Link feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

1. Why do some children write backwards? Do mirror writers always have the ability to read mirrored writing? The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine answers these questions and more in its open-access feature by Robert McIntosh and Sergio Della Sala on the mysterious phenomenon of mirror writing.

2. The Indy newspaper published a handy article with advice on postgraduate study in psychology.

3. Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, now available on demand, about people with hyperthymesia - the ability to remember almost everyday of their lives in detail (see also).

4. People behave more selflessly when they make decisions more quickly - Ed Yong reports on an encouraging new study.

5. Our sister blog, The Occupational Digest, reported on a study that reviewed the benefits of humour in the workplace. Writes Alex Fradera: "The contagious nature of laughter - we laugh at a laugh even shorn of context, and our brains respond to laughter sounds in a similar way as they do to something funny - means that a single moment of humour can evoke and encourage others - both directly through emotional contagion and also by acting as a trigger to permit employees to breach straight-faced operations with crinkled smiles."

6. Former UK Home and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has revealed that he's seen a psychoanalyst for decades, for the treatment of depression. Straw also described experiencing imposter syndrome.

7. Nature published an editorial lamenting the lack of investment in research into ways to improve the effectiveness of psychological therapy.

8. University of Michigan psychologist Brent Donnellan and his colleagues have tried and failed to replicate a study we reported on last year (see Feeling Lonely? Have a Bath), authored by John Bargh and Idit Shalev. Donnellan reports that Bargh has since thrown a veil of secrecy over his raw data on people's bathing habits. "What’s the First Rule about John Bargh’s Data?" asks Donnellan. "Answer: You do not talk about John Bargh’s data." (see also).

9. Ooh, check out this great collection of 12 TED talks on understanding the brain (ht @SamMcNerney).

10. Nature reports on the bizarre finding that many people happily switched their moral stance and defended it, without realising they'd done so (ht @VaughanBell). Reminds me of this past research on choice blindness by the same lab.

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

Parents underestimate their children's worry levels and overestimate their optimism

It's well-established that parents frequently overestimate their children's intelligence and the amount of exercise they get. Now a team led by Kristin Lagattuta has uncovered evidence suggesting that parents have an unrealistically rosy impression of their kiddies' emotional lives too. It's a finding with important implications for clinicians and child researchers who often rely on parental reports of young children's psychological wellbeing.

It's previously been assumed that children younger than seven will struggle to answer questions about their emotions. Undeterred, Lagattuta and her colleagues simplified the language used in a popular measure of older children's anxiety and they developed a pictorial scoring system that involved the children pointing to rectangles filled with different amounts of colour. Time was taken to ensure the child participants understood how to use the scale.

An initial study with 228 psychologically healthy children aged 4 to 11 from relatively affluent backgrounds found that the children's answers to oral questions about their experience of worry (including general anxiety, panic, social phobia and separation anxiety) failed to correlate with their parents' (usually the mother's) written responses to questions about the children's experience of worry. Specifically, the parents tended to underestimate how much anxiety their children experienced.

A second study was similar, but this time the researchers ensured the parents and children answered items that were worded in exactly the same way; the parents were reassured that it was normal for children to experience some negative emotion; and the parents were able to place their completed questionnaires in envelopes for confidentiality. Still the children's answers about their own emotions failed to correlate with parents' answers, with the parents again underestimating the amount of worry experienced by their children.

A revealing detail in this study was that parents also answered questions about their own emotions. Their scores for their own emotions correlated with the answers they gave for their children's experiences. "These data suggest that even parents from a low-risk, non-clinical sample may have difficulty separating their emotional perspective from that of their child," the researchers said.

Finally, 90 more children aged 5 to 10 answered questions about their optimism, whilst their parents also answered questions about their own and their children's optimism. Again, parents' and children's verdicts on the children's emotions failed to correlate, with the parents now overestimating their children's experience of optimism. And once more, parents' own optimism was related to how they interpreted their children's optimism.

Lagattuta and her colleagues admitted that it's theoretically possible that the children were the ones showing a distorted view of their own emotions, and it's the parents who were painting the true picture. However, they think this is highly unlikely. For starters it's revealing that parents underestimated their children's negative emotion and yet over-estimated their positive emotion, which argues against the idea that the children were simply answering more conservatively, or giving systematically extreme answers in one direction. Moreover, the new findings fit with the wider literature showing how parents tend to have an unrealistically rosy impression of their children's wellbeing. An obvious study limitation is the focus on middle class US participants, so there is of course a need to replicate with people from other backgrounds and cultures.

"From the standpoint of research and clinical practice, this mismatch between parent and child perceptions raises a red flag," the researchers concluded. "Internally consistent self-report data can be acquired from young children regarding their emotional experiences. Obtaining reports from multiple informants - including the child - needs to be the standard."

  ResearchBlogging.orgLagattuta KH, Sayfan L, and Bamford C (2012). Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of experimental child psychology, 113 (2), 211-32 PMID: 22727673

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

Introducing the SuperAgers - the elderly people whose brains have stayed young

They say the slow inevitable decline sets in during our early twenties. Like a rocket reaching its apogee, once the brain is fully developed there is the briefest lull, and then it's all downhill, the last neural areas to develop being the first to start unravelling. By the time of old age, so certain are the impairments in mental processing that psychological tests are age-adjusted - "You're slow Bob, but not for your age. For an 80-year-old you're doing just fine."

But wait. A team led by Theresa Harrison at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University say they've identified a group of elderly individuals whose brains appear relatively immune to the physical effects of ageing.

Harrison and her colleagues identified these 12 "SuperAgers" (average age 84) by their exceptional mental performance. They outperformed 10 typical healthy older folk (average age 83) on a test that involved recalling lists of words, and they matched the performance of 14 healthy middle-aged volunteers (average age 58). The SuperAgers also matched the middle-aged on tests of naming things, attention and task switching, and identifying drawings by category.

Using a structural brain scanner, the researchers found that the SuperAgers had brains that seemed to have resisted the erosive influence of time. Whereas the typical older participants had thinner cortices and smaller average brain volumes (244mm cubed average) than the middle-aged (306mm cubed), the SuperAgers' brain surfaces were just as thick as the middle-aged and their brain volumes (288mm cubed) not significantly different in statistical terms. Moreover, there was one brain region - the left anterior cingulate - that was actually thicker in the SuperAgers than in the middle-aged.

"These findings are remarkable," the researchers said, "given the numerous reports that grey matter loss is a common, if not universal, part of normal ageing."

Across the groups, brain volume correlated with episodic memory performance. Although cingulate thickness did not, Harrison's team still think it's interesting that this region was thicker in the SuperAgers. Relevant here is previous research showing that early protein accumulations in the cingulate region have been detected in Alzheimer patients.

This new study provides a tantalising demonstration that continuing neural decline into old age is not inevitable. Crucial now is to find out why the SuperAgers are so well preserved. It's not known, for example, if they had larger brains and greater cognitive reserves to begin with, or if their brains have simply aged more slowly than usual. Perhaps their lifestyles will hold clues, although the obvious role of education appears not to be relevant with this group. Their time in education was no longer than the other participants and in fact only four of them went to university.

"Identifying the underlying factors that promote this trajectory of unusually successful cognitive aging may lead to novel insights for preventing age-related cognitive impairments or strategies for evading the more severe changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease," the researchers said.


Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam, and Emily Rogalski1 (2012). Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society DOI: 10.1017/S1355617712000847

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

How the mere presence of a mobile phone harms face-to-face conversations

You sit down for a chat with a new acquaintance but before you're even started they've placed their phone carefully on the table in front of them. Why? Are they waiting for a call? Do they just enjoy marvelling at its chic plastic beauty? Either way, a new study suggests this familiar habit could be interfering with our attempts to socialise.

Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein asked 34 pairs of strangers to spend 10 minutes chatting to each other about "an interesting event that occurred to you over the past month". The participants sat on chairs in a private booth and for half of them, close by but out of their direct line of view, a mobile phone was placed on a table-top. For the other pairs, there was a note-book in place of the phone.

After they'd finished chatting, the participants answered questions about the partner they'd met. The ones who'd chatted with a phone visible nearby, as opposed to a notebook, were less positive. For example, they were less likely to agree with the statement "It is likely that my partner and I could become friends if we interacted a lot". They also reported feeling less closely related to their conversational partner.

A second study with a fresh set of participants was similar, but this time some of the 34 pairs of strangers chatted about a mundane topic, whilst others chatted about "the most meaningful events of the past year." Again, some of them did this with a phone placed nearby, others with a notebook in the same position.

For participants with the notebook visible nearby, having a more meaningful conversation (as opposed to a casual one) boosted their feelings of closeness and their trust in their conversational partner. But this extra intimacy was missing for the participants for whom a mobile phone was visible. When the researchers debriefed the participants afterwards they seemed to be unaware of the effects of the mobile phone, suggesting its adverse effects were at a non-conscious level.

Why should the mere presence of a mobile phone interfere with feelings of social intimacy in this way? Przybylski and Weinstein can't be sure, but they think that modern mobile phones might trigger in the mind automatic thoughts about wider social networks, which has the effect of crowding out face-to-face conversations. Considered in this way, the present findings are an extension of the wider literature on what's known as non-conscious priming (for example, the presence of a brief-case makes people more competitive).

A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't compare the effects of the presence of a mobile phone against an old-fashioned land-line phone, or other forms of technology. So it's not clear how specific the effect is to mobile phones.

Also, as the authors acknowledge, this is just a preliminary observation that poses all sorts of future questions requiring further research. For example, did the presence of a mobile phone alter the behaviour and conversational style of the participants, or did it merely change their perceptions of the social experience? Would the effects be the same for people who are already in a close relationship?

But for now, Przybylski and Weinstein concluded: "These results indicate that mobile communication devices may, by their mere presence, paradoxically hold the potential to facilitate as well as to disrupt human bonding and intimacy."


Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein (2012). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512453827

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

Link Feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

1. Why We Need to Study the Brain’s Evolution in Order to Understand the Modern Mind - a must-read essay by Ferris Jabr for Scientific American.

2. Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A Cultural History is attracting criticism for its distortion and over-simplification of the neuroscience of sexual desire. Maia Szalavitz for Time said the book "profoundly misrepresents how the brain works" before providing a corrective account of the literature (see also).

3. The winners of this year's Ig Nobels have been announced, including a prize for brain scanning a dead salmon and for research showing that leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower appear smaller.

4. Nature published an excellent news feature on just how busy the brain is when it's "resting" (see also).

5. To Russia with Jung. BBC Radio 4 programme now on iPlayer: "Psychoanalysis went underground in communist Russia - books were hidden, sessions held in secret. In St Petersburg, Chris Ledgard meets Catherine Crowther and Jan Wiener. The two therapists, trained at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London, are helping to re-introduce Jungian analysis to Russian society."

6. UK cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's superb TED talk on the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain is now available on the TED website for viewing.

7. Alok Jha for the Guardian with a great overview and analysis of the recent fraud scandals in psychology and other sciences (see also).

8. The Neurocritic blog slams the UK writer and reviewer Steven Poole for his recent New Statesman article about the hyped reporting of neuroscience. This hype, and many attempts to correct it, have been around for years. "But" says Neurocritic, "you wouldn't guess it from reading Poole, who acts as if he's discovered this infectious plague all by himself." ... "Poole hasn't done his homework, which is unfortunate for someone who uses terms like 'intellectual pestilence' as a casual insult."

9. Scientists have created an atlas of the human brain that reveals the activity of genes across the entire organ.

10. Steve Pinker and Bill Gates discuss whether the world really is becoming less violent over time.

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

Links for World Alzheimer's Day

Today, September 21, is World Alzheimer's Day and to mark the date Alzheimer's Disease International has published a new report on combating the stigma of Alzheimer's Disease.

And to join in the day's events I've collected together a number of Alzheimer's related reports, journal abstracts and stories from the Research Digest archive:

A flicker of light in a sea of darkness - the woman with Alzheimer's who retained the ability to pun.

Recommended book from 2008: Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research.

Alzheimer's patients retain their taste in art.

A test for distinguishing between major depression in the elderly and the depression associated with Alzheimer's Disease.

Apolipoprotein E4 is a risk factor for Alzheimer's, but does it exert a benefit on cognitive function in healthy young adults?

Hearing music that isn't there.

The woman who was misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's.

TED talk - Alanna Shaikh on how she's preparing to get Alzheimer's.

A journal special issue on neuroimaging and early Alzheimer's Disease.

The woman who mistook her daughters for her sisters.

"The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome" - an uplifting article from CNN.

Music as a memory enhancer for patients with Alzheimer's.

Scientists discover way to reverse loss of memory (The Independent). Good news story from 2008. Here's the journal abstract.

Loneliness increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Recommended book from 2008: I'm Still Here! Alzheimer's disease is devastating and yet new research is highlighting the islands of function and ability that can and do survive the tide of illness

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

Most brain imaging papers fail to provide enough methodological detail to allow replication

Amidst recent fraud scandals in social psychology and other sciences, leading academics are calling for a greater emphasis to be placed on the replicability of research. "Replication is our best friend because it keeps us honest," wrote the psychologists Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner recently.

For replication to be possible, scientists need to provide sufficient methodological detail in their papers for other labs to copy their procedures. Focusing specifically on fMRI-based brain imaging research (a field that's no stranger to controversy), University of Michigan psychology grad student Joshua Carp has reported a worrying observation - the vast majority of papers he sampled failed to provide enough methodological detail to allow other labs to replicate their work.

Carp searched the literature from 2007 to 2011 looking for open-access human studies that mentioned "fMRI" and "brain" in their abstracts. Of the 1392 papers he identified, Carp analysed a random sample of 241 brain imaging articles from 68 journals, including PLoS One, NeuroImage, PNAS, Cerebral Cortex and the Journal of Neuroscience. Where an article featured supplementary information published elsewhere, Carp considered this too.

There was huge variability in the methodological detail reported in different studies, and often the amount of detail was woeful, as Carp explains:
"Over one third of studies did not describe the number of trials, trial duration, and the range and distribution of inter-trial intervals. Fewer than half reported the number of subjects rejected from analysis; the reasons for rejection; how or whether subjects were compensated for participation; and the resolution, coverage, and slice order of functional brain images."
Other crucial detail that was often omitted included information on correcting for slice acquisition timing, co-registering to high-resolution scans, and the modelling of temporal auto-correlations. In all, Carp looked at 179 methodological decisions. To non-specialists, some of these will sound like highly technical detail, but brain imagers know that varying these parameters can make a major difference to the results that are obtained.

One factor that non-specialists will appreciate relates to corrections made for problematic head-movements in the scanner. Only 21.6 per cent of analysed studies described the criteria for rejecting data based on head movements. Another factor that non-specialists can easily relate to is the need to correct for multiple comparisons. Of the 59 per cent of studies that reported using a formal correction technique, nearly one third failed to reveal what that technique was.

"The widespread omission of these parameters from research reports, documented here, poses a serious challenge to researchers who seek to replicate and build on published studies," Carp said.

As well as looking at the amount of methodological detail shared by brain imagers, Carp was also interested in the variety of techniques used. This is important because the more analytical techniques and parameters available for tweaking, the more risk there is of researchers trying different approaches until they hit on a significant result.

Carp found 207 combinations of analytical techniques (including 16 unique data analysis software packages) - that's nearly as many different methodological approaches as studies. Although there's no evidence that brain imagers are indulging in selective reporting, the abundance of analytical techniques and parameters is worrying. "If some methods yield more favourable results than others," Carp said, "investigators may choose to report only the pipelines that yield favourable results, a practice known as selective analysis reporting."

The field of medical research has adopted standardised guidelines for reporting randomised clinical trials. Carp advocates the adoption of similar standardised reporting rules for fMRI-based brain imaging research. Relevant guidelines were proposed by Russell Poldrack and colleagues in 2008, although these may now need updating.

Carp said the reporting practices he uncovered were unlikely to reflect malice or dishonesty. He thinks researchers are merely following the norms in the field. "Unfortunately," he said, "these norms do not encourage researchers to provide enough methodological detail for the independent replication of their findings."


Carp J (2012). The secret lives of experiments: Methods reporting in the fMRI literature. NeuroImage, 63 (1), 289-300 PMID: 22796459

--Further reading-- Psychologist magazine opinion special on replication.
An uncanny number of psychology findings manage to scrape into statistical significance.
Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey finds.

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

Does sleeping face-down induce more sexual dreams?

It's a common experience for us to incorporate sounds we hear while we're sleeping into the narrative of our dreams. The real car alarm outside becomes a police siren in our exciting chase through dreamland. Given the way activities and sensations from the real world permeate our dreams, the author of a new study, Calvin Kai-Ching Yu at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, has investigated whether the simple fact of our sleeping position can also affect the kinds of dreams we're likely to have.

Yu surveyed 670 people (average age 19) - including 227 men and 443 women - about the content of their dreams, their dream intensity, their usual sleeping position (face up, face down, or lying on their side), and their personality.

Yu's main finding is that sleeping more often in a prone (face down) position is associated with a higher prevalence of experiencing particular dream themes, including: being locked up; dreaming about hand tools; sexual experiences; being smothered and unable to breath; swimming; and being nude. Although sleeping more often in a prone position was related to personality factors (negatively associated with conscientiousness and correlated with neuroticism), this didn't fully explain the link between sleep position and dream content. Of the 476 participants who reported having a dominant sleep position, only 5 per cent were habitual prone sleepers.

Yu thinks a prone sleeping position triggers particular kinds of dream content because of the way that the pressure on the body, including the genitals, and difficulty breathing, is converted into dream experiences. Sometimes this is done in a symbolic way, he argues, (hence the dreams about hand tools). Yu endorses a Freudian view of dreams, suggesting they protect sleep "by quenching the internal needs or eliminating the cues that alert the sleeping ego to the existence of the outer world."

In contrast to the associations between prone sleeping position and dream content, the frequency of sleeping in a supine (face up) or lateral position was almost entirely unrelated to the prevalence of different dream themes.

A major criticism of this research is the fact that participants were relied on to accurately recall their sleeping position and their dream content, a shortcoming that Yu acknowledged. The lack of any comparison between genders also seemed an unfortunate omission.

"This study provides the evidence that dream experiences, and in particular dream content, can be influenced by body posture during sleep," Yu concluded. His findings add to past research showing that right-sided sleepers had more positive dreams and fewer nightmares than left-sided sleepers.


C K-C Yu (2012). The effect of sleep position on dream experiences. Dreaming DOI: 10.1037/a0029255

--Further reading-- Paraplegics walk in their dreams.

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

The Special Issue Spotter

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

Animal minds: from computation to evolution (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: B).

Basic Number Processing and Mathematics Achievement (special section, Mind, Brain and Education).

Mental Disorders and Technical Advancements (virtual special issue, Neuroscience Research).

Multiple Goals in Learning Contexts (Applied Psychology).

Integrating Risk Assessment and Treatment (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Festschrift in Honor of Michel Hersen (Behavioural Modification).

The Participation of Counsellors and Psychotherapists in Research (special section, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research)

Connectivity (NeuroImage).

Autism Spectrum Disorders (virtual special issue, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry).

Case studies in Community and Social Psychology (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

Developmental social and affective neuroscience (virtual special issue, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience).
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Special Issue Spotter with the title September 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

How the presence of an uninformative photo makes a statement more believable

When we're making a snap judgement about a fact, the mere presence of an accompanying photograph makes us more likely to think it's true, even when the photo doesn't provide any evidence one way or the other. In the words of Eryn Newman and her colleagues, uninformative photographs "inflate truthiness".

Ninety-two students in New Zealand and a further 48 in Canada looked at dozens of "true or alive statements" about celebrities, some of whom they'd heard of and some they hadn't, such as "John Key is alive". As fast as they could, without compromising their accuracy, the students had to say whether each statement was true or not. Crucially, half the statements were accompanied by a photo of the relevant celebrity and half weren't. The take-home finding: the participants were more likely to say a statement was true if it was accompanied by a photo. This was the case for claims about celebrities being alive or dead, but the effect was stronger for unfamiliar celebrities.

Another study with 70 New Zealand undergrads was similar but this time uninformative photos accompanied obscure general knowledge facts. For example, "Macademia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches" was presented alongside a photo of macadamia nuts that provided no clues as to the veracity of the statement. The same effect was found - the students were more likely to wager that a fact was true when it was accompanied by an uninformative photo.

Why do photos have this truthiness effect? One possibility is that it's something specifically to do with pictures. To check this, another, similar study was conducted but sometimes celebrity "dead or alive" statements were accompanied by simple verbal descriptions of the celebrities that weren't helpful for judging the dead-or-alive claim. These verbal descriptions also had a "truthiness" effect, which suggests the truthy effect of photos isn't unique to them, but must instead have to do with some kind of non-specific process that makes it easier for the mind to seek out confirmatory evidence for the claim that's being judged. Or, perhaps some feature of the verbal descriptions or photos is being taken as evidence for the attached claim. The researchers can't be sure: "We speculate that nonprobative photos and verbal information help people generate pseudo evidence," they said.


Newman EJ, Garry M, Bernstein DM, Kantner J, and Lindsay DS (2012). Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness. Psychonomic bulletin and review PMID: 22869334

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

Five chances to win a copy of The Rough Guide to Psychology

Thanks for all your interesting entries. This competition is now closed and the winners have been contacted.

To celebrate worldwide sales in excess of 10,000 copies, Rough Guides have kindly donated to us 5 copies of The Rough Guide to Psychology by Digest editor Christian Jarrett. From the reviews:
Professor Uta Frith DBE said the The Rough Guide is "disarmingly appealing to the deep desire to know ourselves" and presents "psychology today in a nutshell". Prof Robert Epstein said "It is accurate, up-to-date and easy to read ... For a rough guide, this book is smooth.” And psychologist, teacher and Guardian blogger Marc Smith said it's perhaps "the best introduction to the subject I have seen."
For your chance to win a copy, simply post a brief comment to this blog entry before Friday evening, saying what you think the next big breakthrough in psychology will be. We will identify the five winners by choosing our favourite answers from the comments (please remember to leave an email address for us to reach you). 
You have read this article Competitions with the title September 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

What children think of people who wear glasses

Removing his spectacles was part of Clark Kent's metamorphosis from geeky journalist into superhero. With popular symbolism like that, perhaps it's no wonder that Francine Jellesma has found many children endorse negative stereotypes about people who wear glasses.

Jellesma conducted a literature review finding 28 relevant studies on this subject published since 1980. Although the results showed glasses were far less salient to children than other identifying features, such as gender, their views on glass-wearers were largely negative. For example, asked to compare pairs of children, one of whom was always wearing glasses, 5- to 9-year-olds consistently rated the child without glasses as prettier and better looking. Another study found that children were less interested in being friends with glass-wearing peers.

The one positive caveat was that many children associate the wearing of glasses with superior intelligence. For example, asked to draw a smart person or a scientist, children tend to depict their creations as wearing glasses (but they don't do so when asked to draw a stupid, nice or nasty person). Jellesma said this association was probably aided by the prevalence of intelligent, glass-wearing fictional characters like Harry Potter and John in Peter Pan.

What about children's views of their own glass-wearing? Here the findings from four relevant studies were more encouraging. Studies that have tracked the general self-concept of children over time have found little effect of their changing to wearing contact lenses, suggesting glass wearing isn't that important to the way they see themselves. It's only when attention has been focused specifically on self-perceptions of physical appearance that changing to contacts has made a difference, with contacts boosting appearance-related self-esteem. Also relevant are studies looking at children's willingness to wear glasses. Younger children don't' seem too bothered, but there's evidence of older children refusing to wear glasses, especially in urban areas. Jellesma said this could be due to fears of bullying in larger schools with more hostile social environments.

Jellesma concluded that more positive, glass-wearing media role models could help improve the self-esteem of glass-wearing children, and improve the stereotypes that children hold about people who wear glasses.


F.C. Jellesma (2012). Do glasses change children's perceptions? Effects of eyeglasses on peer- and self-perception. European Journal of Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2012.700199

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

Another look at the "magical" benefit of frequent family meals

"The statistics are clear," Nancy Gibbs wrote in her article for Time magazine in 2006 entitled the Magic of the Family Meal: "Kids who dine with the folks are healthier, happier and better students". She's right, there is lots of evidence showing these positive associations, and there are plausible explanations for the benefits, such as a chance for children and parents to talk, and the sense of structure that the ritual provides.

But as Daniel Miller and his colleagues point out in their new study, the supposed benefit of frequent family meals is based on research with limitations. Many studies have been cross-sectional snap-shots in time - so it's possible that frequent family meals are merely a proxy for other relevant factors, such as warmer family relations or parental wealth and education. And the causal direction could run backwards. Maybe parents are more inclined to dine with children who are happier and better behaved.

Miller's team have conducted a comprehensive, longitudinal study using data that was collected from 1998 - when 21,400 participating US children were aged 5 years - to 2007, by which time the average age of the remaining 9,700 participants was 13.6. At five time points during that period, the children's parents were surveyed about how often they ate as a family at breakfast and dinner; the children's reading and maths abilities were assessed; and teachers were surveyed about the children's behaviour.

The results were clear - there was little or no evidence (depending on the precise analysis used) of any association between more family meals at earlier time points and better outcomes later, in terms of the children's academic abilities or good behaviour. "Our results suggest that the findings of previous work regarding frequency of family meals and adolescent outcomes should be viewed with some caution," the researchers said.

But we shouldn't be too hasty about dismissing the value of family meals. This study comes with its own caveats. Chief among these is that the children were younger than in most other studies on this issue. Relevant here is that past research has linked frequent family meals with outcomes such as less substance abuse among older teenagers - a potential benefit that was not addressed in this study given the younger sample. Another problem, acknowledged by the researchers, was the reliance on parental reports about the frequency of family meal times. A suspiciously high number of parents reported having family meals every day of the week. If they were lying it could have affected the trustworthiness of the results, although the researchers think this is unlikely based on some checks they made of their data.

Taken altogether, Miller and his colleagues said their study should be seen as "an extension rather than a repudiation of previous work". Their cautious conclusion is that "the magnitude of the effect of family meal frequency may be less than suggested by previous work."


Daniel Miller, Jame Waldfogel, and Wen-Jui Han (2012). Family meals and child academic and behavioural outcomes. Child Development : 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01825.x

--Further reading-- You are what you eat? Meal type, socio-economic status and cognitive ability in childhood.

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

A simple technique for improving eye-witness memory

Thanks to the foibles of human memory, eye-witness evidence is notoriously unreliable. One attempt to help the situation was the Cognitive Interview (pdf), conceived by psychologists in the 1980s. This involves strategies such as conducting the interview in a situation that matches the original crime context as closely as possible, and asking witnesses to remember events from multiple perspectives. Although highly effective, the Cognitive Interview can be impractical and it often goes unused. Now Annelies Vredeveldt and Steven Penrod have tested a far simpler technique for improving eye-witness memory - getting them to close their eyes. Lab research has already shown that this can be beneficial. Vredeveldt and Penrod took the technique out on the streets to see if it works there too.

Ninety-six undergrads signed up for what they thought was a study into "social interactions". In groups of up to four, they met two female researchers on a New York street corner. Shortly after the participants' arrival the two women started arguing and insulting each other. The altercation ended with one of the women knocking the other woman's papers to the ground and storming off.

After they'd witnessed the public spat, the participants were led away either to another street location or the psychology lab, both being five minutes' walk. Here they were asked to recall everything they could about the event, and then they were asked a series of questions about what happened. Half the participants were instructed to close their eyes during the recall and the interview (they weren't told why); the other half were not. The researchers ensured each of the staged arguments was caught on film so that the participants' answers could be checked for accuracy.

Overall, participants who closed their eyes recalled 37.6 per cent more useful visual information about the argument, and, in questioning, they produced 23.8 per cent more correct answers coded as having high detail. The advantage of having closed eyes was most pronounced for participants who were quizzed inside. This supports the idea that the technique works by helping participants to create the original context in their mind's eye. If it worked by helping reduce distraction, you'd think it would have had more of a benefit out on the street.

"From an applied perspective, the findings were promising," Vredeveldt and Penrod said. "In free recall, the effect size of the eye-closure effect for witnesses interviewed inside (d=.88) approached the effect size obtained with the Cognitive Interview.

"Given that the eye-closure instruction requires no training or additional interview time, it could prove to be a useful alternative [to the Cognitive Interview]," they added.


Annelies Vredeveldt, and Steven D. Penrod (2012). Eye-closure improves memory for a witnessed event under naturalistic conditions. Psychology, Crime and Law DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2012.700313

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

When sales staff smile everyone wins

Serving customers with a smile must be tough if you're not in the mood. In the end, though, sales employees who are more smiley may end up reaping the benefit. A new study has looked at the way an employee's positive emotion infects their customers, and how this in turn feeds back to the employee, boosting their own mood.

Eugene Kim and David Yoon observed 117 interactions between staff and customers at clothing and accessory stores at a large shopping mall in Seoul, South Korea. The emotional behaviour of the employees was observed, then the way their customers responded, and finally, right afterwards, both employee and customer were quizzed about their mood and personality.

The more positive the employee, the more positive the customer tended to be. Moreover, employees who were more positive tended to be in a better mood afterwards, an association that was fully explained by the positive emotions displayed by the customer. In other words, smiley and polite staff initiated a virtuous interactive circle in which customers tended to respond in kind, thus benefiting the worker's own mood.

Of course not all customers are made equal. Kim and Young found that customers who scored lower in agreeableness and lower in emotional stability were more influenced by the positive emotion of the staff. More agreeable customers would be friendly anyway and highly stable customers are less prone to outside influences on their emotions.

A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't assess staff mood at the outset, prior to each customer interaction. Though unlikely, they admitted this means that they couldn't completely rule out the possibility that interaction had nothing to do with the results - that an employee's mood at the outset had simply affected both their own emotional display, the customer's response and their own mood at the end.

Notwithstanding the need for more longitudinal research, Kim and Yoon said a key message for managers was to see customers as "coproducers of a positive service interaction". As well as "recruiting and hiring employees who are adept at displaying positive emotions," they said that managers should also consider reminding customers of the part they have to play by saying thank you and being civil.


Kim E, and Yoon DJ (2012). Why Does Service With a Smile Make Employees Happy? A Social Interaction Model. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 22800188

-Further reading- Switching, empathising and staying neutral: the emotional labour of GP receptionists (from our sister blog, The Occupational Digest).

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

Why teens should have their music and sports lessons in the evening

While you sleep your brain learns. Research with rats has shown how they rehearse maze-routes in their brains whilst they're dozing. And human research has demonstrated that learned material is better recalled after a sound sleep as opposed to a disturbed night. But what hasn't been looked at before now is the optimum time to leave between study and sleeping.

A team led by Johannes Holz has done just that, finding that "procedural learning" (practice at the kind of skill that you do, rather than talk about) is more effective right before sleep. Learning factual material, by contrast, (dependent on "declarative memory"), was found to be more effective when done in the afternoon, seven and a half hours before sleep, although the evidence for this was less convincing and should be treated with caution.

The researchers recruited 50 teenage girls (aged 16-17) to learn a series of word pairs and a finger-tapping task, either at 3pm in the afternoon or 9pm at night. The performance level of the afternoon and night groups was equivalent at the end of these initial learning tasks.

With the tapping task, it was the girls who learned right before sleep who showed the greatest gains in performance when they were re-tested after 24 hours and again 7 days later. Holz and his colleagues can't be sure why procedural learning is more effective just before sleep, but they think it probably has to do with the effect of sleep on protein synthesis and gene expression.

In contrast to the tapping task, performance on the word pairs after 24 hours was better in the afternoon-learning group. At the 7 day word-pairs test there was no difference in afternoon or evening learners. The fact that declarative learning was more effective in the afternoon suggests that this type of hippocampus-dependent memory has a different time course from procedural learning.

The findings, though preliminary, have obvious practical implications. "We propose that declarative memories, such as vocabulary words, should be studied in the afternoon and motor skills, like playing soccer or piano, should be trained in the late evening," the researchers said. "Most parents among us would have preferred the opposite results."


Holz J, Piosczyk H, Landmann N, Feige B, Spiegelhalder K, Riemann D, Nissen C, and Voderholzer U (2012). The Timing of Learning before Night-Time Sleep Differentially Affects Declarative and Procedural Long-Term Memory Consolidation in Adolescents. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808287

-Further reading- Scientists find way to strengthen memories during sleep.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Educational / Sleep and dreaming with the title September 2012. You can bookmark this page URL Thanks!

Tipping is more prevalent in countries that are more corrupt

"I don't tip because society says I have to. Alright, I tip when somebody really deserves a tip. If they put forth an effort, I'll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, that's for the birds." Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs. 
Mr Pink's approach to tipping is that it should be a reward for past good service. Another way to view tipping is as a payment to ensure superior service in the future. It's this latter, future-oriented motivation for tipping that Magnus Torfason and his colleagues say explains their curious observation.

Using data on tipping behaviour in 32 countries (collected from The International Guide to Tipping) and comparing this against the Corruption Perception Index, the researchers found that rates of corruption are higher in countries that tip more (the correlation was .6 were 1 would be a perfect match). This may strike some as odd - tipping is often seen as altruistic, whereas corruption is immoral. Yet, the researchers propose that tipping to ensure future good service is comparable to a bribe and this could explain the puzzling association.

To test these ideas further, Torfason's team focused on two countries with similar rates of tipping, but different rates of corruption - India (with high tipping and high corruption) and Canada (high tipping, low corruption). A survey of 95 Canadians and 157 Indians revealed that the Indians were more likely than Canadians to say they tipped as a way to ensure good service in the future, and this motivation was correlated with their more positive attitudes towards bribery.

In a final study, the researchers primed 40 US undergrads with either a future-oriented or past-oriented approach to tipping. For this they used two versions of text ostensibly taken from the Emily Post etiquette guide. After reading that tipping should be performed as a way to ensure good service in the future (as opposed to rewarding past good service), the students tended to view two accounts of political and legal bribery more leniently.

"The studies reported here highlight a psychological mechanism that may help explain the surprising association between tipping and bribery both within and across countries," the researchers said. They added that the findings raise some intriguing possibilities - for example, might encouraging people to give tips specifically as a reward for past good service act to reduce the tolerance of bribery in society?

Magnus Thor Torfason, Francis J. Flynn, and Daniella Kupor (2012). Here Is a Tip: Prosocial Gratuities Are Linked to Corruption. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612454888

-Further reading- Why we tip and how to get a bigger tip.

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