Link feast

Tuck into 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine, with a special focus on traffic and transport psychology, has been made entirely open access - get PDFs of all the articles, or read it via the Issuu web platform.

The Association for Psychological Science has posted a video of the opening address at their Chicago convention this year - titled Psychological Science is Important. If you're about to start studying psychology, this talk by Alan Kraut will have you raring to go.

The Moral Worldview of Babies - Sam McNerney looks at a recent challenge to the idea that babies have an innate preference for altruistic characters.

Don't delay! There are 4 days left to listen to the BBC Radio Four documentary on procrastination - can science find a cure?

A US judge has thrown out fMRI-based lie-detection evidence in a murder trial, ruling it as inadmissible. A good move I reckon. Recent research suggests the technology isn't reliable yet, that it's easy to cheat, and that jurors are seduced by the tech-wow factor.

Vaughan Bell's description of the life of anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff reads like something out of a Hollywood film.

There are 5 days left to watch the BBC Four Growing Children documentary on Dyslexia, presented by psychologist Laverne Antrobus.

In his review for the Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard (author of The Brain is Wider Than the Sky) described James Flynn's book Are We Getting Smarter? as the "one of the most extraordinary science books I have ever read."

The truth about the effect of pregnancy on women's brains: "Pregnesia is the price paid for what ultimately is a maternal neuro-upgrade".

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology has published an open letter outlining its reaction to the recent scandals in social psychology. Dan Simons is less than impressed.

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How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder

Founded in 2010, the Action for Happiness movement states: "What we want for our society is as much happiness as is possible and, above all, as little misery". These aims are well-intentioned, but a new study shows public campaigns like this could have an ironic effect, actually making sad people feel sadder (update: please see the comments below where the Director of Action for Happiness, Mark Williamson, gives his response to this study).

Brock Bastian and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of Australian and Japanese students and found that those people who believed more strongly that society expects us to try to be happy, also tended to evaluate their own negative emotions more negatively. In other words, believing that there's a cultural expectation to strive for happiness is associated with feeling sad about being sad. In turn, people who felt this societal expectation more keenly, also reported experiencing negative emotions more often and having poorer wellbeing (a fall-out that was mediated by these participants being more critical of their own negative emotions). Comparing across cultures, the overall pattern of results was present but weaker in Japan, where negative emotions are generally better tolerated.

These initial findings provided only a snapshot. To get a better sense of the causality of societal expectations, Bastian and his team conducted two further studies in which Australian participants were first primed with carefully prepared newspaper articles, and then prompted to feel negative emotion by reminiscing in writing about a negative event from their lives.

Reading a news article about research that claimed sadness is infectious or that sad people are disliked led participants to experience more negative emotion after they'd reminisced about a bad event in their past. It's as if a reminder of society's intolerance to negative emotion aggravated participants' own negative feelings. By contrast, reading an article that said sad people are accepted and liked, led participants to experience less negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise.

Results from the control condition in this study were particularly revealing. In this case participants were primed with a mundane article about fertiliser. They experienced just as much negative emotion after the reminiscence exercise as participants who'd read the article about sad people being disliked. This suggests the reminder about society's intolerance of negative emotions was unnecessary for aggravating the experience of sadness. "Social pressures appear to be highly normative and particularly so within Western cultures," the researchers said.

Bastian and his colleagues said their findings show how our beliefs about society's intolerance of negative emotions has downstream effects, changing how we experience our own emotions, "ironically aggravating those same emotions that are deemed to be socially undesirable or unacceptable."

"Attempts to promote the value of feeling good over the value of feeling bad by emphasising social norms for these emotions may therefore have the effect of making people feel bad more often," the researchers concluded.


Bastian B, Kuppens P, Hornsey MJ, Park J, Koval P, and Uchida Y (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12 (1), 69-80 PMID: 21787076

-Further reading- Other people may experience more misery than you realise.

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If your plane gets lost you'd better hope there's an orienteer on board

If you're planning on flying any time soon, you may want to look away now. A new study reports that trainee air pilots, including those with considerable experience, fell prey to an elementary mistake in a basic navigation task. Were they to commit this error whilst flying, it would endanger the plane. Indeed, such a scenario has unfolded in real-life incidents.

The task that Andrew Gilbey and Stephen Hill presented to dozens of pilots (some of whom had 160 hours flight experience) required that they choose which of three geographical features to focus on (e.g. a picnic area, bush covered hills, or an unmade road) as a way of determining their location. They were to imagine that they were lost either on a motorbike, in a plane, or on a yacht and, with time short, they needed to use one of these three geographical features to check whether they really were where they thought they were (marked as a "best guess" circle on a map), or if they were in fact located elsewhere nearby.

Over 82 per cent of the time, the pilots chose to focus on one of the three available geographical features that was present both in the best-guess location and elsewhere nearby. In other words, they sought confirmatory evidence to support where they thought they were located. They almost entirely failed to focus on the one geographical feature that was not present in the best-guess location (but was located elsewhere). That is, by failing to seek disconfirmatory evidence, they fell victim to the confirmation bias and missed the best strategy in this situation.

"It appears that having extensive experience with map reading and flight navigation does not help in and of itself [to prevent confirmation bias in lost procedures]," the researchers said.

In other experiments, a group of psychology undergrads consistently made the same error as the pilots, even though they'd just had a lecture on the confirmation bias. A short presentation on confirmation bias also failed to improve the navigation performance of another group of trainee pilots (average flight experience 55 hours). Gilbey and Hill speculated that maybe the presentation failed because it was passive and didn't require the pilots to practice seeking disconfirmatory evidence.

Intriguingly, a group of 21 orienteers performed much better at the task, choosing the disconfirmatory evidence 67 per cent of the time. Gilbey and Hill said this result could help inform future training programmes for pilots - "Although confirmation bias has been the focus of a great deal of research, the current findings suggest that further applied research, particularly in the area of applied aviation, may further improve understanding of this pervasive phenomenon."


A Gilbey, & S Hill (2012). Confirmation bias in general aviation lost procedures Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2860

-Further reading- People don't follow their own directions when walking from A to B.

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Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Gaga is unusual in sounding uptempo yet fresh
Have you heard older generations lamenting the way pop songs don't sound like they used to? There's a sense that the hits from yesteryear had an innocence and feel-good quality that's missing from today's pop offerings. Now Glenn Schellenberg and Christian von Scheve have confirmed what many suspected - pop music over the last five decades has grown progressively more sad-sounding and emotionally ambiguous.

The researchers analysed the tempo (fast or slow) and mode (major or minor) of the most popular 1,010 pop songs identified using year-end lists published by Billboard magazine in the USA from 1965 to 2009. Tempo was determined using the beats per minute of a song, and where this was ambiguous the researchers used the rate at which you'd clap along. The mode of the song was identified from its tonic chord - the three notes played together at the outset, in either minor or major. Happy sounding songs are typically of fast tempo in major mode, whilst sad songs are slow and in minor. Songs can also be emotionally ambiguous, having a tempo that's fast in minor, or vice versa.

Schellenberg and von Scheve found that the proportion of songs recorded in minor-mode has increased, doubling over the last fifty years. The proportion of slow tempo hits has also increased linearly, reaching a peak in the 90s. There's also been a decrease in unambiguously happy-sounding songs and an increase in emotionally ambiguous songs. The findings complement an analysis of pop lyrics from 1980-2007, published last year, that found a drop over time in references to social interactions and positive emotions, but an increase in angry and anti-social words.

Why has pop music changed like this? Schellenberg and von Scheve can only speculate. They point to the rise of consumerism and individualism, which produces a demand for more choice; increasing cultural and societal ambiguity (such as the erosion of traditional gender roles); as well as the desire among pop consumers to demonstrate distinctiveness and sophistication in their taste.

Unambiguously happy songs like Abba's Waterloo sound, to today's ears, "naive and slightly juvenile", the researchers noted. And whilst modern songs in a similar style, such as Aqua's Barbie Girl, can still enjoy huge commercial success, they're usually seen as a guilty pleasure and savaged by critics.

Schellenberg and von Scheve think emotional ambiguity in a song is a way for modern acts to convey their seriousness and complexity. Lady Gaga is highlighted as rare in her ability to produce up-tempo major-mode recordings, such as Born This Way, that "sound fresh while recalling or quoting popular music from an earlier time."

Other findings to emerge from the analysis were a general lengthening of songs, and a greater prevalence of female acts."Our study sheds light on links between long-term cultural change on a macro social scale and emotional expression, perception, and responding, at least in relation to music," the researchers concluded. "As such the findings improve our understanding of the individual in relation to society, and how culture is shaped by the emotional needs and preferences of individuals."

  ResearchBlogging.orgE. Glenn Schellenberg, and Christian von Scheve (2012). Emotional Cues in American Popular Music: Five Decades of the Top 40. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0028024

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Link feast

Ten of the best psychology links from the past fortnight:

"The digital traces left by life in the modern world are transforming social science" Fascinating feature from Nature magazine.

Developmental neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop gave a lecture recently in which she championed behavioural studies and warned against the allure of neuroscience technologies - Neurobonkers has a summary and a link to a video of the talk. (Prof Bishop has also posted a written version of her talk online. On a related note, from the APS Observer: "Four surefire ways to spot the biobunk that underlies pseudo neuroscience.")

A recent episode of James May's Things You Need To Know programme on BBC Two was focused on the brain and is now available on iPlayer.

There are three days left to hear psychologist Tanya Byron's BBC Radio 4 show about restorative justice (in which victims come face to face with perpetrators).

A modern-day Phineas Gage-type incident.

How the ad-libbing left hemisphere makes sense of the world by telling stories. A great article from Michael Gazzaniga in Discover magazine.

It's far easier to prove you're insane than to prove you're insane - thought-provoking TED talk from Jon Ronson (author of The Psychopath Test).

How to be a better procrastinator.

How forensic psychologists catch out people who fake mental illness.

The unexpected beauty of abandoned psychiatric wards.
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Targets look bigger after a shot that felt good

Bigger targets are easier to hit, obviously. But did you know this relationship works backwards? That is, targets that we consider hittable look bigger as a result. The finding is consistent with James Gibson's Theory of Affordances, whereby the ways we can use our bodies to interact with the environment affects our perception of that environment.

Yang Lee at Gyeongsang National University in South Korea, and his colleagues, began their study by asking nine experienced archers to fire at targets of five different sizes located 50 meters away. After they released each arrow, the participants were instructed to turn their heads so that they couldn't see the path of their shot. Upon each arrow hitting home, a screen was also pulled across to prevent the archers from seeing how successful they'd been.

After each shot, the archers chose which of 18 miniature targets on a card most closely matched the size of the target they'd just fired at. The size of the miniatures went from 10mm diameter to 27mm, designed to represent the apparent size of the real target, as seen from a 50m distance.

Although they couldn't see the success of the shots they'd fired, the archers' judgements of the size of the targets was related to the accuracy of their shots. In fact, their size judgments were more strongly related to their accuracy than they were to the actual size of the targets. Specifically, targets were perceived as bigger after a more accurate shot, even though the archers had no access to objective feedback about their performance.

Lee and his colleagues think that archers are able to tell how hittable a shot is based on bodily feedback about their form and chances of success. If a target is hittable then it is adaptive (i.e. useful in an evolutionary sense) that it should be perceived as larger. To test this idea, a second study involved 20 novices preparing to shoot arrows at targets located 50m away. In this study, the participants didn't actually fire the arrows. After each drawing of an arrow, they stopped and estimated the size of the distant target. The crucial twist was that some arrows were drawn back with the aid of a stabilising tripod and some weren't. The aim of the stabiliser was to provoke the sense in the archers, based on bodily feedback, that they had a better chance of hitting the target. In turn this was expected to affect their perception of the targets. That's exactly what was found - targets were perceived to be larger after they'd been viewed in the context of a stabilised draw back.

These intriguing new findings add to a growing literature linking performance with size estimations - for example, it's also been shown that golf putters perceive holes as bigger after a successful putt.


Lee Y, Lee S, Carello C, & Turvey MT (2012). An Archer's Perceived Form Scales the "Hitableness" of Archery Targets. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance PMID: 22731994

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The psychology behind the appeal of original artwork

Why do we place such value on original works of art? Consider The Disciples at Emmaus - believed to be an original Vermeer, it was held in high esteem and sold in 1937 for £1.8 million. Later exposed as a piece by master forger Van Meegeren, however, and its value plummeted overnight.

You could say that we covet originals because of the value that wider society places on them. But that just pushes the question back - why does anyone value originals in the first place? And why with art so much more than other manufactured items?

In a new study, George Newman and Paul Bloom have tested at least two possible explanations - one is that we value original art work because of the originality of the creative performance that led to it; the other is that we feel an original piece is somehow infused with the unique essence of the artist, much like we cherish mundane items that once belonged to a rock star or other celebrity.

In one of Newman and Bloom's five experiments, 180 participants were asked to estimate the value of two paintings they hadn't seen before, both depicting the same scene (one was Son of a Covered Bridge, the other was A Covered Bridge, both by Jim Rilko). Half the participants were told that two different artists had painted the same scene by coincidence. The other participants were told that one artist had produced one of the paintings, and that another artist had seen it and decided to make a copy. All participants were told that there was only one of each painting in existence.

Participants who thought that two paintings had been produced of the same scene by coincidence tended to rate them as having a similar value. By contrast, participants who thought one painting was a copy of the other, tended to value that second painting especially low, and to value the first version of the scene especially high. This shows how we appreciate the originality of the creative performance behind a painting.

In the final experiment, 256 participants read about either a sculptor or a craftsman and their work creating either a bronze sculpture or a piece of furniture, respectively. For the participants who read about the sculptor, those who heard that the process was very hands-on tended to rate the value of the sculpture much more highly than those who read that the creative process was hands-off (involving machinery). By contrast, this distinction made far less difference to the valuations made by the participants who read about the craftsman's work.

In other words, participants placed more value on the bronze sculpture when they thought the artist had touched it more with his own hands, almost as though infusing it with his essence. This effect was enhanced further for participants who read a version of the vignette in which the sculptor made just one copy of his sculpture.

So when we cherish an original piece of art, it seems we do so partly because we value, not just the end product, but the originality of the performance that created it. Moreover, we believe that the work has a special quality about it because it came from the very hand of a particular artist. Copies and forgeries, no matter how close to the original, fall down on both these counts.

"We hope that the research here will engender interest on the broad topic of art within psychology," the researchers said, "as well as more specific questions regarding the role of authenticity in judgments of value."


Newman GE, & Bloom P (2012). Art and authenticity: The importance of originals in judgments of value. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 141 (3), 558-69 PMID: 22082113

-Further reading- A brain-imaging paper published last year reported that the same works of art triggered different brain activity depending on whether they were labelled as authentic or as copies.

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Judges are more lenient toward a psychopath when given a neuro explanation for his condition

Last month, a prescient editorial in the New York Times warned that a greater understanding of the neural correlates of behaviour risks having a distorting effect on the criminal justice system. John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz highlighted their own research showing that people are far more forgiving of crimes with ostensibly neurobiological causes, compared with psychological causes - a worrying demonstration of what they called "naive dualism" given that "all psychological states are also biological ones."

Now a multi-disciplinary team of psychologist Lisa Aspinwall, legal scholar Teneille Brown and philosopher James Tabery, has surveyed nearly 200 state trial court judges in the U.S., showing how their decision making is swayed by a neurobiological explanation for psychopathy.

The judges read about a case, based loosely on real events, in which a robber brutally attacked a restaurant manager who refused to hand over any money. All judges were given evidence from the prosecution or defence that said the perpetrator had been diagnosed with psychopathy - an untreatable condition. Additionally, half of them were also presented with expert evidence from a neurobiologist about the causes of psychopathy, including genetic factors. The perpetrator had been tested and had low MAOA activity - a profile, the judges were told, previously associated with increased propensity for anti-social behaviour. The neurobiologist also explained how this genetic profile leads to brain abnormalities that impair the psychopath's ability to tell right from wrong.

Compared with what they estimated to be their usual sentencing for aggravated battery (9 years), overall the judges said they would give a higher sentence to the psychopathic perpetrator in the current case - 12.93 years. This shows the criminal's psychopathy was overall treated as an "aggravating factor", a sign of utilitarian thinking on the part of the judges, in the sense that he was highly likely to be violent in the future.

However, among the judges exposed to a neurobiological account of psychopathy, the diagnosis also had a "mitigating" effect on their decision-making. Judges in this condition sentenced the attacker to an average of 12.83 years compared with the 13.93 years given by judges who didn't receive the neurobiological information. Although the judges in receipt of the neurobiology didn't agree with the explicit suggestion that the attacker had compromised free will or moral responsibility, their open-ended explanations for their sentencing suggested otherwise. The neural evidence "makes possible an argument that psychopaths are, in a sense, morally 'disabled'," said one.

Aspinwall and her team described as a "double-edged sword" the way that psychopathy, accompanied by neurobiological explanation, can have both an aggravating and mitigating effect at once. Supporting this, judges who received the neurobiological testimony, and heard the psychopathic diagnosis from the defence counsel, tended to mention "weighing" or "balancing" factors over twice as often as judges in the other conditions. "Psychopathy may make the defendant less morally culpable, but it increases his future dangerousness to society," said one. "In my mind, these factors balance out ...".

This new research adds to a growing literature showing how people seem to be particularly beguiled by neuroscientific evidence. Last year, for example, a study reported that people were more persuaded by brain-scan-based lie-detection evidence compared with more traditional lie-detection approaches. This study also isn't the first to examine the factors affecting the decision making of judges. For instance, it was shown last year that hungry judges are less forgiving.


Lisa G. Aspinwall, Teneille R. Brown, & James Tabery (2012). The Double-Edged Sword: Does Biomechanism Increase or Decrease Judges' Sentencing of Psychopaths? Science : 10.1126/science.1219569

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

"Study 3 extends these results ... and demonstrates how men experiencing natural hair loss may improve their interpersonal standing by shaving"

Robots with long hair assumed to be less suited to engineering and lifting tasks.

Smiling as a signal of low status? Smaller athletes and models for cheap clothing smile more than bigger athletes and models for exclusive clothing (pdf).

"our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”"

When mentally tired, people are more resistant to corny chat-up lines, but less resistant to subtle approaches.

Preservation of musical memory in an amnesic professional cellist.

Even mild mental illness linked with reduced longevity.

What's it like to be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia?

Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.

Participants were fairly good [at finding their parked car]. "Only 14% made a substantial detour, most of them women".

Reconceptualizing Obedience Within the Milgram Paradigm as Identification-Based Followership.

Do antidepressants change personality?-A five-year observational study

The readiness potential is not the neural correlate of the decision to move, a new study claims (pdf). The finding challenges the usual interpretation of Benjamin Libet's 1980 classic study, that the conscious decision to move comes after the neural activity causing a movement.

The most influential people on Facebook are themselves less susceptible to influence.

Choking Under the Pressure of a Positive Stereotype: Gender Identification and Self-Consciousness Moderate Men's Math Test Performance.

"owners of dog breeds widely considered to be “aggressive” harbour more psychotic tendencies"

Gentlemen Patrons Give More Tips to Waitresses With Red Clothes

"Thus, from an early age, humans seem to have genuine concern for the welfare of others"


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How to turn time spent living abroad into creative success

Spending time living abroad can set the creative juices flowing. But it doesn't work for everyone and a new study helps explain why. To extract maximum benefit from time in a foreign land, what's needed is a "bicultural" perspective - the ability to identity with your new home, but all the while continuing to connect with your native country too.

This form of dual acculturation breeds creative and professional success, the new findings suggest, because it encourages a sophisticated style of thought. Juggling the conflicts and complexities of a dual-identity fosters an ability to register multiple perspectives and to understand the conceptual relations between them ("a habitual tool for making sense of the world", in the researchers' words).

Carmit Tadmor and her colleagues began by studying 78 MBA students of 26 different nationalities at a European Business School. All had spent time living in one of 31 different foreign countries. Factors such as personality and age were taken into account through all the study analyses.

Those students who'd assumed a bicultural perspective (as opposed to those identifying steadfastly with their original culture only, or those who'd gone entirely native and rejected their home identity) performed better on a lab test of creativity - coming up with new uses for a brick. Moreover, this advantage was mediated by their scores on "integrative complexity" - the thinking style mentioned earlier, in which multiple perspectives are appreciated and linked.

A second study involved 54 MBA students at a business school in the USA, all of whom had spent time living abroad. This time the biculturals were found to have been more innovative in real life (in terms of setting up new businesses; inventing new products and services). Again, this creative advantage was mediated by the "integrative complexity" of their thinking.

Finally, the researchers surveyed 100 Israeli professionals, most of them working in Silicon Valley. Their average time in the States was 9 years. The biculturals in this sample had enjoyed more promotions and had superior professional reputations (based on the judgment of one of their peers), compared with the participants who identified only with their Israeli heritage or only with their adopted American culture. Again, this professional advantage was mediated by the biculturals' "integrative complexity" in their thinking.

Tadmor and her team acknowledge that their results are limited by being cross-sectional - it's possible that professional success encourages a complex thinking style; that a complex thinking style provokes a bicultural approach to life, and so on. But they pointed to past longitudinal research that showed biculturals' thinking became more integratively complex over time, as compared with the thinking of mono-cultural individuals - so it's certainly plausible that acquiring a bicultural perspective plays a causal role. The researchers also admitted that a bicultural perspective could have other positive benefits besides encouraging complex thought - for example, by catalysing better relations with colleagues. There could be downsides too. The process of becoming bicultural is likely a stressful demanding experience.

If you're planning to live abroad for creative benefit, there are clear lessons to take away from this research, but we still don't know how much it's possible to choose to adopt a bicultural perspective. More research will be needed to look into this. Another detail worth noting is that participants in this study who rejected both their original home identity and their new adopted identity (known as "marginals"), also showed greater integrative complexity and more creative success, though not to the same extent as biculturals. Perhaps, the researchers surmised, being culturally independent also fosters a complex style that aids creative thought.


Tadmor CT, Galinsky AD, & Maddux WW (2012). Getting the Most Out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and Professional Success. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22823287

--Further reading--

Living abroad linked with enhanced creativity
The Cure for Creative Blocks? Leave Your Desk.

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Cheeky pictures suggest psychologists identify with the arts

What does it matter which side of your face you show when you're having your photograph taken?  A team of scientists say that it reflects how much you see yourself as emotional and arty or rational and scientific. Owen Churches and his colleagues analysed the personal webpages belonging to 5,829 English-language university academics around the world. They found that engineers, mathematicians and chemists more often posed with their right cheek; English lit. dons and psychologists with their left. "... [M]ost academic psychologists, who may have entered the profession during its arts oriented past, perceive themselves as being more akin to arts academics than scientists," said Churches and co.

The researchers made their observations after choosing 30 universities at random from the 200 listed by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2010 to 2011. When they found scholarly departments where the convention was for academics to present a photo of themselves, they went on to analyse all academic photos to see which cheek was visible. Straight-on photos were ignored. That left 3168 photos for analysis. Consistent with previous research there was a strong effect of sex - women more often pose with their left cheek showing. But the differences between the arts and science academics held even after controlling for this confound. The contrast also survived an analysis that excluded any photos that looked like they'd been taken by a professional photographer.

These new findings build on past research that's shown the left side of the face is perceived as more emotionally expressive than the right; that emotionally expressive people are more likely to pose with the left cheek showing; that, historically, people have tended to pose more often with their left side showing, but older portraits of scientists, in contrast, show them posing more often with their right cheek; and that viewers tend to guess that an unknown academic posing with their right cheek is a scientist, whilst guessing that left-cheek posers are arts scholars. These findings, Churches and his team explained, "suggest a difference in the inward role of the two cerebral hemispheres in the creation and analysis of the emotional display ... ".

In the current study, the general pattern of cheek posing and academic affiliation broke down when it came to fine arts and performing arts - they showed no bias for posing with their left side. The researchers speculated this may be because of their expert knowledge of the history of portraiture.

Critics may wonder about the researchers' interpretation that the posing position of psychologists suggests they identify with the arts. This seems quite a leap from the data that's available. It's also worth noting that there's a huge amount of variation within each academic discipline in posing position. Even among male engineers, for example, nearly 40 per cent posed with their left side facing the camera.

"Academics be warned," the researchers concluded. "We present ourselves to our students and colleagues in our profile pictures and the way we do so may reveal more about ourselves than we think."

Churches O, Callahan R, Michalski D, Brewer N, Turner E, Keage HA, Thomas NA, & Nicholls ME (2012). How academics face the world: a study of 5829 homepage pictures. PloS One, 7 (7) PMID: 22815695

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Five chances to win a copy of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

This competition is now closed and the five winners have been contacted. Thank you for all your entries. 

We've got five copies to give away of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain by Professor Elaine Fox, kindly provided to us by William Heinemann. Here's what the publishers say about the book: 
Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Glass half-full or half-empty? Do you look on the bright side or turn towards the dark? These are easy questions for most of us to answer, because our personality types are hard-wired into our brains. As pioneering psychologist and neuroscientist Elaine Fox has discovered, our outlook on life reflects our primal inclination to seek pleasure or avoid danger-inclinations that, in many people, are healthily balanced. But when our 'fear brain' or 'pleasure brain' is too strong, the results can be disastrous, as those of us suffering from debilitating shyness, addiction, depression, or anxiety know all too well.
Drawing on her own cutting-edge research, Fox shows how we can retrain our brains to brighten our lives and learn to flourish. With keen insights into how genes, life experiences and cognitive processes interleave together to make us who we are, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain revolutionises our basic concept of individuality. We learn that we can influence our own personalities, and that our lives are only as 'sunny' or as 'rainy' as we allow them to be.
For a chance to win a copy, please post a comment to this blog entry telling us why you're optimistic about the future (please leave an email address). We'll pick five winners at random next Friday. Good luck!
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Made it! An uncanny number of psychology findings manage to scrape into statistical significance

Like a tired boxer at the Olympic Games, the reputation of psychological science has just taken another punch to the gut. After a series of fraud scandals in social psychology and a US survey that revealed the widespread use of questionable research practices, a paper published this month finds that an unusually large number of psychology findings are reported as "just significant" in statistical terms.

The pattern of results could be indicative of dubious research practices, in which researchers nudge their results towards significance, for example by excluding troublesome outliers or adding new participants. Or it could reflect a selective publication bias in the discipline - an obsession with reporting results that have the magic stamp of statistical significance. Most likely it reflects a combination of both these influences. On a positive note, psychology, perhaps more than any other branch of science, is showing an admirable desire and ability to police itself and to raise its own standards.

E. J. Masicampo at Wake Forest University, USA, and David Lalande at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, analysed 12 months of issues, July 2007 - August 2008, from three highly regarded psychology journals - the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; and Psychological Science.

In psychology, a common practice is to determine how probable (p) it is that the observed results in a study could have been obtained if the null hypothesis were true (the null hypothesis usually being that the treatment or intervention has no effect). The convention is to consider a probability of less than five per cent (p < .05) as an indication that the treatment or intervention really did have an influence; the null hypothesis can be rejected (this procedure is known as null hypothesis significance testing).

From the 36 journal issues Masicampo and Lalande identified 3,627 reported p values between .01 to .10 and their method was to see how evenly the p values were spread across that range (only studies that reported a precise figure were included). To avoid a bias in their approach, they counted the number of p values falling into "buckets" of different size, either .01, .005, .0025 or .00125 across the range.

The spread of p values between .01 and .10 followed an exponential curve - from .10 to .01 the number of p values increased gradually. But here's the key finding - there was a glaring bump in the distribution between .045 and .050. The number of p values falling in this range was "much greater" than you'd expect based on the frequency of p values falling elsewhere in the distribution. In other words, an uncanny abundance of reported results just sneaked into the region of statistical significance.

"Biases linked to achieving statistical significance appear to have a measurable impact on the research publication process," the researchers said.

The same general pattern was found regardless of whether Masicampo and Lalande analysed results from just one journal or all of them together, and mostly regardless of the size of the distribution buckets they looked at. Of course, there's a chance the intent behind their investigations could have biased their analyses in some way. To check this, a research assistant completely blind to the study aims analysed p values from one of the journals - the same result was found.

Masicampo and Lalande said their findings pointed to the need to educate researchers about the proper interpretation of null hypothesis significance testing and the value of alternative approaches, such as reporting effect sizes and confidence intervals. " ... [T]he field may benefit from practices aimed at counteracting the single-minded drive toward achieving statistical significance," they said.


Masicampo EJ, and Lalande DR (2012). A peculiar prevalence of p values just below .05. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology PMID: 22853650

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Encourage students into science by targeting their parents

Whereas most previous research has focused on ways to make school science lessons more engaging and inclusive, Judith Marackiewicz and her colleagues took a different approach and sent two glossy brochures and a web-site password to the parents of 81 boys and girls (aged approximately 16) at 108 schools in the Wisconsin area. The first brochure "Making Connections: Helping Your Teen Find Value in School" was delivered when the school pupils were in their 10th grade (aged about 16 years), and the second about six months later.

The researchers were guided by psychological theory that says students are motivated by a mix of factors: their expectations about how well they'll do, how much they think they'll enjoy a subject, and how useful they think it will be to them. The brochures and website particularly targeted the last factor. The materials contained information educating parents about the usefulness of maths and science to their children's careers, and advising them on ways to discuss this with their children. This included ways to personalise the discussion of the subjects, as well showcasing the relevance of the subjects to real-life activities, such as video games and driving.

The intervention had a powerful effect. Compared to 100 students in a control group, the children of targeted parents reported at follow-up that they'd had more discussions with their parents about the value of science and maths courses, and crucially, they also opted to take more of these subjects at high-school (this averaged out as the equivalent of an extra semester of maths or science during the final two years of school). Mothers in the intervention group also reported being more aware of the value of maths and science to their children's careers.

Time and again past research has shown that one of the strongest predictors of children's choice of science and maths is their parents' level of education. This was replicated in the current study, and impressively enough, the influence of the intervention was the same size as this oft-studied parental factor. Targeting parents may be particularly shrewd, the researchers said, since they have a privileged insight into their children's personalities and histories, and are therefore uniquely placed to help them realise the advantages to studying maths, science, technology and and/or engineering (STEM).

"Parents are an untapped resource for promoting STEM motivation," Marackiewicz and her team concluded, "and the results of our study demonstrate that a modest intervention aimed at parents can produce significant changes in their children's academic choices."


Harackiewicz JM, Rozek CS, Hulleman CS, and Hyde JS (2012). Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention. Psychological science PMID: 22760887

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Olympics Feast Special

As we enter the home straight towards the close of the 2012 Olympics, here's a handy links round-up:

Fancy becoming a sports psychologist? There are plenty of pointers in this video, plus lots more resources from the BPS Going For Gold sports psychology portal.

Does wearing red really boost your chances of winning in sport? Tom Stafford weighs the evidence.

Hosting a major sporting event - economic gains are unlikely, but will it bring happiness?

The Psychology of Stamina (pdf).

There's still time to watch The Bad Boy Olympian that aired on BBC 3 (2 days left to view).

Have you started BIRGing (basking in reflected glory) yet? This article examines the psychology of competition, including how fans are affected by their team's performance. Also, check out these psychologists reflecting on what the Games mean to them, and this article on what sports psychology has done for the mainstream discipline.

Using Twitter to monitor real-time emotional responses to the Games.

It's a run of three hits or wins that particularly makes us think a person or team is on song.

We think about psychological momentum in sport in terms of the laws of physics.

Why Bronze medallists are usually happier than Silver.

Why don't we watch more women's sports?

From the Psychologist magazine archive - Dave Collins, Performance Director at UK Athletics, on how he will be putting his background in psychology to use in pursuit of medals in Beijing.

Matthew Syed investigates the psychology of the home advantage (radio show available to listen again on iPlayer).

Olympic athletes reveal their mental strategies.

How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes? (and check this - what if every sport were photographed like women's beach volleyball?)

Is it wrong to, ahem, admire the bodies of the athletes? asks Zoe Williams.

Winning Gold - comparing media coverage in the US and Japan (during the Sydney and Salt Lake City games).

An interview with Steve Peters - "sports psychiatrist" to the all-conquering Team GB cycling team.

Swifter, higher, stronger: The history of sport psychology.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Is a taste for extreme answers distorting cross-cultural comparisons of personality?

Data on how personality varies around the world is puzzling. Take the dimension of conscientiousness. Among individuals within a particular country, those with higher conscientiousness tend to earn more money and live longer. This makes sense given the behavioural sequelae of conscientiousness, including diligence and attention-to-detail. Compare across countries, however, and what you find is that richer countries with longer life expectancy tend to have lower average conscientiousness. Now a new study has tested a possible explanation for this paradox - perhaps there's a systematic bias between countries in people's tendency to tick more extreme scores on questionnaires.

How do you tell if a population's higher scores are a reliable reflection of their underlying traits, or if they're caused by a proclivity for more extreme answers? One way is to ask them to rate not just their own personality, but also the personality of a number of fictional characters described in vignettes. Exaggerated scores for the fictional characters would be a sign of a skewed response style.

A small army of researchers around the world led by René Mõttus at the University of Tartu in Estonia has taken on this challenge, recruiting 2,965 people across 20 countries (including European, African, American and Asian nations) and asking them to rate their own personalities and the personalities described in vignettes.

Mõttus and his colleagues uncovered systematic differences between nations in people's proclivity for extreme responding. One pattern to emerge was that richer East Asian countries tended to avoid extreme scores, whereas poorer countries in Africa and SE Asia tended to give more extreme ratings. Adjusting for cross-cultural response styles, the puzzling negative correlation disappeared between average international conscientiousness scores and national longevity and wealth.

The researchers acknowledged that they haven't shown conclusively that extreme response tendencies cause higher conscientiousness ratings. Theoretically the causal direction could run backwards, although common sense suggests this is unlikely. You'd expect higher scorers on conscientiousness to avoid extreme scores, not embrace them. Another possibility is that another unknown factor is at play, inflating conscientiousness scores and encouraging extreme responding. However, it's difficult to imagine what such a factor might be. Taken altogether, the researchers think the most likely explanation is that a proclivity in some countries for extreme responding has had the effect of inflating their conscientiousness scores.

All this raises a further intriguing question ... why should people in some countries be more prone to giving extreme answers? The answer remains beyond the current study, but the researchers suggested one factor could be "dialectical thinking ... 'an emphasis on change, a recognition of contradiction and of the need for multiple perspectives, and a search for the "Middle Way" between opposing propositions'". Countries where dialectical thinking is more common would be expected to avoid extreme scores. Consistent with this, there's some evidence that dialectical thinking is higher in East Asian countries that were found in this study to refrain from giving extreme scores.

Mõttus R, Allik J, Realo A, Rossier J, Zecca G, Ah-Kion J, Amoussou-Yéyé D, Bäckström M, Barkauskiene R, Barry O, Bhowon U, Björklund F, Bochaver A, Bochaver K, de Bruin G, Cabrera HF, Chen SX, Church AT, Cissé DD, Dahourou D, Feng X, Guan Y, Hwang HS, Idris F, Katigbak MS, Kuppens P, Kwiatkowska A, Laurinavicius A, Mastor KA, Matsumoto D, Riemann R, Schug J, Simpson B, Tseung-Wong CN, and Johnson W (2012). The Effect of Response Style on Self-Reported Conscientiousness Across 20 Countries. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 22745332

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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