Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 April 2010 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Not really, I’ve just been ill, but that sounds less dramatic. On with the roundup!

Emailers or e-liars?

It’s more tempting to lie when you’re sending a message via email compared with using pen and paper, say psychologists at DePaul University in Chicago. They asked 48 students to split an imaginary pot of $89 by choosing the amount in the pot they would tell their partner and how much they were willing to share. Some conveyed their choice using email, while the rest wrote it down.

Nearly all of the emailers (92%) lied about the amount of money available, versus just 62% of letter writers. Participants reported they felt more justified in this deception, and also kept more of the money for themselves. Next time you’re doing a financial deal, be sure to get it in writing of the non-digital variety…

Don’t drink and drag

Everyone knows that smoking and drinking is bad for your health, but it seems that doing both at once could be even worse. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, such as two small glass of wine per day, has previously been linked to a reduced risk of stroke, but a 12-year study has found that smoking may counteract this benefit.

The study followed the drinking and smoking habits of 22,524 people in the UK. Moderate drinkers who didn’t smoke were 37% less likely to have a strike than non-drinkers, but the same wasn’t true of smokers.

Less is more when it comes to dating

Speed dating is increasingly popular these days, but it may not be the best way to find “the one”. When meeting a large number of potential partners, the brain may become overwhelmed by choice and end up resorting to surface values, instead of what’s inside.

A study published in Psychological Science found that people at speed dating events with 24 or more dates were more likely to pick a partner based on their weight or height, while those at smaller events took a deeper look, taking in into account attributes such as education and employment.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 8 April 2010 at 7:14 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Guest blog time! My fellow Imperial alumni Mia Kukathasan tells us how mice show some people may have depressive tendencies in our genes. Look out for more from Mia soon…

Scientists have genetically engineered mice with a predisposition for depression. The study aims to find out why, when faced with stressful situations, some people’s are genetically more prone to fall to depression. The mice were altered to carry a genetic change that affects serotonin transport in the brain, mimicking a change that occurs in people with the condition.

“There is a clear relationship between a short form of the serotonin transporter and a very high vulnerability to develop clinical depression when people are exposed to increasing levels of stressful life events.” says Dr. Allesandro Bartolomucci of Parma university, Italy.

Brain imaging of people with depression shows that they have greater activity in some brain areas, but the link with genetics is not as well understood. Chemical changes could be seen in these ‘knock’out’ mice in areas of the brain that regulate memory formation, emotional responses to stimuli and social interactions, such as meeting new mice. They showed physical signs of stress with changes in body temperature, body weight gain, higher levels of the ‘stress’ hormone corticosterone and lower levels of the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin.

Depression is the number one cause of ‘disability’ worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation with 120 million people affected globally. The increased risk of hormone imbalances, heart disease, digestive problems and reduced immune response faced by depressed people makes it a formidable foe for the health services. The work from this study will help to find out how this genetic change in people affects serotonin turnover in the brain. The results published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms suggest that the genetic mutation causes an exaggerated response to stress.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 February 2010 at 9:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Valentine’s love poetry brings a hot rush of blood to the cheeks

I wrote this piece for the Guardian as part of their Valentine’s Day coverage:

Steamy love poems are always popular around Valentine’s Day, but can a few lines of tender verse really make people hot under the collar? Researchers at Aberystwyth University attempted to find out earlier this week, using thermal imaging cameras to take the temperature of volunteers reading the work of Romantic poets.

The experiment is a collaboration between the arts and the sciences, led by poet Richard Marggraf Turley from the Department of English and Creative Writing and Reyer Zwiggelaar from Computer Science. They asked six volunteers from each department to silently read 12 love poems, while a slightly less amorous text about thermal imaging served as a control. As the participants pored over poems, including Bright Star by John Keats and To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell (both are reproduced in full below), thermal cameras monitored their faces for any change in temperature that could reveal their true feelings.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

A “new” formula for marriage? Not quite

A number of news outlets have run stories on a formula for finding your “Optimal Proposal Age”, based on a press release from the University of New South Wales. Far from being a new result, it’s actually a repackaging of an old mathematical puzzle known by a variety of names, including the marriage problem.

Imagine you’ve decided to search for the perfect partner by going on 100 blind dates. After each date you decide whether you want to marry the potential suitor, and if you choose not too you can never see them again. Contrived, but then this is a maths puzzle!

How do you pick your partner? If you wait until the end of all 100 dates, you’ll be stuck with whoever is on the end of the list, whether you like them or not, but if just go for the first person you like then you could be missing out on someone who is a better match. It turns out that the best strategy is to see the first 37 potentials, then pick the next one who is better than those 37. Not the most romantic approach, but at least it makes for a quirky Valentine’s Day news story I suppose.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 January 2010 at 5:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Oh dear, one week in and I’m already off schedule. Two words: food poisoning. Leftover Chinese food can be deadly! On with this week’s roundup:

Next stop, outer space

Even London natives can struggle with the complicated spiderweb that is the Tube map, but surprisingly enough it is actually intended to simplify getting about the capital. Inspired by its iconic design, Harvard scientist Samuel Arbesman developed a similar map for getting about the Milky Way:

But where is Morington Crescent?
But where is Morington Crescent?

The coloured lines correspond to an arm of the spiral galaxy, and each stop is a star or other astronomical object.

Mental time travel

You won’t be journeying to the age of the dinosaurs just yet, but psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have discovered a strange form of time travel. Apparently thinking about the past or future causes people to move backwards or forwards. The researchers suggest behaviour could be the origin of temporal metaphors such as future = forward and past = backward.

Bond. Strange Bond.

The Royal Society of Chemistry continued it’s tradition of strange PR stunts this week by announcing a search for a Sean Connery lookalike.

As if devising a new ending for the Italian Job or cooking the perfect Yorkshire pudding weren’t enough, they want to use the lookalike in a bizarre photoshoot designed to highlight the importance of British research keeping the nation healthy. No, I don’t get it either.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 December 2009 at 7:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Right, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Daily Mail: Terror in the night

Everyone likes to bash the Daily Mail, but its always nice when you can point out some good science reporting – hence the “Getting It Right” category on Just A Theory. I was pleased to read a decent account of one woman’s struggle with sleep paralysis, complete with a scientific explanation of the disorder.

I’ve actually had sleep paralysis myself, and it’s a terrifying experience. You can’t move, you can’t speak, and you feel like something is coming to get you. Although it lasts just a few seconds, it feels like an age. Thankfully when it happened to me I realised what was going on because I’d read about it previously, but those not in the know must be left extremely frightened and confused. Hopefully the Mail article will help educate them.

Tasty and informative

You can never have too many novelty periodic tables, so how about another edible interpretation of Mendeleev’s masterpiece?

See more pics at Not So Humble Pie.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 November 2009 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

A busy week has meant a pretty poor showing on Just A Theory, but hopefully a packed roundup will make up for it:

LHC a-go-go

The Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running again! As our CERN correspondent Emma mentioned last month, scientist in Geneva have been working on restarting the LHC after it had to be shut down last year. Their hard work paid off on Friday, and proton beams are now successfully colliding in the 27km-long ring of the world’s largest experiment. Now for the science!

What if the Earth had rings?

Speaking of rings, check out this short video showing how it would look if Earth had its own set, like Saturn.

At the equator they appear to be a thin line through the sky, but further north or south they make an amazing sight, lighting up the sky even at night. Anyway we can build these things and cover them in solar panels or something?

Field less players to win the World Cup

It seems that having a large squad to choose from can actually be a hindrance when it comes to top football. You might think fielding substitutions lets mangers pick the best players for every situation, but research shows that sticking with the top 11 is the key to success.

Bacteria that can detect landmines

Scientist at the University of Edinburgh have developed a strain of bacteria that glow green near explosives. By mixing them with a colourless solution, they can be sprayed from the air on to suspected landmine fields, turning the ground green if mines are detected.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 November 2009 at 7:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Necker cube

Everyone loves optical illusions, especially three dimensional ones. The Necker Cube is a classical example of an ambiguous drawing, one that the human mind can interpret in a number of ways. Artist Guido Moretti has created a 3D sculpture of the cube, and it’s pretty nifty:

But can they do copernicium?

Pets aren’t normally known for their understanding of molecular chemistry, but this team of golden retrievers are here to explain the science of atoms:

Periodic table of YUM!

I guess I’m just a sucker for novelty periodic tables. Behold. the periodic table of cupcakes:

So many to choose from...
So many to choose from...*drool*

Let’s just hope they didn’t include samples of each element in the icing…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 13 November 2009 at 9:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Behind the door? In the wardrobe? Under the bed? Many young children fear hidden monsters are coming to get them, and parents often struggle to convince them there is no such thing as the bogeyman. A study published in the journal Child Development offers some tips for showing kids that it’s safe to go to bed.

Researchers read illustrated stories to 50 children aged four, five, and seven. Each story was about a child coming across something frightning, either real or imaginary. For example, the child in the story could be confronted with a bear, or a ghost.

After the reading, the researchers then asked the participating children to predict how afraid the fictional children would be, to explain why they felt afraid, and to suggest a way to help.

One of the illustrated stories used in the research.
One of the illustrated stories used in the research.

When the creatures in the stories were real, the researchers found children wanted to actively do something. Boys mostly suggested fighting, while girls thought they should avoid the creature.

For imaginary monster, the responses were different. Younger children suggested pretending the monsters were friendly, while older kids showed the ability to remember the reality of the situation – i.e., ghost aren’t real.

These results suggest that parents should take a different approach to easing their child’s fears, depending on their age. After all, there’s nothing really lurking under the bed…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 9 November 2009 at 8:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Cut grass, warm cakes, and dog poo. A strange combination maybe, but smelling any of the three is likely to evoke a certain memory for you. Everyone has experienced a sudden recollection after sniffing a particularly distinctive odour, and now a team of Israeli scientist have worked out why.

Graduate student Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science suspected that this memory association is formed when we first encounter a smell in a particular context. That’s why cut grass might take you back to summer’s day in your youth, but not to a walk in the park last Tuesday.

To test her hypothesis, Yeshurun and her team got 16 volunteers to look at 60 objects, each accompanied wither either a pleasant or unpleasant smell. Next, an fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they looked over the images again and tried to recall the associated odour. Participants then repeated the test with different smells, before coming back a week later for another round of tests.

Yeshurun found that after one week, the participants showed a distinctive brain pattern when recalling the first odour – even if they remembered both equally. The scan revealed activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, the parts of the brain involved with memory and emotion, and allowed Yeshurun and colleagues to predict participants reactions based on the data from the first day of the experiment.

Investigating further, they repeated the entire experiment with sound instead of smell. Surprisingly, they found that the first-time association was not repeated. Commenting on her result, Yeshurun said:

“As far as we know, this phenomenon is unique to smell. Childhood olfactory memories may be special not because childhood is special, but simply because those years may be the first time we associate something with an odour.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 29 October 2009 at 8:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

Smokers looking to quit could be helped by a cigarette-crushing video game, according to a study published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that smokers placed in a virtual reality environment full of cigarettes to be destroyed showed a significant reduction in nicotine cravings.

The study took 91 regular smokers and randomly assigned them to two groups. All participants went through a 12-week anti-smoking program involving questionnaires, tests and counselling, as well as four weekly sessions with a head-mounted video game set in a medieval castle. One group was tasked with collecting virtual balls, while the others had to track down and crush cigarettes.

Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world
Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world

The results showed that the cigarette-crushers had a significant reduction in nicotine cravings compared to the ball-collectors. At the end of the 12-week treatment, 15% of the cigarette-crushers had abstained from smoking, while just 2% of the ball-collectors had managed to give up.

Virtual treatment also had a lasting effect. When interviewed six months later, only 20% of the ball-collectors said they had not smoked in the last week, but 39% of the cigarette-collectors had resisted lighting up.

The researchers suggest a number of reasons why cigarette-crushing helps keep from smoking. The act of destroying a virtual cigarette could boost a person’s confidence in their ability to give up real cigarettes, or make them want to give up more. Enjoyment in the game could also lead them to change their response towards cigarettes – presumably from “I’m dying for a smoke” to “die, cigarettes!”

Whatever the explanation, this research could lead to new anti-smoking treatments. Instead of reaching for the nicotine patches, you might end up patching your PC with some cigarette-killing software. Anyone for a game of capture the fags?

Girard, B., Turcotte, V., Bouchard, S., & Girard, B. (2009). Crushing Virtual Cigarettes Reduces Tobacco Addiction and Treatment Discontinuation CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (5), 477-483 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2009.0118

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 6:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Just A Review, Psychology

Last week saw the start of a new series of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running science documentary programme. I wasn’t particularly impressed with last year’s offering, but I decided to give the show another chance this time around.

I managed to miss the first episode thanks to a confusing BBC press release, but caught this week’s which featured the media’s go-to mathematician and not-so-recently appointed Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. He submits himself to a variety of bizarre experiments in an attempt to answer a puzzling question: how do we know who we are?

Humans are one of just nine species that pass what is known as the mirror test for self-awareness. A dot is placed on the test subject’s face and they are placed in front of a mirror. If they notice the dot, by trying to look at or touch it, they’ve recognised the reflection as themselves. Otherwise, the subject views their reflection as an entirely separate individual.

Du Sautoy sees this test in action early on in the programme, and it’s quite striking. A young baby completely ignores the dot, while a slightly older child immediatly attempts to peel it off. Is this where conciousness begins? What does conciousness even mean?

The programme doesn’t have an answer – it’s still an open question in science, of course. It’s certainly interesting watching du Sautoy exploring the limits of his conciousness though. One experiment placed him under the effect of heavy anaesthetic while in an MRI scanner, his conciousness seeming to slowly slip away as he rambled in a drunken fashion. In another, du Sautoy wears a pair of video glasses that can appear to place his sense of self behind his body – or even inside another person.

I’ll admit I’m already fairly familiar with all of these experiments from my readings in the annals of popular science, but seeing them being performed really adds to the experience. A shame then that some of the programmes editing had quite the opposite effect.

Look. I understand that putting together a science programme is a difficult task – shot after shot of talking head doesn’t make for great TV. Did we really need to see du Sautoy walking around hooked up to a Steadicam as he ponders? It made him look like a cleaned up Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.

Camera gripes aside, this episode was certainly an improvement on the last time I sat down to watch Horizon. It’s worth a watch, and I’ll be making an effort to check out a bit more in the coming weeks.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 20 October 2009 at 4:49 pm by Colin Stuart
In Psychology

Scientists have found that talking on your mobile phone can be so distracting that phone users walking across a university campus couldn’t walk in a straight line and some even failed to spot a unicycling clown.

The study, conducted by Professor Ira Hyman and published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, was split into two parts. In the first stage 196 pedestrians were tracked as they walked across the campus and of those taking a call, Hyman noted that they tended to walk:

“…more slowly, changed direction more often, were prone to weaving, and acknowledged other individuals more rarely.”

This is something I am sure most of us can relate to. Living in London it is commonplace when walking down the street to have to avoid someone on their phone weaving in and out of the busy throngs of the capital.

However, it is the second part of the study that is perhaps most noteworthy. In a further experiment the team monitored 151 individuals as they strolled across the square whilst a clown in a bright purple shirt, big shoes and red nose unicycled nearby.

Of the 24 individuals who were on mobile phones at the time, only a quarter of them recalled anything when they were asked, “did you see anything usual?” It is worth saying that, more disturbingly, only just over 50% of those not on a mobile phone noticed the presence of the clown.

When questioned only 25% of pedestrians on mobile phones could spot the unicycling clown. Credit: Slapstick Science.
When questioned only 25% of pedestrians on mobile phones could spot the unicycling clown. Credit: Slapstick Science.

Interestingly those that were most likely to remember spotting the clown were those walking in pairs (71%) suggesting it is not conversation that is distracting but the use of the phone itself.

If phones have this effect on walking this study should add to the weight of evidence suggesting that mobile phone shouldn’t be used whilst driving, as Prof Hyman himself says:

“If people experience so much difficulty performing the task of walking when on a cell phone just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety. People should not drive while talking on a cell phone.”

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 28 September 2009 at 6:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

I’ve recently been watching illusionist Derren Brown’s latest TV series, in which he uses subliminal messaging and suggestion to influence people’s actions. He’ll probably be interested to read about some recent research showing that subliminal images are most effective if they carry a negative message.

Subliminal messaging involves showing someone an image for a very short amount of time – so short that they don’t even realised they’ve seen it. Until it the practice was banned advertisers used subliminal messaging to sell their products, but it seems that positive subliminal promotion isn’t the most effective technique.

The work was carried out by Nilli Lavie and her team at UCL, and show that negative information is easier to detect subliminally than a positive message. They showed 50 participants a series of words on a computer screen in rapid succession, sometimes as quickly as a 50th of a second. Each word was either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle).

Participants were asked to identify whether the word was “emotional” (positive or negative) or neutral, and how confident they were of their choice. They found the participants were most accurate when given a negative word, even if they had no confidence in their answer.

“We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words,” said Lavie.

“Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information. We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘danger’.”

Whilst the use of subliminal messaging in advertising is strictly limited, the research could have implications for safety warnings. Drivers who are going too fast and can only see a warning sign for a fraction of a second are more likely to register “Kill your speed” than “Slow down”, suggests Lavie.

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 14 September 2009 at 8:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

In a world where anyone can edit a movie and stick it up on YouTube, can we still trust video evidence of a crime? Research from the University of Warwick suggests maybe not. By altering video footage, Kimberley Wade and colleagues were able to convince people they witnessed an event that never actually occurred.

In a study published today in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Wade’s team asked sixty university students to play a computerised gambling game. Each participant thought they were playing with another student, but they were actually paired with a member of the research team. Betting on the answers to multiple choice questions, they either took money from a shared pool for a correct answer, or returned it following a wrong answer. These were clearly marked with a green tick and a red cross.

After the game, the footage was doctored to turn a correct answers in to an incorrect one, making the research team member appear to be cheating. The participants were split in to three groups; one group were shown this doctored footage, another were told that their partner had been caught cheating on camera, and the third were simply informed about the cheater. All groups were then asked to sign a statement affirming that they had seen cheating take place.

Nearly 40% of those that watched the video agreed to sign, despite the fact they were confirming an incident that had not taken place. Another 10% signed after being asked a second time. This compares to 10% of those who were told about the film, but not shown it, and 5% who were just informed about the cheating.

The researchers conclude their paper with a warning against the potential for edited footage to result in miscarriages of justice, even outside the courtroom. Their research shows that witnesses shown fabricated evidence before a hearing could end up changing their story, and testifying about events that never happened.

Wade, K., Green, S., & Nash, R. (2009). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1607

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 1 September 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

You’ve probably noticed that things have slowed down a little bit here on Just A Theory. We’re all hard at work pumping out 10,000 words of juicy dissertation goodness, and unfortunately that doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Science doesn’t stop though, and I’ve still been collecting interesting science news and links from all over the web. Enjoy:

Weird NASA mission badges

NASA create patches for each of their missions, and sometimes they like to get a little wacky. Wired Science has a rundown of some the weirdest, including this little gem:

Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space
Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space

The “ideal” David Bowie song

Health psychologist Nick Troop has created what he calls the “ideal” David Bowie song by performing a lingustic analysis. Bowie’s back catalogue was scanned to calculate the use of positive and negative words, as well as references to different categories such as sex, religion and food. Troop then used the data to write “Team, Meet Girls; Girls, Meet Team”, which he performs here:

I admit it sounds a bit like Bowie, but I when I read the headline I was hoping for some sort of average of all of his songs – “The Man Who Sold Changes to Rebel Rebel Heroes Ziggy Stardust in Suffragette City on Mars”, perhaps. Anyway, everyone knows that this is the ideal Bowie song.

Molecular paparazzi

Researchers at IBM have created this amazing image of pentacene, a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen:

The structure is clearly visible
The structure is clearly visible

Using an atomic force microscope, they mapped the chemical bonds between the molecules atoms. The instrument works by detecting changes in vibrations as a scanning tip passes close to the molecule. This previous attempts to image molecules found that the tip was just too blunt to get a decent picture, but they realised that a single carbon monoxide atom, which doesn’t interact with the pentacene, made the perfect tip.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

We’re normally warned about the dangers of exercising too little, but it seems that too much physical activity can also be a problem. A drug which causes withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts can have the same effect in rats after excessive use of exercise wheels. Rats which exercised the most had the severest symptoms.

A study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience split rats in to an active and inactive group, and gave each group either one hour of food a day, or a round-the-clock feast. To examine their addiction to exercise, all rats were given naloxone, a medicine for heroin overdose that produces immediate withdrawal symptoms.

The active rats who ate for only one hour a day were the heaviest exercisers, and also the worst hit by withdrawal symptoms. Their behaviour mimicked a potentially fatal eating disorder called anorexia athletica, in which exercise undertaken to lose weight becomes as addictive as taking drugs. Inactive rats had little reaction to the drug, regardless of how much they ate.

It seems that exercising activates the same part of the brain as drugs. Working out releases endorphins and dopamine, giving a sense of reward. This research should not be used as an excuse for avoiding exercise though, warns lead author Robin Kanarek:

“As with food intake and other parts of life, moderation seems to be the key. Exercise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other aspects of one’s life, is a good thing with respect to both physical and mental health.”

Instead, the researchers hope their work may lead to new treatments for addiction that incorporate moderate forms of exercise. Addicts could be weaned off drugs by replacing their missing sense of reward with exercise.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 10 August 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

A woman’s choice of food is influenced by the gender of her dining companions, according to a study published in the journal Appetite. Meredith Young, a psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, lead a team observing 469 students as they ate in university cafes. She found that the more men a woman dined with, the lower her calorie consumption was.

Two women eating together consumed an average of 665 calories each, but for a male and female pair the woman opted for just over 550 calories. When women dined in larger groups without men, their calorie consumption edged higher to almost 800. Men seem to eat the same amount regardless of their dining partners; a little over 715 calories on average.

Mealtimes are often a social occasion, and the paper suggests that women may feel they need to conform to social norms when eating. Women are targeted by the diet industry to make them think smaller, healthier portions are more feminine. Eating less could be an attempt to appear more attractive to male companions. The effect is not present in men because male sex appeal is not as dependant on physical attractiveness.

Young and colleagues warn that these results may only apply to university students, who are perhaps particularly concerned about their appearance and believe eating less will make them more attractive. Further studies in other natural environments could confirm the effect. They also suggest investigating whether men eat more expensive food when with women, because male attractiveness is more strongly influenced by social status and wealth.

Young, M., Mizzau, M., Mai, N., Sirisegaram, A., & Wilson, M. (2009). Food for thought. What you eat depends on your sex and eating companions Appetite DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2009.07.021

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 8:16 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

‘Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your mother to read’. The idea behind the saying is that nothing on the internet ever dies, and could one day come back to haunt you. Unfortunately roughly 85% of the emails I send I would rather not have read by my immediate family.

Realistically a throwaway email or Facebook message never truly gets thrown away. Recent cases of information interception, specifically tabloid phone-tapping, have featured prominently in the news. It seems reasonable to assume that emails are an even easier target. You can only guess what Damian McBride would have given for those emails he sent to Derek Draper to stay private.

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a paper and an open source beta version of a piece of software that aims to change the way sensitive messages are sent over the internet. Other encryption services are available but they usually require some element of trust in a third party or some additional key which may be retrieved retrospectively.

The team in Washington have created Vanish, a piece of software which takes a body of text from an email or online message; encrypts it with a key, which never gets revealed to the user, destroys the local key copy and sends it in fragments via peer to peer sharing (such as bit torrent).

Peer to peer systems are also known as Distributed Hash Tables (DHT). The fragmented data sent is lost as the DHT’s evolve. DHT nodes carrying information cleanse themselves over time, a process known as ‘churning’.

The receiver uses the same software to convert the encryption. After 8 hours (or multiples thereof) the message then becomes purely the random encryption. The original message is rendered inaccessible by either party (or by any third party) forever. The software takes only seconds to work for normal sized emails and messages. Watch a cool demonstration video here.

The reality is that many social networking sites and ISP’s archive data for long periods of time. Some of which you may want to keep private. Sure it’s great to look back at old emails you sent and had completely forgotten about. It is fascinating to revisit the mistakes of your life which you have invariably forgotten, repeated, forgotten, repeated and forgotten again. Or is that just me? Either way there are certainly some messages which need not linger in the aether forever.

The debate about this type of technology is incredibly interesting. It seems that this type of software will benefit the Damian McBrides of this world but more worryingly the criminals and terrorists. Some may argue that ordinary, law-abiding people have nothing to fear by having all their messages stored. Something about this perspective worries me a lot.

There will, most likely, be governmental objections to this type of software. If it, or some other software, takes off and becomes ubiquitous, the culture change will be pronounced. Is it important that we can send all data privately; or should we just accept that there is no such thing as true privacy on the net? Are consequences for what you put out into cyberspace fair enough?

Should we safely assume that ‘the man’ does not care about your membership to Nipple-Tasslers Anonymous or that you got off with your boyfriend’s best mate last weekend?

One of the most popular email providers Gmail; already scans your email to offer targeted marketing based on the content of your message. This is pretty obvious to anyone reading emails, especially when your spam folder has adverts for SPAM alongside. This seems neither particularly malevolent or sophisticated.

Are the desirable interceptions and consequences of data monitoring enough for us to relinquish our everyday privacy concerns?

The internet and cloud-computing in particular, are becoming more prominent in our lives. As we give more of ourselves away publicly, it seems vital, to me, to be able to keep some things genuinely private.  We just have to make sure we find out about those hidden terror plots somehow too…

There are complex debates to be had but I think the answer can simply be summarised  like this :

7²rþpÐåhT5bfE©‡\[%ùx‹mž€ÉÐôÏ™v¢²aZeƒ#€Êȁú\sdßae×—O†eEoÂÕÃØ,‹ìÉŽsF Á^B³ þ¯Ä±°Egžˆ ¹é£ÜºÕ<ÑQ—_1qË®S±¹wÒRéÍ(+ŠÐû$Ý&iš8mfI÷ÔÅŸçÉé ™ä1‘©ÿml”VMÚ¦Yð`¿z°­R«N3*cd Eä ôó#ö÷þ>p= 1XÍÐL”jlH^5¼ˆ„JèÌFˆ tï½aP°£¡~þ¤y,«7±§zCIé( R?Îp¥?GA…è YÈ@šÚ ó$M€d…Q˜nø MÅqžø`~@펉G( G„îQÙ =Ö¤Q·,æTg}a


I’m amazed we didn’t think of it before.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 12:57 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Psychology

Why do we demolish evil houses? Could you wear a Killer’s cardigan? Would you let your wife sleep with Robert Redford? The psychologist Bruce Hood poses these questions in Supersense and offers an intriguing explanation for our answers.

The central argument of the book goes like this. Most people hold some kind of supernatural belief, ideas which defy natural laws. Hood thinks that supernatural thinking is in fact a perfectly natural mechanism which develops in childhood and often persists into adulthood, even in otherwise perfectly rational people. According to Hood, supernatural thinking is an intuitive process and is not dissimilar to common sense; hence he terms it ‘supersense’.

Hood blends together anecdotes, psychological experiments, argument, popular culture and hints of philosophy exceptionally well, making Supersense a fantastically engaging book. I read so much of it on the tube that I actually began to look forward to tube journeys, which is about as much praise as I can give.

One of the particular strengths of the book is the range of supernatural thoughts it covers. Going beyond the well-trodden ground of religion and the paranormal, Hood draws our attention to all sorts of supernatural beliefs – sentimentality, mind-body dualism, the superstitions of tennis players and the idea of transferring essences to objects like cardigans.

The science is interesting and well explained, but not too dense. The experiments about childhood thinking are intriguing and prompt the reader to examine their current beliefs in relation to their childhood beliefs. Musings about the psychological implications of disgust permeate throughout the book and keep your attention. And even though Hood is a scientist and explains a lot of science very well, you never get the feeling you are reading book about science – which for me, on the whole, is a good thing.

At times Hood labours his central argument a little too much, but he acknowledges this himself and the surrounding material more than makes up for it. I think the reason he works so hard to relate the material to it is because he strongly believes that what he calls our supersense is natural and fundamentally embedded into the way we reason, and that it is unlikely that we will ever be rid of it.

This conclusion is bad news for the likes of Richard Dawkins, but for Hood our supersense allows us justify our sacred values – our morals, our ideas about interconnectedness, our sense our self and our attachment to objects.  This is enough to make them rational and even desirable on some level.  Whether you agree with this ultimate conclusion or not Supersense makes for a highly entertaining read and makes you think. So read it.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 13 July 2009 at 9:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

You grip the nail tightly in one hand, a hammer ready to swing in the other. Lift it up – and bam! You’ve just hit own thumb and are now turning the air blue. Swearing is a common reaction to pain, and a new study published in the journal NeuroReport suggests it can actually help reduce the effect.

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University investigated the science of swearing by asking 67 volunteers to submerge their hand in a bowl of ice-cold water for a maximum of five minutes. The volunteers had to repeat the swear word of their choice until they couldn’t stand the pain. As a control, they were also asked to do the same procedure whilst repeating a word used “to describe a table”.

One person had to be removed from the study because they couldn’t think of a swear word, but the rest managed just fine. The results showed that on average, men could suffer the pain for around 45 seconds longer when swearing, whilst women managed an additional 37 seconds.

Both sexes also demonstrated a reduction on the Perceived Pain Scale, which measures how much people feel pain. This is in contrast to the scientists’ initial hypothesis that swearing would actually increase feelings of pain.

It isn’t clear why swearing has this effect, though in the paper the researchers suggest swearing could induce a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and the perception of pain. All participants registered an increase in heart rate whilst swearing, which supports this theory.

As an aside, the research has unsurprisingly been picked up by various media outlets including the BBC and Daily Mail. Both reports make reference to Rohan Byrt of the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society. Intrigued as to the nature of such an austere society, I was puzzled when a Google search showed no obvious results.

It seems that the “society” is actually nothing more then a Facebook group, and Mr Byrt is the self-appointed “Sir Saysfuckalot”. If this shoddy journalism pains you, I suggest you make use of the four-letter word of your choice.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport, 20 (12), 1056-1060 DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 1:32 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Climate Change & Environment, Psychology, Science Policy

Last night I attended a fascinating debate entitled ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’. The panel was chaired unobtrusively by the BBC’s environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and featured distinguished guests: economist Nicholas Stern, writer Tahmima Anam, historian Ramachandra Guha, and environmental scientist Debal Deb.

The format was unusual and its brevity was both its strength and its weakness but I think it was an extremely useful discussion. Each panellist initially spoke for around 5 minutes concerning the topic of land ownership and its consequences for the environment.

The hugely diverse panel led to a wide range of subjects being highlighted and after this a between-panel discussion ensued. The most optimistic panellist seemed a surprising candidate in Nicholas Stern, the economist and writer of the Stern Review into climate change.

Whenever I think deeply about climate change I struggle to be optimistic but when asked about why he holds such a perspective, Professor Stern replied ‘because I am sick of being pessimistic’. He stated that if you are hopelessly pessimistic you should ‘get a hat and write a letter of apology to your grandchildren’.

I am always cautious about these approaches to engaging people with climate change. There is a notion that doom-mongering and pessimism does result in ambivalence and plans for future apologies rather than direct action. If you do not believe that advocates of optimism are genuine, that instead they are trying to patronize, then this approach is just as unsatisfactory.

Stern does seem to be genuine with his hope, and alluded to the role of undeveloped technology as a genuine source of optimism. After the panel discussion, questions were invited from the audience. A Doctor who works for the Millennium Seedbank at Kew Gardens highlighted how many citrus trees are being planted in places where the efficiency of their water use is wildly inappropriate. There are indigenous sources of vitamin C which have much lower-impact irrigation. Rather than magical technofix solutions, these are the kind of practical actionable things that must be rectified now, and I believe this is what Professor Stern was angling toward.

Debal Deb articulated his frustration with the consumerist ethic and, aside from Professor Stern’s book plug toward the end of the debate, everyone seemed to agree. At one point an audience member questioned Stern’s reluctance to call for the end of capitalism. Earlier Stern had argued that growth will have to continue for 60 to 70 years. ‘To tell all nations with growth aspirations, which is virtually all of us, to stop growth now is the most impractical politics of all.’ Discussion of poverty, which had been so high on the agenda, highlighted the massive need for growth in huge parts of the world.

A gentleman at the back of the audience seemed frustrated that the panel where not making enough suggestions for what we should do. Tahmima Anam suggested that it is not for the panel to make these decisions and that the front line workers are the future solution-providers. She suggested that decentralised governance is extremely important, and the role of the state recurred frequently through the debate.

I was fascinated to hear Stern’s thoughts but Ramachandra Guha was probably my favourite contributor. He argued that the idea of capitalism vs communism or conservatism vs socialism are anachronistic dichotomies that will not navigate us through these major challenges. He invoked Kolakowski’s call for us to be conservative liberal socialists, borrowing appropriate ideas from each strand. Post duck-housegate we look at the public desire for ‘new politics’ and this gives me hope that partnership through shared ideals is the way forward.

Former American Defence Secretary and later President of World Bank Robert McNamara died this week and a quote of his reminds me of the importance of collaboration: ‘I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade nations with similar values, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.’

Tahmima Anam argued that the solutions must be as big as the problems and here her argument for decentralisation becomes slightly weaker. I think that everyone can agree that centralised governments are responsible for much of what has happened but these governments are made up of individuals and they chased the growth aspirations of individuals too. If you think that governments are a big part of the problem then I fail to see how they cannot be a big part of the solution.

Whether they will arrive at that solution remains to be seen. Professor Stern highlighted how water is being drilled like oil which is massively disturbing the surrounding water table and no-one has ownership of this water, if you can get it, it is yours. Tahmima Anam described how Bangladeshis are creating floating gardens to cope with the influx of saltwater onto their land, and that they must spend all day searching for freshwater.

Water shortage is the next big global crisis and who owns this water was a question that was never going to be addressed in 90 minutes but these types of debates are important. A 5 hour long debate achieving equally few solutions would only serve to turn people off more.

Succinct and frequent debates with such high calibre guests will hopefully put these issues on the map, and stop people from giving up and buying hats when their voices, interest, support and dissent are badly needed.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 4:48 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Psychology

Researchers at the University of Michigan published a novel study this week, called ‘Social Influence and the Diffusion of User Created Content’ looking at how social influence works through social networking. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and looked to take advantage of the new cyber trail that our online transactions leave behind.

They looked at Second Life, the virtual-world social network which has the capacity for users to share and adopt each others gestures and behaviours. The researchers looked only at gestures (otherwise known as assets) which are simple to produce, freely available and widely distributed. These assets may include dance moves, laughs and claps that the virtual you can perform. Overall they studied data concerning 100,229 users and 106,499 assets, between September 2008 and January 2009.

It is possible for users to buy such assets from online stores but the researchers found that 48% of assets transferred were distributed between ’friends’. Friends are described as ‘users with a reciprocated permission to see each others online status’, though I don’t think this definition of friendship will make it into any greetings cards.

It almost goes without saying that everyone should be extremely cautious about extrapolating this study but there is something undeniably fascinating about the level of detail that the researchers could investigate. They had precise information about when and where each asset was transferred; something almost impossible to pin down in the real world.

The researchers suggest that early adopters of assets are not the same as influencers – people responsible for passing on a lot of assets. They also report that the number of ’friends’ one has is not a significant predictor of adoption influence. Now these are not revolutionary findings and are fairly intuitive but what intrigues me is how we, and marketing strategists, look at the distribution of behaviours.

On your homepage, Facebook details the things your friends are signing up to and becoming fans of. This seems to be a reaction to this type of research and something that will evolve and increase as the data trail becomes more explicit. To understand further how a cat puppet playing a keyboard becomes an internet sensation or a phrase becomes a meme, this type of social research is important.

The frustration implicit in translating online research to the ‘real world’ is placated by our ability to see unprecedented details about how these things are transferred. The researchers in this paper sometimes described the distribution of behaviours as analogous to the spread of a virus and whilst this is not something anyone will be rushing to cure, studying it will shape the viral pathways of the future.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 June 2009 at 5:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Psychology

Much of the scientific research in to the effects of video games on players’ behaviour concludes that violent games promote aggression. Gamers (including myself) often dismiss these findings, resulting as they nearly always do from poorly designed studies. One infamous experiment used the length of time a person held an air horn down before and after gaming as a measure of aggression – nonsense.

I doubt gamers would say the same of this latest piece of research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which shows that playing “prosocial” games can encourage people to be more helpful and considerate to others. Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University psychologist, was lead author:

“Dozens of studies have documented a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behaviours,

“But this is one of the first that has documented the positive effects of playing prosocial games.”

The paper presents the findings of three separate studies conducted using different scientific methods and an different countries. This, says the authors, is the best way to establish the true effect of video games on behaviour.

One study asked young teenagers in Singapore to list their favourite games as well as filling out behavioural surveys. Those who played violent games were more likely to hurt others, but players of prosocial games were more likely to help others. Whilst this is useful data, you can’t prove a causal link with this kind of research – did the games make people behave this way, or did their behaviour make them choose certain games?

The second study comes closer to an answer. Nearly 2,000 Japanese children aged 10 to 16 completed two surveys, three to four months apart. Those who increased their exposure to prosocial games became more helpful when questioned later.

Finally, a group of US college students were assigned to play a prosocial, violent or neutral game. They then had to assign puzzles of varying difficulty levels to a partner, who stood to win $10 if they could complete them all. Those who played prosocial games were more likely to assign easy puzzles, whilst hard puzzles were the choice of the violent game players.

I found reading this research very interesting, and it challenged my opinions. The scientists involved weren’t on a “games are evil” crusade, and instead conducted a series of well designed studies that show video games can have both positive and negative effects on players’ behaviour.

It’s easy for me to dismiss those who would attack video games as nothing more than murder-training simulations. It’s harder to do so when they claim positive effects. As the paper concludes: “Video games are not inherently good or bad, just as any tool is not inherently good or bad.” In future, whether I’m on a one man crime spree in Grand Theft Auto, or spring-cleaning a house in Chibi Robo, I’ll be sure to think about the effect games can have.

Gentile, D., Anderson, C., Yukawa, S., Ihori, N., Saleem, M., Lim Kam Ming, ., Shibuya, A., Liau, A., Khoo, A., Bushman, B., Rowell Huesmann, L., & Sakamoto, A. (2009). The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (6), 752-763 DOI: 10.1177/0146167209333045

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10:39 am by Jessica Bland
In Health & Medicine, Musings, Psychology

New Scientist this week reported the findings of an Australian study, which shows that the figure most men find attractive corresponds to the average UK size 14.

Looking at outline sketches of  different female torsos,  a 100 students from New South Wales were asked which they were most attracted to. Their preference for the fuller figure surprised researchers. Previous research  showed  that a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio is most attractive irrespective of the woman’s size.

This is brilliant. I can eat as many ice creams as I like this summer, and I will only become more rather than less attractive. My stomach flab will start to roll; my thighs will wobble in places where they don’t normally have any jelly. But, apparently, none of that will matter to the boys.

Or will it. Put that body in skinny jeans and white t-shirt and it might not have scored so highly. Put it in a leopard print bikini, a tight short skirt or a strapless dress and it would probably do even worse.

Fashion is not, on the whole, created for the fuller figure. Whilst the naked silhouette of a size 14 might be more attractive, the same body but dressed often suffers from unflattering and uncomfortable lines.

So I can only roll my eyes when The Daily Mail report on this study is accompanied by pictures of curvier celebrities. There is a giant leap between what is most attractive in line drawing and what looks better in skin tight leather.

And mankind, or at least one of them, is inclined to agree. I find myself making the same point as Tom Sykes – Daily Mail journalist and resident irritant. Instead of arguing about why we don’t see size fourteen on the catwalk, he goes for the Playboy angle. Size fourteen girls aren’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the Playboy centrefold because that’s what sells.

I don’t really agree with that: couldn’t the fantasy be constructed by the magazines rather than the other way round? Isn’t a young boy who buys Playboy being influenced by those images of glamour more than the images are pandering to his tastes?

Perhaps. But that’s not the point here.

What is interesting is that both Tom and myself  looked to ways to belittle the research. Before someone showed me his comments, I had already written that it was “a 100 students from New South Wales” that were surveyed and that only line drawings were used. He went a little further:

What it actually shows is that the 100 male students surveyed at the University of New South Wales are pathetic wimps, desperate for a quiet life and terrified of offending anyone.

But the sentiment is the same. The research’s results didn’t fit with the way we see things. And so we tried to find holes in it.

I can’t imagine Ronaldo making me his next trophy. But his and Paris Hilton’s romp in LA last week was no surprise. That’s how the world works. At least, that’s how the world I live in works.  And it’s a little painful to realise that even I am willing to dismiss science if it doesn’t fit.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 June 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Tweeters aren’t psychic

Earlier this month I reported on Richard Wiseman’s Twitter experiment which hoped to use the social networking site to study psychic ability. Now the results are in, and you don’t need to be able to see the future to predict them.

The experiment consisted of Wiseman going to a location each day, then asking people to Tweet their impressions of where he was. They would then select from five pictures of possible locations. In all four trials, the majority voted for an incorrect location. Even those who declared they had some form of psychic ability with high confidence scored zero. Sorry guys, but you’re not special.

Who Pooped?

A strange question yes, but one with an important answer. Scientists are able to determine the nature of an animal from their fecal matter alone, and now you can too in a game brought to you by the Minnesota Zoo. I guessed all three correctly, so perhaps there is a new career waiting for me.

Ten icons of science – but which is the best?

To celebrate its centenary, the Science Museum have selected 10 objects from their collection that changed the future. From the steam engine to penicillin, each invention or discovery has a huge influence on our lives today, but which one gets your vote? I think I’ll have to go for the Pilot ACE Computer – the first multi-tasking computer. So much of the modern world revolves around computers, and most importantly of all, you wouldn’t be reading Just A Theory without one!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 8:38 am by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Psychology, Science Policy

I wrote the following for Felix newspaper at Imperial College. I was interested in the US definition of torture. The story has become more relevant this week with the revelations about possible Waterboarding used by the Met: an interesting case of copycat tactics which shows that the US attitudes can have repercussions well outside their national borders. The news on Wednesday adds force to Shue’s comment that by not changing the US definition of torture, Obama has not done enough to prevent another Guantanamo…


We have a right not to be tortured. It is a basic human right – one that stretches across borders and cultures to societies that share few other values. The condemnation of torture is a constant where many other things are not.

But what do we mean by torture: forcing prisoners to stand for hours at a time? Playing them the same song over and over for three days? Recreating the feeling of drowning? Under international law, none of these are. They are mentally, but not physically abusive.   And torture is defined as physical abuse.

The public debate following Obama’s release of the details of CIA interrogations in Guantanamo has centred round whether or not these mentally abusive techniques are torturous enough to make them illegal. And new research published last week in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry adds to the mounting evidence that they are, or at least that they should be.

Torture victims from former Yugoslavia countries and Turkey rated the stressfulness of their overall torture experience. Those that experienced high levels of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), such as forced stress positions or waterboarding, rated their overall torture experience as more stressful than those who suffered physical torture. CIDT victims also showed higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a widely held misconception of torture,” said Dr. Metin Basoglu, author of the study. “It is not just something that happens in the course of the interrogation process. It incorporates all of the other circumstances in which these events occur.”

Basoglu identifies 46 different contextual factors and it was the stress these caused that participants were asked to rate. “Think of it from the perspective of the person. They perceive a wide range of stressors, even when these stressors are not intentionally inflicted upon the person for torture purposes.”

It is not just that context is important. It is more important than the amount of physical pain. There is no clear correlation between increased physical pain and overall stress. But the correlation between CIDT and overall stress implies that psychological context is influential.

Therefore, Basoglu argues, the definition of torture used in International law should be modified. “It would be based on four parameters” Intent, purpose and removal of control are all widely-accepted criteria for torture. But Basoglu adds a fourth criterion: “multiple stressors must be present.” So, both combinations of physical events and psychologically stressful situations would constitute torture under this definition.

Others argue this kind of international redefinition is impractical and unnecessary. “Changing international law is not a relevant solution requires a lot of energy and negotiations. And it would take a long time to go through,” said Professor Henry Shue, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of an influential writer on torture. Instead, he believes that what needs to be changed is the US legal definition of torture.

“Under the UN Convention law both torture and what Basoglu calls CIDT are illegal. So the distinction between them does not much matter. But when the US ratified the convention in 1988, Reagan interpreted the convention as only applying to physical abuse and psychological conditions arising from physical abuse.” This meaning is the one that was incorporated into US law in 2006 in the Military Commissions Act.

Shue emphasised that “this is not something that started with Richard Cheney and George Bush”. But under the recent Bush administration it became law. And despite publishing torture memos detailing interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo, Obama has done nothing to reverse the distinction between the UN convention and US law.

“I am disappointed with Obama’s response on this issue. He has said he wishes to abolish torture, but has not addressed the definition of torture,” Shue said. He explained that it still leaves open the possibility of future Guantanamo like interrogations.

In the face of research like Basolgu’s, it is difficult to see how America can keep using the narrow Reagan definition. Redefining torture might seem like a pedantic effort in the case of international law. But in the US, we have already witnessed the horrifying consequences of leaving a gap between what is torturous and what is law. Let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t let this linger – that they don’t let it become their first mistake.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 8 June 2009 at 11:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

If there is one thing which I’ve learned from watching films, it’s that in the future robots are going to cause a lot of trouble for human beings. Once they become advanced enough they will join together to kill us, enslave us or perhaps just keep us in containers to be used as a power source. Terminator Salvation, released last week, tells the story of how human beings are fighting against the machines for their survival even in 2018.

Can’t we just work together and get along? Well, maybe we can. Researchers on the JAST (Joint-Action Science and Technology) project are looking into ways to build robots which can anticipate human action, allowing them to collaborate with human beings on simple tasks.

The JAST team is multidisciplinary, bringing together scientists from robotics, psychology and the cognitive sciences. In order to make human-robot interactions more natural the team first examined how humans collaborate together, in particular how we observe each other when working together on an activity.

When we watch someone doing a task our brains activate mirror neurons to map the activity. This allows us to work out what is going on and notice when someone makes a mistake. The JAST team have programmed their robot to use a similar observation based system, allowing it to compare a person’s action to the task at hand.

The net result is that the JAST robot does not just learn how to do a particular task, but rather it learns how to work with a human being to accomplish it. For example, it can distinguish between different tools and different ways in which their human partner can hold it for different functions.

This looks like a step towards improved human –robot relations. Maybe we will never need John Connor for our salvation, but I still can’t shake of the feeling that robots like these are just trying to lure is into a false sense of security…

You can see a video of the robot on the ICT results website. It doesn’t look as cool or sophisticated as most movie robots, but I do like its orange top.

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 8 June 2009 at 8:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

As any hardcore gamer will tell you, sometimes the lure of “just one more level” proves too much. It’s only when the sun begins to rise that you realise perhaps you’ve been playing a little too long. Is the occasional late night something to worry about though?

Research presented today at SLEEP 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, suggests that it might be. Amanda Woolems of the University of Arkansas found that “excessive” gamers sleep less than casual gamers. There was a positive correlation between hours played and sleepiness as rated by the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, and participants who reported that gaming interfered with their sleep slept 1.6 hours a night less than other gamers. Those claiming to be addicted to gaming also slept one hour less on weekdays.

The study surveyed 137 students, the majority (86) of which were women. Just under 11% said that gaming interfered with their sleep, whilst close to 13% admitted a gaming addiction.

Fairly conclusive you might think, but I’ve got one problem with this research: the definition of “excessive” gaming. Participants who spent more than seven hours a week using the internet and playing games fell under this definition. To my mind, this isn’t excessive, it’s normal – especially considering the mean age of the participants was 22. I’d be very surprised if any of them spent less than seven hours a week on the internet, let alone gaming. But then why internet use even being included, if the study is looking at gaming?

Unfortunately, details are scare because this is research being presented at a conference rather than published. It also likely hasn’t undergone peer-review yet. Whilst the definition of excessive shouldn’t influence the results too much, it does call in to question the other factors measured in this research and how they were defined. Until I see anything more conclusive, I won’t worry about the occasional all-nighter.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 June 2009 at 1:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and I’m still not entirely sure what the point of it is and what you can do with it. Well, starting tomorrow we can add one more use for Twitter to the list: science.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman, in conjunction with New Scientist, plans to conduct the first scientific experiment on Twitter. Wiseman is a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, and specialises in studying possible psychic abilities. He plans to harness the power of the Twitter crowd to investigate remote viewing, the supposed ability of psychics to identify distant locations.

Every day this week at 3pm, he will travel to a randomly selected location and then ask everyone on Twitter to give him their thoughts on where he is. Thirty minutes later, he will follow up with another Tweet showing five photos – one of the real location, and four decoys. Participants will then vote for the photo they believe to be genuine.

Today’s experiment, taking place in just over an hour, is just a test run to make sure the system works, so Wiseman will only be counting data from the rest of the week. If you’d like to participate, simply follow him on Twitter. Word of warning, he has a rather unusual background image on his Twitter page!

But is it actually worth you while to do so? Is Twitter a suitable tool for this type of experiment? It all comes down to statistics. For each location, participants have a one in five chance of choosing the correct photo simply by random chance. If some form of psychic powers truly do exist, we would expect a higher proportion of correct guesses.

The odds are stacked against you with each subsequent test however. Whilst you may have a one in five chance of getting one location right, only one in 625 participants will correctly guess all four. Wiseman hopes that 10,000 people will answer his Twitter call. A quick calculation tells us that we can expect just 16 Twitterers to score four out of four. If the results are significantly higher than this, it suggests something odd is going on – though not necessarily psychic powers!

So Twitter really is a good way of conducting this experiment. For very little cost, Wiseman can find the large numbers of people he needs to make his study work. There are problems – what if people simply re-Tweet what they view as likely guess – so I’m not sure we’re going to get any amazing results out of this trial, but I look forward to taking part.

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4 Comments » Posted on Friday 29 May 2009 at 3:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

It’s Friday, so many of you will probably be off to the pub this evening to wind down after a hard week’s work. As you sip your frosty pint on this warm spring evening, you might want to take note of how you hold the glass. According to new research by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson, this small indicator can reveal much about your personality.

Only it can’t, because it’s a load of bollocks commissioned by the Walkabout bar chain to get them a bunch of free advertising. Dr Wilson, of King’s College, London, drew his conclusions by observing 500 patrons in bars – no doubt Walkabout owned – last month.

Splitting drinkers in to eight distinct groups by, I dunno, pulling them out of thin air, Dr Wilson tells us how we may be inadvertently broadcasting our unconscious intentions every time we take a swig:

“The simple act of holding a drink displays a lot more about us than we realise – or might want to divulge.

“When you’re in a crowded bar, often all you have to go on is body language.

“To a large extent, it’s an unconscious thing and just reflects the person you are and the type of social relationships you have.

“The next time you’re in a bar, it might be worth thinking about what you’re saying to the people around you, just by the way you’re holding your glass.”

If you really care about the categories, check out the links above for full details. They include The Flirt, “usually a woman, who holds her glass with dainty, splayed fingers and uses it in a provocative way,” and The Browbeater, “usually male, he prefers large glasses, or bottles, which he uses as symbolic weapons, firmly grasped, and gesticulating in a threatening, “in the face” kind of way.”

Dr Wilson seems to have forgotten a ninth category, The Bullshitter. This type of drinker makes up “science” as they quickly down their beverage before laughing all the way to the bank.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 1:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Psychology

A paper in this week’s Science describing research in to parts of the brain related to self-control reports that two regions come into play when making such decisions.

The research team offered participants a variety of foods, and asked them to rate the food for taste and health benefits. These ratings were used to pick an “index food” for each person, with average taste and healthiness. Participants were then asked to pick between eating this index food or another of their choice.

Activity in a region of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has previously been shown to relate to value-based decision, such as what food to eat. If activity goes down when choosing a food item, the person is likely to say no, whilst if it goes up they probably want to eat it.

This study found that in people with good self-control – those able to pick healthy food over tasty – another brain region comes in to play. Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) increases when exercising self-control, influencing the vmPFC to incorporate health benefits into decision making.

That’s the science. But it’s not quite how it was reported by The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun. All three papers ran stories about the “angel” and “devil” parts of the brain, no doubt to invoke the classic image of the sort on the left.

It’s a nice concept, but I find it strange that all three papers that covered the story used the same angle. Where did it come from? My first assumption was an enterprising press officer had come up with the analogy to help get the story printed, but the press release shows no sign. I haven’t read the original paper (stupid access problems as always) but I’m assuming such an embellished metaphor doesn’t feature, as such language is typically frowned upon in journals.

It could be that all three reporters just happened to invent the analogy independently. I’m pretty sure however that they all come from one source. Contrast the phrasing in these two passages from The Telegraph and The Daily Mail respectively:

Participants with strong self control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods. Those whose “angels” did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

Participants with strong self-control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods, the journal Science reports.

But those whose ‘angels’ did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

I guess Science could have sent their own press release to the newspapers, but the story isn’t highlighted on their website. If Science doesn’t view it as important enough to pick out on their own, why would they go to the trouble of getting the mainstream media to?

I’m not suggesting there is some vast media conspiracy going on here, I just find it interesting to figure out the way in which our news is constructed. Anyone else got an idea for the origin of the devil/angel take on this research?

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 28 April 2009 at 10:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Nearly over! Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Tesla coil art

Who doesn’t love Tesla coils, the high voltage lightning generators that are fun for all the family? An Australian named Peter Terren is certainly a fan, and has used them to create some rather striking images:

It tickles.
It tickles.

Can you appreciate the gravity of the situation?

If Tesla coils aren’t you thing, how about gravity waves? Not be confused with gravitational waves which are fluctuations in spacetime that have yet to be directly detected, gravity waves occur when two fluids meet. I remember studying them on a fluid mechanics course, but they were never as cool as this:

Confusingly, the “fluid” in fluid mechanics doesn’t refer to just liquids, but can also include gases. Here the gravity wave occurs when clouds meet the air.

Staying up late better than getting up early

Whilst revising for these exams I’ve been attempting to get up early in order to get a lot of work done, but perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong. A study by the University of Liege in Belgium has found that night owls concentrate better than earlier risers

Splitting participants into two groups, one which stayed up late whilst the others went to bed, the researchers found that after 10 hours of being awake the early group showed reduced brain activity in areas linked to attention. They were also sleepier and slower to perform tasks. Sounds like an excuse for a late night!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 3:22 pm by Seth Bell
In Musings, Psychology

Are you living in fear? According to In the Face of Fear (a title worthy of a Hollywood Blockbuster), a survey of 2246 British adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, we are more fearful than we used to be. The results suggest that about 77% of us think the world is a more frightening place than it was ten years ago. When asked why people are more afraid, 63% of people thought that the current economic situation is partly to blame whilst 60% think terrorism is one of the factors which contribute to it. Also, 60% of people think the media frightens people.

It’s difficult to accurately evaluate how ‘generally afraid’ we are and why (and even harder to judge why other people are afraid), so these results are certainly questionable. However, at the very least they do show us that people think we are more afraid, so perhaps the findings in themselves are a manifestation of our collective fear. Or perhaps I’ve been revising too much philosophy. In any case, it’s inspired me to pose the following question: can science help save us from fear?

Well, the rector of Imperial College Professor Roy Anderson thinks that science can certainly help with our economic troubles. Last week he criticised the Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, for cautioning against the proposed one billion pound science-spending package, saying:

“I can understand his caution, however I’d still argue with him that in essence how are we going to position the UK economy coming out of the recession? I’d argue that science and technology is one of our few options and it’s a good time to provide that stimulus.” 

The proposed spending increase is part of an overall stimulus package which the government is considering. Professor Anderson believes that science is part of the solution to the credit crunch, arguing that science spending it on of the few ways we have left to kick-start the economy.

So perhaps science can help us reduce our fear in the current economic climate, but what about terrorism? Well maybe it has a role here as well. Last week the BBC reported that MI5 is recruiting a chief scientific adviser, whose role will apparently involve work on counter-terrorism as well as offering scientific advice to agents in the field. Sounds like a very cool job to me, offering a chance for science and scientists to enter the frontline on the ‘war on terror’.  So it seems science have a part to play in reducing our fear of terrorism as far MI5 are concerned.

So that’s a start. Can science help stop the media frightening people? Well, science journalists are part of the media so the fewer stories about particle accelerators ending the world the better. In addition, science news may help reduce our fear by providing us with distracting fun stories – like the news that red pandas like artificial sweeteners! Not a finding with immediate relevance, but it makes me forget my troubles. I wonder how long until Coca Cola use this finding as a marketing strategy for Diet Coke…

5 Comments » Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 11:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Researchers at DePauw University in Indiana have shown that the strength of your smile in childhood photographs is an accurate predictor of divorce. In a pair of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, they found that those with the brightest smiles were less likely to get divorced in later life.

Building on earlier research, the team first asked 493 university graduates to take part in their study. Participants were asked if they were currently in a committed relationship, if they ever had been in a committed relationship, and if they had ever been divorced. In addition to the questionnaire, researchers examined the participants yearbook photos and graded their smiles according to the Facival Action Coding System (FACS), which rates the movement of muscles in forming physical expressions of emotions, such as smiles. They found that those participants who scored a low “smile intensity” according to the system were most likely to be divorced.

To corroborate this evidence, the team conducted another study of 31 people from the wider population, not just university alumni. These participants were asked to send in up to eight photographs of themselves aged between 5 and 22. Any photos were allowed, including school photos, wedding photos, and photos take with their families. As an incentive, they were offered a small gift card for taking part. The FACS analysis showed a similar result to the first study, indicating that even very young childhood photographs could be an indicator of future divorce.

How exactly does this mechanism work then? The researchers admit they don’t know, but offer several hypotheses. It could be that those who smile in photographs have more stable personalities, which produces a stable relationship, or perhaps those with more positive emotionality seek out similar people for happier marriages. It might just be that people who smile in photographs smile more generally, and are better at communicating their emotions.

Whatever the reason, it seems that a childhood smile can definitely be used to predict divorce. The paper calls for more research to examine this further, and perhaps find the underlying process that control the relationship between smiling and divorce.

Hertenstein, M., Hansel, C., Butts, A., & Hile, S. (2009). Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6

Comments Off Posted on Friday 3 April 2009 at 7:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

There have certainly been some strange stories coming out of the 2009 British Psychological Society Annual Conference, which ended today. The conference, held in Brighton, has been pumping out press releases full of quirky stories which have popped up all over the mainstream media. Let’s have a look at a few.

Hot chocolate helps with maths

Cocoa flavanols, chemicals found in chocolate, have been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, and eating the cocoa plant has also lead to improved mental performance. To see if the drink could have the same effect, Crystal Haskell of Northumbria University got 30 adults to drink hot cocoa containing different levels of the chemical on different days.

Participants consumed a drink containing 520 mg of cocoa flavanols, 993 mg of cocoa flavanols or a control containing none. On the days that the drinks contained cocoa flavanols, the found it easy to complete mental tasks such as counting backwards from 999 in threes.

Dog owners really do look like their pets

This study from Charis Hunter and Dr Lance Workman at Bath Spa University asked 70 non-dog owners to match photos of 41 dog lovers to one of three breeds – labrador, poodle or Staffordshire bull terrier. According to The Telegraph (why this information isn’t in the press release, I don’t know), they were correct between 50 and 60% of the time.

Random chance would suggest a success rate of only 33%. Dr Workman attributes the matches to physical stereotypes, since when they rested the dog owners’ personalities they found no link between any particular personality traits or dog breeds.

Something about this just doesn’t sit right with me. Are people really choosing their dogs, whether consciously or unconsciously, because they look like them? Unfortunately there’s no paper for me to read yet because the announcement was made at a conference, but I’ll be on the look out for one in the future.

Growing up with a sister makes you happier

Having at least one sister in the family when growing up leads to a more balanced and happier life, according to Liz Wright of De Montfort University and Prof. Tony Cassidy of University of Ulster.

In a survey of 571 people aged 17 to 25, they found that those with at least one sister scored highest in tests for psychological well-being. Professor Cassidy said:

“Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families. However, brothers seemed to have the alternative effect.”

I’m also troubled by this research. It seems to be saying that I’ll be happier because I have sister who encouraged a nicer home life, and yet at the same time she will be less happy because of my presence. Given that we both grew up in the same house, how can that possibly be correct? Again, I’m hoping for a future paper to clarify.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 27 February 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Psychology

Well, I think so anyway. A large part of my three years of maths at Bristol were spent learning how to be an inefficient photocopier, as a one hour lecture often produced as many as eight sides of A4 notes. I’d often feel that lecturing really wasn’t the best way of learning, with sometimes just five minutes out of 60 resulting in something actually useful.

As such, I was quite interested to read a report New Scientist that recent psychological research supports my idea. A paper published in the journal Computers & Education suggests that students who receive a podcast of a lecture learn better than those who actually turn up in person.

Psychology students participating in the study were split into two groups. The first attended a lecture on perception, and were given a copy of the PowerPoint slides used during the lecture. They were told the purpose of the study was to examine the use of these slides, and whether they would aid note-taking and later studying. As an incentive to do well in an exam on the material, the student with the highest score would be given a $15 iTunes card.

The other group were told the experiment was investigating the use of technology by students, and given a podcast instead of attending the lecture. They were also encouraged with the reward of an iTunes gift card. The podcast was recorded with software that syncs the audio to PowerPoint slides, thus providing a reasonable facsimile of the lecture experience.

When it came to the exam, the difference between the two groups was substitutional. Podcast listeners scored an average of 71.24%, whilst those who attended the lecture achieved only an average 62.47%. The authors of the study found this result surprising, given that we normally assume attending lectures leads to higher results!

The benefits of the podcast appear to only apply to those students who also took notes whilst listening however. Note-takers on average scored higher on the exam with 76.23%, but those who just listened showed similar results to the lecture group, with 62.08%.

The authors admit that these results were generally lower than they would expect from their classes, and cited lack of motivation as a possible explanation – the exam didn’t really count, other than for extra credit. This applies to everyone in the study however, so motivation alone cannot account for the results.

Dana McKinney, the psychologist who lead the study, does not think that podcasts should completely replace lectures, but believes that students who have “never known a time before cell phones and personal computers” could use additional ways of learning.

“I do think it’s a tool. I think that these kids are programmed differently than kids 20 years ago,” she says.

Personally, I agree. It’s not entirely comparable, but in the module on radio that I am taking at the moment, the lecturer provides us with audio to listen to before the next week’s class. Rather than wasting time listening in the lesson, we can put it to good use with interesting discussion. Bring on the podcasts!

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 25 February 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

As you read this blog post, your brain is interpreting the squiggles on the screen in to words that form a sentence you can understand. Equally, when in conversation with another person, your ears gather the sound waves and send them off to your brain for processing. Just how is this achieved though? A study from The Netherlands suggests that we try to anticipate the end of sentence before we’ve heard it, in order to arrive at the full meaning as early as possible.

Jos Van Berkum, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, use event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate. An ERP is a measure of the brain’s electrical response to stimulus, such as the arrival of a word or sound from the ear, and tracking these measures in the brains of participants resulted in some interesting discoveries.

In one experiment participants were told one of two versions of the same story about a lecturer and a professor being summoned to the faculty dean. The lecturer is guilty of plagiarism, whilst the professor has faked research data. In one version of the story the two cheating academics are referred to in an ambiguous manner – e.g. “the two lecturers”, rather than the lecturer and professor – and the potential confusion that this entails resulted in a change in ERP reading. Listeners had to work harder to figure out what was going on.

A second test used the same story, but to investigate a different effect. The time, the dean tells the lecturer that there is ample reason to sack/promote him. Those who heard the “promote” version showed a spike in the ERP known as an N400 effect, because it peaks roughly 400 milliseconds after the word is spoken. This effect seems to reflect something about language comprehension – the word “promote” is unexpected, given the lecturer’s conduct!

It seems that the brain is constantly working out what the next word in a sentence could be, using heuristics and a wide variety of information sources. If the predicted word and the actual word jar, the N400 spike shows that the brain readjusts.

Van Berkum suggests that further research in this area is required, particularly in developing computer models of how meaning is constructed from words and connecting these models to neuroimaging techniques such as ERPs. Without new tools, he says, our understanding of the brain’s interpretation of language “won’t get much further”.

Jos J.A. Van Berkum (2008). Understanding Sentences in Context: What Brain Waves Can Tell Us Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (6), 376-380 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00609.x

Comments Off Posted on Friday 23 January 2009 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Video game players are not motivated by violence, according to a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Rather, gamers enjoy mastering a challenging situation, rather than shooting everything that moves.

The researchers found that for many players, gory graphics actually reduced their enjoyment of a game, leading them to suggest that game developers should be aware that “blood does not help the bottom line”. Lead author of the study, graduate student Andrew Przybylski assessed the findings:

“For the vast majority of players, even those who regularly play and enjoy violent games, violence was not a plus,

“Violent content was only preferred by a small subgroup of people that generally report being more aggressive,”

Part of the study involved surveys of 2,670 regular gamers, who rated their favourite games based on statements like When moving through the game world, I feel as if I am actually there” and “I would buy a sequel to this game. Unsurprisingly, given the stereotypical gamer image, 89% of participants were male and between 18 and 39 years of old.

In addition, four experimental studies with more than 300 undergraduate participants examined the effects of violence by asking players to try two versions of a game; one with low-violence, the other with blood and guts. The link above shows two example videos of the games played, in this case a modification of the fantastic Half Life 2. In the high-violence version, players mow down the enemy with a shotgun, whilst the more serene version tags and teleports the target back to base.

At least, that’s what the researchers say – but from watching the video I see that the gun being used in the low-violence version is lifted straight from Half Life 2, and within the fiction of that game enemies are disintegrated into nothingness – which I personally find a bit more disturbing! I doubt this had any effect on the study, however.

I play a lot of games, of both a violent and non-violent nature, and I’d certainly agree with the result of this research. When I take someone out with a sniper rifle in Call of Duty 4, the enjoyment I gain is not due to the blood spurting out of their virtual head, but rather the knowledge that on the other side of the screen, somewhere out in the internet, someone is cursing my name for outwitting them. That, and who doesn’t love shouting “Headshot!”?

Having said that, maybe I should keep my gaming in check after research into the relationships of gamers with their friends and family reveals negative findings – much to the disappointment of undergraduate co-author Alex Jensen, who was hoping to convince his family to buy a Wii. Increased time gaming was found to be connected with the falling quality of relationships.

“It may be that young adults remove themselves from important social settings to play video games, or that people who already struggle with relationships are trying to find other ways to spend their time,” said Laura Walker, Jenson’s faculty mentor.

“My guess is that it’s some of both and becomes circular.”

In other words, people play games to escape from tough social situations, and the time gaming further separates them from those around them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Cambridge to visit my girlfriend – but maybe I’ll just boot up the Xbox first…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 January 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

What with all the reviewing I’ve been doing, I’ve let a few new stories slip by uncommented on. I’ll probably try and catch up with a big Weekly Roundup on Sunday, but today I’d like to talk about a story that got me annoyed earlier in the week. You may have seen it; apparantly where you sit on a bus reveals your personality. It wasn’t just the Daily Mail who ran the story, but it was pretty much the same everywhere.

The basics: “leading psychologist” Dr Tom Fawcett found that people who sit at the front are forward-thinkers, passengers in the middle are independent-minded, and those lurking at the back are rebels who don’t like their personal space being invaded. In total, bus-goers can be split into seven distinct personality groups.

How were these Earth-shattering results discovered? Dr Fawcett explains:

“It was carried out as an observational survey – we noted people’s body language and whether there was any interaction with other passengers, if they were sociable or withdrawn or even anti-social.”

In other words, to determine the personality of passengers Dr Fawcett didn’t conduct any interviews or tests – he merely looked at people and made judgements. Can anything scream “confirmation bias” more than this? Dr Fawcett clearly didn’t try to falsify his hypothesis by looking for, say, rebels sitting at the front of the bus. Without conducting a decent personality test, the results are worthless anyway.

If you think about, there is one major factor in determining where you sit on a bus: whether or not there is a seat free! Obviously people do have their personal preferences as to where to sit, but often they just have to take the first available seat. It doesn’t sound like Dr Fawcett took that into consideration at all.

Honestly, with stories like this, I do wish journalists would turn around to the scientists involved and say “hang on…isn’t this a load of a old rubbish?” Because it is!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Warning: This music may cause head injuries

The British Medical Journal is reporting that head banging, the favoured dance of rockers everywhere, may be bad for your health. The detrimental effects can be avoided however, by reducing the motion of the head, rocking out to lower tempo songs or on every other beat, or even resorting to neck braces.

Declan Patton and Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of New South Wales attended concerts of noted metalers including Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, in order to construct a “theoretical head banging model”. It turns out that the risk of neck injury begins at a tempo of 130 beats per minute, but the average head banging song exceeds this at 146 bpm, and could lead to headaches and dizziness. Thankfully, the authors suggest a number of remedies, including public campaigns headed by Cliff Richard and the labelling of CDs with anti-head banging warnings. Rock n’ roll.

Crackle, like a bad reception? It almost works. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pass up the post title

Were things always better in the good old days? It seems that this may not be the case, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. New research has found that negative memories could possibly fade faster than positive ones, as a defence mechanism against getting old.

Scientists at Duke University showed a series of 30 photographs to two groups of adults, one with an average age of 70, another with an average age of 24. Some were fairly mundane whilst others depicted negative images such as acts of violence. It was found that the older group could remember fewer negative images than the younger group – perhaps explaining their rosier outlook on the past.

Still waiting for a comment from the bear in the woods

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Galileo for his work in demonstrating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and in fact revolves around the Sun. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with you nowadays, but back in 1633 Galileo was branded a heretic and forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Pope was speaking at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations with a telescope. He said that understanding the laws of nature could stimulate an appreciation of God’s work.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 18 December 2008 at 2:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Oh all right then, a better sense of taste. This is just one of many revelations emerging from a Danish study which also found that one in three schoolchildren prefer soft drinks which are not sweet, and 70% of them like fish. Ok, it’s hardly world-changing science, but I’m more interested in the way the results were collected. The study was a joint effort between Danish Science Communication, The Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at University of Copenhagen, and 8,900 Danish schoolchildren.

Rather than just being willing volunteers for the study, the kids were active participants in the research, as part of the Danish natural science festival. Schools were sent kits of taster samples and instructions on how to conduct experiments, the goal of which were to measure the ability of children to identify sweet and sour tastes of various concentrations in order to establish which they prefer and how many tastebuds they have.

Bodil Allesen-Holm, was head of the project and is in charge of the Sensory Laboratory at the Department of Food Science at LIFE. He was particularly impressed with the way the children carried out their investigations:

“What is most surprising is that the results are so clear and of such a high quality,

“The trends are very clear in all the answers from the many primary and secondary schools; the pupils and teachers have been very thorough and accurate.”

As for the results themselves it seems that although boys and girls have roughly the same number of taste buds, the girls are better at recognising tastes, with boys requiring an average of around 10% more sourness and 20% more sweetness to detect the taste. The researchers suggest that the food interest should take these findings into account, and develop more varied foods in order to accommodate different (wait for it…) tastes.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 December 2008 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Long term readers of Just A Theory may remember that one of the very first posts here was about a pet hate of mine: junk equations. Back then it was a formula for fame, but this time it’s the bane of students with essay deadlines ever: procrastination. Thankfully I handed in my essay yesterday, so I have some free time to rip in to this nonsense.

Professor Piers Steel has, according to the Telegraph spent “more than 10 years” studying why people procrastinate. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a psychologist or a business professor at the University of Calgary (the Telegraph say the former, the Daily Mail and the Times the latter).

On to the equation itself. It’s U = EV/ID, where U stands for “utlity”, or your desire to complete a given task. E is the expectation of succeeding in your task, whilst V is the value of completing it. I is the immediacy of the task, and finally D is your personal sensitivity to delay.

Well, that’s what the Telegraph says. The Daily Mail give a different formula: U = EVTC, where T is your tendency to delay work, and C the consequence of not completing it. By simple substitution, it must be that 1/ID = TC. Now, I can see an argument for saying that T has just been re-written as 1/D (in the same way that you can write 0.5 as 1/2), as they are both about delay, but how does the immediacy of the task (I) relate to the consequence of not completing it (C)? Already I’m starting to see the cracks in this equation…

For the definitive answer I went to Prof. Steel’s website, which provided me with the following:

Yet more variables! We’ve already met U, E, V and D, but now we have G (which seems to be standing in for the Greek letter Gamma which was actually used in the equation). Confusingly, G appears to be taking the place of D in the equation described by the Telegraph, whilst D here is now I. To avoid any further confusion, I will refer to Steel’s form of the equation, U = EV/GD from now on. To reiterate: E is expectancy of successful completion, V is the value of completion, G is the sensitivity to delay, and D is the immediacy of the task.

Besides changing variables like they were underpants, the problem with all of these formulas is that the values in them are completely unscientific and not at all measurable. Granted, your expectation of completing a task successfully could be expressed as a probability, for example, but such a measure is very subjective. What are the odds of getting an A for an essay? They simply can’t be calculated.

The other issue is the mathematical validity of the formula. If your sensitivity to delay is very low (and thus you have a small G), your utility value will be high – but surely it should be the other way around? If you don’t like to put things off, you’re less inclined to procrastinate! So maybe G should be measured from 1 to 10, with 1 being a high sensitivity and 10 being low. All this really illustrates is that it is very easy to come up with a formula for anything – as long as you fiddle the numbers to give that answer that you want!

Actually, it appears that this formula has more than one thing in common with the fame formula from my early post. Like that example, this equation is being used by its creator to publicise an upcoming book. Of course, all of the newspapers that have picked up this story are giving him a nice little bump of free advertising.

It shouldn’t need saying again, but I’m going to any way: these formula stories are a complete waste of time. They’re the absolute dregs of scientific journalism, and you shouldn’t pay any attention to them whatsoever. So, stop reading this and get back to work!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 8 December 2008 at 12:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Fear, that is. A study out of Stony Brook University in New York State has found that people can unconsciously detect stress of fear in others by smelling a chemical pheromone released in sweat.

Dr Lillianne Mujica-Parodi and her team enlisted 20 first-time skydivers to aid them in their research. Strapping absorbent pads to the participants armpits, the team collected the sweat from before and during the jump. As a control, sweat was also collected as the participants ran on a treadmill for the same length of time and at the same time of day as the jump.

The sweat was then mixed with air and given to volunteers to breathe in (yuck!). At the same time their brains were scanned, and the results showed that the amygdala and hypothalamus, which are brain regions associated with fear, were more active in people who breathed in sweat from the skydive. They weren’t able to actively distinguish between the two types of sweat, however. Mujica-Parodi wrote in a conference presentation last year:

“We demonstrate here the first direct evidence for a human alarm pheromone … Our findings indicate that there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, ‘contagious’.”

She could not give any further comment however, as the study is currently under peer-review for publication in a scientific journal.

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, suggesting a possible military application, perhaps causing fear in enemy troops. DARPA has denied any such plans, and says it will not be funding further research in the field.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 30 November 2008 at 12:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

We’ve got another one…

It’s the latest in a series of creepy animals! I’m not sure if it’s the Blair Witch style camerawork, or the fact that its tentacles are so long that the continue down to the bowels of the earth, but the Magnapinna squid is possibly the worst of the bunch.

No, no, NO, DON'T EAT ME!!!!!

One of Magnapinna‘s strangest features is that it appears to have elbows. Elbows, I ask you! We actually don’t know very much about ol’Magnapinna, and this video wasn’t captured by a team of biologists. In fact, it was oil company Shell who found the strange creature as they searched for new sources of fuel, two and a half kilometers underwater. So don’t worry, it’s not close enough to get you…yet.

Do cars have personalities?

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the front end of cars often look like faces. Now, researchers at Florida State University have confirmed this to be true – and not only do we ascribe facial features to cars, we also give them personalities.

In a study published in the December issue of the journal Human Nature, 40 people we asked to view 3D computer reconstructions and printed images of 38 cars. A third of participants saw a human or animal face in at least 90% of the cars. They were also asked to rate each car on 19 personality traits such as dominance, maturity, gender and friendliness. It seems that people generally agreed in their ratings, suggest a universal way of reading faces.

Cars viewed as “powerful” had elongated hoods, pronounced lower bodies relative, and more angular headlights reminiscent of a frown. On the other end of the scale, those seen as submissive had headlights with their upper edge relatively close to the middle, and higher sides, suggesting a smile. It seems that even in inanimate objects, we can’t help but see a face.

Polar bear in lack-of-penis shocker

Oh, this is a very silly story, but I just couldn’t help myself. It seems that Japanese zoo keepers have made an interesting discovery: Tsuyoshi, a four-year-old, 200 kg, polar bear isn’t quite the stud they were expecting. The bear was introduced to a female at the Kushiro Municipal Zoo in the hope that the pair would mate, but it turns out there was a slight problem: Tsuyoshi is a she-bear.

“We thought he was a male, so we never had any doubts as we took care of him,” said Masako Inoue.

“But one day we realized that the two bears urinate in the same way, and we thought, is that how males do it? And once we started to look at things that way, we weren’t quite so sure.”

It seems it’s not unusual to confuse the gender of a polar bear, as their long hair can make it difficult to properly identify them, especially when they are young. Poor Tsuyoshi has been living as a boy ever since the tender age of three months.

For now, the Zoo plans to talk to others in the area, to see what to do about the breeding plan. I’d suggest that Tsuyoshi might not be as helpful as they thought…

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 6 November 2008 at 10:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

We’ve got another one. “Experts” warned today that wearing a purple tie to an interview could cost you the job.

In a way, this story is very similar to one I wrote a month or so ago about blondes being more confident. Daily Mail? Check. Dubious science? Check. Funded by someone looking to hawk their wares? Check.

Psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein carried out the study for tie makers Peckham Rye (no vested interest there of course) – but to what extent was it a serious study? The Daily Mail give no indication of where (if?) it was published, and I can’t find anything online, so it’s hard to fact check. I’ve no idea, for example, how many people participated in the study, or what kind of questions they were asked. There’s no indication of methodology used, or how conclusions were drawn.

For all intents and purposes Dr Lowenstein might as well have made these results up. The reason scientists insist on the traditions of publication and citation is so other people can check your results. When “research” is funded by commercial organisations the results are often not made public, or at least not easily accessible, and that’s a Bad Thing™.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust all commercially funded research. For example, is the internet giant’s charitable wing, and have committed over $100 million dollars to research into fields such renewable energy. Notice the complete lack of “your choice of search engine could give you skin cancer”-type research.

I’m also not saying that the conclusions made by Dr Lowenstein are wrong. How could I? I’ve not been out questioning people about ties, so I’m not in any position to draw conclusions. I could however take a look at his data (if it was available) and then come up with something. It could be a load of rubbish, I’m not a trained psychologist after all, but if I could do it so could other scientists. That’s how science works.

Of course, I’ve got to have my usual poke at the Daily Mail. Yes, I know why they’ve run the story; you get a nice punny headline (I’m guilty of it as well), they get to included a bunch of celebrity pictures, and the results come from a guy with a PhD. That doesn’t mean they have to list it in the science section. It’s not science.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 November 2008 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Public understanding of science? Sautoy’d

Early this week mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was appointed to the University of Oxford’s Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science, taking over from Richard Dawkins.

It will be interesting to see how his approach differs to that of his predecessor. I reviewed both Dawkins’ and du Sautoy’s most recent appearances on TV, so if you read those you probably won’t be surprised to hear I’m happy with this decision. Dawkins doesn’t really do science any favours with stunts like the “There’s probably no God” buses, and hopefully du Sautoy will steer away from religion and stick to the science.

Can certain colours make you more attractive? It’s not so red-iculous

Psychologists at the University of Rochester have published a study suggesting that for women, wearing red could make you more attractive. They found that men were also prepared to spend more money on a date with a woman in a red shirt, rather than a blue shirt.

Women shown the same pictures showed no such bias when asked to give an attractiveness rating, suggesting that there is a link with fertility, because as red is the colour of blood it can easily by used by a female animal as an external signal to a partner, according to Dr Jo Setchell, an anthropologist from Durham University:

“For example, a lot of female monkeys have bright red sexual swellings, which show that they are around the time of ovulation.

“There has been controversy over whether, in female humans, ovulation is advertised or not, although there is some evidence that behaviour, such as going out, changes around that time.

“But wearing red could give you an advantage.”

“Seriously, how hard can it be to come up with a pun about coughs?” he said

The New York Times has some rather nice images of coughs, candles, and other “invisible” liquids and gases. They were taken by engineering professor Gary Settles, of the gas dynamics laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, using a technique known as schlieren photography. By using a small, bright light source, lenses, and mirrors along with a razor blade that blocks parts of light beams, it is possible to view and even photograph the disturbances in the air caused by coughing and other phenomena.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 30 October 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Hearing about a disease in newspapers and on TV makes people overestimate its severity and the risk of catching it, a study from McMaster University in Canada has found. Diseases such as anthrax and SARS are considered to be more deadly than other similar afflictions with a lower media profile.

“The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events,” says Meredith Young, one of the study’s lead authors and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves.”

The researchers conducted three experiments in order to discover the effect media reporting can have. In the first, 53 undergraduate psychology students were asked to rate 10 medical conditions for level of seriousness,the likelihood the condition represented a disease, and the chances of someone catching it.

Of the 10 conditions selected for the study, five had a heavy media profile (anthrax, West Nile virus, avian flu, SARS and Lyme disease) whilst the other half were less well known (tularemia, yellow fever, hantavirus, lassa fever and human babesiosis) but chosen to closely match one of the widely reported diseases. The results were a strong correlation between the perceived seriousness of a disease and its media profile.

The team wondered if a more medically knowledgeable study group might show different results. The experiment was repeated with 43 first year medical students, and surprisingly the findings were very similar. It seems that even a more medically oriented person is susceptible to the influence of the media.

Interestingly when more details such as symptoms or method of transmission were provided along with the name of the disease, participants rated high and low profile diseases much closer.

“Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn’t nearly as strong,” says Karin Humphreys, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 October 2008 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Does your name decide where you work?

When I first read the press release that psychologists in Belgium have discovered that a person’s initials have a link to the company they work for, my immediate thought was “yeah, whatever.” I thought that the conclusion had probably come about because some letters in the alphabet are more common than others, so a Mr E was more likely to work for E Inc. simply because there are more “E”s floating about than any other letter.

On reading the actual paper however, I can’t fault their methodology. It really does seem that a persons name can unconsciously effect their choice of work place. The phenomena is known as the name-letter effect, and has been demonstrated in other areas, for example a Jack is more likely to live in Jacksonville than in Philadelphia. It just goes to show that whilst scepticism is healthy, it’s not always right!

Now you seem them, now you don’t

The Daily Mail have some wonderful pictures of camouflaged animals. Yes, it’s a bit of a fluff piece, but they’re really quite something. My personal favourite is this one:

I'm not telling you what it is, you'll have to guess!

It came from outer space

A couple of weeks ago, The University of Western Ontario Meteor Group caught a falling meteor on camera. The team of astronomers are now looking for local residents who might have seen meteorites break off and crash to Earth.

The meteor streaks across the sky in this time-lapse image

Videos of the meteor are available online. I’ve never managed to see one of these space rocks in real life, so it’s pretty cool to be able to catch one on film.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 25 September 2008 at 8:55 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

The Daily Mail has a story about “research” showing that “women with lighter hair have more confidence.” Oh really?

The “study” was carried out by Mark Sergeant of Nottingham Trent University, who asked 200 women how they felt both before and after dyeing their hair. It turns out that participants “across the board” felt “elevated” confidence and mood levels, as well as more sexually attractive, with newly-made blondes reporting the highest increases.

What’s wrong with this research? Huge assumptions, for one thing. How can we be sure it was a new hair colour that contributed to a change in these women’s attitudes, and not simply a change? If you feel bad about the way you look changing any part of your appearance, whether it be by dyeing your hair, plastic surgery, or even buying new clothes, is probably going to make you feel better.

Then there’s that oh so important question: where’s the money? The “research” was funded by Clairol… a company which sells hair dye. The words “conflict”, “of” and “interest” spring immediatly to mind. Now, it could be that this “research” is entirely sound. It could be that blondes really do have more fun. Really though, if you saw a story saying that research funded by Big Cigarette Co had found cigarettes actually improve your health, are you going to believe them?

It’s certainly bad science, but is it bad reporting? To be fair to the Mail, I found this story not in their Science section, but in ‘Femail’. Since the second paragraph of the story is “Scientists claim their research shows that bleaching hair does wonders for a woman’s self-image”, however, I felt that it was fair game – especially as it was written by Fiona MacRae, the Mail’s science writer.

The cynic in me might say that the Mail only chose to go with the story because they would be able to accompany it with a bunch of pretty pictures of eye-catching blonde women. Maybe I should try that:

If you skipped straight to this picture of Scarlett Johansson, you've probably missed the point of the post.

Now of course if this was a proper scientific study of whether pictures of Scarlett Johansson get me more hits, I’d probably put the picture higher up for more impact. I would also publish another identical post, but without the picture, as a control. If I didn’t, it would be a pretty bad study as there would be no way of measuring an improvement, and I’d expect someone to pick me up on it.

The same logic should apply to science reporting. If you see a study that doesn’t have a decent control, or makes a lot of assumptions, why not ask the scientists involved to clarify their findings? If research is funded by an organisation with a vested interest in the results, why not point out to your readers that it might be worth taking with a pinch of salt?

Just because “scientists say” or “research has shown” something is the case, it doesn’t mean that it is true. After all, Otto Rössler – the guy who went to court to try and stop the LHC – is “a scientist”. He’s also pretty damn loony. Bad science does not have to mean bad reporting – just ask Ben Goldacre.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 23 September 2008 at 1:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

A study has found that men who hold “traditional views” on women have on average a higher annual salary than those who believe in equality.

Beginning in 1979, men and women between the age of 14 and 22 were asked about their views on gender roles. Three more interviews were conducted with the same group between then and 2005, with a 60% retention rate of the 12,686 participants. This gave Timothy Judge and Beth Livingston of the University of Florida a large amount of data to work with.

Questions in the interviews included whether a woman’s place is in the home, and if a man should be the achiever outside of the home. Participants were also asked details such as their earnings, religious upbringing and education.

Controlling for different job types, hours worked and level of education, the researchers found that men with “traditional views” would take home an average of around $8,500 more than similar men who did not hold such views. With women, it turns out the opposite is true. Those who believed that they should be “stay-at-homes” earned $1,500 less a year than their “non-traditional” peers.

“These results show that changes in gender role attitudes have substantial effects on pay equity,” Judge said. “When workers’ attitudes become more traditional, women’s earnings relative to men suffer greatly. When attitudes become more egalitarian, the pay gap nearly disappears.”

The research also found some (fairly predictable) correlations with views on gender roles. People with parents who both worked held less traditional views, whilst married, religious people tended to be more traditional. As people grew older during the study, their views were also found to become more traditional.

In seeking an explanation for these results the researchers found that differences such as occupation or number of children were not a factor, so the findings could not be explained by the fact that in more traditional couples women were less likely to be working outside the home (and thus earn less). The conclusion was that the pay gaps do not just have an economic basis.

“Psychology has an important role to play, too,” said Judge. “Our country’s policies have been leaning toward gender equality for decades now. But, according to our study, traditional gender role views continue to work against this goal.”

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 22 September 2008 at 4:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

People who find themselves sensitive to scary images and sounds are more likely to hold right-wing political views, a study in Nebraska has found. Researchers asked 46 volunteers about their political views, and selected those with strong opinions on either side of the right-left spectrum.

They then showed the participants frightening pictures, such as a spider crawling across a man’s face, whilst also startling them with loud noises at random. Machines hooked up to their skin measured electrical conductance, combined with eye movement sensors to monitor subjects blinking, allowed the scientists to work out just how terrified they were.

Those more affected by the experiment were found to be more likely in favour of capital punishment and against abortion, views traditionally held by the right, whilst those people who weren’t as scared tended to more liberal views. John Hibbing, co-author of the paper published in Science, said that the research might not mean political views are a genetic trait, but they do have a biological basis:

“Now we can show that certain important political beliefs have a very deep basis,” Hibbing said. “We don’t know for certain that it’s genetic but we do know that there’s a predilection biologically that leads some people to experience the world differently from others. The relationships we found are far from deterministic — environmental events still play a vital role — but the fact that physical reactions to loud noises or to scary animals is at all predictive of political beliefs is remarkable.”

“Should extreme interrogation techniques be used on foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities? Should the privacy of law-abiding citizens be sacrificed if doing so offers the potential for making the country safer? Our research suggests that the answers a person provides to questions such as these are in part traceable to how vividly they physically experience generic threats.”

Hibbing also suggested that this research might allow politicians to understand each other better – people with opposing political views to your own are not just being stubborn, but simply see the world in a different way. Somehow, I don’t think spontaneous hugging is about to break out in the House of Commons, but the study is interesting nevertheless. One thing that doesn’t seem to have been considered is the opposite causation: what if right-wing views are more likely to make you a fearful person? The concept doesn’t seem too unrealistic to me…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 September 2008 at 11:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Ants from Mars

No, it’s not evidence of extraterrestrial life, but another example of creatures that will come for you in the night.

Seriously, I can barely write about this thing, I find it so creepy.

The newly discovered species of ant, Martialis heureka – which translates as contestant for silliest name ever: “From Mars! Wow!” – is a bit of an evolutionary throwback. Blind (because it has no eyes) and pale, its DNA has changed the least compared to its other ant cousins, ever since they emerged 100 million years ago. It won’t be popping up in your back garden any time soon however, as they live completely underground, and in Brazil. Thankfully.

Gamers are fit, but depressed

The stereotypical gamer image of an overweight teen with one hand on a mouse and the other in a bag of crisps may not be the case, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California, Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware has found.

They analysed 7,000 players of the popular massively-multilayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, to those in the know) EverQuest II. In the game, players join together to fight monsters and find treasure. One such treasure is the Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent, offered to those who completed a survey on their physical and mental health.

It turns out that adult gamers are actually fitter than a typical American, with a body mass index of 25.2 compared to the national average of 28 – though both figures are in the “overweight” category of the scale. The survey also found that the average gamer exercises once or twice a week, more than the general American public. The researchers suggest this could be because those with the education and wealth to afford expensive gaming machines are more likely to be health concious.

They also found that players were more likely to be in their thirties than their twenties, and older players spent more time with the game. Additionally, whilst less women play the game than men, those who do typically spent longer in game.

Unfortunately gamers were also more likely to be suffering from depression, and to be substance abusers. Scott Caplan, of the University of Delaware, suggested players “may be drawn to use the game to help deal with emotional distress.” The MMORPGs that I have played tend to take up a lot of time, and can be extremely addictive, so I can understand the correlation with drinking or drugs. Still, I always like to see some positive press on games – they’re probably represented in the media even worse than science is!

John Cleese on genes

Finally, John Cleese (who my brain still can’t accept as looking so old) tells us all about genes:

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 September 2008 at 4:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Scientists at the University of Southampton are launching the “largest-ever” study of near-death experiences – in which people with no heartbeat or brain activity see bright lights or feel as if they are watching their own body from on high.

The BBC reports that to test these “out of body” experiences, researchers will place images on high shelves in hospital resuscitation rooms – in such a way that only a person floating high above the ceiling could view them.

It all sounds a bit silly to me, but leading the study is Dr Sam Parnia, an expert in such matters, who explains that there is more to death than you might expect:

“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment. It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning – a medical condition termed cardiac arrest, which from a biological viewpoint is synonymous with clinical death.

“During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. There then follows a period of time, which may last from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process. What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.”

Apparently 10-20% of people who experience this type of clinical death report some kind of near-death experience. This study could help work out if people really do leave their bodies and float around the room, or if it’s just their brains making things up in much the same way as dreams. I know which outcome my money is on…

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 September 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Brain drain?

A poll published by Shell claims that Britain could be “losing” 60,000 scientists a year. A sample of 4,000 children aged nine to 14 found that 10% are inspired by science but don’t intended to pursue their interest past the age of 16. Nationally, this could translate to 60,000 fewer scientists a year.

These figures seem pretty dodgy to me, in much the same way the music industry claims massively inflated figures of “lost revenue” due to piracy. More worrying is the finding that only 6% of children want to be a scientist when they grow up, compared to 20% footballers and 20% actors – no doubt a product of our celebrity obsessed society.

Suspect stripes

Research by Peter Thompson at the University of York has found that, contrary to popular belief, wearing horizontal stripes can make you look thinner, not vertical. He asked people to compare 200 pictures of women wearing dresses striped in both directions and identify which they thought was fatter. He found that to make the women appear the same size, the one wearing horizontal stripes had to be an extra six per cent wider.

Horizontal vs vertical - which makes you thinner?

There is one problem I have with this research – in the sample image, the stripes aren’t the same size, and the dresses are different colours. Without controlling for these factors, how does Thompson know it isn’t size or colours of stripes, rather than direction, that makes you appear fatter? Interestingly enough, none of the media reports I have read have mentioned this…

Aliens among us

Check out these beautiful pictures from Socotra Island. Isolated from the African mainland for the last 6 or 7 million years, some truly unique species have evolved. My favourite is the ominously named Dragon’s Blood Tree:

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 September 2008 at 2:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Something doesn’t sound quite right

The type of music you like could be linked to your personality, suggests a study carried out by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University. Apparently fans of country and western are “hardworking, outgoing” whilst indie lovers are “low self-esteem, creative, not hard working, not gentle”. Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me – what if you like both country and indie? I haven’t been able to find a published paper on the research, which might validate it a little more, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because I say so

In the latest of a series on statistics in the media, Michael Blastland talks about the pitfalls of causation and correlation. Just because event A occurred before event B, it does not mean that A caused B – and yet so many stories in the media report just that. One you should always watch out for, so have a read.

Fruit for thought

Finally, some amazing photos of fruit taken using a scanning electron microscope. The colours may be false, but its all still very pretty.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Going, going, found!

A new species of insect was found this week – on eBay. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, paid £20 for a 40-50 million-year-old fossilised insect trapped in amber. After struggling to identify it he sent the purchase to Professor Ole Heie, an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed it was a previously undiscovered type of aphid.

Professor Heie named the insect Mindarus harringtoni after its purchaser, but Dr Harrington himself had wanted to go for something slightly more unorthodox. “I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” he said. “Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Because you can’t just have one…

If you are trying to lose weight, going for a small bag of crisps rather than a larger one might seem the obvious route, but researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands have found that this may not be the case. Participants in a study were asked to complete a questionnaire on body satisfaction and dieting, then weighed and measure in front of a mirror in order to active their “dietary concerns” – in other words, to get them to watch their weight. Along with a control group who had not had their “dietary concerns” activated, they then watched episodes of Friends (aside: why Friends? Perhaps due to its constant looping on E4…) and were asked to evaluate the adverts.

In fact, the researchers were watching their consumption of the crisps that had been provided. Available in large or small packaging, the study found the “dietary concerns” group given large packages at the fewest number of crisps. The conclusion was that large packages made participants think of overeating and dieting, but small packages were “innocent pleasures” that did not trigger dieting concerns. My conclusion: I now want some crisps.

Power adaptor tyranny could soon be over

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few gadgets. When ever I travel anywhere I have to take a mess of power adaptors to feed my phone, mp3 player and Nintendo DS – I’m just thankful I don’t have a laptop to add to the mix. It’s also easy to forget to plug the damn things in, leaving me to play the “do I have enough battery life to make this call?” game. I’ve often thought of a solution – a “power pad” on my desk, where any electrical device would charge simply by being left there and forgotten about.

The technology exists – your electric toothbrush is charged not by wires, but by magnetic induction. Flowing electrons in a circuit generate a magnetic field which in turn induces electron flow in nearby circuits – bam, wireless electricity. I had assumed that the process was too slow to be of use with general electronics, and left it at that.

Turns out I should have got to work on a prototype, because MIT and Intel have found a way to make it work – and not just in close contact. They demonstrated a 60-watt light bulb powered by an energy source three feet away, with no wires in sight. The technology is at least five years away however, especially one-quarter of the energy is lost in transmission. In a world increasingly looking to improve energy usage, 75% efficiency is pretty unacceptable. Still, I can’t wait to get rid of those chargers.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 August 2008 at 2:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

As I have mentioned before, I am currently learning to drive. Recently I had to perform a three-point turn for the first time, and after completing the manoeuvre my instructor asked if I had been practising, as I had executed it so well.

I had actually never attempted a three-point turn before – at least not in real life. On the mean streets of Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City however, I’ve had lots of practice whilst trying to avoid being caught by virtual police. Of course I’m not suggesting that a gamepad is any replacement for a steering wheel, but what the game had taught me was how to visualise the way a car must move during a three-point turn – something my instructor said many new drivers struggle with.

It seems that the American Psychological Association are inclined to agree with me. Research discussed at the APA’s Annual convention found that some video games “can have beneficial effects, improving gamers’ dexterity as well as their ability to problem-solve”. A study of surgeons found that gamers could perform advanced surgical procedures 27 percent faster and with 37 percent fewer errors. It seems that advanced gaming skills is a significant predictor of surgical ability. Conducting the research was psychologist Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University, who said:

“The big picture is that there are several dimensions on which games have effects, including the amount they are played, the content of each game, what you have to pay attention to on the screen, and how you control the motions. This means that games are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but are powerful educational tools and have many effects we might not have expected they could.”

A study of young children also found that players of violent games became more hostile, less forgiving and believed violence to be normal behaviour, compared with players of more subdued games. I’ll have to admit my bias here, and merely point out researchers at Harvard have found the complete opposite. The question of the effect of video games on behaviour is still open for debate. Now, excuse me whilst I return to GTA to practice my three-point turns.

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