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ScienceDaily: Psychology News

Thu, 30 Oct 2014   Why scratching makes you itch more

Turns out your mom was right: scratching an itch only makes it worse. New research reveals that scratching causes the brain to release serotonin, which intensifies the itch sensation. Scientists uncovered serotonin's role in controlling pain decades ago, but this is the first time the release of the chemical messenger from the brain has been linked to itch, they say.

Thu, 30 Oct 2014   New molecule sneaks medicines across blood/brain barrier

Delivering life-saving drugs across the blood-brain barrier (BBB) might become a little easier thanks to a new study. In the new report, scientists describe an antibody, called 'FC5,' is one-tenth the size of a traditional antibody and able to cross the BBB.

Thu, 30 Oct 2014   Possible cause of common dementia found, opening avenues for treatment

A major cause of dementia has been potentially discovered, scientists report. In the type of dementia studied, there is damage to the white matter (nerve fibres) of the brain apparent on computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of older individuals.

Wed, 29 Oct 2014   EEG test to help understand, treat schizophrenia

An EEG test to study and treat schizophrenia has been validated by researchers. The findings offer a clinical test that could be used to help diagnose persons at risk for developing mental illness later in life, as well as an approach for measuring the efficacies of different treatment options.

Wed, 29 Oct 2014   Nano ruffles in brain matter

Researchers have deciphered the role of nanostructures around brain cells in the central nervous system. An accumulation of a protein called amyloid-beta into large insoluble deposits called plaques is known to cause Alzheimer's disease. One aspect of this illness that has not received much attention is which role the structure of the brain environment plays. How do macromolecules and macromolecular assemblies, such as polysaccharides, influence cell interaction in the brain?

BPS Research Digest Blog

   Spook Me, Please: What Psychology Tells Us About the Appeal of Halloween

By guest blogger Mathias Clasen

It’s the time of year, at least in our part of the world, when darkness encroaches on us—literally and metaphorically. The symbols and agents of darkness dominate Halloween decorations everywhere, and Halloween is growing in popularity across Europe and in the US. According to the National Retail Federation, US Halloween spending now exceeds $7 billion. In the UK, Halloween is worth about £330 million.

Why is this Americanised version of the ancient pagan festival so successful? Is it merely another instance of the McDonaldisation of culture, the increasing hegemony of American commercial culture, explicable in terms of market mechanisms alone? No. The dread scenarios evoked by the paraphernalia of Halloween are deeply fascinating to a prey species such as Homo sapiens. Ghouls, zombies, demons, giant spiders, and horrors hidden in darkness all engage evolutionarily ancient survival mechanisms—and all figure prominently in the scenography of horror films and in Halloween decorations. We seem to love the good thrill of a safe scare, and Halloween provides plenty of those.

Horror films, horror monsters, and the iconography of Halloween are culturally successful because they are well-adapted to engage evolved danger-management adaptations. We know that existence for our prehistoric ancestors was precarious. The threat of predation has been very real and very serious for hundreds of millions of years. As the anthropologist Lynn Isbell has shown, mammals and reptiles have been engaged in a lethal co-evolutionary arms race for a hundred million years or more, and that arms race has profoundly shaped our genome. A hard-wired, adaptive tendency to easily acquire fear of snakes explains the prevalence of snake phobias today, even in snake-less ecologies.

Similarly, the threat posed by poisonous spiders in prehistoric environments has left an eight-legged imprint in human DNA, an imprint that is expressed as a tendency to easily acquire fear of spiders. We are, at the very least, likely to pay close attention if a saucer-sized arthropod scuttles out from under the couch. Spiders engage attention—as recent research documented, spiders override inattentional blindness, our tendency to overlook even striking stimuli in peripheral awareness when we’re engaged in a cognitively taxing task. Another study claimed that five-month-old infants pay closer attention to schematic representations of spiders than to representations that consist of the same graphic elements but do not look like spiders. Spiders are inherently attention-demanding and, to most people, gross and a little scary, and that explains why they feature so prominently in Halloween iconography. They simply perform the functions of engaging attention and eliciting a shudder well.

Likewise, the usual suspects in the horror genre’s antagonistic line-up—from supernatural monsters via rotting zombies to homicidal maniacs in masks—all connect squarely with defensive psychological adaptations that arose over evolutionary time in response to dangers in the environment, from the threat posed by hostile conspecifics and lethal pathogens to the bite of hungry carnivores. Although there were no child-eating clowns in prehistoric environments, a character like Pennywise the Dancing Clown has achieved pop-cultural infamy because it effectively targets danger-management mechanisms in human cognitive architecture.

The dangers of pre-historical existence have left deep grooves in human nature. The creatures and situations we typically fear—spiders, snakes, the dark, heights, confined spaces, and so on—are the same creatures and situations that posed real dangers to our evolutionary ancestors, even though they play little role in modern-day mortality statistics in the West. We should be afraid of driving too fast in a car, of smoking cigarettes, of eating unsaturated fats, and so on. Our Halloween decorations should feature such elements prominently, but they don’t. Why? Because humans evolved to swiftly detect, respond to, and develop phobias of stimuli that posed a threat over thousands of generations. The dangers posed by fatty acids and cigarettes are evolutionarily novel and have left no impression in human DNA. When we thrill to supernatural monsters and giant spiders, we are thrilling to the ghosts of dangers past, ghosts that persist in the human central nervous system despite relaxed selection pressures.

Of course the scary costumes and props of Halloween are symbolic and don’t pose any real threat; they provide safe thrills, our love for which has roots deep in our mammalian heritage. Other mammalian infants also find great pleasure in forms of play that allow them to get experience with life-threatening situations in a safe context. Children’s play often revolves around simulating dangerous situations. Witness an infant responding enthusiastically to a game of peek-a-boo, the most primal of horror situations where the primary caretaker disappears from the infant’s field of vision (and thus its world) for a few stress-inducing seconds … only to reappear suddenly, causing a mild startle reaction. Or witness any kid delightedly simulating being chased by a daddy- or a mommy-monster in a session of chase play or hide-and-seek. Such activities serve the adaptive functions of giving children experience with evasion techniques, they build locomotor skills and muscle tone, and they allow the children to get experience with their own cognitive and emotional responses to situations that feel dangerous but aren’t. Such experience could become vital later in life, when they face truly dangerous situations or when they have to face and overcome their own fear.

Halloween has the potential to bring us into contact with our evolutionary heritage by confronting us with reflections of evolutionarily ancient, fear-inducing stimuli. Halloween is here to stay, so we might as well embrace it. When darkness falls, the monsters stir. That’s true of prehistory no less than of horror films—and on the last day of dark October, they all come out to play.

Post written by Dr Mathias Clasen for the BPS Research Digest. Clasen is assistant professor in literature and media at Aarhus University. He has published on evil in horror fiction, zombies, vampires, and the psychological functions and effects of horror across media, and is currently working on a project on post-apocalyptic science fiction in a biocultural perspective. Several of his writings are available at and

--further reading--
30 terrifying links for Halloween
The lure of horror

2014-10-30   The psychology of "mate poaching" - when you form a relationship by taking someone else's partner

According to one estimate, 63 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women are in their current long-term relationships because their current partner "poached" them from a previous partner. Now researchers in the US and Australia have conducted the first investigation into the fate of relationships formed this way, as compared with relationships formed by two unattached individuals.

An initial study involved surveying 138 heterosexual participants (average age 20; 71 per cent were women) four times over nine weeks. All were in current romantic relationships that had lasted so far from 0 to 36 months. Men and women who said they'd been poached by their current partner tended to start out the study by reporting less commitment to their existing relationship, feeling less satisfied in it, committing more acts of infidelity and looking out for more alternatives.What's more, over the course of the study, these participants reported progressively lower levels of commitment and satisfaction in their relationships. They also showed continued interest in other potential romantic partners and persistent levels of infidelity. This is in contrast to participants who hadn't been poached by their partners - they showed less interest in romantic alternatives over time.

The researchers led by Joshua Foster attempted to replicate these results with a second sample of 140 heterosexual participants who were surveyed six times over ten weeks. Again the participants who said they'd been poached by their partners tended to report less commitment and satisfaction in their current relationships, and more interest in romantic alternatives. However, unlike the first sample, this group did not show deterioration in their relationship over the course of the study. The researchers speculated this may be because the study was too short-lived or because deterioration in these relationships had already bottomed out.

It makes intuitive sense that people who were poached by their partners showed less commitment and satisfaction in their existing relationship. After all, if they were willing to abandon a partner in the past, why should they not be willing or even keen to do so again? This logic was borne out by a final study of 219 more heterosexual participants who answered questions not just about the way their current relationship had been formed, but also about their personalities and attitudes.

Foster and his team summarised the findings: "individuals who were successfully mate poached by their current partners tend[ed] to be socially passive, not particularly nice to others, careless and irresponsible, and narcissistic. They also tend[ed] to desire and engage in sexual behaviour outside of the confines of committed relationships." The last factor in particular (measured formally with the "Socio-sexual Orientation Inventory-revised") appeared to explain a large part of the link between having been poached by one's partner and having weak commitment to the new relationship.

Across the three studies, between 10 and 30 per cent of participants said they'd been poached by their current partners. This shows again that a significant proportion of relationships are formed this way, the researchers said, and that more research is needed to better understand how these relationships function. "We present the first known evidence [showing] specific long-term disadvantages for individuals involved in relations that formed via mate poaching," they concluded.


Foster, J., Jonason, P., Shrira, I., Keith Campbell, W., Shiverdecker, L., & Varner, S. (2014). What do you get when you make somebody else’s partner your own? An analysis of relationships formed via mate poaching Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 78-90 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.07.008

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

2014-10-29   Friendly, conscientious people are more prone to "destructive obedience"

In Milgram's shock experiments, a surprising number of people obeyed a scientist's instruction to deliver dangerous electric shocks to another person. This is usually interpreted in terms of the power of "strong situations". The scenario, complete with lab apparatus and scientist in grey coat, was so compelling that many people's usual behavioural tendencies were overcome.

But a new study challenges this account. Recognising that many participants in fact showed disobedience to the scientist in Milgram's studies, Laurent Bègue and his colleagues have investigated what it is about an individual's character that influences the likelihood he or she will obey or not. Specifically, the researchers measured the Big Five personality factors of participants taking part in a quiz-show adaptation of the traditional Milgram situation.

Seventy-six adults (40 men) played the role of questioner in a pilot episode of a French TV show. A quiz host urged the participants to apply increasingly intense electric shocks to a quiz contestant each time the contestant answered a question incorrectly. In the standard version of the set-up, in which the host remained present, 81 per cent of participants obeyed instructions to administer the highest level 460 volt shock marked "xxx".

Eight months later, the participants who played the role of questioner (and electrocutioner) were contacted again, ostensibly as part of a separate investigation, and asked if they would answer some survey questions about their personality and political beliefs. Thirty-five men and thirty women who'd taken part in the TV quiz agreed to answer these questions. The results showed that people who scored more highly on the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to be obedient in the Milgram-style situation. Meanwhile, describing oneself as left wing went hand in hand with greater disobedience, and, for women only, a history of having taken part in strikes or other acts of rebellion was also associated with more disobedience.

The researchers acknowledged there is a slim possibility that the TV quiz experience shaped participants' later personality scores. This issue aside, they said their findings showed how "destructive obedience" might actually be facilitated by "dispositions [agreeableness and conscientiousness] that are consensually desirable elsewhere with family and friends." Conversely, behaviours that may be considered disruptive in other contexts (such as political activism)  "may express and even strengthen individual dispositions that are both useful and essential to the whole society, at least in some critical moments," they said.


Bègue, L., Beauvois, J., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. (2014). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12104

--further reading--
More on Milgram in the Digest archive.

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

Cognitive Daily

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Cognitive Daily Closes Shop after a Fantastic Five-Year Run

Five years ago today, we made the first post that would eventually make its way onto a blog called Cognitive Daily. We thought we were keeping notes for a book, but in reality we were helping build a network that represented a new way of sharing psychology with the world. Cognitive Daily wasn’t the first…

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Both musicians and non-musicians can perceive bitonality

Take a listen to this brief audio clip of “Unforgettable.” Aside from the fact that it’s a computer-generated MIDI performance, do you hear anything unusual? If you’re a non-musician like me, you might not have noticed anything. It sounds basically like the familiar song, even though the synthesized sax isn’t nearly as pleasing as the…

Thu, 14 Jan 2010   Synesthesia and the McGurk effect

We’ve discussed synesthesia many times before on Cognitive Daily — it’s the seemingly bizarre phenomenon when one stimulus (e.g. a sight or a sound) is experienced in multiple modalities (e.g. taste, vision, or colors). For example, a person might experience a particular smell whenever a given word or letter is seen or heard. Sometimes particular…