Monday, 20 October 2014

Decades of lie detection research has been unrealistic

According to decades of psychology research, most people, including law enforcement professionals, are useless at detecting lies. But in a new paper, a team led by Tim Levine argues that nearly all previous research has been unrealistic. The field has been dominated by studies that place the "lie detector" in a passive role, tasked with spotting "tells" leaked by the liar. But this just isn't how deception detection works in real life, say Levine and his team. Rather, the interrogator interacts with the suspect and asks strategic questions to extract the truth. In this context, the researchers predicted that expert lie detection performance would be high.

To test this, they first invited 33 students to take part in a difficult quiz with cash prizes for correct answers. They played in pairs with what they thought was another student but was really an accomplice of the researchers. When the researcher left the room for a short spell, the student participants had a chance to cheat by looking at the answer sheet. Four of them cheated in this way.

After the quiz, all the students were interviewed about what had happened during the quiz. Unbeknown to the students, their questioner was an expert interrogator, qualified in the Reid Technique and a trainer of the police and military in interrogation techniques.

The interviews lasted about four minutes, during which time the questioner asked the students how they knew the answers they'd got right. They were also asked, if someone were to cheat, how they would have gone about it. They were also told that their partner would be interviewed next, and asked what they thought he/she would say. The questioner threatened an investigation if the student had cheated to sabotage the study, but told them that it wouldn't be so bad if they'd cheated for money.

All four of the cheaters confessed about their transgression before the end of the interview. There were no false confessions. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the questioner achieved 100 per cent accuracy after the interviews when asked to identify the cheaters from among the 33 interviewees.

The tapes of the interviews were then shown to 136 more student participants who were asked to identify the cheaters. They achieved 92.7 per cent accuracy. This is consistent with the idea that strategic questioning can provoke "diagnostic answers" that anyone can interpret because they reveal the truth about what happened.

A follow-up study was similar but this time there were five expert interrogators (one woman), all of them federal agents in the US. They each had different styles of questioning and the interviews varied from 3 minutes to 18 minutes. This time, 40 of the 89 students who played the quiz cheated, or their partner did (remember, they didn't know it but their partner was actually a research assistant).

During the ensuing interviews, confessions about cheating were obtained for 34 out of 40 of the cheating episodes. There were no false confessions. The interviewers' accuracy at correctly detecting whether cheating had occurred varied from 100 per cent (for three of them) to 94.7 per cent. The interviewers identified the specific true culprit (the student or their partner) in 95.5 per cent of interviews. When the video clips were played to 34 more students, these students achieved 93.6 per cent accuracy in judging whether cheating had occurred.

"These findings suggest that high levels of deception detection may be possible," the researchers said, "but require that the right questions are asked the right way in a situation where message content is useful and where the solicitation of honesty is a viable strategy."


Levine, T., Clare, D., Blair, J., McCornack, S., Morrison, K., & Park, H. (2014). Expertise in Deception Detection Involves Actively Prompting Diagnostic Information Rather Than Passive Behavioral Observation Human Communication Research, 40 (4), 442-462 DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12032

--further reading--
Just how good are police officers at detecting liars?
Forget good cop, bad cop - here's the real psychology of two-person interrogation
Skilled liars make great lie detectors

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

Friday, 17 October 2014

"Place cells" discovered in the rat brain

John O'Keefe

This month John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work identifying the brain's "GPS system" - the internal maps that allow us to understand our position in space. The Moser's discovery of grid cells this century built upon O'Keefe's earlier accomplishment at UCL in London, the discovery of place cells in the brain. Here, we look back to his 1971 "Short Communication" in the journal Brain Research which presented his preliminary evidence for place cells in rats.

Earlier research had suggested that damage to a rat's hippocampus (a bilateral brain structure in the temporal lobes) causes it to become confused when attempting spatial tasks. O'Keefe wanted to look in detail at what different hippocampal regions were up to when a rat moves around, specifically to see whether there was a neural system "which provides the animal with a cognitive, or spatial, map of its environment".

Together with student Jonathan Dostrovsky, O'Keefe inserted microelectrodes through the skulls of 23 rats, each arriving at a slightly different position in the hippocampus. Each rat could then explore its limited environment - a 24cm by 36cm platform - while the experimenters recorded neural activity from the electrodes.

In all, the study took recordings from 76 different positions in the hippocampus. Some turned out to fire in response to particular behaviours, such as walking, eating, or grooming; some while the rat was aware of something; some during sleep; some for no detectable reason at all. But electrodes at eight locations only gave their full response "when the rat was situated in a particular part of the testing platform facing in a particular direction" (italics in original). This was the first ever discovery that different brain cells represent unique location and orientation information.

O'Keefe and Dostrovsky attempted to find straightforward explanations for this spatial sensitivity. But eliminating sound cues (by silencing fans and other unmoving sound sources) and olfactory ones (by rotating the testing platform) had no effect on the neural activity of these eight “place cells*”. This solidified the possibility that the eight weren't responding to information arriving through the senses from "out there", but from a representation of space that existed within the brain.

Our findings "suggest that the hippocampus provides the rest of the brain with a spatial reference map," concluded O'Keefe and Dostrovsky. As explained by Hugo Spiers in next month’s Psychologist magazine, this evidence opened up investigations into spatial memory and cognition, which began to demand some kind of coordinate system feeding into the place cells themselves. That idea was finally cashed out by the Mosers, who established that the entorhinal cortex, a key interface between the hippocampus and the neocortex, contains grid cells that perform this function by encoding atop space grids of hexagons in a honeycomb fashion familiar to anyone who has played too many wargames.

A systematic investigation into the through-lines between neural activity, cognition and behaviour, the body of work by O’Keefe and the Mosers is groundbreaking, genuinely surprising, and provides fertile ground for continued exploration, not only of rats, but of ourselves: minds within bodies within space.

  ResearchBlogging.orgO'Keefe, J., & Dostrovsky, J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat Brain Research, 34 (1), 171-175 DOI: 10.1016/0006-8993(71)90358-1

*note the term "place cell" was not used in this paper.

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

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

High Emotional Intelligence linked with more delinquency among young women (but not men)

If, as research suggests, the psychological trait of sensation seeking is the catalyst for youthful delinquency, might high emotional intelligence (EI; having empathy for other people's emotions and good control over one's own) act as a calming restraint? That was the question Alison Bacon her colleagues posed in their study of 96 undergrads (average age 20; 48 women).

Their "surprising and unprecedented" discovery was that for women, not only did high EI not moderate the link between sensation seeking and delinquency, in fact high EI went hand in hand with higher rates of self-reported delinquency, including playing truant from school, taking drugs and violence.

Why should this be? The researchers are left speculating. They think high EI might fuel acts of indirect aggression like "psychological bullying, deliberate social exclusion or malicious gossip" that tend to be performed more by young females than males. Unfortunately the researchers' measure of delinquent behaviour didn't include these kinds of behaviours, but they reasoned perhaps the same young women who perform these less visible acts were also more likely to commit the forms of delinquency that were on the scale, such as rowdy behaviour and smoking cannabis. If so, this would help explain the high EI / delinquency link in women.

"A high level of trait EI may facilitate an enhanced ability to present Machiavellian behaviour in a positive light, understand victims’ emotions and predict likely responses in order that social manipulations are successful," Bacon and her team said.

What about the male students? Their answers were more in line with the researchers' predictions. For men, higher EI acted as a moderator, weakening the link between sensation seeking traits and delinquency. High EI also had its own direct inverse relationship with delinquency - that is, men with higher EI tended to be less rebellious.

"Trait EI is known to predict a wide array of positive, practical and health-related life outcomes," the researchers concluded. "Understanding how the perpetration of negative behaviours is linked to trait EI may be an important step towards promoting well-being."


Bacon, A., Burak, H., & Rann, J. (2014). Sex differences in the relationship between sensation seeking, trait emotional intelligence and delinquent behaviour The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 25 (6), 673-683 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2014.943796

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

Monday, 13 October 2014

Evolutionary psychologists expose the "shoddy" treatment of their discipline by textbooks

The Gendered Society contained 12 errors
about evolutionary psychology, more
than any other book in this evaluation. 
Evolutionary theory is universally accepted among the mainstream science community. And yet, when the evolutionary perspective is applied to human behaviour, the approach continues to meet with resistance, and in some cases outright disdain.

A team led by Benjamin Winegard thinks part of the reason is because of the misrepresentation of evolutionary psychology in textbooks, especially social science textbooks on the topics of sex and gender. Based on their analysis of eight types of error in 12 widely used books in this genre, the researchers conclude that the treatment of their subject is "shoddy".

Winegard and his colleagues chose to focus on sex and gender textbooks that were published since 2005 and that are used widely on sociology and psychology university courses in the US. Among the books studied: The Psychology of Gender (4th ed.) by V.S. Helgeson and Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective (5th ed.) by L. Lindsey.

The categories of error that the researchers looked for included the claim that evolutionary psychologists think biology determines or explains all of behaviour, or that evolutionary psychologists think some phenomena are influenced by nature while others are influenced by nurture (rather than reflecting an interaction between the two). Other error categories: that evolutionary psychologists have a conservative ideological agenda; that they endorse the "naturalistic fallacy" (that the natural way of things is morally desirable); and that evolutionary psychologists think people consciously attempt to boost their "evolutionary fitness" and are aware of the "evolutionary logic" of their behaviour, an error known as the "intentionalistic fallacy".

There was an average of 5.75 errors per book and all contained at least one error. The most common type of error was miscellaneous and placed into a general "straw man" category (for example, the mistaken claim that evolutionary psychology ignores and cannot account for homosexuality). The next most common type of error related to biological determinism and nature/nurture, and after that came the Naturalistic and Intentionalistic Fallacies.

For each error, the researchers provide examples from the texts they studied, and then they provide refutational evidence, either citing from works by evolutionary psychologists, or by pointing out straight facts, such as that there are many female evolutionary psychologists (countering the claim in one textbook that the field is androcentric), and that a survey of evolutionary psychologists found their political views matched those of social scientists in general (countering the claim that the field has a conservative agenda).

Winegard and his team said their analysis has furnished "a well-defined catalog of errors in the presentation of evolutionary psychology and [demonstrated] that these errors occur frequently in undergraduate sex and gender textbooks." They added: "Evolutionary psychologists have frequently addressed these errors, but our results demonstrate that, despite these efforts, errors persist."


Winegard BM, Winegard BM, & Deaner RO (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 12 (3), 474-508 PMID: 25299988

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

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Link feast

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

Maria Konnikova profiles her former mentor Walter Mischel - the creator of the famous Marshmallow Experiments - who has published his first pop psychology book at age 84.  

A new paper claims that there's a consensus among experts that violent media cause aggression in children. At the Guardian Head Quarters blog, Pete Etchells and Chris Chambers criticise both the findings of the paper and the editorial processes that led to its publication. 

The three joint winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine appeared as guests on the Guardian Science Weekly podcast.

James Hamblin at the Atlantic looks into the latest research that suggests we're happier anticipating purchased experiences than material goods. 

By understanding the cultural background to different forms of greeting we can better anticipate when to go for the fist bump, bro hug or even a standard handshake, says the Crew Blog. 

The idea of "levelling" - adjusting reading material to suit each child's ability - has come in for criticism lately, says Annie Murphy Paul at the Atlantic, but a new online programme could provide a way to offer the benefits of levelling, while also keeping children sufficiently challenged. 

Find out what happened when sceptic Mark Tilbrook handed out fliers at a psychic event, encouraging people to think about the clues that might distinguish between someone with supernatural powers and someone who just appears to have them. 

The Neurocritic presents highlights from a paper charting the rising of "neuro-ization".

It's more helpful to think of Milgram's shock experiments as a work of art, than as science, says Malcolm Harris at Aeon magazine. That way, they "can tell us about much more than obedience to authority; they speak to memory, trauma, repetition, the foundations of post-war social thought, and the role of science in modernity."

An interview with John Cacioppo, one of the world's leading experts on loneliness. 
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 10 October 2014

How sharing a toilet helps students make more friends

The built environment shapes our behaviour profoundly - piazzas and park benches promote unplanned encounters between strangers whereas car-friendly streets have the opposite effect, the efficiency of speedy travel promoting "streets as corridors" over "streets as sociable space".

What’s true at the level of cities also applies within buildings, including student residences. This has been investigated in the past, one famous example being Leon Festinger’s 1950 study that suggested students formed stronger friendships with people whose doors they routinely walked by. Festinger argued that the familiarity coming from minor encounters ripened into friendship, but this wasn’t directly measured, and it’s possible that students who already knew each other had rooms closer together.

In a new study, Matthew Easterbrook and Vivian Vignoles tested whether building layout really can have a powerful influences on student friendships. They recruited 462 students from 13 halls of residence and asked them to record how often they met by chance with other residents in their halls over the first week of term. This serendipity turned out to be very important: more chance meetings led to stronger interpersonal bonds with other residents, not just that week but also six and even ten weeks later. Moreover, more chance meetings with other residents went hand in hand with greater feelings of wellbeing later on.

The researchers next looked at what aspects of the building increased these chance encounters. You may be unsurprised that the presence of lounges and other common social areas had a significant effect. More surprising perhaps was that their impact was matched by another factor: a lack of en-suite toilets, which led students to bump into each other when responding to nature’s call. This suggests that mere encounters, regardless of their form, are a foundation for strangers to feel relaxed and connected to one another. My student halls had shared toilets, and looking back, the greetings we exchanged while clutching a roll of toilet paper made it easier to let go of any pretences and feel more relaxed around each other.

Common facilities may not always be a good; where relationships are strained, forced contact could worsen things. This student demographic are actively seeking connections with their new peers, and in this context, individuals are better off in an interdependent and even inconvenient setup, than in a self-sufficient but atomised one. What impresses itself on me is the evidence of a general rule: the more we control and plan our encounters, the less space there is for the chance interaction, as true of our accelerating cities as it is for the environments in which we work, sleep, or study.

ResearchBlogging.orgEasterbrook, M., & Vignoles, V. (2014). When friendship formation goes down the toilet: Design features of shared accommodation influence interpersonal bonds and well-being British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12062

--further reading--
Is there a psychologist in the building?

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

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Little Albert - one of the most famous research participants in psychology's history, but who was he?

In 1920, in what would become one of the most infamous and controversial studies in psychology, a pair of researchers at Johns Hopkins University taught a little baby boy to fear a white rat. For decades, the true identity and subsequent fate of this poor infant nicknamed "Little Albert" has remained a mystery.

But recently this has changed, thanks to the tireless detective work of two independent groups of scholars. Now there are competing proposals for who Little Albert was and what became of him. Which group is correct - the one led by Hall Beck at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, or the other led by Russell Powell at MacEwan University in Alberta?

These developments are so new they have yet to be fully documented in any textbooks. Fortunately, Richard Griggs at the University of Florida has written an accessible outline of the evidence unearthed by each group. His overview will be published in the journal Teaching of Psychology in January 2015, but the Research Digest has been granted an early view.

The starting point for both groups of academics-cum-detectives was that Little Albert is known to have been the son of a wet nurse at John Hopkins. Hall Beck and his colleagues identified three wet nurses on the campus in that era, and they found that just one of them had a child at the right time to have been Little Albert. This was Arvilla Merritte, who named her son Douglas. Further supporting their case, Beck's group found a portrait of Douglas and their analysis suggested he looked similar to the photographs and video of Little Albert and could well be the same child.

The Merritte line of enquiry was further supported, although controversially so, when a clinical psychologist Alan Fridlund and his colleagues analysed footage of Little Albert and deemed that he was neurologically impaired. If true, this would fit with the finding that Douglas Merritte's medical records show he had hydrocephalus ("water on the brain"). Of course this would also mean that the Little Albert study was even more unethical than previously realised.

Perhaps the most glaring short-coming of the Merritte theory is why the original researchers John Watson and Rosalie Rayner called the baby Albert if his true name was Douglas Merritte. Enter the rival detective camp headed by Russell Powell. Their searches revealed that in fact another of the John Hopkins' wet nurses had given birth to a son at the right time to have been Little Albert. This child was William A. Barger, although he was recorded in his medical file as Albert Barger. Of course, this fits the nickname Little Albert (and in fact, in their writings, Watson and Rayner referred to the child as "Albert B").

Also supporting the William Barger story, Powell and his team found notes on Barger's weight which closely match the weight of Little Albert as reported by Watson and Rayner. This is also ties in with the fact that Little Albert looks healthily chubby in the videos (Merritte, by contrast, was much lighter). Meanwhile, other experts have criticised the idea of diagnosing Little Albert as neurologically impaired based on a few brief video clips, further tilting the picture in favour of the Barger interpretation. Indeed, summing the evidence for each side, Griggs decides in favour of Powell's camp. "Applying Occam's razor to this situation would indicate that Albert Barger is far more likely to have been Little Albert," he writes.

What do the two accounts mean for the fate of Little Albert? If he was Douglas Merritte, then the story is a sad one - the boy died at age six of hydrocephalus. In contrast, if Little Albert was Willam Barger, he in fact lived a long life, dying in 2007 at the age of 87. His niece recalls that he had a mild dislike of animals. Was this due to his stint as an infant research participant? We'll probably never know.


Richard Griggs (2015). Psychology's Lost Boy: Will The Real Little Albert Please Stand Up? Teaching of Psychology

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