Tuesday, 27 January 2015

No one noticed when this man's speech was fed to him by a 12-year-old. Welcome to the Cyranoid Illusion

Imagine if the words that came out of your mouth were spoken by another person. Would anyone notice? This idea was explored by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his studies into obedience, but he never published his results.

Milgram called the hybrid of one person's body and another person's mind, a Cyranoid, after the play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the handsome Christian woos a woman using the graceful words provided by plain-looking Cyrano. Now the concept has been resurrected by a pair of British researchers, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, who say the approach has huge potential as a paradigm in social psychology.

The first study was a proof of concept. Forty participants (average age 30; 22 women) spent 10 minutes in conversation with a 26-year-old man, getting to know him. They thought this man was another participant, but in fact he was working for the researchers. For half the participants, the man spoke freely as himself. For the other half, he was a Cyranoid and spoke the words of a 23-year-old woman hidden in an adjacent room. In this condition, the woman could see and hear the man's interactions, and she fed him what to say live, via the wireless earpiece he was wearing.

Afterwards, the participants were asked whether they thought the man had spoken his own thoughts, or whether his answers were scripted. Only a tiny minority of participants in both groups thought this might be true. None of them thought he'd had his words fed to him by radio. The participants in the Cyranoid condition were astonished and amused when told the truth of the situation.

A second study went further. This time, panels of between three and five participants interrogated either a 37-year-old man or a 12-year-old boy about who they are and what they know about science, literature, history and current affairs. For half the participants, the man and boy simply answered as themselves. For the other participants, the boy or man was Cryanoid. If the Cryanoid boy was present before the panel, his answers were fed to him by the man; if the Cryanoid man was present, the words he spoke came from the boy.

Amazingly, the participants in the Cryanoid conditions were no more likely to say afterwards that they thought their interviewee had given scripted responses, spoken words relayed by radio, or wasn't speaking his own thoughts. No participants raised any spontaneous suspicions about the interviewees' autonomy during the interviews. And afterwards, when prompted directly, only one person out of 17 in each condition (two Cyranoid conditions and two normal) believed their interviewee's answers had been fed to them.

The Cryanoid set-up is especially intriguing to social psychologists because it allows the influence of a person's appearance to be weighed against the influence of their words, as spoken by another person. In this study, the participants rated the personality and intelligence of the man and boy equally positively when they spoke as themselves. Yet when the man spoke the words of the boy, he was given more negative ratings. This is in spite of the fact the participants failed to adjust the difficulty of their questions in this condition, presumably so as not to patronise the man publicly.

You can begin to see how the Cyranoid paradigm can illuminate issues to do with social stereotypes triggered by appearances and words, and the differences in people's responses in terms of their private thoughts and public actions. Another angle is the issue of how a person's speech is changed by the fact they are speaking through another body. In this case, the man and boy were trained to speak as themselves, yet the man shortened his sentences when speaking through the boy. The boy did not increase the length of his utterances when speaking as the man, perhaps because of the difficulty of doing so.

There could also be practical applications for this technique - for instance, imagine helping people with social anxiety. They could occupy an intimidating situation bodily, but have their words dictated by someone else; or conversely, they could practice providing the speech in such a situation while having the relative comfort of speaking their words through someone else's body.

"Though Milgram did not live to see his Cyranoid method come to fruition, the current research provides ample basis for the continued exploration of this intriguing methodological paradigm," the researchers said. "Indeed, the Cyranoid method may yet prove to be a long overdue addition to the social psychologist's toolkit."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Corti, K., & Gillespie, A. (2014). Revisiting Milgram’s Cyranoid Method: Experimenting With Hybrid Human Agents The Journal of Social Psychology, 155 (1), 30-56 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.959885

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

Monday, 26 January 2015

We're more likely to cheat when we're anxious

When we’re stressed out and feeling threatened, our priority becomes self-preservation. According to new research, this defensive mode even affects our morality, making us more likely to cheat and excuse our own unethical behaviour.

Maryam Kouchaki and Sreedhari Desai demonstrated this through six experiments. In the clearest example, 63 student participants spent three minutes listening to either calm music, or in the anxiety condition, to Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score. Those freaked out by Hermann's definitive ode to unease declared they were more anxious at the end of the study, and they had threat on their mind (this was confirmed through a word matching task - the Psycho group more often selected words with connotations of threat).

Anxious? Check. Threatened? Check. Unethical? Kouchaki and Desai went hunting for cheaters. Their participants next completed a simple computer task for money, for which there was an obvious way to cheat. The non-anxious students made an average of 19 "clear cheats", whereas the anxious ramped this up to 24. The more threatened the anxious felt, the more they cheated.

The researchers think this probably happened because threat provokes us to grab resources, status ... anything to buffer the self. An alternative explanation is that anxiety somehow frazzles our apparatus for moral judgment in general. The researchers showed this wasn’t the case in a further experiment where an unethical act - secretly copying a password that gave access to the questions for the next day's fictional job interview - was either posed as something that the participant had done, or a third party named Steve. Participants who had been put into an anxious state judged Steve's infraction just as severely as their non-anxious counterparts, yet they were more likely to let themselves off the hook.

When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system floods us with noradrenaline, activating our fight-or-flight pathways. How can I look after me, now? With this imperative looming large, it's unsurprising that we no longer have bandwidth available for our higher principles. It tallies with evidence that, when threatened, people are more likely to consume scarce communal resources, without regard to fair distribution or the long-term. The new findings may not extend to more severe violations such as willingness to harm others, but they do suggest we’re quick to forget lofty notions such as "fair play' when we feel under threat.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kouchaki, M., & Desai, S. (2014). Anxious, Threatened, and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0037796

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

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Link Feast

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

Why are men more likely than women to take their own lives?
In the Guardian, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman argue that suicide prevention programmes need to take sex differences into account.

Introducing The Psychologist Magazine's First Ever Poetry Competition
"There is no guidance other than to consider our publication and audience; come on what you know, pure discovery," says Editor Jon Sutton.

Brain-branded Energy Drinks Might Make You Less Smart
Over at Brain Watch, I took at look at the claims made by a supposedly cognition-enhancing energy drink.

How to Curb Hunger Pangs with Your Mind
Pay attention to your eating, says David Robson at BBC Future, and you may find it easier not to over-indulge.

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve the Mystery of Consciousness?
Oliver Burkeman investigates for the Guardian.

In Our Time: Phenomenology
On BBC Radio 4, Melvyn Brag and his guests discuss phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that has given its proponents the chance to "talk about everything from the foundations of geometry to the difference between fear and anxiety." (Listen again on iPlayer)

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others
The smartest teams are distinguished by three key characteristics, says this column written by psychologists for the NYT.

Psychology of Emotions and Emotional Disorders
90 free journal articles from Psychology Press (access is open until Jan 31).

Pretty in Pink
"My two-year-old daughter already knows that pink is for girls. And she loves it," writes Elisabeth Camp for Aeon. "Why does that make me see red?"

How To Get Stuff Done When You Really, Really Don’t Want To
Advice from 99U.com for when you've got the time, but not the motivation.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Why the risk of losing is more fun than an easy win

I've started playing in a higher division in my local table-tennis league. I'm winning games less, but enjoying the experience more. I'm far from alone in preferring the danger of possible defeat to the comfort of easy wins. Psychologically this is curious because, at whatever level, virtually everyone who plays competitive games finds winning more pleasurable than losing, and most people like to feel good at what they do. In a new study, Sami Abuhamdeh and his colleagues have shone a light on this understudied paradox of motivational psychology.

The researchers invited 72 undergrads to play a sword-based video game on the Wii console (Speed Slice). The students thought they were playing against the console with the difficulty level occasionally changing in random fashion, but in fact one of the researchers, hidden nearby, was their real opponent. He had obviously spent many hours practising (what a great excuse to play video games at work) and was able to carefully control the closeness of the contests. Occasionally, the games were interrupted and the students answered questions about the experience.

The students enjoyed the game more when they felt they were playing well, but also when they felt a sense of suspense. These factors were relatively independent - students felt most competent when they were well ahead of their opponent, whereas they experienced the most suspense when scores were close. These influences obviously combine in some way, as the students reported the highest enjoyment levels when they were just slightly ahead of their opponent on points.

A second study with a different group of students was similar but this time there were two different games, Speed Slice and Duel, each played twice. The games were manipulated so that one ended in two easy wins, and the other in two close wins. At the end of the study, the students were told there was time for one more game - 69 per cent of them chose the game that they'd only managed to win by a narrow margin. The minority of other students who chose to play the game they'd previously won easily, had tended to say throughout the study that they had greater concerns about performing well. This makes intuitive sense - the thrill of possible defeat is bound to be less appealing when your need to excel is a priority.

On one level, the findings from this research seem very obvious - easy wins are boring whether you're a spectator or a player. Yet the role of suspense in the pleasure of competition has been little studied, and it's neglected by one of the most influential psychological theories that's used to explain intrinsic motivation - "Cognitive Evaluation Theory" - which states that intrinsic motivation is fuelled by our need for competence and autonomy. In fact, as this research documents, "the motive for competence may be trumped by the enjoyment of suspense in some situations."

Abuhamdeh and his colleagues think that the excitement of uncertainty is just as enthralling and important when we participate in competition, as it is when we watch a TV drama or read a thriller. It could also help explain why the psychological experience of "flow" (famously documented by study co-author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) - when we become fully and pleasurably immersed in an activity - is most often attained during tasks that are at the limits of our ability. As the researchers conclude, it will be interesting to explore these ideas with a wider range of activities and contexts.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Abuhamdeh, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Jalal, B. (2014). Enjoying the possibility of defeat: Outcome uncertainty, suspense, and intrinsic motivation Motivation and Emotion, 39 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9425-2

--further reading--
How losing can increase your chances of winning
No need to look at the score - athletes' body language gives away who's winning and losing

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

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Testing the American Dream - can the right mix of personality and IQ compensate for poverty?

We know that possessing certain personal traits can help people do better in life – by knuckling down, making the right connections or having the best ideas. A new study goes further and asks whether a person’s traits and their background interact, with personal qualities being more important for people of lower socio-economic status. If true, this would provide intellectual support for the “American Dream” – being smart or diligent might make some difference for the rich, but for the poor, it would make all the difference.

Rodica Ioana Damian and her colleagues analysed a gargantuan US survey initiated in 1960 and involving data on 81,000 students - their high school personality and cognitive ability scores, parents' socio-economic status, and various life outcomes eleven years on. Where personality aided life outcomes, was it more useful to children from poorer families?

At first blush, the data suggested it did. For example, highly agreeable (compared to highly disagreeable) students from very wealthy families stick with education for a further four months, on average, compared to an extra twelve months if they are from the poorest families. Similarly, all extraverts go on to more prestigious jobs, but the advantage to the poorest pushes them an average additional nine points up the job prestige scale (to make this concrete, nine points takes you from a mail handling role to a retail sales position).

But all these effects were found without taking into account an elephant in the room: intelligence. When this was controlled for, almost all of these personality compensation effects melt away - the exception is that conscientiousness is still more useful to those from poorer backgrounds when it comes to gaining a higher income. So it seems personality does influence life outcomes, but mostly it doesn't especially benefit the poor once the influence of intelligence is taken into account. It’s also worth noting that the benefit of affluent socio-economic status dwarfs the benefit of being highly conscientious or extraverted, so a poor kid with "the right stuff" is unlikely to outperform rich kids with less impressive personal qualities.

What about that elephant? In this dataset, as with many past studies, intelligence has big benefits for life outcomes. And its impact differed due to socioeconomic class ... but not in favour of the poor. A very poor child who is also very smart is likely to stay nearly 30 months longer in education than his or her low IQ peers. But for a rich child, they'll stay 40 months longer. Wealthier families also see their intelligent kids entering more easily into prestigious jobs than their poor high-IQ peers.

This kind of finding is called, after the gospel author, a Matthew Effect: “the rich get richer”. One way to interpret this is that leveraging a child's brightness in fields of higher education or societal prestige requires other assets out of reach of poor families, such as a college fund or knowing the right connections.

This isn't new data - over 40 years old - so circumstances may have changed that remodel the interaction between personal qualities and background. But its comprehensive approach strongly suggests that in 20th Century America, people on the bottom rungs of society could only compensate for their lot on the basis of intelligence - and even there, their richer counterparts are often going to find that easier. Diligence, effort, and can-do may be prized components of the American ethos, but when they come up against class, they just can't compensate.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Damian, R., Su, R., Shanahan, M., Trautwein, U., & Roberts, B. (2014). Can Personality Traits and Intelligence Compensate for Background Disadvantage? Predicting Status Attainment in Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000024

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

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

What do confident people say to themselves before giving a speech?

Before you speak to an audience, can you first talk yourself out of feeling nervous? One step towards this strategy is to find out how confident people speak to themselves in their heads (their internal "self-talk"), compared with others who are more anxious.

Xiaowei Shi and his colleagues surveyed nearly 200 students on a public speaking course. The researchers approached the students after they'd given two public presentations on the course and were soon to give their third. The students answered questions about how much they'd engaged in self-talk in the preceding days, and about how much anxiety they feel towards public speaking.

The women tended to be more nervous than the men. Once this gender influence had been accounted for, the students' frequency of various types of self-talk over the last few days explained 20 per cent of the difference in their anxiety levels. Specifically, the more confident students tended to say they'd engaged in less self-critical self-talk (e.g. chastising themselves about their poor preparations) and less self-talk related to social assessment (e.g. replaying ways people had reacted in the past), whereas they had engaged in more self-talk related to self-reinforcement (e.g. talking to themselves about how pleased they were with their own preparations).

In other words, the students who were more self-confident tended to be less self-focused and less self-critical in the way they spoke to themselves, and when they were self-focused, this tended to be with a positive bias.

This study assumes people are able to remember and recognise their own past self-talk, which some readers may question. Of course, it's also just as likely that anxiety triggers particular categories of self-talk, as it is that the wrong kind of self-talk fuels anxiety. Nonetheless, the researchers said their insights could help inform interventions aimed at helping people overcome fear of public speaking.

"As we know that high public-speaking-anxiety individuals engage in higher levels of self-critical and social-assessing self-talk than low anxiety individuals," Shi's team concluded, "instructors can intervene in the early phases of the speech preparation process by helping these students to attend to, recognise, and adjust the frequency and nature of their self-talk."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Shi, X., Brinthaupt, T., & McCree, M. (2015). The relationship of self-talk frequency to communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 125-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.11.023

--further reading--
Self-motivation: How "You can do it!" beats "I can do it!"
What are elite cricket batsmen saying when they talk to themselves?
The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads

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

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

When our beliefs are threatened by facts, we turn to unfalsifiable justifications

On being told physics could undermine
religious claims, believers said faith
was more about living a moral life
It's great to have facts on your side. The fundamentalist is delighted by the archaeological find that tallies with scripture, just as the atheist seizes on the evidence that contradicts it. But when the evidence goes against us, we're less likely to change a belief than to criticise the validity or provenance of the evidence. Now, research suggests that the mere prospect of a factual threat leads us to downplay how much our belief depends on such evidence at all. We become attracted to other, less falsifiable reasons for believing.

Justin Friesen and his colleagues conducted a series of studies each with a hundred or more participants. The first presented participants with a summary statement from a conference on science and God. When it suggested that science could one day settle the question of God's existence, religious participants wavered in their religious conviction, rating it significantly lower than those told that science was not armed to answer such questions. The very possibility that the religious belief was falsifiable made it vulnerable.

A subsequent study presented the discovery of the Higgs Boson as either a threat to or unlikely to affect matters of religion. Asked what reasons underpinned their belief, religious participants gave more importance to unfalsifiable statements such as "living a moral life would be impossible without God" when told the particle was a threat, and relatively less to evidence-linked statements such as  "historical and archaeological evidence shows how God intervened in the world."

This effect wasn't restricted to religious belief. In another study, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage were shown data on life outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples; by presenting these outcomes as either positive or troubled, participants were exposed to data that either supported or undermined their position. When the facts were on their side, they rated the issues of same-sex marriage and child-rearing as a matter for evidence to decide; when the facts were against them, they saw it as more a matter of opinion.

The authors speculate that this tendency to revert to unfalsifiable justifications may mean that many beliefs, over time, shear off their evidential component and become increasingly unchallengeable. But they also note that unfalsifiability may have important psychological value, for instance in making inviolable beliefs such as "love is real" or "genocide is wrong", whose compromise could otherwise be deeply distressing and disorientating.  Cherish or bemoan it, our belief systems are laced with unfalsifiable aspects that won't be budged by evidence alone.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Friesen, J., Campbell, T., & Kay, A. (2014). The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000018

--further reading--
Five minutes with the discoverer of the "Scientific Impotence Excuse"
The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors
Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren't really there
Can psychology help combat pseudoscience?

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