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 4: The Psychology of Gift Giving

This is Episode Four of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. In this festive episode we explore whether psychology can help us with gift giving.

Our presenter Christian Jarrett and his guests discuss the benefits of giving “giver-centric” gifts; how recipients like to receive gifts on their wish lists; why ethical or pro-social gifts are sometimes not so warmly received; and the two words that can salvage that awkward situation when a gift doesn’t go down too well.

Our guests in order of appearance are Lisa Cavanaugh USC Marshall School of Business, Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, and Alex Fradera, contributing writer to the BPS Research Digest blog.


The studies discussed in this episode, in order of appearance, are:

Episode credits: Presenter/editor/producer Dr Christian Jarrett. Vox pops Ella Rhodes. Music and mixing Dr Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Jingle Bells vocals Joe Loveday. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

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

Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits.
Episode three: How to Win an Argument

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology

PsychCrunch Banner April 16

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.

Back in the saddle!

The human instinct to strive is a wonderful thing. It combats another tendency we have, which is for idleness. Wanting more, to go further and to new places is what propels people up mountains, to explore, to create and innovate. But there’s a downside to this. The familiar can lose its lustre even if we’re already on top of the world. We’re sent on needless diversions, when actually the wise choice is to open our eyes and recognise what we already have.

I had the most exciting writing job in psychology. Yet after more than ten years in post, I was experiencing that pull for the new. But what other roles allow for such joyous immersion in the science of psychology? Nothing compares. And after the recent announcement that the editorship of the Research Digest is to become a full-time position, this unique role just became even more amazing.

Soon after leaving my post as Research Digest editor I was struck hard by the realisation of what I’d given up. My dalliance with start-up America wasn’t going well, and I was desperate to rewind the clock. I’ve read research on the psychology of regret and it’s always been for me a rather abstract notion; now this uncomfortable emotion was hitting me square in the stomach.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have been given the opportunity to return as editor of the Research Digest. I am sincerely sorry to those candidates who applied for the vacant role, later to find it was no longer available. I want to thank Managing Editor Jon Sutton for keeping the Research Digest alive and well during my absence, and thank you also to all those guest editors who have done such a superb job over these last few months.

Exciting times for the Research Digest – more content, new features!

These are exciting times for the Research Digest – with a full time editor, we aim to bring you more of the carefully curated, quality psychological research content you’ve come to expect. And there will also be more material by guest contributors, more special features, and other developments. Please stay tuned, and thanks for having me back!

Post written by Dr 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.