Monday, 29 September 2014

Can this simple strategy reduce children's anxiety about school tests?

The sad thing about children's exam nerves is that their fears often become self-fulfilling. Too much anxiety and they can end up under-performing relative to their abilities.

A team of psychologists led by Fred Paas and colleagues has taken a cognitive psychology approach to this situation. Children have a certain amount of "working memory" capacity, they say, and it's either used up by the task at hand, or by external pressures, such as intrusive, worrying thoughts.
Paas and his team have explored the benefits of a simple strategy that's designed to help children focus more on the school test, and less on worrying.

Over 100 children (aged 11-12) at three Greek primary schools sat a maths test. Stress was ratcheted up with a timer (three minutes per question) and a prize for the best performer in each class. Crucially, the researchers gave half the students one minute at the test start to skim through all 10 of the maths problems - this was the simple intervention. The researchers said this should reduce anxiety and boost confidence by "activating the relevant schemas for solving the test problems". The remaining students acted as controls and had an extra minute to answer the first problem.

The good news is that the children who took a minute to skim through the questions performed better on average than the control students, and this was true regardless of their tendency to experience test-related anxiety. Because the students' self-reported levels of mental exertion didn't vary across the control and intervention conditions, the researchers said this shows the skimming ahead strategy boosted performance by aiding the children's efficiency, helping them focus more on the task, and less on worry.

The problem with this interpretation is that the intervention helped all children, not just the anxious, and what's more, the children's self-reported anxiety levels were no different in the intervention condition versus the control condition. From a practical perspective, if our aim is to help anxious children overcome their disadvantage relative to the non-anxious, this intervention won't help. So, the skimming ahead strategy certainly seems like a simple method for boosting children's test performance, but it's not clear that this is specifically a way to reduce test anxiety.

The researchers disagree. They concluded: "Although further studies need to be conducted to show whether the strategy generalises to other topics, such as language, or that a longer period to look ahead will have a greater impact on anxiety and performance, the strategy seems very promising in enabling students to perform up to their maximum potential."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Mavilidi, M., Hoogerheide, V., & Paas, F. (2014). A Quick and Easy Strategy to Reduce Test Anxiety and Enhance Test Performance Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28 (5), 720-726 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3058

--further reading--
Simple psychological intervention boosts school performance of ethnic minority students

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

Friday, 26 September 2014

Eye contact makes us more aware of our own bodies

If you've ever felt acutely self conscious upon making eye contact with another person, a new study may help you understand why. Matias Baltazar and his colleagues have found that making eye contact activates people's awareness of their own bodies. That feeling of self consciousness induced by mutual gaze might be based in part on the fact that your brain is suddenly more attuned to your body.

The researchers presented 32 participants with a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they asked them to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction. Crucially, each image was preceded either by a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman's face. These faces were either looking right at the participants, as if making eye contact, or they had their gaze averted. The participants' were also wired up to a skin conductance machine that measured the sweatiness of their fingers. This provided an objective measure of the participants' emotional reactions to the images, to be compared against their subjective assessments of their reactions.

The participants' accuracy at judging their own physiological reactions was more accurate for those images that followed a photograph that appeared to be making eye contact. "Our results support the view that human adults' bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another's gaze," the researchers said.

A problem with this methodology is that greater bodily arousal is known to enhance performance in psychological tests, so perhaps eye contact was simply exerting its effects this way. But the researchers checked, and the boost to self awareness of eye contact wasn't merely a side-effect of increased arousal - the participants' physiological reactivity (an indicator of arousal) was no greater after eye contact photos than after gaze averted photos. The performance-enhancing effect of eye contact was also specific to bodily awareness. The researchers checked this by confronting participants with occasional memory tests through the experiment, for words that had appeared on-screen. Participant performance was no better after looking at faces that made eye contact, compared with the averted gaze faces.

Baltazar and his team said the fact that eye contact enhances our awareness of our own bodies could have therapeutic implications. For example, they said it could "stimulate interoceptive awareness in people whose condition is associated with interoceptive hyposensitivity, [such as] anorexia nervosa and major depression disorder."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Baltazar M, Hazem N, Vilarem E, Beaucousin V, Picq JL, & Conty L (2014). Eye contact elicits bodily self-awareness in human adults. Cognition, 133 (1), 120-7 PMID: 25014360

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

Thursday, 25 September 2014

How do male scientists balance the demands of work and family?

Academia remains heavily gendered, thanks in part to historical stereotypes that assert men are suited to solving complex problems and ready to put "great works" over other concerns such as community or family. Psychology and sociology have shown how this disadvantages women working in these fields, particularly if they wish to have children.
A new study led by Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University takes a different approach, looking at what this world is like for men. From the 73 male scientists interviewed, four groupings emerged. A minority (15 per cent) indicated they saw a fundamental incompatibility between raising a family and success in science, and as a consequence intended to forgo childrearing entirely. A second group (30 per cent) saw no such incompatibility… as long as you have a wife to raise the kids full-time. These "Traditional Breadwinners" were slightly older (average age 47) and more likely to be full professors.
 They were quick to accept that the family duties performed by their wives were key to their own career success. Some recognised their fortune and the compromises their partners made, whereas others saw the spheres of science and family as separate and inevitably gendered. To the question “Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?”, one responded “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”
But norms about working and being a father are changing, with more men wanting a greater role at home and more career opportunities for their partners. This study suggests that while some male scientists are prepared to follow through on this with action, the egalitarian commitment of others is more theoretical. This latter group (22 per cent) are "Neotraditionalists": they are opposed to the idea that their working partners ought to devote themselves only to childcare, but when tensions arose between work and home life, these men presumed that their own (male) career ought to come first. They often took pains to distance themselves from having caused these tensions. One characterised his wife facing a career break during the early years of childrearing as "her issue". Another stated that “there’s more expected of the women in terms of family life”, and a third that women were the ones “burdened" with childcare. This fatalism was a common theme of the Neotraditionalists: the situation is unfair, but what are you going to do?
How about reducing your own work activities to accommodate the career of your female partner? This was the strategy taken by the final group, the “Egalitarian Partners”. These men (33 per cent of the sample) were likely to be together with another scientist, and saw each career track as equally important. In their interviews, they spoke of concessions made by both sides, and the recognition that other colleagues were outpacing them. Their language also betrayed awareness that their decisions were not in line with their gendered role: one qualified his decisions by saying "I’m trying to be a sensitive new age guy". Data exists that suggests fathers are not expected by most managers to actually use organisational work-family policies such as crèches or shorter work-time; the true egalitarians are going against the grain, or even "acting female" by placing family as equal to or more important than their devotion to the Big Questions.
Without greater societal efforts to overhaul institutional sexism, these challenges may remain for the Egalitarians. Non-child-rearing men are more likely to reach positions of power thanks to the extra time and energy they can devote to their work, and they may see less cause to introduce systems or drive cultural change to support those men who want to be an active partner in the home, however large their number may be at entry level. As a consequence, Damaske concludes, “the academic science pipeline may begin to leak young men as well as young women, increasing the overall loss of talent in academic science.”
_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Damaske, S., Ecklund, E., Lincoln, A., & White, V. (2014). Male Scientists' Competing Devotions to Work and Family: Changing Norms in a Male-Dominated Profession Work and Occupations DOI: 10.1177/0730888414539171

--further reading--
Childless women are the most productive staff of all, study finds
Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good
Why female business owners are less successful but just as satisfied

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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Rats outperformed humans on this learning task

We like to think of ourselves as the top of the class when it comes to intelligence in the animal kingdom. Our inventions and scientific progress are testament to that claim, and yet there are some ways in which our complex brains let us down. In this new study researchers led by Ben Vermaercke compared human and rat performance on two forms of category-based learning. On one of them, the rodents trounced the homo sapiens.

The participants - 16 rats and 24 humans - were trained to recognise that certain patterns (stripes of light and dark, known as gratings) shown on a screen were the targets, while others were the distractors. The patterns were presented in pairs, and for the rats, if they followed the target pattern in a pair, this led them to the correct route (out of two) towards the safety of a platform in a water maze. For humans, choosing the target pattern simply led to presentation of a "correct" symbol - a green triangle pointing upwards; choosing the distractor pattern triggered a downward red triangle.

Through choosing the different patterns and receiving feedback, the rats and humans learned which patterns were targets and which were distractors. In one "rule based" version of the task, the targets and distractors always differed only along one dimension - either the frequency, or the orientation, of the light and dark stripes. In the other "information integration" version of the task, the targets differed from the distractors along both dimensions (frequency and orientation) simultaneously.

The key challenge occurred next, when the rats and humans entered the test phase, and attempted to generalise what they'd learned in the training phase to new pairs of patterns. The rats and humans performed similarly on the rule-based version of the task. However, when it came to the "information integration" version, the rats performed significantly better than the humans. This was because the humans' performance dipped in the "integrated information" version of the task, whereas the rats performed just as well at this version as they did on the rule-based version.

What was going on? In the version of the task where the target was distinguishable from the distractors along two dimensions simultaneously, the correct choice couldn't be identified based on a simple rule. But humans like to make conscious decisions and use explicit rules, even when this approach isn't optimal. It's for this reason that they struggled at this version of the task. Rats, in contrast, used an implicit similarity approach in both versions of the task (think of this as going with your gut, as to which pattern seemed most similar to the targets seen in training). This served the rodents fine in the "rule-based" version, and actually led them to beat us humans in the more complex information-integration version. In this latter version, the humans looked too hard for an explicit rule, and would likely have performed better if they'd gone with their instincts.

"We have shown that rats display superior generalisation performance in a generalisation context in which correct stimulus-response associations do not follow a dimension-based rule," the researchers said. "This is in line with the hypothesised competition in the human brain between an explicit, rule based system and in implicit category-learning system."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Vermaercke B, Cop E, Willems S, D'Hooge R, & Op de Beeck HP (2014). More complex brains are not always better: rats outperform humans in implicit category-based generalization by implementing a similarity-based strategy. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 21 (4), 1080-6 PMID: 24408657

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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Neuroscience does not threaten people's sense of free will

A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, have argued that this shows our sense of free will is an illusion. Books have even started to appear with titles like My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility by Eliezer J. Sternberg.

However, in a new paper, a team led by Eddy Nahmias counter such claims. They believe that Harris and others (who they dub "willusionists") make several unfounded assumptions about the foundations of most people's sense of free will. Using a series of hypothetical scenarios, Nahmias and his colleagues tested whether people's belief in free will really is challenged by "neuroprediction" - the idea of neuroscientists using brain activity to predict a person's choices, and by the related notion that mental activity is no more than brain activity.

The research involved hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. They were told about a piece of wearable brain imaging technology - a cap - available in the future that would allow neuroscientists to predict a person's decisions before they made them. They also read a story about a woman named Jill who wore the cap for a month, and how scientists predicted her every choice, including her votes in elections.

Most of the students (80 per cent) agreed that this future technology was plausible, but they didn't think it undermined Jill's free will. Most of them only felt her free will was threatened if they were told that the neuroscientists manipulated Jill's brain activity to alter her decisions. Similar results were found in a follow-up study in which the scenario descriptions made clear that "all human mental activity just is brain activity", and in another that swapped the power of brain imaging technology for the mind reading skills of a psychic. In each case, students only felt that free will was threatened if Jill's decisions were manipulated, not if they were merely predicted via her brain activity or via her mind and soul (by the psychic).

Nahmias and their team said their results showed that most people have a "theory-lite" view of free will - they aren't bothered by claims about mental activity being reduced to neural activity, nor by the idea that such activity precedes conscious decision-making and is readable by scientists. "Most people recognise that just because 'my brain made me do it,' that does not mean that I didn't do it of my own free will," the researchers said.

As neuroscience evidence increasingly enters the courtroom, the findings have important implications for understanding how such evidence might influence legal verdicts about culpability. An obvious limitation of the research is its dependence on students in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if the same findings apply in other cultures.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Nahmias, E., Shepard, J., & Reuter, S. (2014). It’s OK if ‘my brain made me do it’: People’s intuitions about free will and neuroscientific prediction Cognition, 133 (2), 502-516 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.07.009

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

LSD boosts people's suggestibility, raising possibility of clinical uses

A rigorously controlled new study reports that a dose of LSD makes us more susceptible to suggestions, a finding that raises the possibility of clinical usage in contexts where hypnosis has proven effective.

The study recruited 10 participants (9 men), aged 27–47, all of whom had used psychedelics in the past, but were clear of any diagnosis of mental illness. They attended two testing sessions 5–10 days apart where placebo was administered in the first session, and a standard dose of LSD (40–80 μg) on the second. This fixed order was necessary to avoid any leakage of psychedelic effects from one session to another, mimicking the design of an earlier experiment on nitrous oxide.

Two hours after receiving placebo/dose, participants closed their eyes and were led through a series of standard suggestions used in hypnosis research, such as imagining hearing exquisite music, feeling time slowing, or their finger becoming numb. Their subsequent ratings of vividness of the imaginings were nearly one point higher (on a five-point scale) in the LSD session than the placebo, a significant effect.

LSD led to bigger rises in suggestibility for participants who scored higher on a measure of conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is associated with "ego control", and it may be that LSD’s much-reported effect of "ego dissolution" may be pulling down bulwarks that would otherwise make these individuals resistant to accepting suggestions.

If you’ve had personal experience with LSD, the results of this study may seem plausible to you. If you haven’t, users report a sense of the external world mingling with their own thoughts. Also, groups of people who "go on a trip" together tend to converge on the same ideas and feelings in an uncanny fashion. Given these subjective accounts it makes sense that the drug was associated with increased suggestibility in this research. The practical significance of this finding is that it shows the malleability offered by LSD has parallels with how hypnosis operates, justifying and paving the way for exploration of LSD in contexts where hypnosis has proven effective - clinically in areas such as pain, PTSD and weight loss, often in conjunction with other interventions.

It’s high time for LSD to receive this renewed focus. Its potential for suggestibility was investigated clinically - albeit without the placebo controls we see here - way back in the 1950s (and no doubt influenced its investigation in the CIA’s infamous MK-Ultra programme for mind control). Indeed, in its early days LSD was considered full of promise for clinical applications; a meta-analysis of a set of trials looking at LSD treatment for alcoholism showed an effect that hasn’t been bettered by any other means.

Regulatory restrictions imposed in the mid–1960s slammed shut the door onto these perceptions, forcing later researchers to operate in an unwelcoming climate, including political obstacles and costly, difficult licensing criteria, which explains why peer-reviewed articles gave way to albums and other missives of the counterculture as our main sources of information about the significance of hallucinogens.

Now we may be seeing the beginning of a renaissance of psychedelic research, with fuller understanding of its activity at the levels of neuronal populations and brain regions, and clinical investigation into its use to reduce anxiety in those with terminal illness. If you are interested in these issues, and more, be sure to check out the September issue of the Psychologist, which focuses on hallucinogens. It’s entirely open access and free to everyone. _________________________________

  ResearchBlogging.orgR. L. Carhart-Harris & M. Kaelen & M. G. Whalley & 7 M. Bolstridge & A. Feilding & D. J. Nutt. (2014). LSD enhances suggestibility in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology.

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

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Link feast

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

What’s Up With That: Why Do All My Friends Like the Same Music?
Nick Stockton at WIRED speaks to Petr Janata, a psychologist who studies music and the brain at UC Davis.

Conspiracy Theories Used To Be Just For eccentrics. Now Sensible People Are Getting Carried Away With Them Too 
In one poll, nearly half of Scots said they believed the government was hiding an oil field. This, says Dorian Lynskey, is just the latest example of how belief in conspiracy theories is becoming more widespread.

Are Dolphins Cleverer Than Dogs?
Justin Gregg for the BBC surveys the evidence and concludes this is really the wrong question.

Have You Fallen Victim to the Guru Effect?
Neurobonkers sympathises with Michael Billig's (author of Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences) lament about the lack of transparent writing in the social sciences.

Amnesia - The Reality: Each Day a Blank Slate For the Man With No Memory
With the new Hollywood film Before I Go To Sleep presenting a rather misleading view of amnesia, the Independent profiles the real life struggles of amnesiac John Mills.

Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?
Communities with more trace lithium in their drinking water have lower suicide rates. Psychiatrist Anna Fels wonders whether we should consider adding more of it to our diets.

At 24, Woman Discovers She Was Born Without A Key Brain Structure, The Cerebellum
Neurosurgeons in China have reported the case of a young woman who went to hospital complaining of dizziness only to discover that she'd been born without a cerebellum.

Resilience: How To Train a Tougher Mind
Emma Young at BBC Future looks at the science of mental resilience.

Runs In The Family
"Cricketing dynasties seem to imply that talent is genetic," writes David Papineau at Aeon Magazine. "Yet the evidence from other sports queers the pitch".

Should Policy Makers and Financial Institutions Have Access to Billions of Brain Scans?
The Neurocritic discusses the possible implications of a new brain imaging study that linked risk propensity with grey matter volume in the parietal lobe.
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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