Saturday, 30 April 2016

Link feast

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

Leicester's Lesson In Leadership
A leader is not "the special one", but "the one who makes us special", argue S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher at The Psychologist.

The Imposter's Survival Guide (BBC radio show)
Oliver Burkeman explores the imposter phenomenon. That inexplicable feeling of fraudulence that plagues the working lives of so many people.

Why You Should Never Spank a Child - Major Research Project Confirms Dangers
The Telegraph reports on a new study.

A Drawing of the Drawing Effect Study
Rob Dimeo has drawn the findings of the "drawing effect" study that we reported on recently.

Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?

Mind Fu*k Alert: Plants May Have Memories
Gizmodo reports on a surprising new study.

Is Social Media Making People Depressed?
Mark Widdowson (Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy, University of Salford) gives his verdict at The Conversation.

Do Women Make Bolder Leaders Than Men?
"looking through our database of 360-degree assessments from 75,000 leaders around the world, we noticed that on average the women were bolder than the men".

New Insights Into Body And Mind
A book on psychosomatic illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan has won this year's prestigious Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

This Is How It Feels To Learn Your Memories Are Fiction
David Robson at BBC Future reports on the confabulation that can occur when brain injuries impair memory.
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 29 April 2016

The psychological case for decluttering your home

As a house evolves into a home it becomes a place of refuge and ultimately an extension of the self. Each room is a witness to your life: the arguments, the passions and the change. Your photos on the walls, your stuff on the shelves, these are more than mere objects, they tell the story of places you've been and people you've known. All of this helps create what psychologists call a sense of "psychological home". But it can go too far. There's a saturation point beyond which your possessions turn into clutter, clogging your space and undermining your wellbeing. A new study "The dark side of home" in The Journal of Environmental Psychology investigates these processes in a group of 1394 people (average age 54, mostly women in the US) who had previously sought advice from The Institute For Challenging Disorganization.

The results showed that attachment to one's home (measured by agreement with statements like "I identify strongly with this place") and identifying with one's possessions ("I consider my favorite possessions to be a part of myself") were both linked to a greater sense of psychological home ("I get a sense of security from having a place of my own"), and in turn this was associated with more psychological well-being. But, at the same time, a sense of home and wellbeing were undermined by excessive clutter, as measured by agreement with statements like: "I have to move things in order to accomplish tasks in my home" and "I feel overwhelmed by the clutter in my home".

The researchers based in New Mexico and Chicago said their study is "the first to investigate the dark side of home arising from negative impacts of clutter." They warned: "Clutter is often an insidious and seemingly harmless outgrowth of people's natural desire to appropriate their personal spaces with possessions that reflect self-identity and remind them of important people, places, and experiences in their lives. However, when clutter becomes excessive, it can threaten to physically and psychologically entrap a person in dysfunctional home environments which contribute to personal distress and feelings of displacement and alienation."

--The dark side of home: Assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being

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

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Looking back on your past can make you less likely to suffer depression in the future

Is spending time looking back on our lives good for our mental health? A lot of research suggests it is, but these studies have been cross-sectional, making it hard to form a clear causal story – for example, perhaps being happier makes it more likely that people will reminisce. On the other hand, there are therapeutic trials that show purposeful reminiscence can bring about clinically meaningful decreases in depression. Now, a longitudinal investigation in Applied Cognitive Psychology provides further evidence for the benefits of the right kind of looking back, and it shows that reminiscence has this effect by building up our psychological resources.

The work, from Deakin University’s David Hallford and David Mellor, recruited 171 adult US participants (average age 26) using Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey website. At two time points a week apart, the participants rated their levels of depression symptoms and they reflected on the past week, reporting how much they had thought or talked about their personal history during that time, and whether they had done it to achieve either of two specific goals: to help define who they are today – the identity function of reminiscence – or to remind themselves that they have the skills or character to deal with present challenges, which is the problem-solving function. Past research suggests these adaptive uses of reminiscence are what seem to have the clinical effects over time. The current study clarified that these kinds of reminiscence were not associated with lower levels of depression in the same week that the reminiscence took place, but were associated with less depression one week later. So, you’re not necessarily in a better state during periods when you are being reflective, but reminiscing now is likely to protect you against depression in the future.

Note, the effects of reminiscence on next week’s depression symptoms were not direct. Rather, reminiscence affected a set of positive psychological resources: self esteem, confidence in own ability, optimism and meaning in life. And where these resources were enhanced, depression dropped.

Although the participants in this study reported a range of depression symptoms, they were not diagnosed with clinical depression. Nonetheless, the results do suggest a cognitive explanation for how reminiscence-based therapy is effective for people with more serious depression. Rather than reminiscence activating brain pathways that somehow flush out depression, it provides sense, meaning and ways of thinking to free the individual from feelings of joylessness or despair. Prior evidence (albeit cross-sectional) has suggested that reminiscence can cut both ways – dwelling on bitter experiences can increase our psychological distress, and I should emphasise that this new research focused on adaptive reminiscence. Casting your mind back through the past to reflect on the person you are, or are constantly becoming; treating your experience as a testimonial to what you are capable of. By these activities, we can nourish the psyche and protect our wellbeing.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hallford, D., & Mellor, D. (2016). Autobiographical Memory and Depression: Identity-continuity and Problem-solving Functions Indirectly Predict Symptoms over Time through Psychological Well-being Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30 (2), 152-159 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3169

--further reading--
Do you remember the time? How collective nostalgia inspires group loyalty
Feeling chilly? Indulge in some nostalgia

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

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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Why organisations should encourage their staff to become friends

They say you should never mix business and pleasure but in reality many of us find that we become friends with the people who we work with. No wonder, when you consider the hours spent together and the deep bonds formed through collaboration and sharing the highs and lows of the job.

A new study in Personnel Psychology is among the first to examine the effects on job performance of having more "multiplex relationships" – colleagues you work with directly who are also your friends outside of work. The researchers say these relationships are "a mixed blessing", but on balance they found that the more of them people had, the better their work performance as judged by their supervisors.

Jessica Methot and her colleagues first surveyed 301 staff at a large insurance company in southeastern United States. These staff, who had varied roles across the firm, provided a list of 10 colleagues they worked with closely in pursuit of their responsibilities and 10 staff who they considered to be friends and who they socialised with outside of work. The more overlap there was between a person's two lists, the more multiplex relationships they had. The participants also completed measures of emotional exhaustion and work-related positive emotions. Four weeks later, the participants' supervisors were contacted and rated the participants' job performance.

The more multiplex relationships that participants had, the better their job performance. What's more, this was explained in part by the fact that such relationships were associated with experiencing more positive work-related emotions, like feeling excited and proud. In short, being friends with more of colleagues appeared to be good for staff and for their employer.

However, the picture gets a little more complicated because the researchers dug deeper and found that multiplex relationships were also associated with more emotional exhaustion – presumably because of the effort involved in maintaining more complex relationships and of providing support to friends. In turn, emotional exhaustion was related to poorer work performance, hence the researchers describing workplace friendships as a mixed blessing. Overall though, the benefits to work performance outweighed the costs.

The second study was similar but involved 182 workers at three shops and six restaurants. This time the participants also completed measures of the emotional support, trust, felt obligation, and "maintenance difficulty" (the effort of sustaining and juggling relationships) experienced in their work relationships. The results were similar, with more multiplex relationships again correlating with superior work performance – and this time the association was explained in part by feelings of greater trust towards colleagues who are also friends. But once more, although the overall association was positive, there were signs that these relationships can be a mixed blessing – the more multiplex relationships a person had, the more they tended to report having difficulties maintaining their relationships, which in turn was related to poorer job performance.

We need to be aware these studies were correlational so they haven't demonstrated that work friendships causes better job performance, although that is certainly a plausible interpretation, especially in light of the mediating factors that the researchers identified. Given that having more friends at work appears to be beneficial overall, Methot and her colleagues recommended that "organisations should focus on practices that promote friendship among coworkers who can interact for work-related purposes" such as introducing friendly competition between staff, or implementing social intranet systems "that simultaneously allow employees to collaborate and share task information while getting to know each other on a social level".

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Methot, J., Lepine, J., Podsakoff, N., & Christian, J. (2016). Are Workplace Friendships a Mixed Blessing? Exploring Tradeoffs of Multiplex Relationships and their Associations with Job Performance Personnel Psychology, 69 (2), 311-355 DOI: 10.1111/peps.12109

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

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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Are certain groups of people more likely to leave suicide notes?

It is a sad fact that we can never ask of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who take their own lives each year – why did you do it? Instead, psychologists talk to people who attempted, but failed, to kill themselves, and they also look into the minds' of suicide victims through the notes that they leave. But in fact only a minority of suicide victims leave notes, and the validity of studying these notes depends in part of the assumption that victims who leave notes are the same as those who don't. A new analysis, published in Archives of Suicide Research, of all the suicides that occurred in Queensland Australia during 2004, questions this very assumption.

Belinda Carpenter and her colleagues were given access to the coronial files of the 533 suicides that took place that year, and the associated police reports, autopsy reports, and coroner's findings gave them unusual insight into the background to the victims. This detail also allowed the researchers to look beyond traditional, written suicide notes (left by 39 per cent of the victims) and to also identify instances where victims had made verbal or electronic warnings of their intent (a further 22 per cent had done this).

Matching trends around the world, the majority of the suicide victims in this study were male (83.1 per cent) and the average age at death was 43.8 years. The most common method of suicide was by hanging; just over half of the victims had known mental health issues; and a little over 5 per cent were from Indigenous Aboriginal communities.

Turning to the main question, the researchers found, contrary to the limited prior research on this topic, that women were less likely to have left a note (or made a verbal warning) than men, as were victims from indigenous communities and victims who killed themselves through gassing (by contrast, those who took their lives under a train or in a car were less likely to have left a note).

Among those victims who did leave a note or warning of some kind, women were more likely to leave a written note, as were victims from more affluent areas, while those with known mental health problems were more likely to have made verbal warnings.

The researchers advised that their results be interpreted with caution since some of the subcategories they looked at ended up consisting of very few cases. That said, they concluded that the findings suggest that "there are some significant differences" between suicide victims who leave notes and those who don't, and that this needs to be taken into account by future research. "This is particularly important for research that uses suicide notes to gain insight into the motivation for suicide more generally," they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Carpenter, B., Bond, C., Tait, G., Wilson, M., & White, K. (2016). Who Leaves Suicide Notes? An Exploration of Victim Characteristics and Suicide Method of Completed Suicides in Queensland Archives of Suicide Research, 20 (2), 176-190 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1004496

--further reading--
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens
What's different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

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

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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Teaching children the ancient "mental abacus" technique boosted their maths abilities more than normal extra tuition


Seeing an expert abacus user in action is a sight to behold. Their hands are a blur as they perform arithmetic operations far quicker than anyone using an electronic calculator. The mental abacus technique is even more impressive – it works just the same as a real abacus, except that you visualise moving the beads in your mind's eye (check out this video of people using mental abacus to perform amazing feats of arithmetic).

Surprisingly, there is little research on the benefits of teaching the mental abacus technique to children. But now, for a paper in Child Development, psychologists in the US have conducted a three-year randomised controlled trial of the effects of teaching the mental abacus on 183 five-to-seven year-old children at a charitable school in Vadodara, India. Their results suggest that training in the mental abacus can have impressive benefits for students'  mathematical abilities, above and beyond those seen for standard supplementary teaching, but that these benefits may not extend to children with weaker cognitive abilities.

The children took baseline tests of their maths and cognitive abilities, then they were allocated randomly to a group to receive three hours per week extra tuition in the abacus (the first year focused mostly on the physical abacus – specifically the Japanese soroban style – and then later years graduated to the mental abacus) or to a group that received three hours per week supplementary maths tuition, following the OUP New Enjoying Maths series.

When the children's maths and cognitive abilities were tested again at the end of the three-year study, those in the mental abacus group showed superior improvements in their maths abilities, including calculation, arithmetic and the conceptual understanding of place value, compared with the control group (effect sizes were large), and some modest advantages in their academic grades in maths and science. The mental abacus did not lead to wider benefits in cognitive abilities and it didn't change the children's attitudes to maths or reduce their maths anxiety – this latter result sounds disappointing, but also means the main benefit to maths ability is unlikely to be a placebo effect. Unfortunately, the exceptional benefits of mental abacus training to maths ability were not found among a subset of children who started out the study with weak spatial and working memory abilities.

"We find evidence that mental abacus – a system rooted in a centuries-old technology for arithmetic and counting – is likely to afford some children a measurable advantage in arithmetic calculation compared to additional hours of standard math training," the researchers said. "Our evidence suggests that mental abacus provides this benefit by building on children's pre-existing cognitive capacities rather than by modifying their ability to visualise and manipulate objects in working memory."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Barner, D., Alvarez, G., Sullivan, J., Brooks, N., Srinivasan, M., & Frank, M. (2016). Learning Mathematics in a Visuospatial Format: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mental Abacus Instruction Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12515

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

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Monday, 25 April 2016

Becoming a parent seems to make us less aggressive

To watch parents vie for parking spaces at the school gates, you might not think it, but a new study in Aggressive Behavior claims that becoming a parent reduces both men's and women's aggressive tendencies, although the caveat with men is that they need to be living with a partner too.

Lynda Boothroyd and Catharine Cross analysed all the sentences handed down for robbery or larceny by US federal courts between 1994 and 1999. They focused on these two crimes because both involve theft, but robbery includes the use of force – such as bank robbery or carjacking – whereas larceny – including crimes like theft from benefit plans or receiving stolen goods – does not. The records also included information on whether the 22,344 sentenced criminals had any dependents and the researchers used this as a proxy for parenthood.

Men were seven times more likely than women to be sentenced for robbery rather than nonviolent larceny, and violent theft was also more common among younger age groups, as you'd expect. But the novel revelation is that overall, non-parents were 1.6 times more likely to commit robbery than parents.

Note that sex trumps parental status: fathers were more violent than even childless women. Also, the data for one year (1999) included information on marital and habitation status, and this showed that parental status made no difference to the violent tendencies of single men, but was only associated with reduced violence among partnered men.

The study didn't follow people over time, so it's possible that less violent people are more likely to become parents, rather than that parenthood reduces violent tendencies. However, the researchers argue that their results match other research suggesting that parenthood leads to reduced testosterone levels, which favours the idea that parenthood really does cause reduced violence.

Also, the researchers say the notion that parenthood is associated with less aggression fits explanations for violence grounded in evolutionary psychology, whereby men are more violent than women because they have more to gain and less to lose. "Parents – of either sex – have more to lose from aggressive competition than non-parents, and very little to gain," they said. Personally I can't help wondering if most parents are simply too exhausted to get involved in any crime that involves physical exertion.

--The impact of parenthood on physical aggression: Evidence from criminal data
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Neuro Milgram – Your brain takes less ownership of actions that you perform under coercion

The new findings help explain why many people can be coerced so easily
By guest blogger Mo Costandi

In a series of classic experiments performed in the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram created a situation in which a scientist instructed volunteers to deliver what they believed to be painful and deadly electric shocks to other people. Although this now infamous research has been criticised at length, people continue to be unsettled by its main finding – that most of the participants were quite willing to harm others when ordered to do so.

These findings have since been used to explain why some people can commit heinous crimes – the fact that they are “only obeying orders” handed down by others may make it easier for them to deny responsibility for their actions.

Milgram’s study was an investigation of people’s readiness to bow down to authority and obey coercive instructions to inflict harm, but it did not explore how the participants felt during the experiments, nor what was happening in their brains.

A new study in Current Biology that used brain wave recordings shows that when a person is coerced into performing an action, his or her brain processes the outcomes of that action differently from how it processes equivalent actions carried out intentionally, suggesting that coercion does indeed diminish our sense of agency, or the sense that we are in control of our actions.

The new research is based on a phenomenon called temporal binding, first described in 2002 by neuroscientist Patrick Haggard of UCL. It refers to the observation that the brain compresses time during voluntary actions, but not involuntary ones, so that our actions and their consequences are perceived to occur more closely together, enhancing our sense of agency.

Haggard and his collaborators performed two experiments to determine whether coercion alters perception of the time interval between an action and its outcome.

In the first, each of 30 pairs of female volunteers took turns at being the “agent” and the “victim”. In the coercive condition, a researcher stood over the table at which pairs of participants sat, stared intensely at the agent, and ordered her to either take money from the victim or give her a mild electric shock, outcomes which the participant initiated by pressing one of two computer keys. In the free-choice condition, the researcher was more detached, and told the agents that they could inflict a shock on the victim in order to earn themselves some money, or take money from the victim, or refrain from such actions, and that they were totally free to choose – again, the agents initiated the outcomes they wanted by pressing different keyboard keys.

In both the coercive and voluntary conditions, the agents’ key presses caused an audible tone to occur, with a variable random delay of up to one second, and the participants had to estimate the interval between the two.

Under the coercive, but not the free-choice condition, the participants estimated the intervals to be significantly longer than they actually were – in other words they showed a reduced temporal binding effect, suggesting that they had a reduced sense of agency over their actions. This was the case for both the harmful and the non-harmful outcomes, showing that the effect was not related to whether or not the agents inflicted any harm, but was due instead to the coercive instructions they were given.

Before the experiment, all the participants had filled out a questionnaire measuring empathy and various personality traits, and the more empathetic ones experienced a more dramatic reduction in agency when their actions had a harmful outcome compared to the less harmful ones. But most of them acted somewhat vindictively, giving roughly the same amount of electric shocks when they played the role of agent as they had received when they were the victim.

In a second experiment, the researchers recruited 22 more volunteers and used electroencephalography (EEG) to examine whether coercion alters the brain wave patterns associated with action outcomes. Consistent with earlier work showing that one particular type of brain wave, called N1, is far bigger for outcomes of voluntary actions than for those of actions performed under (non-coercive) instruction, they found that the outcomes of coerced actions produced smaller N1 waves than the outcomes of actions performed in the free-choice conditions.

A questionnaire administered after the experiments further revealed that the participants felt more responsible for their actions during the free-choice than the coerced trials.

Thus, being coerced into doing something seems to reduce our sense of agency, not just psychologically, but also at the level of basic brain function – the neural processing of the outcomes of coerced actions resembles the outcomes of passive movements more closely than the outcomes of voluntary or intentional actions.

Fifty years ago, Milgram reported that ordinary people usually comply with coercive instructions, even if it means inflicting real or apparent harm on others. These new findings show that the effects of coercion on the sense of agency are universal, as opposed to being associated with any particular characteristic of personality.

They also suggest a reason why people can be coerced so easily – coercion may automatically reduce the link between an action and its outcome, emotionally distancing people from distasteful consequences and diminishing their sense of moral responsibility.

Haggard and his colleagues believe that their findings could have profound implications for legal responsibility and the criminal justice system. They do not legitimise the notorious strategy used by defendants at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, that they were just obeying orders. But the researchers argue that the law would do well to shift the focus from people who obey orders to those who give them out.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Caspar, E., Christensen, J., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard, P. (2016). Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain Current Biology, 26 (5), 585-592 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067

--further reading--
Social psychology textbooks ignore all modern criticisms of Milgram's "obedience experiments"
In search of the conscious will

Post written by Mo Costandi (@Mocost) for the BPS Research Digest. Mo trained as a developmental neurobiologist and now works as a freelance writer specialising in neuroscience. He writes the Neurophilosophy blog, which is hosted by The Guardian, and is the author of 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know, published by Quercus in 2013. His second book, Neuroplasticity, is due to be published by the MIT Press later this year.

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Saturday, 23 April 2016

Link feast

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

Are We Punching Our Weight?
The Psychologist magazine's Ella Rhodes asks whether psychology is having the desired impact, through the media and policy.

The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep
And how it can help solve the mystery of human consciousness.

Why The Internet Isn't Making Us Smarter And How To Fight Back
Advice from psychologist David Dunning.

Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears
There's a new book out on the history of crying.

Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read
Two psychologists have reviewed the literature and they conclude: "it’s extremely unlikely you can greatly improve your reading speed without missing out on a lot of meaning."

Making Brain Waves in Society
Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe on the "ripple effects" generated as a piece of neuroscience leaves the laboratory.

What Can A Lemon Tell You About Your Personality?
Do you find yourself salivating at the merest thought of eating a lemon? The answer may say more about your mind than your taste for sour flavours (the first article for my new Personology column at BBC Future).

Enzo Yaksic: Profiler 2.0
For decades, the FBI has relied on a flawed criminal profile to identify and catch serial killers. Now a Boston data geek thinks he’s found a better way.

Cadaver Study Casts Doubts on How Zapping Brain May Boost Mood, Relieve Pain
Reporting for Science Magazine, Emily Underwood quotes researcher Vincent Walsh: The tDCS [transcranial direct current stimulation] field is “a sea of bullshit and bad science—and I say that as someone who has contributed some of the papers that have put gas in the tDCS tank".

Why We Sleep Badly on Our First Night in a New Place
Is it because half our brain is staying up to keep watch?

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

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Friday, 22 April 2016

We're less likely to help each other out when near a luxury store

Tripping up in the street or dropping your things in a puddle. These are never happy events, but the outcome could be worse in some places than others. According to a new study in Social Influence, strangers are less likely to come to your assistance if they've just exited a luxury store, or even if you just happen to be in an exclusive part of town with lots of pricey shops.

Past research has already shown that reminders of money and materialism encourage us to be more selfish and less helpful, presumably because of the connotations of competition and self-sufficiency. But nearly all this evidence comes from lab studies and the findings haven't always held up to repeated testing.

The new research is a series of field studies. Students working for the researchers pretended that they needed help in a range of shopping locations across Paris including the avenue des Champs-Elysées, avenue Montaigne, the place Vendome, as well as nearby residential streets such as the rue de Marignan.

For example, in one study, the students walked with a crutch and leg brace, waited for an unsuspecting passer-by and then dropped their things. The test was whether the passerby would help. In another, the students worked in pairs, with one in a wheel-chair. In this case they asked unsuspecting passersby to keep the student in the wheelchair company while the other student went to look for a lost phone.

The consistent finding across the studies was that people were far less likely to help if they'd just been shopping in a luxury store or even if they just happened to be walking along a street with an abundance of luxury stores. For example, in the first study, 77.5 per cent of passersby were helpful on an ordinary street compared with 35 per cent of those who had just exited a luxury store. The second study showed the mere presence of nearby luxury shops reduced helping behaviour to 23.2 per cent (in this case, the passersby were just near the luxury shops, they hadn't necessarily been in them). And a final study confirmed that ordinary shops did not have this bad-Samaritan effect, only luxury ones did.

"Materialistic reminders may have increased self-enhancement and competitive values," the researchers said, "which in turn would decrease trusting and benevolent behaviour, and a sense of being concerned about and connected to other people."

--“Wrong place to get help”: A field experiment on luxury stores and helping behavior (image via flickr)

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

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One woman's deradicalisation: from right-wing extremist to preacher of tolerance

An in-depth interview with a formerly violent right-wing extremist has provided psychologists with rare insights into the processes of disengagement and deradicalisation. John Horgan at Georgia State University and his colleagues interviewed "Sarah" face-to-face for several hours, and also followed up with telephone calls. Their account is published in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression. The woman had previously been a member of various Neo-Nazi right-wing groups and was ultimately imprisoned for her part in the armed robbery of a shop. Today, Sarah works to combat violence and racism by speaking to at-risk youths, and says she feels a "responsibility to go out and try to undo damage."

The background to this from a research perspective is that violent extremism remains, thankfully, rare. Therefore psychologists rely on insights into the deradicalisation process mostly from interviews with professionals, family and friends who have contact with extremists. Interviews with extremists themselves are hard to obtain, making this in-depth case study a rare opportunity. A major limitation is that some or all of the processes involved in this case may not generalise to other extremists.

The researchers applied their "arc framework" to Sarah's story – this is the idea that the path from extremist to de-radicalisation goes from involvement, to engagement, to disengagement, and that the nature of disengagement and deradicalistion – often a long-term process, rather than a sudden moment – will likely be shaped by the reasons behind initial involvement and engagement.

Sarah's involvement in right-wing extremism came about through teenage feelings of alienation. These feelings were fostered by a religious schooling that clashed with her parents' alcoholism and racism, and her emerging sexual interest in other girls. Sarah fell in with skinheads at high school. This group later split into Neo-Nazi and anti-fascist groups, and Sarah chose the former where she found a sense of purpose and belonging.

Sarah's true engagement began when she volunteered to expel another member. "That to me was my crossover and where I said okay this is ... now at this time I'm making this commitment, you know, to follow these rules, to be a member of the group." She got more Neo-Nazi tattoos and was exposed to right-wing literature – she says this didn't influence her beliefs, so much as give her a way to impress the other extremists around her. In fact, she says ideology only played a small part in her involvement – rather, she found the alternative and socially challenging lifestyle an attractive option, especially in light of her uncomfortable family circumstances.

The roots of Sarah's disengagement run deep. She describes feeling doubts very early on, not least because she engaged in activities that she knew ran contrary to the beliefs of the groups she was involved with, such as her sexual promiscuity, including being involved with a Hispanic man. Her doubts were later compounded by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (by a right-wing extremist), including the image of an infant victim. But still, as her doubts intensified, she drowned them in more drink, drugs and deeper extremist involvement. As this tension between her desires to leave and her commitment took their toll, Sarah says she simply lacked the resources to leave and her involvement continued to provide her with "self-worth, validation and protection".

The turning point came when Sarah was arrested for her part in an armed robbery, which she'd undertaken with her then-boyfriend who was a key figure in her extremist group. Her subsequent imprisonment meant involuntary disengagement from the group. This changed Sarah. She took responsibility for her actions, and whereas we often hear about people being radicalised in prison, the researchers say it was clear that the physical distance created by imprisonment provided the space and opportunity for Sarah to confront her doubts.

Once in jail she befriended black women and was surprised by their acceptance of her (despite her notoriety and racist tattoos). Sarah took a degree, broadened her outlook. She "started realizing the world truly is so much bigger than [her] and [her] beliefs and ideas and, you know, [her] feelings" which, she says, gave her a "terrific sense of freedom". She subsequently began teaching in prison, including tutoring other inmates in how to read and write. She discovered her capacity for compassion and empathy, "you know actually caring about people that I professed to hate for so many years – those kind of experiences changed me tremendously."

On her release, Sarah was terrified that she had "hardwired her brain" in her earlier life, but she made a conscious decision to challenge any racist thoughts that emerged in her mind, a process she likens to "breaking a bad habit". Sarah's feelings of responsibility to undo past damage and her newfound social role as preacher of tolerance have also been protective – helping to deepen her disengagement and making it psychologically meaningful. Today her fears of being hardwired to be racist have subsided.

The researchers acknowledged that their account of Sarah's case is "partial, idiosyncratic and limited", but they noted that "most of what is said and written about violent extremist offenders [is] rarely complemented by insights from the offenders themselves." They concluded: "We do firmly hope that this case study serves as an illustration for future research purposes."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Horgan, J., Altier, M., Shortland, N., & Taylor, M. (2016). Walking away: the disengagement and de-radicalization of a violent right-wing extremist Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2016.1156722

--further reading--
The psychology of violent extremism - digested

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

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Thursday, 21 April 2016

Is this why the research on creativity and mental illness is so contradictory?

From Van Gogh to Poe, history is littered with famous cases of creative geniuses plagued by inner turmoil. But going beyond the anecdotal, are creative people really more prone to mental health difficulties?

Past studies have led to conflicting results – for every one that uncovered a link, another has come along with the opposite result. In a new paper in Psychological Bulletin, a Netherlands-based team led by Matthijs Baas takes us through a tour of this earlier work and they propose a brain-based explanation for why the results are so messy.

Baas’s team begin with findings from earlier meta-analyses – studies that pool data from prior research. These reviews show that “positive schizotypic symptoms” such as impulsivity, hallucinations and superstitious beliefs are more common among creative people, but “negative schizotypic symptoms” – such as cognitive disorganisation and forms of anhedonia, a reduced capacity to enjoy pleasure – are actually less common.

Baas and his colleagues suggest this is because of the relationship between positive and negative schizotypic symptoms and our brain’s two basic motivational systems – the approach system and the avoidance system. The approach system is creativity friendly, as the neurotransmitter dopamine encourages exploration and the pursuit of rewarding stimuli. It is linked to high mood, exploration, and even to difficulties inhibiting ‘irrelevant experience’ – not unlike positive schizotypy. Meanwhile, the serotonin-charged avoidance system deals with threat, and leads to reduced flexibility and focused rather than open information processing – which links with the low mood and disrupted attention that characterises negative schizotypy. So this taxonomy makes sense of the different results: approach system symptoms are more frequent in creative people who have more dominant approach systems, whereas avoidance-related symptoms are less frequent. Supporting this, another avoidance-like condition – trait anxiety – has been shown to be slightly less common among more creative people.

Baas’s team wanted to see if this pattern generalises beyond schizophrenia-related symptoms to the approach-like condition of bipolar disorder and to depression – avoidance’s black dog. They gathered nearly 2000 scholarly citations that referenced creativity and these two conditions, and then shaved them down to 39 depression studies, 28 bipolar, mostly peer reviewed work, together with some theses and unpublished work. Note, these studies dealt with non-clinical instances – so depressive mood or manic tendencies, rather than formal diagnoses.

The relationship between bipolar tendencies and creativity was clear and positive (an overall correlation of .224 where 1 would be a perfect match). This correlation was strongest when considering self-report studies, rather than those that actually tested creativity; this suggests an association between bipolar and an inflated sense of creativity. But still, a significant correlation remained when stripping out the self-report.

Meanwhile, depression showed the expected negative relationship with creativity. However, this association it was very small (the correlation was -.064). The previous findings with negative schizotypy were also small which could suggest that the avoidance system is only a minor impediment to creativity, or that the picture is more complicated. Supporting the latter position, the data suggest that the relationship is stronger in certain social groups – non artists – and in older adults.

We should note that the data discussed in this new study is all from healthy people whose symptoms were not serious enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis. There may be different factors at work among creative people who have more serious mental health problems, as was the case for Van Gogh and Poe. One possibility here is that being highly creative is a risk factor for mental health because it pits people against rigid societal boundaries. Another may be that atypical experiences – such as committal to a mental institution – may kindle different ways of looking at the world. But this study suggests that sitting underneath these complex dynamics are deeply grounded tendencies: to follow our flights of fancy or stay close to home.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Baas, M., Nijstad, B., Boot, N., & De Dreu, C. (2016). Mad Genius Revisited: Vulnerability to Psychopathology, Biobehavioral Approach-Avoidance, and Creativity. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000049

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

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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

We think scientists are more likely than others to engage in necrobestiality (and other "impure" activities)

For hundreds of years, scientists were just one fixture in the firmament of the intellectual class, as colourful and strident in their own way as the philosophers and poets. But come the 20th Century and the public began to regard scientists with fear and awe, thanks to the advent of immense technologies such as the atomic bomb. In response, the profession consciously rebranded as anonymous public servants in white coats: dutiful, considered and above all, safe. But new research published in PLOS One by researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and British Columbia suggests that we see scientists as uneasily different, morally separate, and a little bit dangerous.

Bastiaan Rutjens and Steven Heine conducted a series of experiments with nearly 1,900 American participants they recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website (38 per cent women, average age 30). The participants had to complete the conjunction task that involves identifying which of two options they think is more likely to be true, where one option involves detail A (for example, “there are more red pens”), and the other both detail A and detail B (“there are more red, sharp pens”) – the latter is the conjunction response. Logically speaking, there can never be more "red sharp pens" than there are simply "red pens" (the former is a subset of the latter), and the correct answer is always to avoid choosing the conjunction response. But we often break that rule – and reveal our unintentional assumptions – when that extra detail feels too relevant to the situation to ignore.

In the new studies, participants broke the rule when the extra detail was "scientist" and the situation was necrobestiality. That’s right. Participants read one of a range of scenarios involving moral transgressions such as consensual adult incest or having sex with a dead dog, and had to decide whether the perpetrator was a sports fan, or a sports fan and an X. Participants were more likely to opt for the second (conjunction) response when that X was a scientist rather than a control category such as Christian, gay, or Hispanic.

But, scientists were no more likely to be suspected for other moral transgressions such as cheating at cards or treating others abusively, which are examples of harming others for pleasure or personal gain. It seems that the scientists are not being seen as selfishly immoral, but as willing to bend the rules of society, and engage in impure activities – suggesting, in the authors’ words, the “scrupulous ‘Faustian experimentalist’ unburdened by morality but not deliberately evil”. The one borderline result was for serial murder, which was more associated with a scientist perpetrator: this crime undoubtedly involves harm, but also invokes impurity and boundary breaking, without clear self-interested motives, and it seems plausible that it is these aspects driving the association. One way to test this in the future would be with a different murder scenario, such as a crime of passion or for profit.

The data showed that scientists weren’t being swept into a broader atheist category when making judgments: atheists were seen as more likely to be selfishly harmful, whereas scientists were not, and participants’ responses to the question “Do you think that a scientist can believe in God?” had no bearing on their eventual judgments of scientists’ morality. Further data clarified that people were slightly more likely to attribute moral transgressions to scientists if they also saw them as “lacking emotions” or “like a robot.” Scientists were generally seen as valuing curiosity over doing the right thing, and as more dangerous than normal people – and the stronger these perceptions, the more participants saw them as having amoral tendencies.

Yet scientists weren’t seen overall as negative. In fact, they were the most liked group, when compared to atheists, religious and even the average Joe. It’s just that we have this funny feeling that, when society says ‘“no”, the scientist might answer “…why?” and cross boundaries that others leave well alone. As to the truth of this characterisation, this study offers no advice. The true scientists among you might want to find out for yourselves.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rutjens, B., & Heine, S. (2016). The Immoral Landscape? Scientists Are Associated with Violations of Morality PLOS ONE, 11 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152798

--further reading--
Distrust of atheists is "deeply and culturally ingrained" even among atheists

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

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