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.
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  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.
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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Psychology of First Impressions, Digested.

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

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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

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

Monday, 25 August 2014

Your angry face makes you look stronger

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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

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

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Link feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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