Saturday, 28 March 2015

Link Feast

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

The Exciting Side of Boredom
Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist meets psychologists who think boredom has had a bad press.

How are Pilots Psychologically Screened?
Tom de Castella investigates for BBC News Magazine.

What Spending a Year in Space Does to Your Mind
"It's stressful, but transcendental too," says Francie Diep at Pacific Standard.

Brain Balance Centers: An Insider’s Perspective
Worrying revelations about a programme in the US that promises to rebalance kids' brain hemispheres (Neurobollocks Blog).

Lifelines
For an artist with amnesia, the world takes place through her pencil (profile by Daniel Zalewski in the New Yorker).

Does Student Motivation Even Matter?
Engagement isn't necessarily a recipe for academic gains, suggests a new report on global education (The Atlantic).

How Do You Make Other People Feel?
Melissa Dahl reports on a fascinating study that suggests a key unexplored aspect of personality is how we make others feel (NY Mag Science of Us).

Rethinking The Brain
The Human Brain Project's aim to simulate the entire human brain is unrealistic – one of the conclusions of a damning report (coverage from Nature).

Disremembered
"Dementia undermines all of our philosophical assumptions about the coherence of the self," writes Charles Leadbeater at Aeon. "But that might be a good thing."

Why Some People Have Trouble Telling Left From Right (and Why It’s So Important)
"A significant proportion of our population has difficulty in telling right from left," says Gerard Gormley, including, worryingly, medical students (The Conversation).
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Why it's important that employers let staff personalise their workspaces

The sparring mitt, yellow stitches spelling "SLUGGER" casually lying on the desk. The Mathlete trophy on a high shelf. A Ganesha statue, slightly chipped. Why do people bring these kinds of personal objects into the workplace?

Researchers Kris Byron and Gregory Laurence found answers by consulting 28 people in a range of jobs and workplaces. They used the "grounded theory" approach, starting with a clutch of more open-ended interviews and then pursuing the lines of inquiry that emerged, in every case inventorying the person’s workspace and exploring the significance of each object.

The conventional understanding is that personal objects are territorial markers used to communicate who we are to co-workers. And indeed many interviewees emphasised this function, a "unique fingerprint" that expresses difference. This might be an indicator of character –  I’m a happy-go-lucky person – but participants also used objects to emphasise their organisational roles. A framed MBA certificate reminds others that this cubicle bunny is made of management material, thank you, whereas doodles show that the person is part of the creative class. An event planner explained that the thank-you notes pinned to their board were to reassure others of her reliability – a core requirement in her role.

As well as showing differences, personalisation can also affirm shared identity. Star Wars memorabilia across multiple desks shows that "a lot of us have, you know, that techie background". Similarly, some items were inside jokes, with meaning only apparent to those sharing in its history. And although personalisation could emphasise status – think of that MBA certificate – some managers attempted to de-emphasise status differences by presenting everyday objects that made themselves more approachable.

Interviewees raised another reason for personalisation: to build relationships. These items were seen as icebreakers or ways to find "common ground", whether through the contents of a bookshelf, or a photo denoting parenthood. Byron and Laurence photographed every desk-setup from the perspective of an outside visitor, and found that 75 per cent of such conversation-starters were positioned to be clearly visible from that view. Many participants felt that these personalisation functions were vital and companies prevent them at their peril: "They want to have such strong relationships with customers but they’re taking away the personal elements that I think can lend towards building those types of relationships with clients."

In contrast, a certain proportion of personalisation objects – about a third in all – were positioned to only be visible to the owner themselves. These exemplify a final function of personalisation – not to communicate to others, but to remind ourselves of our identity.

This could be an aspirational symbol – the poster put up by a designer that showed "the kind of design I eventually want to do", or the gift from an inspiring role model. Or it might be a way to put work into a larger context, so on the tough days, "you can look at your picture [of children] and realize this is only a job."

Many objects had multiple functions – communicating difference, starting conversations, and reminding oneself of identity. Byron and Laurence conclude that "organizations would be unwise to put excessive limits on employees’ personalization of their workspaces," as an innocuous paperweight may turn out to carry a lot inside.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Byron, K., & Laurence, G. (2015). Diplomas, Photos, and Tchotchkes as Symbolic Self-Representations: Understanding Employees' Individual Use of Symbols Academy of Management Journal, 58 (1), 298-323 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0932

--further reading--
The supposed benefits of open-plan offices do not outweigh the costs

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

Thursday, 26 March 2015

10 hellish psychology studies you'll be glad not to have participated in

Many psychology studies involve nothing more challenging for participants than sitting down with a short paper questionnaire and ticking off agreement or not with a series of anodyne statements. This post is not about that kind of research. Here, we take a tour of some rather more arduous and quirky experiments from the psychology archives. Participants in these studies were prodded, embarrassed, disgusted, scared, teased, bored and more (though not at once). It was all in the name of science, to better understand the darker, less pleasant aspects of being human. We salute the men and women who volunteered their minds and bodies to take part. Their pain is our gain. It's important to note that in line with international ethical protocols, any psychology studies from the modern era would have required participant informed consent, with careful debriefing upon study completion (for further information, see the British Psychological Society's own Code of Human Research Ethics). Now, let's get this Digest tour underway:

1. "Smell These Dirty Nappies" (purpose: studying disgust)
In this research from the noughties, 13 brave mothers smelt successive pairs of buckets, one containing a soiled nappy produced by their own infant, the other containing the soiled nappy belonging to someone else's baby. Even when the origin of the nappies was concealed from the mothers, they rated the smell of their own baby's nappy as less disgusting. The researchers said this result provides an example of how our disgust reactions can be tempered. This makes evolutionary sense, they explained – in the case of mothers and babies, excess disgust could impede the ability to care for offspring. Also, we often share microbial flora with relatives, making their bodily products less of a hygiene threat. Whether the mothers' reduced disgust for their own babies excrement was due to habituation, or to some airborne signal of relatedness, remains unknown. [2006: My baby doesn't smell as bad as yours: The plasticity of disgust].

2. "Lie in Bed in a Cell Doing Nothing For Days" (purpose: studying sensory deprivation)
At McGill University in Canada in the 1950s, male college students were paid $20 a day to don translucent goggles, wear cotton gloves and to lie on a bed in a tiny room, air conditioning humming in the background. They stayed for as many days as they could bear, with breaks for meals and toilet visits. The idea wasn't to test complete sensory deprivation but to see "how human beings would react in situations in which nothing at all was happening". The students soon became irritated and paranoid, their mental function impaired, and they experienced increasingly disturbing hallucinations, including seeing squirrels marching with bags over their shoulders, and having the feeling of being hit by pellets from a miniature rocket ship. "Prolonged exposure to a monotonous environment has definitely deleterious effects," one of the researchers concluded in his write-up. [1957: The Pathology of Boredom; pdf].

3. "Imitate a 5-Year-Old Having a Temper Tantrum" (purpose: studying embarrassment)
When we're embarrassed we're more willing to answer other people's calls for help. That was the finding from this 70s classic, which involved student participants arriving at the psychology lab only to be told they had to perform a series of four ridiculous tasks while another student watched them from behind a one-way mirror: "turn on a tape recorder and dance to the record; laugh for 30 sec as if they had just heard a funny joke; sing the Star Spangled Banner; and imitate a 5-year-old having a temper tantrum because he does not want to go to kindergarten." Students who performed these embarrassing stunts subsequently showed enhanced willingness to help other people when asked (e.g. help them with a class project), as compared with controls who'd performed non-embarrassing tasks. The researchers concluded that complying with requests for help generates positive feelings that offset the awkwardness of embarrassment. [1975: Effects of embarrassment on behaviour towards others].

4. "Lie in a brain scanner with a live snake" (purpose: studying the brain circuits associated with fear)
Participants with a fear of snakes were invited to lie in brain scanner and to press a button to transport a 1.5M long corn snake into the scanner with them, near their heads. Crucially, the participants had control over the snake's position, allowing the researchers to monitor brain activity associated with overcoming or succumbing to fear. A part of the frontal cortex buried under the corpus callosum (the sgACC) emerged as a key area involved when participants chose to overcome their fear. When people reported high fear but chose to bring the snake closer, sgACC activity increased, while physiological markers of fear dropped, and activity in emotion processing regions, such as the amygdala, was reduced. The fact that bodily signs of fear were reduced during moments of courage, even while subjective fear was high, raises a concern with studies that use physiological measures (such as sweatiness of the skin) as a marker for fear. [2010: Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage].

5. "Think about what will happen as you die" (purpose: studying existential threat)
In this study from 2007, researchers wanted to test the idea that we have an inbuilt psychological defence mechanism that protects us from the potentially paralysing fear of death. To do this, they prompted students to contemplate their own death via two instructions: "Briefly describe the thoughts and feelings that the thought of your own death arouses in you" and "Please describe in as much detail what you think will happen as you die and once you are physically dead." After this, the students completed word stems, like "jo_". Compared with a control group who thought about a painful dentist visit, the students who'd thought about their own death were more likely to complete the stems to create positive words such as "joy". "Death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts," the researchers said. [2007: From terror to joy. Automatic tuning to positive affective information following mortality salience].

6. "Lie in a brain scanner while your partner brings you to orgasm" (purpose: investigating the function of the pituitary gland)
Eleven participating women and eleven men each lay in a PET brain scanner for this study, while their partners stimulated their (the participants') genitals until they reached orgasm. Shy people need not apply! The idea was to see if it were possible to monitor pituitary gland activity, which previous brain scanning studies had failed to achieve. The pituitary controls hormone release, and this study found that female orgasm increased pituitary blood flow (thought to be a marker of increased activation) whereas fake orgasm or stimulation without orgasm did not. By contrast, male orgasm was not correlated with increased pituitary activity. The researchers explained this difference is likely due to the fact that female orgasm is associated with increased release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin (controlled by the pituitary), whereas male orgasm is not, or far less so. [2013: Female orgasm but not male ejaculation activates the pituitary. A PET-neuro-imaging study].

7.  "Look at these photos of delicious food while you're hungry" (purpose: to investigate attention to food)
After fasting for 17 hours, female participants (half of whom were obese or overweight) were asked to visit a psychology lab and assessed via eye tracking and EEG (brain wave recording) while they looked at pictures of foods such as doughnuts and and chocolate. For comparison, other women performed the same task after being given a milkshake to satisfy their hunger. The study revealed a number of differences between the obese and normal weight women, among them the fact that the hungry obese women's brain waves showed evidence of reduced attention to food. The researchers surmised this might reflect their attempt to inhibit their interest in food, perhaps driven by a fear of eating too much once food was available again. Possibly consistent with this, the hungry obese women (compared to hungry normal weight women) ate significantly more food during the next part of the study, which they were told was a taste test of snack food. [2010: Differences in attention to food and food intake between overweight/obese and normal-weight females under conditions of hunger and satiety].

8. "Solve these frustrating anagrams while I wind you up" (purpose: studying the effects of provocation on subsequent aggression)
Imagine trying to solve some tricky anagrams, while an experimenter keeps telling you that you're not uttering the answers loudly enough. In a final rebuke the researcher says: "Look, this is the third time I have had to say this! Can't you freshman follow directions." Oh, and all the while the "storm passage" from Beethoven's 6th symphony is playing the background. This was the scenario encountered by half the participants in a study published in 2000. The researcher wanted to find out what effect this initial provocation would have on so-called "displaced" aggression towards a third party. After student participants endured the annoying anagram situation, they received feedback on their performance from another student (and in turn they rated him). When his feedback was neutral, provoked students actually showed reduced aggression towards him compared with unprovoked controls. However, provocation followed by unfair feedback produced a toxic combination – in this case the provoked students lashed out, giving their partner participant particularly harsh ratings and feedback, including saying they wouldn't hire him for a job opening. [2000: The moderating effect of trivial triggering provocation on displaced aggression].

9. "Complete this psychology test with an uncomfortably full bladder" (purpose: to test the idea that inhibitory signals generalise)
In one experiment from this IgNobel-winning research, half the participants were first put into a state of having a full bladder. They were told they were taking part in a water taste test and as part of this they drank 5 cups of water (approx 700ml), then waited 45 minutes, then answered a series of questions about whether they'd choose smaller financial rewards now, or larger rewards later. Participants put into a state of urination urgency showed greater restraint in their choices, as compared with control participants who'd only sipped at the cups of water. The researchers said this shows how inhibitory signals involved in bladder control "spill over" (their words) into other domains, "resulting in increased impulse control"). [2011: Inhibitory Spillover Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains].


10. "Swallow this balloon so we can inflate it inside you" (purpose: studying pain)
If you agree to take part in pain research, full credit to you – this is an incredibly important field that ultimately strives to understand and help reduce people's suffering. Often such research involves relatively mild heat stimuli, ice buckets or mild electrical shocks. This study from 2009 is a little different because it was about visceral pain – to this end, participants were asked to swallow (or insert nasally) a special deflated balloon, which was then repeatedly inflated once it was in their oesophagus. The level of every inflation was determined by each participant's pain threshold. Among their findings, the researchers (led by Peter Paine; seriously) uncovered an apparent effect of personality – in participants who scored more highly in neuroticism, repeating the visceral pain stimulus led to increases in parasympathetic nervous system activity, as identified through heart-rate variability, whereas repetitions of the pain in those lower in neuroticism led to reduced parasympathetic activity. One possible explanation is that increased parasympathetic nervous system activity corresponds to a ‘freeze’ response in the participants higher in neuroticism. [2009: Exploring relationships for visceral and somatic pain with autonomic control and personality].

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Which studies did we miss? Please add any suggestions to the comments and maybe we'll publish a sequel. We're also planning a tour of lovely psychology studies you'll wish you had taken part in – again, all suggestions welcome. 
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--Further reading--
The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever conducted, plus many more theme posts from our archive.
   
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Textbook coverage of this classic social psychology study has become increasingly biased

One of the pairs of cards used in Asch's
1950s research. Image from Wikipedia
Like Zimbardo's prison study and Milgram's so-called "obedience experiments", the research that Solomon Asch conducted at Swarthmore College in the 1950s has acquired an almost mythical quality, being distorted and exaggerated in frequent retellings over time. Asch's studies arguably showed the power of people's independence in the face of an apparently misguided majority, and yet paradoxically they've come to be known widely as the "conformity experiments".

This biased characterisation is found on Wikipedia and even on Google auto-complete. Worse still, an analysis of textbook coverage of Asch's work from the 50s to the 80s found that, here too, coverage of the findings was highly tendentious.

Now Richard Griggs, emeritus professor at the University of Florida, has assessed some of the most popular contemporary introductory psychology texts and his finding is that coverage of Asch's seminal work has grown increasingly biased and misleading, not less.

First a recap of Asch's research. Lone participants were embedded in groups of what they thought were other participants, but were in fact actors working for Asch. The apparently simple task was to say, on each trial, which of three comparison lines matched a reference line for length. On most trials, the participant heard the other group members unanimously choose the wrong line, and the key test was whether the participant would go along with the blatantly wrong consensus, or stay true to their own judgments.

The results arguably provide a powerful demonstration of people's confidence in their own perception and their willingness to defy majority opinion. The majority of participants’ responses (63.2 per cent vs. 36.8 per cent) went against the erroneous majority. Stated differently, 25 per cent of the sample consistently defied majority opinion, compared with just 5 per cent of participants who were always swayed by the crowd. In 1952, Asch himself wrote: "... the facts that were being judged were, under the circumstances, the most decisive."

But that's not the account you'll find in most popular introductory psychology textbooks, at least in the US. Griggs' new assessment of 20 such books published or re-issued in the last few years finds the conformity narrative dominates stronger than ever – just one book reported the larger percentage of participant responses that defied majority opinion, compared with 14 of them that reported the smaller percentage of responses that were swayed by the crowd.

Moreover, sixteen of the books mentioned the proportion of participants (75 per cent) who were influenced by majority opinion at least once, yet none of the books mentioned the far larger proportion of participants (95 per cent) who "rebelled" at least once. Only three books included mention of studies that have criticised the popular conformity interpretation. And just one book mentioned the interview data that Asch published, which reinforces the independence perspective (many participants said that although they had agreed with the group on occasions out of awkwardness, they were certain all along that the group were wrong).

Comparing the results from this new contemporary analysis with the analysis of textbook coverage from the 50s to the 80s, shows an increasingly biased portrayal of the Asch studies. The mischaracterisation of Asch's work as demonstrative of people's readiness to conform has not waned, it has become more entrenched. This disappointing picture was repeated and reinforced when Griggs conducted a follow-up analysis focused on modern social psychology texts (to match the social psych focus of the earlier textbook analysis).

Griggs calls the state of affairs "truly baffling" and he appeals to textbook authors to modify their coverage to "add some discussion of Asch’s findings on independence". Why do modern textbooks get this so wrong? In fact the situation with Asch is part of a wider bias in social psychology towards narratives of obedience and conformity, to the neglect of discussion and investigation of dissent. For example, historically, the resistance to tyranny shown by many participants in Zimbardo's prison study has been largely been ignored, and so too has the disobedience shown by many participants in Milgram's seminal work. It is surely time for more psychology textbook authors to show a little independence of their own, and to cease regurgitating the popular but inaccurate trope of men and women as obedient, conformist minions.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Griggs, R. (2015). The Disappearance of Independence in Textbook Coverage of Asch's Social Pressure Experiments Teaching of Psychology, 42 (2), 137-142 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315569939

--further reading--
Asch's "conformity study" without the confederates
What the textbooks don't tell you – one of psychology's most famous experiments was seriously flawed
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology


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

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Working at a treadmill desk boosts your memory and concentration, researchers claim

Image from Labonté-LeMoyne et al.
We're told sitting is the new smoking and that we should consider working at standing desks, or perhaps better still, treadmill desks. Indeed, the health benefits of treadmill desks are indisputable, say neuroscientists in Canada, led by Élise Labonté-LeMoyne. More contentious, these researchers explain, is the evidence for the psychological effect of such set-ups on our work performance.

For instance, one study found impaired maths problem solving while walking; another found no adverse effects on mental function; while yet another reported benefits of treadmill walking for creativity.

Adding to this mixed picture, but clearly in the favour of treadmill desks, Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-workers report that working at a treadmill desk leads to subsequent memory and attention benefits. The researchers came to this conclusion after asking 9 students to spend forty minutes reading text and emails on computer while walking at 2.25km/h at a treadmill desk (previously judged to be the optimal walking speed). The researchers then tested the students' memory for the text and email content 10 minutes later, at which point they were seated at a normal desk.

Compared with 9 control participants who read the text and emails at a standard desk, the treadmill group showed superior memory performance ("the odds of answering a question correctly were 34.9 per cent higher in the walking group"). The treadmill students also said they'd felt better able to concentrate during the reading task; moreover, their surface brain activity (as measured by EEG) during the memory quiz showed signs (lower theta frequency and higher alpha frequency) that the researchers interpreted as indicative of superior mental functioning.

"... our results suggest that the use of a treadmill desk can improve attention and memory after the user has stopped walking," Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-workers concluded. "It can also improve self-perceived attention, which could lead to increased adherence to this new habit. Improvements in work performance should be convincing for organizations that may be inclined to subsidize the use of treadmill desks."

Readers of a sceptical persuasion might frown at the small sample size, and they might wonder too about the possibility that these apparent beneficial effects were due to little more than the novelty of working at a treadmill desk – benefits which might therefore disappear as the novelty factor wears off.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Labonté-LeMoyne, Santhanam, R., Léger, P., Courtemanche, F., Fredette, M., & Sénécal, S. (2015). The delayed effect of treadmill desk usage on recall and attention Computers in Human Behavior, 46, 1-5 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.054

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

Monday, 23 March 2015

Team effectiveness is disproportionately influenced by your group's best performer or "extra-miler"

The quality of a team's best performer
(the "extra miler") is diagnostic of
the group's overall effectiveness.
In The Hobbit, fifteen companions come together on a quest for a dragon’s treasure. Traditional team analysis would judge "Thorin and Company" on the sum of its parts: Ori is stalwart, and Dori strongly stalwart, and, ok, Bifur seems stalwart enough … a fairly stalwart team, then. But we’re beginning to understand that single individuals can have a disproportionate impact on group performance. A new paper from the University of Iowa demonstrates how extra milers put in remarkable efforts to make sure the team holds together.

The study looked at patterns of performance in a Chinese petrochemical company of 87 teams each of about seven members. Ning Li’s data showed teams performed better when they exhibited key processes, including: agreeing minimum working standards for the team, keeping tabs on progress to balance out members’ different workloads, and having extra help on hand when necessary. These team-level processes need to come from somewhere, so each team member rated their team-mates on qualities that might be useful: willingness to help, and expression of ideas and concerns (dubbed “voice”).

Team-member scores on helping and voice turned out to be good predictors of strong team processes … but here’s the thing: once you took into account the team’s stand-out helper, there was no value in looking at helpfulness of the other members; you already had your best guess at how constructive the team as a whole was likely to be. The same was true with voice: once you know where the strongest member stands, you can throw the other scores away. Li considers these maximally helpful individuals “extra-milers”, and when their extra is a mile, rather than just an inch, teams perform better.

Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: there was one aspect of the other team members that mattered. This was how much their work thrust them into contact with the extra-miler in their team. Evidence suggests that minorities can influence behaviour in wider groups, but they need the opportunity to interact and model superior norms of behaviour. Accordingly, when the extra-miler was huddled away in the back room, their influence was minimal.

If you have a committed extra-miler well-embedded in a team, you don’t need to worry about measuring what everyone else is doing. What you do have to worry about is that the extra-miler has opportunities to interact with the team, spreading their positive way of doing things. In the case of Thorin and Company, success seemed to owe the presence of a headstrong hobbit willing to mix it up and act as a conscience. His inclusion was a wise wizardly choice. I mean, a solid managerial decision.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Li, N., Zhao, H., Walter, S., Zhang, X., & Yu, J. (2015). Achieving More With Less: Extra Milers’ Behavioral Influences in Teams. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000010

--further reading--
Why your team should appoint a "meta-knowledge" champion - one person who's aware of everyone else's area of expertise

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

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Link feast

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

The Revolution That Could Change the Way Your Child is Taught
Little is more important for your child's education than the effectiveness of their teacher, writes Ian Leslie in The Guardian.

The Psychology of the Executioner
A look inside the minds of those who have participated in firing squads and lethal injections.

A Point of View: The Upside of Losing One's Memory
Tom Shakespeare worries about his mental decline, but ends his reflections on a positive note (he should read this too).

The Troubling Psychology Behind How We Decide Who’s a Scientific “Expert” — And Who Isn’t
We self-select and validate the experts who agree with us, says Chris Mooney in the Washington Post.

Let’s Not Make a Trauma Out of a Crisis
"The official definition of ‘trauma’ keeps changing," says Vaughan Bell at the Observer New Review, "So what does that slippery word really mean?"

Is Science Broken?
Ella Rhodes at The Psychologist reports on a debate held at UCL.

Does Sport Make Us Happy?
It can do, if you keep your expectations in check, says the BBC's chief sports writer Tom Fordyce.

By Reason of Insanity (BBC Documentary via iPlayer)
Louis Theroux immerses himself in the world of Ohio's state psychiatric hospitals, meeting patients who have committed crimes - at times horrifically violent - while in the grip of severe mental illness. 

Children (in the US) have never been safer, nor parents more anxious.

Useful summary of the science and its legal implications, from The Economist
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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