Wednesday, 27 August 2014

10 Surprising Things Babies Can Do

Human infants are helpless. At first they can't even support the weight of their own heads. Crawling and walking take months to master. Compare this with the sprightly newborns of other mammals, such as kittens and foals, up and about within an hour of their birth. There are several theories as to why human development is so protracted - among them that this extra time is required for the human brain to develop. This post side-steps such debates and focuses on 10 studies hinting at the surprising abilities of babies aged up to one year. The research digested below suggests the infant mind is far more sophisticated than you might imagine:

Babies can meet a person once and remember them for years 
We begin with a study in which 3-year-olds watched two videos shown side by side, each featuring a different researcher, one of whom they'd met once, two years earlier. The children spent longer looking at the video showing the researcher they hadn't met. This is consistent with young children's usual tendency to look longer at things that are unfamiliar, and it suggests they remembered the researcher they'd met once, when they were aged just one. Of course the phenomenon of infantile amnesia means these early long-term memories will likely be lost in subsequent years.

Babies can tell a human from a zombie (or a monkey)
Six-month-old and 12-month-old babies viewed pictures of cartoon human faces. Some of the faces looked creepy because they had zombie-style goggle eyes. Just like adults, the 12-month-olds (but not the 6-month-olds) spent longer looking at the faces with normal eyes. The researchers think this shows that by age one, human infants experience the "uncanny valley" effect - an aversion to creatures that are "almost human". Another study published in 2011 found that 3-month-olds preferred looking at human faces or bodies than the bodies or faces of non-human primates, suggesting they already had some knowledge of what humans look like.

Babies can fake cry
Last year a Japanese researcher captured on video an instance of apparent feigned distress by an 11-month-old. Hiroko Nakayama filmed two babies in their homes for 60 minutes twice a month, for six months. One baby only ever cried after displaying negative emotion. However, on one occasion, the other baby ("Infant R") was caught on camera laughing and smiling, then crying suddenly and briefly, then displaying positive emotion again. "Infant R appeared to cry deliberately to get her mother's attention," said Nakayama, [then] she showed smile immediately after her mother came closer."

Babies can tell the difference between a dirge and a happy tune
For this study researchers played music to babies through speakers located either side of a face. They waited until the babies got bored and started looking away, then they changed the mood of the music - either from sad to happy, or vice versa. This mood switch made no difference to three-month-olds, but for the nine-month-olds it was enough to rekindle their interest and they started looking again in the direction of the face.

Babies have artistic tastes
After nine-month-old babies had grown bored of looking at a Monet paintings, their interest was piqued by the sight of a Picasso. However, the reverse wasn't true: after time spent looking at Picasso, the babies preferred to look at more Picasso than at a new Monet. The researchers aren't sure why Picasso holds such appeal, but it may have to do with the greater luminance of his paintings.

Babies can predict your intentions
Research published in 2006 found that 12-month-old babies, like adults, showed anticipatory eye movements when watching someone placing toys in a bucket. That is, their eyes jumped ahead to the bucket as if anticipating the person's goal. Six-month-olds didn't show this ability, they kept their eyes fixed on the toys. "We have demonstrated that when observing actions, 12-month-old infants focus on goals in the same way as adults do," the researchers said.

Babies can hear speech sounds that you can't
As babies develop they become attuned to the speech sounds relevant to their native language. Before this happens, they can detect all phonetic contrasts in human speech, including those that adults in their culture cannot. Take the example of the /r/ and /l/ sounds in English, which Japanese adults struggle to distinguish. Prior to 6-months, Japanese babies can distinguish these sounds as reliably as a baby raised in an English home.

Babies can show contempt
A study from 1980 involved adults looking at videotapes of babies (aged up to 9-months) as they pulled various facial expressions in response to real life events, including playful interactions and painful injections. The adults were able to reliably discern eight distinct emotions on the babies' faces, including: "interest, joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, and fear."

Babies rehearse words long before they can speak
For a study published this year, researchers scanned 7- and 11-month-old babies' brains as the infants listened to speech sounds. The psychologists observed activity in motor-related parts of the babies' brains, suggesting that the babies were already rehearsing how to produce the sounds themselves, even though most of them wouldn't be able to speak for some months.

Babies understand basic physics
Human infants appear to arrive with prior expectations about how the world works. For example, a 2009 study found that 5-month-olds use basic cues to detect whether a material is solid or liquid, and having done so, they form expectations for how these substances will behave, such as whether they will pour or tumble, or whether they will be penetrated by a straw. "... these experiments begin to clarify the beginnings of naive physics," the researchers said.
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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Psychology of First Impressions, Digested.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Drinking small amounts of alcohol boosts people's sense of smell

As our modern world relies overwhelmingly on sight and sound to transmit information, it might not strike you quite how acute our sense of smell is. In fact we humans can outperform the most sensitive measuring instruments in detecting certain odours, and distinguish smells from strangers from those of our blood relations. Now new research suggests our natural olfactory talents may be even greater when we use modest amounts of alcohol to reduce our inhibitions.

A team led by Yaara Endevelt-Shapira tested participants on two days: on one, tests took place before and after drinking a cup of grape juice, and on the other day, before and after a drink containing a dose of alcohol (vodka). Even though the alcohol dose was based on a single measure (35ml) adjusted for the participants’ weight, differences in how people’s bodies process alcohol meant that breathalyser measures of Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) varied from as low as 0.01 to as high as 0.1 across participants.

A smell-detection experiment involved participants indicating which of three jars of oil contained a highly diluted scent. Higher BAC did not influence performance, but when a dose of alcohol produced a low BAC (below .06), participants were able to identify more highly diluted scents than they could on their no-booze day.

In a second experiment, participants sniffed three scents and tried to tell which one differed from the other (identical) two. High BAC made this discrimination task harder, but again, low BAC had a facilitative effect, making it easier to determine the odd smell out. This task was also replicated in a field experiment, pulling people aside at a bar to test their discrimination for trios of scratch-and-sniff stickers: those punters who had already had a drink (all had a low BAC) performed significantly better than those who had not.

Taken together the findings suggest that low alcohol doses improve smelling ability, but why does it have this effect? We can’t yet be certain, however the study offers some clues that it has to do with removing people’s inhibition.

First, smell detection was worse for candidates who scored highly on an aspect of motivation called “baseline inhibitory state”, which refers to a person’s tendency to avoid or prevent negative outcomes (it was measured with items such as "I worry about making mistakes"). Participants who were inclined to hold back in this way were poorer at detecting smells.

Second, alcohol-fuelled improvement in smell discrimination correlated with how much participants’ performance dropped on the Stroop task when under the influence. This classic task involves inhibiting the meaning of a colour word in order to complete the challenge of naming the ink colour that the word is printed in. Smell discrimination improved more for participants who displayed weaker inhibitory powers on the Stroop.

The authors explained that the prefrontal cortex has inhibitory connections to the olfactory cortex, our smell centre. And cases exist where frontal brain injury has led to near-immediate improvements in olfactory ability. This evidence signature presents a reasonable case that we are constantly suppressing a superior sense of smell, but that this inhibition can be reduced by various means…including a drop of the hard stuff.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Endevelt-Shapira, Y., Shushan, S., Roth, Y., & Sobel, N. (2014). Disinhibition of olfaction: Human olfactory performance improves following low levels of alcohol Behavioural Brain Research, 272, 66-74 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2014.06.024

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Your angry face makes you look stronger

No matter where you travel on earth, you'll likely have no problem recognising when someone is angry with you. From the plains of Russia to the beaches of Brazil, anger shows itself in a tell-tale facial display involving lowered brow, snarled nose, raised chin and thinned lips.

A popular view has it that, besides reliably conveying anger, this particular constellation of facial movements is arbitrary and serves no other function. A team of evolutionary psychologists led by Aaron Sell disagrees. They think the anger face also makes the angry person look stronger. This fits their "recalibration theory of anger" that sees the emotion as an aggressive threat. An angry animal or person is communicating the costs that they will inflict on others if they do not get what they want. By making an angry person look stronger, so the theory goes, the facial expression gives weight to the threat of aggression, likely influencing the target's judgment about the seriousness of the threat.

To test this, Sell and his colleagues created pairs of faces using a computer programme. They began with a 20-year-old male face, morphed from averages of many faces, and then calibrated it so that for each of the seven distinguishing features of anger (lowered brow, raised lips, raised mouth, widened nose, enlarged chin, lips thinned, lips pushed forward), they created a pair of contrasting faces. One face in each pair displayed one angry feature, the other face showed the opposite feature. For example, one face showed lowered brows, the other face in the pair showed raised brows. In this way, the seven distinguishing features of anger were isolated.

Thirty-five student participants then looked at the facial pairs and indicated in each case which face they thought looked stronger. The key finding? Each anger-related facial feature when displayed on its own attracted higher ratings of perceived strength. This implies each element of the anger expression contributes to making a person appear stronger.

Further experiments ruled out an alternative explanation - perhaps angry faces actually serve to make a person look older, and this leads to ratings of greater strength because observers assume a slightly older man is stronger than a 20-year-old. One way the researchers tested this was to show participants pairs of morphed faces of a 60-year-old man, in which case looking older presumably wouldn't be associated with greater strength. Three of the angry facial features actually led him to being rated as younger, with only two prompting ratings of being older. Moreover, participants rated the man as stronger when he displayed six of the seven angry facial features.

"The current study is the first systematic test of the individual components of the anger expression," the researchers said. "And in so doing it confirms that these features are improbably well-designed to solve the adaptive problem of bargaining with threats of force." The results are also consistent with a range of other research, including the finding that several features of an angry expression tend to be more prominent in men than women (this fits with the idea that aggression is a more important bargaining tool for men); that stronger and bigger men get angry more easily; and that men's fighting ability can be discerned from the shape of their face. Looking at the study's limitations, it's a shame the researchers didn't investigate women's expressions of anger, and that they relied on student participants.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Sell, A., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2014). The human anger face evolved to enhance cues of strength Evolution and Human Behavior, 35 (5), 425-429 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.05.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Link feast

Our pick of the best psychology and neuroscience links from the past week:

Finding a Good Therapist
Jules Evans' (author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations) recent encounter with a "somatic therapist" didn't go too well.

Why Nurture Is Just As Important As Nature For Understanding Genetics
The influence of genetics on our health and behaviour is not fixed, explains Claire Howarth, but depends on complex interactions with the environment. 

Why Do We Fear the Wrong Things?
Over at the Talk Psych blog David Myers reflects on the misleading power of the "availability heuristic".

Why Do Amputees Feel the Ache of Nothingness?
A new study on phantom limb pain highlights the role of nerves that send information to the spine.

Ten Tips on Organizing Your Mind, from Dr. Daniel Levitin
The Wall Street Journal shares lessons from the new book: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals
A new three-part series from the BBC. Episode one focused on animal vision. Available on BBC iPlayer for 18 more days.

How to Speak the Language of Thought
Tom Stafford on the challenge of decoding the way the brain speaks to itself.

Hilary Mantel and Virginia Woolf on The Sounds in Writers' Minds
"Many writers, like Woolf, hear voices and see images so intensely they take on the presence of the real," says Patricia Waugh.

Asking for Advice Makes You Seem More Competent, Not Less
Yet most participants in this research thought the opposite would be so, reports Melissa Dahl.

All You Need To Know About the 10 Percent Brain Myth, in 60 Seconds
"The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity" says the promotional poster for the film Lucy, which opens across the UK this weekend.
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Reader reactions to news of terrorism depend on the images that are used

After viewing images of terrorists, people reported feelings of anger and fear
How readers' emotions are affected by media reports of terrorist attacks depends on the the photos used to accompany the story. That's according to an analysis by Aarti Iyer and colleagues, who say these different emotional reactions in turn lead to support for different government policies.

Over two-hundred British adults (aged 18 to 68; 92 women), many based in London, read a news summary of the London terrorist bombings that occurred on July 7, 2005. Afterwards, the participants were split into two groups - one group was shown photographs that displayed the terrorist attackers, including head-shots and security camera footage. The other group was shown photographs displaying victims of the attacks, including wounded people and distressed bystanders.

Participants who viewed the images of terrorists subsequently reported feeling a stronger sense of injustice (than those who saw the victims), and felt more of a sense that the terrorists were dangerous and threatening. In terms of emotions, viewing the images of the terrorists was associated with higher levels of fear and anger. In contrast, participants who saw the images of the victims were afterwards more conscious of people suffering, and they tended to report feeling more sympathy.

Although a direct comparison found no difference between the two participant groups, in terms of their subsequent support for various government terrorism policies, Iyer and her team claim there were indirect effects of the two image conditions. According to the researchers' analysis, viewing images of the terrorists increased levels of anger and fear, and in turn these emotions were associated with more support for aggressive counter-terrorism and more negotiation, respectively. In contrast,  seeing images of victims increased feelings of sympathy, which was associated with more support for policies aimed at helping victims.

"Given that images of terrorism may be easily used (and abused) to manipulate public opinion, it is ... vital that media editors and policy makers better understand the psychological processes underlying the phenomenon," the researchers said. They admitted that much more research is needed in this area, and they acknowledged that in reality readers and viewers are often exposed to a mixture of images. But despite this caution, Iyer and her team also wrote that their findings demonstrate "the powerful impact of media images in shaping individuals' emotional and political responses to terrorism..."

Readers of sceptical persuasion may not be so convinced. The path analysis used in this research can only demonstrate correlations between measured factors - causality, and its true direction from one factor to another, has not been proven. Ultimately, the two groups of participants did not differ in their support for different government policies. This research was also unable to explain why some people responded to images of the terrorists with anger, and others with fear.

See the comments for more critical analysis.
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  ResearchBlogging.orgIyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M., & Vanman, E. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (7), 511-521 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12243

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Back to the future - Psychologists investigate why some people see the future as being behind them

Speakers of English and many other languages refer to the future as being in front, and the past behind (e.g. "I look forward to seeing you"). This manner of thinking and speaking is so entrenched, we rarely pause to consider why we do it. One influential and intuitive explanation is that humans have an obvious front (the way our heads face), which combined with our tendency to think about time in terms of space, leads us to see ourselves moving forwards into the future, or the future coming towards us. A problem with this account is that there exist cultures and languages - such as the Andean language Aymara - that think and speak of the future as being behind them (and the past in front).

This leads to the proposition that perhaps people’s sense of the location of the past and future is somehow tied to their culture's linguistic convention. Not so. In a new paper, Juanma de la Fuente and colleagues investigate Moroccan Arabic speakers - these people refer in their language to the future being in front of them (and the past behind), yet in their hand gestures they convey the opposite temporal arrangement. Clearly the ways we speak and think about time can dissociate. Still unanswered then is what leads people to differ in where they locate the past and future.

In the first of several experiments, de la Fuente’s team presented Moroccan Arabic speakers (most were students at the Abdelmalek Essaadi University in Tetouan) and Spanish speakers (students at the University of Granada) with a diagram featuring a human face with one box in front of it, and one behind.  The participants were told that an object had been picked up by the person in the diagram yesterday, or was to be picked up by them tomorrow. The participants’ task in each case was to indicate which box the object was located in.

This test confirmed that, despite speaking of the future as being in front of them, the majority of Moroccan Arabic speakers think of it as being behind. Around 85 per cent of them located tomorrow’s object behind the person in the diagram, compared with just over 10 per cent of the Spanish speakers. De la Fuente’s group think the reason has to do with temporal focus. Their theory - “the temporal-focus hypothesis” - is that people and cultures who focus more on the past tend to locate it in front.

This argument was supported by several further investigations. A “temporal focus questionnaire” (example items included “The young people must preserve tradition” and “Technological advances are good for society”) confirmed that Moroccan Arabic speakers display a greater focus on the past, as compared with Spanish speakers. Within a group of young and old Spanish speakers, meanwhile, the older participants had a greater focus on the past and they more often located the past in front (on a diagram). Among another group of Spanish speakers, those people who were more focused on the past also tended to locate the past in front. Finally, when the researchers primed Spanish speakers to think about their past (by having them write about their childhoods), they were subsequently far more likely to locate the past in front of them (and the future behind).

The researchers said they’d demonstrated “a previously unexplored cross-cultural difference in spatial conceptions of time” and that they’d validated “a new principle by which culture-specific habits of temporal thinking can arise: the temporal-focus hypothesis.”
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ResearchBlogging.orgde la Fuente J, Santiago J, Román A, Dumitrache C, & Casasanto D (2014). When You Think About It, Your Past Is in Front of You: How Culture Shapes Spatial Conceptions of Time. Psychological science PMID: 25052830

--further reading--
The surprising links between anger and time perception

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can relationships with fictional characters aid our self development?

"... forming a relationship with an interesting but
potentially dangerous character does not present the
same obstacles in the narrative world
as it might in the physical world.”
By guest blogger Robin Abrahams.

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you may have noticed an explosion of fiction-based personality quizzes. What house would you belong to in Hogwarts—or in Westeros? Which “Mad Man” are you? What Shakespeare role were you born to play?

Why do we want to know?

Researchers led by Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker may have some answers. Their paper, “Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters” rests on the concept of parasocial relationships—a relatively new construct in the social sciences that is becoming increasingly relevant in our media-saturated age.

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

Can our fictional friends make us better people?

Other than safe distance, what might a relationship with a fictional mobster have to offer? This study examines the extent to which parasocial relationships facilitate “self-expansion,” or the sense of greater possibilities for the self. Real-world relationships lead to self-expansion when people view their relationship partner as “a valuable source of new knowledge and experiences.” Can fictional characters have the same effect of helping us envision a bigger, better version of ourselves?

They can. University students were asked to read an unfamiliar short story about a young person competing in a race, and then to rate the story’s protagonist, along with two real-life contacts (a close friend and a classmate) and two television characters (the participants’ favorite and a non-favorite character) across various dimensions of likability and relevance to the self. Self-expansion was measured by a 14-item scale (e.g. “How much does X help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” and “How much has knowing X made you a better person?”) and was found to vary upwards in line with the intensity of the relationship, not its real-life or fictive origin.

Close friends inspired the most self-expansion, followed by favourite television characters, then non-favourite characters, and finally casual acquaintances. The more a character was perceived as being like the participant’s ideal (as opposed to actual) self, the stronger the effect. Participants’ “narrative transport,” or the degree to which they felt engaged and absorbed in a fictive world (this was manipulated via instructions given to participants before reading the short story) also enhanced self-expansion.

While no one claims that parasocial relationships can replace mutual ones, the authors see their study as largely good news, as it implies that our capacity to learn and grow from relationships is not constrained by our daily environment. “[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”

The authors note two shortcomings of the study—the lack of developmental and personality perspectives. What are the effects of long-term parasocial relationships? Are they as beneficial as brief ones, or are there potential dangers to an extended commitment to someone, real or imagined, who can never reciprocate? Secondly, why are some people more likely than others to identify themselves with fictional characters, and use that identification as a source of personal growth?

Personal experience suggests, unsurprisingly, that both temperament and upbringing play a role. Self-enhancing parasocial relationships require a fair amount of imagination and psychological-mindedness. Real-life peers and authority figures, meanwhile, can encourage such relationships or mock them as "imaginary friendship" or a pop-culture obsession. Of course organised religion has harnessed the power of parasocial relationships for self-betterment for millennia: Asking one's self "What would Jesus [or Mohammed, Buddha, or Martin Luther King Jr.] do?" is, after all, a classic case of transcending the self through a relationship with a person one has never met.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters Self and Identity, 13 (5), 556-578 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

Post written by Robin Abrahams for the BPS Research Digest. Robin Abrahams is a writer with a PhD In psychology. She is the author of the popular Boston advice column "Miss Conduct" and the book "Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners," and she blogs about the intersection of science and the performing arts.

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