Psychologists are working on a fraud-proof brain scan test of deviant sexual interest

Male patient in medical scanner with red lightsBy Christian Jarrett

If the courts wanted to know if a suspected sex offender was attracted to children, they could ask him or her, or they could ask experts to measure signs of the suspect’s sexual arousal while he or she looked at different images. But a devious suspect would surely lie about their interests, and they could distract themselves to cheat the physical test.

Brain scans offer an alternative strategy: research shows that when we look at images that we find sexually attractive, our brains show distinct patterns of activation. But of course, the same issues of cheating and deliberate distraction could apply.

Unless, that is, you could somehow prevent the suspect from knowing what images they were looking at, by using subliminal stimuli that can’t be seen at a conscious level. Then you could see how their brain responds to different types of image without the suspect even knowing what they were looking at.

This is the essence of a strategy tested in a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition. Martina Wernicke at Asklepios Forensic Psychiatric Hospital of Gottingen and her colleagues have provided a partial proof of principle that it might one day be possible to use subliminally presented images in a brain scanner to provide a fraud-proof test of a person’s sexual interests. It’s a potentially important break-through for crime prevention – given that deviant sexual interest is one of the strongest predictors of future offences – but it also raises important ethical questions.

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Academically successful children smoke more cannabis as teenagers: is it time to rethink drug education programmes?

You want a joint?By guest blogger Simon Oxenham

Academically successful children are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis in their teenage years than their less academic peers. That’s according to a study of over 6000 young people in England published recently in BMJ Open by researchers at UCL. While the results may sound surprising, they shouldn’t be. The finding is in fact consistent with earlier research that showed a relationship between higher childhood IQ and the use in adolescence of a wide range of illegal drugs.

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Workplace venting makes it harder to bounce back from bad experiences

I don't have the patience for thisBy Alex Fradera

When you experience frustrations at work – spats with colleagues, or last-minute demands – it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. And surely it’s healthier. After all, better out than in! Not according to new evidence in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that shows complaining about negative events actually cements their impact. The researchers Evangelia Demeroutia and Russell Cropanzano recommend trying instead to meet the slings and arrows of everyday indignity with all the “sportsmanship” you can muster.

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People with higher working memory ability suffer more from brain freeze

Puzzled businessman scratching his headBy Christian Jarrett

Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).

What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.

For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.

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More human than thou … or just better? Our motivation to think we’re good trumps our desire to feel human

The dark side of human. The mirror concept. vector illustration
A new critique challenges the claim that we’re so motivated to believe in our essential humanness that we happily endorse ugly parts of our human natures

By Alex Fradera

Most of us have a sense of what it means to be human. Research shows that we agree with each other that traits like friendly, jealous or impatient are more “human” than others like unemotional or selfless. What’s more, we like to see ourselves as human: we care more about human traits and claim to possess them more than other people. In other words, we “self-humanise”, laying claim to the good and the bad as long as they emphasise our own humanity.

But this research on self-humanising presents a conundrum. A different, abundant line of evidence shows that humans bitterly protect a highly positive self-image, supported by cognitive biases that attribute our own failings to circumstances and other people’s to their deficiencies. So, do we really overestimate the bad in ourselves, claiming to be more human, warts and all? According to a critique of the self-humanising field in The Journal of Social Psychology, this is an oversimplification: when it comes to undesirable human traits, we see ourselves as pretty similar to other people.

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Have we overestimated the effectiveness of psychotherapy?

Depression ReliefBy Christian Jarrett

Most people who undertake psychotherapy seem to benefit from it. How do we know? Arguably, the most important evidence comes from meta-analyses that combine the results from many – sometimes hundreds – of randomly controlled trials. Based on this, it’s been estimated that psychotherapy is effective for about 80 per cent of people (meanwhile, between five to 10 per cent of clients may suffer adverse effects).

But now the more concerning news: a team of researchers led by Evangelos Evangelou at the University of Ioannina, Greece has assessed the quality of 247 of these psychotherapy meta-analyses and they report in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica that many of them have serious methodological short-comings.

Coincidentally, a separate research group led by Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has just published in Journal of Personality some of the first observational data on how people’s personalities change after undertaking psychotherapy. In contrast to what’s been found in the clinical literature, they report that people who’ve been in therapy seem to show negative changes in personality and other psychological outcomes.

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The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Synagogue Walls Desecrated With Anti-Semitic Graffiti
Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti, but Scott Lilienfeld argues there is nothing “micro” about these

By Alex Fradera

Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the “microaggression”, a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness – prompting last month’s decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it’s hard to tell between friend and foe.

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Psychologists are figuring out why some of us find echolocation easier than others

Blindman's BluffBy Christian Jarrett

Daniel Kish’s life reads like the origins story out of a super hero comic book. To treat his cancer, doctors removed both Kish’s eyes when he was aged one. Later, as a child, he taught himself to echolocate like a bat. Using the echoes from his own clicking sounds he detects the world around him. He can even cycle busy streets and it’s his life’s mission to empower other blind children by teaching them echolocation or what he calls flashsonar.

Psychologists studying the skill have found that it is eminently teachable, for blind people and the sighted. But what’s also become clear is that there is a huge amount of variation between individuals: some people, blind or sighted, seem to pick it up easily while others struggle. A new study in Experimental Brain Research is among the first to try to find out which mental abilities, if any, correlate with echolocation aptitude. The findings could help screening to see who is likely to benefit from echolocation and offer clues to how to help those who struggle.

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New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy Alex Fradera

Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.

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Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Scarlett Johansson announced her split from Romain Dauriac this January

By Christian Jarrett

You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.

The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.

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