While autism is usually diagnosed in childhood, some people remain “off the radar” for a long time and only receive a diagnosis much later. One possible reason is that they have learned socially appropriate behaviours, effectively camouflaging their social difficulties, including maintaining eye contact during conversations, memorising jokes or imitating facial expressions.
This pattern of behaviour could have serious consequences for the lives of some people with autism. It is easy to imagine that camouflaging demands significant cognitive effort, leading to mental exhaustion over time, and in extreme cases perhaps also contributing to anxiety and depression.
If there are gender differences in camouflaging, this could also help explain the well-known male preponderance in autism spectrum disorders. At least part of the gender imbalance may, in fact, stem from an under-diagnosis of autism in girls because they are better at “masking” symptoms.
Before now, autism camouflaging has not been studied in a systematic and standardised manner: a recent open-access study in the journal Autism, by Meng-Chuan Lai and his colleagues, is the first to offer an operationalisation of camouflaging, which they define as the discrepancy between internal and external states in social-interpersonal contexts. For instance, if an autistic person maintains eye contact during a conversation because they have learnt that this is socially appropriate, even though this clashes with how they really want to behave, this would be an example of camouflaging.
Coming up with the perfect recipe for crisps or the ideal marketing strategy for a soft drink used to depend on explicit measures. In focus groups and surveys, consumers were asked which product tasted best or which commercial was most appealing. But these measures are imperfect: consumers may choose to hide their true opinions or they might not be fully aware of their own preferences. Food and drinks companies need more objective measures. Currently their best hope is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The idea is that somewhere in the brain, a “buy button” is hidden away: a region (or combination of regions) that influence your purchase decision. The promise of neuromarketing is that one day, we will be able to find this region, record its activity when you watch an ad or sample a product, and then predict how well this product will sell. So far, the success has been limited. But in a recent study in NeuroImage, Simone Kühn from the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf and her colleagues claim to have found “multiple ‘buy buttons’ in the brain”.
It would be very concerning if “girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait”, as The Guardian reported last week, especially if “this view has consequences”, as was argued in The Atlantic. Both stories implied girls’ beliefs about gender could be part of the explanation for why relatively few women are found working in fields such as maths, physics, and philosophy. These news stories, widely shared on social media, were based on a new psychology paper by Lin Bian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues, published in Science, entitled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests”. The paper reported four studies, which at first appear to have simple, clear-cut conclusions. But a closer look at the data reveals that the results are rather weak, and the researchers’ interpretation goes far beyond what their studies have shown.
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” the French author and philosopher Albert Camus stated. But it is not only philosophers who are moved by this issue. Psychologists are seeking ways of preventing this tragic death, and health care organisations are sounding the alarm. Around a million people die at their own hand every year, which makes suicide the tenth most common cause of death. Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 10 to 40 survived attempts, which means that in the USA alone 650,000 people each year are taken to emergency rooms following an attempt on their own life. Yet what is most disturbing is that the number of suicides is continually rising. The WHO reports that since the 1960s this number has grown over 60 per cent.
Is psychology capable of identifying the risk factors that can push people to take their own lives? Joseph Franklin at Florida State University and his research team at the Technology and Psychopathy (TAP) Lab have provided an answer, but it is a disappointing one. Our capacity to predict whether someone will make a suicide attempt is no better than chance. What is worse, we have not made any progress in this area in the last half-century. These striking conclusions come as the result of a meta-analysis of 365 studies into suicide risk conducted over the last 50 years and published recently in Psychological Bulletin (pdf).
Glastonbury 1997, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the pilgrimage to Lourdes in 2008: what do they have in common? All three were the backdrop to outbreaks of communicable disease, and so of interest to doctors working in mass gathering medicine. The goal of this relatively young field is to address the specific health problems associated with mass events, but two British psychologists now claim that this can only be done effectively by understanding the psychological transformation that people undergo when they join a crowd.
If you want to maximise a person’s intellectual potential, the general consensus for a long time has been that you need to start young. According to this traditional view, early childhood offers a precious “window of opportunity” or “sensitive period” for learning that closes slowly as we reach adolescence. It’s the reason that toddlers find it easier to master the accent of a foreign language, for instance.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at University College London has spent the last decade over-turning some of these assumptions, showing that the adolescent brain is still remarkably flexible as it undergoes profound anatomical changes. “The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” she told Edge in 2012. The transformation is particularly marked in the prefrontal lobes (located behind the forehead) and the parietal lobes (underneath and just behind the top of your head): two regions that are involved in abstract thought.
The upshot is that teenagers may go through a second sensitive period, in which they are particularly responsive to certain kinds of intellectual stimulation. A new paper from Blakemore’s lab, published in Psychological Science, builds on this idea, showing that our ability to learn certain kinds of analytical skills doesn’t diminish after childhood, but actually increases through adolescence and into early adulthood.
Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.
Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.
Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology. Continue reading “Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation”→
Besides problems with social interactions, it has been known for a while that many people with autism experience sensory difficulties, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, light or touch. With sensory impairment now officially included in diagnostic manuals, researchers have been trying to see if there’s a link between the sensory and social symptoms. Such a link would make intuitive sense: For instance, it is easy to imagine that if someone experienced sensory stimuli more strongly, they would shun social interaction due to their complexity. More specifically, you would expect them to struggle with filtering out and making sense of social cues against the backdrop of sensory overload.
Past research has suggested that tactile hyper-responsiveness in particular may be relevant. The correct processing of tactile information plays an important role in differentiating yourself from others (so-called “self-other discrimination”), a crucial requirement for social cognition. In fact, touch may be unique among the senses because there is a clear difference in the tactile feedback received when you touch something compared to when you see someone else touch something. Now a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has used recordings of participants’ brain waves to provide more evidence that tactile sensations are processed differently in people with autism and that this may contribute to their social difficulties.
Crisps, coke, and chocolate bars. What might be a special treat for some of us, is now a multi-billion pound industry and a staple of many people’s diets. Advertising campaigns from the snack food companies, often starring sports stars, send the message that we can offset any adverse effects of consuming their products simply by getting more physical exercise. But you can’t really “run off” a burger – recent studies show a lack of exercise is not to blame for rising obesity rates, bad diets are the real driver.
Interventions to help reduce junk food consumption are especially important for children and adolescents – prevention is better than cure in this context because obesity is so difficult to treat. Unfortunately, while health education in the classroom has shown some success among young children, adolescents have been notoriously hard to reach.
But now a large-scale study published in PNAS has tried an innovative approach to change teenagers’ attitudes towards healthy eating, and the results are promising. The researchers, led by Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that previous interventions have probably been unsuccessful because of a major flaw: they focused on a future, healthier you and assumed that this would be enough motivation for adolescents. In contrast, the new intervention cleverly exploits teenagers’ instinct for rebelliousness and autonomy, and the value they place on social justice. Continue reading “Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion”→
Imagine if we could capture the words of an angry dog owner holding a chewed-up shoe – “How could you? You terrible dog!” – and digitally alter the tone to sound praising. Would the dog be oblivious to the reprimanding content of the message? I should admit that, until quite recently, I thought that the answer was yes – that no matter how chastising the words you used, you could convince a dog that it is being showered in praise, simply by adopting an affectionate tone. But a recent study published in Science indicates that many of us might be vastly underestimating canine listening skills. The findings reveal that dogs do not rely exclusively on intonation when judging the reward value of human speech, but that they also recognise the meanings that we assign to words. Continue reading “Brain scan study reveals dogs attend to word meaning, not just intonation”→