People prefer the middle option

When objects are arranged in an array from left to right, the central item jumps up and down and calls out to you "Pick me, pick me!" Well, not literally, but in a new study psychologists have provided further evidence for what's called the "Centre Stage effect" - our preferential bias towards items located in the middle.

Paul Rodway and his colleagues showed 100 participants (65 women) a questionnaire consisting of 17 questions, wherein each question featured five different pictures of the same item or type of item (e.g. five scenic views or five border terriers). Each set of five pictures was arranged in a horizontal row and the task for participants, depending on the question, was either to pick their most preferred or least preferred item. When picking out their favourite, the participants showed a clear preference for the central items; by contrast, no position bias was found when selecting their least favoured items.

The size of the preferential bias for central items was statistically significant but relatively modest in percentage terms. Central items were selected approximately 23 per cent of the time compared with the 20 per cent you'd expect if choices were random. The selection rate for items in other locations averaged below 20 per cent.  

A second study was similar to the first, but this time each array of five items was arranged vertically - once again there was a bias for the central item. A final study used real objects - five pairs of identical white socks - pinned in a vertical array on a large piece of cardboard. Again, participants were asked to pick out their preferred option and again they showed a bias for the middle choice. Additionally, they showed a bias against picking the lower two options. The fact that the Centre Stage effect occurred for vertical arrays argues against explanations for the effect related to the brain's hemispheres biasing attention either to the left or right. Perhaps the cause has to do with cultural beliefs linking importance or prestige with being centrally located.

Rodway's team pondered the real-world implications of their findings. '"If item location influences preference during the millions of purchasing choices that occur every day, it will be exerting a substantial influence on consumer behaviour," they said. "Moreover, choices from a range of options are made in many other contexts (e.g. legal and occupational), and it remains to be investigated whether the central preference remains with other formats and whether it extends to other types of decision."

The new findings build on previous research showing that observers tended to overestimate the performance of quiz show contestants located in central positions, and tended to favour job candidates located centrally in a photograph.

Complicating matters, other research that's looked at items presented in a sequence or one at a time, has found that people show a bias towards items located in extreme positions in the sequence. For example, Wandi de Bruin in a 2005 study found that ice-skating competitors and Eurovision singers tended to receive higher scores if they performed later. On the other hand, if a choice array is perceived as a continuum - as in a questionnaire rating scale - there's evidence for a left-ward bias, perhaps caused by the dominance of the right hemisphere, which directs attention to the left-hand side of space.

ResearchBlogging.orgRodway, P., Schepman, A., and Lambert, J. (2012). Preferring the One in the Middle: Further Evidence for the Centre-stage Effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26 (2), 215-222 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1812

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Decision making with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!


Tuck into our latest round-up of the best psych and neuro links:

The British Psychological Society has launched its Origins Project - an interactive, multimedia timeline charting the history and development of psychological science.

The blogger Neurobonkers gives the low down on a new report showing how the mainstream media misrepresent neuroscience findings to push their own ideological agendas.

Typical neuroimaging experiments maybe missing the brain's whispers, says Neuroskeptic.

Doubts have been raised about the claimed links between testosterone exposure in the womb and the relative lengths of people's index and ring fingers.

Jonah Lehrer is busy talking about his new book on creativity - you can listen to his recent talk at the RSA and hear him on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves. Not everyone's a fan: The Guardian published an acerbic review of his book.

The Chinese symbol for epilepsy has been changed, reports Mind Hacks blog, shedding its previous stigmatising connotations with madness and goats.

Louis Theroux has started a new "Extreme Love" series for BBC Two - the first episode explored autism and is available on iPlayer.

Psychologist Bruce Hood has started a new blog for Psychology Today.

Fascinating insights into when and how often we look where other people are looking. The findings are from a clever study conducted out on the street and in a train station, deftly summarised by Ed Yong.

Is academia biased against introverts?

One for the diary - next Thurs in Notting Hill you can take part in a "dream matrix" with Salon London.
At our sister blog, the Occupational Digest, Alex Fradera provides a fascinating overview of the links between agreeableness, gender and pay - nasty guys earn more but it seems they pay personal price.

Psychology luminary Jerome Kagan has a new book out - Psychology's Ghosts, The Crisis in the Profession and The Way Back.

I found out this week that the UK Government has an "expert advisor on behaviour". Is he a psychologist?

Listening to music can help you run up to 15 per cent faster (and probably more if you try Speed Demon by Michael Jackson).

The latest series of Mind Changers continues with an episode featuring Julian Rotter - the man who developed the "locus of control"scale.

Vaughan Bell for the Observer with a superb overview of the limitations of the polygraph lie detection test.

Hidden Talent is a new Channel 4 show in which members of the public are tested and their latent talents developed - the first episode is available on 4oD and features a gifted lie detector (no polygraph needed).

That's all - have a great weekend!

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Feast with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Secrets leave us physically encumbered

We talk metaphorically of secrets as great weights that must be carried through life like a heavy burden. Consistent with the ever-growing literature on embodied cognition, a new study shows how secrets affect perception and action, as if their keepers are encumbered, literally.

A first study used participants recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. Those asked to write a recollection about a big secret rated a hill, depicted head-on, as being steeper than participants who wrote about a trivial secret. This matches previous research (pdf) showing that people who are physically encumbered tend to rate hills as steeper. By contrast, the big secret vs. small secret groups didn't differ on other measures, such as their rating of the sturdiness of a table.

Next, 36 undergrads threw a small beanbag at a target located just over two and a half meters away. Those who'd been asked to recall a meaningful secret threw their beanbag further, on average, than those asked to recall a trivial secret. It's as if they perceived the target to be further away, consistent with prior research showing that people who are physically encumbered tend to overestimate spatial distances.

In a penultimate study, forty participants who'd recently been unfaithful to their partners were recruited via Amazon. Those who said the secret of their infidelity was a burden (it bothered them, affected them and they thought about it a lot) tended to rate physical tasks, such as carrying shopping upstairs, as requiring more physical effort and energy than those who were unburdened by their infidelity. Ratings of non-physical tasks, by contrast, did not vary between the groups.

Finally, keeping a significant secret (in this case not revealing one's homosexuality whilst being video-interviewed) led gay male participants to be less likely to agree to help the researchers move some books; keeping a trivial secret (concealing one's extraversion) had no such effect.

Michael Slepian and his colleagues said their findings showed how carrying a secret leads to the experience of being weighed down. They don't think the findings can be explained by the mental effort of keeping a secret - for example, past research has shown that cognitive load prompts people to underestimate, not overestimate, physical distances. The researchers warned about the health implications of their findings. "We suggest that concealment ... leads to greater physical burden and perhaps eventually physical overexertion, exhaustion, and stress," they said.


Slepian, M., Masicampo, E., Toosi, N., and Ambady, N. (2012). The Physical Burdens of Secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0027598

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Cognition / Embodied cognition / Social with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Psychologists create non-believed memories in the laboratory

Most of the time our autobiographical memories and beliefs match up - we remember last week's journey to a conference and believe that journey really took place. Other times, we believe an event happened - we know we travelled to that conference - but our memory for the event eludes us, perhaps because the trip was so boring or because we drank too much wine.

Recently, psychologists have begun to examine the rarer reverse scenario, in which we have what feels like a memory for an event, but we know (or believe) that the event never happened - we recall the conference journey but know we couldn't have made it. A recent survey (pdf) of over 1,500 undergrads found that nearly a quarter reported having a non-believed memory of this kind. Now Andrew Clark and his colleagues have gone further - for the first time actually provoking non-believed memories in the lab.

Twenty participants were invited to a psychology lab for what they thought was a study into mimicry. Each participant was filmed as they sat opposite and mimicked the actions of a researcher, including clapping their hands, rubbing the table, and clicking their fingers. Each time, the participant would watch passively and then mimic. Altogether 26 different actions were mimicked by each participant.

The clever bit came two days later when the participants were shown clips taken from the earlier footage. These clips showed them sitting passively, watching the researcher perform 12 different actions. In each case, the participant now had to say whether they remembered performing each action, and how strong their belief was that they'd performed each action. Crucially, two of the clips had been doctored - footage of the watching participant had been superimposed over a separate video of the researcher performing two actions that were never part of the original mimicry sessions. Because the participants had earlier mimicked all the actions that they'd witnessed, the doctored footage gave the strong impression that they must have mimicked those two new actions even though they hadn't. This set-up provided a powerful means of inducing false memories - 68 per cent of the participants' memory ratings for the fake actions suggested they "remembered" performing the actions. Their belief that they'd performed these actions was similar in strength to their memories.

Four hours later, the participants returned for a final session in which they were told about the trickery. They were then asked again to provide "memory" and "belief" ratings for the different actions. The take-home finding is that for 25 per cent of the fake actions, the participants now reported significantly stronger memory scores than belief scores - in other words, their (false) memory of having performed the fake actions persisted even though they often no longer believed they'd performed the actions.

Clark and his team said that their findings raised ethical questions about memory research: "To the extent that debriefing might not always completely 'undo' the effects of suggestive manipulation, we might question the ethics of inducing false memories in experimental participants. Is it ethical for participants to leave research labs with remnants of non-believed false memory content in the forefront of their minds?"

A question for future research on non-believed memories is whether belief is needed for the initial formation of the memories, even if that belief later falls away. "Or, alternatively," the researchers said, "can memories form completely in the absence of belief?".

Clark, A., Nash, R., Fincham, G., and Mazzoni, G. (2012). Creating Non-Believed Memories for Recent Autobiographical Events. PLoS ONE, 7 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032998

Further reading: Charles Fernyhough's blog post on non-believed memories: "Remembering events that never happened."

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Memory with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Do psychology findings replicate outside the lab?

Most psychology research takes place under laboratory conditions allowing tight control over the exact interventions and procedures participants are exposed to. That makes for neater science but leaves the discipline vulnerable to claims that the results aren't relevant to real life where things are far messier. Now Gregory Mitchell at the University of Virginia has tested this very issue by poring over the literature looking for previously published meta-analyses that compared findings in the lab to the same issue addressed in a field experiment. His searches, which built on a similar 1999 study (pdf), led him to 82 meta-analyses from the last three decades, comprising 217 lab vs. field study comparisons.

Overall, Mitchell found that lab findings usually replicate in the real world (r = .71, where 1 would be a perfect match), but the devil is in the detail: some sub-disciplines in psychology fared much better than others; the size of the effects often differed greatly between lab and real world; and in a worrying number of cases, the real world results were actually in the opposite direction to the lab findings.

"Many small effects from the laboratory will turn out to be unreliable," Mitchell concluded, "and a surprising number of laboratory findings may turn out to be affirmatively misleading about the nature of relations among variables outside the laboratory."

Breaking the results down by sub-discipline, findings replicated from the lab most often in Industrial-Organisational Psychology (based on 72 comparisons) and least often in Developmental Psychology, where the three comparisons showed the average field result was actually in the opposite direction to the lab findings. The massive discrepancy in number of comparisons in these sub-disciplines makes it difficult and unfair to draw any definitive conclusions from this particular contrast. However, Social psychology had a similar number of comparisons (80) to Industrial Organisational Psych, yet produced a far lower replication rate (r = .53 vs. r = .89). Mitchell said further research is needed to find out why this might be.

There were also important differences in replication rates (from lab to field study) within different psychology sub-disciplines. For example, Industrial Organisational Psychology studies of performance evaluations translated less well from the lab compared with other topics of study in that discipline. Across subfields, lab studies of gender differences were particularly unlikely to translate to the real world. "We should recognise those domains of research that produce externally valid research," Mitchell said, "and we should learn from those domains to improve the generalisability of laboratory research in other domains."


Mitchell, G. (2012). Revisiting Truth or Triviality: The External Validity of Research in the Psychological Laboratory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (2), 109-117 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611432343

Further reading: Gregory Mitchell contributed to The Psychologist's current opinion special on replication in psychology (free access).

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Methodological with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Win a BPS-approved textbook on language development

This competition is now closed and the two winners have been contacted. The correct answer was 1978 (the paradigm was first presented in 75, but first published in a journal article in 78).

We've got two copies of Language Development to give away, kindly donated to us by Wiley-Blackwell.

For your chance to win, either tweet or add a comment to this post, saying who developed the Still Face paradigm and when it was first published.

If you tweet your answer, make sure you mention @researchdigest and use the hashtag #langdevcomp

If you post your answer as a comment to this blog post, make sure you leave a way for us to contact you.

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

Good luck!

*Digest Facebook followers can also enter the competition by commenting on the Digest Facebook page - for the purposes of choosing a winner, their entries will be included alongside the blog comments
You have read this article Competitions with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!


Tuck into our latest round-up of the best psych and neuro links:

Following the controversy and enmity aroused by two recent failed replications, The Psychologist magazine has hosted an opinion special on the issue of replication in psychology.

In related news, the Percolator blog at The Chronicle asks "Is psychology about to come undone?" as it reports on the Reproducibility Project - a plan to replicate all studies published in 2008 in 3 psychology journals: Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

What does the future hold for functional brain imaging?

Ill-judged Observer column laments the growing recognition of post-natal depression in fathers. Vaughan Bell penned a response for Mind Hacks.

Jonah Lehrer interviews Eric Kandel about his new book on neuroaesthetics, "The Age of Insight,
The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present".

People do like to be beside the seaside - research presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference this week found that the seaside had a more positive psychological effect than urban environments and the countryside.

Should we bribe people to behave more healthily? Podcast of recent debate on BBC Radio 4.

Radio 4 has also started a new series of Mind Changers, presented by Claudia Hammond. The first episode, now on iPlayer, focused on Joseph Wolpe and Systematic Desensitization.

Claudia has a new book out soon on time perception. Here she's collected together some games that  expose glitches in the way we perceive time.

Is bad urban design making us lonely?

The latest Neuropod podcast is online and includes features on engrams and consciousness.

"A liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better": Prospect magazine review of Jonthan Haidt's new book on moral psychology.

New Statesman blog post by me on the psychology behind the so-called "panic" buying of petrol in the UK recently.

There are four days left to watch the BBC Three documentary on the man who became gay after a stroke.

That's all for now - hope you enjoy the links!

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Feast with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Toddlers don't take the risk of entrapment seriously

Infants can't tell us what they can and can't perceive in the world so psychologists make assumptions about this based on their behaviour. A new study by John Franchak and Karen Adolph at New York University exposes the limits of this approach, demonstrating that how babies choose to behave isn't based only on their perceptual abilities but also on their assessment of risk.

Thirty-two 17-month-old infants were allocated to one of two conditions - they either had to judge whether they could fit through a narrow gap (of varying widths) between two surfaces, or they had to judge whether they could fit though a narrow gap (of varying widths) between the edge of a table and a wall. Both conditions took place atop a table but the risk in the first case was getting stuck, whereas the risk in the second case was falling off the edge.

The toddlers in the first, "entrapment" condition frequently misjudged the situation and found themselves stuck on over 80 per cent of trials (this error rate showed no signs of diminishing over time). By contrast, toddlers in the "falling condition" were shrewder judges and only fell off on just 21 per cent of trials (don't worry, no babies were hurt in this research). This was the case even though one might imagine that the gap between two wall-like surfaces was easier to judge, from a perceptual point of view, than a gap between a wall and a drop, and despite the fact that infants in both conditions exhibited similar approach behaviours - lining their bodies up in advance and feeling the gaps with their hands.

Franchak and Adolph point out that if developmental psychologists relied on the "entrapment" condition, they would wrongly conclude that infants of this age have yet to develop the sensory and motor sophistication to judge gap size in relation to their own body size. In fact the results from the "falling" condition show that toddlers are capable of judging the relative size of a gap versus their own body. The discrepancy in performance between the two conditions is presumably because babies aren't that bothered about the risk of getting stuck - so they're fairly reckless about trying to squeeze through a too-small gap - but they are bothered about the risk of falling, so they take their size estimations along precipices far more seriously.

As an aside, the infants' histories of getting stuck or not in real life (for example, the researchers noted that one boy had previously managed to get his head stuck in a training potty) bore no relation to their performance in the task.

The researchers said their findings had theoretical implications - challenging previous assumptions made by other psychologists that the tendency for infants to get stuck in gaps meant they had poor body knowledge. The new results also have practical implications. "Falling and entrapment are two of the leading causes of accidental injury in infants," the researchers said. "The results suggest that even though experienced walking infants can perceive risks of falling and entrapment accurately, they may discount the potential danger of entrapment. Their willingness to squeeze themselves into possibly small openings may contribute to the prevalence of entrapment injuries."


Franchak, J., and Adolph, K. (2012). What Infants Know and What They Do: Perceiving Possibilities for Walking Through Openings. Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0027530

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Developmental / Methodological with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

People assume it's hillier up north

Give people a choice of two cross-country routes to the same destination, one more northerly, the other more southerly, but both covering similar terrain, and they'll tend to favour the southerly route, and to anticipate it being quicker and easier going. According to a new study, this is true for people who've been tested from regions such as Southern New England in the USA, where the north is more mountainous, but it's true too for people who live in regions such as Sofia in Bulgaria, where the south is mountainous and the north is flat. Tad Brunyé and his colleagues think this spatial bias may have to do with our life-long association of north with up (with additional connotations of being uphill) and south as down - as is the convention on maps.

Brunyé's team tested this idea with a series of implicit association tasks. Student participants from Tufts University in Boston looked at pictures of landscapes and categorised them as either flat or mountainous. They also saw aerial shots of geographic areas and had to indicate whether a star on the picture was located north or south. The main finding here is that the participants were quicker to respond during experimental blocks when the same keyboard response key was used for answering "north" or "mountainous" (and another key was for answering "south" or "flat") compared to the contrasting situation where the same key was used for indicating "north" or "flat" (and another key was for "south" or "mountainous").

This finding suggests that the participants implicitly associated the concepts of "north" and "mountainous" in their minds. The same result was obtained when the images for north vs. south consisted of a large compass in the middle of the screen (with a large N in the centre denoting north or a large S denoting south). Although most Tufts students are from areas outside of Southern New England, where the university is based, the researchers also repeated the study with a student sample based in Ohio, where there are mountains to the south east. Again, despite living in an area where the south is more hilly, the same implicit association of north with hills and mountains was exhibited by the students.

A final study measured participants' implicit associations and their more explicit associations. This latter task came in the form of a free association test - participants were given a word such as "north" or "south" and they had to write the first five words that came to mind (the researchers were interested to see if they'd mention words like "up" or "hilly"; past research has generally found that most people don't explicitly associate the north with a mountainous landscape). This study also involved the participants choosing between pairs of routes through similar terrain to the same destination - one more northerly, one more southerly. Once again the usual bias for southern routes was obtained (these were picked 62 per cent of the time); participants who showed a stronger implicit association of north with mountainous terrain, as revealed on the implicit association test, were more likely to pick the more southerly route.

"Given physical experiences associating upward mobility with relative difficulty, the north-south canonical axis becomes misperceived as indicative of physical effort," the researchers said. "Thus if participants misperceive northward areas as higher elevation (or 'uphill') then it logically follows that they would strategically avoid travelling through what they perceive as relatively demanding areas. Indeed, everyday colloquialisms such as heading down south or going up north may reflect how pervasive such associations are throughout cognition." The researchers added that their finding could have practical implications - for example, affecting driving behaviour within towns and cities and also over greater distances, which could be of interest to city planners and civil engineers.


Tad T. Brunyé, Stephanie A. Gagnon, David Waller, et al (2012). Up north and down south: Implicit associations between topography and cardinal direction. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology : 10.1080/17470218.2012.663393

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Cognition / environmental with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Dead plants encourage belief in global warming

In 2006, the Conservative party in the UK unveiled its new logo - a scribbled sketch of a healthy-looking oak tree. The image was intended in part to communicate the party's renewed dedication to environmental causes. A new study by French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen suggests that if the Conservatives want to help change people's attitudes towards the environment, they should consider adapting their logo to one of a dying tree. Why? Guéguen has shown that the presence of dead plants strengthens people's beliefs in global warming.

In the first of two studies, Guéguen had 60 participants fill out a questionnaire about current affairs, including four questions about global warming, such as: "It seems to me that the temperature is warmer now than in previous years." Crucially, half the participants filled out the questionnaire in a room in the presence of a 150cm tall ficus tree with luscious green leaves; the other participants in a room in the company of a dead ficus tree. The finding: participants in the dead tree condition expressed far stronger beliefs in global warming than the participants in the other group, whilst their answers to the remaining questions were no different.

In a follow-up study, Guéguen introduced a no-tree condition, to make sure that it's not the case that the presence of a healthy plant weakens beliefs about global warming. He also featured a condition with three dead or healthy plants - a ficus, a bonsai and a dracaena. The presence of healthy plants made no difference to global warming beliefs versus the no-plant control condition. Once again, however, the presence of a dead plant strengthened beliefs in global warming, and more dead plants meant even stronger such beliefs. No students in either study guessed the aims of the research.

Guéguen speculated that the sight of dead plants probably triggered in participants' minds concepts associated with global warming, such as heat and drought, without them being consciously aware of this effect. The new findings chime with earlier research showing how incidental circumstances influence people's belief in climate change - for example, people are more likely to say they believe in climate change on warmer days. A weakness of the study is that there's no mention of whether the female experimenter who dealt with the participants was blind to the aims of the research - might she have affected their results through her own behaviour?

Notwithstanding that issue, the study has obvious practical implications. Guéguen suggested that in public toilets, for example, the presence of plants without foliage could encourage less water consumption when washing one's hands (though that might harm hygiene initiatives!). More generally, Guéguen advised, "people who want to heighten public awareness on the topic [of global warming] could profitably use photographs or videos of dead plants, or plants without foliage, thus increasing the effectiveness of public awareness campaigns."


Guéguen, N. (2012). Dead indoor plants strengthen belief in global warming. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32 (2), 173-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2011.12.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article environmental with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Would you cheat for charity?

Financial dishonesty was one of the contributing factors that caused the recent global economic crisis. Against this backdrop, a new study led by Alan Lewis at the University of Bath has provided an elegant lab demonstration of the way that for most people, right and wrong aren't clear cut. Instead, the research shows people look for ways to justify their financial cheating, probably to maintain their perception of themselves as essentially good. Oh, and the research also suggested that economics students are more dishonest than psychology students - not great news for the future of the financial world!

The first part of the study involved 94 psychology and economics undergrads rolling a die under a cup, and then looking through a hole in the cup so that they alone could see the number. They then reported that number to a researcher on the understanding that it would be translated into a cash donation by the researchers for Cancer Research UK (1 on the die would equal a 10p donation; 6 would equal 60p and so on). Afterward the researcher gave this amount to the participants, who inserted it into a donation box.

The key finding here is that the students tended to report higher numbers than you'd expect from a fair die. So, for example, 24.5 per cent of participants said they'd rolled a six whereas a fair die should have produced a figure of 17 per cent. The researchers estimated that this means 9 per cent of participants lied about rolling a six. This is substantially higher than the figure obtained in a previous study when participants were playing for their own cash reward and it therefore shows how people indulge in moral relativism. More people seem to think it's okay to cheat if it's for charity, than if it's for their own gain.

The second part of the study involved a thought experiment. The same students were asked to imagine rolling a die three times (each time for their eyes only), over and over. They were given twenty hypothetical sequences of the numbers they produced (e.g. 1, 1, 1). In each case, the first number represented the cash reward they would get, where a 1 would equal £1 and so on. The second two numbers represented two further rolls, to establish that the die was fair and to make the sure the die was left in a re-set position. The hypothetical question for each sequence - what first number would the participant tell the researcher they'd obtained? Would they tell the truth, or lie to claim a higher cash reward?

The main finding for this part of the study is that the proportion of lies varied according to the numbers produced in the second and third rolls. For example, if a person (hypothetically) produced a six in either the second or third rolls, they were far more likely to lie and say the first roll produced a six when it didn't.  It's as if getting a six in one of the later, irrelevant rolls somehow made it easier to justify lying about getting that number in the first roll. Overall, 73 per cent of the participants' hypothetical responses were honest, 16 per cent were "justified" lies of this kind, and 9 per cent were out-and-out lies (it's intriguing that so many participants were willing to be honest about the fact that they would have lied, but that's a whole other story).

Lewis and his colleagues also used the data from the second part of the study to compare rates of (self-confessed) hypothetical lying between psychology graduates and economics grads. Economists were much more likely to lie (for example, their rate of outright lying was 13 per cent vs. 6 per cent for psychologists). This was only partly explained by there being more male economists than male psychologists, with men being the more dishonest sex across both disciplines. Of course, another way to look at these data is that the economists were more honest about the fact that they would lie, but again that's another story and an issue not addressed here by the researchers.

"At the level of individual differences it has been demonstrated that economists are more willing to cheat," the researchers said. "This is of some concern given that people with economics degrees hold prominent positions in financial institutions."


Lewis, A., Bardis, A., Flint, C., Mason, C., Smith, N., Tickle, C., and Zinser, J. (2012). Drawing the line somewhere: An experimental study of moral compromise. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33 (4), 718-725 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.01.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Morality with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Children with autism are less susceptible to the rubber hand illusion

The ability to tell where our bodies end and the rest of the world begins comes so naturally we tend not to give it much thought. In fact the brain mechanisms underlying bodily-identity are a vital part of basic social functioning. Given that social difficulties are a central part of autism, a team of US researchers led by Carissa Cascio wondered whether autism might be associated with differences in these basic mechanisms underlying body ownership.

To find out, they performed the first ever published test of how children on the autism spectrum experience the rubber hand illusion - a well-known procedure in psychology that exploits the mechanisms that give rise to feelings of body ownership.

Twenty-one children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 28 neurotypical controls (aged 8 to 17 years) undertook the illusion with an experimenter who was blind to the aims of the study. Tested one at a time, each participant sat opposite the experimenter and placed their left forearm and hand on the desk, out of sight, within a purpose-built container. To the right of their concealed left hand was visible a realistic rubber left hand.

The experimenter stroked with a cosmetic brush the participant's hidden left hand between the second and third knuckles of their index finger and at the same time, in full view, stroked the rubber hand in the equivalent location. For two 3-minute phases the stroking was done on the real hand and rubber hand in synchrony - to the person being stroked this often gives rise to the illusory sensation that the rubber hand is their own. For another two 3-minute phases, the stroking was done out of synch, which usually spoils or reduces the experience of the illusion.

The key finding is that, unlike the controls, the children with ASD didn't experience the illusion after the first 3-minute phase of synchronous stroking; they only experienced it after the second phase. This was tested objectively by having the children close their eyes and indicate with their right index finger where they thought their left index finger was located. Mislocating their finger towards the location of the rubber hand was taken as a sign that they'd experienced the illusion. Children with ASD may be less susceptible to the rubber hand illusion during synchronous stroking because they prioritise proprioceptive (tactile) information over visual information (the sight of the stroking).

The children were also asked to say whether they'd experienced certain sensations during each stroking phase, such as "It seemed as though the touch I felt was caused by the brush touching the rubber hand". Here another difference emerged between the groups, with some ASD children agreeing more to this statement after the asynchronous stroking. This suggests some of them experienced the stroking as being synchronous when it wasn't, perhaps because they have a less fine-tuned sense of whether information from different sensory modalities is being experienced in time.

The clinical relevance of the results is hinted at by the fact that ASD children with more impaired empathy scores tended to experience the rubber hand illusion even less strongly (based on their being less likely to mislocate their left index finger towards the rubber hand).

"Our results suggest that the malleability of the sense of body ownership is compromised in ASD, which may correspond to an altered cortical representation of the bodily self," the researchers said. "This in turn may give rise to diminished capability for perspective-taking and empathy, as is seen in ASD."
Cascio, C., Foss-Feig, J., Burnette, C., Heacock, J., and Cosby, A. (2012). The rubber hand illusion in children with autism spectrum disorders: delayed influence of combined tactile and visual input on proprioception. Autism DOI: 10.1177/1362361311430404

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Brain / Developmental with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Think less and become more conservative

The less time or mental effort a person puts into thinking about an issue, the more likely they are to espouse a politically conservative perspective. That's according to a new study by Scott Eidelman and his team, who stress that their point is "not that conservatives rely on low effort thought" but that "low effort thinking promotes political conservatism".

Across four studies, the researchers examined the effects on political attitudes of four different ways of reducing mental effort. This included: surveying drinkers at varying degrees of intoxication at a local bar; allocating some participants to a dual-task condition where they had to keep track of auditory tones at the same time as registering their political attitudes; allocating some participants to a time-pressured situation, in which they had to rate their agreement with different political statements at fast as possible; and finally, giving some participants the simple instruction to respond to political statements without thinking too hard.

The results were consistent across the studies - being more drunk, being distracted by a secondary task, answering under time pressure and answering without thinking, all led participants to agree more strongly with politically conservative beliefs, such as "A first consideration of any society is the protection of property rights" and "Production and trade should be free of government interference." Agreement with liberal beliefs were either reduced or unaffected by the measures. The researchers checked and the effects they observed were not due to differences in the complexity of the statements used to measure political conservatism and liberalism, nor were they due to changes in mood or frustration associated with the interventions.

The finding that reduced mental effort encourages more conservative beliefs fits with prior research suggesting that attributions of personal responsibility (versus recognising the influence of situational factors), acceptance of hierarchy and preference for the status quo - all of which may be considered hallmarks of conservative belief - come naturally and automatically to most people, at least in western societies.

"Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural," the researchers concluded. "Motivational factors are crucial determinants of ideology, aiding or correcting initial responses depending on one's goals, beliefs, and values. Our perspective suggests that these initial and uncorrected responses lean conservative."
Eidelman, S., Crandall, C., Goodman, J., and Blanchar, J. (2012). Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167212439213

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Cognition / Political with the title April 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!