Pre-school kids reveal their instincts for science

No wonder those introductory chemistry kits sell so well. By four years of age there's already a little scientist inside us, just bursting to get out and into the laboratory of life. That's according to Claire Cook and her colleagues, who have provided further evidence for the precocious scientific skills of young children.

Sixty 4- and 5-year-olds were shown a box-shaped toy that played music and lit up when beads were placed on it. Crucially, some of the children were shown that each of four beads, placed one at a time on the toy, activated it. This was the "unambiguous condition" that implied any old bead is capable of activating the toy. Other children were in an "ambiguous condition": they were shown, by placing beads one at a time on the box, that two of the beads activated it, but two of them didn't. In both conditions, the researchers said afterwards: "Wow, look at that. I wonder what makes the machine go?", followed by: "Go ahead and play".

Next came the key exploratory phase of the study. The children were given two pairs of new beads (different from those seen earlier). One pair was fixed together permanently. The other pair could be snapped apart. They had one minute to play.

Here's the take-home finding: children who'd earlier seen that all beads activate the toy were far less likely to bother snapping apart the snappable bead pair to test which beads activated the toy and which didn't. In fact just 1 out of 20 children in that condition bothered performing this "experiment". By contrast, 19 out of 40 children in the ambiguous condition snapped apart the snappable bead pair and tested which specific beads were capable of activating the toy and which weren't.

A second study was similar to the first, but this time the children were only given a single bead pair that was permanently fixed. This time, to identify precisely which beads activated the toy and which didn't, the children had to come up with the entirely original idea of placing the pair on the toy in such a way that one bead made contact with its surface whilst the other bead hung over the edge. Again, children presented initially with ambiguous evidence (some beads activated the toy, some didn't) were far more likely to perform this original "experiment" to isolate the beads with the activating effect (9 of the children did so; 45 per cent of the group). By contrast, kids shown unambiguous evidence earlier (in which all beads were shown to have an activating effect), almost never performed the "experiment" (just one of them did so; 5 per cent of the group).

It's not simply the case that children played in a more varied manner after seeing the ambiguous demonstration at the study start. Children differed from each other in the variety of their play, but kids in the unambiguous group played on average with just as much variety as kids in the ambiguous group. It's just that the latter kids were specifically more likely to perform the crucial bead "experiment" to find out which were the activating ones.

"These results suggest that pre-schoolers attend to the kinds of evidence that distinguish states of knowledge from states of uncertainty, and generate novel interventions that isolate variables and maximise the potential for information gain," the researchers said.

"... [S]cience requires knowing where there is something to be learned and also how to learn it. Our results suggest that children are sensitive to all of these factors and integrate them to guide exploratory play. We believe these results tighten the analogy to science that has motivated contemporary theories of cognitive development."

ResearchBlogging.orgCook, C., Goodman, N., and Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play. Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

Link to earlier Digest item: Cultivating little scientists from the age of two.

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Brain scans could influence jurors more than other forms of evidence

It's surely just a matter of time until functional MRI brain scans are admitted in US and UK courts. Companies like No Lie MRI have appeared, and there have been at least two recent attempts by lawyers in the USA to submit fMRI-based brain imaging scans as trial evidence.

Functional MRI gauges fluctuating activity levels across the brain, with experts divided on the merits of using the technology as a high-tech lie detection measure (see earlier). The late David McCabe who died earlier this year, and his colleagues, have put that debate to one side. They asked: if fMRI evidence were to be allowed in courts, would it have a particularly influential effect on jurors' decisions? There's good reason to think it might. For example, a 2008 study by Deena Weisberg found that lay people and neuroscience students (but not neuroscience experts) were more satisfied by bad scientific explanations when they contained gratuitous mentions of neuroscience.

For the new study, 330 undergrads at Colorado State University read a vignette about a criminal trial in which a defendant was accused of killing his estranged wife and lover. Various points of evidence were mentioned and summaries of testimony and cross-examination were provided (the vignette amounted to two pages).

Crucially, a sub-set of the participants read a version in which fMRI evidence was cited: "... there was increased activation of frontal brain areas when Givens [the defendant] denied killing his wife and neighbour, as compared to when he truthfully answered questions." For comparison, other participants read a version that either included incriminating evidence from polygraph, from thermal imaging technology (which measures changes in facial skin temperature), or that contained no lie-detection technology.

The key finding was that participants who read the brain-imaging version were far more likely (76 per cent) to say they considered the defendant guilty, compared with participants who read the other versions (47 to 53 per cent). Moreover, the lie-detection evidence was more likely to be cited by participants in the fMRI condition as key to their decision, as compared with participants who read versions that didn't mention fMRI.

The participants were not entirely seduced by fMRI. Some of them were given a slightly different version of the fMRI vignette, in which the expert witness warned about the technology's unreliability. These participants came to a similar proportion of guilty verdicts as the participants who read the vignette versions that lacked fMRI evidence. So it seems the persuasive influence of fMRI evidence can be tempered easily enough if people are reminded of its limitations.

The researchers acknowledged the obvious weaknesses of their study: the use of students as mock jurors, the use of vignettes rather than a real trial, and so on. These caveats aside, they said their data show that fMRI evidence could be more influential than other types of evidence. "... [T]hough determining whether that indicates the evidence would lead to unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence is a complex issue," they said. "At the very least, it appears that juries should be informed of the limitations of fMRI evidence."

ResearchBlogging.orgMcCabe, D., Castel, A., and Rhodes, M. (2011). The Influence of fMRI Lie Detection Evidence on Juror Decision-Making. Behavioral Sciences and the Law DOI: 10.1002/bsl.993

Further reading: The brain on the stand, by Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times magazine.

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On when it feels good to be under-estimated

Imagine that you're a media mogul and you over-hear people estimating how much of the newspaper market you control. Would it be preferable, do you think, to hear an under-estimate or an over-estimate? Xianchi Dai at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his colleagues have addressed this very question, producing some findings that they say have practical social lessons for us all.

Based on classic findings in psychology showing that most of us like to see ourselves in a positive light, the researchers said you'd think that on a valued measure, people would always like to hear over-estimates about themselves. Yet the researchers' new studies have demonstrated that the opposite can also be true. In the first, recent graduates in a large Chinese city reported feeling happier after a former class-mate under-estimated their salary. In a second study, business students in the USA said they'd feel happier in a hypothetical scenario in which they heard class-mates under-estimate their GMAT score (a standard admissions test to management school), as oppose to over-estimate it, or guess spot on.

Why should people sometimes like to hear others under-estimate their success? Dai's team propose an explanation based on the precise circumstances. If you don't actually know the answer to whatever valued measure others are estimating about you, then the researchers believe it is always preferable to hear an over-estimate because of the ego-boosting effects this will have. On the other hand, if you do know the precise amount or score about yourself that other people are estimating, then the researchers believe your preference for an over- or under-estimate will depend on whether your priority is (a) creating a good impression or (b) the true answer. For (a) they think an over-estimate will again be preferred because of the advantage for your image, but for (b) they think an under-estimate will be preferred because it has the effect of making the true answer, which is higher, seem more appealing to you.

Dai's team tested these predictions. Over two hundred business students in the USA were asked to imagine that they over-heard colleagues estimating the size of their (i.e. the participant's) annual bonus. As you'd expect, those participants told they didn't yet know the size of their bonus reported feeling happier after hearing colleagues estimate that they were to be awarded a larger amount. For participants told to imagine that they already knew their bonus size ($15,000), their preference for hearing an under-estimate ($3000) or over-estimate ($30,000) depended on whether they'd additionally been told their priority was that they needed extra cash for a property purchase, or that they wanted their colleagues to think they were valued by the boss.

For the participants seeking to impress their colleagues, hearing an over-estimate was preferred. By contrast, for participants saving for a property purchase, hearing an under-estimate was preferred, presumably because it made the true, larger amount seem all the more gratifying.

These findings suggest some rules for the etiquette of guessing, as the researchers explained:
"Imagine that, at a party, you have learned that your friend, Linda, is selling her house, which you believe is worth approximately $500,000. Her friends, including you, are guessing how much she can sell it for. Because Linda does not yet know the truth (the actual sale proceeds), we suggest that you should guess high, if you intend to make her happy. You might say, 'it's such a nice house, I guess you can sell it for $600k.' Now, imagine an alternative scenario, in which Linda has just sold her house, is desperately in need of money, and cares more about the actual proceeeds than others' impressions. In this case you should guess low. Rather than saying, 'It's such a nice house. You must have sold it for $600k,' you should say, 'I'm not sure. Would $400k sound reasonable?' Now Linda can say to herself, 'Wow, I am glad I sold it for $500k ...' and savour the pleasure."

ResearchBlogging.orgShen, L., Hsee, C., Zhang, J., and Dai, X. (2011). The art and science of guessing. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0022899

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Improving people's memory by punishing their correct answers

A well-established finding in psychology is that successfully retrieving information from memory serves to consolidate the storage of that information. Each time your brain's filing clerk tracks down the right information, the more likely he is to find it another time. Psychologists call this the testing effect - practising retrieval of information is far more effective than simply re-studying that same material.

Can this benefit of testing be enhanced? Yes it can. A new study has provided the first ever demonstration of how to enhance the memory consolidation that occurs after correctly answering a test question. Bridgid Finn and Henry Roediger's important and somewhat surprising new finding is that following a correct answer with an aversive stimulus serves to enhance the consolidation of that memory. It's like punishing the filing clerk after each correct retrieval makes him even more accurate in the future.

Forty undergrads studied multiple lists of ten word-pairs, each featuring a Swahili word and its English translation. After each list of ten, they were tested. Presented with the Swahili, they had to answer with the English. Here's the important bit. If they answered correctly, one of three things happened immediately: a blank screen appeared, a neutral picture appeared (e.g. a fork) or a negative, aversive picture appeared (e.g. a dead cat).

After this pattern of study period and test had been followed for ten lists of ten word-pairs, the participants were then given a jumbo test of all 100 Swahili words. Here's the key result: for those items answered correctly in the earlier mini-tests, it was those that were followed by a nasty picture that were most likely to be accurately recalled in the final jumbo test. Earlier correct answers that had been followed by a neutral pic or blank screen were not so well remembered (and performance was equivalent across the blank/neutral conditions).

"These data are the first to show that arousal following successful retrieval of information enhances later recall of that information," the researchers said.

A follow-up study was similar to the first but this time correct answers in the initial mini-tests were followed by neutral or aversive pictures that appeared two seconds later, as opposed to appearing immediately as they did in the first study. This was to see if there was a narrow window beyond which a negative stimulus wouldn't any longer enhance the consolidating effect of correct retrieval. The results were just the same as for the first study, so even two seconds later, a nasty picture is still able to enhance the memory consolidating effect of a correct retrieval. Future studies are needed to test just how long after a correct retrieval this process is still effective, and to see if positive images exert a similar benefit.

Finally, the researchers looked to see if the presentation of a negative pic has its memory enhancing effect after items are merely re-studied, as opposed to recalled. A similar protocol with Swahili-English word pairs was followed as before, but this time, instead of mini-tests after each set of ten word pairs, the participants were simply given the pairs to study again, with each pair proceeded either by a blank screen, neutral picture or nasty picture. This time, there was no benefit of the negative pics. In fact, there was a trend for pairs to be recalled less often if they'd been followed by a nasty pic in the earlier study phase.

Why should negative images boost the consolidating effects of answering a test item correctly? Finn and Roediger aren't sure but think it has to do with links between the amygdala, which is involved in fear learning, and the hippocampus - a brain area involved in long-term memory storage. This is a rather vague account and doesn't explain why aversive stimuli only enhance memory after correct retrieval, not further study. By way of further context, a 2006 study showed the presentation of aversive images after to-be-learned stimuli was beneficial during the initial study of that material.


I couldn't help wondering what Milgram would have made of this study. Recall that participants in his classic obedience research thought they were taking part in an investigation of the effects of punishment on learning. In Milgram's mock set-up, the "learner" was subjected to an electric shock each time they answered incorrectly. Of course, Milgram wasn't really studying memory, but this new article suggests that he could have been onto something. Somewhat paradoxically, though, it seems it's correctly answered items that ought to be followed by an aversive stimulus, not incorrect answers.
_________________________________ Finn, B., and Roediger, H. (2011). Enhancing Retention Through Reconsolidation: Negative Emotional Arousal Following Retrieval Enhances Later Recall. Psychological Science, 22 (6), 781-786 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611407932

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:

Psychotherapists' Personal Therapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

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

Jury Simulation Research: Student Versus Community Samples (Behavioral Sciences and the Law).

Assessment of Emotion in Children and Adolescents (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology).

Implementing evidence-based interventions for substance use disorders (Psychology of Addictive Behaviours).

From environmental enrichment to Fragile X: The retirement of William Greenough (Developmental Psychobiology).

Engaging Communities to End Sexual Violence: Current Research on Bystander Focused Prevention (Violence Against Women).

[This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.]
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The first ever experimental investigation of laughing at oneself

To be capable of laughing at oneself is usually considered a mark of good character and the foundation of a robust sense of humour. Yet this is a behaviour that's barely been touched on by psychologists. Opinions have been expressed - for example, La Fave and his colleagues thought that laughing at oneself was never genuine and couldn't be a truly happy event. But for largely practical reasons, experiments on the topic are non-existent. Now Ursula Beermann and Willibald Ruch have shown one way to do it.

Sixty-seven undergrads rated their own ability to laugh at themselves and they nominated one or two peers to provide third-party ratings of the same. Sneakily, whilst the participants filled out these and other questionnaires at a computer, a screen camera took pictures of them. A little later the participants were asked to rate distorted pictures of the faces of unfamiliar men and women. To their surprise, included in the selection were the sneaky photos taken earlier of themselves. These photos of the participants had also been distorted to be, for example, stretched wide as if looking in a spoon (the Mac "Photobooth" software was used to create these effects).

The participants were filmed while they rated the photos so the researchers could later analyse the footage to see whether the participants laughed at the distorted images of themselves. Ekman's Facial Action Coding system, which focuses on the flexing of specific facial muscles, was used to decode the participants' facial expressions, and in particular to look for signs of genuine "Duchenne smiles", which are symmetrical and involve creasing of the muscles around the eyes. Signs of laughter were also noted.

The findings seemed to validate the new methodological approach. Although 80 per cent of participants flashed a genuine smile at least once on seeing their own distorted image, it was those who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves, and whose peers agreed with this verdict, who showed more frequent and intense smiling and laughter in response to the distorted self-images, and fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion. On the other hand, there was no correlation between participants' ability to laugh at themselves (based on self- and peer-report) and the amount of laughter triggered by distorted images of other people's faces. This suggests that proclivity for laughing at oneself really is a distinct trait, separate from a general readiness to laugh.

Finally, those participants who laughed more at themselves tended to have more cheerful, less serious dispositions and to be in a better mood on the day of testing.

"...[T]he current study succeeded in providing the first empirical evidence on the phenomenon of laughing at oneself," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeermann, U., and Ruch, W. (2011). Can people really “laugh at themselves?”—Experimental and correlational evidence. Emotion, 11 (3), 492-501 DOI: 10.1037/a0023444

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We sit near people who look like us

The next time you're in an audience, turn to the person sat next to you and take a good look. That's what you look like, that is. Scary eh? Sean Mackinnon and his research team have shown that people sit next to people who resemble themselves. The effect is more than just people of the same sex or ethnicity tending to aggregate - a phenomenon well documented by earlier research. The new finding could help explain why it is that people so often resemble physically their friends and romantic partners (known as "homophily") - if physically similar people choose to sit near each other, they will have more opportunities to forge friendships and romances.

Mackinnon's team first noted the seating positions of hundreds of different students in a 31-seat computer lab 21 times over 3 months, and whether or not they were wearing glasses - a simple proxy for physical similarity. The students, it was found, sat next to someone who matched them on glass-wearing status far more often than would be expected if they were randomly distributed (the effect size was .63).

A second study of 18 university classes involving over two thousand students expanded this finding to show people were more likely to sit next to someone who matched them on glass-wearing, hair colour and hair length, than would be expected by chance. This held true even focusing just on females or just on Caucasians, thus showing the physical similarity effect is more than mere aggregation by sex or race.

But what if people sit next to physically similar others simply as a side-effect of tending to sit near to friends or partners who, as prior research has shown, tend to be physically similar? A third study addressed this concern by seeing how close participants sat to a stranger. Seventy-two participants took part in what they thought was a study into non-verbal behaviours, part of which involved pulling a chair up to an unfamiliar co-participant (a role played by an actor) so as to interview each other. As expected, participants who more closely resembled the young lady (a 20-year-old brown-haired Caucasian) tended to choose to sit closer to her.

Why do we choose to sit near people who look like ourselves? Clues come from Mackinnon's final study. One hundred and seventy-four participants looked at photos of eight individuals and rated how much they liked them, how much they perceived them to have similar attitudes, and thought they would be accepted by them. They also said how close they would choose to sit near each person. Consistent with the earlier studies, participants said they'd sit nearer those individuals who resembled them (based on similarity ratings provided by independent judges). They also thought these physically similar individuals would share their attitudes, they liked them more, and they expected to be accepted by them, as compared with their judgments about physically dissimilar others. The shared attitudes factor was the strongest. A further possibility is that seeking proximity to physically similar others is an evolutionary hang-over - an instinct for staying close to genetically similar kin.

"Though perhaps appearing innocuous on the surface, the simple process of choosing to sit beside people who are similar to us can have broad implications at the macro level," the researchers said. " ... [S]egregation may occur, which can result in myriad prejudices and misunderstandings. Of course, this tendency is merely one portion of the overall processes that contribute to segregation and homophily more generally, but given the implications for racial and ethnic segregation, it is certainly a phenomenon with profound implications worthy of further pursuit."

ResearchBlogging.orgMackinnon, S., Jordan, C., and Wilson, A. (2011). Birds of a Feather Sit Together: Physical Similarity Predicts Seating Choice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (7), 879-892 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211402094

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Has the Internet become an external hard drive for the brain?

Last year's annual question posed by Edge was "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" Several psychologists answered that it was becoming an extension of their minds. "The Internet is a kind of collective memory,’ wrote Stephen Kosslyn (Harvard University). "When I write with a browser open in the background, it feels like the browser is an extension of myself."

A research team led by Betsy Sparrow has now tested the idea that the Internet really has become a kind of memory prosthesis. First they showed that difficult questions prompted dozens of undergrad participants to think automatically of computers and search engines. Participants tackled either easy or difficult trivia questions and then completed a version of the classic Stroop task: they had to look at a series of words and say what colour ink they were written in. After difficult questions, participants were extra slow at naming the colour of words like "Google". This is a sign that the search engine concept was salient in their minds and therefore interfered more with the process of colour naming.

Next, a group of dozens more undergrad participants read 40 trivia statements and then typed them into a computer. Half the participants were told that the computer would save their entry, the others were told the entries would be deleted. Participants in the "saved" condition performed worse at a subsequent recall test of the statements, as if they'd relied on the computer as an external memory store. Half the participants in both conditions had been instructed explicitly to try to remember the statements, but this made no difference to their memory performance. "Participants were more impacted by the cue that information would or would not be available to them, regardless of whether they thought they would be tested on it," the researchers said.

In another task, a group of participants read trivia statements and then typed them out, with a message telling them which folder the statement had been saved in. Ten minutes later they wrote out as many of the statements as they could, and then they attempted to recall which folder each statement, identified by a single prompt, had been saved to (e.g. "What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?"). The striking finding here is that participants were better at remembering the location of the statements than the statements themselves. What's more, they were more likely to remember the location of statements which they'd failed to recall. It's as if we've become adept at using computers to store knowledge for us, and we're better at remembering where information is stored than the information itself.

"This is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item," the researchers said. "One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory - to include the computer and online searches as an external memory system that can be accessed at will."


The issue of whether and how the Internet is changing our brains and the way we think tends to generate a lot of hyperbole and hot air. There is in fact a long history of technology exciting such reactions. Against that context, it's refreshing to have some new, relevant data (also see here) as opposed to yet more excitable conjecture. However, it's important to keep these new findings in perspective: they hint at how the Internet could be altering our memory habits, but they haven't demonstrated that this is any different from other forms of memory support. For example, similar results might have been obtained if trivia statements had been written in notebooks or told to friends, as opposed to typed into a computer. Of course it pays to note that the present study didn't actually involve the Internet at all. And there's also no evidence here of any irreversible effects  - our minds are likely adapting to technology all the time, as they do to everything else, but there's no reason they couldn't adapt back again if necessary.

ResearchBlogging.orgB Sparrow, J Liu, and M Wegner (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science : 10.1126/science.1207745

[This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.]
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Babies prefer Picasso

Still life with guitar by Picasso [c.]
Psychologists who study art appreciation have their work cut out. How does one begin to untangle cultural influences from more basic perceptual factors - the cachet from the contours? Well one way is to study babies, because they're obviously too young to know about cultural fads and artistic reputations.

Trix Cacchione and her team at the University of Zurich presented nine-month old babies with paintings by the cubist painter Picasso and the impressionist Monet. Their first aim was to see if the babies could tell the difference between the two painting styles. They did this by continually presenting the babies with different paintings by one of the artists until they grew bored (known as "habituation") and then seeing if the babies treated the sight of a painting by the other artist as somehow different, and therefore more worthy of their attention. The finding here was that babies who'd habituated to Monet were thereafter more attracted to a painting by Picasso, as revealed when new paintings by each artist were presented together side by side. There was clearly something novel about a Picasso painting that they perceived and found stimulating, which led them to look at it more. However, the reverse wasn't true. Babies habituated to Picasso preferred to look at yet another Picasso painting rather than enjoy the greater novelty of a Monet.

Next the researchers checked the babies could distinguish between different paintings by the same artist. They found that babies habituated to one particular Picasso were attracted to a new Picasso more than a repeat. Ditto for Monet - the babies preferred a new Monet to a familiar old one.

So why did the babies prefer to look at yet another Picasso, even after they'd seen loads of them, rather than enjoy the novelty of a Monet? The implication is that the appeal of a Picasso overpowers the novelty of a Monet. There's clearly something about Picasso, but what is it?

Cacchione's team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso's use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.

The most likely explanation then is that it's something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies. One further factor, which the current study didn't look at, is luminance or "perceived lightness". The researchers said it's possible that babies prefer Picasso because of the greater luminance of his paintings. Crucially, luminance is processed mostly by the dorsal visual stream (the "where pathway"). This would fit with the idea that babies don't yet have a fully developed visual system - in particular the ventral stream (also known as the "what pathway") is immature.

"Many of Monet's paintings have so little luminance contrast that it is impossible to recognise their elements on the basis of dorsal processing," the researchers said. "It is possible that infants preferred paintings by Picasso, because they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system."

A final possibility is that there's something about Monet that babies don't like, rather than there being something particularly appealing about Picasso. Only further studies with more babies and different artists will get to the truth of why there appears to be something about Picasso.

ResearchBlogging.orgCacchione, T., Möhring, W., and Bertin, E. (2011). What is it about Picasso? Infants' categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0024129

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Does crying really make you feel better?

Psychologists have made surprisingly little progress in explaining why we cry. A popular idea is that crying is cathartic - that the tears of sadness wash away life's woes like detritus carried off in the tide. This has been supported by retrospective surveys that ask people how they felt after previous bouts of crying. Lab studies, by contrast, which involve participants watching weepie movies, have found crying to have no such benefit. Both approaches, however, are seriously flawed. Findings from the retrospective approach are prone to memory distortion and people's answers are likely influenced by the popular cathartic idea. Lab studies, meanwhile, suffer from a lack of realism.

A superior method is to have participants complete a daily crying diary for an extended period of time, to be completed each night - soon enough to reduce memory distortions, but not too intrusive to interfere with the behaviour under observation. Believe or not, just one diary study of crying has been conducted before. Now Lauren Bylsma and her colleagues have performed the second, involving 97 female undergrads who completed a crying diary, including questions about daily mood and crying context, for between 40 and 73 days. In all, 1004 crying episodes were documented, and all participants cried at least once. Most bouts of crying were triggered by conflict; the next most common reason was loss, followed by personal failing.

Bylsma's headline finding is that crying mostly had little positive benefit, at least not on overall daily mood. Not only did crying episodes tend to be preceded by two days of lower daily mood, they were also associated with lower daily mood on the day of crying and lower daily mood on two successive days afterwards. For mood in the specific moments after a crying session, the results were more encouraging. Most often mood was reported as unchanged (60.8 per cent), but 30 per cent of sessions were associated with a positive mood change, with 8.8 per cent leading to a deterioration in mood.

Other findings included: more intense (but not longer) crying episodes were associated with more positive mood outcomes, as were crying episodes that followed a feeling of inadequacy and that triggered a positive change in the situation. Also, crying in the company of one other person was associated more often with positive mood change than was crying alone or crying in the company of multiple people. Conflict tears tended not to be associated with a positive mood change, undermining the idea that tears can defuse social tensions.

The study has its limitations - for example, the mood scale only had a three-point range, and of course it's a shame that men weren't included too. But even granted these limitations, the researchers emphasised that theirs was "the first extended examination of the relationship between crying and mood using detailed contextual information from multiple crying episodes and, as such, represents an important step towards understanding this striking human behaviour."

ResearchBlogging.orgBylsma, L., Croon, M., Vingerhoets, A., and Rottenberg, J. (2011). When and for whom does crying improve mood? A daily diary study of 1004 crying episodes. Journal of Research in Personality, 45 (4), 385-392 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.04.007

Related Digest item: What does crying do for you?

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Men are as motivated by cute baby faces as women

Cuteness as an evolutionary adaptation
Both Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, wrote about the appeal of baby faces as a possible adaptive mechanism. They surmised that babies' perceived cuteness could be nature's way of ensuring the little terrors get looked after. Now a team led by Morten Kringelbach and Christine Parsons has shown that men are as motivated by baby faces as women. Kringelbach is the same researcher who a few years ago showed that looking at baby faces, as opposed to adult faces, is associated with a distinct pattern of brain activity in the orbitofrontal cortex - a kind of neural "cuteness response".

For the new study, 31 men and 37 women (average age 20 years), all with limited experience of babies, looked at photographs of the faces of 70 babies (aged 3 to 12 months), each shown for five seconds, and rated their attractiveness. These results conformed to cultural stereotypes about gender differences, with the women tending to rate the babies as more attractive than the men (no such gender difference emerged for the rating of adult faces). A desire to conform to gender roles could have played a role here. However, both men and women rated as more attractive those baby faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal: a large rounded forehead, large low-set eyes, a short and narrow nose and a small chin.

In another part of the experiment, performed either before or after the attractiveness ratings, the participants were able to press a button repeatedly to control how long each baby face remained on the screen. This was taken as a measure of how much the participants were motivated to look at the faces. In this case the men scored just the same as the women. Moreover, for both men and women it was those faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal that they made the effort to look at for longer.

"Our findings indicate that both men and women appraise what is colloquially described as a 'cute' unfamiliar infant positively, and they will work to see that infant for longer than an infant with less 'cute' features," the researchers said. "This is in line with previous studies showing that 'cuter' infants are rated as more friendly, cheerful, and likeable and are rated as more 'adoptable'."

ResearchBlogging.orgParsons, C., Young, K., Kumari, N., Stein, A., and Kringelbach, M. (2011). The Motivational Salience of Infant Faces Is Similar for Men and Women. PLoS ONE, 6 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020632

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Why is a touch on the arm so persuasive?

A gentle touch on the arm can be surprisingly persuasive. Consider these research findings. Library users who are touched while registering, rate the library and its personnel more favourably than the non-touched; diners are more satisfied and give larger tips when waiting staff touch them casually; people touched by a stranger are more willing to perform a mundane favour; and women touched by a man on the arm are more willing to share their phone number or agree to a dance. Why should this be? Up until now research in this area has been exclusively behavioural: these effects have been observed, but we don't really know why. Now a study has made a start at understanding the neuroscience of how touch exerts its psychological effects.

Annett Schirmer and her colleagues used EEG to record the surface electrical activity of the brains of dozens of female participants who were tasked with looking at neutral or negative pictures (e.g. a basket or a gun to the head). Before each picture appeared, the participants were sometimes touched on the arm by a female friend; touched by a mechanical device (a pressure cuff); or they received no touch. The idea was to see whether and how being touched changed the way the brain responded to emotional and neutral pictures.

A further detail is that the mechanical touch was described as either under the friend's control, with the friend located elsewhere, or under computer control. This was to see if physical proximity matters and whether it matters who does the touching. For comparison, a final experiment also tested the effect of an auditory tone, which preceded some pictures but not others.

The most important finding is that a touch on the arm enhanced the brain's response to emotional pictures, as revealed by the size of what's known as the late positive component (LPC) of electrical brain activity. The LPC is thought to be associated with evaluative mental processes and a touch led to a greater LPC for emotional pictures compared with neutral ones.

Touch had this effect regardless of how it was administered and who did the administering (friend or machine). This suggests the reported effects of touch are largely "bottom up" - that is, based mainly on the incoming stimulation - rather than "top down", to do with beliefs about the meaning of the touch. Unlike touch, the auditory tone didn't increase the brain's sensitivity to emotional pictures.

"Emotional information presented concurrently with touch may be more motivating such that more processing resources are allocated to them than to emotional information presented without touch," the researchers said.

One consequence of this, Schirmer's team speculated, could be that the touched person is primed to be more altruistic, consistent with previous behavioural results. "Based on the present findings," they explained, "we propose that such behaviour occurs because the tactile signal alerts its recipient and enhances the processing of concurrent events, particularly if they are emotional. Such enhanced processing may then, among others, boost empathy and increase the likelihood that the touch recipient acts in favour of the toucher."

ResearchBlogging.orgSchirmer, A., Teh, K., Wang, S., Vijayakumar, R., Ching, A., Nithianantham, D., Escoffier, N., and Cheok, A. (2011). Squeeze me, but don't tease me: Human and mechanical touch enhance visual attention and emotion discrimination. Social Neuroscience, 6 (3), 219-230 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2010.507958

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:

Neuropsychology of Prospective Memory (Neuropsychologia).

Translational models of prefrontal cortical function (Behavioural Neuroscience).

Personality and economics (Personality and Individual Differences).

Peter Lomas special issue (European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling). Lomas was an influential psychotherapist (read his Guardian obituary).

Elucidating the neural basis of the self (Neurocase).

Age and the Cultivation of Place (Journal of Aging Studies).

Origins of Ownership of Property (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

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

Our dreams lose their colour as we get older. (see earlier item on the Digest).

Infant whining is uniquely distracting, even more than machine noise (pdf).

For Fun, Love, or Money: What Drives Workaholic, Engaged, and Burned-Out Employees at Work?

Identifying uncoerced false confessions as told by real offenders: "more self-deprecations and doubts about own testimony in the told lies, and more unexpected complications in the truths."

Wishful Thinking Belief, Desire, and the Motivated Evaluation of Scientific Evidence. (see earlier item on the Digest).

Psychological Health of Orphan Bonobos and Chimpanzees in African Sanctuaries.

You may have heard of Cyberball, a computer-based passing game that's used to study the effects of ostracism (when the other players don't pass you the ball). A new study uses a variation on this theme "Cyberbomb", in which the ball can explode. Now participants don't mind being left out so much. "Results showed that such a symbolic threat to survival is able to reduce the immediate distress caused by ostracism," the researchers said.

Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific.

You filthy beast! What makes animal metaphors so offensive?

Little evidence that rates of common mental disorder are rising in England.

[This post was compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.]
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Scientists who rock

Joseph LeDoux
The review journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a reflective essay in-press written by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and performer with the Amygdaloids, a band that sings songs about "love and life peppered with insights drawn from research about mind and brain and mental disorders".

As well as providing interesting background info on the Amygdaloids (they're currently working on a EP called In Our Minds), LeDoux reflects on why so many scientists are drawn to music, and he talks about the benefits that performing music has brought to his own life and work. "Playing music makes me a healthier, happier person," he says. "It not only connects me with others in a unique way, it also makes connections in my own mind, drawing up emotions and thoughts I didn’t know I had."

LeDoux also gives plenty of examples of other scientists who rock:
"Dan Levitin, author of bestselling books, This Is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs, is part of the Diminished Faculties at McGill University. Harvard molecular biologist, Pardis Sabetti, heads Thousand Days. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, has played at benefits with Joe Perry of Arrowsmith. Richard Brown, a philosopher at CUNY, is in the house band of a monthly jam session he organizes (The Amygdaloids played at their Qualia Freak Fest last year). Dave Sulzer, a neuroscientist at Columbia, has an alter ego as David Soldier, the leader of an avant garde music group. A biology-based bluegrass band in New York is called the Southern Blots. There’s a band of shrinks called The Psy- choanalytics. A New Jersey punk band is named the Lonely Ions. The Periodic Table hails from Long Island. Ryan Johnson of Michigan State is in Kinase Moves. The Science Fair is a jazz group from Norway that sings about science.
Andy Revkin, a biologist and New York Times environmental writer is part of the roots group Uncle Wade. Freaks of Nature are a science band from Philadelphia. The Cell Mates are from Yale. Darwin’s Finches are an a capella group from Rockefeller University. MacArthur awardee David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, plays guitar for Seattle band Big Dirt. Mike Shadlen, also at the University of Washington, fronts the Turing Machines. Chris Code, a psychologist from Exeter in the UK, is in Broken Road. The Society for Neuroscience has a music social every year at its annual meeting, where brain geeks strap on guitars and other instruments. And we shouldn’t overlook that there are some really well known rockers with connections to science. Brian May of Queen has a PhD in astronomy and spends part of his time these days teaching at Imperial College London. Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion has a PhD from Cornell and teaches life science at UCLA. They Might Be Giants does some science-themed songs. We Are Scientists, on the other hand, seem to only be connected to science in name."
To his list I can add at least four psychologists who rock: Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster plays keyboard and sings backing vocals in a band; Ellen Poliakoff, a psychologist at the University of Manchester is in a band called Stray Light; Rob Hughes, a psychologist at Cardiff was in a band called Alien Matter; and psychologist Stephen Kosslyn was in a band when he lived in Cambridge Massachusetts. Do you know of any other psychologists who rock?

Update. More psychologists/neuroscientists who rock (grabbed from comments or Twitter): Stats whiz Andy Field drums with Fracture Pattern; Charles Fernyhough plays guitar with the Aimless Mules; Tim Byron plays keyboard with Lazy Susan; Roy Baumeister apparently plays guitar; Matt Wall is a UCL neuroscientist who plays guitar in a pub-rock covers band; and post-doctoral psychology researcher Dan Carney plays guitar and sings in the folk/indie/electronic band Dark Captain Light Captain (they've had Single of The Week on iTunes US, toured the UK, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and been played on Radio 1/Radio 2/XFm etc... They've also soundtracked a Royal Bank of Scotland advert and had their music used on numerous TV programmes both here and abroad!).

-Read The Flip Side: Scientists Who Rock (pdf) by Joseph LeDoux.

(Thanks to Tadhg MacIntyre for the tip-off about this article, and about Kosslyn).
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Doubts cast on imagery as a rehab tool for stroke patients

Wouldn't it be marvellous if brain-damaged stroke patients could use mental practice to rehabilitate their weakened limbs? This isn't as far fetched as it sounds. Merely imagining performing a movement, or watching someone else execute a movement, provokes activity in the same brain areas that are involved when carrying out that movement with your own body. This suggests imagery exercises could help forge new connections in damaged neural networks involved in actual bodily movement. Indeed, several small-scale studies have reported that mental imagery helps stroke patients recover their limb use, above and beyond the benefits from standard physical therapy.

What's been lacking is a larger study with recently afflicted patients, an adequate control condition, and with the imagery intervention kept separate from standard physical therapy. Now psychologist Magdalena Ietswaart and her colleagues have published the results from just such a study. Sadly the outcome is disappointing.

Ietswaart's team recruited 121 patients within one to six months of their having suffered a stroke, all of whom had significant weakness in one of their arms. Forty-one of these patients were then enrolled on an intensive four-week mental imagery intervention, which involved a total of nine hours supervised exercises and four hours of independent work.

The programme was extraordinarily thorough. As well as basic imagination exercises designed to target the damaged brain areas involved in motor control (e.g. imagining opening and closing the hand), there were also mirror and video techniques to aid the imagination process. For example, placing the weakened hand under a video display of a moving healthy hand can create the illusion that the weakened limb is moving, thus triggering activity in relevant brain areas. There was also a mental rotation exercise, involving rotating pictures of hands - again this has been shown to stimulate the desired motor areas of the brain.

Of the remaining patients, 39 were enrolled on a four-week placebo programme designed to match all the mental effort and therapist attention involved in the imagery programme. But instead of using motor imagery, this group spent their time visualising flowers and other static scenes. A final group of 41 patients had care as usual. Patients in all groups underwent standard physical therapy, but this was kept separate from the imagery work.

When tested soon after the intervention phase, patients in all groups had shown improvement in use of their weakened limb compared with baseline. But here's the rub: there was no difference between groups, either in the amount of limb improvement, or in secondary measures such as independent living. This result suggests the positive outcome for imagery found in previous small studies may have been based on non-specific effects, such as increased motivation. Alternatively, it may be that mental imagery only works as an adjunct to physical exercises, helping to consolidate the progress made with specific, related movements. This new study is the first to study mental imagery as a separate intervention in its own right.

The new findings undermine the idea that mental imagery on its own can help the brain forge new functional connections. If imagery only works by consolidating the benefits of related physical exercise, the researchers said this would significantly diminish its value as an rehabilitation intervention. Apart from anything else, they noted, it would suggest mental imagery could only be used to help patients who are already capable of performing physical exercises.
Ietswaart, M., Johnston, M., Dijkerman, H., Joice, S., Scott, C., MacWalter, R., and Hamilton, S. (2011). Mental practice with motor imagery in stroke recovery: randomized controlled trial of efficacy. Brain, 134 (5), 1373-1386 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr077

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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This picture will make it more likely that you'll seek help

Prompts in the environment make their way beneath your conscious radar and into your mind, affecting your mood and behaviour. Past research has shown that a briefcase, as opposed to a rucksack, on a table, leads people to behave more competitively. A wall poster featuring a pair of staring eyes increases people's use of an honesty box. And a 2009 study found that pictures of companionable dolls increased the likelihood that toddlers would help a stranger pick up sticks they'd dropped. Now Mark Rubin at the University of Newcastle has added to this literature with an adult study showing that pictures of companionship don't just increase the giving of help, they also increase the intention to seek help.

Actual pictures used in the study
Over a hundred students answered questions online about their general proclivity for seeking help or doing things on their own. Next they were shown a photograph of two people standing side-by-side in the corridor - either a man and woman, or woman and child - and asked to imagine for a minute that they were the woman, in the first case, or a child if they saw the second picture. Crucially, half the participants saw a version in which the two people were holding hands whilst the remaining participants saw a version in which the two people were not holding hands.

This subtle difference had a significant effect on the answers participants gave to the next eight questions they were asked, all of which pertained to whether they would seek help from other people in a lab report they had to complete later in the semester. Participants who'd seen the photo in which the two people were holding hands were far more likely to say that they would seek help than were the participants who'd seen the other picture. The difference according to Cohen's measure of effect size was small to medium, which is impressive given the subtlety of the intervention. Moreover, Rubin found this main effect held regardless of how prone people were to seeking help in general, and it held regardless of how suspicious participants were about the aims of the study. It also didn't make any difference if the hand-holding cue was seen in a romantic or parental context.

Obviously future research is needed to see if this effect applies with a non-student sample, with a non-academic helping context and with actual help-seeking behaviour rather than merely help-seeking intentions. "These findings are consistent with [the] suggestion that affiliation cues activate a broad prosocial orientation," Rubin concluded. "In particular, it appears that this prosocial orientation applies not only to others (i.e. help giving) but also to the self (i.e. help seeking)."

ResearchBlogging.orgRubin, M. (2011). Social affiliation cues prime help-seeking intentions. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 43 (2), 138-141 DOI: 10.1037/a0022246

Further reading: Mind Wide Open, the psychology of non-conscious influences.

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