Friday, 29 July 2016

10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology

In a sense we're all amateur psychologists – we've got our own first-hand experience at being human, and we've spent years observing how we and others behave in different situations. This intuition fuels a "folk psychology" that sometimes overlaps with findings from scientific psychology, but often does not. Some erroneous psychological intuitions are particularly widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent. This post is about 10 of these myths or misconceptions. It's important to challenge these myths, not just to set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing.

1. We learn more effectively when taught via our preferred "learning style"
This is the idea that we each learn better when we're taught via our own favoured modality, such as through visual materials, listening or doing. A recent survey of British teachers found that over 96 per cent believed in this principle. In fact, psychology research shows consistently that people do not learn better when taught via their preferred modality, and that instead the most effective modality for teaching usually varies according to the nature of the material under study. There are also issues around defining learning styles and how to measure them. Most published scales for measuring learning styles are unreliable (they produce different results on each testing), and they often fail to correlate with people's actual learning performance.

2. Human memory is like a recording of what happened
The metaphor of memory as a recording is inappropriate because it implies an unrealistic level of accuracy and permanence. Our memories actually represent a distorted version of what happened, and they change over time. And yet a survey of nearly 2000 people from a few years ago found that 63 per cent believed "memory works like a video camera". This misunderstanding fuels related misconceptions, for example around the trustworthiness of eye-witness testimony. For example, many judges and police believe that the more confident a witness is in their memory, the more accurate they are likely to be, even though psychology research shows that confidence and accuracy are not correlated or only weakly correlated.

3. Violent offenders usually have a diagnosis of mental illness
When people with mental health problems commit violent crimes, the media takes a disproportionate interest. No wonder that surveys show that most of the public believe that people with mental illness are inherently violent. In fact, as Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues explain in the 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, the evidence suggests that at least 90 per cent of people with mental illness do not commit violent acts, and the overwhelming majority of violent offenders are not mentally ill. Some patients with specific conditions (such as command-based hallucinations "telling them" to commit acts) are at increased risk, but actual acts of violence are rare. A telling meta-analysis from 2011 concluded that 35,000 high-risk patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia would need to be permanently watched or incarcerated to prevent one killing of a stranger by a patient.

4. Crowds turn people stupid and dangerous
After a mass emergency, it's typical for reports to describe the crowd as "stampeding" in blind panic. There's an implication that when we're in a large group, we lose our senses and it's everyone for themselves. This characterisation is refuted by psychology research on crowd behaviour that's shown panic is rare and people frequently stop to help one another. Cooperation is particularly likely when people feel a shared sense of identity. Psychologist John Drury made this finding based partly on his interviews with people caught up in real-life emergencies, such as the overcrowding that occurred at a Fatboy Slim concert on Brighton beach in 2002. Drury and his colleagues argue this has implications for the handling by authorities of emergency situations: "Crowds in emergencies can be trusted to behave in more social ways than previously expected by some involved in emergency planning," they wrote.

5. Autism is caused by "broken" mirror neurons (and numerous other autism myths)
Writing in 2011, the famous Californian neuroscientist VS. Ramachandran stated "the main cause of autism is a disturbed mirror neuron system". Mirror neurons are cells that respond when we perform an action or see someone else perform that action. The "broken mirror" autism hypothesis is a catchy idea that attracts plenty of coverage and is frequently recycled by popular science writers (for example, writing in the Daily Mail, Rita Carer said "autistic people often lack empathy and have been found to show less mirror-neuron activity"). However, a review published in 2013 of 25 relevant studies found no evidence to support the hypotheses, and just this month another study provided yet more counter evidence. This is just one misconception about autism – others are that it is caused by vaccines and that everyone with autism has a rare gift

6. Vision depends on signals emitted from the eyes
In reality, human vision depends on light rays hitting the retina at the back of the eye. Yet the ancient and wrong idea that it works the opposite way – with rays coming out of the eyes into the world – is still believed by many people, at least according to surveys conducted in the 1990s and 2000s. For example, roughly a third of university students were found to believe that something comes out of the eyes when we see things. Quite why this misconception remains so stubborn is unknown, but we can speculate that it is because, from a subjective perspective, things appear "out there" and also because of the widespread experience people have of "feeling" that they are being stared at. In fact, controlled experiments have shown that while many people clearly do think they've felt someone's stare, they can't actually detect whether someone is staring at their back or not. 

7. The Stanford Prison Experiment shows how the wrong situation can turn anyone bad
One of the most infamous studies in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971, involved student participants being allocated to the role of prisoner or guard, and it had to be aborted when the guards became abusive. Philip Zimbardo who led the study said it showed how certain situational dynamics can turn any of us bad, and this meme of "bad barrels" rather than "bad apples" has entered the public consciousness. Zimbardo even acted as an expert witness for the defence in the real-life trial of one of the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. But the Stanford Experiment was highly flawed and has been misinterpreted. Later research, such as the BBC Prison Experiment, has shown how the same situation can lead to cooperative behaviour rather than tyranny, depending on whether and how different people identify with each other. Unfortunately, many modern psychology textbooks continue to spread a simplistic, uncritical account of the Stanford Experiment

8. The overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are committed by men
A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It's easy to understand why – being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as more of a threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men. 

9. Neurolinguistic Programming is scientific
It's true that a minority of psychologists are trained in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and advocate its use, but it is a serious error to think that NLP is grounded in scientific findings in either psychology or neuroscience. In fact the system – which is usually marketed a way of achieving greater personal success – was developed by two self-help gurus in the 1970s who simply made up their own psychological principles after watching psychotherapists working with their clients. NLP is full of false claims that sound scientific-ish, such as that we each have a preferred "representational system" for thinking about the world, and that the best way to influence someone is to mirror their preferred system. A forensic trawl through all the claims made in NLP programmes found that the overwhelming majority are piffle. In many contexts, this may be harmless, but in 2013 a charity was called to book for offering NLP based therapy to traumatised war veterans. 

10. Mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain
One survey in the US from a few years ago found that over 80 per cent of people believed that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, ask any psychiatrist or neurologist and if they're honest they'll tell you that no one knows what the "correct" balance of chemicals in the brain should be. Part of the support for the imbalance idea comes from the fact that anti-depressant medication alters levels of neurochemicals in the brain, but of course that doesn't mean that a chemical imbalance causes the problems in the first place (any more than a headache is caused by a lack of paracetamol). The myth is actually endorsed by many people with mental health problems and by some mental health campaigners, partly because they believe it lends a medical legitimacy to conditions like depression and anxiety. However, research has shown that biological accounts of mental illness (including the chemical imbalance theory) can increase stigma, for example – by encouraging the idea that mental health problems are permanent. 

--Further reading--
I drew heavily on these books when researching this feature post:
50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology
Great Myths of the Brain

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Psychology's 10 Greatest Case Studies – Digested
10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published
The 10 Most Controversial Psychology Studies Ever Published

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

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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Neuro Harlow: The effect of a mother's touch on her child's developing brain

In the 1950s, the American psychologist Harry Harlow famously showed that infant rhesus monkeys would rather cling to a surrogate wire mother covered in cosy cloth, than to one that provided milk. A loving touch is more important even than food, the findings seemed to show. Around the same time, the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby documented how human children deprived of motherly contact often go on to develop psychological problems. Now this line of research has entered the neuroscience era with a study in Cerebral Cortex claiming that children with more tactile mothers tend to have more developed social brains.

Jens Brauer and his colleagues videoed 43 mum-child dyads as they sat together on a couch and played with a Playmobil Farm. The mothers knew they were being filmed but didn't know the aims of the study. There were 24 boys and 19 girls and their average age was 5.5 years. Coders then watched back the videos and counted every instance that the mothers touched their child or vice versa. Finally and within the next two weeks, the researchers scanned each child's brain while they lay as still as possible looking at a lava lamp screensaver (a brain imaging technique known as a resting-state scan).

The researchers were particularly interested in levels of resting activity in the children's brains in a network of areas known to be involved in functions such as empathy and thinking about other people's mental states – sometimes referred to as the "social brain". They found that the children who were touched more by their mother in the ten-minute play session tended to have more resting activity in the social brain, especially the right superior temporal sulcus (STS). Children who received more touch also showed more resting connectivity between different functional nodes within their social brain, such as between the STS and the inferior frontal gyrus and the left insula.

Children touched more by their mother also usually touched their mothers more, but the links between mothers' touch and the children's neural activity were still significant after factoring this out.

Previous research has found that greater resting activity in a person's social brain is linked with their social and emotional abilities, such as being able to take other people's perspective. Based on this, the researchers said "one may speculate that children with more touch more readily engage the mentalizing component of the 'social brain' and that, perhaps, their interest in others' mental states is greater than that of children with less touch."

The research has some serious limitations, most obviously – and as the researchers' acknowledged – that the results are correlational, so it's possible unknown factors are driving differences in amounts of motherly touch and in the children's brain development. For example, perhaps some mothers are more engaged on many levels, including talking to their children more. Such mothers might be more tactile, but it could be, for instance, the way they talk to their children that is responsible for the brain differences. Another major factor, not mentioned by the researchers, is potential genetic effects. The same genes driving tactile behaviour in mothers might be passed down to their children influencing their brain development. It's also worth noting that it remains to be seen if similar results would be found for levels of touch from a father or other caregiver.

These issues aside, Brauer and his colleagues ask us to consider their results in light of animal research that is able to experimentally control how much motherly touch different individual animals are exposed to. This has shown that greater maternal touch is associated with important brain changes in rats, for example in the way their brains respond to stress, and that rats raised with more touch go on to be more tactile towards their own offspring. "On the backdrop of this work then, it is not unreasonable to suspect a potential causal role of touch for human development," the researchers said.


Brauer, J., Xiao, Y., Poulain, T., Friederici, A., & Schirmer, A. (2016). Frequency of Maternal Touch Predicts Resting Activity and Connectivity of the Developing Social Brain Cerebral Cortex, 26 (8), 3544-3552 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhw137

--further reading--
Neuro Milgram – Your brain takes less ownership of actions that you perform under coercion
Babies' anxiety levels are related to their fathers' nervousness, not their mothers'
It's thanks to Dad that girls are more cautious than boys

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

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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The "Relocation Bump" – how moving house creates lasting memories

Why is our youth, from adolescence to early adulthood, so ripe with memories compared with other times in life? Research has firmly established this "reminiscence bump", with various explanatory theories: it contains many unforgettable first times; the young mind is sharper; and we reflect on these early events to reinforce our sense of identity. The trouble is, it’s tricky to disentangle the role played by these different factors because they all co-occur in youth.

To shed new light on the issue, a research team from the University of New Hampshire has pointed their torch elsewhere. They investigated memories originating later in life, and they’ve found that the period between age 40 and 60 contains its own reminiscence bumps, usually formed around major life transitions. This suggests that youth may have the largest trove of memories, but the psychological reasons for this can also play out at other times of life .

The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, asked participants over the age of 65 to recall five memorable experiences they’d had between the ages of 40 and 60 and to identify the most important residential move they had made during this time – 149 participants could provide all this information.

Lead author Karalyn Enz theorised that periods of life involving major transitions – such as moving house – should give rise to a higher density of memories because the transitions give individual events a novel backdrop that means they are laid more firmly in memory, and/or rehearsed more frequently.

Enz’s team calculated that if participants’ memories of life events were distributed across the relevant time period (between the ages 40 to 60), we should expect just 13 per cent of them to fall in the 3-year period around each individual’s residential move, yet significantly more did – on average 1.3 of each participant’s five memorable experiences occurred around their move – 26 per cent, twice what chance would predict.

The researchers dub this effect the "Relocation Bump", a bump that happened without a young brain or during a time of first booze, first jobs, and first loves. Was the effect simply driven by a different significant life event that drove both the move and the other memories? Sixty-five per cent of participants reported this, with the trigger usually retirement or a change of job. But putting these aside, 24 per cent of participants’ recollections still occurred around moving house. Maybe the effect was driven by memories directly related to the moving event itself? In fact with these removed, the relocation bump remained. A move seems to provide the backdrop for other recollections: new places to eat, to sleep, new parks to walk in, weather patterns to feel, somehow making fertile ground for memories to seed.

In my swansong research presentation at the BPS Annual Conference in York in 2007, I suggested that autobiographical memory research benefits when we don’t just approach measurement in terms of chronological years, but "in terms of events, boundaries or stages that were meaningful to the individual." This work shows why that matters. If we think of memories spread over the lifespan as peaks and flatlands, youth is supposed to be the Rocky mountains, and middle adulthood the Kansas Great Plains. But Enz’s team show these plains have their own hills and crags.


Enz, K., Pillemer, D., & Johnson, K. (2016). The relocation bump: Memories of middle adulthood are organized around residential moves. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145 (8), 935-940 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000188

--further reading--
We remember more from our teens and early twenties than from any other time of life
Introducing the Youth Bias - how we think (almost) everything happens when we're young
What your choice of best ever footballer says about human memory
How is autobiographical memory divided into chapters?
Your life story is made up of transitions and turning points – do you know the difference?

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

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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Killer wives are "wicked", killer husbands are "stressed" – uncovering the sexism in judges' closing remarks

Judges are not perfect, but we expect them to approach their cases clinically and with detachment, interpreting them on their merits, uninfluenced by stereotypes around skin colour, age, or … gender.

Unfortunately, a new study in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law has analysed the sentencing remarks made by judges in domestic murder cases (defined as murder between heterosexual spouses) and found that they framed killings by men in far more lenient and forgiving terms than killings by women.

Guy Hall and his colleagues at Perth’s Murdock University looked at cases from the 2000s in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales. The team worked through nine judges’ sentencing remarks for male offenders, analysing the text qualitatively to find patterns and themes, stopping after nine cases as the themes firmed up. Against these nine cases, the team analysed remarks from five trials that involved female perpetrators. The sex of the judges is not specified but the accounts include plenty of references to "His honour" but none to "Her honour".

Sentencing remarks are given together with the court sentence itself, and are the judge’s reasons for choosing the sentence they did, using plain language to explain their reasons to the community, the victims, and the offender themselves.

When a man was in the dock, judges frequently talked about the offender's character, making references to endorsements from other authorities such as employers or community figures. They also emphasised the man’s suffering, such as anguish at being left by his wife. In fact, the mental state of male offenders seemed of great, sometimes peculiar interest to the ruling judges.

Hall’s team outline how remarks in eight of the nine male cases had an extensive description – "suffering from severe psychological distress", "acted as a man stressed and depressed, rather than as one in control" – and that one judge spent 11 of his 34 paragraphs of remarks discussing the offender’s mental state. Judges would do this even when they explicitly noted that this had little mitigatory relevance to the crime. Hall’s team also found cases of victim blaming, with one judge stating bluntly "your wife was the source of the conflict" – you may have resolved the conflict with lethal means, the judge seemed to be implying, but let the court be aware, she started it.

When a woman was in the dock, praise was rare and faint, for example one judge stated that a woman murderer "was clearly doing well in her studies". In contrast, negative references to character were frequent, citing issues such as "inability to pay her household debts", or that her crime indicated a "lack of concern for [her] children’s wellbeing" – an issue not raised when a man was the murderer.

Judges also brought into consideration the sexual conduct of the women offenders in the time period following the murders they committed, the relevance of which I struggle to see. The judges who presided over these cases sometimes sprinkled in some warmer character references – "good provider" or "honest, hard-working" … but these were for their (male) victims.

Perhaps the most striking language difference was how the judges reached for old notions of evil when describing women who kill men. In three of the five cases, the sentencing judge used the word wickedness – "your wickedness knew no bounds" – and one judge went fully biblical by describing the financial gain associated with the murder as "30 pieces of silver", drawing associations between a woman murdering a man, and a man murdering a god.

Hall’s team discuss the implications of the judges’ bias in terms of severity of sentencing, but it’s difficult to draw any conclusions as the sample is too small. It’s true that in the 14 cases under study, the two most severe punishments were for women, and the average female sentence was higher than the most severe sentence given to a man. More systematic work suggests that typically men get harsher sentences, although we should note that this past research didn’t focus on domestic murder, and that some of the suggested drivers for harsher male sentencing don’t hold in this case – for example, the "girlfriend theory" that women get lighter sentences when convicted together with a man, as they are considered more of a hanger-on than the driver of the crime.

What I find interesting about the sexism on display in the current study is how it is partly explained by the judge’s decisions about whether or not “general deterrence” is served by the sentence. General deterrence is the motive of punishing an individual to send a message to those who might consider doing the same thing. In several cases with male perpetrators, but none of the women, the judge explicitly mentioned general deterrence – denying its appropriateness – as they attributed the criminal action to the mental state of the man.

The judges’ message seems to be that it’s a sad fact of life that "good men" kill because of anguish due to conflict-initiating women, and there is no way to do anything about this, because it’s just the way the world works. Meanwhile, women who kill are wickedly calculating and a message should be sent to prevent other women getting the same idea. As this study does not attempt to match cases for context or severity, it is possible that this is an artefact of the particular crimes covered, and that another study might find wicked scheming men and hot-blooded women. But note, as Hall’s team do, how much the findings track broader stereotypes about male violence and tally with taboos about women acting against men.

Are these findings particular to Australian culture or is this something we would also see in the UK and elsewhere?  This study should open a conversation, and further research into how judges treat domestic killers in the dock.


Hall, G., Whittle, M., & Field, C. (2016). Themes in Judges' Sentencing Remarks for Male and Female Domestic Murderers Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 23 (3), 395-412 DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2015.1080142

--further reading--
Judges are more lenient toward a psychopath when given a neuro explanation for his condition
The psychology of female serial killers
How our judgments about criminals are swayed by disgust, biological explanations and animalistic descriptions
Fingerprint matching is biased by the assessor's prejudices

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

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Monday, 25 July 2016

Taking photos will boost your enjoyment of experiences, researchers say

The last time I went to the Thames to enjoy London's New Year's Eve firework display, I ended up watching it on a little screen. Everyone around me was holding up their phones, taking pictures of the pretty light-filled sky, obscuring my view in the process. I scoffed privately at their inanity – why couldn't they just enjoy the moment rather than trying to capture it in a megabyte?

My scorn might have been misplaced. Based on their series of nine studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of US psychologists has concluded that taking photographs enhances our enjoyment of events, likely because it increases our sense of immersion.

Led by Kristin Diehl at the University of Southern California, the research featured several field studies, including people on a city bus tour, diners at a farmers market and visitors to a museum. In each case, half the participants were told they couldn't take photos, the others that they could. Afterwards, they rated their enjoyment of the experiences, and the consistent finding was that people who took photos enjoyed themselves more and felt more immersed in the experience. The museum study also involved the participants wearing eye tracking equipment and this showed that the photo-takers spent more time paying attention to meaningful exhibits.

Other studies were conducted in the lab and aimed to simulate the experience of taking photos at a live event, or not. For example, participants watched a first-person perspective video of being on a tour of London, and half of them could take "photos" by making a mouse click, whereas the others didn't have this opportunity.

The benefits of taking photographs to enjoyment and immersion were replicated in these lab conditions, unless the process was made more distracting, for example through giving participants the chance to delete photos they'd taken. These simulations also showed that thinking about when one would hypothetically take photos, but not actually taking them, also boosted enjoyment – again, likely because of the mindful mindset inspired by thinking this way.

There were some limits to the boon of photography. When the experience was negative (in this case, being on a gory safari), then taking photos made things worse. Also, if the experience was very interactive – a hands-on arts and crafts challenge – the opportunity to take photos added nothing to the enjoyment, but neither was it detrimental.

Despite the impressive array of studies, I'm not convinced. Even if taking photographs increases your enjoyment, it may do so at others' expense, especially if your phone blocks their view! There must be a personal preference factor here too, something the researchers touched upon. For example, among the diners in the photo-taking condition at the farmers market, those with pre-existing negative beliefs about taking photos did not get an enjoyment boost from taking pics of their meal.

--How taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences

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

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No, autistic people do not have a "broken" mirror neuron system – new evidence

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Scientists are still struggling to understand the causes of autism. A difficulty bonding with others represents one of the core symptoms and has been the focus of several theories that try and explain exactly why these deficits come about.

One of the more prominent examples, the “broken mirror hypothesis”, suggests that an impaired development of the mirror neuron system (MNS) is to blame. First observed in monkeys, mirror neurons are more active when you perform a certain action and when you see someone else engage in the same behavior – for example, when you smile or when you see someone else smile.

This “mirroring” has been hypothesised to help us understand what others are feeling by sharing their emotional states, although this is disputed. Another behaviour that is thought to depend on an intact mirror neuron system is facial mimicry – the way that people spontaneously and unconsciously mimic the emotional facial expressions of others.

Interestingly, studies have shown that people with autism do not spontaneously mimic others’ facial expressions, which could explain why they often struggle to “read” people’s emotions or have trouble interacting socially. Some experts have claimed these findings lend support to “broken” mirroring in autism, but this has remained controversial. Now a study in Autism Research has used a new way to measure facial mimicry and the results cast fresh doubt on the idea that autism is somehow caused by a broken mirror neuron system.

Martin Schulte-Rüther and his colleagues made use of a well-studied psychological phenomenon: that performing certain movements (e.g. lifting the right finger) is more difficult when we see another person perform a similar (but not the same) movement (e.g. lifting the middle finger). This could be explained by us automatically mirroring the movements of the other person, which then interferes with our own action. Something similar happens with facial expressions, too: Seeing someone smile makes frowning more difficult for us. Because this relies on an intact mirror neuron system, the authors hypothesised that, if this system is perturbed in autism, then people on the spectrum will not experience interference by others' facial expressions.

The researchers asked 18 boys/teenagers with autism (average age 16 years) and 18 neurotypical age-matched male controls to smile or frown depending on the color of a dot that appeared superimposed on the picture of a smiling, frowning or neutral face. Participants were instructed to focus on the dot color rather than the faces, but actually part of the idea of this design was that the location of the dots meant the faces were impossible to ignore – this was to counteract the possibility that participants with autism would simply be less inclined than normal to look at facial or social stimuli.

To check if any observed deficits were specific to emotional stimuli, the participants also completed a similar task with dots superimposed on non-facial stimuli devoid of emotion, such as a diamond. For all stimuli types, the researchers assessed whether and how fast participants performed the appropriate emotional expressions by recording their facial muscle activity with a technique called electromyography.

Across both tasks, control participants and those with autism performed faster and with fewer errors where the required action was congruent with the emotional expression of the superimposed face – in other words, automatic facial mimicry was intact in autism. Interestingly, controls with higher self-rated empathy showed faster smiling in congruent conditions whereas individuals with autism showed no correlation between automatic facial mimicry and empathy.

What does this mean for understanding autistic spectrum conditions?

These results do not support the broken mirror hypothesis because they show that involuntary, spontaneous facial mimicry – which supposedly depends on the mirror neuron system – is intact in individuals with autism. This is an exciting result because it contrasts with previous investigations and indicates that while people with autism struggle to understand others this is not attributable to “broken mirrors”.

In line with a functional mirror neuron system, autism-related deficits in social interactions/bonding might instead be the consequence of reduced social motivation. For example, perhaps individuals with autism mimic the facial expression of others less not because they lack the capacity to do so, but because they are less motivated to bond socially or because social stimuli are not as salient or rewarding to them. On a positive note, since the mirror neuron system seems to be intact in autism, future studies could zoom in on how to make use of this fact for developing possible therapies.


Schulte-Rüther, M., Otte, E., Adigüzel, K., Firk, C., Herpertz-Dahlmann, B., Koch, I., & Konrad, K. (2016). Intact mirror mechanisms for automatic facial emotions in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder Autism Research DOI: 10.1002/aur.1654

--further reading--
Mirror neurons: the most hyped concept in neuroscience?
What is the correct way to talk about autism? There isn't one
Autistic children's sensory experiences, in their own words
A calm look at the most hyped concept in neuroscience – mirror neurons

Post written by Helge Hasselmann for the BPS Research Digest. Helge studied psychology and clinical neurosciences. Since 2014, he is a PhD student in medical neurosciences at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, Germany, with a focus on understanding the role of the immune system in major depression.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Link feast

Our editor's pick of the 10 best psychology and neuroscience links from the last week or so:

The Psychological Tricks Behind Pokemon Go's Success
Nintendo's latest video game has become an overnight sensation. What’s the appeal?

Split Second Responses?
At The Psychologist magazine, Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, considers the research on police and guns, and calls for more psychological enquiry.

Mystery of What Sleep Does to Our Brains May Finally Be Solved
It's the brain's equivalent of housekeeping.

The Mystery of Urban Psychosis
Why are paranoia and schizophrenia more common in cities?

The Scientific Reality of the Addictive Personality – Insights From Cocaine-addicted Rats
Evidence from research labs tells us that it is indeed possible to produce rats with what appear to be ‘addictive personalities’ – something that was used in a recently published set of experiments by researchers from the University of Michigan.

Why Small Talk Is So Excruciating
To "talk well" in the social sense, to be adept at sending the correct social signals, is a different skill than "talking well" in the communicative sense.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Personality and Well-Being with Dr. Brian Little
Who am I? Am I just a product of nature and/or nurture? What does it mean to live a life of meaning and happiness? On this episode of The Psychology Podcast, Dr. Brian Little helps us explore these existentially significant questions.

Why You Don't Know Your Own Mind
It is assumed that your experience of your own consciousness clinches the assertion that you “know your own mind” in a way that no one else can. This is a mistake.

Human Brain Mapped in Unprecedented Detail
Nearly 100 previously unidentified brain areas revealed by examination of the cerebral cortex.

The Many Ways to Map the Brain
It takes both science and art to make sense of the organ’s complexities.

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

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Altruistic people have more sex

People who perform regular altruistic acts like giving
blood also tend to have more sex.
Viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, altruism takes some explaining. In a dog eat dog world, it seems like a risky, indulgent habit. Yet we are only alive today because our distant ancestors were successful at reproducing – and the fact many of us have inherited their altruistic tendencies suggests that being altruistic gave them some kind of survival or reproductive advantage.

One idea is that altruism is advantageous because it is often reciprocated. Another is that altruism is a "costly signal" that tells potential sexual partners you would make a good mate – if you've the freedom to be charitable, this suggests you must be capable and resourceful. Supporting this "costly signal" account, plentiful past research has shown that signs of altruism increase both men's and women's attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Now an article in the British Journal of Psychology has followed through on this logic to find out whether more altruistic people aren't just more attractive, but actually have more sex. This is an important test because as Steven Arnocky and his colleagues explain, "... it is actual mating outcomes which ultimately contribute to the evolution of particular phenotypes". Stated differently, if the more altruistic of our forebears were not only perceived as more attractive, but also had more sex, this would help explain why many modern humans have inherited the inclination to be altruistic.

One of the best indicators we have of whether our more altruistic forebears were likely to have had more sex is to see if, today, more altruistic people continue to have more sex than less altruistic people. That's what Arnocky and his team aimed to discover through two studies involving young adult Canadians.

They first asked 192 unmarried women and 105 unmarried men to describe their own altruistic tendencies, such as whether they give money to charity, donate blood, help people across the street and so on. They also asked them questions about their sexual history and their desirability to the opposite sex.

Men and women who scored higher on altruism said they were more attractive to, and received more interest from the opposite sex. Men, but not women, who scored higher on altruism also tended to report having had more sexual partners in their lifetime, and also more casual sexual partners specifically. Focusing on just those participants in a current long-term relationship, the more altruistic men and women in this group reported having more sex in their relationship over the last 30 days.

Results from Study 1. Green dashed line=male participants; red=female. Figure from Arnocky et al, 2016
Of course this first study was limited by its reliance on participants' descriptions of their own altruism. Perhaps people who have more sex are simply inclined to brag more about being altruistic. To overcome this problem, a second study involving 335 undergrads featured a test of actual altruistic tendencies by giving participants the opportunity to donate to charity their potential $100 winnings for taking part in the study.

The participants also answered questions about their sexual history, and this time there were measures of their narcissism and their tendency to give socially desirable answers (this last scale essentially involved participants rating statements about themselves – e.g. "I never regret any decisions" – as true or not, and it was possible to tell from the answers if someone was painting an unrealistically positive image of themselves).

Even factoring out the narcissists and higher scorers on the social desirability scale, the second study found that actual altruistic tendencies correlated with having more sex. Among men only, this included having had more sexual partners in the past, and among men and women, having had more casual sex partners in their lifetime, and more sex partners in the past year.

The researchers said their findings add to past research on hunter-gatherer tribes that have shown men who hunt and who share more meat among non-relatives also tend to have more sex. The new results also converge with past evidence suggesting that altruistic men and women are seen as more desirable.

"The present study provides the first empirical evidence that altruism may tangibly benefit mating in humans living in Western industrialised society,"  the researchers said,  "and that sex differences might exist with respect to the utility of altruism for mating, whereby it is a more effective signal for men than for women."

One big caveat, acknowledged by the researchers – these results are correlational so it's not clear which way the causal juices are flowing. An alternative interpretation of the results is that having more sex and sexual partners encourages people to feel generous towards others and be more altruistic. We'll have to await longitudinal research that charts people's sexual habits and altruism over time to settle this question, though the idea that altruism leads to more sex is certainly consistent with the past evidence suggesting altruistic behaviour causes increases in a person's desirability.


Arnocky, S., Piché, T., Albert, G., Ouellette, D., & Barclay, P. (2016). Altruism predicts mating success in humans British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12208

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

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Thursday, 21 July 2016

You're more likely to be (unintentionally) plagiarised by someone who is the same sex as you

Look at some of the most high-profile plagiarism scandals, such as Joe Biden's supposed borrowing from Neil Kinnock, novelist Kaavya Viswanathan's "unintentional" plagiarism of Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot, science writer Jonah Lehrer's lifting words from this blog, and this week, Melania Trump's echoing of phrases used previously by Michelle Obama (though a speech-writer has taken the blame for this).

Notice a pattern?

In each case, the alleged plagiarists copied others of the same sex. This is anecdotal of course and there are exceptions to the rule – for instance Viswanathan is also alleged to have copied from Salman Rushdie. And yet, maybe there is a psychological phenomenon at work here, especially in instances of unintentional plagiarism – known technically as cryptomnesia – where the plagiarist believes at a conscious level that their words are original, not remembering their true provenance.

For a new study in the journal Memory, Timothy Hollins and his colleagues asked dozens of participants to attend the psych lab and, in pairs, to generate words fitting different subject categories such as Articles of Clothing, Fruit, or Four-Footed Animals. Crucially, some participants did this in same-sex pairs and others in opposite-sex pairs. A week later the participants were recalled to the lab where some of them had to recall just the ideas they'd produced, some had to recall just their partner's ideas, while others attempted to recall both their own and their partner's ideas at the same time under two separate lists.

When asked to recall just their own ideas, or just their partner's, participants were more likely to make errors when their partner was the same sex as them – that is, mistakenly claiming their partner's ideas as their own, or more commonly, their own ideas as their partner's. Presumably having a partner of the same sex made it easier to confuse in memory whose ideas were whose. However, this effect of partner similarity was not present for those participants who were asked to recall separate lists of their own and their partner's ideas at the same time, showing that the confusing effect of partner similarity on memory was surmountable when given a more explicit prompt to make the distinction.

In further, similar experiments with more participants, the researchers looked to see what effect it made at the recall stage whether a participant's partner was present or not. This time, the results showed that participants were more likely to mistakenly recall their partner's memories as their own when their partner was absent, but again only when asked to recall just their own memories, not when asked to list separately their own and their partner's memories. Presumably the presence of a partner made it easier (and more important) to remember whose ideas were whose, although this memory aid had no noticeable benefit when participants were prompted more explicitly to distinguish idea ownership through making separate lists.

Admittedly, these interesting studies are far removed from plagiarism in the real world. As the researchers themselves noted: "Real world interactions, unlike our experiments, rarely involve people taking turns to generate solutions in the knowledge that their memory will be tested later. Additionally, our participants may not have been particularly motivated to claim ownership of generation of a category member in the way that they may care about the genesis of an original scientific idea, a business idea, or a creative output."

Nonetheless, the findings highlight an important, basic memory phenomenon that may play out in the real world – it seems we probably are more likely to confuse our ideas with those of another person when we and they are more similar.

Helpfully, there is also a real-world lesson here in the further finding that partner similarity made no difference to memory mistakes when participants were asked to explicitly recall both their own and partner's ideas at the same time.

As the researchers explained: "When we attempt to reconstruct our memories of past conversations, or of conferences we have attended, the best way to avoid social influences on our source errors is to try to simultaneously recall the contributions from both partners, rather than trying to recall just one source. However, in so doing, we should be aware that we are likely to be attributing our ideas to them than claiming their ideas as our own. But then, as children we are taught that giving is better than receiving."


Hollins, T., Lange, N., Dennis, I., & Longmore, C. (2016). Social influences on unconscious plagiarism and anti-plagiarism Memory, 24 (7), 884-902 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1059857

--further reading--
By what age do children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

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

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

There's a simple trick to reduce your mind wandering while studying

It happens to all of us – we're meant to be focused on the page in the book, but our mind is turned inwards thinking about other stuff (Must remember to charge my phone, What time did I say I'd meet Sarah?) Thankfully a new study in Memory and Cognition identifies a straightforward way to reduce how much your mind wanders off topic when you're studying. You just need to ensure the materials you're learning are in your sweet spot – not too easy and not too difficult.

For one experiment, Judy Xu and Janet Metcalfe tested the ability of 26 students to translate 179 different English words into Spanish. For any that the students got wrong, they were asked to say whether they were close to learning the word or miles off. Based on this, the researchers created a tailor-made list of word pairs for each participant – some already mastered, some unknown but not far off being learned (psychologists call this the "region of proximal learning"), and finally some difficult word pairs that were far from being learned.

Next, the students spent time studying the easy, medium and difficult word pairs, and periodically they were given an onscreen prompt that asked them whether they were on-task or mind wandering (which they admitted to doing on about one third of the prompts). Finally, the students were tested on the word pairs they'd just studied. As the researchers predicted, the students mind wandered more while studying more difficult word pairs, compared with medium difficulty, and there was a trend for them to mind wander more during study of easy word pairs. Moreover, the final test showed that the students showed superior learning of word pairs for which they'd been on-task rather than mind wandering during the study phase.

A final experiment showed how these effects vary with a person's mastery of the material. Dozens more students were tested twice on easy, medium and difficult English-Spanish word pairs after two successive sessions of study. Poorer performers on the tests showed greater mind wandering when studying the more difficult pairs, while the stronger performers mind wandered more while studying the easier items.

The researchers said their findings suggest there is a "delicate balance" to be struck to find the right level of learning difficulty to reduce mind wandering (and so increase learning), and that the sweet spot depends on the difficulty of the materials and the expertise of the learner. You could try doing some basic self-testing alone or with a friend to try to find study material that's in your sweet spot. Concluding, the researchers said: "Our results suggest that students may sometimes mind wander not because of an inherent lack of motivation or an inability to learn, but rather because the difficulty of the to-be-learned materials is inappropriate."


Xu, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Studying in the region of proximal learning reduces mind wandering Memory & Cognition, 44 (5), 681-695 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-016-0589-8

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

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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

If you do everything you can to avoid plot spoilers, you're probably a thinker

It's a vexing First World Problem – how to avoid people giving away, on Twitter or at the water cooler, the events of the latest Game of Thrones episode before you've caught it. Psychologists are beginning to study this modern scourge, albeit in the context of written stories rather than TV shows, but so far their findings have been contradictory – one study suggested that spoiled stories were actually more enjoyable (possibly because they're easier to process), while a later investigation found the precise opposite. Now a research team led by Judith Rosenbaum has entered the fray with a study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that suggests one reason for the contradictory results is that the effects of spoilers depend on how much a person likes to engage their brain, and how much they enjoy emotional stimulation.

In psychological jargon these traits are known as "need for cognition" and "need for affect", respectively. The former is measured through disagreement with statements like "I only think as hard as I have to" and the latter via agreement with statements such as "Emotions help people get along in life".

Figure from Rosenbaum et al 2016
The researchers first presented over 350 students, mostly African Americans at a university in Southeastern USA, with several previews of classic short stories, some of which contained plot spoilers and some that didn't, and then asked them to say which of the stories they'd like to read. The students also completed measures of their need for cognition and affect, and the critical finding was that those who scored low on "need for cognition" tended to say they would prefer to read the full versions of stories that were previewed with plot spoilers. "When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing", the researchers said.

Next, the students read some classic short stories (such as Two Were Left and Death of a Clerk) in full, some of which had been "spoiled" by a preview, and some not, and then rated their enjoyment of the stories. This time, "need for cognition" was unrelated to enjoyment, but "need for affect" was, in that people with a greater desire for emotional stimulation got more pleasure from unspoiled stories, as did the students who read fiction more frequently.

One positive way to look at these findings is that encountering a spoiler may not ruin your enjoyment as much as you think it will (if you're a deep thinker), but probably will be a downer if you're the kind of person who likes emotional surprises. Alternatively, perhaps this study is just too far removed from reality to offer much insight – after all, as the researchers acknowledge, they didn't look at TV shows or movies (where plot spoilers are arguably more common), nor did they consider important variables such as genre (spoilers are presumably much more of an issue for horror and suspense) or story/show length.

--Who’s Afraid of Spoilers: Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment

--further reading--
A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Emphasising that science involves collaboration and helping others increases its appeal as a career

Scientific work is unfairly perceived by many people as a solitary, even lonely enterprise, concerned with abstracted goals rather than helping others. While some scientific work calls for a quiet room (at the least, noise-cancelling headphones), the reality is that the enterprise as a whole involves plenty of communal aspects, from collaboration and discussions to teaching and mentoring. In new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from the University of Miami have explored whether, by emphasising its communal goals, science could be made a more attractive career choice, especially to women who are underrepresented in the field.

In a first study, Emily Clark’s team asked a gender-balanced sample of 165 students to read a description of a fictional scientist’s day-to-day activities. For half the participants, the scientist’s tasks were described as being tackled solo (“he looks up relevant past research to consult about the procedure”) whereas other participants read a description modified to emphasise communal behaviours (“he meets some of his lab group in the lab and consults with them about the procedures”).

In a survey that followed, male and female participants exposed to scientific communal behaviours were more likely to agree that entry-level science roles “fulfil goals such as intimacy, working with people, and helping others in general” – showing that the manipulation worked – and these participants expressed more positivity about the idea of pursuing a scientific career themselves. This was true to the same extent whether the scientist was presented as a woman or a man – a surprising result given that people usually see women as having more communal interests, so you'd think a female scientist performing communal activities would have had an additive effect.

However, a second study suggested that science’s communal credentials can be boosted when female scientists are depicted as having stereotypically female interests outside of their lab work. Here, 156 student participants rated their personal interest in communal goals like intimacy and helping others, before reading a description of one of two female scientists. The two characterisations were identical in their work activities but differed in the hobbies they pursued in their free time: one enjoyed more gendered activities like yoga and knitting, the other gender-neutral ones like photography and running.

A subset of participants who read about the more explicitly gendered scientist gave higher ratings of science as communal, and rated science more positively. These were the participants who had said they cared strongly about communal goals – they apparently "read" the characterisation more closely, and made more of the implications.

What does this research mean for what science institutions should do? Firstly, that to frame science as communal, women role models are more of an asset when allowed to be seen as women. This isn’t to advocate that women scientists should feel a burden to act more stereotypically (which would put them in a double bind, given recent findings), but that marketers and communicators should accept that a more three-dimensional account of women scientists is likely to make more of an impact than a nominal use of the occasional female face on a website or a scattering of feminine names throughout some literature. Secondly, that a very straightforward way to send the message about science’s communal nature is simply to demonstrate it in action, ensuring that the interactive experience of scientists – no matter their gender – is visible and accessible.


Clark, E., Fuesting, M., & Diekman, A. (2016). Enhancing interest in science: exemplars as cues to communal affordances of science Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12392

--further reading--
Hey girls: Science helps people!
Social, creative - that's physics!
Encourage students into science by targeting their parents

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

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