Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Researchers have analysed the somniloquies of the world's most prolific sleep talker

Album artwork for Dion McGregor Dreams Again
The "most extensive sleep talker ever recorded", according to a new article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality, is the late American songwriter Dion McGregor. McGregor's unusual sleeping behaviour – one commentator said he "sounds as if he were channeling Truman Capote on acid: flirtatious, slushy, disconnected from reality ..." – first became public in the 1960s when McGregor shared a New York apartment with a posse of other artists and creative types. His song-writing partner and flat-mate, Mike Barr, became so fascinated by McGregor's extensive somniloquies – most were over 100 words long – that he made more than 500 recordings of them, and they were released as a CD and book: The Dream World of Dion McGregor. Now a team of sleep experts led by Deirdre Barrett at Harvard Medical School have analysed 294 of these recordings to see how their content compares with typical dreams.

The researchers coded McGregor's somniloquies for content using an established scale that is used for analysing dreams, and which includes checklists for characters, aggression, friendliness, sexual interaction, success, misfortune and good fortune. Then they used another scale that's for coding the bizarreness of dreams, including elements of discontinuity (sudden changes in time and place or identity), incongruity (contradictions, such as saying a building has only one entrance, and then saying the building was entered a different way), and uncertainty and vagueness.

Compared with average dream scores on the scales, McGregor was more active in his somniloquies than most dreamers, while his sleep talk contained less aggression, less friendliness and less sex than usual dreams, fewer negative emotions, good fortune and success, but much more self-negativity and more female characters than is typical for men. His sleep talking was also less bizarre than the average dream, with fewer plot incongruities and contradictions.

The researchers provide this example to show a typical element in McGregor's somniloquies, which while fantastical is not confused in plot or thought (unlike much typical dream content):
Oh, that doesn’t complete my collection at all! No! Oh no! Well let’s see, I have a dodo, and a rock, and a phoenix . . . oh dear! A pterodactyl, yes, the unicorn, the griffin, dear, oh yes, well a mermaid doesn’t count, she’s out in the pool! No . . . well, if she ever gets out I’m gonna mate her with the centaur! Yes! What do you think?! Certainly! Well, I don’t know. What do you think? Well, if you don’t mate them you know they’ll die off! (Tzadik Records, 1999, “The Collection”)
Album artwork for Dreaming Like Mad
With Dion McGregor
Other examples of content from McGregor's sleep talking include him going door to door asking women if they have their favourite dress on, a roll call of people entering a hot air balloon for a moon trip (which ends after an encounter with sharp-beaked storks) and playing a game of "food roulette" with "a Lazy Susan of poisoned eclairs".

The researchers think there are two explanations for the differences between McGregor's somniloquies and typical dream content. One is that much sleep talking does not occur during dreams, and in fact people's brain waves during sleep talking are distinct from those usually seen during dreaming, featuring fewer waves in the alpha frequency range, which they explained could be a sign of more frontal brain activity. The researchers further describe this as "an unusual state midway between waking and sleeping" (backing this up, there is a McGregor interview in which he says a sleep researcher recorded his brain activity during sleep talking and found a mix of sleep and waking brain wave patterns).

The other reason for the distinct content of McGregor's somniloquies, the researchers believe, is simply to do with his personal characteristics: he was they say a quirky character with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he was likely homosexual, and he had an obsession with actresses (this last point could help explain the preponderance of female characters in his dreams). This perspective is consistent with the "continuity hypothesis" of dream content – the idea that "our actions and thoughts in everyday life also determine what we will dream about".

Surprisingly little is known about the psychology and neuroscience of sleep talking and so this case study provides an intriguing addition to the literature. "Of course Dion McGregor is only one subject, so we can not generalise," the researchers said, adding: "It would be interesting in future research to gather REM sleep-talking reports from a large sample of subjects to see if these differences from dream reports and continuities with waking traits consistently characterise talking from REM sleep." For his part, McGregor was much more interested in his waking creative works (he sold songs to Barbara Streisand, among others) than his sleep talking: "it's like being famous for wetting your bed," he said.


Barrett, D., Grayson, M., Oh, A., & Sogolow, Z. (2015). A Content Analysis of Dion McGregor's Sleep-Talking Episodes Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 35 (1), 72-83 DOI: 10.1177/0276236615574495

--further reading--
This guy turned surreal sleep talking into a cult album
Here's a really simple trick that could help you enjoy more lucid dreams
Does dreaming of exam failure affect your real-life chances of success?
Older people have more black and white dreams

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

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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

New research challenges the idea that women have more elaborate autobiographical memories than men 

The longest autobiographical narratives were produced by men talking to women 
Prior research has found that women elaborate more than men when talking about their autobiographical memories, going into more detailmentioning more emotions and providing more interpretation. One problem with this research, though, is that it hasn't paid much attention to who is listening or whether the memories are spoken or written.

This is unfortunate because findings like these can fuel overly simplistic gender-based assumptions – in this case, the idea that women have more elaborate and emotional autobiographical memories than men. A new study in the journal Memory reminds us, in the words of Robyn Fivush, that "autobiographical memory is not something we have but something we do in interaction". Specifically, the new research finds that the way people recall their memories depends on who is listening. In fact, when the listening researcher was a woman, the male participants provided more long-winded descriptions of their memories than the female participants.

Azriel Grysman and Amelia Denney at Hamilton College, New York recruited 178 student participants (average age 19; 101 women) and asked them to describe "an episode in your life that was stressful to you", with further guidance that it must be a single event lasting no longer than a day, and that they should "try to imagine the event in as much detail as possible" before beginning their description, for which "there is no correct or incorrect length". Crucially, half the students performed this exercise alone in the psych lab with a female researcher, and half alone with a male researcher. Also, half described their memory out loud (they were told the researcher would simply nod periodically), while the others were instructed to type their memories into a computer.

The researchers coded the length and content of all the memories which were about things like academic stress, arguments, injuries and the death of pets. Contrary to prior research, the longest autobiographical memories were those produced by male participants speaking to a female researcher. The actual content of men's memories didn't vary according to gender of the listener, nor whether they were writing or speaking. By contrast, the female participants' memories contained fewer mentions of internal states (people's emotions and feelings) when speaking or writing with a male researcher,  and they provided fewer opinions when verbally describing their memories as compared with typing them (regardless of the gender of the listener).

We need to be aware that the results could be different if older and non-student participants were tested, and also if the memory prompt were different. There was also a confound in the study, in that the two male researchers who took turns to accompany the (predominantly White) participants were White, whereas the three female researchers were Asian-American and non-White Hispanic, although the researchers couldn't find any evidence that one or more of the researchers was having an influence on the results.

"The findings reported here emphasise the importance of context in autobiographical memory report," the researchers concluded. "The implications of these findings are that autobiographical memories include the constantly interacting influences of person, audience, and the experimental or conversational context."


Grysman, A., & Denney, A. (2016). Gender, experimenter gender and medium of report influence the content of autobiographical memory report Memory, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1133829

--further reading--
Some perfectly healthy people can't remember their own lives
Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail
Repression redux? It is possible to deliberately forget details from our past

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

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Monday, 8 February 2016

How the home crowd affects football referees' decisions

One of the most thorough investigations into referee bias has found that they tend to award harsher foul punishments to the away team. The new results, published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, suggest that experienced referees are just as prone to this bias as their less experienced colleagues.

Andrés Picazo-Tadeo and his team analysed data from 2,651 matches played in the First Division of La Liga, the Spanish Football League between the 2002/3 and 2009/10 seasons, inclusive. Unlike previous research, they were careful to consider the referees' foul decisions separately from the awarding of penalty cards (given as punishment for serious fouls). It's been shown before that referees tend to award more free kicks and cards in favour of the home team, but this is not strong evidence for a home team bias because it's possible that away teams simply tend to commit more fouls. The new research specifically looks not just at the distribution of referees' foul decisions between home and away teams, but it also examines separately how harshly referees punish any fouls.

In fact, the research uncovered no difference in the number of fouls that referees attributed to home and away teams. But after a foul, referees tended to punish away teams more harshly with more yellow and red cards, and this was especially the case when the home crowd was larger. The presence of a running track between the pitch and the crowd made no difference, and as mentioned, neither did referee experience. The basic result complements a recent lab study that also found that simulated crowd noise influenced referees to punish fouls more severely.

Picazo-Tadeo and his colleagues speculate that perhaps referees' initial foul decisions are made relatively automatically, in the heat of unfolding play, thus making them immune to social pressure from the home crowd. In contrast, after play has halted, the referee has time to decide on the severity of the infringement and here the noise of the crowd may sway their thinking – indeed, they may even, without realising they are doing it, use the noise of the crowd as a cue for the seriousness of the foul. This would inevitably bias their decisions against the away team because of the noisy protests of the larger home crowd whenever one of their players was the victim of a foul.

An important caveat is that although the study took account of the number of fouls made by each team, the researchers don't have any objective measure (beyond the referees' card decisions) of the actual seriousness of the fouls committed. It's possible that away teams tend to commit more serious fouls than home teams, which if true would undermine the results.

Notwithstanding this possibility, the researchers said their results suggest that local supporters can influence referee decisions after a foul has been called. "One recommendation for supporters is that they should exert more social pressure in the moments immediately after a referee indicates that the away team has committed a foul," they said. Meanwhile, they recommended that referee training incorporate lessons on how to ignore irrelevant cues, such as crowd noise.


Picazo-Tadeo, A., González-Gómez, F., & Guardiola, J. (2016). Does the crowd matter in refereeing decisions? Evidence from Spanish soccer International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2015.1126852

--further reading--
Football fouls more likely to be given when play heads left
Race and foul judgments in football - it's not black and white

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

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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Link feast

Our editor's pick of this week's 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

Why We Should Talk to The Humans
Transcript of an inspiring talk by Dan Gilbert on why it is important for psychologists to engage with the public.

How to Have a Good Day (video)
In this recent talk at the RSA in London, Caroline Webb (author of the new book How to Have a Good Day) shows us how to use findings from behavioural economics, psychology, and neuroscience to transform our approach to everyday working life.

Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce
A new finding I covered for New York's Science of Us casts an old one in a very different, more free-will-friendly light.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts (new podcast)
Susan Cain, bestselling author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" hosts this new ten-part weekly series on parenting and teaching introverted children.

We Need to Rewrite the Textbook on How to Teach Teachers
At his Neurobonkers blog Simon Oxenham has the low down on a new report that "describes a vast and severe failure of teacher-training courses and the textbooks that accompany them to convey evidence-based practices; while delivering unsupported anecdotal evidence and well-debunked myths in spades".

Neuro-hit or Neuro-myth?
A new resource from the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Innovations In Mental Health (audio)
From Fitbits that monitor the sleep patterns of patients with schizophrenia to apps that help you manage your mood, tech is increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to traditional health and wellbeing techniques. Is it too good to be true, asks the latest edition of The Guardian's Tech Weekly podcast, presented by Nathalie Nahai.

What Little Babies See That You No Longer Can
Before developing perceptual constancy, three- to four-month-old babies have a striking ability to see image differences that are invisible to adults," writes  Susana Martinez-Conde at Scientific American. They lose this superior skill around the age of five months.

A Simple Way To Break A Bad Habit (video)
Newly released TED talk by Judson Brewer.

The Wonder and Fragility of Our Internal Lives
The Psychologist previews the new States of Mind Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

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

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Friday, 5 February 2016

Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There's a simple and fun way to test a toddler's self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the "mirror self-recognition test" (it's used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids "pass" the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more "distal" involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more "proximal", with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child's head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that's exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers' attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

"Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference," the researchers said, "this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made."


Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

--further reading--
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies' sitting ability

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

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

People who prioritise time over money are happier

A lot of has been written about how focusing too much on materialistic ambitions, at the expense of relationships and experiences, can leave us miserable and unfulfilled. In a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada argue that there's another important distinction to be made – between how much we prioritise time versus money. Those who favour time tend to be happier, possibly because this frees them to enjoy pleasurable and meaningful activities, although this has yet to be established.

The researchers led by Ashley Whillans first devised a quick and simple way to measure this difference in people. They asked just over 100 students to say whether they prioritised having more time or having more money, and to help them appreciate the distinction the researchers presented them with vignettes of two people – one who prioritises time:
Tina (male names were used for male participants) values her time more than her money. She is willing to sacrifice her money to have more time. For example, Tina would rather work fewer hours and make less money, than work more hours and make more money. 
And one who prioritises money:
Maggie values her money more than her time. She is willing to sacrifice her time to have more money. For example, Maggie would rather work more hours and make more money, than work fewer hours and have more time.
The students answered this question twice, three months apart and their two choices were highly consistent, which supports the idea that people's prioritisation of time versus money is a stable trait.

In several further studies involving thousands more students and adult members of the general public in Canada and the US, Whillans and her colleagues showed that people's answer to this one simple question correlated with their choices over various fictional scenarios, such as: whether they wanted to apply for a hypothetical higher salary/longer hours job or a lower salary/shorter hours alternative; whether they'd prefer a more expensive apartment with a shorter commute, or a cheaper alternative (to save money) and make a longer commute; and whether they actually chose a smaller cash reward for taking part in the study, versus a larger value reward token toward a time-saving service (such as a cleaner).

What's more, across the studies, people who said they prioritised time tended to report being happier. This was true based on various ways of measuring happiness and wellbeing, and the association held even after holding constant many other factors, such as people's salary, education, hours of work and age and gender. The researchers also measured people's materialism and the association between happiness and favouring time over money remained after taking this into account.

The researchers said that this relationship between prioritising time and being happier was "small but robust" – about half the size of the impact on happiness of things like being married and having more wealth. In an example of exemplary scholarship, the researchers make clear every factor they measured, every participant who was excluded and why, and the recruitment stopping rule for each study (i.e. how it was decided when to stop recruiting more participants). And perhaps most important, all their data is freely accessible via the Open Science initiative.

As so often, it's worth remembering that this data was only recorded at a single point in the lives of the participants, so it's not yet been established that having more a time-centric orientation versus money-centric actually causes greater happiness – as the researchers acknowledge, it's possible that being happier allows people to see the value in saving time to do fun things. As well as longitudinal research (that follows people's priorities and happiness over time), future studies could also establish how people's time vs. money priorities change in response to important life events such as having children or retirement (the current data suggest that older people tend to favour time), and whether it's possible to deliberately change one's orientation.

"Although causality cannot be inferred," the researchers concluded, "these data point to the possibility that valuing time over money is a stable preference that may provide one path to greater happiness."


Whillans, A., Weidman, A., & Dunn, E. (2016). Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550615623842

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

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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Parenthood seems to have an opposite effect on how men and women perceive babies' emotions

In our part of the world, a growing proportion of fathers are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in early child care. This has prompted increased interest from psychologists in any similarities or differences in the way that mothers and fathers interact with their children. One finding is that fathers tend to engage in more physical play, whereas mothers spend more time playing with toys and interacting socially. A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology takes a fresh approach, asking whether mothers and fathers perceive babies' emotional expressions differently. The results, while tentative, suggest that parenthood may lead women to become more sensitive to babies' emotions, while men actually become less sensitive.

Christine Parsons at the University of Oxford and her colleagues asked 110 women and men to look at and rate 50 images of 10 babies expressing strongly positive and negative emotions, muted positive and negative emotions, or exhibiting a neutral expression. There were 29 mothers (average age 29), 26 fathers (average age 28), and 29 women who weren't mothers (average age 26), and 26 men who weren't fathers (average age 28). The parents all had infants aged less than 18 months. The participants rated the babies' emotions by using a vertical sliding scale from "very positive" to "very negative".

Men and women who weren't parents didn't differ in the way that they rated the babies' emotions. In contrast, among the parents, mothers tended to rate the babies' positive emotions more positively and their strongest negative emotions more negatively, compared with the fathers. Moreover, mothers tended to give more extreme ratings to the babies' emotions than women who weren't mothers, whereas fathers showed a tendency to rate the babies' emotions as less intense than men who weren't fathers.

Taken together, the researchers said this suggests that parenthood affects women's and men's perceptions of infant emotions differently: "It may be that motherhood increases women's perception of the intensity of emotion in infant faces, whereas fatherhood decreases men's perception," they said. These results are preliminary and there's a need now for longitudinal research that follows the same participants over time; the current study also doesn't speak to why this gender difference emerges after parenthood. However, the researchers speculated that "If mothers and fathers [really do] perceive the same infant emotional expressions in different ways, this may contribute to the sex differences in interaction styles that are frequently observed."


Parsons, C., Young, K., Jegindoe Elmholdt, E., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. (2016). Interpreting infant emotional expressions: parenthood has differential effects on men and women The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1141967

--further reading--
Men are as motivated by cute baby faces as women
How becoming a father changes your brain
10 surprising things babies can do

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

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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Scientific evidence that counting to 10 helps control anger (sometimes)

It's something we're taught from a young age – when you're about to go into a rage, force yourself to count to ten and hopefully the storm will pass. This may sound like common sense, but without testing the method scientifically, how do we know if and when it really works? For example, while the counting delay could give you a chance to get a grip of your aggressive urges, it's equally plausible that it could give you time to grow even angrier about whatever triggered your displeasure in the first place.

For a new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Jeffrey Osgood and Mark Muraven at the State University of New York have put a version of the count-to-ten method to the test and they've found that it really can help reduce aggression, but only in certain circumstances.

They recruited 312 students to take part in what they were told was a test of virtual teamwork. First, the researchers asked half the participants to complete a task designed to reduce their levels of self-control (they had to write a stream-of-consciousness essay while avoiding thinking about a white bear). The other participants completed some maths problems, which does not tax self-control so much.

Next, each participant wrote an essay about their favourite childhood TV show and then they exchanged essays with what they thought was their task partner who was working elsewhere on another computer. In fact, this was a ruse and was simply a chance for the researchers to provoke the participants with some damning essay feedback, ostensibly from their partner.  He/she wrote of their essay: "This is one of the dumbest essays that I have ever read. Only an idiot would say something like that, I can't believe you are even in college."

Suitably provoked, each participant was then given the chance to decide how many minutes their partner had to play an unpleasant card memorisation game in which wrong answers were punishable by a noise-blast – choosing a longer amount of time was taken as a sign of greater anger and increased aggression.  In two further twists, some of the participants had been told that their partner would subsequently be making the same decision for them – in other words, he or she would have the chance to retaliate. Also, some of the participants chose their partner's fate immediately after receiving the rude essay feedback, while others were forced to wait around 30 seconds, thus mimicking the delay effects of counting to ten.

As expected, the participants who'd had their self-control depleted tended to decide their partner's fate more quickly (when there was no forced delay) and they tended to be more aggressive in their decisions, although this wasn't statistically significant. Focusing on the participants with reduced self-control, the results showed that when there were consequences (i.e. their partner could retaliate), the forced delay made them less aggressive – that is, they chose for their partner to suffer 3.9 minutes of the unpleasant noise-blast task on average, compared with 6.6 minutes when their reaction was not delayed. Conversely, when their anger would have no immediate consequences for themselves, the forced delay actually increased these participants' aggression (they chose 8 minutes suffering for their partner, compared with 5.7 minutes without a delay).

In summary, these results suggests that counting to ten could help stop you from lashing out too harshly when there are obvious consequences for your anger, presumably because the delay gives you time to take these consequences into account before choosing how to act. Backing this interpretation, a number memorisation task during the forced delay removed the calming effect of the delay for the depleted participants who knew their partner could retaliate, probably because they now couldn't use the time to think about the consequences of their choices. Finally, when there are no obvious consequences to an outburst, the results suggest that counting to ten could make you lash out even more, likely because in this kind of situation the delay just gives you more time to stew over whatever provoked you in the first place.


Osgood, J., & Muraven, M. (2016). Does counting to ten increase or decrease aggression? The role of state self-control (ego-depletion) and consequences Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46 (2), 105-113 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12334

--further reading--
Beat anger by imagining you're a fly on the wall
How anger can make us more rational

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

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Monday, 1 February 2016

Working memory training could help beat anxiety

One thing anxiety does is to upset your brain's balance between focus and vigilance. Your control over what you pay attention to is sacrificed at the expense of worrisome thoughts and a rapid response to any potential danger.

If this account is true, basic attention training should help, putting you back in charge of your own mind. A key component of attentional control is working memory – our ability to juggle task-relevant information in mind over short-periods of time. In a new paper in Biological Psychology, a team led by Nazanin Derakshan at Birkbeck, University of London, has tested whether computer-based working memory training can reduce anxiety.

The training involved a kind of task that often features in "brain training" games where it's marketed as a way to become cleverer or more successful. In psychology it's known as the established dual n-back task, and the researchers used a version that got progressively harder as participants improved (try it online).

Specifically, 13 young, anxious student participants had to listen to streams of letters and simultaneously look at a changing grid of squares, and press a key whenever the current letter or highlighted square was the same as the one that occurred a certain number of items earlier in the stream. The difficulty of the task was intensified by requiring the participant to compare the current square and letter with items further back. They completed 15 days of 30-minutes/day of this training. A control group of 13 anxious students spent the same time on an easy version of the task that didn't vary in difficulty as they improved, so it was unlikely to boost their working memory abilities.

Before and after the training, all the students completed a series of measures of their anxiety and their ability to perform under stress.

The working memory training group showed improvements (not only on the n-back task) but also in their performance during "safe" and stressful trials of what's known as the flanker task – this involves responding to the direction of a target arrow while ignoring distracter arrows pointing the other way. During stressful trials the researchers blasted the participants with white noise. The control group only showed improvements during the safe trials, not the more difficult stressful trials.

The training group, but not the control group, also showed changes to their brain waves (recorded via electroencephalography) – specifically they exhibited a reduced ratio of theta to beta frequency waves while they were resting. This is a neural sign that they were more relaxed. In the training group, those who showed the biggest improvements in working memory performance also showed greater reductions in their their self-reported anxiety symptoms post-training. There was one null result – on an eye movement test (a version of the "anti-saccade task"), the training group did not show any post-training benefits compared with the control group.

Caution is in order because there were so few participants and we don't know how long the apparent benefits of working memory training will last. The researchers characterise their results as a "proof of principle", and it's certainly exciting to think that a simple computerised task could help people become less anxious, simply by improving their basic memory skills.

Writing on her university's research blog, Professor Derakshan says "the implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science. Targeting and training working memory ... holds the potential to protect against longer term under-achievement in anxious pupils. It can also protect against the development of clinical anxiety which can be debilitative to the individual."


Sari, B., Koster, E., Pourtois, G., & Derakshan, N. (2016). Training working memory to improve attentional control in anxiety: A proof-of-principle study using behavioral and electrophysiological measures Biological Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.09.008

--further reading--
Try a version of the dual n-back task (there are lots more out there).
Attention training can wire your brain to be less scaredy-cat

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

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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Link feast

Our editor's pick of this week's 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

Why Are Some People Habitually Late?
There's no single root cause, but over-politeness, optimism, multitasking, and a range of other factors can contribute, writes Rick Paulas at the Pacific Standard.

The Countries Where People Are the Most Emotionally Complex
Why cultures that value interdependence, like Japan, win at being deep. Julie Beck reports for The Atlantic.

The Logic Behind Conspiracy Theories
Who's “smugger,” really— the theorists or the anti-theorists? The antis should not be so quick to assert their superiority says this LA Times op-ed.

A Mother's Love
Kate Johnstone at The Psychologist reviews "Room" the new film version of the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue.

Amy Cuddy with Susan Cain: On Presence and Power (video)
Psychologist and TED-talk star Amy Cuddy in conversation with Susan Cain (author of Quiet) about her new book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

“Cat-gras Delusion” – The Man Who Saw His Cat As An Impostor
NeuroSkeptic describes the case of a man who believed that his cat was in fact a different cat.

The Con Man Who Pulled Off History's Most Audacious Scam
BBC Future publishes an excerpt from Maria Konnikova's new book on the psychology of con artists and being conned.

The Problem with Human Head Transplants
Contrary to the impression given by some excitable media reports, human head transplants are not yet a realistic possibility, argues Andrew Jackson at The Conversation.

How Unhealthy Food Pulls You Toward It
It has an almost ghostly attraction, according to a new study I covered for New York's Science of Us.

Computer Beats "Go" Champion for First Time
Annie Sneed at Scientific American has the story on a new milestone for Artificial Intelligence.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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