Category: Uncategorized

Are certain groups of people more likely to leave suicide notes?

It is a sad fact that we can never ask of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who take their own lives each year – why did you do it? Instead, psychologists talk to people who have survived suicide attempts, and they also look into the minds’ of suicide victims through the notes that they leave. But in fact only a minority of suicide victims leave notes, and the validity of studying these notes depends in part of the assumption that victims who leave notes are the same as those who don’t. A new analysis, published in Archives of Suicide Research, of all the suicides that occurred in Queensland Australia during 2004, questions this very assumption.

Belinda Carpenter and her colleagues were given access to the coronial files of the 533 suicides that took place that year, and the associated police reports, autopsy reports, and coroner’s findings gave them unusual insight into the background to the victims. This detail also allowed the researchers to look beyond traditional, written suicide notes (left by 39 per cent of the victims) and to also identify instances where victims had made verbal or electronic warnings of their intent (a further 22 per cent had done this).

Matching trends around the world, the majority of the suicide victims in this study were male (83.1 per cent) and the average age at death was 43.8 years. The most common method of suicide was by hanging; just over half of the victims had known mental health issues; and a little over 5 per cent were from Indigenous Aboriginal communities.

Turning to the main question, the researchers found, contrary to the limited prior research on this topic, that women were less likely to have left a note (or made a verbal warning) than men, as were victims from indigenous communities and victims who killed themselves through gassing (by contrast, those who took their lives under a train or in a car were less likely to have left a note).

Among those victims who did leave a note or warning of some kind, women were more likely to leave a written note, as were victims from more affluent areas, while those with known mental health problems were more likely to have made verbal warnings.

The researchers advised that their results be interpreted with caution since some of the subcategories they looked at ended up consisting of very few cases. That said, they concluded that the findings suggest that “there are some significant differences” between suicide victims who leave notes and those who don’t, and that this needs to be taken into account by future research. “This is particularly important for research that uses suicide notes to gain insight into the motivation for suicide more generally,” they said.


Carpenter, B., Bond, C., Tait, G., Wilson, M., & White, K. (2016). Who Leaves Suicide Notes? An Exploration of Victim Characteristics and Suicide Method of Completed Suicides in Queensland Archives of Suicide Research, 20 (2), 176-190 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1004496

further reading
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens
What’s different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

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

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Episode Three: How To Win An Argument

This is Episode Three of PsychCrunch, the new podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. In this episode we explore whether psychology can help you to win an argument.

After our presenter Christian Jarrett tries his luck with an argument about Michael Jackson’s legacy, we find out why convincing people of your point of view is so difficult, and we hear about a paradoxical technique that’s encouraging people to change their own minds about one of the most serious arguments in the world – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We also touch on why neurobabble appears to be so convincing.

Our guests are Dr Jon Sutton (Editor, The Psychologist); Dr Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield); Boaz Hameiri (Tel Aviv University); and Dr Sara Hodges (University of Oregon).

Some of the research discussed by our guests has been covered previously on the Research Digest blog, including how superfluous neuroscience can be so persuasive, and other relevant research is in our archive. Boaz Hameiri’s research on the paradoxical thinking intervention was published last year in PNAS. Tom Stafford’s ebook is available on AmazonFor argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. Further reading from The Psychologist magazine: The truth is out there–a look at belief in conspiracy theories; Are conspiracy theories just harmless fun?; Looking back: Every believer is also a disbeliever; Falling on deaf ears–when people believe psychology is not science.

Episode credits: Presenter/editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Producer Dr Lorna Stewart. Music and mixing Dr Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
Subscribe and download via Stitcher.

Bonus material:
Listen to the entire Michael Jackson argument between Christian Jarrett and Jon Sutton!

Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits.

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Taylor and Francis

Link feast

Our pick of this week’s 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

The Ultimate Psychology Reading List
For more than seven years, The Psychologist has been asking eminent psychologists to recommend books and journal articles.

The Vice Guide To Mental Health
The Canada-based magazine launches a new vertical devoted to mental health.

The People Who Are Lost in Time
At BBC Future, I reported on some of the strange causes and consequences of amnesia.

The Psychologist Annual Conference Special Edition
An exclusive digital edition produced to mark the British Psychological Society’s flagship event, held in Liverpool 5-7 May. It comprises archive material from speakers at this year’s conference.

Cutting The Body to Cure the Mind
The Lancet looks back on the rise and fall of treatments like leucotomy and ovariotomy.

Science Shows Humblebragging Doesn’t Even Work
Better to just brag than “humblebrag”, says new study.

Is Happiness Worth Measuring?
The Guardian hosts a debate on whether the government should be worried about the state of the nation’s wellbeing or should concentrate instead on what makes people feel unhappy.

Madness and Meaning
Depictions of mental illness through history, from the Paris Review

Living With Being Dead
Erika Hayasaki at Medium explores the cotard delusion.

First Results From Psychology’s Largest Reproducibility Test
Nature reports on an attempt to reproduce the findings from 100 psychology studies.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Walking backwards boosts creativity

The established routines and habits of everyday life can stifle our ability to think creatively. That’s according to a new study that’s based on the “embodied cognition” idea that performing bodily movements in a conventional manner encourages the mind to follow suit, and vice versa. The researchers say that by breaking out of physical conformity – such as by walking backwards instead of forwards – we can foster a more creative mindset.

The study began by asking 30 students to spend the morning as they normally would, but with one exception – wherever they went, they had to always walk backwards. A control group of 30 students spent a normal morning walking forwards. At lunch time, all the students were tested on two standard tests of creativity: thinking up novel uses for a brick and drawing pictures of aliens.

Five of the students from the walking backwards group were unable to participate in the lunch-time tests due to minor injury or getting lost, including one man who tripped over his cat in the morning, and a woman who walked into a water feature in the university grounds. However, the remaining walking backwards students outperformed the controls on the creativity tasks, coming up with more original uses for bricks and more outlandish aliens.

To gain real-life support for their ideas, in a follow-up experiment the researchers collaborated with a tech start-up company in London. On one floor of the company offices, all staff were instructed to spend a week walking backwards. In light of the student accidents, lead researcher Eve Errs commissioned the production of a special helmet for these staff to wear, providing head protection, but also featuring rear-view mirrors to help the wearer see obstacles behind them, and a beeping noise that sounds during backward locomotion.

At the week’s end, based on line manager ratings, the work of the backward walking staff was more creative than the work of staff on the other floors. On the negative side, ratings show the backward walking staff had achieved far less. Observational data suggested this was due to the increased time taken for movement around the building, frequent drink spillages, and several instances of uncontrollable laughing fits among the staff.

In the final strand of the research, Errs and her colleagues analysed the creative output of pop star Michael Jackson before and after he started performing his famous backwards Moonwalk. “Jackson’s oeuvre provides a rare historical record of an artist’s creativity both before and after the onset of increased time walking backwards,” the researchers explained. “On tour, he would [moon]walk backwards several times a night, each night, and that’s not to mention all the time he would have spent walking backwards in rehearsals.” The researchers claim their analysis showed that Jackson’s lyrics and musical style showed increased variation and divergent creativity in the 10 years after he first Moonwalked as compared with the 10 years prior.

Errs and her team conclude that the three studies provide converging evidence for the creative benefits of walking backwards. In an email to the Digest, Errs told us this is just the tip of the iceberg and that she is now expanding her research programme into a full “backwards living” movement. “Take any mundane activity, do it in reverse,” she said, “and you encourage your mind to think differently, to shake off the constraints of habit and conformity. Have dinner at breakfast, or have a shower before you exercise, the possibilities are endless.” She says she is already working with film studios to produce movie releases that can be viewed backwards, and she hopes her backwards walking helmet will be available commercially very soon.


Errs, E., Wards, B., & Walk, M. (2015). Thinking in new directions through reverse locomotion. Journal of Creative Studies, 23 (3), 427-436

Update: this post is a fiction written for April Fools’ Day. Eve Errs is an anagram of “reverse”. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk was one product of his creative genius (with a little help from the street dancers he observed), not the cause.

Please note: Joking aside, backwards walking itself is an established exercise with apparent physiological benefits. Many thanks to Gina Jones-Spengler for passing on further information.

–further reading–
Mild intoxication aids creative problem solving
Is group brainstorming more effective if you do it standing up?

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

Your angry face makes you look stronger

No matter where you travel on earth, you’ll likely have no problem recognising when someone is angry with you. From the plains of Russia to the beaches of Brazil, anger shows itself in a tell-tale facial display involving lowered brow, snarled nose, raised chin and thinned lips.

A popular view has it that, besides reliably conveying anger, this particular constellation of facial movements is arbitrary and serves no other function. A team of evolutionary psychologists led by Aaron Sell disagrees. They think the anger face also makes the angry person look stronger. This fits their “recalibration theory of anger” that sees the emotion as an aggressive threat. An angry animal or person is communicating the costs that they will inflict on others if they do not get what they want. By making an angry person look stronger, so the theory goes, the facial expression gives weight to the threat of aggression, likely influencing the target’s judgment about the seriousness of the threat.

To test this, Sell and his colleagues created pairs of faces using a computer programme. They began with a 20-year-old male face, morphed from averages of many faces, and then calibrated it so that for each of the seven distinguishing features of anger (lowered brow, raised lips, raised mouth, widened nose, enlarged chin, lips thinned, lips pushed forward), they created a pair of contrasting faces. One face in each pair displayed one angry feature, the other face showed the opposite feature. For example, one face showed lowered brows, the other face in the pair showed raised brows. In this way, the seven distinguishing features of anger were isolated.

Thirty-five student participants then looked at the facial pairs and indicated in each case which face they thought looked stronger. The key finding? Each anger-related facial feature when displayed on its own attracted higher ratings of perceived strength. This implies each element of the anger expression contributes to making a person appear stronger.

Further experiments ruled out an alternative explanation – perhaps angry faces actually serve to make a person look older, and this leads to ratings of greater strength because observers assume a slightly older man is stronger than a 20-year-old. One way the researchers tested this was to show participants pairs of morphed faces of a 60-year-old man, in which case looking older presumably wouldn’t be associated with greater strength. Three of the angry facial features actually led him to being rated as younger, with only two prompting ratings of being older. Moreover, participants rated the man as stronger when he displayed six of the seven angry facial features.

“The current study is the first systematic test of the individual components of the anger expression,” the researchers said. “And in so doing it confirms that these features are improbably well-designed to solve the adaptive problem of bargaining with threats of force.” The results are also consistent with a range of other research, including the finding that several features of an angry expression tend to be more prominent in men than women (this fits with the idea that aggression is a more important bargaining tool for men); that stronger and bigger men get angry more easily; and that men’s fighting ability can be discerned from the shape of their face. Looking at the study’s limitations, it’s a shame the researchers didn’t investigate women’s expressions of anger, and that they relied on student participants.


Sell, A., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2014). The human anger face evolved to enhance cues of strength Evolution and Human Behavior, 35 (5), 425-429 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.05.008

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

Guest hosts – Thank you!

Since the beginning of April, host duties on the blog have been handled by a series of eight excellent psychologists and bloggers. We have now come to the end of their time, and would like to say a massive thank you to each of them for seeing us through this transition period in such fine style.

In case you missed any of their posts, we collect them together here. Please do visit their own blogs, follow them on Twitter etc.

Dr Pete Etchells, Lecturer in Psychology at Bath Spa University and Science Blog Co-ordinator for The Guardian, wrote for us on inflated praise for your children, stress and public speaking, and the impact of TV and video games on the well-being of children.

Neuroskeptic, a British neuroscientist who blogs for Discover Magazine, tackled the fading affect bias, aversive racism, and facial expressions as social camouflage.

Jennifer Bazar, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog, considered whether psychology has its own vocabulary, the exercise metaphor of memory, and the power of photographs in historical records of asylums.

Tom Stafford, a psychologist from the University of Sheffield who is a regular contributor to the Mind Hacks blog, turned his attention to self-fulfilling fallacies in gambling, the potential cognitive benefits of alcohol, and interventions for implicit bias.

Eight weeks, eight guest hosts

Melanie Tannenbaum, UIUC Social Psych PhD Candidate and Scientific American Blogger, considered views of income inequality, offensive slurs and group status, and the obesity labelling debate.

Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford, Adjunct Professor at The University of Western Australia, Perth, and a runner up in the 2012 UK Science Blogging Prize for BishopBlog, gave the clinical reality of neurodevelopmental disorders before turning to the importance of replication and the enigma of dyslexic musicians.

Petra Boynton, Senior Lecturer in International Primary Care Research, University College London and the Telegraph’s Agony Aunt, covered studies on stigma and miscarriage, sex following lower limb amputation, and faking orgasms.

Last but by no means least, Chris Chambers, a psychologist and neuroscientist based at Cardiff University, contributed this week on anti-depressant brain stimulation, replication, and cognitive training to boost self-control.

Many thanks again to all for such fascinating coverage and for bringing new visitors to the blog. To those people, we hope you will stay tuned. Remember you can follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook or subscribe to our fortnightly email (soon to be available in html form).

There will now be radio silence for a week or so, before some big news…
Post written by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, for the BPS Research Digest.

It’s official: Psychologists DO know what you are thinking

It’s an accusation often fired at psychologists at parties: ‘I bet you can tell what I’m thinking’. Now psychologists, much to their own surprise, have found scientific evidence that this might actually be the case.

In a series of studies reported today in the Journal of Metacognition, researchers found that qualified psychologists significantly outperformed matched controls on experimental tasks measuring the ability to guess a target selected by others from a random stimulus array.

The original aim of the study was to assess whether there was any validity to parapsychology claims of ‘remote viewing’ abilities in the normal population. A participant selects one of five ‘target’ pictures – of former politician Lembit Opik, a duck, a map of Seattle, a weasel with a chainsaw, and some wool. Will a ‘viewer’ in another room – completely blind to the selection process – be able to tell which image the participant has in their mind?

We would expect the viewers to be right 20 per cent of the time, purely by chance. But the experimenters discovered something quite unexpected. Their colleagues – postgraduate researchers, lecturers and professors in psychology – appeared to be much more successful at the task than were people from other disciplines. ‘Initially, we were skeptical about the whole thing,’ lead researcher Professor Chris Turner told the Research Digest. ‘But on performing the statistical analysis, I spilled my latte all down my white lab coat. When we considered the results from the “trained psychologists” as one group, we found a hugely significant difference, with the psychologists outperforming the “controls” by more than two to one.’

Psychologists outperformed controls by more than two to one.

Professor Turner replicated the group’s own results before running a new experiment. Would the influence work the other way? Could psychologists actually be more successful at implanting a phrase into the mind of someone in another room? Using the script from a 1989 episode of British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’, the one where Del Boy falls through the bar, ‘transmitters’ had to attempt to ‘send’ a snippet – ‘We’re on a winner here, Trig’, ‘play it nice and cool’, etc – to the ‘receiver’. Incredibly, the ‘trained psychologists’ group was significantly better at transmitting one of quotes to an isolated individual.

Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, expressed doubt about the validity of the claims. He told the Research Digest that we should always be wary of dramatic claims until they have been reliably replicated by independent researchers, adding that ‘no such effects have been found in studies carried out by members of the APRU’.

As for the researchers themselves, how do they feel about their newfound ‘abilities’? ‘I knew you were going to ask that!’, Professor Turner said. ‘Seriously though, it has had the effect of bringing us closer together as researchers. Before the study, we were spread across different universities, but as we speak I’m in the process of bringing the whole group together into a newly formed research unit, on the site of an old abandoned old abandoned TV transmitter. There’s some resistance from our ethics committee, but we’re confident we can overcome this.’

Turner, C., Nilsson, R., King, P., Harkes, J., Shirtliff, P., Pearson, N., Wilson, D., Sheridan, J., Hirst, D., Williams, P. & Worthington, N. (2014). Brief report: Evidence of superior mindreading and control in professional psychologists? Journal of Metacognition, 4 (1), 91-92.

Update: April Fools’ Day: … many thanks to Professor Chris French for being a good sport, as ever, and to the 1991 League Cup winning Sheffield Wednesday FC side for conducting the research.

Post written by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, for the BPS Research Digest.

Can psychology help solve the MH370 mystery?

As relatives and friends endure the agonising wait for news of their loved ones, more than a fortnight after the disappearance of Flight MH370, could psychology have anything to offer? Today we turn to the Digest and The Psychologist archive to see whether research can help in understanding what might have happened or finding the missing plane.

In last month’s cover feature of The Psychologist on aircraft safety, Don Harris explained that as the reliability and structural integrity of aircraft has improved, human error is now the principal threat to flight safety: it is estimated that up to 75 per cent of all aircraft accidents now have a major human factors component. ‘As commercial aviation is a “system-of-systems”, aviation psychology must respond with a similar systemic approach,’ he wrote. ‘There needs to be greater integration between the various subdisciplines – selection, training, equipment design and organisational pressures do not exist in isolation. They combine to contribute to accidents so they should be tackled in an integrated manner.’ We also met an aviation psychologist, Robert Bor, in 2012.

One of many theories about the fate of Flight MH370 is that the pilots got lost. In a Digest post from 2012, we reported how even experienced pilots can fall foul of an elementary error in navigation based on confirmation bias. ‘Were they to commit this error whilst flying, it would endanger the plane,’ we reported. ‘Indeed, such a scenario has unfolded in real-life incidents.’

Depending on if, how or where Flight MH370 came down, survival psychology may have come into play – The Psychologist considered this in a 2011 article. And if the worst is confirmed and the plane is at the bottom of a deep ocean, incredibly psychology does have a track record of helping to locate such objects. In this post from 2011, we described how insights from research into memory transmission were used to analyse the testimony from the German survivors of a ship, HSK Kormoran, which had battled with the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney II before it was lost in deep water off the west coast of Australia in November 1941. By combining the best fit approach from seven source statements with two further physical landmarks – drift objects lost from Kormoran and an emergency signal sent by Kormoran just prior to battle – two psychologists identified a recommended search area. On 16 March 2008, the Finding Sydney Foundation located Kormoran just 5km from their best prediction of where she lay. Five days later, Sydney was found 21km away. “The method we developed in response to the problem that was placed before us was necessarily tailored to the specific details of that problem,” the researchers said. “Nevertheless, it may provide a blueprint for potential solutions to other similar problems. Such problems may include, but would not necessarily be restricted to, search problems for missing objects.” Could a similar approach, combining possible sightings of the plane with technological data and any drift objects located in the current search, at least provide some much-needed clues in the MH370 mystery?

Of course, until we have a more complete account of what happened to the plane, conspiracy theories will abound. This is another topic which we have covered in both the Research Digest and The Psychologist.

If all of this makes you scared to fly, you are in good company. Thankfully, psychologists have been using virtual reality to tackle this for more than a decade now.

Our thoughts go out to the relatives of those on the flight, who may well be in need of professional psychological help to deal with the trauma they are experiencing. This Digest post from 2012 considered the debate over the merits of post-trauma psychological debriefing, and in both the Digest and The Psychologist we have considered the controversial ‘EMDR’ technique. But we would be interested to hear from our readers (via the comments below) of any evidence-based approaches that are in fact being used with those affected, or in the continuing bid to solve the mystery of Flight MH370.

Post written by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, for the BPS Research Digest.

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2013 – Part 2

JULY UCL cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott was among the scholars unhappy about the call for the introduction of pre-registered reports in psychology (see June). Walter Boot and colleagues published an important paper highlighting how many control conditions in psychology are inadequate. Another paper claimed that the real-world impact of psychological and social interventions is being squandered by poor practices in the reporting of randomised trials. Doubts were raised about Milgram’s classic studies into obedience. Matt Wall debunked neuromarketing. Bethany Brookshire worried that neuroskepticism was becoming excessive and called for neuronuance. Oliver Sacks turned 80 and felt happy about it. “Psychology’s most original thinker” Dan Wegner passed away.

AUG A study found that people’s sleep is disturbed at full moon, and not because of the light. Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker wrote a magisterial essay on why science, including psychology and neuroscience, is not the enemy of the humanities. The Guardian launched a new psychology blog “Head Quarters” featuring the dream team of Pete Etchells, Molly Crockett, Nathalia Gjersoe and Chris Chambers. UCL cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore was this year’s recipient of the prestigious Rosalind Franklin Award from the Royal Society. The RSA’s Social Brain Centre launched a new project into spirituality and the brain. New data showed that dementia rates had fallen in the UK. Prisoners’ performance on the classic prisoners’ dilemma game was measured for the first time. “Super-recognisers” were recruited to spot known criminals at the Notting Hill carnival.

SEPT Scientists created mini brains from stem cells. Hype surrounded a study that purported to show a driving game reversed age-related mental decline. New data showed that England’s Improving Access to Psychotherapies programme had failed to stall the county’s rising anti-depressant prescription rates. Obama’s administration announced plans to create its own “Nudge Unit” modelled on the British government’s Behavioural Insight Team. The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest marked its tenth anniversary with a series of research-backed self-help posts. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the world’s leading positive psychologists, admitted that a highly influential paper she co-authored in 2005 is fundamentally flawed. David Dobbs wrote a wonderfully inspiring article on the social life of your genes.

OCT Reading fiction boosts your empathy skills, but only if it’s literary fiction, a study claimed. Not everyone was impressed. The purpose of Obama’s BRAIN initiative became clearer thanks to publication of an interim report. Meanwhile the Guardian interviewed Henry Markram – head of the EU’s Human Brain Project. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology published an important remedial report (pdf) for the discipline: “Improving the Dependability of Research in Personality and Social Psychology …” The Research Digest hosted a Super Week in which we met individuals with psychological super powers. A charity in Wales was criticised for using NLP to treat traumatised soldiers. The science of using brain imaging to decode people’s thoughts, minus the hype – a welcome overview from Kerri Smith was published this month.

NOV The World Medical Association announced important changes to its Declaration of Helsinki – an influential ethics code for conducting research with human participants that is followed by many psychology departments and journals. New data suggested that after years of increase, the diagnosis rates for autism in the UK had plateaued. Concerns were raised again about the lack of educational psychologists in Scotland and there were cuts to funding for ed psych services in England, even as demand was on the increase. A new study found that eye contact does not in fact increase persuasion. BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind celebrated its 25th anniversary (the same year that The Psychologist magazine reached the same milestone). A neuroscience journal for kids was launched. A team of over 50 international researchers published an ambitious attempt to replicate 13 existing findings in psychology. Psychology mourned the loss of two stars: cognitive neuroscientist Andy Calder and social psychologist Nalini Ambady.

DEC A twin study attracted controversy after it appeared to show that genes trump schooling and parenting when it comes to children’s exam success. The Science Museum opened a new psychology-themed exhibition supported by the British Psychological Society. Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology “explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years.” A brain imaging study purported to show that men’s and women’s brains are wired up differently and that this supports gender stereotypes. Not everyone was impressed. Another new study found that stimulating part of the anterior cingulate cortex triggers a kind of “Eye of the Tiger” effect. Finally, this month a US court may have been the first to see brain imaging evidence save a killer from the death penalty. Intriguingly, one of the neuroscientist witnesses for the defence – Ruben Gur – was a co-author on that sex-differences brain wiring study … it’s a small world, as they say.

(2013 Part 1: Jan to June is here. )

What will happen in psychology in 2014? Keep up-to-date with The Psychologist @psychmag and the Research Digest @researchdigest from The British Psychological Society.

Also check out our round-up of the Best Psychology Books of 2013, and the most popular Research Digest posts of the year. For comparison, this was our annual review for 2012.


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

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2013 – Part 1

JAN The year began with fall-out from the final report into the fraud of social psychologist Diederik Stapel. The scale was shocking – 55 journal papers published over 15 years are tainted. The Levelt investigating committee pointed the finger at the research culture in social psychology, but the British Psychological Society’s own Social Psychology Section rejected this. So too did the European Association of Social Psychology, who argued that the discipline has actually suffered fewer frauds than other branches of science. In other news, a team of researchers in Canada attracted criticism when they spun their research to suggest that the concept of IQ is a myth. “There are many mysteries about intelligence and the general factor,” Professor Richard Haier told The Psychologist. “Now there is a new one – how did this paper get published?”

FEB The first rumours of Obama’s richly funded BRAIN initiative began to emerge. A new spin on a modern psychology classic: researchers showed that inattentional blindness can lead experienced radiographers to fail to notice a “gorilla on the lung“. A less welcome classic also made an appearance – the left/brain right/brain myth in a report from the RSA that claimed the woes of the Western world are due to our over-dependence on the left-brain hemisphere (some astute criticism here). It was also announced this month that MPs would have access to mental health treatment in Westminster for the first time. Jonah Lehrer apologised for plagiarising the Research Digest. Contradicting all established neuranatomical fact, the Daily Mail described how evil lurks in the brain’s “central lobe“!

MARCH Neuroscientists and psychologists began to react to the news of Obama’s BRAIN initiative and the similarly ambitious EU Human Brain Project. Psychologists started a campaign against the publication of US psychiatry’s re-worked diagnostic code DSM-5. Debate about and reaction to the crisis in social psychology continued – The Center for Open Science was launched by US psychologist Brian Nosek, and The Association for Psychological Science announced a new article format Registered Replication Reports for one its key journals. An important new study found that many mental disorders share the same genetic risk factors.

APRIL After all the questions raised about social psychology, it was the turn of neuroscience as an important analysis suggested that the majority of neuroscience studies are statistically underpowered, likely leading to unreliable findings. Meanwhile a provocative paper claimed that brain scans could predict those offenders likely to return to prison. The Neurocritic took a sceptical look at the results. After all the speculation, the BRAIN Initiative finally launched. Perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, Ferris Jabr for Scientific American wrote a wonderful article about the psychology of reading paper books vs. e-books.

MAY Days before the publication of the new DSM-5 psychiatric diagnostic code, the document received a barrage of criticism from opposite directions. The BPS Division of Clinical Psychology published their concerns, including that the code is too biologically based, while Thomas Insel of the NIMH argued that the code is already out of date because it’s not grounded in biological findings. In other news, the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team went part-private; a study about the effects of fist-clenching on memory attracted severe criticism; more controversy bubbled up after the failure to replicate another social priming result; Diederik Stapel was interviewed; two psychologists were voted among the world’s top 10 thinker; and Paul Bloom explained how too much empathy can actually lead us to do the wrong thing.

JUNE Many psychologists were among more than 70 signatories to an open letter to the Guardian calling for a new approach to publishing across the life sciences – pre-registered reports in which a study is accepted for publication based on the proposed methodology, prior to the collection of any actual results. The Psychologist reported on the neuroscientist Russell Poldrack who is scanning his own brain three times a week for a year. This is what happened when students and neuroscientists were asked to draw a neuron. A study used fall out from atomic bomb testing to settle the debate over whether adult humans can grow new neurons. Scientists from Germany and Canada created the most detailed map of the brain ever. The Big Brain Atlas is part of the EU’s €1-billion Human Brain Project.  Mark Stokes argued there’s a lot more to neuroscience than media “neuromania”.

Part 2 July to Dec …. This annual review is based largely on news reports in The Psychologist, the British Psychological Society’s monthly magazine, and on Feast posts from the last year of the Research Digest.

Also check out our round-up of the Best Psychology Books of 2013, and the most popular Research Digest posts of the year. This was our annual review for 2012.


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