Saturday, 23 August 2014

Link feast

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

Finding a Good Therapist
Jules Evans (author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations) recent encounter with a "somatic therapist" didn't go too well.

Why Nurture Is Just As Important As Nature For Understanding Genetics
The influence of genetics on our health and behaviour is not fixed, explains Claire Howarth, but depends on complex interactions with the environment. 

Why Do We Fear the Wrong Things?
Over at the Talk Psych blog David Myers reflects on the misleading power of the "availability heuristic".

Why Do Amputees Feel the Ache of Nothingness?
A new study on phantom limb pain highlights the role of nerves that send information to the spine.

Ten Tips on Organizing Your Mind, from Dr. Daniel Levitin
The Wall Street Journal shares lessons from the new book: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals
A new three-part series from the BBC. Episode one focused on animal vision. Available on BBC iPlayer for 18 more days.

How to Speak the Language of Thought
Tom Stafford on the challenge of decoding the way the brain speaks to itself.

Hilary Mantel and Virginia Woolf on The Sounds in Writers' Minds
"Many writers, like Woolf, hear voices and see images so intensely they take on the presence of the real," says Patricia Waugh.

Asking for Advice Makes You Seem More Competent, Not Less
Yet most participants in this research thought the opposite would be so, reports Melissa Dahl.

All You Need To Know About the 10 Percent Brain Myth, in 60 Seconds
"The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity" says the promotional poster for the film Lucy, which opens across the UK this weekend.
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Reader reactions to news of terrorism depend on the images that are used

After viewing images of terrorists, people reported feelings of anger and fear
How readers' emotions are affected by media reports of terrorist attacks depends on the the photos used to accompany the story. That's according to an analysis by Aarti Iyer and colleagues, who say these different emotional reactions in turn lead to support for different government policies.

Over two-hundred British adults (aged 18 to 68; 92 women), many based in London, read a news summary of the London terrorist bombings that occurred on July 7, 2005. Afterwards, the participants were split into two groups - one group was shown photographs that displayed the terrorist attackers, including head-shots and security camera footage. The other group was shown photographs displaying victims of the attacks, including wounded people and distressed bystanders.

Participants who viewed the images of terrorists subsequently reported feeling a stronger sense of injustice (than those who saw the victims), and felt more of a sense that the terrorists were dangerous and threatening. In terms of emotions, viewing the images of the terrorists was associated with higher levels of fear and anger. In contrast, participants who saw the images of the victims were afterwards more conscious of people suffering, and they tended to report feeling more sympathy.

Although a direct comparison found no difference between the two participant groups, in terms of their subsequent support for various government terrorism policies, Iyer and her team claim there were indirect effects of the two image conditions. According to the researchers' analysis, viewing images of the terrorists increased levels of anger and fear, and in turn these emotions were associated with more support for aggressive counter-terrorism and more negotiation, respectively. In contrast,  seeing images of victims increased feelings of sympathy, which was associated with more support for policies aimed at helping victims.

"Given that images of terrorism may be easily used (and abused) to manipulate public opinion, it is ... vital that media editors and policy makers better understand the psychological processes underlying the phenomenon," the researchers said. They admitted that much more research is needed in this area, and they acknowledged that in reality readers and viewers are often exposed to a mixture of images. But despite this caution, Iyer and her team also wrote that their findings demonstrate "the powerful impact of media images in shaping individuals' emotional and political responses to terrorism..."

Readers of sceptical persuasion may not be so convinced. The path analysis used in this research can only demonstrate correlations between measured factors - causality, and its true direction from one factor to another, has not been proven. Ultimately, the two groups of participants did not differ in their support for different government policies. This research was also unable to explain why some people responded to images of the terrorists with anger, and others with fear.

See the comments for more critical analysis.
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  ResearchBlogging.orgIyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M., & Vanman, E. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (7), 511-521 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12243

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

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Back to the future - Psychologists investigate why some people see the future as being behind them

Speakers of English and many other languages refer to the future as being in front, and the past behind (e.g. "I look forward to seeing you"). This manner of thinking and speaking is so entrenched, we rarely pause to consider why we do it. One influential and intuitive explanation is that humans have an obvious front (the way our heads face), which combined with our tendency to think about time in terms of space, leads us to see ourselves moving forwards into the future, or the future coming towards us. A problem with this account is that there exist cultures and languages - such as the Andean language Aymara - that think and speak of the future as being behind them (and the past in front).

This leads to the proposition that perhaps people’s sense of the location of the past and future is somehow tied to their culture's linguistic convention. Not so. In a new paper, Juanma de la Fuente and colleagues investigate Moroccan Arabic speakers - these people refer in their language to the future being in front of them (and the past behind), yet in their hand gestures they convey the opposite temporal arrangement. Clearly the ways we speak and think about time can dissociate. Still unanswered then is what leads people to differ in where they locate the past and future.

In the first of several experiments, de la Fuente’s team presented Moroccan Arabic speakers (most were students at the Abdelmalek Essaadi University in Tetouan) and Spanish speakers (students at the University of Granada) with a diagram featuring a human face with one box in front of it, and one behind.  The participants were told that an object had been picked up by the person in the diagram yesterday, or was to be picked up by them tomorrow. The participants’ task in each case was to indicate which box the object was located in.

This test confirmed that, despite speaking of the future as being in front of them, the majority of Moroccan Arabic speakers think of it as being behind. Around 85 per cent of them located tomorrow’s object behind the person in the diagram, compared with just over 10 per cent of the Spanish speakers. De la Fuente’s group think the reason has to do with temporal focus. Their theory - “the temporal-focus hypothesis” - is that people and cultures who focus more on the past tend to locate it in front.

This argument was supported by several further investigations. A “temporal focus questionnaire” (example items included “The young people must preserve tradition” and “Technological advances are good for society”) confirmed that Moroccan Arabic speakers display a greater focus on the past, as compared with Spanish speakers. Within a group of young and old Spanish speakers, meanwhile, the older participants had a greater focus on the past and they more often located the past in front (on a diagram). Among another group of Spanish speakers, those people who were more focused on the past also tended to locate the past in front. Finally, when the researchers primed Spanish speakers to think about their past (by having them write about their childhoods), they were subsequently far more likely to locate the past in front of them (and the future behind).

The researchers said they’d demonstrated “a previously unexplored cross-cultural difference in spatial conceptions of time” and that they’d validated “a new principle by which culture-specific habits of temporal thinking can arise: the temporal-focus hypothesis.”
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ResearchBlogging.orgde la Fuente J, Santiago J, Román A, Dumitrache C, & Casasanto D (2014). When You Think About It, Your Past Is in Front of You: How Culture Shapes Spatial Conceptions of Time. Psychological science PMID: 25052830

--further reading--
The surprising links between anger and time perception

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

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can relationships with fictional characters aid our self development?

"... forming a relationship with an interesting but
potentially dangerous character does not present the
same obstacles in the narrative world
as it might in the physical world.”
By guest blogger Robin Abrahams.

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you may have noticed an explosion of fiction-based personality quizzes. What house would you belong to in Hogwarts—or in Westeros? Which “Mad Man” are you? What Shakespeare role were you born to play?

Why do we want to know?

Researchers led by Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker may have some answers. Their paper, “Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters” rests on the concept of parasocial relationships—a relatively new construct in the social sciences that is becoming increasingly relevant in our media-saturated age.

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

Can our fictional friends make us better people?

Other than safe distance, what might a relationship with a fictional mobster have to offer? This study examines the extent to which parasocial relationships facilitate “self-expansion,” or the sense of greater possibilities for the self. Real-world relationships lead to self-expansion when people view their relationship partner as “a valuable source of new knowledge and experiences.” Can fictional characters have the same effect of helping us envision a bigger, better version of ourselves?

They can. University students were asked to read an unfamiliar short story about a young person competing in a race, and then to rate the story’s protagonist, along with two real-life contacts (a close friend and a classmate) and two television characters (the participants’ favorite and a non-favorite character) across various dimensions of likability and relevance to the self. Self-expansion was measured by a 14-item scale (e.g. “How much does X help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” and “How much has knowing X made you a better person?”) and was found to vary upwards in line with the intensity of the relationship, not its real-life or fictive origin.

Close friends inspired the most self-expansion, followed by favourite television characters, then non-favourite characters, and finally casual acquaintances. The more a character was perceived as being like the participant’s ideal (as opposed to actual) self, the stronger the effect. Participants’ “narrative transport,” or the degree to which they felt engaged and absorbed in a fictive world (this was manipulated via instructions given to participants before reading the short story) also enhanced self-expansion.

While no one claims that parasocial relationships can replace mutual ones, the authors see their study as largely good news, as it implies that our capacity to learn and grow from relationships is not constrained by our daily environment. “[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”

The authors note two shortcomings of the study—the lack of developmental and personality perspectives. What are the effects of long-term parasocial relationships? Are they as beneficial as brief ones, or are there potential dangers to an extended commitment to someone, real or imagined, who can never reciprocate? Secondly, why are some people more likely than others to identify themselves with fictional characters, and use that identification as a source of personal growth?

Personal experience suggests, unsurprisingly, that both temperament and upbringing play a role. Self-enhancing parasocial relationships require a fair amount of imagination and psychological-mindedness. Real-life peers and authority figures, meanwhile, can encourage such relationships or mock them as "imaginary friendship" or a pop-culture obsession. Of course organised religion has harnessed the power of parasocial relationships for self-betterment for millennia: Asking one's self "What would Jesus [or Mohammed, Buddha, or Martin Luther King Jr.] do?" is, after all, a classic case of transcending the self through a relationship with a person one has never met.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters Self and Identity, 13 (5), 556-578 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

Post written by Robin Abrahams for the BPS Research Digest. Robin Abrahams is a writer with a PhD In psychology. She is the author of the popular Boston advice column "Miss Conduct" and the book "Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners," and she blogs about the intersection of science and the performing arts.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

How to help an anxious interviewee - be mean to them?

They've barely taken their seat, but it's obvious that your interviewee is nervous. You give her a reassuring smile and nod affirmatively at each of her answers, hoping to put her at ease. Unfortunately, it turns out that positive feedback does a socially anxious interviewee no favours. In fact, it would be better to turn that smile upside-down.

We know this from a new study from North Illinois University where a "careers counsellor" (actually a research assistant) conducted practice interviews while moderating his or her tone of voice, posture and facial expression to provide either positive, negative, or no feedback to the interviewee. The sessions were recorded to allow later evaluation of interview performance and behaviours, and each of the 85 student participants initially completed a questionnaire to rate their social anxiety.

Under positive and neutral feedback, the more relaxed participants gave better interviews than their anxious counterparts, making more impact and looking more hireable. But under negative feedback this pattern reversed, and the anxious were the stronger performers. This wasn't simply due to the relaxed participants collapsing under the baleful eye of the negative interviewer; the socially anxious actually benefited from the negative feedback, giving better interviews under that condition than any other.

Drilling into the specific behaviours shown by the socially anxious participants, Christopher Budnick's team observed that positive and neutral feedback was associated with an upswing in anxiety displays - fidgeting, low eye-contact, sparse responses - and fewer assertive tactics such as positioning themselves as being like the interviewer. The anxious individuals actually made a better impression when facing off against an interviewer who seemed to have a low opinion of them.

This paradoxical effect can be explained by our need to have a consistent self-image. Consider a relaxed person given reassuring cues: their self-image is unchallenged, so they can place their attention on external concerns, including making a good impression. By contrast, a socially anxious person typically has a negative self-image, meaning positive feedback is jarring and invites self-consciousness, distracting them from effective interpersonal engagement and social behaviours.

Budnick's team tested this explanation by presenting participants with open-ended questions and counting their use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, myself, and mine) in response, which was taken as a sign of increased self-focus. The anxious interviewees relied on more of these under positive (vs. negative) feedback, with a reversed pattern in relaxed participants. A subsequent analysis confirmed that this higher self-focus was part of the route by which incongruent feedback led to worse performance.

The researchers conclude with a recommendation: "high anxiety interviewees might not benefit fully from traditional interview training"; instead they could try learning techniques that "reduce the perceived disconnect between positive feedback and self-views." If you have a tendency to be anxious, you could prepare by thinking through all the reasons why someone might express an emotion without it necessarily being about you, and even put this into practice by asking a cheery friend to put you through a mock interview.
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  ResearchBlogging.org
Budnick CJ, Kowal M, & Santuzzi AM (2014). Social anxiety and the ironic effects of positive interviewer feedback. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 1-17 PMID: 24773204

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

The simple piece of information that could dramatically increase your muscular endurance

How most of us choose to behave is shaped powerfully by the behaviour of others (or, more specifically, our perception of their behaviour). Psychologists call this the influence of "social norms", and its potency has been investigated extensively in the context of environmentally friendly behaviours like recycling, and health behaviours, such as binge drinking and frequency of exercise.

What if this same psychological lever could be exploited, not to encourage people to take up more physical activity, but to boost their athletic performance? A pair of researchers, Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink, have tested this idea for the first time.

Sixty-eight regulars (average age 40, nine men) at a pilates studio were asked to perform two plank exercises, and to hold each for as long as they possibly could. As a cover story, they were told that the purpose of the challenge was to help find out the average performance level for this exercise.

The plank is a physically demanding exercise that involves adopting a face-down prone position, then raising the body on forearms and toes, and holding this position rigid, parallel to the ground. It was emphasised to participants that they should hold the the position for as long as possible on both attempts, and that their times would be averaged for the research.

The participants were given a three-minute rest between each attempt. The key intervention is that between planks, half the participants were given the "social norms" message that 80 per cent of people similar to them (in terms of age, gender and pilates level) had achieved a 20 per cent longer time on their second effort. The other participants were told nothing of this kind, or anything else (this is a potential weakness of the study, which I'll return to).

The researchers had hoped their intervention, if successful, would lead merely to sustained performance on the second attempt. The rather dramatic result is that participants given the social norms message achieved a five per cent increase on their second attempt (first attempt average time was 95.82 seconds; second attempt average was 99.79 seconds). This is dramatic because after performing a first plank to exhaustion, one would typically expect participants' second attempt to be shorter. The control participants, as expected, achieved a significantly shorter time on their second plank attempt (76.38 seconds vs. 90.09 seconds on their first attempt - a drop of 18 per cent).

Priebe and Spink said their findings "hint at the potency of the descriptive norm information and the potential effects of social influence on physical activity tasks." Participants in the social norms condition reported higher "self-efficacy" (belief in their own ability) than control participants, so this hints at a possible mechanism for the effect of the intervention.

A strength of this research is that the researchers gauged participants' beliefs about other people's performance before presenting them with the social norms message. The majority of participants assumed that most others would decline in performance on their second attempt. This was important to check because past research has shown that social norms interventions can backfire if people hold initial beliefs that exceed the reality of the normative message.

As hinted at earlier, a weakness of the study is the lack of a control condition that communicated a different message to the participants. This means we can't tell how much of the apparent effect of the current intervention was specific to its social norms content. It's possible receiving any kind of motivational message between exercises would have had a galvanising effect. Another problem, of course, is that the social norms message was a fabrication - the participants were effectively fed a lie. It's also not clear how long this kind of intervention could sustain its effects. News of other people's performance might be motivating at first, but could quickly lose its potency, or even become counter-productive.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Priebe, C., & Spink, K. (2014). Blood, sweat, and the influence of others: The effect of descriptive norms on muscular endurance and task self-efficacy Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15 (5), 491-497 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.04.012

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

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Link feast

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

One Death Too Many
Clinical neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell criticises the sensationalist media coverage of Robin Williams' suicide. Addressing newspaper editors, Bell says: "you ... have a personal and professional responsibility to ensure that you are not putting people at risk by your need to sell copy."

The Science Behind Suicide Contagion
Margot Sanger-Katz for the NYT summarises the relevant science, but she also wonders if suicide reporting guidelines are out-of-date and unrealistic.

Image of the Week: Wiring of the Human Brain
From Wellcome Images and taken by Zeynep Saygin: "A bird’s-eye view of nerve fibres in a normal, healthy adult human brain."

Malcolm Gladwell on Desert Island Discs
The pop psychology author was BBC Radio 4's most recent cast-away (listen again on iPlayer).

Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself
Your body is full of bacteria that might be controlling your behaviour.

Why I Live in Mortal Dread of Public Speaking
Newly released TED talk by singer-songwriter Megan Washington.

Darwin's Neuroscientist: Gerald M. Edelman, 1929–2014
Anil Seth pens an obituary to his former mentor, nobel laureate and "scientific great" who "quoted Woody Allen and Jascha Heifetz as readily as Linus Pauling and Ludwig Wittgenstein".

The First Smile
"Why do laughter, smiles and tears look so similar?" asks Michael Graziano. "Perhaps because they all evolved from a single root."

Society: Don't Blame The Mothers
Contemporary research on epigenetics and the developmental origins of health and disease needs to be discussed and reported with care, argue Sarah S. Richardson and her colleagues.  

A Sound You Can't Unhear (and What It Says About Your Brain)
Audio illusions shows how our senses reflect a "mixture of the world out there and our own expectations."
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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