Category: Technology

Taking a selfie could dent your self-esteem, unless you share it

dog selfie in bedBy Alex Fradera

Taking selfies makes us feel self-conscious and sends tremors through our self-esteem, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. One group of undergraduates at Yonsei University in Seoul used their phone’s camera to take a selfie, while a control group photographed a cup on a desk. Afterwards selfie takers showed signs of increased social sensitivity, at least according to a test that involved detecting the direction of arrows on a computer screen. The arrows appeared in locations previously occupied by the features of a face and the idea was that participants would be more focused on these facial features, and thus quicker to detect the arrows, if they were in a socially vigilant state.

The fact that selfie takers showed enhanced social sensitivity (they were quicker to detect the arrows) is consistent with the way that our social sensitivity goes up when we are in front of a mirror or when someone else points a video camera at us, making us acutely aware of the imperfections we have on show.

The researchers, graduate students at the university, used this indirect measure to assess social sensitivity because they thought people might not respond honestly if they were simply asked how they were feeling.

In a similar vein, the researchers used an indirect measure to test if taking a selfie affected participants’ self-esteem, specifically whether it shrunk their written signature compared to its size at the start of the study (past research has linked bigger signatures with greater self-esteem). It did, but only for selfies not posted to social media, but simply saved to the phone. The authors speculated that the act of taking a selfie hurts self-esteem by bringing feelings about personal imperfections to the fore, but this wound can be salved through the self-promotional aspect of sharing your image to the wider world. On this reading, selfie-taking is a self-esteem rollercoaster, one that might put you back more or less where you started.

Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

Can brain activity predict chocolate sales? In search of the buy button

Brain icon with a shopping cart
Have researchers really found the holy grail of neuromarketing?

By guest blogger Julia Gottwald

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”.

Continue reading “Can brain activity predict chocolate sales? In search of the buy button”

Brain training exercises just make you better at brain training exercises

brain-like maze with red arrowBy Christian Jarrett

If you spend time building your physical strength and stamina in the gym, you can expect to carry these benefits into everyday life. It will be easier for you to lug heavy shopping bags around or run for the bus. You will likely reduce your chances of developing cardiovascular and other illnesses. A new review of brain training games in Psychological Science in the Public Interest – the most comprehensive ever conducted – shows that unfortunately the same principle does not hold for these games. When you spend time completing mental exercises on your phone or computer, you will most likely only become better at those exercises or very similar tasks. Currently available evidence suggests you probably won’t see consequent improvements in your performance at school or work, or reductions in your chances of experiencing age-related mental decline.   Continue reading “Brain training exercises just make you better at brain training exercises”

Interrupting yourself can be more disruptive than being interrupted by someone else

Man using a laptop, tablet, and cell phone at the same time

By Christian Jarrett

At work or study, whenever you choose to break away from your main task to do something else – such as leaving an email you’re in the middle of writing to go check Facebook instead – you are effectively interrupting yourself. It’s obvious that self-interruptions risk hurting your focus, but you might not realise just how much. A new study in Computers in Human Behaviour shows that in certain contexts interrupting yourself can be even more disruptive than an external interruption, and that it has to do with the brain power that’s needed whenever you make a decision to pause your main task to do something different. Continue reading “Interrupting yourself can be more disruptive than being interrupted by someone else”

Taking photos will boost your enjoyment of experiences, researchers say

The last time I went to the Thames to enjoy London’s New Year’s Eve firework display, I ended up watching it on a little screen. Everyone around me was holding up their phones, taking pictures of the pretty light-filled sky, obscuring my view in the process. I scoffed privately at their inanity – why couldn’t they just enjoy the moment rather than trying to capture it in a megabyte?

My scorn might have been misplaced. Based on their series of nine studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of US psychologists has concluded that taking photographs enhances our enjoyment of events, likely because it increases our sense of immersion. Continue reading “Taking photos will boost your enjoyment of experiences, researchers say”

Are the benefits of brain training no more than a placebo effect?

If you spend time playing mentally taxing games on your smartphone or computer, will it make you more intelligent? A billion dollar “brain training” industry is premised on the idea that it will. Academic psychologists are divided – the majority view is that by playing brain training games you will only improve at those games, you won’t become smarter. But there are scholars who believe in the wider benefits of computer-based brain training and some reviews support their position, such as the 2015 meta-analysis that combined findings from 20 prior studies to conclude “short-term cognitive training on the order of weeks can result in beneficial effects in important cognitive functions”.

But what if those prior studies supporting brain training were fundamentally flawed by the presence of a powerful placebo effect? That’s the implication of a new study in PNAS that suggests the advertising used to recruit participants into brain training research fosters expectations of mental benefits.

Cyrus Foroughi and his colleagues produced two different recruitment adverts (see image below) to attract participants into a brain training study – one explicitly mentioned that the study was about brain training and mentioned that this training can lead to cognitive enhancements; the other was neutral and simply stated that participants were needed for a study. Nearly all previously published brain training research has used an overt, suggestive style of recruitment advertising.

Nineteen young men and 31 young women signed up in response to the two ads, with no gender or age differences between those who responded to each ad. Next, they completed baseline intelligence tests before spending an hour on a task that features in many commercial brain training programmes – the so-called dual n-back task, which involves listening to one stream of numbers or letters and watching another, and spotting whenever the latest item in one of the streams is a repeat of one presented “n” number of items earlier in that stream. As participants improve, “n” is increased, making the task more difficult. The next day, the participants completed more intelligence tests. They also answered questions about their beliefs in the possibility for people’s intelligence to increase.

The participants who’d responded to the overt, suggestive advert showed gains in intelligence after completing just one hour of brain training – a length of training too short to plausibly have produced any genuine benefit linked to the actual experience of doing the training. In contrast, the participants who responded to the neutral ad showed no intelligence gains. This group difference was despite the fact that the two groups performed just as well on the training task, suggesting no group differences in motivation or ability. Also, the group who’d responded to the suggestive ad reported stronger beliefs in the malleability of intelligence. This could be because people with these beliefs were more likely to respond to the suggestive ad, or because they’d been influenced by the claims of the ad – either way, it shows how the use of unsubtle recruitment advertising could be distorting research in this area.

The researchers said they’d provided “strong evidence that placebo effects from overt and suggestive recruitment can affect cognitive training outcomes”. They added that future brain training research should aim to better reduce or account for these placebo effects, for example avoiding hinting to participants what the goals of the study are, or what outcomes are expected. Their call comes after a group of psychologists warned in 2013 that intervention studies in psychology are afflicted by a “pernicious and pervasive” problem, namely the failure to adequately control for the placebo effect.

Placebo effects in cognitive training

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

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Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people’s minds

By guest blogger Vaughan Bell

Can you think a thought which isn’t yours? A remarkable new study, led by psychologist Jay Olson from McGill University in Canada, suggests you can. The research, published in Consciousness and Cognition, used a form of stage magic known as “mentalism” to induce the experience of thoughts being inserted into the minds of volunteers. It is an ingenious study, not only for how it created the experience, but also for how it used the psychology lab as both a stage prop and a scientific tool.

Years before he was famous, stage illusionist Derren Brown wrote a book called Pure Effect, where he argued that presenting tricks as “psychology” could be an effective form of misdirection. In his innovative shows, Brown often claims he is debunking psychics by demonstrating how psychology can be used to manipulate people’s minds. In practice, his mind-reading and mind control feats can involve the same traditional techniques used by stage magicians, it’s just that he presents them as psychology rather than magic.

Olson and his colleagues from McGill took this approach a step further, telling their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brain scanner could read thoughts and influence their mind.

Hidden from the participants was the fact that the experiment was actually conducted in a mock scanner – something that exists in most neuroimaging facilities to test experiments before they are run on the genuine equipment. To add to the plausibility of the story, the participants went through a realistic briefing, safety screening, and calibration procedure for an fMRI brain scan.

Participants were then asked to complete what they thought were “mind reading” and “mind influencing” experiments.

In the “mind reading” stage, researchers asked each participant to lie in the “scanner”, silently think of any two-digit number and press a button when they were done. The fMRI machine then produced a number on screen and the researcher could be seen writing the result onto a clipboard.

Next, the participant was asked to name the number they had silently thought of. The researcher turned the clipboard, stunning the participant by showing exactly their number – seemingly “read” from their mind by the power of fMRI.

The researchers are coy about exactly how this was achieved, only referencing an old mentalism book. In fact, they likely used a variation on a technique called the “swami gimmick” where the mentalist – the researcher in this case – has a fake rubber tip on the end of their thumb, which includes a barely visible shard of pencil lead. Earlier, when the researcher appeared to be writing the fMRI “mind reading” results, he was just pretending. What really happened is that, in the split second after the participant announced their secretly selected number, the researcher discreetly wrote it down on the clipboard using their thumb.

In the second, “mind influencing” condition, the participant was told that the machine was programmed to put a number into their mind. This time the researcher “wrote down” the number the machine had chosen to “transmit”. As before, the participant was asked to silently think of any two-digit number and after the “scan” the researcher seemed to show that the participant had thought of exactly the number the machine had ‘transmitted’ to them – using, of course, exactly the same thumb-writing trick as in the mindreading phase.

So here’s where the real psychology came in. After the scans, the researchers asked the participants to rate how much control they felt they had over their choice of numbers. Of course, in reality all their choices were completely voluntary, but in the second stage of the experiment, they believed they had less control and that the machine had influenced their thinking. Consistent with this perception, they also took longer to choose a number in the mind influencing condition than in the “mind reading” condition.

The researchers checked whether anyone had worked out what was really happening. A few participants expressed doubts about whether the “fMRI machine” was really influencing them and were removed from the analysis, but none suspected stage magic.

Olson and his colleagues replicated their results using a second experiment, run in exactly the same way, but this time they also interviewed the participants to find out what they’d felt during the procedure. They reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being “inserted” into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

But the research team’s motivations where not purely focused on everyday psychology. In some types of mental health problems, people start to experience their thoughts and actions being controlled by what seem like outside forces. Olson’s team hope that their work can provide a way of studying one aspect of this experience, safely and temporarily in the lab, potentially providing a window into how these more debilitating experiences affect the mind and brain.


Olson, J., Landry, M., Appourchaux, K., & Raz, A. (2016). Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 11-26 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.04.010

Post written by Dr Vaughan Bell (@vaughanbell). Vaughan is a senior clinical lecturer at University College London and a clinical psychologist in the NHS.

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You’re not addicted to your phone, it’s just that you have an anxious attachment style

Image: Victor/Flickr

If you can barely put your phone down for a minute, and you get all panicky when your juice runs out, past psychology research might describe you as being somehow addicted, dependent or that you have a new condition “nomophobia“, literally no mobile phone phobia.

But writing this week in Computers in Human Behaviour, a team of researchers from Hungary say this language of extremity or disorder is probably the wrong approach – after all, most people experience nomophobia. Instead, they argue we should view our relationship with our phones in terms of attachment theory. Specifically, they’ve tested the idea that we all have a certain kind of attachment to our phones, but that people who are anxiously attached in their human relationships (that is, people who are afraid of being abandoned) are also likely to show anxious attachment towards their phones.

For their exploratory study, Veronika Konok and her team asked 142 young Hungarian adults (aged 19 to 25) to complete measures of their attachment style towards humans – whether they are anxiously attached, anxiously avoidant, or secure – and their attachment style towards their phones. This last measure included questions about phone checking and phone separation anxiety, and the ways the participants use their phone.

The results provided partial support for the researchers’ predictions. For example, people with an anxious attachment style said they tended to get more stressed than others if they couldn’t reach someone on their phone or couldn’t answer a call. Anxiously attached people also described using their phones more for accessing social networking sites.

However, against the researchers’ predictions, anxiously attached people did not report greater stress when they were separated from their phones. But there’s a simple methodological explanation for this null result – nearly all of the participants, regardless of their attachment style, said they felt bad when they were apart from their phones.

“Some features of [people’s] attachment to the phone are influenced by their interpersonal attachment style,” the researchers concluded. “Specifically, anxiously attached people need more contact through the phone, and perhaps because of this they use the phone more for smart phone functions.” The researchers hope more research in a similar vein will now follow, for example using neuroimaging to see if attachment to mobile phones “co-opts the same neuronal circuits as infant-mother or romantic attachment”.

Humans’ attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style

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

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A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology is the first to provide a scholarly definition of binge TV watching and to investigate some of the factors that explain how much people indulge in it.

According to Emily Walton-Pattison at Newcastle University and her colleagues, binge TV watching is when you “watch more than two episodes of the same TV show in one sitting” – a habit that’s become more frequent since the popularity of DVD box sets and streaming TV services.

I have fond memories of my own first binge TV session: watching 24 with my wife in a holiday cottage in the Lake District, a crackling fire in the background, snow falling outside. Bliss. But the researchers see things differently: binge TV watching contributes to sedentary behaviour, increases risk of obesity and interferes with healthy sleep habits.

They surveyed 86 people (recruited via social media) about their binge TV watching habits and various psychological constructs, such as whether they expected to experience regret after a binge session. Based on the researchers’ definition, the participants had binge-watched an average of 1.42 times in the past week, taking in an average of 2.94 episodes in 2.51 hours. BBC iPlayer and Netflix were the most popular means of bingeing.

A quarter of the difference in how much people binged was explained by their intentions to binge and expectations that it would be a rewarding, fun thing to do. Other factors that were also relevant included experiences of automaticity (“I did it without thinking”) and anticipated regret and goal conflict (seeing bingeing as interfering with other activities) – both of which were associated with less bingeing.

The researchers said that “further more in-depth and rigorous research into being watching is warranted” but that their preliminary findings already offer hints as to how to curtail people’s binge watching habits. For example, they said that TV streaming services could be adapted to counter the mindless aspect of bingeing. “Some online streaming services include in-built interruptions after a number of consecutive episodes have been reached. There would be opportunities to harness these interruptions,” they said.

‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching

–further reading–
Psychologists investigate a major, ignored reason for our lack of sleep – bedtime procrastination
Forgive yourself for relaxing in front of the TV and the couch time might actually do you some good

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

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Hanging out with virtual reality spiders helps arachnophobes see real spiders as smaller and less scary

By guest blogger Melissa Hogenboom

A little fear can be a good thing but when it develops into a phobia, it can become debilitating. One way therapists treat fear disorders is using a technique called exposure therapy. As its name suggests, it involves gradually exposing a person to the very thing they are afraid of.

The problem is that in the comfort of a therapist’s office, recreating the fearful event is not always straightforward. This means patients may not be able to realistically confront what they most fear. Consider recreating a bomb going off in a war zone, confronting a fear of heights, or coming face to face with a large, hairy spider.

It is therefore becoming more popular for cognitive psychologists to use virtual reality (VR) both to study and to treat fear disorders.

Previous studies have shown that our brain can easily be tricked in a virtual world, even though we know the world is not real. A short stint assuming the perspective of a black person in VR has been shown to reduce people’s racial biases and performing in front of a VR audience can alleviate anxiety for public speaking. It is even an effective tool for treating serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Armed with this knowledge, a new study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, exposed participants with arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) first to real spiders and then to virtual ones. An example of the virtual spiders can be seen in this video, which is from a related, older study.

There were two important findings – first that these “spider phobic” participants overestimated a spider’s size, secondly that this bias could then be reduced using VR.

The team, led by Dr Youssef Shiban of the University of Regensburg, Germany, recruited 41 participants with spider phobias and 20 without. The participants with the phobia first had to complete a clinical interview to asses their level of fear.

Next the researchers presented the participants with a 7.5 cm Chilean rose tarantula spider (Grammostola rosea) in a transparent box placed 3 metres away and asked them to estimate its size by pointing to differently sized lines on a piece of paper. The participants also had to bring the spider as close to themselves as they could using a lever and report their level of fear from 0 to 10.

All participants were then fitted with a VR headset and exposed to four similar spiders – this time about 30 cm long – in a virtual world for five minutes at a time. This was repeated four times, giving a total exposure time of 20 minutes. Two weeks later participants were again confronted with a real spider and asked to estimate its size, to move it closer and again report their fear levels.

Although both groups had initially over-estimated the size of the spider, the size bias was much larger in those who were scared of spiders than it was among the non-phobics (on average 81 per cent overestimation compared to 40 per cent). Two weeks after the VR treatment, the size bias of those scared of spiders dramatically decreased to 66 per cent, but the non-phobic participants did not reduce their estimations. Crucially, the phobic participants’ self reported fear levels also reduced by 70 per cent, replicating similar results from a 2015 study.

It must be noted that the drop-out rate was quite high due to technical issues and failure to return to the follow up task. Of the original 41 spider phobic participants, the results of only 22 participants were included in the second exposure task, while 19 controls remained.

Though it was already known that a fear of a particular object or event can increase your attention to it, this is the first time it has been shown that individuals with arachnophobia overestimate a spider’s size.

The researchers say that there were two related changes after the VR exposure. Both the fear of spiders, as well as the “overstimulation” that caused the initial size bias, were reduced.

This reveals that it is the very process of being visually confronted with a fear that can decrease it. This makes sense. Being afraid is not a pleasant experience so it is natural to avoid anything that triggers a particular fear. But when a person confronts their fears in a safe place, this sets up a spiral of beneficial effects: they learn that the object of their fear is not such a threat, and in turn this literally modifies their perception of the object to be more accurate, making it less likely that they will find it so scary in future.

Now that it is clear that VR can reduce a fear of spiders thereby changing how large they are seen, there is a strong case for using the technology in a therapeutic setting. But whether this reduction of fear is long lasting remains unclear and would require follow-up studies. Perhaps even more importantly, the study shows the powerful effect emotions have on our perception. When we are afraid, we literally see the world differently and understanding this is key to overcoming our fears.


Shiban, Y., Fruth, M., Pauli, P., Kinateder, M., Reichenberger, J., & Mühlberger, A. (2016). Treatment effect on biases in size estimation in spider phobia Biological Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.03.005

Post written by Melissa Hogenboom (@melissasuzanneh) for the BPS Research Digest. Melissa is BBC Earth’s feature writer.

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