Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Forgive yourself for relaxing in front of the TV and the couch time might actually do you some good

There's a snobbishness about relaxation time. Tell someone your hobby is watching TV and chances are they'll look at you with derision. Mention meditation, reading or yoga and you're far more likely to attract nods of approval.

And yet there is substantial evidence that time watching TV or playing video games can have a powerful restorative effect - just what many of us need after a hard day. This benefit isn't found for everyone, and in new paper Leonard Reinecke and his collaborators propose that a key reason has to do with guilt.

The researchers think that it is people who are mentally exhausted, who are most likely to experience guilt after vegging out with a box set or video game. This is because, in their depleted state, these people see their behaviour as procrastination. This leads to the paradoxical situation in which it is the people who could most benefit from the restorative effects of lounge-based downtime who are the least likely to do so.

To test their ideas, Reinecke's team surveyed nearly 500 people in Germany and Switzerland. Participants were recruited via a gaming website and through psychology and communication classes.  Specifically, the participants answered questions about the previous day, including how much work or study they'd done (answers ranged from half an hour to 16 hours), how depleted they felt after work or college, how much TV they'd watched or video-gaming they'd played (this averaged around two hours), whether they viewed it as procrastination, whether they felt guilty, and how recharged they felt afterwards.

The key finding is that the more depleted people felt after work (agreeing with statements like "I felt like my willpower was gone"), the more they tended to view their TV or gaming as procrastination, the more guilt they felt, and the less likely they were to say they felt restored afterwards. The same findings applied for TV or video games.

"Rather than diminishing the beneficial potential of entertaining media," the researchers said, "we believe that the results of this study may ultimately help to optimise the well-being outcomes of entertaining media use by extending our knowledge of the mechanisms furthering and hindering media-induced recovery and general well-being." If the researchers are correct, then if you cut yourself some slack when you watch TV after a hard day, you're more likely feel rejuvenated afterwards.

Unfortunately, as the researchers admit in their paper, their methodological approach has several limitations. Above all, this wasn't an experimental study (with people allocated randomly to different interventions). This means the data can be interpreted in many different ways. One alternative reading of the results is that when TV or gaming fails to have a restorative effect, this leads people to view the time as wasteful procrastination, thus causing them to feel guilty.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Reinecke, L., Hartmann, T., & Eden, A. (2014). The Guilty Couch Potato: The Role of Ego Depletion in Reducing Recovery Through Media Use Journal of Communication, 64 (4), 569-589 DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12107

--further reading--
Do television and video games impact on the wellbeing of younger children?
A psychological problem with snacking in front of the telly.

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

Pupils benefit from praise, but should teachers give it to them publicly or privately?

There's a best practice guide for teachers, produced by the Association of School Psychologists in the US, that states praise is best given to pupils in private. This advice is not based on experimental research - there hasn't been any - but on surveys of student preferences, and on the rationale that pupils could be embarrassed by receiving praise in public.

Now, in the first study of its kind, John Blaze and his colleagues have systematically compared the effect of public and private praise (also known as "loud" and "quiet" praise) on classroom behaviour. They found that praise had a dramatic beneficial effect on pupils' behaviour, and it didn't matter whether the praise was private or public.

The research was conducted at four high-school public classrooms in rural south-eastern United States (the equivalent to state schools in the UK). The classes were mixed-sex, with a mixture of mostly Caucasian and African American pupils, with between 16 and 25 pupils in each class. The children were aged 14 to 16. Three of the teachers were teaching English, the other taught Transition to Algebra.

The teachers were given training in appropriate praise: it must be contingent on good behaviour; make clear to the pupil why they are being praised; immediate; and effort-based. During the test sessions of teaching, the teachers carried a buzzer on their belt that prompted them, once every two minutes, to deliver praise to one of their pupils, either loudly so the whole class could hear (in the loud condition) or discreetly, by a whisper in the ear or pat on the shoulder, so that hopefully only the child knew they were being praised (in the quiet condition). For comparison, there were also baseline teaching sessions in which the teachers simply carried out their teaching in their usual style.

Trained observers stationed for 20-minute sessions in the classrooms monitored the teachers' praise-giving and the behaviour of the pupils across the different conditions. They found that frequent praise increased pupils' on-task behaviours, such as reading or listening to the teacher, by 31 per cent compared with baseline, and this improvement didn't vary according to whether the praise was private or public. Frequent praise of either manner also reduced naughty behaviours by nearly 20 per cent.

Blaze and his team said that the debate over praise will likely continue, but they stated their results are clear: "both loud and quiet forms of praise are effective tools that can have dramatic effects at the secondary level." A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't monitor the teachers' use of reprimands, which likely reduced as they spent more time delivering praise.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Blaze JT, Olmi DJ, Mercer SH, Dufrene BA, & Tingstom DH (2014). Loud versus quiet praise: A direct behavioral comparison in secondary classrooms. Journal of school psychology, 52 (4), 349-60 PMID: 25107408

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

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Link feast

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

“Cyranoids”: Stanley Milgram’s Creepiest Experiment
Milgram is most famous for his obedience experiments, but Neuroskeptic reports on new research into another of Milgram's ideas - that our speech can be fed to us by someone else (so we become a Cyranoid) without anyone realising anything is amiss.

Rising star of business psychology, Professor Adam Grant, has launched a new, free newsletter called "Granted"
The author of NYT Bestseller Give and Take promises to send you videos and articles about work and psychology.

America's New Bedlam
This disturbing radio documentary from BBC World Service investigates the treatment of the more than one million US prisoners who are mentally ill.

A Social Visit with Hallucinated Voices
Over at the PLOS Neuroscience Community blog, Vaughan Bell explores the social side of hearing voices - the fact that most voice-hearers have relationships with their voices, and perceive their voices as having identities. This is a hugely under-researched area, he says.

We Are Entering the Age of Alzheimer's
"Alzheimer’s ... is more than a disease of the brain. It is a pandemic of selfhood," writes Kent Russell in this moving portrait of a man coping with his father's dementia.

How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time
At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova shares highlights from How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland.

Hundreds Report Waking up During Surgery
NHS Choices takes a calm looking at the study that led to some alarming headlines.

The Truth About Truthiness 
Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View takes issue with the idea (based largely on this study and disseminated by this Slate article) that low effort thought gives rise to conservative ideology.

A to Z of the Human Condition: N is for Natural Curiosity
Over at the Wellcome Collection blog, Mark Rapoza contemplates our unending curiosity with nature (alongside readers' nature photos).

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

Friday, 12 September 2014

Psychologists compare the mental abilities of Scrabble and crossword champions

Completed Scrabble (left) and crossword grids (image from Toma et al 2014).
Every year, hundreds of word lovers arrive from across the US to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle tournament. They solve clues (e.g. "caught some Z's") and place the answers (e.g. "sleep") in a grid. Meanwhile, a separate group of wordsmiths gather regularly to compete at Scrabble, the game that involves forming words out of letter tiles and finding a suitable place for them on the board.

Both sets of players have exceptional abilities, but how exactly do they differ from each other and from non-players of matched academic ability? Some answers are provided by Michael Toma and his colleagues, who have performed the first detailed comparison of the mental skills of the most elite crossword and Scrabble players in the US. Previous studies on gaming expertise have mostly involved chess players, so this is a refreshing new research angle.

Toma's team recruited 26 elite Scrabble players (in the top two per cent of competitive players, on average; 20 men) and 31 elite crossword players (in the top 7 per cent, on average; 22 men) to complete several tests of working memory - the kind of memory that we use to juggle and use information over short time-scales.

For example, there was a visuospatial task that involved judging whether images were symmetrical, while also remembering highlighted locations in a series of grids that always appeared after each symmetry image. Another challenge was the reading span task (a test of verbal working memory), which involved judging the grammatical sense of sentences, while also remembering the order of individual letters that were flashed on-screen after each grammatical challenge.

The researchers anticipated that the Scrabble players would outperform the crossworders on visuospatial working memory, whereas they thought the crossword players might be superior on verbal working memory. These predictions were based on the contrasting skills demanded by the two games. Scrabble players often spend hours learning lists of words that are legal in the game, but unlike crossword players, they don't need to know their meaning. In fact many Scrabble players admit to not knowing the meaning of many of the words they play. On the other hand, Scrabble players need skills to rearrange letters and to find a place for their words on the board (a visuospatial skill), whereas crossword players do not need these skills so much because the grid is prearranged for them.

The researchers actually uncovered no group differences on any of the measures of visuospatial and verbal working memory. However, in line with predictions, the crossword competitors outperformed the Scrabble players on an analogies-based word task - identifying a pair of words that have the same relation to each other as a target pair - and the crossworders also had higher (self-reported) verbal SAT scores than the Scrabble players (SAT is a standardised school test used in the US). The two groups also differed drastically in the most important strategies they said they used during game play - for instance, mental flexibility was far more important for crossworders, whereas anagramming was important for Scrabble players but not mentioned by crossworders.

Both expert groups far outperformed a control group of high-achieving students on all measures of verbal and visuospatial working memory. This was despite the fact the students had similar verbal SAT levels to the expert players. So it seems the elite players of both games have highly superior working memory relative to controls, but this enhancement is not tailored to their different games.

Toma and his team said that by looking beyond chess and studying experts in cognitively demanding verbal games, their research "helps to build a more general understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie elite performance." From a theoretical perspective, their finding of no working memory differences between Scrabble and crossword competitors is supportive of a domain general account of working memory - the idea that there exists a single mechanism that supports the processing of verbal and visuospatial information.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Toma, M., Halpern, D., & Berger, D. (2014). Cognitive Abilities of Elite Nationally Ranked SCRABBLE and Crossword Experts Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3059

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

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The illusion that gives you sensations in a rubber tongue

Our sense of where our bodies begin and end usually feels consistent and reliable. However psychologists have been having fun for decades, exposing just how malleable the body concept can be.

You may have heard of the "rubber hand illusion" (video). By visibly stroking a rubber hand in time with stroking a participant's hidden real hand, you can induce for them the feeling of sensation in the rubber hand.

The rubber hand illusion is thought to occur because the brain tends to bind together information arising from different sensory modalities. The stroking sensation arrives at one's real hand, but the stroking is seen occurring at the same time at the rubber hand. The brain binds these two experiences and the visual modality wins, transferring the felt sensation to the rubber appendage.

Because the rubber hand illusion depends on the dominance of vision, Charles Michel and his colleagues wondered if a similar illusion would still occur for the tongue - one of our own body parts that we feel but rarely see.  The researchers purchased a fake tongue from a magic shop (see pic), and for forty seconds they stroked this tongue with a cotton bud (Q-tip) at the same time as they stroked each participant's real tongue. The participants could see the stroking of the fake tongue, but the stroking of their own tongue was hidden from view.

Averaging responses from the 32 student participants, there was an overall sense among the students of being stroked on the rubber tongue, "thus demonstrating," the researchers said, "visual capture over the felt position of the tongue for the very first time." Further evidence for an illusory effect came from the fact that sensation in the rubber tongue was stronger when the stroking of the fake and real tongues was performed in synchrony as opposed to out of time. This synchronous stroking also led to more agreement from the students that they felt as though they could move the fake tongue, and that the fake tongue was their own.

Next, the researchers shone a laser pointer on the fake tongue as the participants watched. Twenty-two of the participants said that this triggered sensations in their real tongue - some said it felt cold, others warm, tactile and/or tingly. "I felt vibrations on my tongue moving in synchrony with the light movement," one student said.

The researchers say their results have shown that an illusion, similar to the rubber hand illusion, can be experienced with the tongue. We call this "the Butcher's Tongue Illusion," they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Michel, C., Velasco, C., Salgado-Montejo, A., & Spence, C. (2014). The Butcher’s Tongue Illusion Perception, 43 (8), 818-824 DOI: 10.1068/p7733

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

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

During jokes, the teller and responder engage in an involuntary "dance"

Knock Knock!
Who's There?
Ima who?
Ima psychologist. I'm here cos you won't open up.
When dance partners perform, their bodily movements become synchronised. This is deliberate on their part, of course, and we can see the timed interplay of their actions. What psychologists have begun to realise is that this kind of bodily synchrony also occurs between people in many everyday situations, except in these cases the physical "dance" is unintentional and it's more subtle, such as when two people sitting in rocking chairs begin to rock in time without realising it.

For the latest demonstration of this effect, Richard Schmidt and his colleagues have explored the physical choreography that occurs between people during the telling of formulaic knock-knock jokes. The researchers used a Kinect camera to record the movements of 32 students as they performed these jokes in pairs. The Kinect, which is found in many homes as part of a video-gaming console, detects the 3D locations of 21 body joints for each person, and records up to 30 frames per second. Eight of the participant pairs had never met each other before, but before the joke telling all pairs performed physical ice-breaker exercises, such as standing back-to-back, locking arms and attempting to stand up together. There were eight all-female pairs, and eight mixed-gender pairs.

The researchers observed significant bodily movement synchrony between joke tellers and responders. This was true across a session of ten jokes; within each joke lasting five to seven seconds; and also within each joke sub-component, such as each utterance or teller-responder exchange. This synchrony was not due to chance - when the researchers compared movement between participants who were not paired together, no such synchrony was observed. In technical terms, the synchrony between joke tellers and responders was "in-phase" - that is, bodily movement by the teller was reliably followed by movement by the responder; and it also showed "coherence", in that the lag between teller and responder tended not to change over time.

Schmidt and his colleagues said their study has shown the "bodily 'dance' underlying human communication interactions..." There were some further details to the study. Half the time, the pairs performed the jokes facing away from each other. This reduced, but did not eliminate, the "dance". Half the pairs were told to perform certain gestures during the joke telling - for example, the teller was to perform a door knocking mime, and the responder to shrug their shoulders when they uttered "Who's there?". The dance between teller and responder was actually reduced for these pairs. The researchers surmised that this is because focusing on performing these prescribed movements took the participants' attention away from their partner.

Finally, after the main task, the participants completed questionnaires tapping their social skills - a measure of social monitoring (how much a person tailors their behaviour to the social context) and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. People who scored higher on the latter measure tended to display less of a "dance" during the joke telling/responding. Zooming in on the sub-scales of this autism measure, social skills were not relevant. Rather, it was specifically those people who said they paid more attention to detail and/or had trouble switching their attention, who also tended to display less of a physical "dance" with their partner during the joke telling.

"Individuals vary in terms of their ability to create stable interpersonal entrainment," the researchers said, "and such skill seems to be underwritten by the flexibility by which they can attend to and pick up information about their environment."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Schmidt RC, Nie L, Franco A, & Richardson MJ (2014). Bodily synchronization underlying joke telling. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 25177287

--further reading--
How many psychologists does it take... to explain a joke? (Psychologist magazine feature article, part of this special issue on humour).

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

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

When you set sad lyrics against happy music, the music wins

The Beatles' Hello, Goodbye features
sad lyrics and a happy tune
It's a quirk of human nature that many of us enjoy sad music. Research last year uncovered some reasons why, including feeling a sense of connection, and the aesthetic appeal. For a new study, Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga drilled down into the specific situation where sad lyrics are combined with happy music, as in the Beatles' Hello, Goodbye. They wanted to see how people would respond to the music or lyrics in isolation, and how this differed from their response to the two together.

Fifty-three Japanese students listened to two happy-sounding songs that have sad lyrics: Och Jag Grät Mig Till Sömns Efter Alla Dar, and Regresa a Mi (Unchain My Heart in English). The first, a Swedish song, is fast tempo and in a major key, but the lyrics are about adolescent angst. The second, in Spanish, also has a fast tempo and is in a major key, but the lyrics are about broken hearts and regret.

The students first listened to the music alone, then they read the lyrics (translated into Japanese) without any music, and finally, they listened to the music while also seeing the translated lyrics. Results were combined for the two songs. As you'd expect, the students said they perceived the happy music alone to be happier than the sad lyrics alone, or the music plus lyrics. Also, they perceived the lyrics alone as sadder than the music plus the lyrics.

What about the students' feelings? Here's where things get more intriguing. The students reported feeling just as happy after hearing the music plus the sad lyrics, as they did when they heard the music alone. In contrast, they felt sad when exposed to the lyrics in isolation. In other words, when combined with a happy melody, the effect of the sad lyrics was transformed.

The researchers also compared associations between the students' perceptions of the music and/or lyrics, and their subsequent feelings. The perceived happiness of the music or lyrics alone was related to how much happiness the students reported feeling. That makes sense. More curiously, when it came to music plus lyrics, it was the students' perception of the sadness of this combination that went hand in hand with their experiencing more happiness. It's as if the students recognised that the songs' message was sad, but in combination with an upbeat melody, this sad message provoked positive emotion.

What happens in the mind of a listener when sad lyrics are blended with happy tunes? Mori and Iwanaga believe a sad/happy combination "captures something about the complexity of emotion" that we find aesthetically pleasing, triggering what they call "polyvalent pleasant feelings." At a physical level, they think an upbeat melody triggers the release of the hormone prolactin, which is associated with calmness. With this relaxing chemical accompaniment, they say, sad feelings can be experienced "without ... real psychic pain."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Mori, K., & Iwanaga, M. (2014). Pleasure generated by sadness: Effect of sad lyrics on the emotions induced by happy music Psychology of Music, 42 (5), 643-652 DOI: 10.1177/0305735613483667

--further reading--
Why do people like listening to sad music when they're feeling down?

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