how they felt, who they had met with and whether or not they were friends.

For White gay and lesbian participants and Black participants of all sexual persuasions, interacting with a person of a different ethnicity was less comfortable and provoked more negative feeling than interacting with someone of the same ethnicity. Unless, that is, the other person was a friend, in which case the discomfort and anxiety evaporated.

White, heterosexual participants actually felt no discomfort interacting with people of other ethnicities (perhaps because, in this study, they were mainly liberal students and always in the majority social group). If the other ethnically different person was a friend, the straight White person actually felt more comfortable than if interacting with a White friend! Perhaps, the researchers surmised, this was because "demonstrating that one is not prejudiced to a historically marginalised out-group ... [is] self-affirming and evidence of one's positive inter-ethnic attitudes."

It wasn't such good news for interactions between straight and gay people. Men (but not women) of either sexual orientation, still felt inhibited interacting with another person of the opposite sexual orientation, even if they were friends. This is consistent with past research showing that heterosexual women are more accepting of homosexuality than heterosexual men. "Heterosexual men who interact with gay men or lesbians may also fear they will be misclassified as gay," the researchers said. "For gay men, awareness that attitudes towards them are negative and that homosexuality is often seen as a violation of gender norms is the most likely explanation for continuing behavioural inhibition, even with friendship controlled," they added.

A more encouraging result in this regard, is that more prior contact with people of the opposite sexual orientation (another of the recorded measures) was associated with less negative feelings during new interactions of that kind.

"Our results offer several hopeful findings about the potential for comfortable social interactions with out-group members," Cook and his colleagues concluded. "When people make friends with others who have a different ethnic identity, friendship appears to largely convey the same interpersonal comfort experienced among in-group friends. Sexual orientation may entail more enduring barriers to comfortable inter-group interactions, particularly for males, but here too we found grounds for optimism."

ResearchBlogging.orgCook, J., Calcagno, J., Arrow, H., and Malle, B. (2011). Friendship trumps ethnicity (but not sexual orientation): Comfort and discomfort in inter-group interactions. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02051.x

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Are women's career choices influenced by hormones in the womb?

The paucity of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professions continues to cause concern and controversy. There are no doubt social reasons for the situation: in many cultures, girls are brought up with the expectation that they will eventually enter stereotypically "female" professions. A pertinent 2009 study by Brian Nosek and colleagues found that girls tend to perform worse on science tests in those countries where gender stereotypes are more strongly endorsed.

But that's not to say that biological factors don't also play a role. In a new study, Adriene Beltz and her team have studied males and females with congenital adrenal hyperplesia (CAH): a genetic condition, which for women involves exposure to higher-than-usual levels of testosterone and other androgens in the womb. The researchers say their results show that biological factors related to sex have a real influence on occupational interest, and that by acknowledging this, we'll be more successful in encouraging more women into science and maths careers.

Forty-six females with CAH; 21 of their unaffected sisters; 27 males with CAH; and 31 of their unaffected brothers (aged 9 to 26 years) all rated their interest in 61 jobs from astronomer to social worker.

Females with CAH are raised as girls and identify as girls, even though their genitalia may, to varying degrees, resemble that of a man. For psychologists interested in gender and career choice, the condition allows the usual sex and socialisation confound to be disentangled. Females with CAH, though treated by society largely like other girls, have been exposed to biological factors associated with the male sex.

The listed jobs were analysed according to how much they pertained to "things" or to "people". The unaffected male and female participants showed the divergence in interests that you'd expect, with the males on average showing more of a bias than females towards "things" jobs like mechanic or biologist than "people" jobs such as high school teacher or dancer. The key finding is that female participants with CAH also differed from unaffected female participants, rating jobs that pertain to "things" more favourably (whilst rating "people" jobs just the same as unaffected females). Moreover, the more androgen they were exposed to in the womb, based on their type of CAH and their genital development, the stronger their interest in thing-related jobs. Male participants with CAH did not answer differently from unaffected male participants.

"Our findings indicate that career choices are influenced by prenatal androgens through a psychological orientation to objects versus people that manifests in gender-typed occupational interests," the researchers said. They also acknowledged the large amount of within-sex variation in interests, and the role played by socio-cultural factors. "Our results are relevant to efforts to increase participation of girls and women in STEM careers. It is important to recognise that career choices have roots in early-developing and biologically-influenced interests. Girls and women might be encouraged to pursue STEM careers by focusing on the ways in which an orientation to people is compatible with those careers."

These conclusions chime with a 2006 study that tested the effects of a programme designed to teach girls about the altruistic value of science. The programme actually failed in this objective, but girls who believed in the altruistic value of science were found to be more interested in it, thus reinforcing the idea science could be made more appealing to women by highlighting its human importance.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeltz, A., Swanson, J., and Berenbaum, S. (2011). Gendered occupational interests: Prenatal androgen effects on psychological orientation to Things versus People. Hormones and Behavior, 60 (4), 313-317 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.06.002

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