By the time a terrorist attack has begun, the security services have already failed. But the challenge they face in detecting potential attacks is substantial, especially since the tactic of terrorism has increasingly been taken up by individual attackers inspired by, but not directly beholden to, formal movements. Spotting a lone wolf among the flock is no easy task, especially when it relies on a bottleneck of human analysis. A new paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior uses a test case of a real lone wolf attack to explore ways we may be able to deal with this in the future. Using online language analysis tools, it hunts within blocks of text for the warning signs we might otherwise miss, with the hope of helping us to more effectively detect the predator.
Cast your mind back to your teenage maths lessons. Without a calculator, would you have been able to estimate the answer to the following sum?
12/13 + 7/8
Don’t worry about giving the precise number; just say whether it lies closest to 1, 2, 19, or 21*.
By the end of middle school, most American pupils have been studying fractions for a few years; these questions should be embarrassingly easy. But when Robert Siegler, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University posed the problem to a group of 8th graders (13 to 14 year olds), he found that they performed little better than if they’d simply guessed – with just 27 per cent choosing the right answer. In another test, around 50 per cent of 8th graders failed the arguably easier task of putting a series of simple fractions into size order, from smallest to biggest.
As if this dismal performance wasn’t depressing enough, it comes after decades of educational reforms. American educational psychologists first identified that teens often struggled to understand fractions in 1978, and since then various government commissions and teacher committees have attempted to address the issue, including thousands of educational studies and the introduction of widely used textbooks aimed specifically at deepening children’s understanding of fractions and decimals. These efforts may have amounted to billions of dollars’ worth of spending. Yet Siegler found next-to-no improvement in performance over the 40-year period.
Interestingly, students from other cultures – most notably, East Asian countries – do not face these problems. Siegler and his colleague Hugues Lortie-Forgues have explored the various potential explanations in their recent article for Current Directions in Psychological Science, including research that hints at a tantalizing link between language and mathematical reasoning.
As they point out, a basic understanding of fractions and decimals is essential for any further mathematical or science education – so finding a way to remove this stumbling block could have serious consequences for the pupils’ future careers.
Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.
Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.
If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real? The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.
When I was at primary school, we used to type out the word “BOOBIES” using upside-down digits on our electronic calculators and we thought it was hilarious. This was an all-boys school in the late 80s, cut us some slack. And anyway, maybe we weren’t so daft. The word (although spelt differently as “Booby”) was among the top-three most funny words as identified in a new paper in Behaviour Research, which is the first in-depth investigation of the perceived funniness of individual English words.
Among the 5000 words that were studied, Booty was rated the funniest of all, scoring 4.32 on average on a scale from 1 (not funny at all) to 5 (most funny). The lowest scoring word was Rape with an average of 1.18. The researchers Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas Hills at the University of Warwick, England hope their findings will provide a useful resource, a “highly rudimentary ‘fruit fly’ version” of humour” for researchers studying the psychology of what makes us laugh.
When a parent asks their child plenty of “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, “why?” questions, encourages them to go into detail and includes open-ended questions, psychologists call this an elaborative style. Past research has shown that children with parents like this tend to remember more experiences from their lives (the opposite parental style is to ask fewer questions in general, and to ask questions that only need a short, basic response). More specific studies have found that parents’ elaborative chat can also help their children remember museum visits.
A new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology is the first to apply this line of research to young children’s memories of a recent science lesson. The findings provide tentative evidence that conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson.
Our political leanings to the right or left reveal a fundamental aspect of our psyche: how much we’re drawn to stability and security versus change and uncertainty. This manifests in our attitudes and personality traits. For instance, on average, conservatives tend to prefer established hierarchy and are more conscientious. Liberals favour equality and are more open to new experiences. Now in the journal Political Psychology a group led by Aleksandra Cichocka at the University of Kent has extended this line of work by showing the link between political orientation and desire for certainty is reflected at even the most basic of levels: how much we like to use nouns.
Across two initial studies, featuring Polish-speaking survey participants in Poland and Arabic-speaking participants in the Lebanon, the research showed that people with more socially conservative leanings tended to favour nouns over adjectives. For instance, participants with a conservative orientation were more likely to say they’d choose to end the sentence “Magda had no doubts about the success of her business. Magda …” with the noun phrase “is an optimist” than with the adjective phrase “is optimistic”.
This fits with the established link between having a conservative orientation and desiring stability because using a noun to describe someone implies more certainty and permanence about their state of being (past research has shown that even five-year-olds infer more permanence from noun descriptions than adjectival descriptions). Indeed, in the new surveys, the link between conservatism and noun preference seemed to be explained by participants’ relative “need for structure” with high scorers on this measure expressing a dislike of ambiguity.
Cichocka and her colleagues, including John Jost at New York University who is responsible for much of the research in this field, also analysed 101 key speeches delivered by 13 US Presidents, from Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address through to Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2014. They found speeches by Republican presidents featured a greater proportion of nouns compared with their Democrat counterparts.
Overall, the researchers said their results “are compatible with previous work suggesting that language reflects, among other things, the individual’s goals and motives, including his or her political goals.”
When someone’s talking to you, have you noticed how they seem to keep breaking off eye contact, as if finding it hard to both talk and look you in the eye at the same time? Similarly, when you’re explaining something to someone or telling them a story, do you find yourself looking away from their eyes, so that you can concentrate on what you’re saying? A pair of Japanese researchers say that this happens because eye contact has a “unique effect” on our “cognitive control processes”. Essentially, mutual gaze is so mentally stimulating that it can be tricky to think straight and maintain eye contact at the same time.
Flick through any neuropsychology textbook and you’ll hear about the nineteenth century pioneers Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, who showed that language production and comprehension are subserved by two distinct brain regions, which came to be known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, respectively. You’ll learn too about another neurology pioneer, Norman Geschwind who described how these two regions are joined by a key connective tract – the arcuate fasciculus.
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”→