Tuesday, 2 September 2014

On being labelled "schizophrenic", in the words of the diagnosed

The label "schizophrenic" is loaded with connotations. For many, its utterance provokes thoughts of madness, of violence and oddity. No wonder that clinical psychologist Lorna Howe and her colleagues found the people they interviewed - all diagnosed with the illness - had strived to avoid the label.

In all, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews lasting up to 90 minutes with seven participants diagnosed with schizophrenia. There were three men, four women (average age 44), and they'd been diagnosed between 6 and 17 years previously. They were currently under the care of an NHS community mental health team in England.

Howe's team transcribed the interviews and looked for interconnecting themes in the participants' testimonies - a process known as interpretative phenomenological analysis. The overall picture was of a dilemma, in which the participants needed the diagnosis to access treatment, but had feared and avoided it because of its stigma. "I was too scared to tell the doctors what my real symptoms were so they could treat me," said Carol.

Once they'd received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the participants described how they attempted to hide it from other people. They mentioned the media's role in propagating the violence-schizophrenia link, and the way that mental health professionals used alternative terms, such as psychosis, as if they were conscious of the stigma associated with the s-word. "People are always afraid of saying that word to me," said Carol. "... because it is a dirty word."

The participants also spoke of the lack of understanding about schizophrenia, and the chasm between the perspectives of their clinicians who tended to see it as a biological illness (a "chemical imbalance") and the perspectives of other people in their lives. "My mother ... all she said was 'I told you, it's because you're psychic ...," said Janet. The biological emphasis from professionals was seen as limiting hope for recovery, and the researchers said this encouraged "individuals to become passive recipients of care."

Another theme was managing stigma. Janet said she avoids telling people about her diagnosis - "nobody likes rejection, so I just don't put myself in that position". Most of the participants saw themselves as "normal" despite their diagnosis. "... to have people treat me like that, you want to say, 'Look, I'm not that bad'," said Ben.

The final theme from the interviews was "accepting diagnosis" - the participants described how the label had given them access to treatment and an understanding of their problems. "It was like a relief in a way that at least they knew now what I already knew, that I'd got this schizophrenia," said David. There was one exception - Janet said she accepts that she has mental health problems, but she rejects the idea that she has schizophrenia.

Howe and her colleagues pointed to some useful lessons from their interviews. Untreated schizophrenia is associated with poorer outcomes, so the results suggest more needs to be done to overcome delays in treatment caused by ill people's fearful avoidance of a diagnosis. Clinicians' evasion of the term schizophrenia, and their focus on biological models, may spread confusion and undermine hope. "Professionals may need to take the lead and break their 'conspiracy of silence' surrounding schizophrenia to allow the public and those with a diagnosis to follow," said Howe and her colleagues.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Howe, L., Tickle, A., & Brown, I. (2014). 'Schizophrenia is a dirty word': service users' experiences of receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Psychiatric Bulletin, 38 (4), 154-158 DOI: 10.1192/pb.bp.113.045179 [open access]

The August issue of Psychiatric Bulletin is a themed issue on stigma in mental health

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

Monday, 1 September 2014

Students with more autistic traits make fewer altruistic choices

Most people with autism have difficulties socialising and connecting with others. It's generally agreed that part of this has to do with an impairment in taking other people's perspective. More specifically, an emerging consensus suggests that autism is associated with having normal feelings for other people, but an impaired understanding of them. Little explored before now is how this affects the behaviour of people with autism towards others who need help.

Leila Jameel and her colleagues surveyed 573 students using the 50-item Autism-Spectrum Quotient, which is a questionnaire designed to tap key traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Then they asked 27 of the top 10 per cent of scorers and 24 of the bottom 10 per cent to complete a new test of pro-social behaviour known as the Above and Beyond Task.

The participants read scenarios that conflicted another person's needs with their own. They first stated how they'd act in this scenario, and then they chose from three fixed alternatives, ranging from selfish, to medium pro-social, to high pro-social (or "above and beyond"). For example, one scenario involved seeing a man fall in the street while the participant was rushing to work for a meeting. After giving their own response as to how they'd react, the three fixed options were: carry on walking; help him up and carry on walking; help him up and offer to take him to sit down on a nearby bench.

High scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient more often chose the selfish, low pro-social options and less often chose the high pro-social options, as compared with low scorers on the questionnaire. The high scorers also gave more selfish open-ended answers when first asked how they'd respond to each scenario.

Another measure was how satisfied the participants thought they would be with their chosen course of action, and how satisfied the needy person in the scenario would be. The high and low scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient did not differ in their ratings of the needy person's satisfaction with the different response options. However, the high scorers tended to say they personally would be more satisfied after making more selfish choices, and less satisfied after more altruistic choices.

This is a sensitive topic. If misinterpreted or over-simplified the findings risk bolstering the stigmatisation of people with autism. It's important to realise that the study did not involve people diagnosed with autism, but rather a "sub-clinical population" (in the researchers' words) who scored highly on a self-report measure of autistic traits. Moreover, the study did not involve real-world helping behaviour. It was based on hypothetical scenarios, which raises problems of interpretation. For example, perhaps people with more autistic traits are simply more honest about how they'd behave. Perhaps they find it difficult to, or choose not to, treat the fictional character as they would a real person.

With these caveats in mind, these results hint tentatively at how autistic traits could affect people's helping behaviour in the real world. The researchers also said their new Above and Beyond task could be used to measure the outcomes of training programmes designed to help people with autism. "Despite considerable attention to social skills training in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder," write Jameel et al, "relatively little is known about the efficacy of such programmes or the key ingredients for success."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Jameel L, Vyas K, Bellesi G, Roberts V, & Channon S (2014). Going 'Above and Beyond': Are Those High in Autistic Traits Less Pro-social? Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44 (8), 1846-58 PMID: 24522968

Coming soon - the October issue of The Psychologist magazine is a special issue devoted to autism.

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

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Link feast

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

Uta and Chris Frith: A Partnership of the Mind
Mo Costandi profiles the cognitive neuroscience pioneers.

Using Pseudoscience to Shine Light on Good Science
A video of Scott Lilienfeld's APS-David Myers lecture at this year's meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

Against Empathy
Paul Bloom starts a debate at the Boston Review. "I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens," he says.

The Waiting
Philosopher-medic Ray Tallis reflects on the psychology of waiting in this programme from BBC Radio 4.

A Neuroscientist’s Study of How Technology is Affecting Our Brains and Everyday Lives
Cordelia Fine reviews a new book on "Mind Change" by Susan Greenfield.

If Cops Understood Crowd Psychology, They'd Tone Down The Riot Gear
Eric Jaffe argues the police in Ferguson might do well to consider the social psychology of crowd behaviour.

I Talked to Strangers for a Week, and It Did Not Go Well
We recently reported on a study that found people were happier when they talked to strangers. Here's what happened when Melissa Dahl at New York magazine put the findings into practice.

Everything We Know is Wrong
BBC Radio 4 programme in which Jolyon Jenkins investigates the failure of many scientific findings to replicate.

Brand New Brain Myths to Keep Neurobloggers in Work
Dean Burnett spreads some amusing new neurononsense.

How Movies Manipulate Your Brain to Keep You Entertained
Psychologists and movie makers learn from each other about how the brain perceives the world.

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

Friday, 29 August 2014

The psychology of wearable computing - does Google Glass affect where people look?

Computing eyewear such as Google Glass can record information far more discreetly than a handheld camera. As a result, privacy concerns have been raised, whether in a bar or changing for the gym. Are users of this tech likely to use their new toys responsibly? Early research was promising, suggesting that the very act of recording our gaze may lead us to be extra considerate in where we look. Unfortunately a new study finds that while wearing gaze-monitoring devices may initially encourage more socially-acceptable looking behaviours, the effect doesn't last.

In this experiment, 82 participants (aged 18 to 51; 59 women) were secretly monitored as they waited alone after finishing the six-minute computer task they believed to be the purpose of the study. The researchers led by Eleni Nasiopoulos were interested in how much time during the wait the participants spent glancing at the racy pin-up calendar hanging on the wall.

A control set of participants who were not wearing special eye-tracking glasses spent around 80 per cent of the available minute ogling the calendar. Another group were earlier fitted with eye-tracking glasses and knew that their gaze was being tracked by the device. In line with past research, this group used their gaze in a more socially acceptable manner, glancing at the calendar less than half the time. So far, so good.

But the experiment had another preliminary task at the very beginning, in which participants spent five minutes walking the building searching for coloured squares stuck on walls. Some of the participants in the later eye-tracking condition were actually set up with eye-trackers before this initial task, so they’d been wearing the glasses for a longer amount of time than the others. Focusing on just these participants, the researchers found their eyes lingered on the calendar for as much time as those in the no-device control group. The longer passage of time and different context appeared to eliminate the social acceptability effect of gaze-monitoring equipment.

Interestingly, participants who had eye-trackers fitted at the start, but were subjected to a brief equipment recalibration once they had entered the calendar room, did show an effect of the glasses: their calendar perusal was back down to about 45 per cent. This suggests that rather than users habituating to the eye-trackers - meaning that the experience matters less and less until it becomes passé - it's more about people forgetting that they are in use.

Eye-tracking researchers have argued that users of wearable computing are actually taking along a chaperone, and although it can be a discreet one (putting aside the spectre of hacking hanging over all digital data), the appeal of resharing recorded experiences to social media renders every use as potentially public. This feeling of our gaze being recorded should make us self-conscious and influence our looking behaviour - just as we engage in more approval-seeking behaviours when filmed by a security camera, despite not knowing if the film will ever be watched, or by whom. But wearable computing isn't “Out There” - like cameras or the human beings who have evaluated our social behaviour since childhood - it's “On Us”, and this phenomenon may be too unfamiliar to trigger a sense of being observed.

Of course, this is good news for researchers keen to use eye-trackers to evaluate realistic behaviours, who now also learn the benefit of an acclimatisation period in their set-ups. Meanwhile, if we want to deter Google Glass users from recording things they shouldn’t, another lesson from this research is that socially-conscious app designers could insert reminders into recording software to keep users aware that their gaze has a witness.

  ResearchBlogging.orgNasiopoulos, E., Risko, E., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2014). Wearable computing: Will it make people prosocial? British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12080

--further reading--
CCTV cameras don't reassure, they frighten

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

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Managers, conservatives, Europeans and the non-religious show higher levels of psychopathic traits

Christian Bale played the archetypal
psychopath in American Psycho (2000).
Mention psychopathic personality traits and the mind turns to criminals. The archetype is a callous killer who entraps his victims with a smile and easy charm. However, recent years have seen an increasing recognition that psychopathic traits are on a continuous spectrum in all of us (akin to other personality factors like extraversion), that they don't always manifest in criminality, and that in certain contexts, they may even confer advantages.

This perspective is captured in the title of psychologist Kevin Dutton's recent book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and in the article published earlier this year in The Psychologist magazine: "On the trail of the elusive successful psychopath".

A useful consequence of this increased popular interest in the positive side of psychopathy is that it's given researchers the chance to conduct large-scale public surveys. This summer, Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues have published the results of an online survey they ran in collaboration with Scientific American Mind magazine in 2012 (the invitation to participate appeared alongside extracts from Dutton's book).

Over three thousand people (51 per cent were female; the sample was skewed towards the highly educated) completed a 56-item measure of psychopathic traits known as The Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised Short Form, together with brief questions about religion, occupation and political orientation.

The study uncovered several modest correlations. People in managerial positions scored higher on the inventory overall than non-managers, and particularly on the Fearless Dominance factor (measured with items like "When my life becomes boring I like to take some chances to make things interesting").

People in high-risk occupations, such as military or dangerous sports, also scored higher on the inventory overall than those in low-risk occupations, and on all three sub-scales: Fearless Dominance, Coldheartedness (e.g. "Seeing an animal injured or in pain doesn't bother me in the slightest") and Self-Centred Impulsivity (e.g. "I would enjoy hitch-hiking my way across the United States with no prearranged plans").

Turning to religion, politics and geography, the survey revealed that non-religious people scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness; that self-identified political conservatives scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on all three sub-scales; and that Western Europeans scored higher on the inventory overall than US citizens, on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness.

The nature of the research means these results must be interpreted with great caution, as the authors explained - this includes the fact the scores were self-report and therefore may be distorted by attempts at impression management; and that the results are purely cross-sectional, so perhaps working as a manager increases people's psychopathic personality traits, rather than people with such traits being attracted to management. It's also a shame that the requirement to keep the survey short meant that other measures of personality were not recorded. This means we can't know whether the results are specific to psychopathic traits, or whether they might be more parsimoniously explained in terms of, say, (lack of) agreeableness - one of the Big Five personality traits.

Nonetheless, this study represents one of the first attempts to measure psychopathic traits in the general population and it raises many interesting questions for future investigation. The authors said their findings are "consistent with the hypothesis [that] at least some psychopathic traits ... are linked to adaptive attributes in everyday life, including leadership positions, management positions, and high-risk occupations."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lilienfeld, S., Latzman, R., Watts, A., Smith, S., & Dutton, K. (2014). Correlates of psychopathic personality traits in everyday life: results from a large community survey Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00740

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

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.

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.