Monday, 20 April 2015

Autistic children's sensory experiences, in their own words

Children diagnosed with autism often have distinctive sensory experiences, such as being ultra sensitive to noise, or finding enjoyment in repeated, unusual sensory stimulation. However, much of what we know about these experiences comes from the testimony of parents, researchers and clinicians. Now Anne Kirby and her colleagues have published the first report of autistic children's sensory experiences, based on these children's own accounts. As the authors say, "children's voices are still rarely heard or taken seriously in the academic arena," so this is an innovative approach.

Twelve autistic children aged 4 to 13 were interviewed in their homes. The children's autism varied in severity, but they were all capable of conducting verbal interviews. The researchers used a range of techniques to facilitate the interviews, such as playing family video clips of the children to prompt discussion of specific episodes. Kirby and her team said their first important finding was to demonstrate the feasibility of interviewing young children with autism.

Careful analysis of the transcripts from the interviews revealed three key themes. The first of these – "normalising" – showed how the children considered many of their experiences to be just like other people's, as if rejecting the notion that there was something distinct or odd about their behaviour, and also showing a certain self-consciousness (contrary to existing research that suggests self-consciousness is impaired in autism).
Interviewer: What about things you don't like to touch or feel on your skin?
Child: Um, sharp stuff.
I: Sharp stuff? (smiles) Yeah, exactly.
C: Um, like most people do
I: Yeah
C: Um (pause), hot stuff.
I: Yep.
C: Like, burning hot, like pizza that just came out of the oven.
I: Do you have a favourite thing that you like to eat?
C: Uh, pizza.
I: Yeah? When it's not too hot, right?
C: Right. That's what most people say.
The children also expressed satisfaction at learning to cope with problematic sensory sensitivity – such as a dislike of brushing hair. "What's different about having your hair brushed now?" the interviewer asked. "That I look beautiful," the thirteen-year-old replied. The children appeared motivated to adapt to their sensitivities, so as to participate in normal daily activities. The researchers said this is contrary to past findings that suggest people with autism don't want to be "neurotypical" (perhaps such feelings can emerge later).

Another theme was the methods the children used to recount their experiences, including using anecdotes, demonstrating (e.g. by imitating the noise of the car engine, or mimicking a disgust reaction), by repeating their own inner speech from particular experiences, and, in the case of two children, by using similes. On that last point, one child likened eating spinach to eating grass, another likened loud voices to a lion's roar. "The use of simile as a storytelling method seemed to suggest a sort of perspective-taking that is not expected in children with autism" the researchers said.

The final theme concerned the way the children frequently talked about their sensory experiences in terms of their responses to various situations and stimuli. For example, the children spoke of their strategies, such as covering their ears, watching fireworks through a window, and watching sport on TV rather than in the arena. They also told the interviewers about their uncontrollable physical reactions, such as the pain of loud noises or teeth brushing. When he hears loud music, one little boy said: "it feels like my heart is beating, and um, my, uh, my whole body's shaking. Mmm and uh, and my eyes, uh, they start to blink a lot." The children's reactions were often tied to their fear of particular situations or objects, such as inflated balloons.  It feels like "the unknown is gonna come," said another child.

The study has obvious limitations, such as the small sample and lack of a comparison group, so we can't know for sure that children without autism wouldn't come up with similar answers. However, the research provides a rare insight into autistic children's own perspective on their sensory worlds. "Through exploration of how children share about their experiences, we can come to better understand those experiences," the researchers said, ultimately helping "how we study, assess, and address sensory features that impact daily functioning among children with autism."


Kirby, A., Dickie, V., & Baranek, G. (2015). Sensory experiences of children with autism spectrum disorder: In their own words Autism, 19 (3), 316-326 DOI: 10.1177/1362361314520756

--further reading--
Autism - myth and reality (Psychologist magazine feature article)

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

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Link Feast

Our pick of this week's 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

Autistic Traits Aren’t Linked To Brain Anatomy?
Neuroskeptic (a previous Digest guest blogger) looks at a new study that failed to find correlations in healthy people between brain structure and their self-reported autistic-like traits.

Do Anger-Prone Communities Suffer More Heart Disease? A Striking Big Data Finding
David Myers reports on a new study of emotional words used by Twitter users.

The Neuroanatomy Lesson (video)
A neuroscientist goes to extreme lengths to teach us about brain anatomy.

Why It's Selfish To Avoid Giving Negative Feedback
I looked at the psychology research for on how and why we should provide our colleagues with constructive criticism.

Can a Facelift Make You More Likeable?
A study by surgeons claimed that women who'd had cosmetic facial surgery were rated more likeable and attractive. NHS Choices takes a cold look at the evidence.

Oxytocin Makes New Mouse Mothers Focus on Cries of Lost Pups
Ed Yong provides the run down on a fascinating new study that is rare for telling us something about how the hormone oxytocin exerts its effects.

The Reading Brain
How our brains learn to process the written word (from the wonderful Frontiers for Young Minds website).

Smiling Changes How You View the World
At NY Mag's Science of Us blog, I looked at research showing how smiling changes the way our brain processes other people's facial expressions.

“Power Poses” Might Not Be So Powerful After All
Arts Technica reports on a new study that failed to replicate the previous finding that power poses raise testosterone and increase risk-taking.

The Surprising Downsides of Being Clever
Bad news for our super-intelligent readers as David Robson (a Digest guest blogger) reports for BBC Future on the disconnect between high IQ and life satisfaction.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Psychology students are seduced by superfluous neuroscience

It seems as though neuroscience is particularly popular and seductive. Not only is the discipline enjoying some eye-spinningly massive new grants, there are also ever more brain-branded products (like brain games and brain drinks), there are new disciplines like neuroleadership, and there's a growing obsession about the brain among many journalists, many of whom invoke brain science in odd contexts (check out "The neuroscience of ISIS" for a recent example).

This atmosphere has led to a near-consensus among commentators that there is something distinctly persuasive about neuroscience. In fact, besides anecdotal argument, there is little solid evidence to suggest this is true (and some that it's not). A landmark paper from 2008 showed that images of the brain are particularly compelling, but this effect has failed to replicate.

Another key study, also from 2008, demonstrated the seductive allure of neuroscience – participants found circular explanations for psychological phenomena more convincing when they contained superfluous written neuroscience information. Unfortunately, this study had issues. For example, it's possible the addition of the neuroscience information simply acted to conceal the circularity of the explanations.

Enter Diego Fernandez-Duque and his colleagues. Across four studies, they asked dozens of US psychology students to rate the quality of short explanations (some were sound, others were circular) for psychological phenomena such as "face recognition" and "emotional states". The main take-away is that when superfluous neuroscience information (i.e. information that offered no further insight) was added to the end of these explanations, the students rated the explanations more highly. The students with superior analytical skills were just as prone to this effect. The students' religious and other philosophical beliefs (such as their endorsement of mind-body dualism) also made no difference.

Fernandez-Duque found the convincing influence of superfluous neuroscience information applied both to good quality and circular explanations. However, the additional presence of brain imagery did not add to the appeal of the explanations, thus confirming recent failures to replicate the allure of brain pictures.

It's not just that extra, spurious neuroscience information made psychological explanations more convincing by making them longer. The addition of superfluous social science information did not increase the students' ratings of the explanations. Neither is it simply that neuroscience is seen as a "hard science" adding weight to purely psychological explanation. When the researchers tested the addition of superfluous chemistry-based, maths, genetic or physics information (i.e. science disinclines also considered "hard" or prestigious), this did not lead the students to rate the explanations of the psychological phenomena more highly (this despite the fact that, on their own, these extra superfluous snippets were considered just as high quality as the extra neuroscience information).

The researchers say all this suggests there is something uniquely convincing about neuroscience in the context of psychological phenomena. They believe the most plausible reason is that psychology students endorse a "brain-as-engine-of-mind" hypothesis – that is, they "assign to neuroscience a privileged role in explaining psychological phenomena not just because neuroscience is a 'real' science but because it is the most pertinent science for explaining the mind." That the students who endorsed dualist beliefs (seeing the mind as separate from the brain) were just as wooed by superfluous neuroscience information somewhat undermines this interpretation.

It will be interesting to test whether these findings hold true for the general public, and for people in other cultures for whom the brain might be considered less important. If the allure of neuroscience is found more widely, it's a worrying situation. As the researchers explain: few, if any, mental phenomena have single causes. "As such, infatuation with any single source explanation – whether it is the brain or something else – may impede humans' progress to find and accept more complete explanations."


Fernandez-Duque, D., Evans, J., Christian, C., & Hodges, S. (2015). Superfluous Neuroscience Information Makes Explanations of Psychological Phenomena More Appealing Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (5), 926-944 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00750

--further reading--
People are quicker to dismiss evidence from psychology than neuroscience

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

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Marathon runners forget how painful it was

Image: Flickr/Greg
The sense of accomplishment from running a marathon is hugely uplifting. But let's not romanticise it, there's also a lot of pain involved. Despite this, many people pull on their running shoes time and again. A new study helps make sense of their behaviour – it turns out most marathon runners forget just how painful it was the last time.

Przemyslaw Bąbel recruited 62 runners (39 men) who took part in the 11th Cracovia Marathon in Cracow, Poland in 2012. Moments after they crossed the finishing line he asked them to complete a series of questionnaires about the intensity of the pain they were in, its unpleasantness, and the positive and negative emotions they were feeling. The key finding is that when he contacted them again, three or six months later, and asked them to recall how much pain they'd been in at the end of the marathon, most of them underestimated the pain they'd experienced, both in terms of its intensity and unpleasantness. For example, of those contacted six months later, they remembered the pain intensity as being around 3.2 on a 7-point scale, on average, whereas their actual average pain intensity rating after the marathon was 5.5.

Although the runners tended to underestimate their marathon pain, there was still a link between pain experienced and pain remembered – those who'd suffered more tended to remember the run as being more painful. Another key factor was negative emotion: those who reported feeling more emotions like distress and fear at the end of the marathon, tended to remember higher levels of pain and greater pain unpleasantness. This is consistent with what we know about pain experience having a powerful psychological component, influenced in part by context and a person's emotions. Other recent research has shown that, looking back, women tend to overestimate the pain they experienced after gynaecological surgery far more than after giving birth by caesarian section, presumably because the birth by caesarian, like completing a marathon, is an emotionally positive experience, whereas the gynaecological surgery is not.

How we remember pain is a relatively understudied area, yet it has important real-life applications, such as people's ability to report the effectiveness of pain relief treatments, which of course depends on recalling accurately their past pain. Bąbel said this is the first time anyone has studied the memory of pain in the context of exercise. Much remains to be investigated, such as the influence on pain memory of people's goals, expectations and emotions prior to painful exercise.


Bąbel, P. (2015). Memory of pain induced by physical exercise Memory, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1023809

--further reading--
Why you're particularly likely to run your first marathon when your age ends in a "9"
Acceptance, not distraction, is the way to deal with pain

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

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Do movie super-heroines empower women?

The super-heroines who feature in the X-Men series and other comic-book films challenge traditional gender stereotypes in the sense that they are powerful, strong and smart. You'd think watching them in action might have an empowering influence on female viewers. But there's a catch – heroine characters like Mystique, Storm and PsyLocke (pictured) are also hypersexualised. Their clothing is tight and revealing, they are typically buxom and ultra thin-waisted, and they often use their sex appeal for influence. On balance, then, what is the effect of these fictional characters? With super-hero films dominating at the box office, it's a timely question.

Researchers Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz recruited 82 female undergrads at a US university and split them into three groups. One group watched a 13 minute montage of scenes from the Spider Man film franchise that featured a hypersexualised female victim – Mary Jane (busty and in revealing clothing) – in distress and peril, before rescue by Spider Man. This was to test the short-term influence of the traditional comic book trope of vulnerable woman rescued by powerful man. Another group watched a 13-minute montage from the X-Men franchise, this time featuring super-heroines acting brave, powerful, and well, heroic, yet all the while dressed in their trademark sexy outfits and with plenty of flesh on display. A final control group didn't get to watch a movie montage.

Afterwards, the participants (who thought the study was about movie-going habits) filled out surveys about their film tastes and habits. Interspersed were all-important survey questions about their views on gender roles and equality, their body self-esteem and their self-objectification (essentially how much their physical appearance, or physical health and competence, is central to their sense of self).

Comparing the scores of the different groups, the researchers report that watching scenes of a scantily clad female victim saved by a male hero leads to increased endorsement of traditional gender roles, such as the idea that women should put their children before their careers. Little surprise there, but the results for the super-heroine montage were less expected. While the super-heroines had an adverse effect on the participants' body self-esteem, they had no effect on traditional gender beliefs and actually reduced the participants' self-objectification, leading the female students to place greater importance on their physical health and competence than looks.

Based on these findings, then, the effects of female super-heroines on young women are mixed – they make them feel bad about their bodies (presumably by representing impossible bodily ideals), but actually foster a prioritisation of physical health and ability over appearance. And unlike traditional super-hero plots, they don't encourage belief in traditional gender roles (but they don't reduce them either). Of course the findings come with caveats, as the researchers acknowledge – the study looked only at short-term effects, used montages rather than entire films and involved US undergrads, so the results might not generalise to other cultures.


Pennell, H., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women Sex Roles, 72 (5-6), 211-220 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3

--further reading--
How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?
By age three, girls already show a preference for thin people

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

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The psychology of voting, digested

The UK General Election is weeks away and the political parties are doing all they can to attract our votes. Psychology tells us that not only are the parties competing with each other, they also have to contend with the foibles of human nature. Many of us like to think that we vote according to sound reason, perhaps for the good of the country, our own family's best interests, or by selecting the most fair and competent candidate. In fact, there's evidence that our votes are frequently influenced by more superficial factors, from a candidate's looks to the weather on election day. Here we digest the psychology of psephology, running down the evidence for 10 factors that affect people's behaviour in the ballot box:

Candidate Appearance
It would be reassuring to think that the electorate choose who to vote for based on the candidates' track records and future policy promises. In truth, many of us are swayed simply by the way that politicians look. Consider a 2009 study that asked Swiss students to look at multiple pairs of unfamiliar French political candidates and in each case to select the one who looked most competent. Most of the time, the candidate selected by students as looking the most competent was also the one who'd had real life electoral success, the implication being that voters too had been swayed by the candidates' appearance (there's little evidence that appearance and competence actually correlate). Unsurprisingly, being attractive also helps win votes, especially in war time (in peace time, looking trustworthy is more of an advantage). Other research has shown that we're more likely to vote for male and female candidates with deeper voices. Meanwhile obesity is a disadvantage for female candidates, but may help male candidates. People ignorant about politics are more swayed by politicians' appearance, especially if the politician has had plenty of TV exposure.

Candidate Personality
Journalists are often criticised for focusing overly on politicians' personalities rather than the "real issues" – in the current election campaign, just look at the media commentary on opposition leader Ed Miliband. Psychology research suggests candidates' perceived traits are relevant, at least in the sense that they are related to the way we vote. A study from 2007 found that we tend to vote for politicians who we think have similar personalities to ourselves – for instance, prior to the 2004 US Presidential election, people who thought John Kerry shared their traits were more likely to vote for him in the election, whereas people who thought they were like George W Bush tended to vote in his favour. A similar effect has been found in the context of Italian and Spanish politics. Meanwhile, in a study published last year, students said they would be more willing to vote for politicians whom they considered to be more open-minded, friendly, and emotionally stable (the politicians' extraversion and conscientiousness were not related to the students' voting intentions).

The Polling Station
A growing body of evidence suggests that the places we go to vote, influence the way we vote. For example, in 2008, US researchers reported that people who voted at a polling station housed in a school were more likely to back a bill proposing more funding for education; and a 2010 study found voting in a church (rather than school or other location) boosted support for a conservative candidate. Sometimes these priming effects are less predictable: a study published last year (pdf) found that voters at a polling station in a church were more likely to support the introduction of same-sex marriages: possibly the religious symbolism reminded them that the arguments against such marriages are faith-based, which only served to increase their support for the marriages. There's even evidence that an uneven flooring could affect us: in this study from 2010, people leaning to the left (because of missing wheels on a chair) were found to be more sympathetic towards left-wing political attitudes (and vice versa if a wheel was missing on the right). A similar finding was obtained more recently using a wonky Wii balance board. A somewhat related and intriguing line of research finds that many people suspect their ballot choice is not truly secret and this influences them to vote according social pressures, such as to conform with their declared affiliations.

Rain and Sunshine
Evidence from the USA (pdf), Spain and the Netherlands suggests that for each extra inch of rain fall on voting day, turnout reduces by around one per cent. Conversely, sunny weather and higher temperatures increase turn out (but not in Sweden where poor weather made no difference to turn out). There are also some more intriguing meteorological effects on voting. For instance, based on evidence that people's attitudes towards climate change are influenced by the local weather (higher temperatures increase belief in man-made global warming), the UK's Green Party might wish for a heat wave to strike at election time. Yet local sunshine was also found to increase approval ratings for US President George W Bush when he was in office, so perhaps Prime Minister Cameron would also benefit from a sunny spell. But consider too how poor weather affects people's risk aversion. A study presented in 2013 showed that people are less likely to vote for risky candidates when the weather is poor. A key feature of this General Election is said to be the rise of minor parties and untested candidates. Perhaps the major parties should start their rain dances?

Shark Attacks, Sports Results and Storms
Following a dramatic series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916, voters punished the incumbent President Woodrow Wilson (according to an analysis published in 2012). This is just one example of how the electorate tends to blame governing parties for unwelcome events, even if those events are beyond the politicians' control. The converse is that incumbent politicians gain from positive circumstances. For instance, a 2010 US study found that the incumbent President benefited from extra votes in districts that had enjoyed football and basketball wins in the days leading up to an election. The effects of uncontrollable events are not always predictable and may depend on how politicians are seen to respond. When Hurricane Sandy struck in the days before the 2012 Presidential Election, this apparently (pdf) increased local votes for the incumbent, President Obama.

Daughters and Sisters
How we vote could depend on the gender of our children. That's according to a longitudinal analysis of British citizens published in 2010 – after having a daughter, people's political attitudes were more likely to swing to the left, and vice versa after having a son. The researchers think this happens because having a daughter increases awareness of issues facing women, such as pay discrimination, and increases sympathy for the typically greater desire among women for investment in public services. Note this is a contentious area: a Europe-wide study published last year failed to replicate this finding, while a US study found daughters increased parents' support for the (right-wing) Republican party. Of course, parents also influence their children's political persuasions: there's evidence that sons are affected by both parents, but daughters only by their mothers. The effects of parents on children's voting is both socio-cultural and genetic. We're also influenced by our siblings, especially our elder siblings. Just as the British analysis showed daughters increase parents' left-wing sympathies, a 2011 US study found that so too does having an older sister.

An analysis of the last UK General Election in 2010 found that voters punished candidates who'd been found out by the expenses scandal – but the effect was modest and less than expected. A study of local Spanish politics also found that voters punished politicians caught up in corruption scandals, but the extent depended on media coverage and whether charges were brought. Voters' responses to scandals tends to be highly partisan – that is, we're lenient when the transgressing politician is from the party we support (and vice versa). Timing is important: a study from last year found that scandals that break later in an election campaign may be less harmful because voters have acquired policy information by then. A drip, drip of new scandal information sustains its damaging effects. The grammar used in reports also makes a difference: the imperfect tense "was fiddling his expenses" is more damaging than "fiddled". Some commentators warn that political scandals distract us from real issues, but a 2010 study found that when a politician is caught up in a scandal, this actually improves our memory for their policies – this is consistent with an associative memory account, in which the salience of the scandal boosts our memory for other information related to the politician.

Voter Emotions
When we're feeling happy with life, we're more likely to vote for the ruling party, so says an analysis from 2014 which controlled for the influence people's economic circumstances. A lab study (and this one) found that when we're angry we pay less attention to details about candidates; when we're fearful, by contrast, we scrutinise information more carefully, arguably making us more informed voters (but see here for a critique). Israeli research (pdf) finds that living in fear of rocket attacks increases people's support for right wing parties (although note, there's evidence that terrorist attacks in Madrid increased support for the country's opposition left-wing party in the election that came days later). Meanwhile, research shows that people who are more prone to disgust (for example, they dislike sitting on a bus seat left warm by a stranger) are more likely to hold right-wing conservative views.

Political Adverts and Negative Campaigns
Political parties spend enormous amounts on advertising: this 2011 study on television ads found the effects on voting preferences to be strong, but short-lived. Ads with moody music and lighting are more effective. What about negative campaigns? In the current UK General Election Campaign, the incumbent Tory defence secretary recently made an attack on the character of the leader of the opposition and was widely criticised for doing so. This largely fits the findings from a 2010 lab study on negative campaigns – politicians who made negative statements about their opponents suffered a backlash, while the target of the attack was unaffected. It's worth noting though that based on voters' subconscious attitudes, the target of the attack did suffer a loss in standing (as did the politician making the attack). This meta-analysis from 2007 found that negative campaigns don't adversely affect voter turnout, but they do reduce trust in politics and lower public mood. A new study recently found that watching adverts that are congruent with our political beliefs makes us more likely to vote; watching an ad that clashes with our views has little effect.

"It's The Economy, Stupid" ...
... this apparently was Bill Clinton's campaign mantra back in the 90s. With the British economy showing signs of recovery, today's incumbent Tory party will be hoping that Bill Clinton was correct – that ultimately, if the economy is doing well, people will reward the ruling party. However, British research suggests that this is not the case: for example, non-Tory voters who were financially comfortable at the time of the 1997 General Election did not reward the incumbent Tory party at that time by switching allegiance (and ditto in 2001 when previously non-Labour supporters in a good financial position failed to switch to voting Labour). These results might be explained in part by most people's partisanship (and "motivated reasoning") – when things go well under our preferred party, we credit the party, but if things go well under a party we oppose, then we don't. That said, there is evidence that sudden increases in people's personal wealth does influence their voting tendencies – winning the lottery makes it more likely that people will vote Republican, says this US study (and this one), and more likely that they'll support this incumbent party, says this Spanish research. This UK paper (pdf) found that as housing prices increase (to the benefit of home owners, in terms of the wealth they have invested in their property), so too do intentions to vote for the Tory party.

--further reading--
If you enjoyed this post, you'll love The Psychology Violent Extremism, Digested, and our other extended features.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Psychologists can influence people's moral choices by tracking their gaze

Where we look betrays what we're thinking. For instance, given a choice between two snacks, people spend longer looking at the alternative that they ultimately choose. A new study digs deeper into this process and asks: is gaze direction also related to moral choices, and does it actually influence those choices?

Twenty students donned an eye tracker and made a series of moral judgments. On each trial, the students heard a statement over headphones (e.g. "murder is sometimes justifiable") and then two options appeared on either side of a computer screen (e.g. "sometimes justifiable" on the left side, "never justifiable" on the right) – the students' task was simply to indicate by button press which of these options they believed. They were told they would be prompted to make this decision after a random amount of time had passed.

Daniel Richardson and his colleagues found that if they prompted the students to make their decision after they had looked at one of the options for at least 750ms (and the other for at least 250ms), then it was more likely than not the students would choose the option they'd spent more time looking at (59.6 per cent of the time they chose this option). This replicates previous research showing we tend to look more at our favoured option, even when making weighty moral choices. Yet, asked afterwards, the students were unaware there had been any link between the timing of the decision prompt and their eye gaze.

In a second experiment, the researchers wanted to see if gaze can actually influence people's moral choices. The researchers selected on each trial which option they wanted the students to choose and tried to influence them to make this choice. To do this, they waited until each student had spent at least 750ms looking at the target option (and at least 250ms looking at the non-target) and only then prompted them to make their decision. Following this procedure, the students more often than not chose the option that the researchers wanted them to choose (58.2 per cent of the time the manipulation worked). Further analysis showed that participants were more likely to make a choice if they'd looked at it more, and if it was the option they were looking at when they made their decision.

"This means," the researchers said, "that knowing when participants are looking at alternatives gives sufficient information to change the course of their decisions."

When students chose the target options, they tended to be quicker in indicating their choice, and more confident in their decision. This reinforces the idea that eye gaze is somehow connected to, and reflective of, unfolding decision-making processes, such that it's easier to make a decision when looking at the option that you plump for. By tapping into this process and manipulating the timing of a person's decisions, these new findings suggest it's possible to influence people's judgments, even for weighty moral choices.

"Although moral decisions can be debated at leisure after the fact, they are also made in the moment," the researchers said. "We find that the precise timing of those moments can be a powerful influence on the choices we make."


Pärnamets, P., Johansson, P., Hall, L., Balkenius, C., Spivey, M., & Richardson, D. (2015). Biasing moral decisions by exploiting the dynamics of eye gaze Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1415250112

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