Do Northerners really feel the cold less?

In Britain, we all know the stereotype of hardy Northerners: out on the town on a Winter's night, arms and legs bare, seemingly oblivious to the cold. But do people up North really feel the cold less? According to a report in yesterday's Times newspaper by Paul Simons, an ongoing survey is aiming to find out. Initial results from this research by the Met Office and Open Air Laboratories suggests that people feel the cold just as much regardless of which region they live in. Moreover, contrary to the myth, there's some evidence that Northerners are more likely to change their clothing than Southerners, be that for warmth or to be cooler. Another emerging finding is a rural/urban divide, with rural folk being more likely to don coats in colder weather. "Whether this is due to an urban climate is difficult to say," Simons writes, "but towns and cities can generate their own microclimates which affect temperature."

Link to the research on people's response to the cold (there's still time to take part)
Link to Times article "Weather Eye: northerners vs southerners" (subscription required)
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The top-5 most popular posts on the Digest this year

I've reported on well over a hundred psychology studies this year, as well as publishing a variety of other posts and guest features. Can you guess which were the most popular, in terms of web-clicks?

Here are the Digest top 5 posts for 2011:

How walking through a doorway increases forgetting? (over 39,000 page views so far!) This study, by Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame and his colleagues, showed how walking through a doorway creates an episode boundary in our memories.

Toddlers won't bother learning from you if you're daft (over 11,000 page views so far) Diane Poulin-Dubois and her team at Concordia University demonstrated that children as young as 14 months are discerning in who they learn from. Many infant participants didn't bother copying the behaviour of an adult who had previously acted surprised for no reason.

The books and journal articles all psychologists should read (over 10,000 page views to date) The one-on-one series of interviews with leading psychologists in The Psychologist magazine includes a challenge to name one book or journal article that all psychologists should read. This post gathers all the answers together in one place.

Psychology to the rescue (over 9,000 page views to date) This post is the "menu" for our anniversary feature in which psychologists shared their experiences of using psychology in real life. A selection also appear in this month's (Jan 2012) issue of The Psychologist.

Is it time to rethink the way university lectures are delivered? (over 8,000 page views so far) Physics students enrolled on a week-long course of unconventional lectures, including group discussions, quizzes, mutual critiquing, instructor feedback and clicker questions, showed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance, and far greater engagement, as compared to a control group of their peers who sat and listened passively to a highly skilled lecturer.

Are you surprised that these were the most popular Digest posts? Which were your favourites this year? If you like, you can use the archive menu at the top of the right-hand column to browse through the year's posts. Merry Christmas!

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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How our collective memory of 1066 could be souring Anglo-French relations

Anglo-Saxon troops confront the invaders
No doubt you've noticed that the Entente Cordiale has been looking a little strained lately. That's mostly due to contemporary European politics and economics. Isn't it? We can't blame 1066. Can we?

In fact, British attitudes towards the French today probably aren't helped by memories and myths surrounding the Norman Conquest. This may seem like an odd claim, but a timely and intriguing new study focuses on the Norman Conquest of Britain as an example of a "distant memory" that could be affecting contemporary attitudes towards the French specifically, and towards immigrants more generally. Where psychologists usually study short-term or autobiographical memory in individuals, this study is an academic investigation of our collective or cultural memory.

Siobhan Brownlie's data comes from two main sources: a search of Norman Conquest mentions in ten British newspapers between 2005 and 2008 (she found 807 relevant articles) and a survey of 2,179 members of the UK population.

Our collective memory of 1066 is salient - 79 per cent of survey participants said the conquest was important - but it is also distorted by mythology. For example, many of us identify with the pre-invasion "Anglo-Saxon" population (DNA research exposes the fallacy of this belief), yet paradoxically we also see the Norman invasion and Norman buildings as part of our collective British identity. Many of us (18 per cent in the survey) see the Norman invaders as French, yet Normandy at the time was an independent territory with a distinct identity.

Unlike recent trauma memories, which are overwhelmingly negative, Brownlie said the emotional quality of distant memories, even for violent events, is far more flexible and varied. Forty-nine per cent of those surveyed had a neutral attitude towards the Norman invasion. Newspaper coverage also demonstrated ambivalence. Sometimes the Conquest was portrayed negatively, alongside other violent dates; and right-wing papers implied we shouldn't lose control of immigration as we did in 1066. Yet other times, 1066 was portrayed proudly as a foundation date of British identity.

What about the impact on contemporary attitudes? Of those survey participants (6 per cent) who had a negative attitude towards the Norman Conquest, 25 per cent said this contributed to their negative feelings towards the French today. Brownlie acknowledged this seems to suggest that the influence of 1066-attitudes on contemporary views is a "marginal phenomenon". However, she argued that those raw stats expose only the extent to which the influence is consciously recognised.

From a negative perspective, Brownlie sees echoes of the Norman conquest in British National Party literature. Where medieval chroniclers of the Conquest wrote about England becoming a "dwelling-place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood," the BNP literature says similarly: "The white working class has been abandoned, replaced, and displaced by a new ethnic electoral power base."

But memories of the Norman Conquest can also be invoked for positive symbolism. The monument at the British war cemetery in Bayeux says in Latin: "We who were conquered by William have liberated the homeland of the conqueror" (again we find the myths about our Anglo-Saxon roots and the Frenchness of the Normans, but this time in a positive message).

"Old enemies can become friends and allies," Brownlie writes. "This kind of message with specific reference to the Norman Conquest is found in friendly political speeches by French and British politicians and dignitaries ... ".

"In sum," Brownlie concludes, "from the BNP manifesto to the Second World War British cemetery in Bayeux, the study shows that memory of the distant past matters today, in profound and sometimes surprising ways."
Brownlie, S. (2011). Does memory of the distant past matter? Remediating the Norman Conquest. Memory Studies DOI: 10.1177/1750698011426358

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Our Xmas special: gift psychology and psychology gifts

Psychology-themed gifts:

Inception DVD - Jungian symbolism, action adventure and Leonardo DiCaprio!

A subscription to Scientific American Mind magazine.

"I'm statistically significant" and other stats-themed t-shirts.

Memento DVD - the best amnesia movie that we can remember.

The Force Trainer - Become a Jedi: wireless headset interprets your brainwaves and moves an object.

 "Connect it" brain/usb t-shirt.

Mindflex brainwave game - go head to head with a friend.

A subscription to The Psychologist magazine.

Serotonin necklace.

Freudian slippers.

Dopamine t-shirt.

Inflatable brain.

Ramon y Cajal t-shirt.

Make a donation to Mind - the UK's leading mental health charity.

The best psychology books of 2011 (and there's always the new Rough Guide to Psychology by the editor of the Research Digest!)

Gift-giving research

If in doubt, give them what they want. A study published this year suggested people prefer receiving what they asked for, rather than a surprise gift.

Don't bundle your gifts. Gift receivers rate a single high-value gift more positively than a big gift bundled with a stocking filler.

This study, from 2002, found that money was a poor gift because it doesn't convey meaningful information about intimacy and can send the wrong message about the relative status between gift giver and receiver.

Be careful when buying a gift for your man. A study from 2008 found that men responded to dud gifts more negatively than women.

Given the choice, people seem to prefer receiving gifts of plenty and practicality over exclusivity.

Finally, don't forget to say thank you, even if you don't like the gift you've been given.

Merry Christmas!
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest. Many of the gift ideas were found via
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You're more likely to catch a yawn from a relative than a stranger

Reading this blog post is likely to make you yawn. Not, hopefully, because it's boring, but rather because yawning is so contagious that even reading about it has been shown to provoke the behaviour. A popular theory for how yawns spread is that they automatically engage the empathy systems in our brains. Consistent with this, past research found that children with autism, some of whom have difficulty empathising, are immune to the contagious effects of yawns.

Now Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi have developed this line of enquiry, showing that we're more likely to catch a yawn from relatives than acquaintances, and more likely to catch them from acquaintances than strangers - presumably because we have more empathy for people with whom we're emotionally intimate.

The study was entirely observational. The researchers hung out in offices, restaurants, and waiting rooms and observed discreetly the yawning behaviour of the people about them. If one person yawned, the researchers waited to see if anyone else present yawned within the next three minutes. Data from one researcher was lost because they also caught the yawns and fell asleep (not really, I made that up). Sometimes the researchers knew the relationships of the people they were watching, other times they eavesdropped Bond-style on conversations to discern the social ties.

Of all the factors the researchers looked at, including things like the situational context and whether the yawner and their company were of the same nationality, it was only emotional closeness that was relevant. The closer, relationship-wise, a person was to the initial yawner, the more likely they were to yawn themselves. Emotional closeness was also associated with the number of times a yawn-catcher yawned, and the promptness with which they did so after being exposed to the precipitating yawn. Consonant with past research, it didn't matter if that precipitating yawn was seen or heard (one earlier study found that yawns are contagious even when they're "seen" non-consciously by people with damage to the visual part of their brains).

"The importance of social bond in shaping yawn contagion demonstrates that empathy plays a leading role in the modulation of this phenomenon," the researchers said. "Not only is contagion greater between familiar individuals, but it also follows an empathic gradient, increasing from strangers to kin-related individuals."

It's a hard life
Contagious yawning is also seen in monkeys and great apes. Indeed, this new study replicates similar findings with chimps, where the yawn contagion is greater between group members, and findings with baboons, for whom yawns are more often caught from intimate yawners (where intimacy is discerned from rates of mutual grooming). "When considered together," the researchers concluded, "these results suggest that the relationship between yawn contagion and empathy may have developed earlier than the last common ancestor between monkeys, humans and non-human apes."

ResearchBlogging.orgNorscia, I., and Palagi, E. (2011). Yawn Contagion and Empathy in Homo sapiens PLoS ONE, 6 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028472

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Two chances to win the BPS-approved Psychopathology textbook by Graham Davey

update 23 Jan: This competition is now closed.

update 12 Jan 2012 12.15 hrs: We still don't have our second winner! OK - simply RT the Digest's Twitter message about this competition today and I'll pick a winner at random at the end of the day. Good luck. 

update 9 Jan 2012, 10.22 hrs: The rules of the competition have been relaxed. There's still one copy left to win. Now you need only have someone with more than 50,000 followers retweet you mentioning @researchdigest and #psychopathologycomp. The winner themselves must have fewer than 50,000 followers. Let me know (via @researchdigest) if you succeed. The first person to succeed, and inform me they've done so, will win the book. Good luck!

update 19 Dec, 13.50hrs: one copy still left to be won.

We've got two copies of the BPS-approved textbook Psychopathology by Graham Davey to give away, kindly donated to us by Wiley-Blackwell.

How to win
This competition challenges your influence on Twitter. Your task is to get someone with a verified Twitter account to retweet (old style new or old style) you mentioning @researchdigest and #psychopathologycomp. The first two people to achieve this goal will win a copy of the book. Make sure you tweet us (@researchdigest) when you think you've succeeded. Good luck!

Small print

Sorry, on this occasion, holders of verified Twitter accounts cannot win the book for themselves. 
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We trawl the web for the latest and best psychology links so you don't have to:

"Teachers don't like creative students" Alex Tabarrok picks up on an intriguing review paper.

The Royal Society has released its fourth Brainwaves report, this one on neuroscience and the law. Read coverage from Alok Jha in the Guardian.

Alexander Linklater picks out his favourite psychology books of the year for the Observer. Don't forget to check out our own round-up of the best 2011 psychology books.

Alex Kraut, the executive director of the Association for Psychological Science, defends psychological science in the wake of the Stapel fraud scandal and the recent survey showing widespread questionable practices in psychology.

Eleanor Maguire, the UCL psychologist famous for her studies of the brains of London cabbies, is herself useless at wayfinding. This is just one of the revelations in Ed Yong's splendid report on her new study. This time Maguire followed trainee cabbies over time, observing how their training changed their brains.

Expertise is all about practice, right? Lots of it. We know that from books like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which have popularised the work of the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. But writing in the New York Times, David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz exhort us not to get too carried away. Yes, practice is very important for expertise and achievement. But so too are IQ and working memory, which are fairly stable characteristics.

On a related note. Neuroskeptic covers a new study that's looked at genetic associations with intelligence. "... [F]or people who do believe in the genetics of intelligence, this shows us that we have no idea what the genes are, and that everything published so far has been pretty much for naught."

Remember the astonishing Daryl Bem paper published last year that found events in the future affected psychological states in the present? Find out what happened when a group of UK psychologists tried to get their failed replication published.

" ... the scientists [located] a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” Jonah Lehrer on the way the brain responds to art (and expensive wine).

Don't tell Paul Ekman: A new paper claims that "expressions are not inborn emotional signals that are automatically expressed on the face". In related news, the Darwin Correspondence Project is recreating Darwin's classic experiment on the categorisation of facial expressions of emotion.

Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller - reports the marvellous Mo Costandi (check out the lead author's defence of the study in the blog comments).

The Journal of Family Theory and Review gets stuck into Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

"There is no scientific evidence that boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink" - the Guardian takes another look at claims about innate differences in gender colour preferences.

"We don't have free will, in the spiritual sense. What you're seeing is the last output stage of a machine" - Patrick Haggard is interviewed in The Telegraph.

Explore your blindspot: discover how the mind hides its tracks. New free e-book from Mind Hacker Tom Stafford.

More wonderful writing from Ed Yong, this time in Nature, where he describes his visit to the body-illusion lab of Henrik Ehrsson. Might it one day be possible to create the sense of having two bodies? "We're working on it," says Ehrsson. On a similar note, David Byrne segues from discussing Ehrsson's Barbie illusion to railing against unrealistic portrayals of beauty in the magazine and entertainment industry.


New podcast from the Wellcome Collection: Mirror neuron researcher Dr Zarinah Agnew reflects on her career.

New BBC Radio 4 series on parenting and disciplining children - available on iPlayer.

Latest episode of BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind, tackled neuroscience and the law; plus the new taxi driver study - available on iPlayer.


Feast will return in the new year.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Inverse zombies studied using anaesthesia

Hospital medicine takes a pretty crude approach to consciousness. You're considered mentally AWOL if you don't respond to simple commands or physical prodding. But studies of post-operative patients have found that many of them recall having dreamt during anaesthesia. And in some disturbing cases they've even felt pain or heard the surgeons talking. This suggests that it's possible to be outwardly dead to the world, but conscious inside (locked-in patients and imaging studies of brain-injured patients in a persistent vegetative state also imply the same thing). Researchers have nicknamed people in this state "inverse zombies" - a play on the standard philosophical zombie concept, in which a person may appear to be outwardly conscious, but is in fact, dead inside.

A problem with much of the research into "inverse zombies" is that it's been conducted opportunistically in hospitals. The experimental set-up is messy, the patients have a variety of health complications, and they've often been given a cocktail of anaesthetic drugs. These studies have found rates of awareness during anaesthesia at around 0.023 to 1 per cent and rates of anaesthesia dreaming at rates of 6 to 53 per cent.

Now Valdas Noreika and his collaborators have performed a carefully controlled lab study of subjective (or "phenomenal") consciousness during anaesthesia, with the help of 40 healthy male university students. These brave souls were given progressively higher doses of one of four different anaesthetic drugs: dexmedetomidine; propofol (the drug that tragically killed Michael Jackson, who was using it as a sleeping aid); sevoflurane; and xenon. Dexmedetomidine and propofol are given intravenously; the other two are inhaled.

After the doping had begun, the researchers gave the participants the verbal command "Open your eyes!" at five minute intervals. Once a participant stopped responding they were considered to be unconscious in the traditional medical sense and the dose was gradually lowered until they responded again. Throughout, the researchers recorded the surface electrical activity from the front of the participants' brains using a "Bispectral Index Monitor (BIS)" - a form of electroencephalography (EEG), which provided an objective measure of the depth of sedation.

The induction phase - from the last response to "Open your eyes!" to the loss of responsiveness - lasted typically from around 5 to 10 minutes; the period of sedation or loss of responsiveness itself lasted around 10 minutes; this was followed by a 2 minute recovery phase and then 5 minutes of EEG scanning. At this point, the participants were interviewed about their subjective experiences during the time they were knocked out.

The key finding is that dreams or sensations were experienced during nearly 60 per cent of the anaesthesia sessions. These ranged from perceptual sensations (including "quick visual experiences"; out-of-body sensations; an altered sense of time); dream-like experiences (had a fragmentary dream about "a trip in Eastern Europe" said one participant); vision-based dreams related to the lab situation ("one of the nurses got suspended from her work"); and dreams with auditory content based on the lab situation ("a friend's roommate ... sitting next to me here in the lab, telling me we have to go to the city"). Sometimes these experiences were accompanied by negative emotions ("a bit anxious"); other times positive ("felt extraordinarily good"). The type of experiences didn't vary with the particular anaesthetic given.

Noreika and his team say these findings are important because they highlight the inadequacy of the standard medical definition of loss of consciousness (i.e. a loss of responsiveness), which is used in many anaesthesia-based studies into the neural correlates of consciousness. This standard definition, they argue, fails to take into account the frequent persistence of phenomenal consciousness in the absence of responsiveness. "Arguably, if one aims to explore the neural correlates of phenomenal consciousness, it would be fruitful to contrast the neural activity during dreaming anaesthesia vs. the neural activity during dreamless anaesthesia," they said.

The study is vulnerable to some obvious criticisms. The depth of sedation was shallower than is typically used in surgery, so the results may not generalise to higher doses of anaesthesia. Also, the participants were forewarned that they would be interviewed about any experiences they had whilst unconscious, which could have led them to come up with the kind of answers that they felt the researchers were after. Defending the validity of their results, Noreika's team pointed out that subjective reports of experience were more frequent when the objective BIS measure indicated shallower sedation - just as you'd expect if the experiences were real. "The results confirm that subjective experience may occur during clinically defined unresponsiveness," the researchers said.


Noreika, V., Jylhänkangas, L., Móró, L., Valli, K., Kaskinoro, K., Aantaa, R., Scheinin, H., and Revonsuo, A. (2011). Consciousness lost and found: Subjective experiences in an unresponsive state. Brain and Cognition, 77 (3), 327-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2011.09.002

Further reading: Check out this recent New Scientist feature article on consciousness and anaesthesia.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Mention of the word "loving" doubles charitable donations

"Love begets love." Proverb
French researchers say that adding the text "donating=loving" to a charitable collection box almost doubled the amount of money they raised.

Nicolas Guéguen and Lubomir Lamy placed opaque collection boxes in 14 bakeries in Brittany for two weeks. All the boxes featured the following text in French: "Women students in business trying to organise a humanitarian action in Togo. We are relying on your support", together with a picture of a young African woman with an infant in her arms. Some boxes had this additional text in French just below the money slot: "DONATING=LOVING"; others had the text "DONATING=HELPING"; whilst others had no further text below the slot. Different box types were placed in different bakeries on different days and the amount of money collected each day was recorded.

The text on the donation boxes made a profound difference. On average, almost twice as much money was raised daily in boxes with the "donating=loving" text, as compared with the "donating=helping" boxes and the boxes with no additional text (€1.04 per day vs. €0.62 and €0.54; the effect size was d=2.09). "Given the high effect-size ... we can conclude that evoking love is a powerful technique to enhance people's altruistic behaviour," the researchers said. In contrast, the difference in the amount of money left in "donating=helping" boxes and boxes without additional text was not statistically significant.

Guéguen and Lamy think that the word "loving" acts as a prime, activating related concepts such as compassion, support and solidarity, and thereby encourages behaviour consistent with those ideas. Such an explanation would fit the wider literature showing how our motivations and attitudes can be influenced by words and objects without us realising it. For example, one previous study showed how exposure to ageing-related words like "retired" led participants to walk away more slowly after an experiment. Other research found a poster of a pair of eyes on a wall led to greater use of an honesty box in a university canteen. Previous research by Guéguen and Lamy has further shown how asking a male passerby for directions to "Saint Valentine Street" as opposed to "Saint Martin Street" makes them subsequently more likely to help a nearby woman who's had her phone stolen, presumably because of the automatic activation of romance-related concepts.

Why should the text "donating=helping" not have had a similar beneficial effect on giving behaviour? Guéguen and Lamy think this might be due to a compensatory counter-reaction against words that are perceived as too much like a command. Indeed, in French, the verb "donner" to donate is also used to order someone to do something. However, why this reactance should have happened with "donating=helping" and not with "donating=loving" isn't entirely clear. Another reason for the impotence of the word "helping", the researchers said, is its redundancy - it was really just repeating the  plea for support in the main text.

The measure of giving was crude, which is a weakness of the study. We don't know if the "donating=loving" text led more people to donate, or to more generous giving among those people who donated.

"Despite the shortcomings of our study, the results will no doubt be of interest to those involved in philanthropic planning and support assessment in the aresas of corporate giving, nonprofit organisations, charitable foundations, and grants," the researchers said. "Conducted in a field setting, the experiment demonstrates how a simple, low-cost intervention can increase charitable giving."

ResearchBlogging.orgGuéguen, N., and Lamy, L. (2011). The effect of the word “love” on compliance to a request for humanitarian aid: An evaluation in a field setting. Social Influence, 6 (4), 249-258 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.627771

Previously on the Research Digest: How Michael Jackson's Heal The World really could help heal the world.

Other Digest posts related to altruism.

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

The State of Positive Psychology in Higher Education (The Journal of Positive Psychology).

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

Innovation in Theory and Research on Collective Action and Social Change (British Journal of Social Psychology).

Bilingual children with Specific Language Impairment – the nature of the problem (Bilingualism: Language and Cognition).

Prison Officers and Prison Culture (European Journal of Criminology).

The Development of Episodic Foresight (Cognitive Development).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Do urban environments trigger a mindset that's focused on the bigger picture?

To focus on details or the whole? This is one of the major ways that people differ in their style of mental processing. Past research has shown that people on the autism spectrum tend to focus more on details. Other studies reveal cross-cultural differences. People from collectivist cultures like Japan show a bias for focusing more on the bigger picture, known as "global processing", whilst citizens in individualist cultures like Britain show a comparatively greater bias for detail or "local processing". Now a study, led by Serge Caparos at Goldsmiths, of a remote African society, makes the case that this cultural difference is caused, not so much by degrees of collectivism or individualism, but rather by exposure to varying levels of urbanisation.

Caparos and his team used two kinds of stimuli presented on-screen to measure processing bias. The first is known as the Ebbinghaus illusion, in which the perceived size of a central circle is affected by the relative size of the circles surrounding it. A circle surrounded by bigger circles will generally be perceived as smaller, especially by people with a bias towards more global processing.

The second stimuli involved large letters comprised of little letters or shapes. Participants had to make a similarity judgement - for example, they were presented with a large X made up of little x's and had to say whether it was more similar to a large circle made up of little x's or a large X made up of little squares. People with a bias towards global processing would be expected to say the two large X's are more similar.

To gauge the effect of urbanisation, the researchers tested dozens of people from the remote Himba society of Namibia, as well as dozens of undergrads from Japan and Britain. Crucially, some of the Himba lived traditionally in village huts and homesteads whereas others had moved to, and lived for several years in, Opuwo, the Himba's only permanent, urban settlement. Also, some of the traditional Himba had visited Opuwo, either once, twice or three times.

The Japanese were more sensitive to the Ebbinghaus illusion than the Brits (indicative of a greater global processing bias, consistent with past research); the Brits, in turn, were more sensitive to it than the traditional Himba. Critically, though, the urban Himba were just as sensitive to the illusion as the British. Visits to the town Opuwo made no difference to the performance of the traditional Himba on this task.

On the similarity judgement task, the Japanese and Brits showed the most global choices, more than both groups of Himba. However, the urban Himba made more global choices than the traditional Himba and, moreover, global choices were made more often by traditional Himba who'd visited the town than those who hadn't. Indeed, just two visits to Opuwo increased global choices by ten per cent.

Age and levels of schooling made no difference to any of these results and past research has confirmed that the Himba are unfazed by testing with a computer monitor.

The more established theory for cross-cultural differences in local/global processing bias would predict that the Himba should show even more of a global processing bias than the Japanese, given the highly collectivist nature of their society. Also, this social orientation account would predict that experience of more individualistic urban living should lead to more local processing bias, not the greater global processing that was observed.

"Our proposal," the researchers said, "is that exposure to the urban environment investigated here introduced visual clutter with consequent changes in global/local processing." Their claim tallies with past research showing the opposite effect - that exposing townies to natural environments increases their bias for details.

"Further research will need to determine the processes by which cluttered visual input and/or other aspects of the urban environment come to change perceptual foci of interest in the dramatic way observed here," the researchers concluded.
Caparos, S., Ahmed, L., Bremner, A., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K., & Davidoff, J. (2012). Exposure to an urban environment alters the local bias of a remote culture Cognition, 122 (1), 80-85 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.08.013

Related studies covered on the Digest:
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Five chances to win a copy of Psychology for Dummies!

Update: This competition is now closed.

We've got five copies of Psychology for Dummies by Adam Cash to give away, kindly donated by John Wiley.

How to enter
Please tell us when/where you most enjoy reading the BPS Research Digest blog or email newsletter. Tell us in a Tweet (mention @researchdigest AND #digestinthebath) or by using the comments function beneath this post. If you use the comments function here, make sure you leave a way for us to contact you. This coming Friday 16 Dec, we'll pick five different entries (three people from Twitter and two from here on the blog) at random as the winners. Good luck!
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What your choice of best ever footballer says about human memory

Cruijff - the best ever player?
Ask a friend to name the best ever footballer and they're likely to pick someone who was mid-career when they (your friend) was aged around 17. That's according to a new investigation into the "reminiscence bump". This term describes the fact that when you ask people to name the most memorable events in their lives, they tend to refer to things that happened to them in their teens and early twenties. Recently it's been shown that a similar effect occurs when you ask people to name their favourite music, books and films, with them tending to pick out content from their youth. Now David Rubin and his colleagues have extended this line of research to people's judgement of the best footballers of all time.

Six hundred and nineteen people (aged 16 to 80) took part in the study online, conducted in Dutch and hosted on the website of the University of Amsterdam. Participants were presented with the names of 190 all-time leading football players and asked to name their judgement of the five best players of all time. They could either select from the list or choose their own.

The researchers calculated the mid-career point of the 172 players named by the participants and compared this against the participants' age at that time. Participants overwhelming tended to name players whose career mid-point coincided with participants' teens and early twenties. The modal age (i.e. the most common) of the participants at their chosen players' mid-career was 17 years. The researchers said this was the most appropriate statistic to use because the average (22 years) and median (20 years) stats are more susceptible to the bias to name currently active players.

Another way of reporting the results is to say that participants recalled more players who were mid-career in the second decade of the participants' lives than ones who were mid-career in the participants' third decade. And they named more players from the period in which they were aged 11 to 30 than from the period in which they were aged 1 to 10 or aged 31 to 40.

Focusing on the most frequently chosen players, Johan Cruijff was most often selected by participants who were aged 9 to 18 when he was at his career midpoint; Pelé was most often selected by participants who were aged between 12 and 21 years when he was mid-career. Incidentally, currently active players who made the list of twenty most frequently chosen players were: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and David Beckham (go Becks!). Only the youngest cohort (born between 1986 to 1995) chose more players who were mid-career in 2000s than players who were mid-career in the 90s.

"The results of this study are another example of the robustness of the reminiscence bump phenomenon," the researchers said.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the reminiscence bump, including that our memories are more efficient in our teens and twenties. Others think it's because more novel things happen to us at that time of life, such as our first kiss or first job, causing them to get lodged in memory. Rubin and his team say their findings are inconsistent with this "cognitive account", as it's known, because children typically start to play and follow football between the ages of 5 and 15, so if the cognitive account were true you'd think they'd pick players who were mid-career at that time.

ResearchBlogging.orgJanssen, S., Rubin, D., and Conway, M. (2011). The reminiscence bump in the temporal distribution of the best football players of all time: Pelé, Cruijff or Maradona? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.606372

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Hearing about scientists' struggles helps inspire students and boosts their learning

Newton worked hard and had an inquisitive nature
Science suffers from an image problem. Many students see the subject as too difficult and they think scientists are aloof boffins with big brains. A new study out of Taiwan tests the benefits of teaching high-school physics pupils about the struggles of eminent physicists - Galileo, Newton and Einstein.

Over the course of three computer-based lessons during one week, 88 low-achieving students were taught not just about the relevant theories developed by these characters but also about their frustrations and perseverance. For instance, they heard about Newton's hard work and inquisitive nature (including his comment "I keep the subject constantly before me, till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light."), and they heard about Einstein's efforts, but ultimate failure, in seeking to develop a unified field theory - an endeavour that he spent the last 25 years of his life working on.

For comparison, a further 93 students completed the three computer-based lessons on the relevant theories but without any background information on the scientists, and 90 more completed a version in which they heard achievement-based background information on the scientists, including their key discoveries and dates.

Learning about scientists' struggles had several important benefits versus the other two conditions. Students in the struggles condition developed more rounded, less stereotypical images of the scientists, seeing them as people who worked hard. For students who had no initial interest in science, the information about struggles boosted their interest in the subject. Struggles-based background info also improved students' delayed (a week later) recall of the theoretical material, and it increased their success at complex open-ended problem solving tasks based on the lesson material.

Huang-Yao Hong and Xiadong Lin-Siegler, who made these findings, think the benefit of struggle-based background info for students' recall may have to do with helping the students to build connections between different key concepts, and with increasing their emotional and cognitive reactions to the course material. Similarly, the researchers think that the struggle-oriented background information helps students see the interconnections between theories, which aids complex problem-solving.

Future research is needed to differentiate the effects of struggle-based information related to the scientists' work and their personal lives. Also, the findings need to be tested in a different cultural context and over a longer time period.

"By helping students see the real human struggles behind science, we can inspire greater interest and learning to benefit future generations of scientists," Hong and Lin-Siegler said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHong, H., and Lin-Siegler, X. (2011). How learning about scientists' struggles influences students' interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0026224

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The brain basis of "unrealistic optimism"

Life is a little like going for a walk in the rain. Sooner or later you're going to get wet - be that in the form of bad health, unrequited love or job redundancy. It's remarkable that we ever venture out. We do so sheltered under the umbrella of "unrealistic optimism". Depressed people aside, the rest of us underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to us and overestimate the likelihood of good outcomes. Asked to imagine positive scenarios, we do so with greater vividness and more immediacy than when asked to picture negative occurrences - our images of those are hazy and distant.

Now Tali Sharot (author of the forthcoming book The Optimism Bias) and her colleagues have investigated the brain mechanisms underlying this rosy outlook. Sharot had participants estimate their likelihood of experiencing 80 adverse life events from developing Alzheimer's to being robbed. After they gave each estimate, the participants were given the correct average probability for a person in their socio-economic circumstances. In a subsequent testing session, participants had a second chance to forecast their risk of experiencing the same 80 misfortunes. Throughout this process, Sharot scanned the activity of the participants' brains.

One key finding is that the participants showed a bias in the way that they updated their estimates, being much more likely to revise an original estimate that was overly pessimistic than to revise an original estimate that was unduly optimistic (79 per cent of participants showed this pattern). The researchers checked and this difference wasn't to do with the positive feedback being remembered better, but purely to do with it being taken account of more than negative feedback.

There were some intriguing neural insights. Discovering that an initial estimate was unduly pessimistic was associated with increased activity across the frontal lobes, in left inferior frontal gyrus, left and right medial frontal cortex/superior frontal gyrus, and also in the right cerebellum - and this increased activity correlated with the participants' subsequent updating of their estimate in the second round of predictions. By contrast, discovering that they'd been overly optimistic was associated with reduced activity in the inferior frontal gyrus extending into precentral gyrus and insula, and again this activity change was related to the likelihood that the participants would revise their estimate in the second round of predictions.

The researchers also compared the brain activity between the most and least optimistic participants. High scorers in trait optimism showed less of the activity drop in inferior frontal gyrus when they discovered they'd been overly optimistic. That is, their brains seemed to ignore information educating them about the depressing reality of their chances of experiencing adversity later in life. In contrast, the brains of the high and low optimists responded to desirable feedback (in which they learned they'd been unduly pessimistic) in exactly the same way.

"Our findings offer a mechanistic account of how unrealistic optimism persists in the face of challenging information," said Sharot and her team. "We found that optimism was related to diminished coding of undesirable information about the future in a region of the frontal cortex (right inferior frontal gyrus) that has been identified as being sensitive to negative estimation errors."

The researchers also reflected on the wider implications of their research. They said that unrealistic optimism likely evolved to enhance exploratory behaviour and has the benefit of reducing stress and anxiety. However, they said that this rosy view comes at a cost. "For example," they said, "unrealistic assessment of financial risk is widely seen as a contributing factor in the 2008 global economic collapse."

ResearchBlogging.orgSharot, T., Korn, C., and Dolan, R. (2011). How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience, 14 (11), 1475-1479 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2949

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Our round-up of the latest psychology links from around the web:

How do successful people make good decisions? You can download the audio of Prof Landman's talk at the RSA.

Ten days left to watch Bobby Fischer: Genius and Madman on BBC iPlayer.

Claudia Hammond discussed the Derek Stapel fraud case and mentoring for anxiety sufferers on BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind (now on iPlayer). In related news, Claudia is the deserved winner of the BPS's 2012 Public Engagement Award.

Psychological symptoms among Shakespeare's characters - BBC report.

Cynicism is bad for business, says Alex Fradera on our Occupational Digest blog.

Our round-up of the psychology books of the year. The BPS has also just announced the shortlist for its annual Book Award.

Ed Yong reported on a charming study showing the apparent moral precocity of 8-month-old babies.

Jason Goldman investigates why we humans like torturing ourselves with spicy food.

Vaughan Bell discusses the manifold ways that people respond to bereavement in different cultures.

The December issue of The Psychologist magazine is online and includes an open-access article celebrating 25 years of the BPS Health Psychology Section.

The psychology of nakedness: seeing a person's flesh changes how we think about their mind, says Jonah Lehrer. He also has a new post on the cognitive benefits of chewing gum (check out the footnote in which the Digest gets a namecheck for its pedantry skills).

Jelte M. Wicherts writing in Nature calls for more data sharing in psychology. He says it could help prevent research fraud.

The December issue of the American Psychological Association's Observer magazine is online and includes a cover feature on links between language and music.

The mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik looks set to avoid a prison sentence because experts have diagnosed him with schizophrenia. "Who, What, Why: How do you assess a killer's mental health?" asks the BBC. There's also a new study out on lone-wolf terrorism.

Linda Geddes has a feature on anaesthesia and consciousness for the New Scientist.

The December issue of the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology magazine is online, with a cover feature on the psychological benefits of exercise.

UK final year undergrads can win £5000 for writing about the future of Britain and the right-side of the brain. Deadline 12 Jan, 2012.

Daniel Kahneman took questions from readers of the Freakonomics blog.

Memories of inspirational psychologist and neuroscientist Jon Driver, who died earlier this week.

"Human Nature's Pathologist" - Carl Zimmer profiles Steve Pinker for the New York Times.

Greg Walton and Carol Dweck challenge Roy Baumeister's theory of willpower as a limited resource tied to blood sugar levels.

NPR podcast on the amenesiac who can still learn new music.

What we learn before we're born. TED talk from Annie Murphy Paul.

Feast will return in a fortnight.
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Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests

Update (15 Dec 2011): the uncorrected proofs of this article have now been released online (pdf).

Questionable research practices, including testing increasing numbers of participants until a result is found, are the "steroids of scientific competition, artificially enhancing performance". That's according to Leslie John and her colleagues who've found evidence that such practices are worryingly widespread among US psychologists. The results are currently in press at the journal Psychological Science and they arrive at a time when the psychological community is still reeling from the the fraud of a leading social psychologist in the Netherlands. Psychology is not alone. Previous studies have raised similar concerns about the integrity of medical research.

John's team quizzed 6,000 academic psychologists in the USA via an anonymous electronic survey about their use of 10 questionable research practices including: failing to report all dependent measures; collecting more data after checking if the results are significant; selectively reporting studies that "worked"; and falsifying data.

As well as declaring their own use of questionable research practices and their defensibility, the participants were also asked to estimate the proportion of other psychologists engaged in those practices, and the proportion of those psychologists who would likely admit to this in a survey.

For the first time in this context, the survey also incorporated an incentive for truth-telling. Some survey respondents were told, truthfully, that a larger charity donation would be made by the researchers if they answered honestly (based on a comparison of a participant's self-confessed research practices, the average rate of confession, and averaged estimates of such practices by others). Just over two thousand psychologists completed the survey. Comparing psychologists who received the truth incentive vs. those that didn't showed that it led to higher admission rates.

Averaging across the psychologists' reports of their own and others' behaviour, the alarming results suggest that one in ten psychologists has falsified research data, while the majority has: selectively reported studies that "worked" (67 per cent), not reported all dependent measures (74 per cent), continued collecting data to reach a significant result (71 per cent), reported unexpected findings as expected (54 per cent), and excluded data post-hoc (58 per cent). Participants who admitted to more questionable practices tended to claim that they were more defensible. Thirty-five per cent of respondents said they had doubts about the integrity of their own research. Breaking the results down by sub-discipline, relatively higher rates of questionable practice were found among cognitive, neuroscience and social psychologists, with fewer transgressions among clinical psychologists.

John and her colleagues said that many of the iffy methods they'd investigated were in a "grey-zone" of acceptable practice. "The inherent ambiguity in the defensibility of research practices may lead researchers to, however inadvertently, use this ambiguity to delude themselves that their own dubious research practices are 'defensible'." It's revealing that a follow-up survey that asked psychologists about the defensibility of the questionable practices, but without asking about their own engagement in those practices, led to far lower defensibility ratings.

John's team think the findings of their survey could help explain the "decline effect" in psychology and other sciences - that is, the tendency for effect sizes to decline with replications of previous results. Perhaps this is because the original, large effect size was obtained via questionable practices.

The current study also complements a recent paper published in Psychological Science by Joseph Simons and colleagues that used simulations and a real experiment to show how toying with dependent variables, sample sizes and other factors (the kind of practices explored in the current study) can massively increase the risk of a false-positive finding - that is, claiming a positive effect where there is none.

"[Questionable research practices] ... threaten research integrity and produce unrealistically elegant results that may be difficult to match without engaging in such practices oneself," John and her colleagues concluded. "This can lead to a 'race to the bottom', with questionable research begetting even more questionable research."

ResearchBlogging.orgLeslie John, George Loewentstein, and Drazen Prelec (In Press). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling. Psychological Science

Pulled from the comments: Psychfiledrawer is a repository for non-replications of published results.

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