Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Money worries can enhance performance on some kinds of mental test

Poverty erects material barriers, but psychological ones too, from the conditions that exacerbate mental health problems, to inculcating children with the sense that they are second-rate. A stream of recent research has suggested that financial concerns can also tax your mind and prevent you from thinking clearly. But that may be too sweeping a conclusion, according to Junhua Dang of Lund University and his colleagues in Sweden and China. Their study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, suggests having money problems on the mind doesn’t always impair cognitive ability. In fact, it can even enhance it.

The prior studies had shown worse performance on intelligence tests by poorer participants when they were asked to think about financial issues beforehand, because of how these issues loaded their “working memory” – their ability to hold and process information over short time periods – thus hindering the mental manipulations the tests required. But working memory isn’t key to all cognitive work, so Dang’s team set out to see if other kinds of mental tasks would be unaffected by monetary angst.

The participants performed a categorisation task, some of them after being prompted to think about their financial woes. They then viewed a series of basic but rich images – a shape that could be square or circle, yellow or blue, and contained one or two symbols coloured red or green – and attempted to sort each one into the correct category A or B. There was a learning element to the task provided by feedback after each image, telling them whether they’d made the correct categorisation or not.

Category membership didn’t rely on a formal rule, e.g. “Category A contains all yellow squares”;
instead, it depended on a looser accumulation of properties: the most A-like shape might be yellow and square with a single red symbol, but you could swap out any one or even two of those qualities, and it would still count as an A.

This kind of challenge is known as a “procedural cognition” task because success depends more on automatic processes rather than consciously thinking it through. In fact, judgments based on similarity and gut feeling are usually a better tactic than trying to test out and juggle different explicit rules. Crucially, the gut feeling approach doesn’t require spare working memory capacity and can even be facilitated by a lack of it. Therefore financial woes might be expected to enhance rather than hinder the performance of poor people on the categorisation task.

That’s what Dang’s team found in their sample of 97 student participants. Those who were reminded of their money worries, and those with below-average family income (relative to the other participants), performed better on the task, being quicker to meet the success criteria of eight correct categorisations in a row.

The authors argue this matters because highly conceptual activities, such as those measured by intelligence tests and which require lots of deliberate mental calculation, may not be a fair reflection of the kinds of mental work that lower-income people often engage in or depend on in their jobs. For example, a trucker is likely to rely much more on the relatively automatic and instinctive processes that make up safe, effective driving. This is not to make a facile argument such as “financial stress is good for the poor”, but rather to make the point that even if such stress does impede some parts of poorer people’s lives, in other capacities they will be able to operate strongly in spite of, or even in small part due to, this stress.

This relates to a wider point that Dang makes in a commentary on the previous research, which is that although stress is unwelcome, it does have a function, which is to narrow our focus “away from irrelevant tasks (which IQ tests arguably are) toward relevant tasks (which financial decision making arguably is).” This research, therefore, is part of a wider body suggesting that the consequences of poverty are not unrelentingly negative, but varied and multifaceted.

--When the poor excel: Poverty facilitates procedural learning

--further reading--
Poverty shapes how children think about themselves
The adaptive mind: Children raised in difficult circumstances show enhanced mental flexibility in adulthood
Why is poverty associated with mental health problems for some people, but not others?

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

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Monday, 27 June 2016

Are the benefits of brain training no more than a placebo effect?

If you spend time playing mentally taxing games on your smartphone or computer, will it make you more intelligent? A billion dollar "brain training" industry is premised on the idea that it will. Academic psychologists are divided – the majority view is that by playing brain training games you will only improve at those games, you won't become smarter. But there are scholars who believe in the wider benefits of computer-based brain training and some reviews support their position, such as the 2015 meta-analysis that combined findings from 20 prior studies to conclude "short-term cognitive training on the order of weeks can result in beneficial effects in important cognitive functions".

But what if those prior studies supporting brain training were fundamentally flawed by the presence of a powerful placebo effect? That's the implication of a new study in PNAS that suggests the advertising used to recruit participants into brain training research fosters expectations of mental benefits.

Cyrus Foroughi and his colleagues produced two different recruitment adverts (see image below) to attract participants into a brain training study – one explicitly mentioned that the study was about brain training and mentioned that this training can lead to cognitive enhancements; the other was neutral and simply stated that participants were needed for a study. Nearly all previously published brain training research has used an overt, suggestive style of recruitment advertising.

Nineteen young men and 31 young women signed up in response to the two ads, with no gender or age differences between those who responded to each ad. Next, they completed baseline intelligence tests before spending an hour on a task that features in many commercial brain training programmes – the so-called dual n-back task, which involves listening to one stream of numbers or letters and watching another, and spotting whenever the latest item in one of the streams is a repeat of one presented "n" number of items earlier in that stream. As participants improve, "n" is increased, making the task more difficult. The next day, the participants completed more intelligence tests. They also answered questions about their beliefs in the possibility for people's intelligence to increase.

The participants who'd responded to the overt, suggestive advert showed gains in intelligence after completing just one hour of brain training – a length of training too short to plausibly have produced any genuine benefit linked to the actual experience of doing the training. In contrast, the participants who responded to the neutral ad showed no intelligence gains. This group difference was despite the fact that the two groups performed just as well on the training task, suggesting no group differences in motivation or ability. Also, the group who'd responded to the suggestive ad reported stronger beliefs in the malleability of intelligence. This could be because people with these beliefs were more likely to respond to the suggestive ad, or because they'd been influenced by the claims of the ad – either way, it shows how the use of unsubtle recruitment advertising could be distorting research in this area.

The researchers said they'd provided "strong evidence that placebo effects from overt and suggestive recruitment can affect cognitive training outcomes". They added that future brain training research should aim to better reduce or account for these placebo effects, for example avoiding hinting to participants what the goals of the study are, or what outcomes are expected. Their call comes after a group of psychologists warned in 2013 that intervention studies in psychology are afflicted by a "pernicious and pervasive" problem, namely the failure to adequately control for the placebo effect.

--Placebo effects in cognitive training

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

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Friday, 24 June 2016

There are three kinds of pedestrian – which are you?

You know that situation where you're walking across a train station concourse or a park and there's another person walking on a different trajectory that means if you both hold your course and speed, you're going to collide? Are you the kind of person who assumes the other guy will give way, or are you the polite one who slows down and lets the other person cross your path?

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance recreated this scenario by pairing up 20 participants – a mix of young men and women – and having one person in each pair walk diagonally from one corner of the room to the other, while the other person walked the other diagonal (see schematic below). On each of many trials, both participants in each pair began walking on a starting signal and they were asked to make sure they didn't collide, all without communication with each other. The participants also filled out personality questionnaires and the researchers recorded their heights, weight and age.

The participants tended to show a consistent pattern of behaviour across trials: roughly a quarter were more inclined to give way to avoid colliding; a quarter usually crossed the potential interception point first, making the other person give way; while the others showed a mixture of behaviours. But crucially, neither personality traits, age, height or weight were related to what kind of collision avoidance strategy the participants tended to use. So it seems some of us are dominant in this situation, some more timid, others ambivalent, but the kind of pedestrian we are is not related to major traits such as extraversion nor to our physical size.

From Knorr et al 2016
Alexander Knorr and his team performed a second study in a bigger room with more participants and this showed that the decision about who will give way tends to be made very early. The more dominant person actually tends to make a slight adjustment to heading and speed first, but this isn't sufficient to avoid a collision. The second person who ultimately gives way seems to detect these early signals, then waits and makes their own adjustments thus avoiding the collision.

What this research doesn't address, sadly, is that other pedestrian problem of when you're heading straight towards another person, and you both dodge out of each other's way in the same direction, then the other, so you end up virtually colliding and uttering embarrassed apologies – or is that just a British thing?

--Influence of Person- and Situation-Specific Characteristics on Collision Avoidance Behavior in Human Locomotion

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

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Beneath their sneering veneer, people prone to contempt are psychologically fragile

Contemptuousness is a distinct personality trait that you can measure with a simple questionnaire. That's according to Roberta Schriber and her colleagues who've devised such a test and described the character of typical contemptuous person – someone quick to judge when another individual (or a social group) has failed to live up to certain expectations – either morally or in terms of competence – and who responds by looking down on this person or group, with the aim of distancing themselves from them, and/or derogating them.

The dispositional contempt scale
From Schriber et al 2016.
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the researchers describe how they tried out different items for measuring trait contempt on hundreds of students and members of the public recruited online at Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey website. They eventually settled on a 10-item test that they said best captures one's proneness to expressing and feeling contempt (see box, right). The participants were asked to score each item from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) and items 4,5 and 7 were reverse scored because in these cases stronger agreement was a mark of low contemptuousness.

Through several studies, the researchers then asked hundreds more participants to complete the new contemptuousness scale alongside other established tests of other personality constructs. From this they found that high scores on the "dispositional contempt scale" correlated with several other measures, suggesting that contemptuousness is not the same as, but tends to go hand in hand with: low trait agreeableness (no surprise there), hubristic pride (when successes are attributed to one's ability, not effort), proneness to envy, narcissism (especially the covert variety), a preoccupation with social status and hierarchy (as measured by trait Machiavellianism), an anxious attachment style, loneliness, perfectionism (in judging others, and in terms of fearing being judged by perfectionist standards by others), racism, and with low self esteem. In short, beneath their sneering veneer, contempt-prone people are needy and psychologically fragile.

To test whether the contemptuousness scale is really measuring what it's supposed to be measuring, the researchers also had hundreds more participants complete the scale before giving their reaction to video clips featuring instances of people showing low competence or moral violations, such as a beauty queen exhibiting ignorance or a soldier showing cruelty to a boy. High trait contempt scorers were especially likely to shown scornful reactions to incompetence, and to a lesser extent to moral violations, and they rarely responded with compassion, providing some support for the validity of the scale.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether trait contempt was stable over a month, and how it was related to the way that people view their relationships. They found the trait did show stability and that it was associated with perceiving one's relationship as dysfunctional, even after factoring out the part played by the broader trait of being unfriendly ("disagreeable" in personality jargon).

Intriguingly, the researchers also asked participants to rate their partner's contempt and they found that perceiving one's partner as contemptuous was associated much more strongly with the perception of being in a poor relationship, than was being contemptuous oneself. Seeing one's partner as being high in contempt "implies a partner does not appear to care about or get along with others, may be a threat to one's own self-esteem and sense of belonging, and might just be unpleasant to be around," the researchers surmised.

Schriber and her team said that it would be interesting for future research to examine what leads some people to become more contemptuous by nature than others – their results point only to correlations with other traits and don't tell us anything about causal pathways. Also, they said it would be useful to look at whether contemptuousness can be reduced through training, such as through loving-kindness meditation or compassion training. "Processes that decrease contempt may, according to our research, promote mental and behavioural flexibility; boost self-esteem; expand one's social network; lower loneliness and depression; cement romantic relationships; and overall generate more caring members of humanity," they said.

--Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person

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

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Thursday, 23 June 2016

What makes our work meaningful? Do bosses really make it meaningless?

The media has used the findings to demonise bosses, but such coverage forgets an important point, writes Alex Fradera
There have been times in my life where work seemed pretty pointless, on occasion because the position was a prime example of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs – those that give no real value back to oneself or society. But I’ve more frequently experienced the sense that a job was at some times meaningless, and at others very worthwhile. That’s a theme picked up in Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden’s new study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, where interviews with 135 people within 10 different occupations explored times when work was meaningful or meaningless.

Like myself, interviewees didn’t consider meaningfulness as a fixed property of their job. They described it arising in episodes, highly intense and memorable peaks separated by unremarkable lulls. Some cases exemplified what the work was all about, such as an academic giving what they knew to be a superb lecture, whereas others were quite outside the norm, such as a shop assistant tending to a critically ill customer.

Often, these episodes had a personal flavour, such as the participant who recalled the first music recital attended by her parents. Many involved recognising the impact their work had had on people besides themselves, whether their students’ graduation or when their engineering innovation had been translated into products used by others. These personal and transcendent aspects were easily fused, such as in the example given by a refuse collector, where, during a crisis triggered by contamination of the local water supply, he visited one neighbour after another providing clean water.

It’s tempting to assume valuable work experiences should be positive – euphoric, air-punching highs – but the interviews teemed with examples that were heavy and challenging. Nurses described end-of-life situations; lawyers, toiling through a heavy, hard case; workers, pushing together against a seemingly intractable problem. Bailey and Madden suggest that organisations and researchers both may be neglecting such poignant experiences, which don’t tally with a superficial account of positive psychology, but may be very important in making work meaningful.

Times that meant something often involved contact with family and friends, peers and particularly the people served by the job. In contrast, managers were mentioned in accounts of meaningless work: times when the interviewee felt treated unfairly, disempowered or taken for granted, or when managerial priorities separated from important relationships with peers, or disconnected them from the values that mattered most to them, such as when the bottom line was placed over the quality of work. It’s for this reason that Bailey and Madden concluded that managerial meddling is often to blame when our work feels meaningless – a claim that has attracted boss-bashing headlines in the mainstream media, such as MoneyWeb’s Bosses destroy meaningful work.

But this media coverage, while fun, forgets an important point – in all but the most dysfunctional organisations, managers have a role in determining the conditions around work, which means – as Bailey and Madden themselves note – that a deft manager can be of benefit.

How does the work have a bigger meaning; for example, how does recycled waste actually lead to the creation of new objects? How can people devoted to their work get opportunities to interact with each other, and with the people their work benefits? How can the difficult times at work – like the eventual loss of a resident at your hospice – be met with appropriate support, but also recognised as valuable? And how can grey tasks like filling out forms be reduced, or at the least, be joined up with the important stuff? Should management solve such problems, they’d fade into the background, and in all likelihood, stay unsung in interviews about meaningful work. But that won’t mean that their efforts didn’t matter, and hopefully they can take pride – and meaning – in that.

--What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

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

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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A preliminary psychology of how we're moved by watching dance

If you're after chills down the spine, you might find that watching professional ballet dancers does the trick just as much as listening to music. Yet whereas the emotional effects of music are well researched – indeed, there are conferences and journals aplenty devoted to the psychology of music – scientists still know very little about the ways we are moved by watching dance.

Now one of the first ever investigations into the emotional effects of dance has been published online at Acta Psychologica and the researchers found that rounded dance movements, rather than edgy ones, made watchers happier, as did more impressive moves, up to a point. The research also showed that, like music, watching dance can provoke visual imagery and personal memories in the viewer.

Julia Christensen and her colleagues created 203 six-second black and white, silent clips of a world class female ballet dancer taken from her live performances. The woman's face was blurred in the clips so the focus was on her dance moves. The clips were then shown to 83 participants – their average age was 21 and they were mostly women – who rated them for how positive they made them feel and how energized or calm.

The researchers found that the participants reported feeling more positive emotions in response to clips that involved the dancer performing the attitude position (front and back; A and B in the picture below) than to clips that did not involve any rounded movements. This actually complements research in the domain of architecture and design that's found people feel more positive in rooms that contain more rounded furniture.
A to C rounded dance movements, contrasted with non-round movements D to F. Image from Christensen et al 2016
The researchers also compared the effects of clips featuring different leg movements – either no leg raise, bent leg raised at 90 degrees, straight leg at 90 degrees, or straight leg raised at over 90 degrees (see image below). Participants felt more positive emotion when the leg was raised at all compared with not being raised – a more impressive feat – but there was no increase in positive emotion for leg raises that were higher and more difficult. The researchers said this suggests that, in contrast with gymnastics, "affect is induced from dance through the quality of the expressive intention of the movement – not just by its quality (e.g. how stretched or extreme)".

Image from Christen et al 2016
Research published a few years ago found that Covent Garden dancers have been raising their legs progressively higher over the years, possibly in response to changing aesthetic tastes. This provides a reminder that the current research was focused on people's emotional reactions to dance, not their aesthetic appreciation of it. It's possible that progressively higher and more difficult leg raises provoke more aesthetic appreciation without adding any extra emotional impact.

Another part of the current investigation involved presenting 15 of the dance clips to 12 undergrad students and then interviewing them about how the clips made them feel (it was emphasised to the students that if they felt nothing, this was just as important as reporting any felt emotion).

Even though the clips were just a few seconds long, some of the students reported feeling emotional reactions in response to them, and two of the students described experiencing visual imagery and triggered memories: "I even told myself stories about why the dancer made sad movements and felt sorry" said one participant; "When I felt that an emotion was negative it was because the sad clips made me think of situations where I'd been sad," said another. This means that 17 per cent of the small sample reported imagery or memories, which is similar to the rates seen for music. Another parallel with music was that the participants often reported experiencing sad emotions, but they nonetheless said the experience was pleasurable.

This study makes a laudable though highly tentative first attempt to study what many may consider the hidden and unknowable connection between a dancer and her audience. "A dancer may dance without the aim to transmit anything to anyone, but follow an internal expressive intention, like an inner dialog" the researchers concluded. "S/he may dance just what's on her/his mind. Yet that intention will be visible in the dance, and grasped by a spectator. Thus what we like when we see a dance is not necessarily the beautiful – but especially the honest and authentic."

  ResearchBlogging.orgChristensen, J., Pollick, F., Lambrechts, A., & Gomila, A. (2016). Affective responses to dance Acta Psychologica, 168, 91-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.03.008

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

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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Puncturing the myth of the tireless leader – if you're sleep deprived you're unlikely to inspire anyone

Sleep deprivation makes it harder for us to inspire others, or to be inspired
There’s an archetype of the tireless leader who scorns slumber in favour of getting things done – Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. But if you think you’re going to inspire anybody by routinely working through the night, you might want to think again. Research published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that sleep deprivation has the specific effect of making it harder for us to charismatically inspire others. And in a double whammy, the research suggests that followers who are sleep deprived are likely to find it particularly difficult to be inspired by their leaders.

Christopher Barnes and his colleagues asked 88 business students to prepare a commencement speech (a talk meant to inspire students at their graduating ceremony), and then to deliver it in front of a video camera. Half of the participants made the speech in a state of sleep deprivation (the previous night they’d had to complete a survey every hour between 10pm and 5am), the others were fully rested.

Afterwards the students answered questions about their own performance, including their ability to engage in “deep acting” – regulating their emotions by reaching inward and trying to genuinely experience these emotions. Also, a team of judges watched the videos of the speeches and rated the students’ performances for charisma. The judges didn’t know who the students were, nor whether they were in the sleep deprived condition or not, but nonetheless they consistently rated the tired orators as less charismatic.

This result was just as Barnes and his team predicted because previous research has shown that sleep deprivation makes it harder to control our emotional displays, and that one component of charismatic behaviour is being able to embody gravity, enthusiasm, or righteousness as the situation demands. Bearing this out, sleep-deprived participants considered themselves less able during the speech to engage in deep acting. And the worse they felt they were at deep acting, the less charismatic the speech.

A second experiment turned the tables to see how observers deal with charismatic content when they are tired. The researchers cherry picked some of the more charismatic or uninspiring videos from the first experiment, and then asked 109 student participants to watch them back and rate each for their charismatic effect. Half of these participants were sleep deprived and they felt less charismatically impressed by what they heard. As this can’t be related to their own deep acting skills, what was going on? Again, the answer is emotion: the tired participants felt less positive, and this lower mood explained the degree to which sleep deprivation affected their ratings. This is because in searching for an external explanation for our feelings, we are liable to misjudge the source – in this case the students blamed their feeling flat from tiredness on the fact the orators weren’t that charismatic.

The tireless leader trope may not come out of nowhere: there is evidence for a gene that provides resistance to sleep deprivation, and the will to persevere during certain crises may temporarily outweigh the costs. But the costs – summarised here – can be substantial, including attention deficits, poorer decision making and risk evaluation, and memory lapses. Now we can add charismatic influence to that list. Moreover, role-modelling long hours risks propagating these habits to the rest of the organisation – so even leaders who have the rare ability to shake off their own tiredness will be presiding over cognitively impaired, irritable followers in no mood for their pronouncements. Forty winks are a wise investment indeed.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Barnes, C., Guarana, C., Nauman, S., & Kong, D. (2016). Too Tired to Inspire or Be Inspired: Sleep Deprivation and Charismatic Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000123

--further reading--
Students: it's time to ditch the pre-exam all-nighter
An afternoon nap tunes out negative emotions, tunes in positive ones

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

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Your anxiety during public speaking is probably made worse by the audience members you look at

We already know from past research that people with social anxiety seem to have a bias towards negative social signals. For instance, they're more likely to notice a frown of disapproval than a smile, which of course only fuels their anxiety.

But a lot of this research has been unrealistic, involving static photos of faces and the task of looking out for dots on a computer screen. A new Chinese study has ramped up the realism by asking dozens of participants – some low in social anxiety, some high – to give a three-minute impromptu speech over Skype to an apparently live audience shown onscreen. In fact the audience was made up of actors who'd been recorded earlier and whose facial expressions and body movements were deliberately positive (smiles and nods), negative (frowns and yawns) or neutral.

Writing in Cognition and Emotion, Muyu Lin and her colleagues describe how they tracked their participants' eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and how they also asked them to rate how anxious they felt.

The participants with high social anxiety spent more time looking at negative audience members and less time at positive audience members, than did the low anxiety participants. Moreover, the low anxiety participants showed a bias towards spending more time looking at positive audience members than the other people in the audience, while the high anxiety anxiety participants lacked this positive bias. The high anxiety participants reported more anxiety, as you'd expect, and this was shown in the physiological measures, especially heart rate. Finally, the greater their attention to negative audience members, the more anxious the socially anxious participants said they felt.

The researchers said their study is the first ever investigation of "attention allocation patterns in individuals with high and low social anxiety levels under real-life analogue social threat". They added that if anxious people spend more time looking at bored or disagreeable faces in the audience, this is only going to fuel their fear. By contrast, less anxious people seem to have a healthy bias towards looking at happy, engaged listeners, and this may be something that anxious people could learn through practice or training.

--Attention allocation in social anxiety during a speech

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

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Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people's minds

By guest blogger Vaughan Bell

Can you think a thought which isn’t yours? A remarkable new study, led by psychologist Jay Olson from McGill University in Canada, suggests you can. The research, published in Consciousness and Cognition, used a form of stage magic known as “mentalism” to induce the experience of thoughts being inserted into the minds of volunteers. It is an ingenious study, not only for how it created the experience, but also for how it used the psychology lab as both a stage prop and a scientific tool.

Years before he was famous, stage illusionist Derren Brown wrote a book called Pure Effect, where he argued that presenting tricks as "psychology" could be an effective form of misdirection. In his innovative shows, Brown often claims he is debunking psychics by demonstrating how psychology can be used to manipulate people’s minds. In practice, his mind-reading and mind control feats can involve the same traditional techniques used by stage magicians, it’s just that he presents them as psychology rather than magic.

Olson and his colleagues from McGill took this approach a step further, telling their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brain scanner could read thoughts and influence their mind.

Hidden from the participants was the fact that the experiment was actually conducted in a mock scanner – something that exists in most neuroimaging facilities to test experiments before they are run on the genuine equipment. To add to the plausibility of the story, the participants went through a realistic briefing, safety screening, and calibration procedure for an fMRI brain scan.

Participants were then asked to complete what they thought were "mind reading" and "mind influencing" experiments.

In the "mind reading" stage, researchers asked each participant to lie in the "scanner", silently think of any two-digit number and press a button when they were done. The fMRI machine then produced a number on screen and the researcher could be seen writing the result onto a clipboard.

Next, the participant was asked to name the number they had silently thought of. The researcher turned the clipboard, stunning the participant by showing exactly their number – seemingly "read" from their mind by the power of fMRI.

The researchers are coy about exactly how this was achieved, only referencing an old mentalism book. In fact, they likely used a variation on a technique called the "swami gimmick" where the mentalist – the researcher in this case – has a fake rubber tip on the end of their thumb, which includes a barely visible shard of pencil lead. Earlier, when the researcher appeared to be writing the fMRI "mind reading" results, he was just pretending. What really happened is that, in the split second after the participant announced their secretly selected number, the researcher discreetly wrote it down on the clipboard using their thumb.

In the second, "mind influencing" condition, the participant was told that the machine was programmed to put a number into their mind. This time the researcher "wrote down" the number the machine had chosen to "transmit". As before, the participant was asked to silently think of any two-digit number and after the "scan" the researcher seemed to show that the participant had thought of exactly the number the machine had ‘transmitted’ to them – using, of course, exactly the same thumb-writing trick as in the mindreading phase.

So here’s where the real psychology came in. After the scans, the researchers asked the participants to rate how much control they felt they had over their choice of numbers. Of course, in reality all their choices were completely voluntary, but in the second stage of the experiment, they believed they had less control and that the machine had influenced their thinking. Consistent with this perception, they also took longer to choose a number in the mind influencing condition than in the "mind reading" condition.

The researchers checked whether anyone had worked out what was really happening. A few participants expressed doubts about whether the "fMRI machine" was really influencing them and were removed from the analysis, but none suspected stage magic.

Olson and his colleagues replicated their results using a second experiment, run in exactly the same way, but this time they also interviewed the participants to find out what they’d felt during the procedure. They reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being "inserted" into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

But the research team’s motivations where not purely focused on everyday psychology. In some types of mental health problems, people start to experience their thoughts and actions being controlled by what seem like outside forces. Olson’s team hope that their work can provide a way of studying one aspect of this experience, safely and temporarily in the lab, potentially providing a window into how these more debilitating experiences affect the mind and brain.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Olson, J., Landry, M., Appourchaux, K., & Raz, A. (2016). Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 11-26 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.04.010

Post written by Dr Vaughan Bell (@vaughanbell). Vaughan is a senior clinical lecturer at University College London and a clinical psychologist in the NHS.

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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Link feast

Our editor's pick of the 10 best psychology and neuroscience links from the last week or so:

"We Are Complicit In Making These Groups All But Invisible"
Martin Milton argues at The Psychologist that LGBT debate needs urgent progression in wake of the Orlando attack.

Jerome S. Bruner, Who Shaped Understanding of the Young Mind, Dies at 100
NYT obit.

Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks To People (on iPlayer)
Documentary telling the extraordinary story of Koko, the only 'talking' gorilla in the world, and her lifelong relationship with Penny Patterson, who taught her to communicate.

Psychologists Grow Increasingly Dependent On Online Research Subjects
New studies suggest that volunteer research subjects for Amazon Mechanical Turk—an online crowdsourcing service—are less numerous and diverse than hoped.

VR Video Lets You See The World Through The Eyes Of An Autistic Boy
The virtual reality experience was made using feedback from the autistic community

What Crisis? – The Reproducibility Crisis (video and report)
A huge audience of psychologists, students and researchers was drawn to the British Psychological Society debate in London about the reproducibility and replication crisis in psychology.

Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be Successful?
Why the pervasive myth of the malcontent genius is harmful to our own creative development.

‘I’d Have Said Let’s Not Do This’: What Osborne Never Asked His Nudge Guru
An interview with Professor Richard Thaler, godfather of behavioural economics.

Why You Can Never Tell What Your Friends Really Think of You
We like to think we can judge how we present ourselves to others – but psychology says we’re wrong.

The Neurosciences Go Mega
An exclusive extract from the new book 'Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?', by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose.

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

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Friday, 17 June 2016

A small alcoholic drink could benefit business negotiations, study finds

It is a tradition in many cultures, especially in East Asia, for business negotiations to be accompanied by drinking alcohol. Motivated in part to wonder why this might be, Pak Hung Au and Jipeng Zhang, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China, have tested the effects of a small cup of beer (350ml) on participants' bargaining behaviour.

The study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organisation involved 114 people playing a bargaining game in pairs, some of them after a cup of beer, others after non-alcoholic beer (a test of a placebo effect) and some after juice. Each round, each player was allocated a sum of money between $1 to $10 known only to them. Each round they and their partner then had to decide whether to participate with each other or not. If both parties agreed to join together then their initial endowments for that round would be summed and multiplied by 1.2 before being shared equally.

As a pair, these rules meant the participants gained more money the more that they collaborated. However, collaboration was not financially beneficial to individual participants on those rounds in which they had a large initial endowment but their collaborating partner had only a small endowment. Generally what happened is that players opted to collaborate on rounds in which they started out with a small endowment, but chose not to when they had a larger amount. Part of the game involved deducing from any collaboration payouts and other clues how conservatively and individualistically their partner was playing, and responding as they felt appropriate.

In short, the researchers found that more collaboration occurred when both participants in a pair had had a drink of beer compared with juice (those who drank beer had an average blood alcohol concentration level of 0.0406; for reference, outside of Scotland, the UK drink drive limit is 0.08 or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood). There was little evidence of a placebo effect, and other financial games and measures used in the study suggested the effects on collaboration were not due to any changes in risk aversion, mood or altruism. Instead, the researchers' analysis suggested that alcohol affected the way that players made inferences about their partner's negotiating stance based on their collaboration decisions and other clues. "In settings in which skepticism can lead to a breakdown in negotiation, alcohol consumption can make people drop their guard for each others’ actions, thus facilitating reaching an agreement," they explained.

The researchers warned that of course excessive alcohol consumption is associated with many health risks, and that the consumption of larger amounts of alcohol would inevitable harm business negotiations through its affects on mental performance and aggression. But they said their results do suggest that "consuming a mild to moderate amount of alcoholic drink in business meetings can potentially help smooth the negotiation process".

--Deal or no deal? The effect of alcohol drinking on bargaining

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

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Do some homophobic men harbour a latent attraction to other men?

An example of imagery used in the study by Coeval et al
The idea that homophobia in men is a counter-reaction to their own unwanted attraction to other men has its roots in psychoanalysis – where's it's considered a psychodynamic defence – and is possibly supported by anecdotal evidence, most recently in reports that the perpetrator of the horrific homophobic massacre at an Orlando gay club was himself gay. But it's worth heeding the cautions on Science of Us yesterday where journalist Cari Romm noted that "internalized homophobia almost never manifests itself as violence" in her article headed The Myth of the Violent, Self-Hating Gay Homophobe.

However, if repressed gay impulses are a common motivator for homophobic attitudes, this would be useful to know from the perspective of combating homophobia, and for helping such people come to terms with their own sexuality. In fact the evidence is mixed. For instance, supporting the theory, a study from 1996 involving dozens of men who self-identified as heterosexual found that some of those with homophobic attitudes got an erection in response to gay porn, but the men who weren't homophobic did not. On the other hand, a later study that measured time spent looking at images of men kissing found no evidence that some homophobic men are gay at a subconscious level – in fact, some of the homophobic men seemed to have an implicit aversion to such images.

Now a new, small study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine has combined a range of techniques, including eye tracking, to show that a subset of homophobic men who self-identify as heterosexual do seem to have an impulsive, automatic attraction to other men.

The researchers assessed the homophobia of 38 heterosexual young men – high scorers agreed strongly with statements like "Gay men should stop shoving their lifestyle down other people's throats". Then they tested their "impulsive approach tendencies" toward men (that is, their latent attraction to them) in a task that involved tapping keyboard keys rapidly, to move an on-screen manikin – a basic drawing of a human figure – as quickly as possible in a specified direction. On half the trials, an image of a gay male couple subsequently appeared on the side of the screen toward which the participants were moving the manikin; on the other trials, a heterosexual couple appeared in this position. Relatively faster performance when the task involved moving the manikin toward the gay male couple was taken as a sign of implicit attraction, rather than aversion, toward homosexual men.

After that, the researchers tracked the eye movements of the participants as they looked at and rated the pleasantness of images of gay male and heterosexual couples. The men were told to look at the images for as long as necessary to make their judgments, and longer time spent looking specifically at the faces and bodies of the gay male couples was taken by the researchers as another sign of attraction to men.

The non-homophobic participants spent more time looking at the heterosexual couples than the gay male couples, as you'd expect. In contrast, the homophobic men spent just as much time looking at both types of image. Also, whereas there was no link between the amount of impulsive attraction the non-homophic men showed toward men (on the manikin task) and the time they spent looking at the images of male gay couples, there was a link among the highly homophobic participants – those who showed a greater impulsive attraction to men also tended to look longer at the images of gay couples than heterosexual couples.

This suggests the homophobic men's alleged impulsive attraction to men was also affecting their looking behaviour, although whether it's fair to interpret this increased looking at gay men as attraction, rather than, say, curiosity, is debatable. However, there was also evidence that it was filtering through to a lesser extent to their explicit ratings of the images. That is, among the highly homophobic men, those who showed signs of implicit attraction to men in the manikin task also tended to give higher pleasantness ratings to the images of gay male couples, but not to the images of heterosexual couples.

The researchers acknowledged their findings are limited by their small sample size, and that it would have been useful to measure stress and anxiety to see how this was affecting the results. For instance, it's possible that for homophobic men the stress of looking at gay imagery has the ironic effect of increasing the influence of their implicit attraction to men on their behaviour – a stress effect that would be absent in non-homophobic men, hence their implicit attraction not being relevant to their looking behaviour.

These limitations and complexities aside, the researchers concluded that their findings provide more evidence consistent with the idea that "some men high in homophobia indeed have a sexual interest toward homosexual stimuli, whereas others do not" and that they "provide a better understanding of the psychological processes involved in the processing of erotic gay material among men high in homophobia...".

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Cheval, B., Radel, R., Grob, E., Ghisletta, P., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., & Chanal, J. (2016). Homophobia: An Impulsive Attraction to the Same Sex? Evidence From Eye-Tracking Data in a Picture-Viewing Task The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13 (5), 825-834 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.02.165

--further reading--
Is sexism the reason why so many heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gay men?
People's "coming out" experiences are related to their psychological wellbeing years later
Intervention helps reduce homophobia

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

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Thursday, 16 June 2016

The psychology of why we tip some occupations but not others

It's more about altruism than trying to win approval
Why do I tip my taxi driver, but not my accountant? I mean, there’s a good reason I don’t - he would narrow his eyes at me and ask if I was feeling ok. But why, in general, do we tip in some service contexts and not others; is it simply due to a quirk of history or the result of broader psychological patterns? Cornell University’s Michael Lynn suspected the latter, and in his new study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, he outlines the evidence for various pro-tipping motives.

Lynn presented a list of 122 American service occupations – including architect, bus tour guide, shampooer – to just under 1200 participants recruited online. Their task was to rate each role on one of 13 different measures including the typical working conditions for the job, how difficult they thought the job was, how well-paid, or the crucial question of how likely they would be to tip someone doing this job for them.

Lynn had chosen these measures carefully, to test out different hypotheses about tipping and reward. For example, participants said they were more likely to give tips to the same service occupations that were perceived to be low-income, consistent with motives related to altruism and egalitarianism; after all, a bit of extra cash in my accountant’s pocket isn’t likely to lift them from want, nor to redress the scales of society.

It might also be that we tip in contexts where we might gain or lose approval from others – a social status motive. Here the results were less compelling: participants were not more willing to tip in roles where the act can be witnessed by others, which you would expect if tipping was about making yourself look good. However, tipping was more common when participants thought people in the role were usually much less happy than their customers, like the taxi drivers who take revellers to and from parties, or holidayers to airports. Lynn treats this as evidence for wanting to avoid disapproval but I wonder if the finding could be another instance of egalitarianism, using money to compensate for poorer working conditions.

Finally, participants liked to tip in situations where they felt they were in a better position than a manager to evaluate the work of an employee. It’s hard for me to know whether an X-ray technician has done a good job, but I probably have a better sense of the quality of my tour guide’s work today than his manager back at the office. This factor appears quite important, as it explains why jobs (like massage) that require more physical contact, and those that are highly customised, seem more tip-worthy.

Some of the predicted motives didn’t pan out, notably one that any classical economist might expect: that tips are used as an incentive for improved future service. If this was the case, Lynn predicted, we’d prefer to tip roles that involve repeat service, and also those involving extended contact with the customer, giving the service provider more opportunities to maximise their performance for the hope of reward. But participants preferred to tip those kind of roles less, not more. Possibly this is confounded by an unmeasured variable – maybe more contact humanises the service provider, and so the encounter becomes more personal and less transactional – but in any case, it’s a surprising result.

Sophisticated businesses may want to go against the tipping status quo: introducing tips to make the job more attractive to prospective employees and to motivate those in the job, or conversely to remove them, to standardise service and avoid tax complications. But this new research suggests such counter-normative policies may meet with resistance from customers. For example, Uber decided to discourage tipping by not allowing it through the app system. The work of these ride providers is easily evaluated and customisable, low income, and likely less fun than the experience of those enjoying the ride. The response from customers? Petitioning Uber to let them tip.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lynn, M. (2016). Why are we more likely to tip some service occupations than others? Theory, evidence, and implications Journal of Economic Psychology, 54, 134-150 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2016.04.001

--further reading--
Why we tip and how to get a bigger tip
Tipping is more prevalent in countries that are more corrupt

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

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