Saturday, 28 November 2015

Link feast

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

A Matter of Life and Death
Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson at The Psychologist argue there’s a role for psychologists in helping people with their Advance Decisions.

Why ‘Cool’ Is Still Cool
Language is constantly evolving. Certain words and phrases catch on and become popular while others die out and wither away, writes Jonah Berger at the New York Times' Gray Matter column. So what leads some phrases to become more successful than others? (see also)

What Happens When You Can’t Talk to Yourself?
How a missing inner monologue affects the sense of self. By Claire Cameron for Nautilus.

Hallucinations? They May Just Be Caused By a Fold in the Brain
Charlotte Rae at The Conversation reports on a new piece of research.

Jane Wardle Obituary
Psychology is mourning the loss of a leading behavioural scientist in the field of cancer prevention.

Opinion: Brain Scans in the Courtroom
Advances in neuroimaging have improved our understanding of the brain, but the resulting data do little to help judges and juries determine criminal culpability. So argues Andreas Kuersten in The Scientist.

Men’s and Women’s Brains Appear to Age Differently
A new study I reported on for New York's Science of Us highlights why we shouldn't assume talk of biological gender differences is always a gateway to misogyny.

Scientific Faith Is Different From Religious Faith
Not all beliefs are equal, writes Paul Bloom at The Atlantic.

How Envy Changes As You Get Older
The things you’re jealous of at 20 aren’t the same as the things that will drive you nuts at 50, writes Melissa Dahl at New York's Science of Us.

‘I Took the Plunge and Chose the Risky Option’
In the latest issue of The Psychologist, Lance Workman meets Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 27 November 2015

Psychology's 10 Greatest Case Studies – Digested

These ten characters have all had a huge influence on psychology and their stories continue to intrigue each new generation of students. What's particularly fascinating is that many of their stories continue to evolve – new evidence comes to light, or new technologies are brought to bear, changing how the cases are interpreted and understood. What many of these 10 also have in common is that they speak to some of the perennial debates in psychology, about personality and identity, nature and nurture, and the links between mind and body.

Phineas Gage
One day in 1848 in Central Vermont, Phineas Gage was tamping explosives into the ground to prepare the way for a new railway line when he had a terrible accident. The detonation went off prematurely, and his tamping iron shot into his face, through his brain, and out the top of his head. Remarkably Gage survived, although his friends and family reportedly felt he was changed so profoundly (becoming listless and aggressive) that "he was no longer Gage." There the story used to rest – a classic example of frontal brain damage affecting personality. However, recent years have seen a drastic reevaluation of Gage's story in light of new evidence. It's now believed that he underwent significant rehabilitation and in fact began work as a horse carriage driver in Chile. A simulation of his injuries suggested much of his right frontal cortex was likely spared, and photographic evidence has been unearthed showing a post-accident dapper Gage. Not that you'll find this revised account in many psychology textbooks: a recent analysis showed that few of them have kept up to date with the new evidence.

Find out moreUsing brain imaging to reevaluate psychology's three most famous cases
Neuroscience still haunted by Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage - Unravelling the Myth
Looking back: Blasts from the past
Coverage of Phineas Gage in the book Great Myths of the Brain

Henry Gustav Molaison (known for years as H.M. in the literature to protect his privacy), who died in 2008, developed severe amnesia at age 27 after undergoing brain surgery as a form of treatment for the epilepsy he'd suffered since childhood. He was subsequently the focus of study by over 100 psychologists and neuroscientists and he's been mentioned in over 12,000 journal articles! Molaison's surgery involved the removal of large parts of the hippocampus on both sides of his brain and the result was that he was almost entirely unable to store any new information in long-term memory (there were some exceptions – for example, after 1963 he was aware that a US president had been assassinated in Dallas). The extremity of Molaison's deficits was a surprise to experts of the day because many of them believed that memory was distributed throughout the cerebral cortex. Today, Molaison's legacy lives on: his brain was carefully sliced and preserved and turned into a 3D digital atlas and his life story is reportedly due to be turned into a feature film based on the book researcher Suzanne Corkin wrote about him: Permanent Present Tense, The Man With No Memory and What He Taught The World.

Find out moreUsing brain imaging to reevaluate psychology's three most famous cases
Henry Molaison: the amnesiac we'll never forget
Understanding amnesia – Is it time to forget HM?

Leborgne's brain is housed at
the Musée Dupuytren museum in Paris
Victor Leborgne (nickname "Tan")
The fact that, in most people, language function is served predominantly by the left frontal cortex has today almost become common knowledge, at least among psych students. However, back in the early nineteenth century, the consensus view was that language function (like memory, see entry for H.M.) was distributed through the brain. An eighteenth century patient who helped change that was Victor Leborgne, a Frenchman who was nicknamed "Tan" because that was the only sound he could utter (besides the expletive phrase "sacre nom de Dieu"). In 1861, aged 51, Leborgne was referred to the renowned neurologist Paul Broca, but died soon after. Broca examined Leborgne's brain and noticed a lesion in his left frontal lobe – a segment of tissue now known as Broca's area. Given Leborgne's impaired speech but intact comprehension, Broca concluded that this area of the brain was responsible for speech production and he set about persuading his peers of this fact – now recognised as a key moment in psychology's history. For decades little was known about Leborgne, besides his important contribution to science. However, in a paper published in 2013, Cezary Domanski at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland uncovered new biographical details, including the possibility that Leborgne muttered the word "Tan" because his birthplace of Moret, home to several tanneries.

Find out moreGlimpsed at last - the life of neuropsychology's most important patient
Using brain imaging to reevaluate psychology's three most famous cases

Image: Wikipedia
Wild Boy of Aveyron
The "Wild boy of Aveyron" – named Victor by the physician Jean-Marc Itard – was found emerging from Aveyron forest in South West France in 1800, aged 11 or 12, where's it's thought he had been living in the wild for several years. For psychologists and philosophers, Victor became a kind of "natural experiment" into the question of nature and nurture. How would he be affected by the lack of human input early in his life? Those who hoped Victor would support the notion of the "noble savage" uncorrupted by modern civilisation were largely disappointed: the boy was dirty and dishevelled, defecated where he stood and apparently motivated largely by hunger. Victor acquired celebrity status after he was transported to Paris and Itard began a mission to teach and socialise the "feral child". This programme met with mixed success: Victor never learned to speak fluently, but he dressed, learned civil toilet habits, could write a few letters and acquired some very basic language comprehension. Autism expert Uta Frith believes Victor may have been abandoned because he was autistic, but she acknowledges we will never know the truth of his background. Victor's story inspired the 2004 novel The Wild Boy and was dramatised in the 1970 French film The Wild Child.

Find out moreCase Study: The Wild Boy of Aveyron (BBC Radio 4 documentary).

Image: Dmadeo/Wikipedia
Kim Peek
Nicknamed ‘Kim-puter’ by his friends, Peek who died in 2010 aged 58, was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant character in the multi-Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Before that movie, which was released in 1988, few people had heard of autism, so Peek via the film can be credited with helping to raise the profile of the condition. Arguably though, the film also helped spread the popular misconception that giftedness is a hallmark of autism (in one notable scene, Hoffman's character deduces in an instant the precise number of cocktail sticks – 246 – that a waitress drops on the floor). Peek himself was actually a non-autistic savant, born with brain abnormalities including a malformed cerebellum and an absent corpus callosum (the massive bundle of tissue that usually connects the two hemispheres). His savant skills were astonishing and included calendar calculation, as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, literature, classical music, US zip codes and travel routes. It was estimated that he read more than 12,000 books in his life time, all of them committed to flawless memory. Although outgoing and sociable, Peek had coordination problems and struggled with abstract or conceptual thinking.

Find out more: New York Times Obit for Kim Peek.
Autism – myth and reality
Calendar calculating savants with autism - how do they do it?
I Am a Calendar Calculator

Image: Wikipedia
Anna O.
"Anna O." is the pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, a pioneering German Jewish feminist and social worker who died in 1936 aged 77. As Anna O. she is known as one of the first ever patients to undergo psychoanalysis and her case inspired much of Freud's thinking on mental illness. Pappenheim first came to the attention of another psychoanalyst, Joseph Breuer, in 1880 when he was called to her house in Vienna where she was lying in bed, almost entirely paralysed. Her other symptoms include hallucinations, personality changes and rambling speech, but doctors could find no physical cause. For 18 months, Breuer visited her almost daily and talked to her about her thoughts and feelings, including her grief for her father, and the more she talked, the more her symptoms seemed to fade – this was apparently one of the first ever instances of psychoanalysis or "the talking cure", although the degree of Breuer's success has been disputed and some historians allege that Pappenheim did have an organic illness, such as epilepsy. Although Freud never met Pappenheim, he wrote about her case, including the notion that she had a hysterical pregnancy, although this too is disputed. The latter part of Pappenheim's life in Germany post 1888 is as remarkable as her time as Anna O. She became a prolific writer and social pioneer, including authoring stories, plays, and translating seminal texts, and she founded social clubs for Jewish women, worked in orphanages and founded the German Federation of Jewish Women.

Find out more: Freud's Anna O. Social work's Bertha Pappenheim [pdf document]
A Dangerous Method is a feature film about another influential patient of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein, who subsequently became a psychoanalyst herself.

Image: Wikipedia
Kitty Genovese
Sadly, it is not really Kitty Genovese the person who has become one of psychology's classic case studies, but rather the terrible fate that befell her. In 1964 in New York, Genovese was returning home from her job as a bar maid when she was attacked and eventually murdered by Winston Mosely. What made this tragedy so influential to psychology was that it inspired research into what became known as the Bystander Phenomenon – the now well-established finding that our sense of individual responsibility is diluted by the presence of other people. According to folklore, 38 people watched Genovese's demise yet not one of them did anything to help, apparently a terrible real life instance of the Bystander Effect. However, the story doesn't end there because historians have since established the reality was much more complicated – at least two people did try to summon help, and actually there was only one witness the second and fatal attack. While the main principle of the Bystander Effect has stood the test of time, modern psychology's understanding of the way it works has become a lot more nuanced. For example, there's evidence that in some situations people are more likely to act when they're part of a larger group, such as when they and the other group members all belong to the same social category (such as all being women) as the victim.

Find out moreThe truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths in psychology
37 is a short film about the Genovese murder

Little Albert
"Little Albert" was the nickname that the pioneering behaviourist psychologist John Watson gave to an 11-month-old baby, in whom, with his colleague and future wife Rosalind Rayner, he deliberately attempted to instill certain fears through a process of conditioning. The research, which was of dubious scientific quality, was conducted in 1920 and has become notorious for being so unethical (such a procedure would never be given approval in modern university settings). Interest in Little Albert has reignited in recent years as an academic quarrel has erupted over his true identity. A group led by Hall Beck at Appalachian University announced in 2011 that they thought Little Albert was actually Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet nurse at John Hopkins University where Watson and Rayner were based. According to this sad account, Little Albert was neurologically impaired, compounding the unethical nature of the Watson/Rayner research, and he died aged six of  hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). However, this account was challenged by a different group of scholars led by Russell Powell at MacEwan University in 2014. They established that Little Albert was more likely William A Barger (recorded in his medical file as Albert Barger), the son of a different wet nurse. Earlier this year, textbook writer Richard Griggs weighed up all the evidence and concluded that the Barger story is the more credible, which would mean that Little Albert in fact died 2007 aged 87.

Find out moreLittle Albert - one of the most famous research participants in psychology's history - but who was he?
Looking back: Finding Little Albert

Chris Sizemore
Chris Costner Sizemore is one of the most famous patients to be given the controversial diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, known today as dissociative identity disorder. Sizemore's alter egos apparently included Eve White, Eve Black, Jane and many others. By some accounts, Sizemore expressed these personalities as a coping mechanism in the face of traumas she experienced in childhood, including seeing her mother badly injured and a man sawn in half at a lumber mill. In recent years, Sizemore has described how her alter egos have been combined into one united personality for many decades, but she still sees different aspects of her past as belonging to her different personalities. For example, she has stated that her husband was married to Eve White (not her), and that Eve White is the mother of her first daughter. Her story was turned into a movie in 1957 called The Three Faces of Eve (based on a book of the same name written by her psychiatrists). Joanne Woodward won the best actress Oscar for portraying Sizemore and her various personalities in this film. Sizemore published her autobiography in 1977 called I'm Eve. In 2009, she appeared on the BBC's Hard Talk interview show.

Find out morethe Chris Costner Sizemore Papers at Duke University

David Reimer
One of the most famous patients in psychology, Reimer lost his penis in a botched circumcision operation when he was just 8 months old. His parents were subsequently advised by psychologist John Money to raise Reimer as a girl, "Brenda", and for him to undergo further surgery and hormone treatment to assist his gender reassignment. Money initially described the experiment (no one had tried anything like this before) as a huge success that appeared to support his belief in the important role of socialisation, rather than innate factors, in children's gender identity. In fact, the reassignment was seriously problematic and Reimer's boyishness was never far beneath the surface. When he was aged 14, Reimer was told the truth about his past and set about reversing the gender reassignment process to become male again. He later campaigned against other children with genital injuries being gender reassigned in the way that he had been. His story was turned into the book As Nature Made Him, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl by John Colapinto, and he is the subject of two BBC Horizon documentaries. Tragically, Reimer took his own life in 2004, aged just 38.

Find out moreWhat were the real reasons behind David Reimer's suicide?

--main sources and further reading--
The Rough Guide to Psychology
Great Myths of the Brain.
10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published
The 10 Most Controversial Psychology Studies Ever Published
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Does it matter whether or not pain medication is branded?

Around the world many health services are moving towards generic (non-branded) medicines as a way to reduce costs. Where does psychology come into this? Well, we know that, thanks to the placebo effect, people's expectations about a treatment can influence the effects that treatment has on them. We also know, thanks to research conducted over the last decade, that people expect branded medicines to be more effective and to have fewer side effects than their generic counterparts. A new study in Health Psychology is one of the first to explore whether this matters – specifically, it looks at whether a generic painkiller is less effective than its chemically identical branded counterpart.

Kate Faasse and her colleagues recruited 87 undergrads, most of them were female, who answered an advert seeking people who suffer frequent headaches (at least one per fortnight). The participants were given four doses of Ibuprofen to use in the coming weeks as and when they suffered a headache, and to keep a diary of the relief the medicine brought them, and any side-effects they experienced. Crucially, two of the doses were branded as Neurofen, while the other two were generic in plain packaging. Unbeknown to the participants, one of the branded doses was actually a placebo, as was one of the generic doses.

When it came to the active doses, there was no difference between the branded and generic Ibuprofen – both were equally effective at pain relief and the students reported the same amount of side-effects for each. However, with the placebo doses, the branded medicine was more effective than the generic at pain relief and was associated with fewer side effects than the generic medicine.

Although these findings imply that branding makes no difference to an active pain relief medicine, they do show how branding exerts a placebo effect in terms of pain relief and reduced side-effects. This placebo effect was not detectable beyond the actions of the active medicine. But Faasse and her colleagues explained that this branding-related placebo effect could have real-life significance for other types of medicine for which the actions of the drug are less easy for patients to monitor or detect (as compared with pain relief), such as blood pressure medication or anti-depressants, meaning that the patients' beliefs about the drug might be more important. We'll need more research to test this.

The researchers said: "The additional placebo effect associated with branding has the potential to enhance medication effectiveness, which may subsequently be lost during a switch to a generic alternative".


Faasse, K., Martin, L., Grey, A., Gamble, G., & Petrie, K. (2015). Impact of Brand or Generic Labeling on Medication Effectiveness and Side Effects. Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/hea0000282

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

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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Are extraverts or introverts more cooperative? It depends on the situation

Our achievements as a species owe a debt to our willingness to cooperate. But we all vary in how we solve the social dilemma – whether in any given situation we choose to favour self-interest or cooperation. This issue has long fascinated researchers, who delight in testing people’s choices in hypothetical setups involving prisoners’ loyalty to each other or the sharing of community resources. But these setups have struggled to give us a clear picture of how personality tips people one way or another: for example, are extraverts more cooperative by instinct than introverts?

A new paper published in Philosophical Transactions B suggests that we need to use the right frame: the context surrounding a dilemma affects how it’s tackled by different personality types. Extraverts act more exploitatively in social dilemmas than introverts, the research shows, but only when they think they can get away with it.

The 177 undergraduate participants tackled a setup called the Public Goods Game, where they had to decide whether to hang onto their tokens or put them into a public pot, where they would swell in value before being shared between the game’s four players, collaborating over a computer network. If everyone invests, each player is better off, but such collaboration is not guaranteed so a token in the hand is still arguably worth more to a player than his or her share of the future public pot. Extra realism came from the fact that each player’s end-of-game tally of tokens was converted into real money once the study was over.

Kari Britt Schroeder and her colleagues found that over ten rounds of this game, extraverts were more likely to hold back tokens for themselves. But then the researchers shifted the rules so that now following each of the next ten rounds participants got to see how everyone else had invested during that round, and they also had the chance to assign other players negative tokens, which cost the giver one token but taxed the recipient three. In this punishment stage, extraverts were more generous than introverts, tending to put more of their tokens into the public pot.

The researchers expected to find these effects of personality on cooperation. Extraversion is known to make gaining rewards more appealing, creating a temptation to free-ride even though it may not be morally "right". But when the possibility of punishments kicks in, free-riding loses its appeal, and extraverts see more reward in banding together. Or perhaps the disincentive is the loss of social standing implied by being fined by others, as extraverts are particularly keen on positive attention. Regardless of the cause, the experiment shows that the larger context totally reconfigures the effect personality has on cooperation.

Clearly the same goes for real life. Most social dilemmas don’t take place in a vacuum; they require a context, often an institution armed with more or less power to discipline anti-social behaviour. You can’t be punished for selfish behaviour in the park, but you can be at work – unless, maybe, your father is the boss. So researching social dilemmas with more consideration of this institutional weight will hopefully be the key to a better understanding of who in a given context is likely to be more prone to selfish temptation ... and perhaps help us figure out a way forward through the social dilemmas that the 21st century poses to us.


Schroeder, K., Nettle, D., & McElreath, R. (2015). Interactions between personality and institutions in cooperative behaviour in humans Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370 (1683) DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0011

--further reading--
How can we increase altruism towards future generations?
In search of the super-humane (those who identify with all of humanity)
How the threat of violence can make us nice to each other

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

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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Embrace your bad moods and they may not take such a toll on you

"Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people" from Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last
Generally speaking, being in a bad mood isn't just no fun, it also isn't good for you – people who feel negative emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness a lot of the time tend to have poorer social lives and suffer worse physical health in the long run, suggesting that dark moods take a toll. But a new study published in Emotion shows how this isn't a uniform truth. Bad moods don't have an adverse effect on everyone to the same degree. The crucial difference seems to be how much people see that there can be value, meaning and even satisfaction in bad moods – those who appreciate this tend to suffer fewer ill effects from the supposedly darker sides of their psyche.

Gloria Luong and her colleagues interviewed 365 German participants (aged 14 to 88) about their attitudes to negative and positive emotions, and about their mental and physical health (physical health was measured subjectively by self-report and also objectively by a grip strength test). The researchers also monitored the participants' mood states over a three-week period using smart phones. Six times a day during nine days in a 3-week period, the participants were prompted by the phones to indicate how good or bad they were feeling at that time (the participants gave ratings of how much they were feeling various positive and negative mood states, such as their joy and enthusiasm and their anger and disappointment, among others, and the researchers took averages of these to calculate their overall amount of positive or negative mood).

Just as the researchers predicted, the links between people's frequency of bad moods and negative outcomes (in terms of mental and physical health) varied depending on the attitudes they held toward negative emotion. Those participants who had negative attitudes toward bad moods tended to pay a price: the more negative moods they experienced, the poorer their mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term (for example, based on their number of health complaints). However, among the participants who had a more positive attitude toward bad moods, these links were mostly reduced, or in some cases even absent completely.

There are different ways to interpret these results: for example, perhaps not suffering from the ill effects of bad moods helps people not to have such a negative view of bad moods. But Luong and her team favour a different account. They think recognising the value and meaning of negative moods and emotions probably helps prevent those dark mood states from taking such an adverse toll, possibly by "dampening the magnitude and/or duration of the concomitant physiological arousal and psychological distress associated with negative affect [affect is another word for emotion]." Future research will need to test this and other explanations.

It's worth noting, there were some exceptions to the protective effect of valuing negative moods. For example, even among participants who held negative moods in a positive light, the more negative moods they felt, the lower their life satisfaction tended to be. The researchers speculate this may be because when making such a sweeping judgment about their lives, people use an internal gauge of their mood levels as one way to reach an answer, even if, on reflection, they recognise the value and meaning of those negative moods.

Another caveat is that this research was conducted exclusively in Germany. Past research has already revealed cultural differences that are relevant to this topic – for example, German people are less motivated to avoid negative emotions than Americans, and some cultures are actually fearful of too much happiness – so we need more research to see if the current findings apply in other cultural contexts.

These notes of caution aside, the research raises the empowering possibility that negative feelings needn't always take such a toll, not if we can learn to see the value and meaning they may have (for example, recognising that anger can sometimes be empowering, that sadness can be poignant and bring us closer to one another, and so on). If this effect can be replicated in future research, it may pave the way for mental health interventions based on this principle of seeing the positive side of bad moods.


Luong, G., Wrzus, C., Wagner, G., & Riediger, M. (2015). When Bad Moods May Not Be So Bad: Valuing Negative Affect Is Associated With Weakened Affect–Health Links. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000132

--further reading--
Other people may experience more misery than you realise
What's the difference between a happy life and a meaningful one?
How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder
Why do people like listening to sad music when they're feeling down?
Why do we sometimes like getting sad together?
The unexpected benefits of anxiety

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

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Monday, 23 November 2015

On some issues, liberals are more dogmatic than conservatives

In the liberal worldview, conservatives are notoriously narrow-minded – and for years we’ve had the science to prove it. Meta-analyses published in 2003 and 2010 of dozens of studies using different measures revealed a consensus on "the rigidity of the right" – that is, people who hold more right-wing views tend to be more close-minded. Case closed? Or should we be open to other perspectives, such as the one offered in a new article published recently in Political Psychology. Produced by a research team lead by Lucian Conway of the University of Montana, it shows how classic measures of close-mindedness may be bedevilled by topic bias. When the subject matter is switched out, it’s the left who’re locked-in.

The study reports on two measures of close-mindedness, the first being dogmatism: taking simplistic, inflexible viewpoints. Researchers usually measure dogmatism using a well-established scale developed by social psychologist Milton Rokeach in 1960, but Conway’s team scrutinised this scale and noted that the wording of its items is coloured by opinion and ideologically charged topics. They suspected that this makes the scale prone to being distorted by people’s attitudes on particular matters, rather providing a fair measure of their dogmatism on a more abstract level.

To get round this, the researchers asked 475 undergraduates to complete either the original Rokeach scale, or one of two amended versions with items that repeatedly and explicitly referenced religion or the environment. To take one example, an item from the Rokeach scale asks people to say whether they agree that “a group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long” (agreeing would be taken as a sign of dogmatism) whereas in the amended versions the reference to a group became specifically a “religious group” or “environmental group” (and this kind of religious or environmental context was applied consistently through the two alternative versions of the dogmatism scale).

Higher scorers on dogmatism on the original Rokeach tended to have more conservative worldviews, replicating the well-known effect that right-wingers tend to be more fixed in their views. The same was true with the religious version, with very similar correlations. But crucially, for the environmental version, the correlation actually went in the reverse direction: liberals were more dogmatic than conservatives. In other words, it’s not necessarily the case that conservatives are uniformly more stubborn minded than liberals, rather it depends on the topic at hand.

The researchers also investigated people’s tendency to put forward complex arguments, specifically their willingness to give legitimacy to opposing viewpoints. While we may think liberals are the ones more likely to weigh up many points of view, perhaps to a woolly-thinking fault, this data showed the same pattern: whether we favour nuance depends on the topic we’re looking at. Two large studies (involving over 2000 students) asked people to write a short essay on one of a variety of topics, with the essays then rated by trained coders. The researchers found that while conservative students were more one-sided than their more liberal peers on some issues – censorship or the question of whether "people should find out if they are sexually suited before marriage" – they were actually more nuanced than them on others, such as smoking, or whether the death penalty should be abolished.

The researchers also turned their eye to a face-off that would seem to epitomise "qualification vs. Manichean" thinking styles: the US Presidential Candidates Debates between John Kerry and George W Bush that took place in 2004. Yet analysis of paragraphs sampled from the three debates suggested the speakers were similarly complex in their arguments. By digging into the topics discussed, the same pattern arises again: on certain topics – Iraq, abortion, education – Kerry was more nuanced. But on others, such as stem cells or affirmative action, Bush was.

Liberals reading this may well feel that Kerry, or the liberal students above, were correct to be absolute on the topics they were, because there is no room for debate on these issues. But that’s the point: conservatives feel the same about their domains. The question is whether we can therefore make claims about generalised narrow-mindedness. Now, we ought to recognise that there are measures unaddressed by this study that contribute to the evidence for rigidity of the right, such as their reportedly higher need for closure and dislike of highly complex or ambiguous art. But regardless of whether such arguments are also prone to the current content critique, or immune to it, we should pause before making unilateral, simplistic claims about the unilateral simplicity of conservatives.


Conway, L., Gornick, L., Houck, S., Anderson, C., Stockert, J., Sessoms, D., & McCue, K. (2015). Are Conservatives Really More Simple-Minded than Liberals? The Domain Specificity of Complex Thinking Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12304

--further reading--
Think less and become more conservative
Why conservatives are happier than liberals
Comparing Obama's and Romney's speech styles and the way their audiences react
Feeling like you're an expert can make you closed-minded

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

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Link feast

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

The Five-point Plan to Help Paris Survivors Recover From Attacks
New Scientist speaks to UCL psychologist Chris Brewin.

The Problem With the Argument That People ‘Ignored’ Terrorism in Beirut, But Not in Paris
It's human nature not to, and not worth shaming people over, writes Jesse Singal at New York's Science of Us.

Bad Thoughts Can’t Make You Sick, That’s Just Magical Thinking
So argues Angela Kennedy on the new Opinion page at the recently relaunched Aeon magazine.

Is Serotonin The Happy Brain Chemical, and Do Depressed People Just Have Too Little of It? 
This is the debut post from Oxford University neuroscience grad student Sofia Deleniv on her new blog The Neurosphere.

Championing Responsible Antibiotic Use
Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist reports on a role for psychology and psychologists in tackling a major societal issue.

The Virtue of Contradicting Ourselves
We don’t just loathe inconsistencies in others; we hate them in ourselves, too. But why?" asks Adam Grant in this New York Times op-ed. "What makes contradictions so revolting — and should they be?"

Brain Scans Can Help Explain Why Self-Affirmation Works
Simply reflecting on what's important to you seems to bolster your psychological defenses, according to this new study that I covered for New York's Science of Us.

Can You Think Yourself Into A Different Person?
We used to believe our brains couldn’t be changed. Now we believe they can – if we want it enough. But is that true? Will Storr at Mosaic wades through the facts and fiction.

The Observer Corps
As the "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies" (BRAIN) initiative gets going in earnest, the Economist asks What is the way best to study the brain? Big labs or small?

Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Attractive? (audio)
From the latest Guardian Science Weekly podcast: Should we distrust our own ability to reason? Why is debunking conspiracy theories such a risky business? And is David Icke a force for good?
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Friday, 20 November 2015

In search of the optimum level of trust between human and machine

A computer screen at the NASA flight control room is used to
remotely pilot a Proteus aircraft during flight demonstrations of
collision avoidance systems. April 3, 2003 in Mojave, California.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
By guest blogger Craig Aaen-Stockdale

We live in a world where volatile industrial processes, military actions and our morning commute are increasingly controlled by automated systems. The arrival of the autonomous vehicle on our roads, drones in our skies and unmanned vessels at sea throws into sharp relief the challenges faced in collaboration between human and machine.

It might seem counter-intuitive, ridiculous even, to discuss matters of trust between human and machine; but a relationship of trust between people and the automated systems they use is often a critical factor in making these systems safe and efficient. Trusting that an automated system can handle the more hum-drum aspects of its assignment with a minimum of human interference frees up its operators for tasks that are more deserving of their attention that might require more human skills such as problem-solving, improvisation and ingenuity. But trust is a delicate balance. Trusting an automated system too much, perhaps adopting a hands-off approach, can lead to delays, inefficiencies and risk of damage or injury when there is no goal-directed supervision of its behaviour or if the environment in which it is operating changes. Not trusting an automated system enough, on the other hand, by constantly tweaking its assignment parameters or continuously monitoring it, takes the operator’s attention away from tasks that require human intervention and can even render the idea of automating the system redundant.

Trust, or the lack of it, between human and machine can also impact much simpler systems than the automated vehicles of the future. For example, in a control room, multiple telecommunication functions – radio, telephone, e-mail, emergency telephone and public announcement system – can now easily be integrated into single touch-screen devices. However, many older operators do not trust that these devices will function correctly in an emergency situation and prefer to have hard-wired back-ups available, leading to unnecessary expense, project management time and, ultimately, a cluttered control room environment – which brings with it yet more ergonomic problems.

In a new paper published in Human Factors, researchers at MIT have investigated what sorts of characteristics make someone a good operator of unmanned vehicles, and how operators can be encouraged to trust the automated systems that are under their influence, leaving them to take care of the mundane aspects of an operation. Specifically, Andrew Clare and his colleagues tested how easily operators can be primed through simple verbal prompts to have just the right level of trust in the machines with which they are, for want of a better word, collaborating. "Collaboration" is a more appropriate term to use here than "controlling", "commanding" or "operating". The vessels are making many of the decisions themselves based on algorithms that optimise their respective workload, schedules and tasks. The human operator sets the high-level goals for the team of vessels, but does not control any one vessel directly.

Forty-eight participants were recruited from the local university population and the researchers gave them the task of controlling a simulated team of autonomous vehicles searching an area for hostile forces and targeting them for weapons deployment. The task was a computer-based simulation, based on existing software for controlling multiple autonomous vehicles. The algorithms that controlled the "vehicles" were written to be deliberately imperfect, thereby requiring some intervention by the participant to optimise their performance. While being trained in the use of the interface, participants in the positively- or negatively-primed groups were given a short passage to read which consisted of actual quotes from participants in a previous experiment. For the positively-primed participants, the quotes reflected positive naturalistic impressions of the software, for example, “The system is easy to use and intuitive to work with.” For the negatively-primed participants, the quotes reflected dissatisfaction with the system, for example, “I did not always understand decisions made by the automated scheduler.” The third group received no priming passage during training.
The control interface used in the task. Image from Clare et al, 2015.
A participant’s performance was quantified via various metrics such as the amount of area covered, the percentage of targets found, the percentage of hostile targets correctly destroyed and the percentage of non-hostile targets incorrectly destroyed. Trust in the automated system was measured by questionnaire after the experiment and online subjective assessments of current perceived performance trust in the automated system and expectations of performance were taken throughout the experiment via a scale that popped-up on-screen at regular intervals.

There were a wide range of trust levels amongst the participants, and as you’d expect, positive-priming lead to higher ratings of trust, while negative-priming lead to lower ratings of trust. However, across all subjects, there were no significant differences in performance between the different priming groups. Upon picking apart their subject pool, Clare and colleagues discovered that priming was, however, significantly affecting the performance of participants who were regular or experienced players of computer games.

It has long been known that experienced gamers suffer from "automation bias" or a tendency to over-trust automation. In the initial stages of this experiment, gamers who had been positively primed, or had not been primed at all, trusted the (deliberately sub-optimal) algorithms too much. Trust has substantial inertia, even when we are talking about trust in non-conscious machines: many small errors will be "forgiven" whilst a single significant error – a "betrayal" if you will – poisons the relationship immediately and trust has to be rebuilt over a long period of time. The initial over-confidence in the automated system displayed by the positively-primed or non-primed gamers took considerable time to unlearn, which lead to higher subjective ratings of trust in the system, but ultimately worse performance. Gamers who had been negatively primed, on the other hand, began with a much more sceptical view of the system (closer to that of the non-gamers) and as a result of this scepticism of the system, they took more action to correct the behaviour of their search teams. In other words, negative priming improved gamers’ performance, in that it recalibrated their level of trust in the automated systems to more appropriate levels.

The findings of this and similar studies can be used for developing both recruitment strategies and training programs for supervisors of autonomous vehicles. Based on their experiences with technology, some recruits will benefit from prompting to be more or less trustful of automated systems. Identification of recruits who might be too trusting or distrustful of automation, combined with introduction of appropriate priming into their training could act to reduce the amount of training time, and exposure to an automated system’s actual performance that is required to build an effective human-machine team.

Automated systems will never be perfect, and it is likely that they will remain under human supervision for some time, if not permanently. However, unmanned vehicles and their human operators can make a powerful – and safe – team if we can strike a balance between blind faith in technology and our more Luddite instincts. We merely have to find the Goldilocks Zone for our interaction with technology: not too trusting, not too distrustful, but just right.


Clare, A., Cummings, M., & Repenning, N. (2015). Influencing Trust for Human-Automation Collaborative Scheduling of Multiple Unmanned Vehicles Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 57 (7), 1208-1218 DOI: 10.1177/0018720815587803

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Craig Aaen-Stockdale, Principal Consultant / Technical Lead, Human Factors & Ergonomics at Lloyd’s Register Consulting in Oslo, Norway. Previously Aaen-Stockdale has worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University in Montreal, and at Bradford School of Optometry & Vision Science. In 2012 he was a visiting research fellow at Buskerud University College in Kongsberg, Norway.

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Why do people find some nonsense words like "finglam" funnier than others like "sersice"

Calm down, it's not that funny! 
When you're trying to understand a complex phenomenon, a sensible approach is to pare things back as far as possible. For a new study, published recently in the Journal of Memory and Language, psychologists have applied that very principle to test a popular theory of humour.

The theory states that, fundamentally, we are most often amused when we are surprised by, and then resolve, an apparent incongruity: a word that didn't mean what we originally thought, say, or a person not being who we first expected and so on (also known as expectancy violation). It can be difficult to test this theory because in real life jokes and funny situations so many other factors come into play (such as cultural knowledge or people's reputations), layered atop this fundamental mechanism. To test the theory in its purest terms, Chris Westbury and his colleagues have explored the possibility that some nonsense words are inherently funnier than others at least in part because they are simply just less expected.

The researchers first established that some nonsense words are consistently rated as funnier than others. To do this, they used a computer programme to generate thousands of random nonsense words and then asked nearly a thousand students to rate them for funniness. To make sure the nonsense words were viable and pronounceable, the programme was computed to make sure that every three letters in each nonsense word actually appeared in a real English word. Any words that sounded the same as actual real words (but spelt differently) were removed.

The first key finding was that there was a significant amount of consistency in the students' ratings – that is, some nonsense words were consistently rated as funny (such as blablesoc), while others were consistently rated as unfunny (such as exthe). This was true even after all the rude-sounding nonsense words were removed, an important step since the researchers didn't want implied meanings to contaminate the results. Among the rude-sounding words were whong, dongl, focky, and clunt, which consistently attracted the highest humour ratings before being removed.

Next, to specifically test the theory that humour is often based on resolved incongruities, the researchers created a new list of nonsense words and calculated the entropy of each – this essentially means quantifying how unlikely each word was; that is, how far removed it is from being a real word. The researchers predicted that the less entropy in a nonsense word (i.e. the less "wordy" it was), the funnier it would be, because it would more strongly challenge people's expectation for what counts as a real word. Among the lowest entropy words used in the study included subvick, quingel, and probble, while among the highest entropy words were tatinse, retsits and tessina (rude-sounding words were again removed).

Two experiments supported the researchers' predictions: when comparing the humorousness of pairs of nonsense words, 56 participants consistently gave higher funniness ratings to the lower entropy word, and also when simply rating the nonsense words for their humour value, lower entropy words tended to receive higher ratings. The researchers said these results are entirely in line with the expectation violation theory: "Nonwords [are sometimes] funny because they violate our expectations of what a word is," they said. As to why we find unexpected events, including nonsense words, funny, perhaps even chuckling a little out loud, Westbury and his team said their findings can be interpreted in line with a recent evolutionary account of humour:

"... it has proven adaptive across evolutionary time for us to be structured in a way that makes us involuntarily let conspecifics [friends and family] know about anomalies that we have recognised are not at all dangerous, since anomalies are generally experienced as frightening."

The researchers added that as well as supporting the resolved incongruity theory of humour, their results also have some potential applied uses. For example, testing patients reactions to nonsense words could provided a very sensitive and subtle measure of their sense of humour, which can be impaired by brain damage or illness. "The effect may also have practical effects in product naming," they said. "If it can be shown that the computable funniness of a name is a relevant factor in consumer behaviour. We predict that consumers will strongly prefer (funny nonsense words) 'whook' or 'mamessa' to (unfunny nonsense words) 'turth' or 'suppect' for a new product name."


Westbury, C., Shaoul, C., Moroschan, G., & Ramscar, M. (2016). Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy Journal of Memory and Language, 86, 141-156 DOI: 10.1016/j.jml.2015.09.001

--further reading--
How many psychologists does it take to explain a joke? Psychologist magazine feature.
Why it's apt - psycho-acoustically speaking - that Darth Vader wasn't called Barth Vaber

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

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What happens when you fall in love with someone who's aggressive?

Does experiencing aggression in a relationship make us more vigilant against it – or more forgiving? New research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when we want to keep our partner badly enough, we redefine the levels of aggression that we believe it is justifiable to endure.

Aggression can manifest in obvious violations such as controlling behaviours or physical violence, but also includes more common behaviours – denigrating a partner, or threatening to leave them. Drawing the line with these isn’t guided by societal absolute, but depends on individual discretion. Could that discretion be influenced by exposure to aggression?

Ximena Arriaga and her colleagues investigated this through research with students currently in a relationship. The students reported their experience of aggression in their own relationships, then responded to a list of specific aggressive behaviours, revealing in each case whether or not they would tolerate such behaviours. Examples on the list included a partner who “refused to talk about an issue with you” or “belittled you in front of others.”

Three separate studies involving more than a thousand participants showed that participants were more tolerant of aggressive behaviours if their current partner had already committed an act of aggression toward them. This can be explained in terms of the need to feel consistent and avoid dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is appropriate: if you’ve stayed in spite of what they’ve done, you'll find it harder to see similar acts as a basis for leaving in the future.

A further longitudinal study (that surveyed participants repeatedly over several weeks) showed that initial levels of commitment to one’s current partner was also an important factor that was associated with people being more tolerant of later acts of aggression. At the start of the study, many participants had yet to experience aggression from their partner, but some had a different story to tell by the time of the final data collection eight or ten weeks later. Did these twenty individuals who had newly experienced aggression become more accepting of aggressive behaviours? Only some did: those who were strongly committed to their relationship. If you want it to succeed badly enough, you justify. And a further study showed this tendency to be very focused on making this relationship work: highly committed people were no more likely to tolerate (hypothetical) aggression when it was described as being directed towards a stranger, but became forgiving when they had to imagine it directed at them from their current partner.

These findings suggest that, at least in this sample, tolerance of aggressive partners is driven more by the present relationship than past history. Another intriguing detail from the longitudinal study was that it found that the participants’ stated tolerance to aggression at the start of the study was no predictor of who experienced aggression by its end, meaning that it gives no evidence of tolerant people gravitating to (or attracting) aggressors. And across the studies, aggression history prior to the current relationship wasn’t associated with current tolerance levels, once other factors were taken into account. Rather, the main driver seems to be the motivation to make the current relationship work, and seem workable, even if that means redrawing the lines that a loved one is not supposed to cross.

Postscript. Across almost every study, gender came out as a significant factor: the male participants were more tolerant and more willing to stay in relationships that involved aggressions. This was unexpected, but may reflect a reluctance within men to define their partners as aggressors and themselves in some sense as victims, as seen in low reporting rates of domestic violence against men.


Arriaga, X., Capezza, N., & Daly, C. (2015). Personal Standards for Judging Aggression by a Relationship Partner: How Much Aggression Is Too Much? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000035

--further reading--
Men who are ashamed of their bodies are more prone to sexual aggression against women - US study
Why do some men insult their partners?

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

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