Could lessons in genetic variation help reduce racial prejudice?

Richard Dawkins called it "the curse of the discontinuous mind" - our tendency to lump things into discrete categories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our perception of ethnic races, which we tend to see as reflecting absolute dividing lines in the human population. Do mistaken folk beliefs about genetics play a role in this? A new study by Jason Plaks and his team suggests so. What's more, their findings have interesting implications for an anti-prejudice intervention based around genetics lessons.

The background to this work is that people often mistakenly assume that superficial ethnic characteristics are a reliable sign of significant genetic difference. In fact, each of us is about 99.9 per cent similar genetically to the next person. And the genetic variability that does exist in the human race tends to be greater within ethnic groups than between them.

Plaks and his colleagues devised an ingenious memory test to expose the tendency of their 84 student participants to see black and white races as clear-cut categories (the students were from various ethnic backgrounds, but the majority were white). The stimuli were faces morphed from real photos of black and white people to consist of seven degrees of prototypical blackness and whiteness (including: all black, all white, 50/50, 16.67 per cent black, 16.67 per cent white, 33.33 per cent black and 33.3 per cent white).

These faces appeared in sequence on-screen interspersed with numbers. The participants' task for each number and each face was to say whether it was the same as the last seen number or face. For people who see ethnic races as distinct categories, the racial profile of the faces ought to have interfered with their memory performance. That's exactly what was found.

After the task, the participants were asked how much genetic overlap two random people on earth would be expected to have (the average answer was 56 per cent). Those participants who said there would be less overlap tended to be the same ones who were affected by the racial profile of the faces. That is, they were more likely to say mistakenly that the current face was the same as the last face, if the two faces had a similar racial profile. This suggests they were using racial cues to remember the faces. By contrast, participants who believed there is more genetic overlap between strangers tended to be unaffected by the racial profile of the faces. Presumably they used more idiosyncratic features of the faces to remember them by.

If belief in genetic variation is correlated with people's tendency to categorise faces according to race, then what if people are educated about human genetic variation - might that change their proclivity for prejudice? The next stage of the Plaks' study suggested so.

Half of 95 participants read a passage of text (adapted from a real American Psychologist article) that correctly stated the 99.9 per cent genetic overlap between random individuals, and drew an analogy between ethnic groups and social clubs. The other half of the participants read a version that said genetic overlap between individuals is low (21.4 per cent) and drew an analogy between ethnic groups and families. Again, the participants were from various ethnic backgrounds, but most were white.

Afterwards the participants had to rate words (e.g. "disgusting", "delightful") as either positive or negative as fast as they could. A crucial twist was that the words were preceded by a face prime with varying degrees of racial black or whiteness. For the participants who read the low genetic overlap text, the racial profile of the face prime made a difference - they were quicker to categorise negative words after a face that was 25 per cent black or more. By contrast, the racial profile of the face primes made no difference to the performance of the participants who read the text explaining the high genetic overlap between humans. In other words, being educated about the genetic overlap between humans seemed to reduce participants' sensitivity to, and discrete categorisation of, racial colour, thereby reducing their implicit prejudice in the word recognition task.

Plaks and his colleagues said this result suggests people's beliefs about genetic variation are malleable and could therefore be a useful target for anti-prejudice interventions. "People without a strong motivation for prejudice - and even those with professed egalitarian ideals - frequently display signs of racial stereotyping," the researchers concluded. "We suggest that people with egalitarian ideals may still exhibit stereotyping at least partly because they harbour particular assumptions about genetic variation."

ResearchBlogging.orgPlaks, J., Malahy, L., Sedlins, M., and Shoda, Y. (2011). Folk Beliefs About Human Genetic Variation Predict Discrete Versus Continuous Racial Categorization and Evaluative Bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611408118

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Debunking people's belief in free will takes the intention out of their movements

Undermining a person's belief in free will alters the way their brain prepares for a voluntary movement. Davide Rigoni and his colleagues, who made the finding, aren't sure what the precise mechanism for this effect is, but they speculated that bursting the free will bubble somehow causes people to put less intentional effort into their movements.

Rigoni's team tested thirty participants on a version of Benjamin Libet's classic task from the 1980s. This requires that participants watch a dot proceed round a clock face, that they make a voluntary finger movement at a time of their choosing (the current study had participants press a button), and then make a mental note of the position of the clock at the time they made their decision to move. Libet's controversial discovery, replicated here, was that the brain begins preparing for the finger movement several hundred milliseconds prior to the conscious decision to move, as revealed by electrical activity recorded via electrodes on the scalp. The finding implies that free will is illusory.

For Rigoni's task, an additional detail was that half the participants read a passage debunking our sense of free will (see comments for the text) before they completed the Libet task. The other half acted as controls and read a passage about consciousness that didn't mention free will.

The new finding was that the earliest phase of preparatory brain activity known as "the readiness potential" differed between the two groups. This early component (around 1300 to 400 ms prior to the voluntary movement) was weaker in the brains of the participants who'd had their belief in free will diminished. Moreover, a questionnaire administered afterwards showed that this effect on brain activity was greater among the participants who reported having less belief in free will. In contrast, later phases of the brain's preparatory brain activity were not correlated with belief in free will.

What do we know about the early phase of preparatory brain activity that was affected? Quoting Lang (2003), Rigoni and his colleagues said that this early phase is associated specifically with movements that are executed with the "introspective feelings of the willful realisation of the intention to move at a particular time." In English, this means the early phase of preparatory brain activity is associated with just the kind of movement under study - a deliberate movement initiated at a consciously chosen time. The implication is that undermining someone's sense of free will leads them to invest less intention into an intentional movement. Exactly how one does that, and what it means, remains unclear. Rigoni's team conceded in their conclusion: "How disbelief in free will affects intentional effort is an open question."

They added: "In sum, our results indicate that beliefs about free will can change brain processes related to a very basic motor level, and this suggests that abstract belief systems might have a much more fundamental effect than most people would expect."

The study builds on past research showing how undermining people's belief in free will affects their social behaviour, for example encouraging them to cheat.

ResearchBlogging.orgRigoni, D., Kuhn, S., Sartori, G., and Brass, M. (2011). Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The Brain Minds Whether We Believe in Free Will or Not. Psychological Science, 22 (5), 613-618 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611405680

Previous Digest reports featuring Libet's classic task: Libet Redux: Free will takes another hammering and Exposing some holes in Libet's classic free will study.

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Why positive fantasies make your dreams less likely to come true

It's a trusted tool in the self-help armoury - visualising yourself having achieved your goals, be that weighing less, enjoying the view atop Everest, or walking down the aisle with the girl or boy of your dreams. Trouble is, reams of research shows that indulging in positive fantasies actually makes people's fantasised ambitions less likely to become reality. Why? A new study claims it's because positive fantasies are de-energising.

They "make energy seem unnecessary" say Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen.  "By allowing people to consummate a desired future", the researchers explain, positive fantasies trigger the relaxation that would normally accompany actual achievement, rather than marshaling the energy needed to obtain it.

The researchers demonstrated this process across four studies. The first was the least convincing and read like a throwback to the 1960s. Women who were asked to fantasise positively about looking and feeling good in high-heeled shoes subsequently demonstrated lower energy, as revealed by their having lowing blood pressure, than did women asked to fantasise more critically about the pros and cons of wearing trendy, high-heeled shoes.

The research improved. In the second study, participants asked to fantasise positively about winning an essay contest subsequently reported feeling less energised than did participants asked to fantasise more negatively about their prospects.

Next, a positive fantasy about the coming week led participants to feel less energised, and when surveyed a week later, they'd achieved fewer of their week's goals, than had control participants who'd originally been asked to day-dream freely about the coming week.

Finally, Kappes and Oettingen highlighted the role of context, showing that positive fantasies about a pressing need are particularly de-energising. This elaborate study involved asking student participants to refrain from food and water for several hours, and then having some of them eat crackers (ostensibly as part of a taste test). For these super-thirsty participants it was a positive fantasy about a tall glass of icy water, not a fantasy about exam success, that led them to be de-energised (as indicated by a drop in blood pressure). For participants allowed to have a glass of water, by contrast, it was positive fantasies about exam success, not water, that led to them being de-energised.

Across all the studies, the researchers took pains to factor out other explanations - for example, they ruled out the effect of irritation, in case negative fantasies are energising by virtue of being irritating. They ruled out the possibility that some fantasies are easier to conjure than others. And they had a neutral fantasy condition, allowing them to confirm that positive fantasies really are de-energising, rather than it simply being that negative fantasies are energising.

So, is there any benefit to positive fantasies? From a survival perspective, if a goal, such as food or water, is unobtainable, there could be some advantage to enjoying a fantasy that switches you into a low-energy mode. Similarly, if a task fills you with dread and your short-term goal is relaxation, then indulging in positive fantasies about desired outcomes could be a way to reduce anxiety.

But ultimately, Happes and Oettingen believe that positive fantasies are likely to scupper your chances of obtaining your goals. "Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like," they write. "Fantasies that are less positive - that question whether an ideal future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems and setbacks - should be more beneficial for mustering the energy needed to obtain success."

This study isn't the first to explode the myth of a traditional self-help tool. A 2009 paper found that repeating positive mantras about themselves led people low in self-esteem to feel worse.

ResearchBlogging.orgKappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Could the Olympics be a catalyst for inter-cultural discord?

One World, One Dream - that was the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics of 2008. The words encapsulate an aspiration of the Olympic movement, to bring about global harmony through the medium of elite sport. But onto that sweeping canvas of rosy idealism, a team of researchers led by Shirley Cheng have just cast a bucket-full of reality. Their new study shows that the 2008 Olympics deepened people's perception of inter-cultural differences and entrenched their in-group loyalty, at least through the eyes of the Chinese.

Cheng and her colleagues surveyed dozens of undergrads about "social and economic behaviours" - a thin disguise for their real aim of having them rate ten values, half of them typically seen as Western (e.g. autonomy, uniqueness), half as Chinese (e.g. obedience, modesty). These values were presented in random order and the participants' task was to rate them for how typically Western or Chinese they considered them to be. A further key detail was that for some of the participants, the survey featured the Olympic logo on each page. Also, half the participants were quizzed before the Olympics and half were quizzed a few months afterwards.

The main finding here was that participants who completed the survey after the Olympics, with the logo on each page, tended to rate the values far more in accordance with cultural stereotypes. The presence of the logo had no such influence before the Games. In other words, the experience of the Olympics (and being reminded of that experience by the logo) appeared to deepen participants' perception of the contrast in values between China and the West.

A follow-up study was similar but this time Chinese participants rated their emotional response to and perception of classic Chinese (e.g. Lenovo computers) and American brands (e.g. McDonalds). Some participants were quizzed before the Games, some towards the end. This time the Olympics seemed to have strengthened in-group bias. Chinese participants surveyed towards the end of the Games showed far more favouritism and positive emotional bias towards Chinese brands, and this was true even among those who had low levels of identification with Chinese culture according to a standard measure.

The same result wasn't found with a sample of Hong Kong Chinese, who tend not to view mainland Chinese competitors as part of their in-group. The researchers took this as evidence that inter-group competition can heighten in-group bias, but only if it's your in-group that did the competing.

These new findings chime with classic work in social psychology by Muzafer Sherif in the 1960s, in which competitive games played by boys on summer camp helped to catalyse conflict between recently formed groups.

Cheng and her team said their results revealed an irony: "Despite the deliberate effort to promote the ideal of 'One World, One Dream,' the Olympic experience has, at least for those in Mainland China, widened the perceived cultural gap between Chinese and Western cultures, and produced a uniform tendency to favour Mainland (vs. American) brands, irrespective of the level of in-group identification."

ResearchBlogging.orgCheng, S., Rosner, J., Chao, M., Peng, S., Chen, X., Li, Y., Kwong, J., Hong, Y., and Chiu, C. (2011). One world, One dream? Intergroup consequences of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. International Journal of Intercultural Relations DOI: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2010.07.005

Previously on the Digest: Hosting a major sporting event - economic gains are unlikely, but will it bring happiness?

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Test how much you know about the reliability of memory

In the latest in a series of investigations into how much people know about eye witness memory, Svein Magnussen and Annika Melinder have compiled 12 questions about memory and put them to 857 licensed members of the Norwegian Psychological Association. The correct answers were based on the latest consensus findings in the field of memory research. The Norwegian psychologists scored an average of just 63 per cent correct, no better than achieved by Norwegian judges (63 per cent) in prior research, and only slightly ahead of the general public (they scored 56 per cent on average).

This blindspot for understanding memory isn't a uniquely Norwegian problem. Past research has established that US and Chinese judges, US law students and undergrads all have limited knowledge about the factors that affect eye witness testimony.

The findings have serious implications for the understanding of memory processes in court, especially the limitations of eye witness accounts. Magnussen and Melinder said their findings support the official guidance of the British Psychological Society's Research Board that being a fully credentialed psychologist does not by itself make someone a memory expert. "A memory expert is someone whose expertise is recognised," states the 2010 version of the report. "Recognition of relevant expertise should usually be in the form of outputs that are publicly verifiable, for example, peer-reviewed publications, other publications, and presentations at professional meetings. Of these, peer-reviewed publications are the most important."

So how would you have fared at the memory quiz? Here are the test items in shortened form:

1) Is a person's confidence in their memories a good predictor of the accuracy of those memories?
2) Is it true that eye witness testimony reflects not just what a witness originally saw and heard, but also other information obtained later on from the police, other witnesses etc?
3) Is a witness's ability to recall minor details about a crime an indication of the accuracy of their identification of the perpetrator?
4) Does intense stress at the time of an event impair the accuracy of the memory of that event?
5) Can their attitudes and expectations affect a person's memory of an event?
6) Does the presence of a weapon tend to impair a witness's memory for a perpetrator's face?
7) Does most forgetting tend to occur soon after an event?
8) Do children have better memories for events than adults?
9) How far back into their childhood can most people remember?
10) Are traumatic memories from childhood that are "recovered" in therapy (having never before been recalled) likely to be false?
11) Are dramatic events more or less likely to be forgotten?
12) Is it possible for a perpetrator to have forgotten their criminal act because they've suppressed that specific memory?

Here are the answers: 1) No, 2) Yes, 3) No, 4) Yes, 5) Yes, 6) Yes, 7) Yes, 8) No, worse, 9) to the age of three to four years 10) Yes, 11) Less, 12) No

So how did you do? As well as their overall relatively poor performance, Magnussen and Melinder found that psychologists performed better than the public on question (1) but actually performed worse on questions (6) and (7). "It is particularly surprising that so few psychologists were familiar with the normal course of forgetting, the classic Ebbinghaus function," they said.

Some of the answers may strike you as more controversial than others. On the question of recovered memories, Magnussen and Melinder wrote: "Repression is not among the mechanisms of forgetting acknowledged by current memory science, and the available evidence does not support the idea of repression." They go on to say that well-controlled prospective studies of childhood sexual abuse victims suggest strongly that memories of abuse are not forgotten.

What about the idea that criminals can't selectively forget a criminal act? Although psychogenic amnesia is a real phenomenon (that is, amnesia in the absence of any detectable brain damage or disease), Magnussen and Melinder argue that these "mnestic blocks" typically cover periods of weeks or even years, not the specific instances in time that are often claimed by offenders.

Another point of clarification is that whilst trauma interferes with the details of a memory, it actually makes that memory more persistent and vivid, hence the apparent contradiction of questions (4) and (11).

The researchers call for better scrutiny of memory expertise by the courts and they lament that "psychlore appears to be a stronger determinant of the theoretical ideas [about memory] than are the results of empirical research", even among the majority of qualified Norwegian psychologists.

ResearchBlogging.orgMagnussen, S., and Melinder, A. (2011). What Psychologists Know and Believe about Memory: A Survey of Practitioners. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1795

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

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

Psychology and Global Climate Change (American Psychologist).

Cultural effects on the mental number line (Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology).

Dichotic Listening Anniversary Special Issue (Brain and Cognition).

Attention and Short-Term Memory (Neuropsychologia).

The role of gender in school-related transitions and beyond (International Journal of Behavioural Development).

Social psychology and citizenship (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Free signed copy of The Rough Guide to Psychology for the 2,000,000th visitor to the Digest blog

Update: this competition is now closed. The Digest blog visitor count is currently on 1,958,929 and fast approaching the two million mark. To celebrate, I'm offering a free signed copy of The Rough Guide to Psychology to the 2,000,000th visitor (or the next closest), who should arrive within the next few weeks, depending on traffic to the blog. I'll tweet some reminders as the target draws nearer.

If the 2,000,000th visitor is you, to claim your prize you'll need to make a note of the time and take a screen grab of the Digest blog with the visitor counter plum on the 2,000,000 mark. Email your screen-grab and the timing (this is to prevent cheating) to christianjarrett[@] with the subject line "two million".

The counter is near the top of the right-hand column of the blog, at the bottom of a box that looks like the pic shown on the right. For tacticians hoping to land on the two millionth visitor spot, there's also a red icon on the left of the Digest screen that shows you how many people are currently on the site. Also, note that there has to be a 20 minute gap for the same IP address (the identifier for a particular computer) to be counted as a new visitor.

The 2,000,000th visitor may come and go unawares of this prize. If so, I'll send the book to the next closest after the two million mark. So if you're near, take a screen-grab and timing and try your luck.
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The much maligned group brainstorm can aid the process of combining ideas

Research on group creativity shows consistently that the same people come up with more ideas working on their own than they do when brainstorming together. But perhaps it's time to move beyond this striking yet superficial discovery. After all, having a list of initial ideas is not the end of the creative process. A new study by Nicholas Kohn and colleagues has focused on the creative task of idea combination, finding that in this context groups do have advantages over individuals working alone.

One hundred and eight student participants formed groups of three working at computer terminals located apart (this set-up was used to rule out the influence of various social factors that emerge in face-to-face situations). The participants' ten-minute task was to come up with fresh ideas for how to improve their university. Some of the groups of three shared their ideas electronically - that is, each individual could see the ideas of their two fellow team members appear on their own screen as they worked. Other groups worked alone, each individual entirely cut off from their two team members.

The next stage was about idea combination. All participants, whether they previously worked alone or not, now had access to a list of their own existing ideas and the already proposed ideas of their team members. For the next fifteen minutes participants attempted to combine these existing ideas into novel concepts, or to combine an existing idea with a new one. Crucially, half the participants (whether they previously worked alone or collaboratively) now did the combining on their own; the other half could see their team members' newly combined ideas appear on-screen as they worked.

Consistent with past research, participants who worked alone in the first phase came up with more ideas than those who worked cooperatively with their team members. However, team working was more successful in the second, idea combination phase. Although participants working on their own came up with more combined ideas, it was the combined ideas produced by participants working together that were rated by independent judges as being more useful.

Another finding was that participants who worked alone in the first phase were more likely to use other people's ideas to form novel combinations in the second phase (rather than just combining their own earlier ideas), perhaps because they were seeing them for the first time and therefore finding them more stimulating.

A second study was similar to the first except the participants were asked to form newly combined ideas out of existing ideas from an external source (ie. not generated by themselves or their team members). The topic was as before - how to improve the university. Some groups worked with ideas categorised as common, others with rare ideas. This time the collaborators sat around a table and followed a "brain writing" technique - each time they conceived of a new idea combination they wrote it down on a piece of paper and passed it to their neighbour, who rated its usefulness. The purpose of this was to make sure collaborating participants engaged with each others' ideas.

Again, individuals working alone generated more freshly combined ideas than individuals working collaboratively - this was unsurprising since the brain writing process is time consuming. However, participants working collaboratively with rare material came up with combined ideas that judges rated as more novel and feasible, than did participants working alone. And collaborating participants working with common material came up with combined ideas rated as having more impact. This result shows again that there are times in the creative process when working collaboratively has advantages.

'Our results provide a fertile basis for future studies to examine the factors that influence this process and enhance the ability of groups to generate combinations that are both original and useful,' Kohn and his team concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgKohn, N., Paulus, P., and Choi, Y. (2011). Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.004

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

Brain scanning unborn babies to investigate the origins of hemispheric lateralisation.

Media use by people with and without depression.

Children’s belief in an invisible person inhibits their cheating.

The impact of psychopathic traits on relationship satisfaction.

Improving general intelligence with a nutrient-based pharmacological intervention.

Facing an incompetent leader: The effects of a nonexpert leader on subordinates' perception and behaviour.

Do Horses Have a Concept of Person?

Is there an inversion effect for bodies as well as faces? [background]

A case of beat-deafness, a new form of amusia.

Cross-cultural differences in the factors that lead to the formation of flash-bulb memories.

How the sight of overweight people can lead us to eat more.

Tummy rumblings during psychotherapy.

This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Childhood self-control linked with multiple outcomes at age 32

Psychologists have provided a dramatic demonstration of how a person's childhood levels of self-control are linked with outcomes later on in their life. This is important because unlike other traits that are associated with life outcomes - including cleverness, tallness, and beauty - lots of research suggests that self-control is readily amenable to improvement through training.

Terrie Moffitt and her team assessed the self-control of 1000 New Zealand children at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 and then interviewed them when they'd reached the age of 32. The striking finding was that the study participants with poor childhood self-control were more likely in adulthood to have children of their own in a one-parent situation, more likely to have credit and health problems and more likely to have been convicted of a criminal offence, even after factoring out the effects of intelligence and social class. These associations held, albeit to a far weaker extent, even when restricting the analysis to self-control scores obtained at age 3.

To flesh out some examples, the top fifth of the sample in terms of childhood self-control had rates of serious adult health problems at 11 per cent versus 27 per cent for the bottom fifth of the sample. The crime rates in adulthood were 13 per cent for those high in childhood self-control versus 43 per cent for those with low childhood self-control.

The relationship with adult outcomes held across the full-range of childhood self-control scores. In other words, there doesn't appear to be a level of self-control beyond which no more benefits are gleaned. Neither is there a nadir of self-control beneath which no further costs are incurred.

There was also evidence in the data for what the researchers called adolescent "snares" that trapped individuals in harmful lifestyles. For example, children with lower self-control were more likely to smoke in adolescence, to leave school with no qualifications and to become a teenage parent. In turn these teenage "snares" predicted the chances in adulthood of having poor health, financial problems or being a criminal.

Moffitt and her colleagues said their results strengthened the case for introducing self-control enhancement interventions in both childhood and adolescence in what they called a "one-two punch". "... [I]nterventions in adolescence that prevent or ameliorate the consequences of teenagers' mistakes might go far to improve the health, wealth and public safety of the population," they said. "On the other hand, that childhood self-control predicts adolescents' mistakes implies that early childhood intervention could prevent them."

Because the link between childhood self-control and adult outcomes held across the full range of self-control scores, the researchers further recommended introducing universal, rather than targeted, intervention programmes - doing so would help reduce stigma, they said, and could provide benefits even to those who already score highly in self-control.

This study chimes with Walter Mischel's findings when he tracked down the participants from his classic marshmallow research. Those young children who were better able to resist the allure of a cookie or marshmallow grew into teenagers with fewer disciplinary problems and better school results.

ResearchBlogging.orgMoffitt, T., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B., Ross, S., Sears, M., Thomson, W., and Caspi, A. (2011). From the Cover: A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (7), 2693-2698 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1010076108

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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What does your handshake say about you?

We all have our prejudices when reading personality into other people's handshake style - especially at the knuckle-crunching and limp extremes. In a new study, rather than correlating different handshake styles with the assumptions they provoke, Frank Bernieri and Kristen Petty have tested what accurate personality information, if any, is conveyed by handshakes.

The researchers screened the personality of 300 students and selected ten with contrasting personality profiles (five men and five women). These ten folk became the targets who would introduce themselves and either shake hands, or not, with over a hundred student participants (male targets introduced themselves to male participants and female targets met female participants). The participants' task after these five-second introductions was to compare the targets and list them in rank order for each of the Big Five personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness. The key question was whether participants who shook hands with the targets would be more accurate for any of the personality traits than the participants who didn't get to shake hands with the targets.

The format of the introductions was always the same and designed to imitate a job interview situation. Five targets, either all men or all women, walked one at a time into a room in which a participant was seated at a desk, they said their name to the participant (they used a stage name), shook hands or not (for half the participants they did so), and then they went and sat in a nearby chair until the session was over. All targets were instructed to make eye contact when they introduced themselves. The participants only began rating the targets after they'd met all five. Targets and participants had never met before.

Overall, the participants' assessment of the targets' personalities was generally poor except for the extraversion ratings. This is unsurprising given the cursory nature of the introductions. But here's the take-home finding. For male participants only, those who got to shake the targets' hands were substantially more accurate when rating the targets' conscientiousness, a trait that, among other things, is known to be an effective predictor of success at work. Handshaking made no difference to the accuracy of ratings for any of the other personality traits.

Why this one specific insight gleaned from handshaking? Bernieri and Petty's explanation is that conscientiousness is a trait that reflects how successfully a person can learn any complex behaviour, be that a musical instrument or a handshake. "The ubiquitous handshake may not be as ritualized or as precise as the Japanese tea ceremony," they said, "but it certainly requires some knowledge of the prevailing social norms and some interpersonal coordination." In other words, the researchers think that conscientious men are more adept handshakers and this was detected by the participants. For cultural reasons, the researchers think that handshakes don't play as big a role in women's lives and so the same result wasn't found for them. However, they speculated that the same conscientiousness/handshake link might be found with business women who shake hands regularly as part of their professional culture.

"So, are handshakes a window into one's soul?" the researchers asked. "They certainly play a part in generating a first impression, but the data reported here suggest that, with the possible exception of conscientiousness, handshakes should not be considered a necessary diagnostic tool in the evaluation of others. They may, however, predict whether someone will show up for their next appointment with you on time."

If all this talk is causing you concern about your own technique, here's some advice from Emily Post's Etiquette; 'The Blue book of social usage', published in 1940:
"The proper handshake is made briefly: but there should be a feeling of strength and warmth to the clasp, and as in bowing, one should at the same time look into the countenance of the person whose hand one takes."

ResearchBlogging.orgBernieri, F., and Petty, K. (2011). The influence of handshakes on first impression accuracy. Social Influence, 6 (2), 78-87 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.566706

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Sad men throw like girls, or so people think - here's why

People of either sex who throw things in anger are more likely to be perceived as male, whilst those who throw in sadness are more likely to be judged as female. The finding, by Kerri Johnson and her team, builds on face research showing that people hold stereotyped beliefs about gender and emotion - seeing anger as a more male emotion and sadness as more female.

For example, a woman with an ambiguous facial expression is more likely to be judged as sad, whilst a man with an ambiguous expression is more often judged as angry. The problem with this line of investigation is that male faces, with thicker brows and square jaws, often do resemble a prototypical angry expression. So it's not entirely clear that people's biased interpretations of gender and facial emotion are based on gender stereotypes or if they're swayed by genuine sex differences in facial shape.

For the new research, Johnson and her colleagues videoed 14 male and 15 female actors throwing a ball into a bucket. Motion capture technology was used to create point light displays from these videos via markers placed on each actor's shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand. The actors read short paragraphs designed to stir different emotions in them before each throw - angry, neutral, happy or sad. The resulting stimuli simply showed the movement of the thrower's basic joints, seen as white dots against a black background.

A series of studies with dozens of undergrads confirmed that they were able to watch these basic point light displays and judge with some accuracy (up to 80 per cent in some conditions) the gender of the thrower and the emotion they were feeling. But crucially, there was a clear gender/emotion interaction, such that angry throwers were more likely to be judged male and sad throwers were more likely to be judged female. In fact, for angry female throwers, the ability to correctly discern their sex was reduced to no better than guessing, and the same for sad male throwers.

Further analysis and investigation confirmed that this confound existed because participants tended to rate angry throwers as more masculine (regardless of their actual sex) and sad throwers as more feminine.

An alternative, non-stereotype-based explanation for the results - that sad throwers and female throwers both throw with less velocity - was discounted. The male and female throwers in this study didn't differ in the velocity of their throws and the gender/emotion confound remained in place even after the point light displays were doctored to make all the emotions have the same velocity of throwing. 'The most likely explanation [for the findings],' the researchers said, 'is that emotions are gender stereotyped and thus affected sex perception via perceptions of masculinity/femininity.'

ResearchBlogging.orgJohnson, K., McKay, L., and Pollick, F. (2011). He throws like a girl (but only when he’s sad): Emotion affects sex-decoding of biological motion displays. Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.016

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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How losing can increase your chances of winning

When is losing the route to winning? When you're losing by just a little. That's according to Jonah Berger and Devin Pope who think the paradoxical effect works because losing by a whisker is highly motivating.

Berger and Pope began by studying over 18,000 NBA basketball games. Specifically they compared half-time scores with final results. Much of the data was as you'd expect - the further in the lead a team was at half time, the more likely they were to win the game, and vice versa for teams losing at half time. In fact, there was a reliable pattern - for every two points a team was in the lead at half time, they were six to eight per cent more likely to win out at the end.

But there was also a clear blip in the data. Teams that were behind by one point at half time were actually more likely to end up winning than teams that were ahead by one point. Compared against the larger trend, teams behind by one point were approximately six per cent more likely to win than you'd expect - an effect about half the size of the benefit of playing at home. The researchers don't think it has to do with coaches changing strategy or giving inspiring half-time talks: the 'losing leading to winning' effect was no greater among teams with more successful coaches. Rather, Berger and Pope think the effect is purely to do with the motivating influence of being just a bit behind.

The pair tested this idea with a simple lab task. Participants tapped two keyboard keys alternately as fast as they could for thirty seconds in a race against a partner. Then there was a pause in which they were given false performance feedback: told they were far behind their partner, just behind, tied, just ahead, or given no feedback. The 30-second key-tapping was then repeated. The result was striking. Those participants told they were just behind increased their effort in the second phase far more than all the other participants.

A final study was identical except that the researchers also measured the participants' self-efficacy - that is, their belief in their ability to succeed. The just-behind benefit was replicated and for these participants only, self-efficacy made a big difference. That is, participants told they were just-behind at half-time and who had high self-efficacy were the ones who most increased their effort in the second phase. Losing by a whisker is highly motivating it seems, especially for those who believe they can do something about it.

Berger and Pope think their findings have real-life implications, in business as well as in sport. 'Managers trying to encourage employees to work harder, for example, might provide feedback about how a person is doing relative to a slightly better performer,' they said. 'Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is behind should also help focus people on the deficit and subsequently increase effort. This should lead to stronger performance and ultimately success.'

ResearchBlogging.orgBerger, J., and Pope, D. (2011). Can Losing Lead to Winning? Management Science DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.1110.1328 PDF via author website. [HT: Ian Leslie]. 

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Thoughts of death increase the appeal of Intelligent Design

Why do so many people, including many science teachers, continue to find value and appeal in Intelligent Design (ID) - the pseudoscientific account of life's origins that mainstream science has rejected? Part of the answer, according to a new study by psychologists, is that ID offers relief from existential angst, even among those who aren't religious.

Across four studies, hundreds of participants - including psychology students, a diverse sample of US adults, and natural science students - either imagined their own death or a visit to the dentist (used as a control condition), and then read either a short description of ID or of evolutionary theory. They then rated the value and evidence for the theory they'd read about.

For psychology students, being reminded of their own death led them to rate ID more positively, but had no effect on their view of evolutionary theory. For the diverse sample of adults, thoughts of death increased the appeal of ID and led them to derogate evolutionary theory. For natural science students, the opposite pattern was observed - thoughts of death accentuated their support for evolutionary theory and led them to derogate ID.

What's going on here? For psych students, thoughts of death weren't enough for them to disregard evolutionary theory, which their training tells them is over-whelmingly supported by scientific evidence. However, it appears to have made ID more attractive to them, perhaps because the notion of an intelligent designer provides an easy antidote to nihilistic thoughts.

For the diverse adult sample, thoughts of death were enough to turn people against evolutionary theory, with its mechanistic account of life, and to turn them on to ID, with its appealing idea of a superior intelligence. These effects held regardless of the participants' religious status or educational background.

Finally, for the natural science students, for whom evolutionary theory is a vital part of their identity and world-view, thoughts of death actually led them to subscribe more strongly to this theory, presumably because they were able to find solace in its elegant explanatory power and vision. This fits with Terror Management Theory and its findings, which show that people respond to the fear of death by entrenching their cultural world view.

Further support for the idea that evolutionary theory has the potential to be a source of existential comfort came from a fifth study, in which psych students additionally read a poetic account by Carl Sagan of science, and the meaning it gives to life. Reading Sagan's account led these psych students to respond to thoughts of death just like natural science students, by subscribing more strongly to evolutionary theory and derogating ID.

'No previous study has examined whether psychological motives influence the ongoing debate between proponents of Intelligent Design Theory and Evolutionary Theory - a debate of great importance to the future of science and science education,' Jessica Tracy and her colleagues concluded. 'The present research suggests that attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.'

ResearchBlogging.orgTracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017349

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

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

Human Evolution, History and Violence (British Journal of Criminology).

The Psychology and Behavioural Economics of Poverty (Journal of Economic Psychology).

Responding to the Source of Stimulation: J. Richard Simon and the Simon Effect (Acta Psychologica).

Preschool assessment and intervention (Psychology in the Schools).

Frontiers in translational research on trauma (Development and Psychopathology).


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

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Ecological footprint feedback can make some people less green

The benefit of ecological footprint questionnaires for the environmental movement seems obvious enough, especially since the vast majority of people say they care about the planet. For most Westerners, their results on such a questionnaire are sobering, informing them about the unsustainability of their lifestyles. And that, you'd think, would lead them to start behaving in more environmentally friendly ways. Trouble is, it's been shown that if changing their behaviour seems too difficult, many people change their attitudes instead, in this case ditching their pro-environmental beliefs (as a way to reduce what's known as 'cognitive dissonance', which is when there's a mismatch between our attitudes and behaviour).

Amara Brook has illuminated this dilemma further. She measured how important environmental issues were to the self-esteem of 212 undergrads. Then she had them complete an ecological footprint questionnaire to which they received false feedback - either positive or negative (ie they were told that they consumed fewer resources than most people, or far more resources than most people). Finally, they were given the opportunity to write a letter to their local politician, on any pro-social topic they liked.

For those students for whom the environment was not important to their self-esteem, receiving negative feedback on the ecological footprint questionnaire actually prompted them to be less likely to write to their politician about environmental issues (relative to the students who received positive feedback about their footprint). In other words, for people who aren't green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes. For students whose self-esteem was tied to the environment, negative feedback on the footprint questionnaire had the effect you'd expect, prompting them to be more likely to write to their politician about environmental issues.

'Ecological and carbon footprints are in widespread use, but the present study suggests that they may fail to promote or even reduce sustainable behaviour for some people,' Brook wrote. 'Understanding how to modify footprint feedback to more effectively motivate sustainable behaviour is urgently needed.'

One strategy that might help is to provide practical information alongside footprint feedback, outlining ways to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, thus encouraging people to respond to negative feedback by changing their behaviour, rather than abandoning their green sympathies. Or perhaps, Brook said, 'the ecological footprint should be targeted to people who are already invested in environmentalism, such as members of environmental groups, and should be used with caution, if at all, with the broader population.'

ResearchBlogging.orgBrook, A. (2011). Ecological footprint feedback: Motivating or discouraging? Social Influence, 6 (2), 113-128 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.566801

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

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