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

The new July issue of The Psychologist magazine has an open-access article on the psychology of competition - the benefits and costs of pressure for competitors, and how the Olympics will affect you. You can also read this article and much more in a free digital preview of the July issue.

BBC Radio 3 broadcast a superb documentary on crowd psychology, featuring social psychologists Prof Steve Reicher, John Dury and others (you can listen again on iPlayer or download the podcast).

The Guardian had a fascinating article on how finger counting varies around the world.

Get down to Brighton (England) on Saturday if you're interested in consciousness. The city is hosting a free consciousness expo.

How Pirlo gave England a lesson in the omission bias.

10 myths about introverts.

A Dutch social psychologist has been found guilty of scientific misconduct - Science Insider has the details. It follows a case of scientific fraud by a social psychologist that was uncovered last year.

How can work be addictive? From our sister blog - the Occupational Digest.

Why the left-brain, right-brain myth will probably never die.

The EU launched a controversial campaign Science - it's a Girl Thing. Many people found it patronising and insulting. The Research Digest covered a pertinent study recently - How "Girlie" Science Role Models Could Do More Harm Than Good.

Do you ever feel vibrations in your mobile (cell) phone, only to discover that you'd imagined it?

How the brain views race ... Mo Costandi interviewed the influential NewYork psychologist Professor Elizabeth Phelps.

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme on The Uncanny - how the odd familiar can be so much scarier than the exotic and dramatic.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The new psychology of everyday playing cards

Aces are easier to see and remember than other cards
Playing cards, used for games and magic, are so familiar, yet we know remarkably little about the way we perceive and think about them. Are some cards more memorable than others? Are some easier to identify? With so much at stake in games like poker, and card magic a staple of family entertainment, it's surprising that no-one has thought to study this before.

Jay Olson, Alym Amlani and Ronald Rensink first tested if some Western playing cards are easier to spot than others. Ninety-six students were shown visual streams of 26 playing cards on a computer, each displayed for a tenth of a second, and they had to say if a certain target card was present in the stream or not. The students were pretty good, achieving an accuracy rate of 80 per cent, but they performed better for some cards than others. For example, they detected the Ace of Spades more easily than any other card, and they detected Aces in general more easily than other cards - probably because of their simple, distinct pattern. Surprisingly, face cards (e.g. Jack, Queen etc) were no easier to spot than number cards, despite being more distinctive. Another curious finding was the students' particular tendency to say the two red sixes (Six of Hearts and Six of Diamonds) were present when they weren't. It's not clear why.

To test the memorability of cards, Olson's team employed a similar methodology. The students saw a stream of seven cards, each displayed for a quarter of a second, and then they were asked to say whether a particular card had been in the stream or not. Again, the Ace of Spades especially, and all Aces to a lesser extent, were more memorable than other cards.

What about likeability? Students were shown pairs of cards and in each case had to say which they preferred. Regards numerical value, the participants liked the highest (10) and lowest (2) cards the most. And they had a tendency to prefer Spades and Hearts over Clubs and Diamonds - maybe because of their rank in games, or their curved shape. Two cards were especially popular - the Ace of Hearts and the King of Hearts. There was also a gender difference in taste. Men tended to prefer higher value cards and women to prefer lower value.

Finally, the researchers looked at the verbal and visual accessibility of cards. To do this they asked a new batch of hundreds of students (some of them online and some in the lab) to "Name a playing card" or to "Visualise a playing card" and then say which it was. Simply asked to name a card, there was a strong bias for choosing the Ace of Spades, followed by the Queen of Hearts and then other high-ranking cards. When participants chose a number card, there was a bias for naming 3s and 7s the most and 6s the least (a phenomenon well known by magicians). Overall, cards from the Spades and Hearts were chosen more than the other two suits. There was a gender difference again: men tended to name the Queen of Hearts more than women, and women more often named the King of Hearts than men. These same results were pretty much repeated when participants were asked to visualise a card before naming it.

The different card features investigated here tended to interact in ways you might expect. For example, the same cards that participants tended to say mistakenly were in a visual stream, also tended to be the most accessible verbally and visually. More accessible cards were also liked more.

Olson's team acknowledged that their study was limited by the fact that they only studied a sample of Canadian students. But still, they said their work could "serve as a foundation for more rigorous studies of card magic", and more generally could "provide new perspectives on how people perceive and evaluate everyday objects."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Jay Alson and Alym Amlani (2012). Perceptual and cognitive characteristics of common playing cards. Perception DOI: 10.1068/p7175

Read more Digest posts on the psychology of magic.

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

A Sport Psychology Perspective on Olympians and the Olympic Games (Psychology of Sport and Exercise).

Career adaptability (Journal of Vocational Behaviour).

Evolution of race and sex differences in intelligence and personality: Tribute to Richard Lynn at eighty (Personality and Individual Differences).

Treatment Considerations for Aggressive Adolescents in Secure Settings (Criminal Justice and Behaviour).

Is a neural theory of language possible? Issues from an interdisciplinary perspective (Journal of Neurolinguistics).

Virtual Special Issue: John Turner's work and influence (British Journal of Social Psychology).

Recent advances in Human information search behaviour (Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée).

Dynamics of social networks (Social Networks).

Computational Approaches to Reading and Scene Perception (Visual Cognition). Free intro.

Language and the Motor System (Cortex).

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How to reverse the Bystander Effect

You see a shopper trip over in a busy street. Someone else can help. That's what you tell your conscience. This is the Bystander Effect in action - the dilution of our sense of responsibility in the presence of other people - and it's been demonstrated in numerous studies over many years.

But life is complicated and psychologists have begun looking at the circumstances that can nullify or even reverse the effect. For a new paper, Marco van Bommel and his team tested the idea that the presence of others could in fact increase our proclivity for helping if we're nudged into a self-aware mindset and thereby reminded of our social reputation.

Two experiments were conducted using an online chat room for people with extreme emotional problems. Eighty-six students were logged into the forum and shown five messages posted by troubled forum users - for example, one was written by a person who wanted to commit suicide. The participants were told they could write a reply if they wanted, but it was entirely up to them.

In the baseline condition, each participant could see his or her name in the top left-hand side of the screen alongside other users' names. A counter also told them if the forum was quiet, with just one other person logged-in, or if it was busy, with 30 others online.

This basic arrangement replicated the classic Bystander Effect - participants were less likely to post replies when there were more people logged into the forum. However, when the researchers cued self-awareness by highlighting the participant's name in red on the screen, the Bystander Effect was reversed - they now posted more replies when the forum was busy compared with when it was quiet.

A second study built on these findings, but this time self-awareness was cued by the presence, or not, of a web-cam on the computer. Over one hundred participants took part. For those in the web-cam condition, their attention was drawn to the device by having them check that its LED indicator light was on, although they were told that the camera wouldn't be used until a later task. In the absence of a web-cam, the Bystander Effect was again replicated - participants on a busy forum, compared to a quiet forum, posted fewer replies to users in need. By contrast, participants cued to be self-aware by the presence of a web-cam actually wrote more replies when the forum was busy, compared with when it was quiet.

"The Bystander Effect can be reversed by means of cues that raise public self-awareness in social settings," the researchers said.

van Bommel and his team acknowledged the limitations of using an online arrangement for testing their ideas, but they also defended its relevance to modern life, in which our social activities are increasingly taking place online. Their results also have interesting implications for the debate around the proliferation of security cameras in public places. "While certain forms of self-awareness may not always be welcomed by people, the present findings do underscore their power to promote helping one another," the researchers said.

  ResearchBlogging.orgMarco van Bommel, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Henk Elffers, and Paul A.M. Van Langea (2012). Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.011

Further reading: The responsive bystander.
Meta-analysis of the Bystander Effect.
The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect

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We think more rationally in a foreign language

One of psychology's major contributions has been to document the myriad ways our thinking is sent haywire by a series of biases. Investigations into the ways and means to combat these biases have lagged behind, but that's starting to change. Now a team of researchers at the University of Chicago has reported that people are immune to two key biases when they think in their second, less familiar language.

The first half of the investigation involved well-established framing effects. Participants were told that 600,000 people were at risk from a deadly disease. They were then presented with the same decision framed differently. In one condition, they chose between a medicine (A) that would definitely save 200,000 lives versus another (B) that had a 33.3 per cent chance of saving 600,000 people and a 66.6 per cent chance of saving no one. In another condition, the participants chose between a medicine (A) that meant 400,000 people will die versus another (B) that had a 33.3 per cent chance that no one will die and 66.6 per cent that 600,000 will die.

The gamble in each condition is effectively the same, but numerous studies have shown that people are systematically influenced by the way the choice is framed. In the first condition, the gains of A are made salient, and people tend to prefer the certainty of that option. In the second condition, A's losses are made more salient and people prefer to take the risk of medicine B.

Boaz Keysar and his team showed that dozens of native English speakers showed the typical framing effect when they completed the task in English, but not when they completed the task in their second, classroom-learned language of Japanese. It was a similar story with native Korean speakers - they showed no framing effect when they completed the task in English. And it was the same again with native French speakers when they completed the task in their second language of English. A follow-up study added a third inferior option to the decision task and confirmed that participants weren't just choosing at random when taking part in their second language.

The second half of the investigation focused on loss aversion. We're typically affected emotionally twice as much by losses as we are affected positively by gains of equivalent size. So, presented with a series of bets on the toss of a coin, with the chance to win $1.50 or lose $1, people will tend to shy away from the bet even though the cold logic of probability theory suggests they'll win out in the long run. Keysar and his colleagues gave native English speakers $15 in cash to play 15 rounds of this game, with the chance to keep the balance of their wins and losses at the end. The key finding was that the players were far more willing to gamble when they played the game in their second language of Spanish.

The researchers aren't entirely sure why speaking in a less familiar tongue makes people more "rational", in the sense of not being affected by framing effects or loss aversion. But they think it may have to do with creating psychological distance, encouraging systematic rather than automatic thinking, and with reducing the emotional impact of decisions. This would certainly fit with past research that's shown the emotional impact of swear words, expressions of love and adverts is diminished when they're presented in a less familiar language.

The findings have important implications for international internet research - psychological measures could vary according to whether participants are answering in their mother tongue or in a second language learned later in life. More generally, the researchers said the findings could have ramifications for real life. "People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions, as a result of reduced myopic loss aversion," they concluded. "Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial."
 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Boaz Keysar,, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An (2012). The Foreign-Language Effect, Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision BiasesPsychological Science DOI: 1177/0956797611432178

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

A close-up surface photo of the cortex of a living human brain has won this year's Wellcome Trust Image Awards.

Don’t Call a 9-Year-Old a “Psychopath”, says Discover magazine blogger Emily Willingham.

The UK Government's Behavioural Insight Team, together with medic and Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, has published a new report into the use of RCTs in developing public policy (pdf).

Echoes of Gage - Florida teenager survives a harpoon passing straight through his head.

Rats and other animals laugh, does that mean they have a sense of humour? (Jesse Bering blog post for Scientific American).

The Laughing Brains Exhibit is one of twenty at the Royal Society's Summer Exhibition, to be held between the 3rd and 8th of July.

Mark Changizi and his colleagues have developed sunglasses that help wearers see "the emotions and health visible in the color and pallor of other people’s skin".

This week's All in the Mind on BBC Radio 4 investigated deaths among people detained under the Mental Health Act (now on iPlayer).

New Scientist had an excellent cover feature on the creative benefits of mind wandering (£).

Neuroskeptic highlights an under-recognised methodological problem in psychology research - unanticipated and uncontrolled effects of the stimuli.

Scientific American had a cover feature on the evolution of altruism (£).

Horizontal stripes on clothes really do make you look wider, according to research by the winner of the BBC's amateur scientist of the year award.

Genes are not our destiny, says Bryan Appleyard in his review of Tim Spector's Identically Different, Why You Can Change Your Genes.

Why Crowded Coffee Shops Fire Up Your Creativity - it's not all about the caffeine.

The Royal Society has announced the 2012 Winton Prize for Science Books long-list, featuring several titles of interest to psych-fans.

A damning new report says mental illness loses out in the NHS. Writing for the Guardian, Psychologist David Clark says the situation is inexcusable.


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The Alien awakened by a rubber hand

What happens if you administer a tactile illusion to a brain-damaged patient whose hand is out of their control? A team of researchers has done just that, figuring that illusions could offer new insights into complex neuropsychological disorders.

The patient in question was a 69-year-old lady whose left-sided stroke had left her with alien hand syndrome*. Most of the time her right hand was held in a clenched position that she couldn't open. Occasionally, accompanied by a mild electric sensation, it moved involuntarily, jerking, or even slapping her in the face.

Michael Schaefer and his colleagues at Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg tested the lady on two sensorimotor illusions - the traditional rubber hand illusion and the lesser-known somatic rubber hand illusion. The first involved the patient placing one of her arms on the table-top, with the other underneath. A rubber arm was placed alongside her real arm on the table. The researcher then stroked the patient's hidden arm and the rubber arm in synchrony. When the illusion works it creates the sensation of feeling in the rubber arm, as if it's a part of the person's body. In fact the patient experienced no feeling in the rubber arm at all, regardless of whether it was her healthy arm or alien arm that was being stroked under the table. The rubber hand illusion doesn't work for everyone so this null finding is not particularly surprising.

Things got more interesting when the researchers tested their patient with the somatic rubber hand illusion (see picture, above). This procedure involved the rubber arm being placed between the patient's two real arms on a table-top. This time, the patient was blindfolded and the researcher (wearing plastic surgical gloves) picked up one of the patient's hands and used it to tap the rubber hand. At the same time, and in synchrony, the researcher tapped the patient's other hand. This procedure creates the strong illusion for the participant that they are touching their own hand rather than the rubber hand - a feeling that the patient said she experienced.

But something surprising also happened when the researchers tried out this illusion. Within moments, the patient's alien hand leapt up off the table and was grabbed by her healthy hand. She said she felt an electric sensation in her alien hand prior to it rousing. The illusory experience seemed to have awakened her alien hand. This effect occurred every time the procedure was repeated. But crucially it only happened when it was the patient's healthy hand that was used to tap the rubber hand, whilst the patient's alien hand was simultaneously tapped by the researcher (and not when the illusion was done the other way around). The awakening effect also disappeared when the procedure was repeated with the patient's blindfold removed, which is known to destroy the illusion.

All this suggests that it wasn't touching the alien hand per se that roused it, but rather it was the experience of the body illusion. Schaefer and his colleagues think that their patient has a disconnect between the anterior supplementary motor area (SMA) at the front of her brain (involved in inhibitory control) and other brain regions involved in movement. They reckon this impaired motor integration somehow interacted with the illusory feelings of body ownership triggered by the rubber hand trick. Perhaps, they said, the illusion further weakened the SMA's already compromised control of the alien hand.

"Although our results should be confirmed by further studies, we believe that the examination of experimental-induced illusions in patients with disorders of self-embodiment is promising and might help us to develop treatments for these diseases in the future."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Michael Schaefer, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and Imke Galazky (2012). Waking up the alien hand: rubber hand illusion interacts with alien hand syndrome. Neurocase: The Neural Basis of Cognition DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2012.667132

Further reading: Sergio Della Sala on the bizarre ‘Dr Strangelove syndrome’ and what it tells us about free will (Psychologist magazine article).
Simulating anarchic hand syndrome in the lab (earlier Digest report).

*Some experts prefer the term anarchic hand syndrome for this patient's condition, reserving the term alien hand syndrome for a distinct but related condition in which the patient no longer believes the hand is theirs. For consistency I decided to use the terminology adopted by the authors of this paper.

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

Sounds like a good result for geeks - "A curious personality was linked to a wide range of adaptive behaviors including tolerance of anxiety and uncertainty, positive emotional expressiveness, initiation of humor and playfulness, unconventional thinking, and a non-defensive, non-critical attitude"

Fusing eastern principles with the essence of cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy could be an exciting new treatment for people with emotional difficulties - a new study tested its effectiveness in an NHS trial.

Just when you finished painting all your walls blue, along comes this study: "we demonstrated that a brief glimpse of green prior to a creativity task enhances creative performance"

Study of texting whilst walking finds that texters walk more cautiously, but they bump into door frames just as much as non-texters. My question - why were the non-texters bumping into things?

Apparently, focusing on your goals will increase your intention to pursue them, but reduce your persistence. Trouble is, deliberately not thinking about your goals will probably make you think about them more. So just don't think, okay!

A Review of Facebook Research in the Social Sciences.

Hmm, interesting - a prosopagnosic (who has trouble processing faces) performed like normal when averaging identity or emotion across a crowd of faces.

How attachment varies through the lifespan.

Thinking about Arabs and Muslims makes Americans shoot faster.

Prince Charles won't like this one - Exposure to organic foods makes us less altruistic.

Maybe we can cancel out the effects and paint some big eyes on the walls of organic food shops. The presence of eyes led participants to put rubbish in the correct bins.

When we're at war, we prefer our leaders to be older.

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What your choice of shoe says about you

When you meet a stranger, look at his shoes (from Good Advices by REM)
The UK's fashionistas are abuzz after the Duchess of Cambridge was pictured at the weekend sporting a £300 pair of Le Chameau wellington boots. Does her shoe choice tell us anything about her? In a culture where so much attention is paid to the material we strap to our feet, a new study asks this very question more generally - how is shoe choice associated with personality and what assumptions do onlookers make about people based on their shoes?

The new research builds on an existing literature that's shown we form impressions of strangers incredibly quickly, discerning a surprising amount of information about their sexuality, background and personality. However, much of the past research on these thin-slicing abilities has involved participants looking at the faces of strangers, not their shoes.

Omri Gillath started by getting 208 undergrads (aged 18 to 55) to fill out numerous questionnaires about their personality and background, as well as submitting a photograph of "the pair of shoes they wear most often." Next, a separate group of 63 undergrads each looked at a sample of these shoes and gave their best guess as to the personality and background of the wearers.

The participants in the role of observer tended to agree with each other in their judgments, suggesting that we make consistent assumptions about wearers based on their shoes, regardless of whether those assumptions are accurate or not.

In decreasing order, observers were most accurate in identifying the shoe-wearers': age, gender, income, attachment anxiety (as measured by the wearers' agreement with statements like "I worry that romantic partners won't care about me as much as I care about them") and their agreeableness. Observers were unsuccessful at identifying other aspects of personality such as political ideology, extraversion and conscientiousness, despite tending to agree with each other in their ratings of these traits.

So what cues did the observers use to make their judgments? First off, let's look at some of their mistakes. The observers assumed that colourful and bright shoes belonged to an extravert person. In fact, the only shoe characteristics that correlated with wearers' extraversion were being worn out and being of greater height (the top part, rather than the heel). Observers thought that attractive shoes in a good condition probably belonged to a conscientious person. In fact, the only relevant factors here were that conscientious people tended to have higher-topped shoes and to photograph them against a colourful background. And they assumed wrongly that less attractiveness shoes, with less pointy toes, in relatively poor repair, and low value price, probably belonged to someone with liberal political views. In fact there were no significant associations between political ideology and choice of shoe.

On the other hand, the observers discerned correctly that more agreeable people tended to wear shoes that were practical and affordable (pointy toes, price and brand visibility were negatively correlated with agreeableness); that anxiously attached people tended to wear shoes that look brand new and in good repair (perhaps in an attempt to make a good impression and avoid rejection); that wealthier people wear more stylish shoes; and that women wear more expensive-looking, branded shoes.

The study is obviously limited by its use of a narrow sample of Western university students. The assumptions observers make from shoes could be completely different in another culture, as could the links between shoe features and the traits of wearers. Another shortcoming is the reliance on the self-report ratings of the shoe wearers. Perhaps, for some of the personality factors, the observers were "seeing through" the shoe wearers' idealised selves. "Do people buy and wear shoes strategically to portray an image, and can observers detect the 'acquired image'?" the researchers asked. "These are fundamental questions in personality and social psychology, and they play out in many domains - shoes are merely one attractive alternative to research."

  ResearchBlogging.orgOmri Gillatha, Angela J. Bahnsb, Fiona Gea, & Christian S. Crandalla (2012). Shoes as a source of first impressions. Journal of Research in Personality DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2012.04.003

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5 chances to win a copy of The Shrink And The Sage

This competition is now closed and the winners have been contacted.

We have 5 copies of The Shrink and The Sage by Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro to give away. From the publishers: 
Philosopher Julian Baggini and therapist Antonia Macaro present their unique brand of self-help – with a distinctly cerebral edge. From what Aristotle can teach us about practical wisdom to how the work of psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman can improve our decision-making, they offer eminently practical advice to many common personal dilemmas. What does philosophical logic have to say about sticking to resolutions? How important is work? Could Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard lead you to a more satisfying life? Upbeat, enjoyable and thought-provoking, this brilliantly readable intellectual agony uncle and aunt team combine the insights of philosophy and psychology to begin to piece together a a guide to the good life and how to live it. 
For your chance to win a copy, simply post a comment to this blog entry stating who your favourite philosopher is and why. The 5 winners will be chosen at random on Friday (please ensure you leave an email address).
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People with high emotional intelligence are more easily duped by fakers

Although research has shown that most of us are hopeless at spotting lies, there's been speculation in the literature that a minority of people might be unusually talented fib-detectors. The evidence for these "wizards", as they've been called, remains controversial. Now a new study has tested the relevance of a key psychological construct that one might imagine wizards would score highly on - emotional intelligence.

If liars betray their true emotions in early, rapid, automatic facial expressions, as some experts have claimed, it would make sense that people who are particularly adept at recognising and processing emotions (one of the hall-marks of emotional intelligence) would therefore have an advantage at spotting deception.

To test this, Alysha Baker and her team at the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia presented 116 undergrad participants with 20 clips of real-life press conferences featuring anguished people pleading for the return of their missing relative(s). Half the clips featured a person who was in fact later identified as the perpetrator of the crime against their missing relative. The student participants had to say whether the anxious person in each clip was genuine or being deceptive; how confident they were in their judgment; and how they'd been affected by the clip emotionally.

Overall, the the participants performed no better than chance at identifying which clips featured a liar - consistent with past research showing the difficulty of accurate lie detection. However, there was a further paradoxical finding: participants who scored highly on the "emotionality" component of emotional intelligence (pertaining to emotional expression, perception and empathy) were significantly less accurate than average at judging which of the anxious relatives was being genuine. This association was mediated by how upset the students felt about the clips, perhaps indicating that their emotional state was affecting their ability to scrutinise the videos effectively.

Moreover, higher scorers on emotionality tended to sympathise more than low scorers specifically with the people featured in the deceptive videos, suggesting they were misreading deceptive cues (such as emotional turbulence, decreased plea length and tentative word use) as signs of increased distress, rather than as signs of deception.

All the participants, but especially the high emotionality scorers, expressed misplaced confidence in their judgments about the video clips. "The present findings suggest that a reliance on erroneous information about deception, combined with unfounded sympathy for deceptive pleaders leads to a highly confident, but incorrect assessment that crocodile tears are a reflection of genuine distress," the researchers said.

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Baker, A., ten Brinke, L., and Porter, S. (2012). Will get fooled again: Emotionally intelligent people are easily duped by high-stakes deceivers. Legal and Criminological Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8333.2012.02054.x

Previously on the Digest: Skilled liars make great lie detectors.
Also relevant: Psychopaths show less emotional leakage (HT Scott Barry Kaufman).

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Image courtesy of Adrian Owen
Tuck into our latest round-up of the best psych and neuro links:

Nature news feature on the neuroimaging work of Adrian Owen, who's found signs of awareness in vegetative patients. (Earlier digest coverage of one of Owen's ground-breaking papers).

New book that's worth a look "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" by Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman gave a talk at the RSA about his book and the audio is available online.

The woman who changed her brain. Guardian profile of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, author of The Woman who Changed Her Brain: Unlocking the Extraordinary Potential of the Human Mind.

How can photography help us to understand organisations?

How driven are you? The psychology of drive and determination (pdf)

The latest edition of BBC Radio Four's All in the Mind is now on iPlayer, with a mix of topics including stalking at work and whether or not the Olympics will really inspire people to take up sport.

The Telegraph covered a new study showing how the relative influence of the environment and genes on children's behaviour and cognition varies by UK region.

Mind Hacks highlighted a curious case of an employee working on a reality TV show, who developed the delusion that the show was actually about him.

Psychologist Gary Marcus says it's never too late to learn the guitar. The Guardian has an extract from his new book Guitar Zero – The Science of Learning to be Musical.

Pump up the volume! BBC Radio Four broadcast a programme, now on iPlayer, about the power of music to improve sports performance and reduce the perception of effort.

Why we worry ... Sussex University psychologist Graham Davey has started a new blog for Psychology Today.

Dan Ariely has a new book out on lying.

The Indy covered new epidemiology research suggesting that we're 14 per cent more likely to die on our birthday.

Simon Baron-Cohen explains the loss for autism researchers and others from the recent freezer-failure at the McLean brain bank.

New Edge video: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains her research into the adolescent brain.

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There are two kinds of bilingual brain

How do bilinguals avoid confusing the two languages they speak? One idea is that there's a kind of language switch that inhibits one tongue whilst the other is in use. A new investigation by researchers in Finland suggests that such a system probably applies to what they call "Dominant Bilinguals", who learned a mother tongue first before acquiring a second language later in life. But they don't think such a system exists for what they call "Balanced Bilinguals", who grew up speaking two languages. In the brains of Balanced Bilinguals, the researchers say, the two languages seem to be fully intertwined.

Maija Peltola and her colleagues used an ingenious way to investigate bilingual brains, based around the way vowel sounds are perceived in Swedish and Finnish. Just as the boundaries between colours are arbitrary (the spectrum of light is continuous, yet we talk about colours as discrete categories), the boundaries between vowel sounds are too, and these boundaries vary from one language to another.

Peltola's team focused on two sounds that are categorised as two different vowels in Finnish, but which are seen as the same vowel in Swedish. The main task of their bilingual participants was to listen to pairs of sounds and judge whether they were the same vowel sound or if one was different from the other. Crucially, the participants performed this test twice, a week apart: once in Swedish and once in Finnish. Their brains were scanned with EEG throughout.

Two types of participant took part: one group of 12 Balanced Bilinguals had starting acquiring Finnish and Swedish simultaneously from birth at home; the other group of Dominant Bilinguals were Finnish university students studying Swedish - they'd been raised with Finnish as their mother tongue, then started learning Swedish at age 12 and had developed an extremely high proficiency in the language.

An initial finding was that the Balanced Bilinguals were slower and less systematic in where they located the Finnish vowel boundaries, suggesting that they suffered interference from the Swedish interpretation of sounds. This was supported by the EEG recordings. Confronted with two different vowel sounds in Finnish, an early spike of negative electrical activity from the brain (known as the mismatch negativity; MMN), which is associated with the perception of a different vowel category, was slower to peak in the brains of the Balanced Bilinguals.

Moreover, the amplitude of this MMN, in response to the same pair of sounds, varied dramatically in the Dominant Bilinguals, depending on whether they were performing the task in Swedish or Finnish. This suggests their brains were treating the same sounds differently depending on which language "mode" they were in. By contrast, for Balanced Bilinguals, this early spike of electrical activity to the vowel sounds was the same in both language contexts. This suggests that early on ("pre-attentively" was the researchers' term), their brains were treating the sounds the same, regardless of which language they were supposed to be speaking.

According to Peltola and her colleagues, all this suggests that there are two ways for bilingualism to operate in the brain. Dominant Bilinguals seem to be able to "switch off" irrelevant sounds in accordance with the language they're currently using, even if those sounds are recognised by their more dominant, mother tongue. "This implies the existence of two functionally separable phonological systems," the researchers said. In contrast, Balanced Bilinguals don't keep their two languages apart. Their language systems "are so intertwined," the researchers said, "that exemplars from both inventories are automatically activated regardless of language context."

Taken altogether, the researchers said this shows that "Balanced Bilinguals have one uniform speech sound system for the processing of their two maternal languages [mother tongues], whereas Dominant Bilinguals have two separate phonological inventories." A question for future research is whether Dominant Bilinguals keep their two systems separate via inhibitory processes or even via distinct cortical areas supporting the two languages.

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Peltola, M., Tamminen, H., Toivonen, H., Kujala, T., and Näätänen, R. (2012). Different kinds of bilinguals – Different kinds of brains: The neural organisation of two languages in one brain. Brain and Language, 121 (3), 261-266 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.03.007

Further readingTongue-tied: When bilinguals switch languages involuntarily.
Change your personality, learn a new language.
Second language changes the way bilinguals read in their native tongue.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Oxytocin, vasopressin and social behaviour (Hormones and Behaviour).

The human orgasm (Sexual and Relationship Therapy).

Human conflict (Science).

Building capacity to improve student outcomes through collaboration: Current issues and innovative approaches (Psychology in the Schools).

Sports psychology virtual special issue (British Journal of Psychology).

Interpersonal Psychotherapy (Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy).

International perspectives on juvenile crime (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Teacher–child relationships from an attachment perspective (Attachment and Human Development).

Neuroimaging: Then, now and the future (Neuroimage).

New perspectives on developing and assessing thinking: Selected papers from the 15th International Conference on Thinking (Thinking Skills and Creativity).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good

The lack of women in science, maths and engineering (STEM) careers continues to raise concerns. One cause of the anomaly is thought to be beliefs among schoolchildren that these subjects are somehow inherently "masculine" and not for girls.

So what's needed to inspire schoolgirls, you might think, is sciencey female role models who show that you can be successful in STEM subjects and at the same time be feminine. Some attempts have already been made in that direction - the toy company Mattel brought out a "Computer Engineer Barbie" (complete with pink laptop) and mathematician Danica McKellar (pictured, right) has written a book aimed at inspiring girls: "Math Doesn't Suck: How To Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind Or Breaking A Nail". (Update: And the EU have just launched a new initiative "Science: it's a girl thing").

The trouble, according to a pair of new studies by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa at the University of Michigan, is that girlie science role models can backfire, actually putting off girls who have little existing interest in science and maths subjects.

The first study involved 144 girls (average age 11.5 years) reading about female undergrad role models in a magazine-style interview. Some of the girls read about three female students who were successful in STEM subjects and were also overtly "girlie" (e.g. they wore make up and pink clothes, and liked reading fashion magazines). For schoolgirls who said they had little interest in science subjects, reading about these kind of role models actually diminished their plans to study maths in the future, reduced their maths interest, and lowered their belief in their own abilities and their chances of short-term success (as compared with outcomes for their like-minded peers who read about three successful STEM role-models who weren't overtly girlie - for example, they wore dark-coloured clothes).

Betz and Sekaquaptewa think this ironic effect could be because girlie female scientists seem extra-difficult to emulate. To test this, 42 more schoolgirls (average age 11.4 years) read interviews with more role models. Afterwards, girls who were uninterested in science subjects rated the success of girlie female scientists as less attainable than the success of female scientists who weren't overtly girlie. Girls not interested in science also tended to say that being good at maths and being girlie don't go together.

What does all this mean? Although there's plenty of evidence that stereotype-busting role models can be beneficial, these new results suggest that role models that take on too many stereotypic beliefs at once can actually backfire. "Young girls may see [the success of such role models] as particularly difficult to emulate," the researchers said, "given their rigid stereotypes about gender and scientists."

This research focused on girls at middle-school and it's important to note that the same findings may not apply to older teens or college students. No doubt some readers will also smart at the way femininity or girlieness was conceived in this study, potentially perpetuating unhelpful gender stereotypes. For now, Betz and Sekaquaptewa cautioned: "Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalion-style feminine makeovers may do more harm than good."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Betz, D., and Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735

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Body-sensitive people are tuned into their heart and their stomach

We know from past research that some people are better than others at being able to detect their own heartbeat. There's lots of research on that topic, partly because it's so easy to compare people's estimates of their heartbeats against the true reading. But is this a characteristic that generalises? Are people who are accurate at detecting their cardiac activity also in-tune with their other internal bodily functions?

Before now, just one study from the early 80s had looked for and found an association between cardiac awareness and gastric awareness. But that study relied on an uncomfortable sounding procedure in which participants had to swallow a balloon. That necessarily ruled out a lot of potential participants who wouldn't have wanted to do such a thing, and the internal gastric sensations that the remaining participants detected were artificially induced.

Now Beate Herbert and her colleagues have used a more natural test of gastric awareness. Forty-nine healthy women fasted for four hours before arriving at the lab where they were instructed to drink water until they felt full. The container they drank from was opaque and re-filled after each swig, so that there was no way for the women to judge visually how much they'd drunk. The participants also completed a test of their heartbeat awareness. For both tasks, medical equipment in the form of electrocardiogram (ECG) and electrogastrogram (EGG) provided objective measures of heart and stomach activity.

The key finding is that women who were more accurate in detecting their own heartbeats also tended to stop drinking earlier, as if they were more sensitive to internal feelings of fullness. The EGG provided objective confirmation that they experienced less gastric activity than the other participants before stopping drinking, so it wasn't the case that their stomachs were actually more full or issuing more powerful signals. Rather the heartbeat sensitive women seemed to be particularly sensitive to signals arising from their stomachs. There were no links between either cardio or gastric awareness and anxiety.

Herbert and her team concluded: "'Interoceptive awareness' as assessed by heartbeat perception seems to represent a better ability to focus, to perceive and to process internal bodily information across visceral modalities, such as gastric signals, with cardiac and gastric signals both representing bodily cues that show perceivable activity changes during situations of everyday life."
_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Herbert, B., Muth, E., Pollatos, O., and Herbert, C. (2012). Interoception across Modalities: On the Relationship between Cardiac Awareness and the Sensitivity for Gastric Functions. PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036646

Previously on the DigestPeople who are more aware of their own heart-beat have superior time perception skills.

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Race and foul judgments in football - it's not black and white

Racism continues to cast its ugly shadow over football. As the European Football Championships kick-off today, the British government has advised fans of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent to "take extra care" when in Ukraine, host nation with Poland. Meanwhile, England defender and ex-captain John Terry awaits his trial for alleged racism. Against this background, a team of Swiss psychologists has just published a preliminary investigation into the potential effect of racial prejudice on fans', players' and referees' judgements about the severity of fouls by Black and White players.

Pascal Gygax and his colleagues presented 43 White football players, 17 White referees and 22 White football fans with 64 challenge sequences created with the Xbox 360 console game Fifa 2005. Each sequence featured one player tackling another, and the clips had been rated by independent judges as ambiguous as regards the legality of the challenge. Players in the clips were White or Black and wore either green or white shirts. After watching each clip (between one and two minutes in length), the participants had to say whether a foul had been committed, and if so, rate its severity.

Based on previous evidence of racial prejudice towards Black athletes, the researchers anticipated that challenges by Black players would be judged harshly, particularly if they were challenges against a White player. Although the results did uncover evidence that race affects people's judgements of fouls, the pattern of results was complicated.

There were signs the participants were sensitive to the risk of appearing biased, in that they were less likely to judge a foul had occurred whenever a sequence involved two players of different skin colour. Referees specifically were less likely to judge that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player. Paradoxically, participants overall were quicker to decide that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player, possibly because they harboured implicit expectations that Black players will be more likely to commit fouls.

When it came to the severity ratings, there was evidence for bias against White players - fouls by them were always judged as more serious, perhaps a consequence of compensatory efforts by the participants to appear non-biased. On the other hand, challenges on Black players were rated as less severe than challenges on White players, perhaps indicative of prejudice by the White participants.

"In essence," the researchers explained, "participants have conflicting sources of information which result in differential treatments of White and Black players, at times discriminatory to Black players, and at times to White players." An alternative, more pessimistic explanation put forward by Gygax and his team is that the participants expected Black players to be more aggressive and so raised the threshold for what they considered to be severe when judging their challenges.

The researchers acknowledged the limitations of their study - most obviously that they'd relied on video game clips rather than real-life footage. However, they said they'd uncovered evidence of discrimination in the judgement of football challenges, and that crucially, "those were not always against Black players: thus, differentiation judgments in soccer based on skin colour may not be a black or white judgment."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org


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You can't resist the pull of another person's gaze

At just the moment the magician swaps the position of two cards in her left hand, she looks across deliberately and misleadingly to her right hand and your attention follows. You can't help it. You see where she's looking and your attention is sent automatically in the same direction. Magicians have known this power for centuries and now psychologists are confirming and measuring the effect under tightly controlled laboratory conditions. More surprising, perhaps, is their finding that the directing effect of arrows is also impossible to resist.

Giovanni Galfano and his colleagues in Italy instructed dozens of participants to look out for a small target that would appear on-screen, each trial, either on the left-hand side or the right-hand side. When it appeared, the participants' task was to press the space-bar key on a keyboard as quickly as possible.

To make things even easier, a word,"left" or "right" (in Italian), appeared in the middle of the screen giving the participants advance warning, with 100 per cent accuracy, as to which side the target would appear. In another run of trials, there was no need for advance warning from a directional word because the target always appeared on the same side.

The only complicating factor in this arrangement - but it's a crucial one - is that after the directional word had gone (on those trials where there was one), and before the target had appeared, a cartoon face popped up in the middle of the screen, looking either in the direction of where the target would appear, or the opposite direction. In other versions of the experiment, rather than a face, an arrow appeared, pointing either towards the side where the target would appear, or towards the opposite side.

The participants were told explicitly to ignore these faces and arrows. But they couldn't. When the cartoon face was looking in the opposite direction to the side the target appeared on, participants were significantly slower to spot the target and press the space key. And it was the same with arrows that pointed in the wrong direction. It's as if the faces and arrows had irresistibly grabbed the participants' attention and sent it momentarily in the wrong direction.

The slowing effect of the gaze and arrows was only a few milliseconds, but it was statistically significant. "The finding that the information conveyed by distractors interfered with the task indicates that orienting of attention mediated by both gaze and arrows resists suppression and can be defined as strongly automatic," the researchers said.

Galfano's team added that the processes underlying the pulling power of gaze and arrows are not necessarily the same. The pull of another's gaze is apparent in the looking behaviour of new-born babies aged just two days, suggestive of an innate mechanism. The power of arrows, by contrast, is obviously based on learned symbolism.

The researchers conceded that different results may have emerged in a more complicated environment more akin to the real world, something they plan to investigate in the future. Related to this, it's been shown that the social identity of a gazer influences the attention-grabbing power of their gaze. A study published last year found that right-wing participants were more affected by the gaze direction of Silvio Berlusconi than were left-wing participants.

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Galfano, G., Dalmaso, M., Marzoli, D., Pavan, G., Coricelli, C., and Castelli, L. (2012). Eye gaze cannot be ignored (but neither can arrows). The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-16 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2012.663765

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