Some terrifying psychology links for Halloween

Wishing you a thriller of a Halloween! 

How to make a Halloween brain cake (ht @mocost).

What do young children know about managing fear?

How to make a zombie brain (See also this related video).

The Lure of Horror, where I explore horror's appeal and why it takes the form it does.

From BBC Radio 4 (now on iPlayer) - The Sound of Fear.

Why fear is fun: Halloween special from Psychology Today.

Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery.

Some people urinate when they're frightened. Other people can't urinate when they're nervous. What's going on?

At what age do babies enter the uncanny valley?

How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse Using Science (Wired)

Brain dread.

Terror in the night: article on sleep paralysis.

Snakes in a brain scanner!

Horror Director Eli Roth Explores What Makes Good People Do Evil Things in TV Special

Six reasons we're so fascinated by zombies (Psych files podcast).

Fear really does have a smell.

The Neurocritic discusses the pathological fear of being buried alive.

What spooks the masters of horror? Top horror movie makers say which films scared them the most.

Yikes! Thoughts of death increase the appeal of Intelligent Design.

Reminders of disease prime the body and mind to repel other people.

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Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren't really there

Our brains are so adept at detecting faces that we often see them in random patterns, such as clouds or the gnarled bark of a tree. Occasionally one of these illusory faces comes along that resembles a celebrity and the story ends up in the news - like when Michael Jackson's face appeared on the surface of a piece of toast. A new study asks whether some people are more prone than others to perceiving these illusory faces.

Tapani Riekki and his team collected dozens of photos that judges in pilot work agreed did or did not have the appearance of faces in them (this included pictures of furniture, places, and natural scenes, such as a rock-face). The researchers then used two adverts to recruit their participants - they were identical except that one requested people who "view the paranormal positively or believe that there is an invisible spiritual world," while the other requested people who are "sceptical about paranormal phenomena".

Forty-seven people were eventually selected to take part, based on their being particularly paranormal-believing, religious, sceptical or atheist (there was a lot of overlap in membership between the first two and final two categories). The participants were shown the photos and had to indicate whether a "face-like area" was present, where it was in the image, and they had to say how face-like the image was, and how emotional.

The key finding is that people who scored high in paranormal belief or religiosity were more likely to see face-like areas in the pictures compared with the sceptics and atheists. They weren't more sensitive to the illusory faces as such, because they also scored a lot of false alarms - saying there was a face when there wasn't. However, when they spotted a face-like pattern correctly, they were more accurate than sceptics and atheists at saying where exactly in the pictures the illusory faces were located. Finally, the paranormal believers rated the illusory faces as more face-like and emotional than the sceptics.

The researchers said their findings are consistent with past research showing that belief in the paranormal tends to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to jump to conclusions based on inadequate evidence. They added that the results support the idea that religious people and paranormal believers have the habit of seeing human-like attributes, including mental states, in "inappropriate realms."

"We may all be biased to perceive human characteristics where none exist," Riekki and his team concluded, "but religious and paranormal believers perceive them even more than do others."


Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M., Halme, A., and Nuortimo, A. (2012). Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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When not to pat someone on the shoulder

Physical touch can be surprisingly persuasive. From diners giving larger tips to waiters who touch them, to people being more helpful to strangers who pat them lightly on the arm, the literature has tended to paint a positive picture of the emotional influence of social touch. But now a study out of Belgium has documented what you might call the dark side of social touching. This isn't about unwanted groping, which is always inappropriate. It's about the fact that context is everything for light social touches, with the new research showing that even a friendly pat on the shoulder can have an adverse effect if it's performed in the wrong situation.

Jeroen Camps and his colleagues had 74 student participants perform a maze challenge in a race against a partner. The outcome was fixed so the participant won by a tiny margin, and then, as the pair left the room, the partner (actually a male or female stooge planted by the researchers) patted the participant on the shoulder lightly three times, smiled gently and wished them good luck for the next task. For participants in the control condition, all this was the same but without the shoulder patting. Next, the participants and their partner went to another room and completed "the dictator game", a simple economic game that involved the participant choosing how many movie-prize credits to share with their partner.

The revealing finding was that participants who'd been patted on the shoulder shared fewer credits with their partner, suggesting that touch can backfire when it's performed in a competitive context, perhaps because it's interpreted as a gesture of dominance. Interestingly, there was no link between participants' awareness of whether they'd been touched and their sharing behaviour; participants who remembered the touch rated it as neutral; and the partner wasn't rated as more unpleasant in the touch condition. All of which suggests the adverse effect of touch on later cooperation was probably non-conscious.

A second study was similar but this time participants and their partner (another stooge, always female) either competed against each other on a puzzle or they cooperated. Again, afterwards, the partner wished them luck, smiled, and either did or didn't pat them on the shoulder at the end, before they both moved to another room to play the dictator game. The results were clear - in a competitive context, touched participants subsequently shared fewer movie-prize credits with their partner, compared with those participants who weren't touched. By contrast, in the cooperative context, touched participants went on to be more generous with their partner, as compared with participants who weren't touched.

"Despite what some people might think, touching someone else may thus not always have desirable social consequences," the researchers said. "A simple tap on the shoulder, even with the best intent, will do nothing but harm when used in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A limitation of the research is the use of a shoulder pat. It could be argued that this is a form of touch with specific connotations, depending on the context. For instance, maybe it is construed as condescending in a competitive situation. By contrast, a lot of the earlier research on the benefits of touch have tended to use a simple, light touch on the arm, which is perhaps a more neutral gesture.

What do you think? Are there any instances when you've been touched lightly (in a non-sexual way) and it's irritated you? Or times that it's endeared you to the toucher? Was it the context that made the difference?


Camps, J., Tuteleers, C., Stouten, J., and Nelissen, J. (2012). A situational touch: How touch affects people's decision behaviour. Social Influence, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2012.719479

--Further reading--
The power of a light touch on the arm
Why is a touch on the arm so persuasive?

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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5 chances to win Total Addiction The Life of an Eclipse Chaser

This competition is now closed and the winners contacted - thanks for your entries. We have five copies to give away of Total Addiction The Life of an Eclipse Chaser, by Kate Russo. Here's a teaser from the news pages of The Psychologist magazine
"For a few eerie minutes on Wednesday14 November local time, just after sunrise, people living in Northern Australia will be shrouded in darkness as the Moon falls into perfect alignment with the Sun.
One person who will be returning to her homeland to witness this total eclipse is the Chartered Psychologist Kate Russo, of Queens University Belfast. Since 1999, when she experienced her first total eclipse, Russo has become hooked. Like other ‘eclipse chasers’, Russo travels the world in search of these darkest of shadows. November’s experience will be her eighth total eclipse.
Recently Russo has applied her professional skills to her hobby, in search of an answer to why total eclipses have such a profound, awe-inspiring effect on some people. ‘There is a recognition that the experience is significant, although it is difficult to make sense of, and difficult to communicate to others,’ says Russo. ‘We feel we are at the edge of our language abilities. We come to understand that this cannot be a one-off event. We are hooked. Another eclipse chaser is born.’"
For your chance to win a copy of Total Addiction, simply post a comment to this blog entry telling us what you do to experience awe in your life. Winners will be picked at random at the end of the week. Please leave a way for us to contact you.
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Link feast

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

1. Times columnist Caitlin Moran has written a moving and poetic account of schizophrenia.

2. 21 words that could help improve the methods-reporting issues in psychology (and here's the pdf of the forthcoming journal article).

3. Prof Tim Hodgson at the Uni of Lincoln with his ideas for teaching introductory biological psychology, and a generous offer to send you his course materials if you're interested.

4. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme on ear worms - those songs that get stuck in your head - and appropriately enough it's stuck, I mean available, for another year on iPlayer. (We've covered research on ear worms previously).

5. TED posted a new talk by psychologist David Pizarro on the role of disgust in our political views.

6. Learning business management skills from a visit to ape and monkey enclosures (I'm still not sure if this is a spoof of not).

7. The November issue of The Psychologist magazine is online and it includes an article on post-traumatic growth, and an interview with Craig Knight, an expert in workplace design, both open-access.

8. Channel 4 in the UK broadcast a documentary about mass hysteria "The Town That Caught Tourette's". It's not available via their on-demand service, but it is due to be repeated a few times in the coming days. Check the link for listings.

9. Temple Grandin, the animal welfare genius and autistic savant, has had her brain scanned for the first time, revealing some intriguing differences from a typical brain.

10. From genes to hormone levels, biology may help to shape political behaviour - another excellent (open-access) news feature from Nature.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Does owning an iPod make you happy?

As Apple launches its latest shiny products and the media work up their usual lather of excitement, a timely study has tackled the question of whether owning an iPod digital music player will make you happy.

Antje Cockrill surveyed 241 people (mostly students aged 18 to 25) about their digital music player and their life satisfaction. Seventy-seven per cent of the sample were iPod owners, with the remainder owning non-Apple brands of music player. The participants were asked how much they liked the design of their music player; whether they judged others by their playlists (or felt judged); whether they felt a bond with others who own the same brand of player; whether they felt their player was "cool"; whether, if they owned an iPod, they attended iParties (where playlists are shared and iPods compared); and whether they used their music player to create a private, "auditory bubble".

Answers to these questions were entered into an analysis alongside age, gender and employment status and the take-home finding is that for iPod owners, nearly 25 per cent of the variance in their life-satisfaction was associated with their answers to the music-player questions. "Considering the very wide range of potential variables that can influence life satisfaction for an individual, this is a very high result," Cockrill said. By contrast, for non-iPod owners, their answers to the music-player questions were virtually irrelevant to their life satisfaction.

The finding for iPod owners is consistent with a seminal theory proposed by Russell Belk in the 1980s that the things we own come to represent our extended selves. Also relevant is research showing how young people use their music preferences to express their identities and to fit in with their friends. It would appear that iPod owners gain satisfaction from their Apple toy and from identifying with, and gaining approval from, other owners of what they consider to be a "cool" product.

Other results to come from the study: iPod users reported using their music players more than non-iPod owners; iPod users were more likely to say their music player helped make boring activities more tolerable; and just under half of the iPod owners said it was important for them to own an Apple player rather than a different brand.

Cockrill said that Apple "can be congratulated for having created a product that has ... managed to retain the elusive 'cool factor'". However, she cautioned that her results also give cause for concern - she highlighted the likely negative consequences for people who desired an iPod but could not afford one, and for iPod owners who lost their treasured gadget.

Besides the dependence on a largely student sample, the study has another weakness - no attempt was made to create a psychological barrier between the questions about music players and the questions about life satisfaction, for example by presenting irrelevant questions or a distracting filler task. Although the order of questions was randomised, it's possible that thoughts about music players would have been foremost in the minds of many participants when they reported their life satisfaction. That said, it remains the case that only the iPod owners showed an association between their music-player answers and life-satisfaction.

Even more important - has this study really answered the question posed in its title, regarding whether iPods make us happy? Arguably, all the results show is that the happiness of people who care about their image, music players and trendy brands is affected by these very issues (hardly a surprise) and, furthermore, that these people tend to own an Apple iPod, the market-leading product (again, not that surprising). To probe the actual influence of the Apple iPod on people's happiness, future research would need to measure people's attitudes towards music and brands and follow them over time - to see if becoming an iPod owner (versus the owner of a different branded player) made any difference to their happiness.

  ResearchBlogging.orgCockrill, A. (2012). Does an iPod make you happy? An exploration of the effects of iPod ownership on life satisfaction. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 11 (5), 406-414 DOI: 10.1002/cb.1385

--Further reading-- Steve Jobs gift to cognitive science.
How listening to an iPod shrinks your sense of personal space

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

A cute mistake that young children make is to think that they can hide themselves by covering or closing their eyes. Why do they make this error? A research team led by James Russell at the University of Cambridge has used a process of elimination to find out.

Testing children aged around three to four years, the researchers first asked them whether they could be seen if they were wearing an eye mask, and whether the researcher could see another adult, if that adult was wearing an eye mask. Nearly all the children felt that they were hidden when they were wearing the mask, and most thought the adult wearing a mask was hidden too.

Next, Russell and his colleagues established whether children think it's the fact that a person's eyes are hidden from other people's view that renders them invisible, or if they think it's being blinded that makes you invisible. To test this, a new group of young kids were quizzed about their ability to be seen when they were wearing goggles that were completely blacked out, meaning they couldn't see and their eyes were hidden, versus when they were wearing a different pair that were covered in mirrored film, meaning they could see, but other people couldn't see their eyes.

This test didn't go quite to plan because out of the 37 participating children, only 7 were able to grasp the idea that they could see out, but people couldn't see their eyes. Of these 7, all bar one thought they were invisible regardless of which goggles they were wearing. In other words, the children's feelings of invisibility seem to come from the fact that their eyes are hidden, rather than from the fact that they can't see.

Now things get a little complicated. In both studies so far, when the children thought they were invisible by virtue of their eyes being covered, they nonetheless agreed that their head and their body were visible. They seemed to be making a distinction between their "self" that was hidden, and their body, which was still visible. Taken together with the fact that it was the concealment of the eyes that seemed to be the crucial factor for feeling hidden, the researchers wondered if their invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people - a meeting of gazes - for them to see each other (or at least, to see their "selves").

This idea received support in a further study in which more children were asked if they could be seen if a researcher looked directly at them whilst they (the child) averted their gaze; or, contrarily, if the researcher with gaze averted was visible whilst the child looked directly at him or her. Many of the children felt they were hidden so long as they didn't meet the gaze of the researcher; and they said the researcher was hidden if his or her gaze was averted whilst the child looked on.

"... it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet," the researchers said.

Other explanations were ruled out with some puppet studies. For instance, the majority of a new group of children agreed it was reasonable for a puppet to hide by covering its eyes, which rules out the argument that children only hide this way because they are caught up in the heat of the moment.

The revelation that most young children think people can only see each other when their eyes meet raises some interesting questions for future research. For example, children with autism are known to engage in less sharing of attention with other people (following another person's gaze), so perhaps they will be less concerned with the role of mutual gaze in working out who is visible. Another interesting avenue could be to explore the invisibility beliefs of children born blind.


Russell, J., Gee, B., and Bullard, C. (2012). Why Do Young Children Hide by Closing Their Eyes? Self-Visibility and the Developing Concept of Self. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13 (4), 550-576 DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2011.594826

--Further reading--
A similar study covered on the Digest in 2006: “If I cover my eyes I’ll be hidden” – how young children understand visibility.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Share news of your positive experiences and your joy will be multiplied

They say a problem shared is a problem halved. Now a team of psychologists in the USA has performed a series of studies that suggest sharing your good news multiplies its benefits for your happiness and longer-term life satisfaction.

A challenge for Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues was to show that there's something especially beneficial about sharing stories of our positive experiences with others, beyond the pleasure that comes merely from talking to a friend, and beyond the simple act of recalling a positive experience. To do this, the researchers recorded the mood of dozens of student participants after they'd shared a positive experience with a friend or partner, and they compared these mood results with those taken from participants who wrote about a positive experience, or who shared neutral information with a friend. The researchers found that sharing your good news with another person is especially beneficial, more than writing about it, and more than just enjoying social contact.

The benefits aren't fleeting either. Another study had participants complete diaries of their mood and life satisfaction over a four-week period. At the end of the study, those who'd shared positive experiences with another person at least twice a week were happier and more satisfied with life than those who'd only written about positive experiences twice a week, and they were happier and more content than others who'd written regularly about what they'd learned in class and shared that information with a friend.

There's a caveat. When you share your good news, the amplification of your joy isn't guaranteed. The friend, relative or partner who hears your good news has an important part to play. Ideally, we need them to respond in what the researchers call an "active-constructive" style.

To investigate this, student participants took a test about desert survival, with their romantic partner taking a different test in another room. Next the students were given false feedback, suggesting they'd done exceptionally well on the desert test. They were then told the news of their success had been shared with their partner. Finally, the partner's reaction (fabricated by the researchers) was sent over in an email - sometimes this was "active constructive" (Great job! I'm so proud of you" etc); other times it was "active destructive" ("it doesn't sound that hard to me"); "passive constructive" (i.e. little more than a smiley symbol); or "passive destructive" ("the girl told me your score"). Participants who received active constructive feedback from their partner subsequently experienced twice as much positive emotion as participants in the other conditions.

The researchers said this shows what a large difference it makes to us, how our close relations respond to our good news. This actually fits with past research showing that the way friends and family respond to positive events in our lives is a more reliable predictor of the future health of that relationship than the way they respond to our negative news. You may have experienced this yourself - the particular hurt that can come from a close friend or relation being entirely unmoved by good news that meant so much to you.

What this new study doesn't tell us is why, when it is enthusiastically received, sharing our good news provides us with an extra dose of positive emotion, more than merely recalling it or writing about it. The researchers made a number of suggestions - for example, they said talking about a positive experience could increase its "social reality", making it especially accessible to memory; friends may point out positive implications of our news that had so far eluded us; and/or we perhaps take extra joy in making another person happy through our good news.

The message seems clear enough. The next time something good happens to you, don't keep it to yourself. The researchers quoted an unknown author: "Happiness held is the seed; happiness shared is the flower."


Lambert, N., Gwinn, A., Baumeister, R., Strachman, A., Washburn, I., Gable, S., and Fincham, F. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512449400

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Link feast

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

1. The doyenne of British psychology, Professor Uta Frith DBE, has written an article for the Huffington Post calling for more recognition of female scientists. She says that one way to do this is through creating and editing Wikipedia entries about inspiring female scientists past and present, and today the Royal Society (of which Frith is a Fellow) begins an edit-athon to do just that. One example of a glaring omission on Wikipedia at present, mentioned by Frith, is the lack of an entry for cognitive neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire of UCL, despite how hugely influential her work has been. (update: Frith also has a related article in the Daily Telegraph).

2. Interpreting the classic marshmallow test of children's willpower just got more complicated.

3. Feeling swamped with emails (who isn't?). Tom Stafford of Mind Hacks offers some defence mechanisms based on a better understanding of basic human psychology.

4. "I would say that neuroeconomics is about 90 percent neuroscience and 10 percent economists," Colin F. Camerer tells The Chronicle in an intriguing article that ponders why economists are largely ignoring relevant brain science.

5. DNA evidence isn't as objective as we often assume - Vaughan Bell in the Observer explains the part played by psychological biases (see also).

6. BBC Radio 4 broadcast an excellent programme on hallucinations - available for a few more days on iPlayer.

7. A pioneer in positive psychology has passed away. Psychology Today has an online tribute to Christopher Petersen (see also).

8. ADHD voices is a new report and campaign that aims to find out what children think and feel about having a diagnosis of ADHD.

9. Near-death experiences are fascinating, powerful phenomena but they don't prove existence of the soul. The Brain Myths blog takes an objective look at the evidence.

10. I love this brain-inspired art: - "the elegant forms of neurons painted in the Asian sumi-e style".
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Mother-toddler play-time is more interactive and educational with old-fashioned toys

Attention toddlers of the world! The brightly coloured Cookie Shape Surprise toy from Fisher-Price promises a world of fun. Push the right shapes through the right holes and enjoy the reward of flashing lights, music and even the names of the shapes! The bad news? Well, frankly - with this toy, your mum's play skills are likely to take a dive.

That's the message from a new study by psychologists in Vancouver. Where other studies have focused on the potential adverse effects of young children and teenagers spending too much time staring at screens - a controversial issue - this new study by Michaela Woolridge and Jennifer Shapka is the first to examine how electronic toys affect the way mothers and toddlers play together, compared with how they play with traditional, tech-free toys.

Twenty-five highly-educated mothers and their toddlers (average age 20 months) were filmed playing for ten to fifteen minutes with three traditional toys - a board book; the Shape & Sort it toy; and a plastic farm set. And then they were filmed playing for the same length of time with three electronic versions of those kinds of toys - an electronic book, from Touch and Teach Busy Books; the Fisher-Price Cookie Shape Surprise; and the Funderful Roll Along Safari plastic toys with flashing lights, music and activating buttons. For half the mother-child pairs, it was the electronic toys that were played with first.

The videos were analysed by two independent coders who were trained to look for important aspects in the way mothers play with toddlers. The results showed that when mums played with a toddler with electronic toys, they were less responsive, less educational in their play style (for example, providing fewer labels, less often expanding children's words etc), and slightly less encouraging.

In past research, these factors in mother and child playing style have been linked with later outcomes for the kids, for example in terms of language development. In the case of the poorer teaching scores when playing with electronic toys, the difference from the conventional toy play time was substantial and could "have very real implications," the researchers said. In contrast, the type of toy - electronic or conventional - made no difference to the ratings of the mothers' warmth whilst playing.

Woolridge and Shapka think that one reason mothers play differently with electronic toys is because they are noisy and so interrupt or deter mothers and children from communicating with each other. Another thing is that mothers seem to tend to try to use the electronic toys in the way they were designed, which constrains their play skills. They showed a lot more creative use of the conventional toys, initiating more make-believe play with them.

Rather than demonising electronic toys, it's worth remembering that electronic toys might well have benefits of their own that were untapped by this research. Moreover, it might be productive to inform parents how to make the most of the new toy gadgets without completely forsaking their traditional pretend-play skills. As the researchers said - "perhaps parents can ... be taught how to mediate manipulative and interactive products to more positively support their infants' and toddlers' development and learning." It would also be interesting for future research to see if these findings replicate when fathers play with their toddlers.


Michaela B. Wooldridge, and Jennifer Shapka (2012). Playing with technology: Mother–toddler interaction scores lower during play with electronic toys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2012.05.005

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Eye-movement training helps penalty-takers in football feel more in control

One-on-one - the kicker must get the ball past the goal keeper
Ties in international football tournaments are decided by penalties, in which a series of kickers attempt to get the ball past the keeper in a one-on-one situation. It's a high stress situation and missing a penalty is the low point of many a career.

Some coaches believe it's impossible to recreate the pressure of the penalty situation. England manager Glenn Hoddle in 1998 admitted his team hadn't practiced because it was a waste of time. The last manager, Fabio Capello, described penalties as a "lottery." Psychologists would beg to differ.

Research by Greg Wood and Mark Wilson at the University of Exeter shows that penalty takers have more success when they shoot for either of the top two corners of the goal, and more importantly, that accuracy is improved when the kicker focuses for a moment on the spot they want to hit. Where the eyes look, the ball tends to go (video) and the pause is thought to allow pre-programming of the kick to occur. This may sound obvious, but many penalty takers often focus on the goalkeeper, rather than on their intended target.

Now in their latest research into what's known as "the Quiet Eye" method, Wood and Wilson have tested whether, as well as linking the visual and motor systems, the training has a psychological benefit too, helping strikers feel more in control, thus preventing them from choking in a high-pressure situation.

Twenty university-level football players were split into two groups. One group underwent Quiet Eye training for three weeks, taking 10 kicks a week, each time calling out the corner they were aiming for, staring momentarily at their target (for about a second), and then beginning their run up and executing the kick. The other group merely practised the same number of kicks each week (the only advice they received was to aim for the top corners of the goal). All participants wore an eye-tracker while training and the same goalkeeper was used throughout.

Next there was a "retention week" when the players filled-out psych questionnaires after practising the same approach to penalty kicks as before. Then the following week a competitive penalty shoot-out between the two groups provided the crucial test. A £100 prize for the best team helped ramp up the stress levels, and a new goal keeper arrived and was described to them as a specialist at saving penalties. Eye-movements were recorded throughout and more psych questionnaires completed.

The researchers were particularly interested in the players' feelings of control, their expectations of success, and confidence in coping with pressure. The key finding is that all groups showed increases in these measures during the "retention week", but only the Quiet Eye group exhibited these benefits in the competitive situation. Moreover, increases in these feelings of control correlated with the aiming behaviour that Quiet Eye training encourages. The more the players focused on their target, the more in control they felt. Although these feelings of control didn't correlate with performance, only the Quiet Eye training group showed improvements in performance during the competitive situation compared with baseline.

The study has its limitations, as the authors acknowledged. For example, it's possible the Quiet Eye training led to more feelings of control and confidence under pressure simply because it was a more detailed training format than the simple practise routines that the other group went through. Also, the Quiet Eye group didn't actually report less anxiety than the other group (that said, the eye movement training increased feelings of control, and players who felt more in control generally felt less anxious). Finally, can we be sure that the Quiet-Eye group's calling out of their targets during training didn't play any part in their later feelings of control?

These issues notwithstanding, the researchers concluded: "the results of this study show that the benefits of Quiet Eye-training transcend visuomotor control adaptations, and can have a positive impact on the control beliefs of the performer."


Greg Wood, and Mark R. Wilson (2012). Quiet-eye training, perceived control and performing under pressure. Psychology of Sport and Exercise DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.05.003

-Further reading-
Don't jump! Advice for goalkeepers from economic psychology
How to practise penalty shoot-outs

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Who gets aggressive at the late-night bar and why?

The exhaustive analysis in Steven Pinker's latest book shows that we are living in the most peaceable age for thousands of years. To anyone who spends time in late-night bars, this might come as a surprise. In these temples to hedonism, spilled drinks and unwelcome gropes all too often provoke violent brawls.

Kathryn Graham and her colleagues trained 148 observers and sent them out to 118 bars in early-hours Toronto where they recorded 1,057 instances of aggression from 1,334 visits. Where the majority of psychology research on aggression is based on laboratory simulations (often involving participants zapping each other with loud noise or spiking each other's food with chilli sauce), Graham's team collected real-life observational data to find out who gets aggressive and why.

The researchers followed the Theory of Coercive Actions, according to which aggressive acts have one or more motives: compliance (getting someone to do something, or stop doing something); grievance; social identity (to prove one's status and power); and thrill-seeking.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (77.5 per cent) of aggressive acts were instigated by men. Men more than women were driven to aggression by identity and thrill-seeking motives; by contrast female aggression was more often motivated by compliance and grievance. This often had a defensive intent, as a reaction against unwanted sexual advances.

As well as being particularly severe, aggression that was ignited by patrons who felt threats to their identity was also particularly likely to escalate, "because," the researchers said, "their strong identity motivation reflects a situation where the person is already invested in winning or besting the other person." Aggressive acts motivated by grievance were also likely to escalate, because of people feeling their actions were justified.

The researchers found that greater intoxication led to more serious aggression in women, but not men - perhaps because the latter were emboldened enough already. Younger men and bigger men also tended to engage in more serious aggressive acts, replicating past research showing that larger, intoxicated men are more likely to get aggressive than their smaller counterparts.

Graham and her colleagues said their findings could help contribute to preventative policies in late-night bars. For example, given the incendiary role of identity motives in aggressive incidents, efforts could be made to challenge traditional cultural norms that say masculine identity is about power and strength. Because of the escalating effect of grievance motives, security staff could be trained to diffuse situations early - for example, by replacing spilled drinks free of charge. And because so much female aggression was provoked by sexual harassment, the researchers advised establishments to create an atmosphere that discourages "invasive and aggressive sexual overtures whilst still maintaining an exciting venue where young people can explore their sexuality and meet potential partners."

These recommendations sound well-intentioned and supported by the new evidence, but are they really achievable? What do you think?


Kathryn Graham, Sharon Bernards, D. Wayne Osgood, Michael Parks, Antonia Abbey, Richard B. Felson, Robert F. Saltz, and Samantha Wells (2012). Apparent motives for aggression in the social context of the bar. Psychology of Violence DOI: 10.1037/a0029677

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Tendency to 'move against' others predicts managerial derailment

This post is taken from our sister blog, The Occupational Research Digest, written by Dr Alex Fradera. It's like this Research Digest but with a focus on psychology in the workplace - please go pay a visit. 

Derailment is when a manager with a great track record hits the skids, often spectacularly. It's highly undesirable, for the disruption and human harm it can involve, and its costs, which after tallying up lost productivity, transition, and costs of a new hire, can exceed twice an annual salary in the case of executive departures.

As a result, organisational researchers have developed measures of 'derailment potential' that consider key suspect behaviours such as betraying trust, deferring decisions, or avoiding change. Work to date has confirmed that managers fired from organisations are judged to be higher in these derailers, but these were post-hoc judgments that could have reflected biased hindsight rather than honest evaluations. 

To avoid this, a new study led by Marisa Carson utilises database information on 1,796 managers from a large organisation to examine behaviours rated during employment tenure instead of on departure. Each behaviour was rated by between eight and ten sources - from subordinates to supervisors – with ratings combined into single potential scores. Drawing on staff turnover data, the study confirmed that individuals exhibiting more derailment potential behaviours were more likely to later be ejected from the organisation. In addition, they were more likely to leave early of their own volition, suggesting they jumped before they were pushed.

The study also looked beyond the behaviours exhibited to the traits that might be behind them, through a personality inventory, the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), that all managers had completed. The researchers were exploring the philosophy that derailment isn't caused by a deficit in positive traits such as conscientiousness, but the presence of additional, unhelpful qualities, measured in the HDS, that resemble features of clinical disorders. These traits come in three areas: 'moving away from people' such as a cynical, doubtful disposition, 'moving against people' including manipulation and a tendency to drama, and a third area of 'moving towards people' involving an abiding eagerness to please and defer to others.

Carson's team predicted each of these areas would predict derailment behaviours, but in the analysis only one mattered: moving against people. This factor also predicted turnover of both kinds, and its effect on turnover was brokered by higher derailment behaviours. Conversely the 'away' area turned out to relate negatively, but non-significantly, to the derailment scores, and the 'toward' area didn't emerge as a coherent factor during preliminary analysis so wasn't pursued further. The story here, then, is that qualities that rub up badly against others, such as attention-seeking, idiosyncracy, over-confidence and rule-bending translate into red-flag behaviours that predict early exit from the organisation.

What to be done? This research provides some support for screening for these types of tendencies early in a manager's career, in order to inform decisions about future role as well as identifying priority areas for training and development. These efforts, should they avert derailment, are likely to pay off in the long run.


Marisa Adelman Carson, Linda Rhoades Shanock, Eric D. Heggestad, Ashley M. Andrew, S. Douglas Pugh, & Matthew Walter (2012). The Relationship Between Dysfunctional Interpersonal Tendencies, Derailment Potential Behavior, and Turnover Journal of Business and Psychology , 27 (3), 291-304 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-011-9239-0
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Link feast

In case you missed them, here are 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

1. New Scientist magazine published The Ultimate Guide to Memory, featuring articles on memory skills across the animal kingdom; autobiographical memory; the role of memory in mental illness; links between memory and behaviours like running and eating; and how to master your memory. The articles are free to non-subscribers for 7 more days if you register with the website. (see also).

2. Nature published a special feature on links between stress and mental illness. The articles on urban stressors, recovery from trauma, and depression among students, are all open-access.

3. Colin Blakemore casts a wry, skeptical eye over the recent claims of a neurosurgeon about his experience of life after death.

4. The power of negative thinking. Whilst positive fantasies can leave us de-energised, thinking about the obstacles ahead helps turn short-term gains into long-term success.

5. The British-born psychologist Jean Philippe Rushton, known for his highly controversial views on race and intelligence, has died. This "marks the end of an era of academic racism" says Salon.

6. British psychiatrist David Healy told a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association that the profession is committing "professional suicide" by failing to deal with its close relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.

7. Want to think of yourself as confident or happy or patient? Then act how confident people act, says Oliver Burkeman for the Guardian.

8. "Psychopaths, we learn, are the ultimate optimists; they always think things will work in their favour" - the Observer with a review of The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton.

9. Op-ed in Trends in Cognitive Sciences calls for neuroscience students to receive training in public engagement and neuroethics (open-access). Write Sharon Morein-Zamir and Chartered Psychologist Barbara J. Sahakian: "With the continuing interest of neuroscientists in investigating complex issues such as the neural basis of personality traits, social attitudes, sexual and political preferences and religious experiences, their increased awareness and effective communication of the consequences of such research is essential."

10. For the neuroscientist in your life - a brain candle in a jar.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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People make more moral decisions when they think their heart is racing

Why did the proverbial Good Samaritan cross the road to help the injured stranger? Perhaps he listened to his heart. Not in the poetic sense, but literally. A new study by Jun Gu and his colleagues has highlighted the way cardiac feedback influences people's moral decisions. When students were fed false feedback, leading them to think their heart was racing, they were more likely to volunteer for a good cause and less likely to lie to gain more money.

Eighty-six undergrads arrived at a psychology lab and were asked if they could quickly test out some heart-recording equipment that was needed for a separate study. A wrist monitor was attached to a headset though which false normal (60 beats per minute) or fast (96 beats per minute) heartbeat sounds were played. While the students test-drove the equipment, they were asked to read a recruitment letter, seeking their time for another study into the negative consequences of homophobic discrimination. Forty per cent of students who heard their heart beating fast agreed to volunteer their time, as compared with 17 per cent of students who heard their heart beating at a normal speed.

A second study with 65 more students was similar, but this time as the students tested the heart-monitoring equipment, they played a quick money-sharing game. They simply had to decide whether to instruct their partner, located in another room, to pick option A (which was actually more lucrative for the participant him or herself) or option B (more lucrative for the partner). Participants who heard their heart beating fast were less likely to lie and tell their partner that he or she would be better off choosing option A (31 per cent of them did so, compared with 58 per cent of participants who heard their heart beat at normal speed). A handful of participants were suspicious about the false heart feedback so they were excluded from the analysis, though the general pattern of results was the same with their data included or omitted.

Gu and his colleagues think that a fast heart beat is interpreted by people as a sign they are stressed and that they should adhere to moral conventions as a way to escape that stress. The new finding is consistent with Antonio Damasio's influential Somatic Marker hypothesis, which is based on the idea that bodily feedback guides our decisions, often at a non-conscious level. For example, people playing a card game sweat more when picking from the wrong, costly pile, even before they've realised at a conscious level that it's the wrong choice. The new research also complements recent research showing how bodily perceptions can influence the moral conscience. In one study, participants were less likely to volunteer their time after being given the chance to wash their hands - as if the process of physical cleansing left them feeling less need to compensate for past transgressions.

Cardiac feedback doesn't affect everyone in the same way. In further experiments, Gu and his colleagues demonstrated that the moral decision-making of people who are more mindful (for example, they agreed with statements like: "I perceive my feelings and emotions without having to react to them") was unaffected by the false cardiac feedback. The researchers also found that telling participants that the financial game was a "decision-making" task led to immunity from the false heart feedback, relative to being told the game was an "intuitive task".

This last result is particularly intriguing since we usually assume that thinking more deliberatively helps rein in the wild horses of our emotions, allowing us to behave more morally. The finding of Gu's team suggests that in some circumstances at least, thinking more deliberately can undermine the influence of the heart, actually making it less likely that we'll make a more moral decision.

"The current research reveals that perceived physiological experiences play an important role in influencing moral behaviours," the researchers said. "Listening to your heart may indeed shape ethical behaviours."


Gu J, Zhong CB, and Page-Gould E (2012). Listen to Your Heart: When False Somatic Feedback Shapes Moral Behavior. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22889162

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

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

Psychology, Marketing, and Celebrities (Psychology and Marketing).

Special section on Depression (Science).

Twenty five years of Discursive Psychology (British Journal of Social Psychology).

Cognitive Processes in Psychosis (Journal of Experimental Psychopathology).

Special Section on Political Diversity in Academic Psychology (Perspectives in Psychological Science).

Developing and implementing integrated school-based mental health interventions (Advances in School Mental Health Promotion).

Fresh Perspectives on the New Career (Journal of Vocational Behaviour).

Child Witness Research (Developmental Review).
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Cope with pain by changing how you picture it

Most people who suffer from serious pain have one or more mental images that they associate with the discomfort and what it represents to them. A new study by Clare Philips and Debbie Samsom has shown that these pain-sufferers can be taught to re-imagine this pain imagery in a more positive light, bringing them instant relief and emotional comfort.

Of 73 volunteers at an occupational rehab centre in Vancouver, 57 had pain and said they experienced imagery associated with that pain, and so they were recruited into the study (there were 24 men, the average age was 45).

After being interviewed about their baseline pain and their psychological state - including feelings of mental defeat, anxiety and depression - the participants were asked to select their most powerful and distressing pain-related mental image. "I see myself on all fours - like a dog but unable to move," said one. All participants spent time forming this "index image" in their mind before answering more questions about how they were feeling. Focusing on the unpleasant image increased pain and emotional distress. Remember, this is an image that the participants experienced spontaneously in their everyday lives (for nearly half of them, it came to mind several times a day).

Next, after a six-minute gap talking about where they grew up (as a distraction), 26 of the participants were taught to re-picture their pain. They were asked to think "how would you rather see the image?" and to describe in detail what this would entail. They then focused on this new image - for example, the participant above who'd previously described the dog-image now imagined: "I am at the start of a race….the gun goes off and the crowd cheers as I take off." The remaining participants acted as controls and spent the same time focused on their original, unpleasant index image.

After picturing a "re-scripted" pain image, the participants in that group experienced a dramatic drop in their pain levels. In fact, 49 per cent of them said they felt no pain at that time, compared with 11 per cent of them feeling no pain after imagining their index image. "The pain decrements were fast, easily produced and dramatically large," the researchers said. The re-script group also exhibited improvements in anxiety, sadness, mental defeat and beliefs about their own fragility. The control participants, by contrast, experienced none of these improvements.

There was another six-minute gap and the re-script group again pictured their positively re-imagined pain image. The controls were now also taught how to re-imagine their pain image - the local research ethics committee had insisted on this. The original re-script group continued to enjoy reduced pain and psychological benefits, which counts against the idea that the novel image had merely served as a temporary distraction. The controls now also enjoyed the benefits of re-picturing their pain.

Philips and Samsom said that the participants found it easy and pleasurable to re-script their pain images. Of course there is a need now for research to see whether these benefits of re-picturing pain can last into the long term. It would also help to have a different kind of control group - for example, one that merely visualised random positive images, to see if the effects of specifically re-picturing pain are more powerful. Where this study focused on the sensory detail of pain images, future work could also look into the re-writing the images' cognitive meaning.

The findings add to a broader literature showing that our experience of pain is affected by many psychological factors, such as our beliefs about our ability to cope. This doesn't mean the pain isn't real, but it does mean that psychological techniques can be incredibly effective at bringing relief and improvements to people's quality of life.


Philips C, and Samson D (2012). The rescripting of pain images. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 40 (5), 558-76 PMID: 22950868

-Further reading-
Psychologist magazine special issue on the psychology of pain
Acceptance, not distraction, is the way to deal with pain (Digest item)
Verbal reassurance can dull the effect of pain, but only if it's from someone we identify with (Digest item)

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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