Category: Anniversary

The Digest guide to … willpower

10 years of the Research Digest

This is the sixth and last in a series of self-help posts drawing on the BPS Research Digest archive to mark its tenth anniversary. The previous posts covered studyinghuman attractionhappinessinfluencing people and creativity.

Learn healthier habits. One way to grow your willpower is to turn wished-for behaviours into habits. This means building routines until certain cues of time or place prompt you to go for a run, say, or eat the right kind of food, without even thinking about it. How long does it take to form a new habit? Phillippa Lally at UCL’s Health Behaviour Unit asked 96 participants to keep a daily diary and the average time it took for a new healthy habit to reach peak automaticity was 66 days – far longer than previous estimates. The good news was that a single missed day had little long-term impact on successful habit formation, although repeated omissions did have a cumulative detrimental effect on the maximum automaticity that was reached.

Distract yourself. If at first you don’t succeed, cheat. In Walter Mischel’s classic studies of young children’s self-control, he found that the kids able to resist cookies and marshmallows for longer periods tended to adopt distraction strategies, such as covering their eyes or singing to themselves.

Gargle an energy drink. Roy Baumeister and his collaborators have shown that acts of self-control reduce people’s glucose levels and that, in turn, diminished blood glucose is associated with weaker performance on self-control tasks. On the positive side they’ve shown that a high-glucose energy drink can recharge willpower. More recently, research suggests that it may not even be necessary to consume sugar to boost your self-control levels – simply swirling a glucose drink around your mouth also does the trick.

Use your inner voice. We’re all familiar with the little voice in our head that tells us not to be naughty. A 2010 suggested this voice really does play a useful role in self-control. When participants were instructed to repeat the word “computer” in their heads – thereby occupying their inner voice – they fared less well at a lab test of self control. “[T]his study provides evidence that when we tell ourselves to ‘keep going’ on the treadmill, or when we count to ten during an argument, we may be helping ourselves to successfully overcome our impulses in favour of goals like keeping fit, and preserving a relationship,” the researchers said.

Train your willpower. They say willpower is like a muscle. Although acts of self-restraint can leave us temporarily vulnerable to temptation, just as if our sinews of willpower were fatigued, longer-term the more we practise using self-restraint, the stronger our willpower muscle becomes. Researchers showed this in 2010. Students who practised avoiding snack food for two weeks ended up being better at lab tests of self-control, as compared with control participants who merely completed maths problems.

Don’t underestimate the power of cravings. When satiated, we tend to underestimate the power of our visceral needs when hungry, tired, or lustful. As a consequence, we have misplaced confidence in our ability to resist temptation – a phenomenon researchers have dubbed the “restraint bias”. In one research demonstration, students leaving a cafeteria after eating tended to have misplaced confidence in their ability to take away their favourite snack bar and bring it back uneaten a week later.

Put procedures in place to bypass your weak will. A 2007 study of effective savers found that they not only tended to place higher value on the future, they also put procedures in place to aid their saving, such as automatic transfers to a savings account each month. This and other techniques used by the successful savers all had one thing in common – they made the saving process partly automatic and so less dependent on willpower. By contrast, the failed savers used ineffective techniques like keeping only small amounts of cash on them when they went out.

Use if-then plans. When your willpower levels have been drained by earlier temptation, that’s when you’re most likely to err. One way to protect yourself is to form so-called “if-then” plans. For example, imagine that you wanted to avoid getting angry the next time your boss is overly critical, you could form the plan “if my boss says my work is amateurish then I will recall the time that I won an award” – a thought which will hopefully have a soothing effect. A study published earlier this year found that, at least when it comes to unhealthy snacking, it’s best to implement one if-then plan at a time (e.g. if I am feeling hungry then I will eat an apple). Too many plans and our memories become swamped.

Climb aboard the mind-bus. Imagine you are the driver of a “mind-bus” and any difficult thoughts about temptation are the awkward passengers. Choose a specific method for dealing with these difficult thoughts/passengers and rehearse it mentally for five minutes – for example, either describe the passengers, let them know who is in charge, make them talk with a different accent, or sing what they are saying. The idea is to teach you that you are not your thoughts and you have control over them. A study published earlier this year found the mindbus technique was an effective way to resist eating chocolates.

Clench your muscles. Flexing your muscles can augment your willpower by evoking non-conscious goal-related thoughts and emotions. Across five studies published in 2010, Iris Hung and Aparna Labroo showed that various forms of muscle flexion, from fist clenching to calf muscle tightening, helped participants to endure pain now for later benefit, and to resist short- term gain (e.g. snack food) in order to fulfil a long-term gain of better health. Research published this year also showed that fist-squeezing can help prevent choking in high-pressure sports situations, although in this case the underlying mechanism (right hemisphere activation) was thought to be different.

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

The Digest guide to … creativity

10 years of the Research Digest

Work when you’re groggy. A lot of research into creative thinking is about finding the conditions that foster a so-called “divergent” thinking style. When your mind is in this mode, you’re less focused, but this means you’re more likely to stumble on new insights and fresh perspectives. According to a study published last year, one condition that fosters divergent thinking is being groggy. The researchers found that students were better at solving brain-teaser questions (puzzles that require flashes of insight) when tested at what they usually considered their least optimal time of day. For most students this meant early in the morning.  

Have a tipple. Obviously this needs to be treated with caution given the health risks associated with excess alcohol consumption and the fact that most workplaces prohibit on-site drinking. Nonetheless, just as being sleepy has been linked with a divergent thinking style that’s useful for creative problem solving, so too has the state of mild intoxication. Andrew Jarosz and his colleagues found that participants who drank a small amount of vodka outperformed those who were stone-cold sober on the Remote Associates Test – a word-task that taps divergent thinking skills.

Try “brain writing” rather than brainstorming. An alternative to the conventional brainstorm is to have everyone in a team to first write down their ideas before sharing them. Colour-coding of note paper aids idea ownership. The process can be repeated to cross-fertilise creativity across the group even though people continue to “brainstorm” on their own. A study from 2000 found that the brainwriting technique outperformed the traditional brainstorm.

Don’t completely give up on group brainstorming. The group brainstorm has had a bad press lately with many studies highlighting the reasons it disappoints, including the fear of having one’s ideas shot down publicly. However, a 2011 study suggested the brainstorm has its uses. Nicholas Kohn and his colleagues found that people came up with more original ideas on their own – consistent with past research – but that combining ideas into novel concepts was better achieved through brainstorming with others.

Think for someone else. According to research published in 2011, we’re more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. Participants drew more creative aliens when told the illustrations would complement a story written by someone else. And they more often solved a “tower escape” brain teaser if they imagined someone else was trapped in the tower rather than themselves. The results are consistent with “construal level theory” – the idea that distance from a problem provokes a more abstract thinking style.

Spend time living abroad. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that time spent abroad can fire up people’s creative engines. A 2009 study backed this up, finding that students who’d spent time living abroad were better at a range of creativity challenges, including brain teasers and a negotiation task. The association between time abroad and creative acumen was not simply due to the fact that more open-minded people are more likely to venture overseas. The researchers think there’s something about adapting to a foreign culture that fosters a creative mindset. A more recent paper further examined how to turn time away into creative success.

Perform eye-movement exercises. There exists tentative evidence that creativity is aided by greater cross-talk between the brain hemispheres. A 2009 study tested a simple exercise for increasing this neural chatter – perform left and right eye movements for thirty seconds. People either strongly left or right-handed who did this showed an improved ability to come up with new uses for everyday objects such as bricks and newspapers. “Mixed-handers” showed no such benefit, presumably because they already have an optimum amount of inter-hemispheric cross-talk.

Ask for help. A 2011 study covered on our specialist Occupational Digest found that workers who were more inclined to seek help when they needed it also tended to be rated more creative by their managers. The researchers think that help seeking aids creativity because it introduces you to new knowledge and perspectives. Also, accepting that you need help shows that you have the kind of open-minded mindset that’s needed for creative work.

Decorate your office in blue. There’s a large research literature on the psychological effects of colour and one of the most consistent findings is that the colour blue fosters creative thinking. In a 2009 study, participants performed better at a word task and came up with more original uses for a brick when their computer monitor had a blue background (vs. red). They also built more original toys out of blue parts as compared with red. The researchers said that cultural connotations mean we associate the colour blue with approach and exploration – an attitude that’s helpful for creativity.

Mix up your team. Fresh blood helps cook up new ideas. A 2005 study found that three-person teams who drafted in a new member subsequently performed better on a task that involved coming up with novel uses for a cardboard box. More recently in 2007, members of stable teams believed their groups were friendlier and more creative, but it was the teams who’d been mixed up with new personnel who actually came up with more ideas for boosting tourism or reducing traffic congestion.

This is the fifth in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Research Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of the Digest launch in Sept 2003. The first four were on studyinghuman attractionhappiness and influencing people. Post compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

The Digest guide to … influencing people

10 years of the Research Digest

Time your boasts. No one likes a show-off. But to get ahead in this world, you’re going to need to let at least some people know your successes. A 2010 study found that the key to bragging without looking like a big-head is to make sure you make your self-aggrandising claims in context. If the other person raises the topic (exam results, let’s say), it’s safe to go ahead and make your brag, even if you weren’t asked directly about your performance. In contrast, if you’re the one to raise the topic, it’s vital before boasting that you provoke a specific question about how you performed.

Avoid name-dropping. It’s incredibly tempting to piggy back on your successful friends or relatives by letting other people know about your close association to them. But the findings of a 2008 study suggest you should avoid the temptation. Participants rated a student who introduced himself as a friend of Roger Federer as less likeable and less competent, an effect that was due to the name drop being seen as manipulative.

Put your phone away. It’s a business lunch. You take your seat and almost without thinking remove your phone from your back pocket and place it on the table. Don’t. Put it away. A study published last year found that the mere presence of a nearby phone had an adverse effect on the chemistry between people, interfering with their feelings of social intimacy – bad news if you’re hoping to broker a deal or win over a new client. The researchers think the sight of the phone triggers distracting thoughts about friends and contacts located elsewhere.

Do your hair. We’re told from a young age not to judge books by their covers, but we do, and people will judge you by your appearance. Consider a 2009 study that found people were able to identify the winners in past French parliamentary elections merely based on the appearance of the candidates – a result that suggests the real voters had been influenced strongly by the candidates’ looks. Or witness the findings from a 2006 study of US murder cases. Suspects who looked bored or frightening were more likely to be be given the death penalty.

Mind your accent. If you have a heavy accent you may find that it affects your ability to influence other people. In a 2010 study, US participants rated statements uttered in English but with a heavily accented foreign voice as less credible than statements uttered in an American accent, even though they knew all the statements had been written by the researchers. It’s thought the effect is related not just to prejudice, but to the way we assume words that are more easily processed are more likely to be true.

Learn to fake a “genuine” smile. For years psychologists said that fake smiles were easy to spot due to the lack of crinkling around the eyes. They said that the creasing of the orbicularis oculi muscles associated with a genuine “Duchenne” smile was not possible to feign. A study completed last year suggests this isn’t true. Sarah Gunnery and her colleagues found that 71 per cent of participants were able to imitate a Duchenne smile in the absence of real positive emotion. You may already have this skill. If not, practice – it could prove handy for influencing others.

Use flattery and humour. The oldest tricks sometimes work best. Research published in 2010 found that waiters and waitresses received three per cent higher tips when they complimented their customers, telling them that they’d made an excellent choice. “A roughly 3 per cent increase may seem a small amount,” the researchers said, “[but] an additional $1 to $5 per shift could translate into hundreds of dollars per year for each food server.” Other research has shown how the use of humour lowers people’s guard, making them less resistant to marketing messages.

Tailor your style of apology. According to a 2010 study, there are three forms of apology and the appropriate one to choose depends on the nature of the person you’re saying sorry to. For an aggrieved person who is particularly individualistic, aim for a compensation-based apology (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired). If they mostly see themselves in terms of their relationships, aim for an empathy-based apology (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again). Finally, if their identity is most strongly tied to a large group, then an apology that acknowledges norm-violations will be most effective (I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Use the power of love. It almost sounds too simple but the French proverb had it right – “love begets love”. In 2011 Nicolas Guéguen and Lubomir Lamy found that bakery customers in France placed twice as much money into charity collection boxes that bore the sign “donating=loving” compared with boxes that said “donating=helping” or had no text other than describing the cause. “Given the high effect-size … we can conclude that evoking love is a powerful technique to enhance people’s altruistic behaviour,” the researchers said.

Demonstrate your potential. This nugget is actually from our Occupational Digest – an offshoot of the Research Digest that launched in 2011. Across eight experiments, researchers showed that all else being equal, people are wowed more by an individual’s potential for future success than by their record of past success. It’s thought that potential has this allure because it prompts us to think more deeply about the person with promise.
This is the fourth in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Research Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of the Digest launch in Sept 2003. The first three were on studyinghuman attraction and happiness. Post compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

The Digest guide to … happiness

10 years of the Research Digest

You can will yourself happier. Nathaniel Hawthorne likened happiness to a butterfly, “which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Poetic but probably wrong according to recent psychology research. A study earlier this year found that people who made a conscious effort to improve their mood while listening to upbeat music felt happier afterwards than those who just listened passively.

Happiness breeds success. It’s obvious that success in love and work makes most people feel happier, but there’s also evidence that the causal direction runs the other way too. Studies have measured people’s happiness and then observed their success over subsequent years, simultaneously controlling for other extraneous factors that might have caused both the happiness and later success. These studies found that happiness tended to precede fulfilling work, satisfying relationships and a long life. Short-term mood boosters also trigger increased altruism and sociability.

Other people experience more misery than you realise. We tend to put on a brave face in public, which may explain why psychologists have found that we tend to underestimate other people’s experience of negative emotions – even our close friends. Related to this, there’s evidence that we need to be careful about promoting happiness. Although well-intentioned, happiness campaigns may lead people to cope less well with their negative emotions because they feel there’s a societal expectation to be happy.

People with mental disorders can still experience joy. While we have a habit of overestimating most people’s happiness, we risk making the opposite error when it comes to people with depression and other mental disorders. A study published in 2011 made the important observation that many people with mental illness still experience frequent bouts of positive emotion. From a survey of over seven thousand people, Ad Bergsma and his team found that those with mental illness were less happy than those without, but that the majority of the patients said they “often felt happy” during the preceding four weeks.

Our average happiness levels are remarkably robust. Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people’s sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures. This can be a good thing. Healthy people think their mood will plunge if they develop a chronic illness, and yet research with kidney patients shows that they experience just as much positive emotion as healthy people. We also tend to overestimate the impact of money on our happiness.

Frequent, subtle mood-boosters are key to happiness. Given the largely immovable nature of our  happiness levels (psychologists liken this to a “hedonic treadmill”), high impact positive events like winning the lottery are only likely to have a short term influence on our positive emotion. According to a 2008 study, the secret to increasing our average happiness levels is to engage in frequent, more subtle mood-boosters. They surveyed people leaving religious ceremonies or leaving the gym and found that they were happier than before they’d arrived. What’s more, the more they’d attended over the last month, the happier they tended to be.

Multiply your joy by sharing your good news. Telling others about our good news gives us a special enduring happiness boost. Simply writing about the news or having a chat with someone in general does not have the same effect. However, the benefit is not a given. We need the listener to respond enthusiastically, in what researchers call an “active constructive” style. In fact, past research shows that the way friends and family respond to positive events in our lives is a more reliable predictor of the future health of that relationship than the way they respond to our negative news.

We’re happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness. Psychologists think it’s an evolutionary hang-over to conserve energy. It means that, given the choice, we tend to choose the lazy option, even though it doesn’t make us happy. Fortunately, research shows that providing people with even the most specious reasons to be more busy and active is enough to get them going and they end up feeling happier as a result.

Become a political activist. Aristotle argued that we’re political animals at heart and that active involvement in society fulfils a basic human need. Research published in 2009 appeared to back him up. Malte Klar and Tim Kasser found that students involved in political activism were happier than their uninvolved peers. What’s more, students encouraged to write to their college cafeteria director calling for more ethically sourced food said afterwards that they felt more energised and alive, as compared with a control group who wrote calling for more choice.

Retail therapy works. In 2011, researchers had 69 undergrads keep diaries of their shopping habits and mood for two weeks. Sixty-two per cent of purchases had been motivated by low mood, 28 per cent as a form of celebration. The retail therapy purchases were overwhelmingly beneficial, leading to mood boosts and no regrets or guilt, even when they were unplanned. Only one participant who’d made a retail therapy purchase said that she would return it, given the opportunity. “There seem to be positive consequences to buying oneself a small treat; one does feel better,” the researchers said.

This is the third in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Research Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of the Digest launch in Sept 2003. The first two were on studying and human attraction. Post compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

The Digest guide to … human attraction

10 years of the Research Digest

Dress like the person you want to date. If there’s someone in your class or workplace who you’d like to get to know better, try making yourself resemble them in some way. Obviously you don’t want to take this too far – that would be creepy – but research suggests that we’re more likely to sit next to someone who resembles us, so if you can find a way to strike a resemblance to the one you’re after (e.g. wear the same fashion brand; don glasses if they wear them), the likelihood is increased that they’ll sit down next to you in class or the meeting room at work.

Use the power of touch. When making the bold move to ask someone out on a date, try touching them lightly on the arm as you do so. Do not turn it into a grope or stroke. A study published in 2007 found that a man had far more success asking women for their phone number if he touched them lightly on the arm. A later study that involved recording brain waves suggested that this effect works because we’re more motivated by emotions that we experience at the same time as being touched.

Use a popular pseudonym. If you’re doing your wooing online and you have an unfashionable name, you might want to consider using a popular pseudonym. A study published last year found that people with unpopular names were far more likely to be rejected on a dating website; those with a popular name, by contrast, tended to receive far more contacts. Also, if you have your own website, you might want to consider where you position your photo.

Wear red. If you want to attract romantic attention there’s lots of research to suggest you should wear red. In 2010 a team led by Daniela Kayser found that when a woman wore a red shirt, male undergrads tended to choose to sit closer to her and to ask her more intimate questions. Another study (pdf) by the same researchers found that women rated men as more attractive and higher status when the men were seen wearing a red shirt.

Make strategic use of mimicry and temperature. Mimicking the speech and body language of another person can make a positive impression if you do it in a subtle way so that they don’t consciously notice. So don’t literally repeat back everything they say, but do echo some of their words and occasionally imitate their posture. Also bear in mind the psychological effects of temperature – there’s evidence that people rate others more positively when holding a hot drink, and that people feel socially closer when they’re in a warm room.

You are not hot as you think when you’re drunk. The beer-goggles effect, whereby other people seem more attractive after you’ve had a drink or two, is well known. Last year a study extended this idea to show that we also consider ourselves to be more attractive after we’ve had a tipple. Intriguingly, by using a placebo drink, the research suggested it’s not intoxication per se that makes us think we’re hot stuff, it’s the belief that we’re a bit merry. Either way, the result could help explain why your confident advances are thwarted when you’re tipsy.

Make strategic use of your friends. Jealousy is a powerful emotion. When in the company of the person whose amorous attention you’re after, ask your platonic girlfriends or boyfriends (depending on the sex of the person you’re targeting) to look and smile at you, thus giving the impression that you have magnetic charisma. A study from 2007 found that women rated a man as more attractive when they looked at a photo of him with a woman staring and smiling at him from the side.

A flashy car can make a good impression. Men are often ridiculed for using expensive cars to seduce women, but a 2010 study by researchers in Cardiff found that men shown sitting in the driving seat of a Bentley Continental (worth a cool £75000 at the time of testing) were rated by women as more attractive than when they were shown sitting in a Ford Fiesta. The reverse was not true – women’s attractiveness (as rated by men) was unaffected by whether they were shown sitting in the Bentley or the Ford.

Avoid cheesy chat-up lines. Making someone laugh is a tried and tested strategy for winning them over, but make sure you take the right approach. Be aware there’s research that suggests witty strangers are perceived as particularly suitable for a short-term fling (presumably because humour is seen as a signal of sexual interest). When it comes to men wooing women, research on chat-up lines found that rehearsed jokes were a dud, whereas statements conveying helpfulness, generosity, athleticism and culture were more welcome. Another study found that chat-up lines used by women are perceived as most effective when they are direct (e.g. “Want to meet up later tonight?”) rather than more subtle (e.g. “Hello, how is it going?”) or sexual/humorous (e.g. “Your shirt matches my bed spread, basically you belong in my bed”).

Finally, don’t take these tips too seriously. They could backfire. Actually just one more thing. If your dating efforts prove unsuccessful (even with the help of these top-secret psychology-based tips!) and you’re feeling lonely, try holding a teddy bear. Science says it will help.

This is the second in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Research Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of the Digest launch in Sept 2003. The first was a guide to studying. Compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

The Digest guide to … studying

10 years of the Research Digest

This month is the tenth anniversary of the launch of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest (as an email newsletter back in 2003). To mark the anniversary, this week I’m going to delve into the archive and publish a series of six “self-help” posts, all based on past Digest items that have practical lessons for real life, starting today with evidence-backed tips on studying:

Adopt a growth mindset. Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle. By contrast, those with a “growth mindset”, who see intelligence as malleable, usually react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies. These findings come from research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist based at Stanford University. Her research also suggests lecturers and teachers should offer praise in a way that fosters in students a growth mindset – avoid comments on innate ability and emphasise instead what students did well to achieve their success.

Get handouts prior to the lecture. Students given Powerpoint slide handouts before a lecture made fewer notes but performed the same or better in a later test of the lecture material than students who weren’t given the handouts until the lecture was over. That’s according to a study by Elizabeth Marsh and Holli Sink, reported by the Research Digest, which involved dozens of undergrads watching video clips of real-life lectures. The researchers warned their results are only preliminary but they concluded that “in situations where students’ notes are likely to reiterate the content of the slides, there is no harm from releasing students from note-taking.”

Forgive yourself for procrastinating. Everyone procrastinates at some time or another – it’s part of human nature. The secret to recovering from a bout of procrastination, according to a 2010 study covered by the Digest, is to forgive yourself. Michael Wohl and colleagues followed 134 first year undergrads through their first two sessions of mid-term exams. Those who had forgiven themselves for procrastination prior to the initial mid-terms were less likely to procrastinate prior to the second lot of exams and tended to do better as a result.

Test yourself. A powerful finding in laboratory studies of learning is the ‘testing effect’ whereby time spent answering quiz questions (including feedback of correct answers) is more beneficial than the same time spent merely re-studying that same material. In a guest post for the Research Digest, Nate Kornell of UCLA explained that testing “creates powerful memories that are not easily forgotten” and it allows you to diagnose your learning. Kornell also had a warning: “self-testing when information is still fresh in your memory, immediately after studying, doesn’t work. It does not create lasting memories, and it creates overconfidence.”

Pace yourself. The secret to remembering material long-term is to review it periodically, rather than trying to cram. In a 2007 study covered by the Digest, Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler showed that the optimal time to leave material before reviewing it is 10 to 30 per cent of the period you want to remember it for. So, if you were to be tested eleven days after first studying some material, the ideal time to revisit it would be a day later. If it’s seven months from your initial study of the material to an exam, then reviewing the material after a month is optimal.

It’s okay to study short texts on an e-book. Some people feel that their comprehension is adversely affected when reading on a digital device. A study we reported on earlier this year tested students’ understanding of factual biographies they’d read either in print, on a computer screen or with a Kindle. Their performance was stable at around 75 per cent regardless of the way they’d consumed the text. The study only involved short passages of text so we need more research to establish if the same result would apply with longer texts.

Don’t be lulled into overconfidence by an engaging lecturer. The most skilled teachers are able to present complex material in an entertaining fashion. This is good news in many ways, but be careful that you don’t mistake the ease with which you understood a fun lecture as a sign that you’ve mastered the material. A study published this year found that student participants were overconfident in their knowledge after watching a more polished lecturer.

Time your learning according to the type of material. Research published in 2012 found that “procedural learning” – the kind that you use when learning a skill like dancing or a musical instrument – is best performed in the evening, nearer to bedtime. By contrast, learning factual material was found to be optimal in the afternoon (although the evidence for this was less robust). The researchers weren’t sure why this difference exists but they think it has to do with time until sleeping and the way sleep consolidates different kinds of memories. Other research shows the importance for learning of getting a good night’s sleep.

Believe in yourself. Self-belief affects problem-solving abilities even when the influence of background knowledge is taken into account. Bobby Hoffman and Alexandru Spatariu showed this in 2008 in the context of 81 undergrad students solving mental multiplication problems. The students’ belief in their own ability, called ‘self-efficacy’, and their general ability both made unique contributions to their performance. “In learning situations,‘ the researchers concluded, ‘there is a natural tendency to build basic skills, but that is only part of the formula. Instructors that focus on building the confidence of students, providing strategic instruction, and giving relevant feedback can enhance performance outcomes.”
This is the first in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of its launch in Sept 2003. Compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

The best psychology article from the last 3 years?

To mark three years since the birth of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest as a free email newsletter, I’ve asked some of the world’s best psychology bloggers to discuss a psychology journal article from the last three years which they found inspiring or that changed the way they think. Here’s what they chose:

What do you think of their choices? Which inspiring articles did they miss? Comments welcome.

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

Just how good are police officers at detecting liars?

By Emma Barrett, of Psychology and Crime News and the Deception Blog.

We had just sat through a presentation by a proponent of the Reid Technique, a potentially psychologically coercive method of persuading a suspect to confess, used widely in North America (although not in the UK). The North American police officers, in the majority at this international conference a couple of years ago, loved it. British police delegates and we psychologists shifted uncomfortably in our seats.

Next up, an esteemed American psychology professor, who gave a tour de force of his specialist subject: false confessions. In the Reid Technique, once an officer is convinced that a suspect is guilty, the psychological coercion begins. The professor argued that this might cause a vulnerable and innocent suspect to make a false confession: much depends on whether the officer is right when they believe that a suspect claiming innocence is lying. The speaker cited a recent meta-analysis (DePaulo et al., 2003) to make the point that, according to psychological research, there are no reliable cues to deception, and added that other research implies that police officers are not very good at spotting liars. The Brits and psychologists smiled again.

But I was still uncomfortable. DePaulo’s review is great, but if you take a look at the list of studies included, you’ll find that the evidence is almost wholly from studies of how Western students behave when deceiving in relatively low-stakes situations. Research on whether
law enforcement officers can detect deception usually involves them sitting in front of video clips of, you guessed it, Western students. So, satisfying as it might be to trounce the Reid guys, shouldn’t we wait for more ecologically valid studies before we tell officers they are no good at detecting deception?

This is why I’ve chosen a recent paper from Aldert Vrij, Samantha Mann and their colleagues at Portsmouth University, published earlier this year in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Not because it’s the best paper of the last three years in forensic psychology, but because it’s the latest in a series of studies that are becoming increasingly ecologically valid and relevant to law enforcement concerns. An issue that I think is crucially important.

In this study, the materials were clips from real suspect interviews where ground truth was known, the stakes were high, and the participants were experienced police officers. A welcome step forward from the usual student-based studies.

The officers’ task was to judge four sets of clips of liars / truth tellers on four different occasions. Their total accuracy (four tests combined) was 72 per cent. This is an improvement on the usual 50-60 per cent hit rate typically found in deception studies (e.g., Vrij, 2000). Officers were equally good at detecting truth (70 per cent accuracy) and lies (73 per cent). However, on average officers believed that they had only performed at chance level, and were “overly modest about, rather than overconfident in, their performance”.

So perhaps police officers aren’t as bad at detecting deception as some might have you believe. We’ve a long way to go yet – for instance, there’s plenty of evidence that would-be lie catchers often rely on rigid cues, including signs of nervousness, which could be displayed by an innocent person who is anxious about being believed (Ekman, 2002). We need to know more about the circumstances under which this occurs – and how to stop it. But the sorts of studies that Vrij et al. are now conducting are, I think, the right way to go. Conducting such research is more challenging than doing experiments with students, but it’s a crucial step towards really helping law enforcement deal with deception. Finally, I’d like to give a big cheer to Kent Police who facilitated the research. Collaboration between academics and practitioners is by far the best – perhaps the only – way to go forward here.

DePaulo, B.M., Lindsay, J.J., Malone, B.E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K. & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74–118.

Vrij, A., Mann, S., Robbins, E. & Robinson, M. (2006) Police officers ability to detect deception in high stakes situations and in repeated lie detection tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 741–755.

Vrij, A. (2000). Detecting lies and deceit: The psychology of lying and its implications for professional practice. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

Nice therapist, shame about the symptoms

By Dryden Badenoch, of The Relaxed Therapist.

Medical outcome research tends to focus upon finding the best drug to treat a given disease. The patient’s role is often no more than the repository of the disease and the recipient of the drug: their personal characteristics are rarely considered, except where these support the diagnosis (e.g. Type A personality in cardiac care) or impede treatment (e.g. non-adherence to medication).

Psychological outcome research tends to follow the same model, matching therapy to diagnosis. The client is again little more than the holder of the diagnosis and the subject of the therapy: their individual decisions and personality are rarely considered (again, except where these are part of the diagnosis or lead to non-compliance).

Contrary to notions of the ‘miracle therapy’ or ‘super-shrink’, recent research suggests that the client contributes as much to the chances of a successful outcome in therapy as either the therapist or their technique. In fact, client factors may predict more of the outcome than therapeutic rapport and technique combined.

Anne Hook and Bernice Andrews (2005) surveyed people who had received psychological therapy for depression. Half of the current clients and a third of ex-clients reported withholding some information about their depressive symptoms (e.g. low self worth, suicidal thoughts) and behaviour (e.g. substance abuse, aggression) from their therapist.

The main reason given for withholding information was shame. People who had concealed symptoms were more depressed on completion of therapy than those who had ‘revealed all’.

As their previous research had linked a tendency to feel shame to higher levels of depression, this seems a fairly obvious result: shame and related non-disclosure are simply part of the clinical picture of depression.

After accounting for variables such as age, gender, education, time spent in therapy, time since therapy and worst ever level of depression, they found that the decision to withhold information predicted 8 per cent of the variation in current level of depression, overriding the effect of any tendency to feel shame. Again, this seems obvious: therapists can’t treat symptoms they don’t know about.

Taken together, however, the message is that, while a client’s traits may influence both their presentation and recovery, the outcome of therapy is strongly influenced by decisions the client makes without the awareness of the therapist. These will in turn be influenced by events in and out therapy (e.g. the approachability of the therapist, discussions with friends, etc.).

This result has implications at three levels: first, by identifying shame as underlying most non-disclosure in therapy, Hook and Andrews have given a lead to therapists seeking to engage their clients: creating a non-judgemental environment and highlighting and addressing issues of shame can promote a better outcome.

Second, by illustrating the effect of individual client decisions on therapeutic outcome, Hook and Andrews have furthered the argument for routinely considering the client’s contribution to the effectiveness of psychological therapies, rather than treating the client as a passive recipient of the ‘miracle therapy’ or the attentions of the ‘super-shrink’.

Finally, by linking shame and non-disclosure of symptoms, Hook and Andrews have raised doubts about the model of medical treatment studies. Is it likely that patients with physical symptoms are unashamed and disclose them fully to their doctor? Perhaps there is as much of a role for explicit consideration of client factors in medical outcome studies as in studies of psychological therapies?

Following Hook and Andrews’ findings, I decided a website for like-minded therapists would be one way I could support the move towards engaging with clients not as diagnoses or even sets of traits, but as individuals interacting uniquely with us.

Hook, A. & Andrews, B. (2005). The relationship of non-disclosure in therapy to shame and depression. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 425-438.

Dryden Badenoch is an NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist.

Psychology defined and unified

By Jeremy Dean, of PsyBlog.

“Is psychology a coherent scientific discipline and can its existence be effectively defined?” Henriques (2004:1218).

Neither defining terms, nor unity of knowledge have ever been strong points of psychological science. Many psychologists, faced with bringing order to psychology’s diversity, or even offering a definition of psychology, have excused themselves and gone for a lie down. So, my choice for the most inspirational study in the last three years is Gregg Henriques’ (2004) ‘Psychology Defined’, which spearheads a bold move to both unify and define the discipline.

Henriques (2004) argues that psychology’s epistemological fissures can be healed by accepting that psychology has two main subject matters: psychological formalism and human psychology. Psychological formalism is the science of mind and includes the cognitive, behavioural and neuro- sciences. Henriques thinks ‘mind’ can be conceptualized as the set of ‘mental behaviours’ in a manner that unites and bridges the schisms between the behavioural and cognitive sciences.

Human psychology is a sub-discipline of psychological formalism essentially dealing with how humans differ from other animals. To explain the separation, Henriques puts forward the ‘Justification Hypothesis’, which holds that humans are marked out from other animals by a capacity to justify their own behaviour.

The ‘Justification Hypothesis’ also forms an important part of Henriques’ attempt to place psychology in the broader context of scientific knowledge. The ‘Tree of Knowledge System’, developed earlier (Henriques, 2003), posits four fundamental dimensions of complexity: matter, life, mind and culture. These directly relate to four fundamental domains of science: physical, biological, psychological and social. The ‘Justification Hypothesis’, therefore, links mind ‘upwards’ to culture and the science of psychology to the social sciences. In the opposite direction, ‘Behavioural Investment Theory’, links mind ‘downwards’ to life and theoretically unifies the psychological and biological sciences.

What, then, is achieved by the Tree of Knowledge System and creating two broad, logically consistent fields of psychology? Henriques (2004) argues that ideas will no longer be defined against each other, as has become common practice in psychology. Moreover, unifying structures do not just provide aesthetic pleasure or relief from theoretical uncertainty, but a motor for the generation of effective practice in both lab and clinic.

These ideas inspired two special issues of the Journal of Clinical Psychology (1 & 2). Some of the articles replying and responding are reviewed and discussed on my blog in a series of posts starting here.

Henriques, G. R. (2003). The tree of knowledge system and the theoretical unification of psychology. Review of General Psychology, 7, 150-182.

Henriques, G. R. (2004) Psychology Defined. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(12), 1207-1221.

Jeremy Dean is currently studying for an MSc in Research Methods in Psychology at University College London.