The Special Issue Spotter

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

The specialization of function: Cognitive and neural perspectives on modularity (Cognitive Neuropsychology).

The effects of early experience and stress on brain and behavioural development (International Journal of Behavioural Development).

The interplay between collective memory and the erosion of nation states – the paradigmatic case of Belgium (Memory Studies).

Theory and Research on Collective Action in the European Journal of Social Psychology (European Journal of Social Psychology).

Child Development in Developing Countries (Child Development).

Collaboration in Psychotherapy (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Psychology ignored and depression neglected in the media's coverage of mental health research

Research into some mental disorders receives disproportionate media coverage at the expense of other disorders. That's according to the first systematic study of the way the UK mass media covers mental illness. And in a wake-up call to psychology and its advocates, the analysis found that mental health research stories were biased towards neurobiological aspects of mental illness. They tended to be accompanied by commentary from medical charities, and to neglect psychosocial angles and opinion.

George Szmukler at the Institute of Psychiatry and his colleagues focused on coverage of mental disorders research on the BBC news website from 1999 to 2008, and in New Scientist magazine news and features from Aug 2008 to April 2010. This led to the identification of 1015 relevant stories on the BBC (102 per year) and 133 stories from New Scientist (76 per year).

The approach of Szmukler and co was to compare rates of coverage for various mental disorders against the disease burden of those disorders as measured by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Disease burden is calculated based on years of life lost due to dying early, and years of life affected by disability and loss of full health.

Providing some background context, the researchers said the UK disease burden of mental disorders is 60 per cent greater than cancer, yet in the period studied the BBC had half as many news stories on mental disorder research as compared with cancer research (in defence of the BBC, cancer is the subject of more research than mental disorders). By contrast, New Scientist had 2.5 times as many mental disorder research stories as cancer research stories.

Comparing coverage of research into various mental disorders, both the BBC and New Scientist tended to neglect depression, which is the mental disorder with the greatest disease burden by far. The BBC also tended to neglect alcoholism, whilst focusing more on drug addiction. It also focused disproportionately more than other conditions on Alzheimer's Disease and sleep disorders.

There was also a bias in the type of research that received BBC and New Scientist attention. Seventy-five per cent of the BBC's coverage was on biological research; New Scientist showed a similar trend. "Both sources rarely reported on psychological interventions," the researchers said: on the BBC it was one per cent of stories; for New Scientist it was 1.5 per cent. The dominant approach of both outlets was to present mental disorders as neurobiological in origin. The researchers don't know what proportion of research into mental health disorders is actually psychological, but they said "it is unlikely that talking treatments, in particular, would be so poorly represented."

Most stories on the BBC were accompanied by quotes from commentators intended to provide some context, including from 973 named individuals. There was a bias towards medical commentary. The six most frequently quoted commentators included three from the Alzheimer's Society, two from the Alzheimer's Research Trust and one from SANE. Szmukler and his team said that there was a need for organisations like the Mental Health Research Network to examine ways "in which commentators can be made more readily available across the whole spectrum of mental health research."

The researchers concluded that it was important to study the way the mass media covers mental health research because the media can influence the public's perception of disorders and their perception of the value of different types of research. In turn, this can affect funding decisions by government. In this respect, it is worrying that psychological research into mental disorders was found to have received so little coverage. On a positive note, the overall quality of the analysed news stories was found to be high and to have a neutral or sympathetic tone.

"Studies of media reporting of research, such as this one, can provide ideas as to how the research community, together with its funders and other supporters, can enhance the range and quality of media coverage," the researchers said.


Lewison, G., Roe, P., Wentworth, A., and Szmukler, G. (2011). The reporting of mental disorders research in British media. Psychological Medicine, 42 (02), 435-441 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291711001012

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Links to the best psychology and neuroscience writing and broadcasting, compiled for your weekend pleasure:

The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine is online (browse the contents or view the free preview). It includes an open-access feature on self-control by Roy Baumeister.

You can also listen to Baumeister's recent talk at the RSA in London.

How are you going to read all these links? Fear not: This Saturday's Guardian comes with a free supplement on time management (also online).

New Yorker podcast of Jonah Lehrer explaining why brain storming doesn't work, but coffee breaks and criticism do. These ideas and more are in Lehrer's forthcoming book: "Imagine: How Creativity Works". I've covered similar ground on the Digest. Check out these previous posts: Why do we still believe in group brainstorming? Forget brainstorming - try brain writing! and Coffee helps women cope with stressful meetings but has the opposite effect on men.

Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias was another recent speaker at the RSA - listen to the audio.

A new book that's worth a look: "Together The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation" by Richard Sennett.

Another new book that's worth a look: "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking" by Susan Cain.

BBC Radio 3 have broadcast a series of shorts about phonophobia - the fear and intolerance of noise.

A new video collection website features dozens of lectures for school students by university researchers.

Catch it while you can "Freud vs. Jung" from BBC Radio 4 is available for just one more day.

John Gray argues why Freud "the last great Enlightenment thinker" has gone out of fashion.

This could be Jung's century argues Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels.

This interest in Freud and Jung is due to the forthcoming release of A Dangerous Method, which charts the relationship between the two men.

Britons are more dishonest than they used to be, apparently. Or maybe just more honest about their dishonesty?

Go buy this week's New Scientist magazine if you can - it has features on the effects of space on the brain (see here also) and "orchid children" (kids who are vulnerable to neglect but who thrive in a nourishing environment).

Newly posted TEDx talk: Ariel Garten: Know thyself, with a brain scanner

A neuropsychoanalytic approach to the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs.

What goes on in the mind of a sniper?

Psychology professor Graham Davey (an expert in experimental psychopathology) has started a new blog.

Philosopher Roger Scruton with a long-form essay on the nature/nurture debate, in which he responds to recent books by Prinz, Eagleman and Greenfield.

Do women feel more pain than men?  (see here also).

BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour had a special episode on the psychology of friendship.

Did evolution domesticate the bonobo?

Skeptikai explodes some myths about "right-brains" and "left-brains".

Heart disease patients who take their placebo pills are less likely to die.

A sad twist to a classic case study in psychology: Was Little Albert neurologically impaired?

That's all - have a great weekend!

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The life-long curse of an unpopular name

Receiving an unpopular name can have lifelong consequences, according to new research
Making assumptions about someone based on their name is ridiculous. A few attention-seeking celebrities aside, most of us were given our names, rather than choosing them, so why should they be any indicator of the kind of person we are? And yet a new European study claims that people with unfashionable first names suffer from prejudice, with life-long implications for their self-esteem and well-being.

Jochen Gebauer and his team used data collected from the German eDarling dating website. With the consent of hundreds of registered users, they looked to see how people with unfashionable first names were treated.

In the first study, the researchers identified hundreds of users of the dating site who had names that had been rated positively (e.g. Alexander) or negatively (e.g. Kevin) by 500 teachers as part of a different project. The eDarling website sends emails to users suggesting contacts in the form of a person's name, age and region. Users specify their preferences for age and region, so a suggested contact's name is the only information daters can really use in choosing whether to purse a contact. The main finding here was that people with unfashionable names like Kevin or Chantal were dramatically more likely to be rejected by other users (i.e. other users tended to choose not to contact them). A user with the most popular name (Alexander) received on average double the number of contacts as someone with the least popular name (Kevin).

An obvious criticism is that this online dating is an artificial situation - perhaps in real life we use other information to overcome any potential prejudice we might have against unpopular names. However, the researchers also found that people with unpopular names were more likely to smoke, had lower self-esteem and were less educated. What's more, the link between the popularity of their name and these life outcomes was mediated by the amount of rejection they suffered on the dating site - as if rejection on the site were a proxy for the amount of social neglect they'd suffered in life.

A further two studies replicated these results with a wider range of names and different methods of measuring name popularity. For example, the final study simply used name frequency as a measure of popularity. This again showed that people with less popular names experienced more rejection in online dating and had lower self-esteem and other adverse outcomes. This was the case even if their name had once been popular. So it's not the case that the negative correlates of having an unpopular name can be traced back somehow to having had the kind of parents who choose unpopular names.

These new results echo earlier research in the USA that found racial prejudice could affect the way people are treated based on their name. Identical CVs were dramatically more likely to attract job interviews if they were attributed to a person with a White-sounding name than if they were attributed to a person with an African-American sounding name. However race prejudice wasn't the cause of the harmful correlates of unpopular names in the current study - nearly all the names were White-sounding. Aside from racial prejudice, what causes names to acquire negative connotations is for another research paper. No doubt the names of celebrities, fictional characters and other high profile people play a role.

"Seemingly benign factors, such as first names, add up in real life, gaining considerable collective power in predicting feeling, thought, and behaviour," the researchers said. "The results also highlight the self-presentational value of first names and underscore the importance for parents to choose positively valenced first names for their children."

Gebauer, J., Leary, M., and Neberich, W. (2011). Unfortunate First Names: Effects of Name-Based Relational Devaluation and Interpersonal Neglect. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611431644

Further reading from The PsychologistThe name game: We all have one, and it might determine our fate in a number of intriguing and bizarre ways. Nicholas Christenfeld and Britta Larsen investigate.

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Easily embarrassed people are more altruistic, and onlookers can tell as much

Social interactions can feel like walking a tight-rope, an excruciating pit of embarrassment always just one tiny misstep away. Well, here is some comforting news for the easily embarrassed. A new study claims that people prone to embarrassment are better citizens - more selfless and cooperative (more "prosocial" in the psychological jargon). What's more, onlookers interpret expressions of embarrassment as a sign that a person is prosocial, and as a consequence are more likely to cooperate with and trust them. This makes sense if you consider that signs of embarrassment signal to onlookers that you're sensitive to social rules and concerned that you've transgressed. Therefore, although it feels excruciating, claim the study authors, embarrassment "can also function in our favour, helping to advertise some of our better, more desirable qualities."

Matthew Feinberg and his colleagues at University California, Berkeley conducted five experiments in total, involving hundreds of undergrad participants. The first two studies were designed to test whether people who experience more embarrassment are more prosocial. In the first, participants were video recorded as they recounted a time they'd been embarrassed. The videos were coded and it was found that the students who displayed more signs of embarrassment (e.g. gaze aversion, nervous face touching and laughter) also tended to endorse values of fairness more, and they were actually more generous with money in an economic game. In the second study, participants were asked to say how much embarrassment they'd experience in a range of hypothetical social scenarios. The participants who said they'd be more embarrassed tended to be more generous in an economic game and they also scored more highly on a questionnaire measure of their pro-sociality.

The remaining three studies were designed to test whether people who display signs of embarrassment are perceived as more prosocial. In one, participants were shown clips of the videos from the first study. Individuals who'd appeared more embarrassed in these videos were rated as more prosocial by the participants. In another study, participants looked at static pictures of actors displaying an expression of either embarrassment, pride or a neutral expression. Embarrassed people were again rated as more prosocial. A follow-up study was similar, but this time participants agreed to cooperate more fully in an economic game with people who they'd seen pictured looking embarrassed.

A fifth and final study was the most realistic. Participants saw their research partner praised for his or her superb performance on a mental performance test. Unbeknown to the participants, their partner wasn't another volunteer but was in fact an accomplice of the researchers. On being praised, this actor either responded with embarrassment or with pride. Crucially, later on, the participants tended to cooperate more with their partner if he or she had shown embarrassment earlier, as opposed to pride. What's more, the greater the intensity of their partner's earlier display of embarrassment, the more participants tended to trust and cooperate with him or her. The researchers also ruled out the possibility that the actor was displaying shame, rather than embarrassment. One final important detail: the researchers checked and these effects of embarrassment weren't because the participants saw their embarrassed partner as weak, liked them more, or because they felt compassion towards them.

"Our data are the first to reveal that people who feel and show intense embarrassment are indeed more prosocial," the researchers concluded, "and that this display triggers prosocial inferences and actions." The new results chime with earlier work on blushing, showing that onlookers make positive assumptions about blushers. However, the new data show that blushing isn't necessary for these positive effects.

The researchers acknowledged the limits of their study, including the fact that they were reading a lot into the behaviour shown by participants during economic games, and that the findings could be different in different cultures. They also said there was a need for more research - for example, to find out whether it's possible for people to feign embarrassment and thereby benefit from the flattering assumptions onlookers make about easily embarrassed people.


Feinberg, M., Willer, R., and Keltner, D. (2012). Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 81-97 DOI: 10.1037/a0025403

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Do smells really trigger particularly evocative memories?

We wore ankle-length blue coats at my school, in the Tudor-style. When it rained, the wool of the coat gave off a pungent smell, rather like wet dog. Now when I encounter a similar scent, it propels me back in time to my school days. This effect is called the "Proustian phenomenon". The name comes from Proust's description in Remembrance of Things Past of how the smell of a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit transported him back in time to his childhood.

Smells do have this uncanny, evocative power, don't they? It's because of the relative proximity of the olfactory bulb (which processes smells) and the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in memory and emotions. Right?

Not so fast. In fact very little research has investigated whether smells really do evoke vivid and emotional memories, more than other sensory cues. What follows is a new, rare attempt.

Marieke Toffolo and her collaborators invited 70 female student participants to watch a disturbing 12-minute film featuring road traffic accidents, surgery and reports on the Rwandan genocide. Whilst the students watched the film, the smell of Cassis, a neutral berry-like odour, was sprayed into the room; coloured lights were projected onto the back wall; and inoffensive background music was played over speakers (no mention was made to the students of these cues; pilot work established that they were equally noticeable, pleasant and arousing). The researchers chose to focus only on female participants to keep things simple, because it's known that there are sex differences in olfactory perception.

A week later the students were called back and asked to write down as many memories about the film as they could. As they did so, either the smell, the lights or the music were presented again. The students also answered questions about the quality of their memories. The main finding is that students exposed again to the smell of Cassis rated their memories of the film as more detailed, unpleasant and arousing (but no more transporting or vivid) than students re-exposed to the music. However, the students re-exposed to the odour rated their memories no differently from students re-exposed to the lights. In other words, smell appeared to be more evocative than music, but no more evocative than lights.

"It could be argued that a necessary implication of the Proust phenomenon is that odours are more effective triggers of emotional memories than other-modality triggers," the researchers said. "Under such strong assumptions the results reported here do not confirm the Proust phenomenon. Nonetheless, our findings do extend previous research by demonstrating that odour is a stronger trigger of detailed and arousing memories than music, which has often been held to provide equally powerful triggers as odours."

Toffolo, M., Smeets, M., and van den Hout, M. (2012). Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories. Cognition and Emotion, 26 (1), 83-92 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2011.555475

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Win a BPS-approved textbook on evolutionary psychology

This competition is now closed. The answer was Herbert Spencer. 

We've got two copies of Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction by Dr Viren Swami to give away, kindly donated to us by Wiley-Blackwell.

For your chance to win, answer the following question: Who first coined the phrase "Survival of the fittest"?

Post the answer to us on Twitter (mention @researchdigest and use the hashtag #Swamicomp) or post the answer as a comment to this post (if you use the comment option, please provide a way for us to contact you).

At the end of the week, we'll pick randomly one correct answer from all entries on Twitter and one correct answer from the comments section of this blog post. 

Good luck! 
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Our round-up of links to the latest and best psych writing and broadcasting:

The Sherlock Holmes of neuroscience, VS Ramachandran, wrote a piece about case studies for The Telegraph.

The first 2012 issue of The British Journal of Psychology is free to access.

Philosopher John Gray on why Freud "the last great Enlightenment thinker" is out of fashion today.

The New Atlantic has an in-depth essay about the founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow.

" ... the built environment could — and should — be radically reconceptualized around the fundamental workings of the human mind." I agree - more dialogue between psychology and architecture is long overdue. The Psychologist had a feature on this topic in 2006.

On a similar theme: How our brains navigate the city.

Priming studies - for example, in which exposure to ageing-related words leads participants to walk away more slowly - could be prone to experimenter effects. A new study, excellently covered by Ed Yong, found that the participants only walked away more slowly when the experimenters knew which priming condition they were in.

Worth a look? New book: The Joy of Sin, The Psychology of The Seven Deadly Sins (and Why They're Good For You). The Psychologist magazine had a feature on this topic last year.

An artist is collecting people's false memories, in association with the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths.

How many neurons do you really have?

Suffering from choice paralysis? Sheena Iyengar's TED talk will help (she's the author of The Art of Choosing).

The Guardian has a positive review of The Locked Ward: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Orderly by Dennis O'Donnell.

A new book investigates people who are capable of learning numerous languages. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings says: "Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential."

5 must-read articles on the history of psychology.

The value of eye movement research was highlighted in Time magazine: "Scientists are discovering that eye movement patterns — where we look, and for how long — reveals important information about how we read, how we learn and even what kind of people we are". (Disclaimer: my PhD was on eye movements!)

Babies are born with synaesthesia.

Nature's Action Potential blog is reborn and promises to reveal the stories behind which papers get accepted and which rejected.

How would you behave in an emergency? Bruce Hood reflects on the behaviour of the vilified captain of the Costa Concordia.

BBC Radio 4 is currently broadcasting a dark, surreal comedy series featuring a "regression therapist".

In more socially diverse environments we're drawn even more strongly to people who are just like us, says Jonah Lehrer.

Roy Baumeister is talking at LSE next Tues (24/1/2012) about willpower. The event is free and will also be podcast. I predict Will Self won't be in the audience.

Movement and noise could lead to spurious brain imaging results.

That's all, have a fun weekend!

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When wives believe they do an unfair share of the housework, everyone loses

More women than ever go out to work and yet surveys in Western countries show that wives continue to take on the lion's share of domestic chores.

A new study has quizzed 389 couples in Austria, Germany and Switzerland to build up the most comprehensive picture yet of how this uneven distribution of domestic chores is associated with men's and women's marital satisfaction.

These were all dual-earning couples with young children, with both spouses working at least 15 hours per week. Eighty-nine per cent of the couples were married. The average professional work load for women was 30.2 hours per week; for men it was 48.6 hours. Consistent with past surveys, the women in this sample took on nearly two thirds of the domestic chores.

The researchers Gerold Mikula, Bernhard Riederer and Otto Bodi asked their participants several things: what share of the chores they took on; whether they thought that was fair; whether they felt the way the share had been decided was fair (so-called "procedural justice"); how much conflict they experienced in their relationship; and how happy they were with their relationship. They threw all these factors into a statistical pot and looked to see how they related to each other.

First, Mikula and co focused only on the direct associations between housework distribution and women's and men's answers. For women, it wasn't the precise share of housework they did that was correlated with their experience of conflict and satisfaction, but rather how fair they thought that share was. Women who thought the division of household chores was unfair tended to experience more relationship conflict and less marital satisfaction. Women's sense of whether the decision process for housework had been fair also had its own independent link with levels of conflict. So feeling that they did an unfair amount of housework was bad enough, but conflict was even more likely when women felt the unfair arrangement had been arrived at unfairly.

Men, by contrast, seemed largely detached from the way housework was shared. There was no direct correlation between the division of housework and their reports of fairness. And even men who said the arrangement was unfair didn't tend to report more relationship conflict or less satisfaction - no doubt because the unfair arrangement was usually in their favour. In fact, the only direct association of housework distribution with men's answers, was that the greater share their female partners took on, the more satisfied they tended to be.

But here's where the picture gets more complicated. The researchers also looked at associations between participants' answers and their partners' reported sense of justice and experience of conflict and satisfaction. This suggested that men suffered when their female partners believed the housework arrangements were unfair. In fact, the negative correlates for men (more conflict, less satisfaction) of having a female partner who sensed injustice in the division of housework, outweighed the satisfaction associated with having a female partner who did lots of housework.

"The results support the proposition that it is not the balance of the division of labour itself but rather the subjective sense of justice associated with the division that matters primarily to the relationship satisfaction of the persons concerned," the researchers concluded. "Spouses should exchange their personal views and preferences in open discussions to arrive at an agreement that considers the wishes of both parties ... "


MIKULA, G., RIEDERER, B., and BODI, O. (2011). Perceived justice in the division of domestic labor: Actor and partner effects. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01385.x

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You're most creative when you're at your groggiest

Are you an evening person? Guess what? Early in the day, when you're bleary eyed, stumbling about in the fog of sleepiness, you're probably at your creative peak. In contrast, if you're a morning person, then for you, the evening is the best time for musing.

How come? Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. You're more likely to achieve that Aha! revelatory moment when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering.

Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks recruited 428 undergrads and had them complete a questionnaire to identify whether they were night owls or morning larks. As you might expect, based on factors like preferred time of day and peak performance, most of the students - 195 of them - were owls and just 28 were larks. The remainder came out as neutral.

Next, the students tried to solve six problem-solving tasks - half of them were insight-type tasks (e.g. a prisoner in a tower finds a piece of rope that's half the length of the distance to the ground. He escapes by using scissors to divide the rope in half and then tying the two ends together. How could he have done this?*), and half were analytic questions that require a narrow focus (e.g. Bob's father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. Four years ago, he was four times older. How old are Bob and his father?). Students had 4 minutes to solve each problem.

Crucially, half the students were tested first thing in the morning (between 8.30am and 9.30am), the others were tested late afternoon (between 4 and 5.30pm). Here's the headline result: the students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when the time of testing coincided with their least optimal time of functioning. When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.

A potential weakness in the findings is that there were so many more evening people among the student participants (who therefore excelled at the creative tasks in the morning). So perhaps the results were skewed and the creative advantage has to do with the morning, not to do with performing at your least favoured time of day. To test this possibility, Wieth and Zacks looked at the data for the students with a neutral disposition (no favoured time of day). They didn't perform the insight tasks any better in the morning than evening, thus suggesting the creative advantage specifically comes from operating at your least optimal time of day.

The researchers recommended that students consider designing their class schedules so that they take art and creative writing at their non-optimal time of day. "Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in sync with their circadian arousal;" they said, "however, the interaction between time of day and type of class has not been investigated. The results of this study suggest that the relationship between time of day and grades needs to be investigated and may not simply follow a uniform pattern."


Wieth, M., and Zacks, R. (2011). Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal. Thinking and Reasoning, 17 (4), 387-401 DOI: 10.1080/13546783.2011.625663

* The solution is that he cuts the rope length-wise into two thin strips and ties these together.

Related posts on the Digest:
Early risers are more proactive than evening people
The personality of early risers

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Is it time to resurrect post-trauma psychological debriefing for emergency responders and aid workers?

You've probably seen on the news, after a disaster, the announcement that trained counsellors will be on hand as a matter of routine. Or you used to. In fact, the practice of offering routine post-trauma psychological debriefing (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing - CISD - to give it its original, formal title) is all but dead and buried. It's hard to say who exactly executed the fatal blow.

NICE - the trusted, independent UK body that provides health advice - is a chief culprit. Based on seven randomly controlled trials (RCTs) comparing psychological debriefing against control groups, NICE recommended in 2005 that brief, single-session interventions not be routinely offered to individuals who have experienced a traumatic event. In 2006, another likely culprit, the Cochrane Collaboration, (widely respected for its meta-analyses of published studies) identified 15 relevant RCTs and made a similar recommendation.

Psychiatrist Simon Wesseley, based at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, went further and must also be a chief suspect. In a debate held at the Royal Institution in 2006, he proposed psychological debriefing after trauma as the "worst ever idea on the mind", based on the fact that it's ineffectual and possibly harmful. "It's a bad idea and a bad intervention," he said.

I must confess that I too may have played a part, however minor, in the demise of post-trauma counselling. In my Psychologist magazine article When Therapy Causes Harm, I highlighted Critical Incident Stress Debriefing as among the therapies identified by Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld as potentially harmful and that should be avoided. In my book The Rough Guide to Psychology, I used the possible harm caused by post-trauma psychological debriefing as an example of a counter-intuitive finding in psychology.

Now a team of therapists and trauma consultants, Debbie Hawker, John Durkin and David Hawker, who've worked extensively with NGOs, aid workers and emergency responders, have called for post-trauma debriefing to be resurrected for these specific client groups. In a scholarly plea, they've argued that the damning conclusions formed by NICE, Cochrane, Wesseley and others were premature and too narrowly interpreted (NICE acknowledges that their guidance may not apply to debriefing of emergency workers or group debriefing). Hawker and co claim that there are many who would welcome the return of post-trauma debriefing: "As mental health professionals active in the military, emergency service and humanitarian fields, we are aware that the personnel we work with often request debriefing, and speak of its benefit for them". Yet the debriefing is usually not available: "Professionals ... are afraid of being accused of professional misconduct if they offer psychological debriefing ...".

Hawker and co point out that of the 15 RCTs identified by the NICE and Cochrane reviews, three found a positive effect of debriefing, nine found no effect and only two found a harmful effect. These two studies, they explain, were seriously flawed. The patients who received debriefing were more severely injured than the controls; they received debriefing too soon, before they were ready; the debriefing was too brief (it averaged 44 minutes, whereas experts say it should last at least two hours, with at least one follow up); and the debriefers were inadequately trained (a research assistant delivered the debriefing in one study; the other negative outcome study said the debriefers had received half a day's training).

In effect, Hawker et al say, these trials were more like "inefficacy trials" - exploring what happens when an intervention is delivered badly to the wrong people. As it was originally conceived, they explain, post-trauma psychological debriefing was meant to be part of:
"a package for emergency workers who'd experienced critical incident stress as part of their work. It was specifically designed for selected psychologically resilient personnel who are trained to cope with expected pressure during their routine work in stressful situations. These are teams of people who have trained together and been briefed together before working together."
Post-incident debriefing was also meant to be delivered by a mental health worker and a peer debriefer, both of whom should have experience of the emergency services they're working with, thus lending the debriefers all-important credibility.

Debriefing is popular with emergency workers and aid workers, Hawker and co say, because many of them see it as their only chance to talk about their experiences. It allows them to do so as a matter of routine, without the stigma of therapy, which they sometimes fear could be detrimental to their careers. Given this need, perhaps it's no surprise that post-trauma psychological debriefing is surfacing under new names like "powerful event group support" and "trauma risk management".

"We have been told that the case against debriefing is proven and the debate is closed," Hawker, Durkin and Hawker conclude. "We disagree ... We predict that appropriate psychological debriefing will be shown to have benefits for secondary victims of trauma who have been briefed together and who have worked together through traumatic events. Research into these uses of debriefing should be encouraged and supported."


Hawker, D., Durkin, J., and Hawker, D. (2011). To debrief or not to debrief our heroes: that is the question. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 18 (6), 453-463 DOI: 10.1002/cpp.730

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Our round-up of the latest and best psychology articles, podcasts, TV shows, radio programmes and blog posts from around the web:

This weekend the Guardian and Observer reach the climax of their Memory Week with not one, but two pull-out supplements. Saturday's Guardian comes with Make the Most of Your Memory, including contributions from Charles Fernyhough, Jon Simons, Hugo Spiers, Alice Bell and me. Sunday's Observer promises a pull-out full of memory games. As part of Memory Week, Fernyhough took part in a live web chat on how to improve your memory. And there's still time to take part in the largest ever online memory experiment.

Our sister blog, The Occupational Digest, has hit the year running, with two advice-filled posts:  Resolutions to take the harder edges off work and Make better selection decisions.

Want to get control of your dreams? Psychologist and Digest contributor Tom Stafford has penned a pay-as-much-as-you-want-for-it e-book that will show you how.

Did you catch the showcase of psychology and neuro-fun delivered by Bruce Hood for this year's Royal Institute Christmas Lectures? If not, or if you want to see them again, they're available online via the RI's new Video Channel.

Channel 4 is currently broadcasting a series on neuroaesthetics called What Makes a Masterpiece? - the second episode airs tomorrow, 9.30pm on More4.

Are you already struggling with your new year's resolutions? The secret to success is more about averting your eyes than gritting your teeth. Jonah Lehrer riffs on a study of temptation covered here on the Digest last week.

There's still time to hear cricket star Freddie Flintoff speak to sportsmen and women about their experiences of depression. Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport on iPlayer.

Nudging meets the smartphone age. A new app available in the US penalises you financially when you miss your gym sessions - and it rewards you when you do go.

There's a buzz around the Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It's about a rising star in baseball who suddenly experiences a catastrophic loss of form. Mike Atherton, writing for the Times, said the book "will keep sports psychologists in conversation for years". Here's the Guardian review.

The latest issue of the American Psychological Association's Monitor magazine is online and includes a feature on alternatives to one-on-one therapy.

Monitor also features a list of "psychology's growing library of podcasts".

On the subject of podcasts, something the Digest missed last year was Slate's series of podcasts on how to negotiate in your personal and working lives.

Children have never had it so good - Paul Flatters for the BBC offers a counter-balance to the "toxic childhood" camp.

"Psychologically, men and women are almost a different species", says the author of a new research paper looking at gender differences in personality.

Professor of Gambling Studies, psychologist Mark Griffiths, has started his own blog.

Worth a look? New book: The Locked Ward: The Memoir of a Psychiatric Orderly by Dennis O'Donnell.

Another new book I think you'll enjoy is The Optimism Bias by cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot. The Guardian published an extract.

If that wasn't enough, there's also Situations Matter: How Context Shapes Our Lives by psychologist Sam Sommers. Says Maria Popova on Brain Pickings, "Sommers fuses cognitive science with sociology and witty observation to pull into question what personhood means (cue in Christian Smith’s What Is a Person?) and illuminate the puppeteering power of situations over our lives."

Want to know what it feels like to have a 70-year-old body? MIT have created a full-body suit that lets you experience it for yourself.

The importance of penis panics to cultural psychiatry - Vaughan Bell explains all over at Mind Hacks.

National Geographic published a super feature on twin research, together with a wonderful photo essay.

The New York Times had a feature on the difficulties experienced by people caring for a partner who suffered a brain injury.

They also had a feature on the romantic relationship between two young people with Asperger's.

I have pictures on my walls of places I've lived in the past. This feature in the Atlantic helped me understand why: The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much.
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Babies can tell whether you made a mistake or not from the tone of your voice

For decades, psychologists have been trying to find out when and how children develop the ability to step outside of themselves and understand other people's minds. Piaget, the great Swiss developmental psychologist, had children study a model of the mountains around Geneva and describe what the scene would look like from another perspective. His results led him to conclude that children younger than about seven are stuck with an ego-centric perspective. Since then, with ever more ingenious techniques, psychologists have demonstrated that even infants as young as one year old have a rudimentary sense that other people have a mind, perspective and intentions of their own. Betty Repacholi and Alison Gopnik, for example, observed how 18-month-olds would choose to feed an adult disgusting broccoli, rather than yummy crackers, if they'd seen the adult enjoying the dreaded vegetable earlier.

Now Elena Sakkalou and Merideth Gattis have performed a study looking specifically at the role of prosody in the ability of infants to infer whether an adult intended to perform an action or made a mistake. Prosody refers to the sing-song, rise and fall of speech - its tempo and fluctuating pitch. It's the quality of speech we can hear through a wall or ceiling. We might not be able to distinguish any of our next-door neighbour's actual words, but we can still get a sense of the mood and emotion of what they're saying.

This study combines what we know about the importance of prosody to children's learning, with what we know about their emerging ability to think about other people's minds and intentions. For example, past research has shown how mothers use prosody to convey approval and prohibition, and that 5-month-olds smile more in response to the former.

Sakkalou and Gattis first replicated an earlier study by showing that infants aged 14 to 18-months can use an adult's vocal utterances, specifically including the words "There" vs. "Whoops", to infer whether they intended an action or not. Twenty-eight toddlers saw an experimenter perform two actions on a toy (for example, pushing it or rolling it), one of which was accompanied by the word "There" as if the action were intended; the other by "Whoops". Given a chance to handle the toy themselves, the infants were more likely to imitate the action that was accompanied by the word "There" - as if they knew that it had been a deliberate action.

Next, Sakkalou and Gattis analysed the prosody of the experimenter utterances: "There" and "Whoops". The former was characterised by higher amplitude, longer duration and falling pitch; the latter by a rising pitch contour. The earlier experiment was then replicated with 56 more toddlers (mean age 16 months), but this time the words "There" and "Whoops" were replaced with the Greek words "Nato" and "Ochi" (or vice versa). Crucially, the words signifying a mistake or intentional action were always delivered with the prosodic profile established earlier as being associated with a mistake or intended action. The toddlers were raised in English-speaking homes so there's no way they could have known the meaning of the words. Nonetheless, the toddlers older than 16 months still imitated more "intentional" actions than accidental actions on the toys, thus suggesting strongly they were able to use the way the words were said to infer which actions were intended and which were accidental.

It's important to note that the "mistake" vs. "intent" prosodic patterns in the current study do not map simply onto approval/ disapproval - they were more complex, which could explain why it was only the older toddlers who could interpret the difference. This fits with other research showing that infants' preference for different types of vocalisations changes as they develop, with older infants preferring prosodic patterns that direct their attention whereas younger infants prefer comforting prosody.

"We propose that infants' understanding of vocal patterns supports their growing understanding of intentions," Gattis told The Digest. "Together these two forms of understanding shape the development of imitation and communication."


Sakkalou, E., and Gattis, M. (2012). Infants infer intentions from prosody. Cognitive Development, 27 (1), 1-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2011.08.003

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

The Obama Presidency (Political Psychology).

Neuroscience focus on Addiction (Nature Reviews Neuroscience).

Sizes of Our Science (Perspectives on Psychological Science, special section).

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

Beliefs and Expectancies in Legal Decision Making (Psychology, Crime and Law).

Disease avoidance: from animals to culture (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B).

Advances in mixed methods in family psychology: Integrative and applied solutions for family science (Journal of Family Psychology, special section).

The Psychological Foundations of Strategic Management (Strategic Management Journal).

Self Modeling (Psychology in the Schools).

Neurocognitive Processing of the Chinese Language (Brain and Language).

Pre-term birth (Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews).

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Your memory of events is distorted within seconds

Your memory automatically fills in the blanks in unfolding events
Memory isn't etched in neural stone. It's a creative process, sketched in sand. In one of the most dramatic demonstrations of this yet, Brent Strickland and Frank Keil have shown how people's memory for a video clip was distorted within seconds, to form a coherent episode "package". They said their finding provided evidence that the mind uses "sophisticated compression routines ... for efficiently packaging previous events as they are being sent to memory."

Fifty-eight uni students watched three types of 30-second video clip, each featuring a person kicking, throwing, putting or hitting a ball or shuttlecock. All videos were silent. One type of video ended with the consequences of the athletic action implied in the clip - for example, a football flying off into the distance. Another type lacked that final scene and ended instead with an irrelevant shot, for example of a linesman jogging down the line. The final video type was scrambled, with events unfolding in a jumbled order. Crucially, regardless of the video type, sometimes the moment of contact - for example, the kicker actually striking the ball - was shown and sometimes it wasn't.

After watching each video clip, the participants were shown a series of stills and asked to say if each one had or hadn't featured in the video they'd just watched. Here's the main finding. Participants who watched the video type that climaxed with the ball (or shuttlecock etc) flying off into the distance were prone to saying they'd seen the causal moment of contact in the video, even when that particular image had in fact been missing.

In other words, because seeing the ball fly off implied that the kicker (or other protagonist) had struck the ball, the participants tended to invent a memory for having seen that causal action happen, even when they hadn't. This memory distortion happened within seconds, sometimes as soon as a second after the relevant part of the video had been seen.

This memory invention didn't happen for the videos that had an irrelevant ending, or that were scrambled. So memory invention was specifically triggered by observing a consequence (e.g. a ball flying off into the distance) that implied an earlier causal action had happened and had been seen. In this case, the participants appeared to have "filled in" the missing moment of contact from the video, thus creating a causally coherent episode package for their memories. A similar level of memory invention didn't occur for other missing screen shots that had nothing to do with the implied causal action in the clip.

A second study replicated these memory distortion effects with 58 more participants and with new contexts involving kicking, throwing and bowling.

The researchers said their findings have obvious implications for crime scene witnesses. Imagine a witness sees a man wielding a gun, and imagine seconds later they also see a person nearby falling from a gunshot wound - these new results show how easily the mind of the witness could invent a memory of having seen the moment the trigger was actually pulled. "In some circumstances," the researchers said, "conceptual packaging can induce the perceiver to insert unseen information in order to fulfil structural requirements. This was the case in the present study."


Strickland, B., and Keil, F. (2011). Event completion: Event based inferences distort memory in a matter of seconds. Cognition, 121 (3), 409-415 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.04.007

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

How many neurons do you REALLY have? Some dogmas of quantitative neuroscience.

Smiley faces are perceived to be brighter, literally.

Don't tell Sarkozy - people in power overestimate their own height.

Neural correlates of body-size overestimation in eating disorder patients.

Adopting a star-shaped power posture boosts pain tolerance, as does interacting with someone else who's in a submissive posture.

Brain regions with mirror properties: A meta-analysis of 125 human fMRI studies.

The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?

Depressed participants made better decisions than healthy controls and those recovering from depression.

Hey Benton! Benton! How dogs know when communication is intended for them.

Men who view pornography are significantly less likely to intervene as a bystander (in potential rape situations).

Participants performed better on cognitive and sensor-motor tasks when partnered with a person they knew was homosexual, as compared with participants partnered with someone whose sexual orientation they didn't know.

Creativity has a dark side - people who are more creative tend to be more dishonest.

Do nice guys and gals really finish last?  Links between agreeableness and income.

Media hype about neuro-enhancing drugs.

Unhappy moods trigger mind-wandering about the past.

"Torture at Yale": Milgram misrepresented (a) the extent of his debriefing procedures, (b) the risk posed by the experiment, and (c) the harm done to his participants.

Google Calendar as a memory rehab aid for brain damaged patients.

Can brain activity when viewing a picture of your mother be used as a test for depression?


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