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Sun, 26 Jun 2016   Understanding Risk Factors Involved in Initiation of Adolescent Alcohol Use

Underage drinking is a major public health and social problem in the U.S. The ability to identify at-risk children before they initiate heavy alcohol use has immense clinical and public health implications. A new study has found that demographic factors, cognitive functioning, and brain features during the early-adolescence ages of 12 to 14 years can predict which youth eventually initiate alcohol use during later adolescence around the age of 18.

Thu, 23 Jun 2016   Human brain houses diverse populations of neurons, new research shows

A team of researchers has developed the first scalable method to identify different subtypes of neurons in the human brain. The research lays the groundwork for 'mapping' the gene activity in the human brain and could help provide a better understanding of brain functions and disorders, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, schizophrenia and depression.

Thu, 23 Jun 2016   Scientists reveal single-neuron gene landscape of the human brain

A team of scientists has completed the first large-scale assessment of single neuronal 'transcriptomes.' Their research reveals a surprising diversity in the molecules that human brain cells use in transcribing genetic information from DNA to RNA and producing proteins.

Thu, 23 Jun 2016   New study provides unprecedented insight into the fine details of neuronal communication

For communication between neurons to occur, an electrical impulse, called an action potential, must travel down an axon to its synaptic terminal. A major technical challenge impeding the direct examination of this process, axonal excitability, is the small diameter of a typical axon -- less than 500 nanometers. Researchers have now optimized optical and electrophysiological recordings from single neurons to study axonal excitability with unprecedented detail.

Thu, 23 Jun 2016   Precise control of brain circuit alters mood

By combining super-fine electrodes and tiny amounts of a very specific drug, researchers have singled out a circuit in mouse brains and taken control of it to dial an animal's mood up and down. Stress-susceptible animals that behaved as if they were depressed or anxious were restored to relatively normal behavior by tweaking the system, according to a study.

BPS Research Digest Blog

   There are three kinds of pedestrian – which are you?

You know that situation where you're walking across a train station concourse or a park and there's another person walking on a different trajectory that means if you both hold your course and speed, you're going to collide? Are you the kind of person who assumes the other guy will give way, or are you the polite one who slows down and lets the other person cross your path?

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance recreated this scenario by pairing up 20 participants – a mix of young men and women – and having one person in each pair walk diagonally from one corner of the room to the other, while the other person walked the other diagonal (see schematic below). On each of many trials, both participants in each pair began walking on a starting signal and they were asked to make sure they didn't collide, all without communication with each other. The participants also filled out personality questionnaires and the researchers recorded their heights, weight and age.

The participants tended to show a consistent pattern of behaviour across trials: roughly a quarter were more inclined to give way to avoid colliding; a quarter usually crossed the potential interception point first, making the other person give way; while the others showed a mixture of behaviours. But crucially, neither personality traits, age, height or weight were related to what kind of collision avoidance strategy the participants tended to use. So it seems some of us are dominant in this situation, some more timid, others ambivalent, but the kind of pedestrian we are is not related to major traits such as extraversion nor to our physical size.

From Knorr et al 2016
Alexander Knorr and his team performed a second study in a bigger room with more participants and this showed that the decision about who will give way tends to be made very early. The more dominant person actually tends to make a slight adjustment to heading and speed first, but this isn't sufficient to avoid a collision. The second person who ultimately gives way seems to detect these early signals, then waits and makes their own adjustments thus avoiding the collision.

What this research doesn't address, sadly, is that other pedestrian problem of when you're heading straight towards another person, and you both dodge out of each other's way in the same direction, then the other, so you end up virtually colliding and uttering embarrassed apologies – or is that just a British thing?

--Influence of Person- and Situation-Specific Characteristics on Collision Avoidance Behavior in Human Locomotion

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

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2016-06-24   Beneath their sneering veneer, people prone to contempt are psychologically fragile

Contemptuousness is a distinct personality trait that you can measure with a simple questionnaire. That's according to Roberta Schriber and her colleagues who've devised such a test and described the character of typical contemptuous person – someone quick to judge when another individual (or a social group) has failed to live up to certain expectations – either morally or in terms of competence – and who responds by looking down on this person or group, with the aim of distancing themselves from them, and/or derogating them.

The dispositional contempt scale
From Schriber et al 2016.
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the researchers describe how they tried out different items for measuring trait contempt on hundreds of students and members of the public recruited online at Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey website. They eventually settled on a 10-item test that they said best captures one's proneness to expressing and feeling contempt (see box, right). The participants were asked to score each item from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) and items 4,5 and 7 were reverse scored because in these cases stronger agreement was a mark of low contemptuousness.

Through several studies, the researchers then asked hundreds more participants to complete the new contemptuousness scale alongside other established tests of other personality constructs. From this they found that high scores on the "dispositional contempt scale" correlated with several other measures, suggesting that contemptuousness is not the same as, but tends to go hand in hand with: low trait agreeableness (no surprise there), hubristic pride (when successes are attributed to one's ability, not effort), proneness to envy, narcissism (especially the covert variety), a preoccupation with social status and hierarchy (as measured by trait Machiavellianism), an anxious attachment style, loneliness, perfectionism (in judging others, and in terms of fearing being judged by perfectionist standards by others), racism, and with low self esteem. In short, beneath their sneering veneer, contempt-prone people are needy and psychologically fragile.

To test whether the contemptuousness scale is really measuring what it's supposed to be measuring, the researchers also had hundreds more participants complete the scale before giving their reaction to video clips featuring instances of people showing low competence or moral violations, such as a beauty queen exhibiting ignorance or a soldier showing cruelty to a boy. High trait contempt scorers were especially likely to shown scornful reactions to incompetence, and to a lesser extent to moral violations, and they rarely responded with compassion, providing some support for the validity of the scale.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether trait contempt was stable over a month, and how it was related to the way that people view their relationships. They found the trait did show stability and that it was associated with perceiving one's relationship as dysfunctional, even after factoring out the part played by the broader trait of being unfriendly ("disagreeable" in personality jargon).

Intriguingly, the researchers also asked participants to rate their partner's contempt and they found that perceiving one's partner as contemptuous was associated much more strongly with the perception of being in a poor relationship, than was being contemptuous oneself. Seeing one's partner as being high in contempt "implies a partner does not appear to care about or get along with others, may be a threat to one's own self-esteem and sense of belonging, and might just be unpleasant to be around," the researchers surmised.

Schriber and her team said that it would be interesting for future research to examine what leads some people to become more contemptuous by nature than others – their results point only to correlations with other traits and don't tell us anything about causal pathways. Also, they said it would be useful to look at whether contemptuousness can be reduced through training, such as through loving-kindness meditation or compassion training. "Processes that decrease contempt may, according to our research, promote mental and behavioural flexibility; boost self-esteem; expand one's social network; lower loneliness and depression; cement romantic relationships; and overall generate more caring members of humanity," they said.

--Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person

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

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2016-06-23   What makes our work meaningful? Do bosses really make it meaningless?

The media has used the findings to demonise bosses, but such coverage forgets an important point, writes Alex Fradera
There have been times in my life where work seemed pretty pointless, on occasion because the position was a prime example of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs – those that give no real value back to oneself or society. But I’ve more frequently experienced the sense that a job was at some times meaningless, and at others very worthwhile. That’s a theme picked up in Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden’s new study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, where interviews with 135 people within 10 different occupations explored times when work was meaningful or meaningless.

Like myself, interviewees didn’t consider meaningfulness as a fixed property of their job. They described it arising in episodes, highly intense and memorable peaks separated by unremarkable lulls. Some cases exemplified what the work was all about, such as an academic giving what they knew to be a superb lecture, whereas others were quite outside the norm, such as a shop assistant tending to a critically ill customer.

Often, these episodes had a personal flavour, such as the participant who recalled the first music recital attended by her parents. Many involved recognising the impact their work had had on people besides themselves, whether their students’ graduation or when their engineering innovation had been translated into products used by others. These personal and transcendent aspects were easily fused, such as in the example given by a refuse collector, where, during a crisis triggered by contamination of the local water supply, he visited one neighbour after another providing clean water.

It’s tempting to assume valuable work experiences should be positive – euphoric, air-punching highs – but the interviews teemed with examples that were heavy and challenging. Nurses described end-of-life situations; lawyers, toiling through a heavy, hard case; workers, pushing together against a seemingly intractable problem. Bailey and Madden suggest that organisations and researchers both may be neglecting such poignant experiences, which don’t tally with a superficial account of positive psychology, but may be very important in making work meaningful.

Times that meant something often involved contact with family and friends, peers and particularly the people served by the job. In contrast, managers were mentioned in accounts of meaningless work: times when the interviewee felt treated unfairly, disempowered or taken for granted, or when managerial priorities separated from important relationships with peers, or disconnected them from the values that mattered most to them, such as when the bottom line was placed over the quality of work. It’s for this reason that Bailey and Madden concluded that managerial meddling is often to blame when our work feels meaningless – a claim that has attracted boss-bashing headlines in the mainstream media, such as MoneyWeb’s Bosses destroy meaningful work.

But this media coverage, while fun, forgets an important point – in all but the most dysfunctional organisations, managers have a role in determining the conditions around work, which means – as Bailey and Madden themselves note – that a deft manager can be of benefit.

How does the work have a bigger meaning; for example, how does recycled waste actually lead to the creation of new objects? How can people devoted to their work get opportunities to interact with each other, and with the people their work benefits? How can the difficult times at work – like the eventual loss of a resident at your hospice – be met with appropriate support, but also recognised as valuable? And how can grey tasks like filling out forms be reduced, or at the least, be joined up with the important stuff? Should management solve such problems, they’d fade into the background, and in all likelihood, stay unsung in interviews about meaningful work. But that won’t mean that their efforts didn’t matter, and hopefully they can take pride – and meaning – in that.

--What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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