Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Is being a worrier a sign of intelligence?

We usually see worry as a bad thing. It feels unpleasant, like a snake coiling in the pit of your stomach. And worriers are often considered weak links in a team - negative influences who lack confidence. But of course, anxiety has a useful function. It's about anticipating and preparing for threats, and learning from past mistakes.

Increasingly psychologists are recognising the strengths of anxious people. For example, there's research showing that people more prone to anxiety are quicker to detect threats and better at lie detection. Now Alexander Penney and his colleagues have conducted a survey of over 100 students and they report that a tendency to worry goes hand in hand with higher intelligence.

The researchers asked the students to complete measures of worry, anxiety, depression, rumination, social phobia, dwelling on past social events, mood, verbal intelligence, non-verbal intelligence, and test anxiety. This last measure was important because the researchers wanted to distinguish trait anxiety from in-the-moment state anxiety and how each relates to intelligence.

The key finding was that after controlling for the influence of test anxiety and current mood, the students who reported a general habit of worrying more (e.g. they agreed with survey statements like "I am always worrying about something") and/or ruminating more (e.g. they said they tended to think about their sadness, or think "what am doing to deserve this?") also tended to score higher on the test of verbal intelligence, which was taken from the well-known Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. To take one specific example, verbal intelligence correlated with worry proneness with a statistically significant value of .19 (after controlling for test anxiety and mood), explaining an estimated 46 per cent of the variance in worry.

Another result, not so promising for worriers, was that a tendency to dwell on past social events was negatively correlated with non-verbal intelligence (that is, those students who dwelt more on past events scored lower on non-verbal IQ).

Seeking to explain these two different and seemingly contradictory correlations, the researchers surmised that: "more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry. Individuals with high non-verbal intelligence may be stronger at processing the non-verbal signals they interact with in the moment, leading to a decreased need to re-process past social encounters."

Of course we must be careful not to over-interpret these preliminary results - it was a small, non-clinical sample after all, so it's not clear how the findings would generalise to people with more extreme anxiety. However it's notable that a small 2012 study found a correlation between worry and intelligence in a sample diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. Penney and his colleagues concluded that: "a worrying and ruminating mind is a more verbally intelligent mind; a socially ruminative mind, however, might be less able to process non-verbal information."


Penney, A., Miedema, V., & Mazmanian, D. (2015). Intelligence and emotional disorders: Is the worrying and ruminating mind a more intelligent mind? Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 90-93 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.10.005

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

Monday, 15 December 2014

Want to learn something better? Draw it

When you're trying to learn, do something with your new knowledge, such as summarising it or explaining it to someone else. This deepens your memories and helps integrate what you've learned with what you already knew. A new study has tested the benefits of another beneficial learning activity - drawing.

Annett Schmeck and her team asked 48 German school-kids (average age 14) to read a 850-word passage about the biology of influenza, broken down into seven paragraphs. This was an unfamiliar topic to the teens, and they knew they were going to be tested on the content afterwards.

Crucially, half the pupils were asked to produce a drawing for each of the paragraphs, to depict visually the content of the paragraphs. They were assisted by a basic background image of a cell (or similar), and a legend showing basic components their drawing should include, such as an antibody. The other pupils only had the text to study and they acted as a control group. All participating pupils worked at their own pace.

There were two tests on the scientific text: a multi-choice comprehension test, and a drawing test that involved drawing key concepts from the text. The group who'd produced drawings while they were learning out-performed the control group on both the multiple-choice (scoring 61 per cent correct on average vs. 44 per cent) and the drawing test (scoring 52 per cent on average vs. 28 per cent).

This first experiment has some obvious limitations that Schmeck and her team sought to address in a follow-up involving 168 more pupils (average age 14). Most importantly, the researchers showed that drawing each paragraph of the to-be-learned text led to superior test performance (63 per cent correct on multiple choice, on average), even when compared to a condition in which pupils were instead provided with drawings produced by the author of the scientific text  (53 per cent correct). The better the pupils' drawings, the more successful they were in the tests afterwards.

The researchers said that drawing has this benefit for learning because it "encourages learners to engage in generative cognitive processing during learning such as organising the relevant information into a coherent structure, and integrating it with relevant prior knowledge from long-term memory."

The results come with a number of caveats - the study material in this research was scientific and involved a causal chain of events. It's not clear if drawing will also help people learn other kinds of content. Moreover, the tests took place right after the learning phase, so it's not known if the benefits of drawing will be long-lasting. Also, it's worth noting that this research looked at assisted drawing - that is, the pupils were given a background image to draw upon and told what graphic elements to include. The researchers concluded: "drawing during learning appears to be a potentially powerful strategy for improving students' learning from scientific text when certain boundaries and prerequisites are taken into account."


Schmeck, A., Mayer, R., Opfermann, M., Pfeiffer, V., & Leutner, D. (2014). Drawing pictures during learning from scientific text: testing the generative drawing effect and the prognostic drawing effect Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39 (4), 275-286 DOI: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.07.003

--further reading--
How to study
The Digest guide to ... studying

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

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Link feast

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

2014’s Best Books on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully
An end-of-year roundup from the BrainPickings website.

Sickening and Morally Reprehensible
Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist magazine reports on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program (story requires free registration to access).

That CIA Torture Methods Were Pointless Is No Shock
The New Scientist reports that decades of research has shown that torture is an ineffective way to acquire intelligence from suspects.

9 Things I Wish People Understood About Anxiety
Kady Morrison, writing at Vox, was diagnosed with anxiety disorder five years ago.

Journalists' Guide to fMRI Papers
What does fMRI really measure, plus many more questions answered by cognitive neuroscientist Jon Simons and friends.

Serial: Your Memory Can Play Tricks On You – Here’s How
" times we cannot even trust our own memory, let alone that of others," writes Catherine Loveday at The Conversation.

10 Ways That Brain Myths Are Harming Us
Over at WIRED, I provided my response to the question - do brain myths matter?

The Mind-bending Effects of Feeling Two Hearts
David Robson at BBC Future reports on a patient whose experiences show the important part that bodily sensations play in our emotional lives (we reported on this patient last year).

Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy
The science of misheard lyrics, by Maria Konnikova at the New Yorker.

Why Is It That Zombies Eat Brains?
Zombies didn't eat brains in Romero's cult classic Night of the Living Dead, so where does the idea come from?

Link Feast will return in the New Year. 
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Why do friendly people usually lead happier lives?

High scorers on the personality trait of agreeableness are eager to please, concerned for others, and compliant to other perspectives. On average, they live happier lives too. A new study suggests a possible reason: when they have the chance, friendly people tend to avoid engaging with negative things.

The researchers, Konrad Bresin and Michael Robinson, began by asking participants to view a series of positive and negative images, spending as much time as they wanted on each one. Most people lingered longer on the nasty images, but participants high in agreeableness showed no such tendency. This effect persisted through two experiments involving around 200 student participants, and also generalised to another setup, where 73 participants had to indicate whether they would prefer to engage in a fun or unpleasant pastime. Examples included: an upbeat happy song or a slow sad one; a documentary profiling a famous entertainer or one on government corruption; or a lecture on how to bake a cake versus one on dissecting a body. Low-agreeableness participants were equally likely to go for a negative experience as a positive one, whereas the high agreeableness ones showed a strong preference for the positive: anthems, nation's sweethearts and shortbreads.

Although it's unlikely this finding would generalise to very negative situations, Bresin and Robinson argue that the bulk of real-life experiences tend to fall within more narrow boundaries - slightly nicer or less pleasant situations. And across many of these situations, people differing in agreeableness will fork out on more positive life routes. Previous research has looked at how people of different outlooks may respond to challenging events differently: when life gives you lemons, optimists make lemonade. This research suggests agreeable people are more likely to amble past lemon-groves into the orchard next door.


Bresin K, & Robinson MD (2014). You Are What You See and Choose: Agreeableness and Situation Selection. Journal of personality PMID: 25109246

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

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Rapport-building interrogation is more effective than torture

Past research (pdf) suggests that using torture as a way to extract information or confessions from terror suspects isn't just unethical, it's also ineffective. The advantage of rapport-building interrogation strategies (including respect, friendliness and empathy towards suspects) over more coercive techniques is highlighted once again in a new study that involved interviews with law enforcement interrogators and detainees.

The research involved 34 interrogators (1 woman) from several international jurisdictions including Australia, Indonesia and Norway. And there were 30 international detainees (1 woman), most of whom had been held on suspicion of terrorism, including people suspected of involvement with the Tamil Tigers or the Islamist group Ansar al Ismal based in Norway. One in five of the detainees reported being subjected to practices that constitute torture. Note, these were separate groups - the interrogators had not dealt professionally with the participating detainees.

The research team led by Jane Goodman-Delahunty asked the interrogators and detainees to recall a specific interrogation session, to describe the interrogation practices used, and the outcomes in terms of information shared, cooperation and confessions. The results were striking - disclosure was 14 times more likely to occur early in an interrogation when a rapport-building approach was used. Confessions were four times more likely when interrogators struck a neutral and respectful stance. Rates of detainee disclosure were also higher when they were interrogated in comfortable physical settings. More surprising, cooperation reduced five-fold when detainees were presented with explicit evidence. It's possible this is because interrogators were more likely to resort to presenting evidence to uncooperative detainees.

The researchers said their results "augment the accumulating cross-national consensus about effective noncoercive best practices in investigative interviewing." Their hope is that this will "reduce practitioner skepticism about reliance on noncoercive interview strategies with high value detainees." Of course the study is limited in some ways, especially regarding its reliance on people's memories of prior interrogations, and the fact that the detainees' doubtless have a vested interest in highlighting the effectiveness of rapport-based strategies.


Goodman-Delahunty, J., Martschuk, N., & Dhami, M. (2014). Interviewing High Value Detainees: Securing Cooperation and Disclosures Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28 (6), 883-897 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3087

--further reading--
Forget good cop, bad cop - here's the real psychology of two-person interrogation
The type of interrogation likely to lead to false confessions

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

People's support for torture in "ticking time bomb scenarios" is influenced by their desire for retribution

In the wake of a report published yesterday into the CIA's use of torture, many people are shocked and appalled. Yet one defence of the practice remains popular - "the ticking time bomb scenario".

This is the idea that torture is justified if a suspect knows the location of bomb in a public place, and many lives would be saved if he or she were coerced into telling authorities the location in time for it to be deactivated. The new Senate Intelligence Committee report describes how the ticking time bomb scenario was in fact used by the CIA to defend its use of torture or "enhanced interrogation".

The ticking time bomb scenario is usually presented as a "utilitarian" argument for the moral good of torture in certain circumstances, when one person's suffering is preferable to the deaths of many. Some commenters have gone as far as claiming that most people endorse torture in the ticking bomb situation.

A new study puts this to the test. Joseph Spino and Denise Cummins surveyed hundreds of people online asking them for their views about the acceptability and appropriateness of torturing a suspect in variations of the classic ticking bomb scenario. In particular the researchers were interested in whether people's views vary according to changes in the "hidden assumptions" with which the scenario is loaded.

The researchers found that people's endorsement of torturing a suspect is reduced when they are told that torture is likely to be ineffective (which, by the way, is true), and when they are told other interrogative methods are available. The researchers also found that people's support for torture increased when they were told the suspect was a terrorist, or that the suspect was guilty of actually planting the bomb. People's increased support in this context was not because they thought the suspect was more likely to hold information about the bomb. This suggests that the participants' endorsement of torture was based on retribution, rather than being a cool utilitarian judgment.

Spino and Cummins said their results show that people's support for torture in the ticking time bomb situation depends on a "highly idealised" and "highly unrealistic" set of assumptions being met. Moreover, their finding that people's support for torture is influenced by the identity and the culpability of the suspect shows that the practice is often endorsed as a form of punishment, not as a way to extract information. Taken altogether the researchers conclude their findings "cast serious doubt on the use of ticking time bomb scenarios as an argument for legalized torture".


Spino, J., & Cummins, D. (2014). The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 5 (4), 543-563 DOI: 10.1007/s13164-014-0199-y

--Further reading--
Torturing the brain. On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’ (pdf)
The British Psychological Society's response to the new Senate report.
Psychologist magazine news story on the Senate report.
The psychology of violent extremism - digested

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

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Is sexism in science really over?

A new review (pdf) of how women fare in the sciences has provoked a lot of online response, thanks mainly to a pugnacious newspaper op-ed concluding "Academic science isn't sexist" penned by the review co-authors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci.

The full review team - two psychologists and two economists (two women and two men) - focused on issues within the mathematical sciences comprising geo-science, engineering, economics, maths and computer science, and physical sciences, which they describe as “GEEMP” subjects. The 54-page paper, summarising findings from previous studies and presenting new calculations, is far-ranging, so I will focus on the claim that there are now far fewer obstacles for women getting and succeeding in jobs in these sciences.

The reviewed evidence suggests rates of graduate entry into PhD, and movement from PhD into Assistant Professor (equivalent to “lecturer” position in the UK), are comparable for women and men. Women still make up only 30 per cent of assistant professors (up from zero per cent in the 1970s), and rates are much lower in tenured roles, but the authors argue that this reflects the legacy of past barriers. Once women get into the field, Williams et al argue, “their progress resembles that of male GEEMP majors.”

The authors also point out that women are invited to interview and offered these sorts of jobs at a slightly higher rate than they are found in the applicant pool; women are also promoted within jobs at a similar rate to men. This would imply fair hiring practices in academic science, which contradicts plenty of psychology experiments that suggest identical candidates are often treated differently due to their gender. Among reasons for this lab-real-world disparity, Ceci and Williams report their own finding: in a lab, no gender discrimination was observed when a candidate presented as extremely able - as shortlisted candidates in academia invariably are - instead of having a mixed pedigree, as is common in other studies. The authors suggest that only when recruiters have insufficient relevant information will they start making assumptions based on stereotypes.

Making like-for-like comparisons, the authors also argue that today there is considerable gender parity in salaries, but differences remain particularly for full professor roles. This could reflect the often-longer tenure for male professors, differences in negotiation strategy, or enduring discrimination. One popular explanation for pay gaps is that women become penalised due to investment into child-rearing, but this doesn't seem to adequately account for the differences. Another possibility would be if women face hurdles that prevent them performing in their jobs, and so find it harder to get the same compensation that men do.

One such hurdle would be the unfair awarding of research grants by funding bodies. However, analysis using the largest and most systematic data sets, such as the series of studies on awards made by the American National Institution of Health, strongly suggests gender neutrality. In one example, the large funder EMBA found its rate of awarding to female investigators unchanged when applicant identity was blinded. (Contrast this with the plight of black researchers, who are one third less likely to receive funding from the NIH.) There is some evidence of higher dollar rates of award to men, but this may reflect the higher proportion of men being very senior applicants.

Publication output is another performance measure that differs between the genders. Men on average publish more and are far more likely to be highly prolific, defined as three or more publications in two years. This gap has closed since the 1970s but remained steady in recent years. One hurdle here may be that women spend more time in mentoring and support; unpicking why will be tricky - women report enjoying this work more than men, but it is also a lower-status activity relative to research. Home-life pressure could be a factor: although women with or without children publish at a similar rate, men actually publish more after children. It's also possible that women are impeded by less access to institutional support, such as facilities and scarce equipment. It’s also important to note that in the data presented, the publication review process appears fair, with little evidence of gender discrimination.

Overall, the review argues that once women enter a mathematically intense field, their chances resemble their male peers - not perfectly, but certainly closer than one might expect. Of course, in these fields just a quarter of bachelor degrees are awarded to women. The authors consider some reasons for this underrepresentation, including differences in interest, cognitive profile, teaching encouragement and stereotype threat.

Ceci and Williams clearly feel that their evidence is so at odds with the received wisdom of “academic sexism” that they were justified in penning their rejoinder. But with such a politically and culturally mediated concept as sexism, others could accept all this data and still reach different conclusions. My own would be to cautiously welcome the reviewed data as good news for women engaged in the mathematic sciences: institutionally there appear to be fewer barriers than one might imagine, giving women’s talent and effort a greater chance to shine. But the review is largely silent on whether the modern scientific workplace is free from informal, everyday sexism, or if women in science careers have to cope with this additional hassle. Mathematical sciences have clearly made progress towards equality, but it seems premature to say sexism is done.

Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in Academic Science A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75-141.

--further reading--
Women's true maths skills unlocked by pretending to be someone else
Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good
Understanding why girls underperform at science
Hey girls: Science helps people!
Investigating the role of genes in boys' and girls' science ability

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