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Thu, 23 Oct 2014   Reminiscing can help boost mental performance

Engaging brain areas linked to so-called 'off-task' mental activities (such as mind-wandering and reminiscing) can actually boost performance on some challenging mental tasks, a new research led by a neuroscientist shows for the first.

Thu, 23 Oct 2014   New window of opportunity to prevent cardiovascular, diseases

Future prevention and treatment strategies for vascular diseases may lie in the evaluation of early brain imaging tests long before heart attacks or strokes occur, according to a systematic review conducted by a team of cardiologists, neuroscientists, and psychiatrists.

Thu, 23 Oct 2014   If you're over 60, drink up: Alcohol associated with better memory

For people 60 and older who do not have dementia, light alcohol consumption during late life is associated with higher episodic memory -- the ability to recall memories of events -- researchers report.

Wed, 22 Oct 2014   Bipolar disorder discovery at the nano level

A nano-sized discovery helps explain how bipolar disorder affects the brain and could one day lead to new drug therapies to treat the mental illness, researchers report.

Wed, 22 Oct 2014   Brain simulation raises questions

What does it mean to simulate the human brain? Why is it important to do so? And is it even possible to simulate the brain separately from the body it exists in? These questions are discussed in a new paper.

BPS Research Digest Blog

   Publication bias afflicts the whole of psychology

In the last few years the social sciences, including psychology, have been taking a good look at themselves. While incidences of fraud hit the headlines, pervasive issues are just as important to address, such as publication bias, the phenomenon where non-significant results never see the light of day thanks to editors rejecting them or savvy researchers recasting their experiments around unexpected results and not reporting the disappointments. Statistical research has shown the extent of this misrepresentation in pockets of social science, such as specific journals, but a new meta-analysis suggests that the problem may infect the entire discipline of psychology.

A team of psychologists based in Salzburg looked at “effect sizes”, which provide a measure of how much experimental variables actually change an outcome. The researchers randomly sampled the PsycINFO database to collect 1000 psychology articles across the discipline published in 2007, and then winnowed the list down to 395 by focusing only on those that used quantitative data to test hypotheses. For each main finding, the researchers extracted or calculated the effect size.

Studies with lots of participants (500 or more) had an average effect size in the moderate range r=.25. But studies with a smaller sample tended to have formidable effect sizes, as high as .48 for studies with under 50 participants. This resulted in a strong negative relationship between number of participants and size of effect, when statistically the two should be unrelated. As studies with more participants make more precise measurements, .25 is the better estimate of a typical psychology effect size, so the higher estimates suggest some sort of inflation.

The authors, led by Anton Kühberger, argue that the literature is thin on modest effect sizes thanks to the non-publication of non-significant findings (rejection by journals would be especially plausible for non-significant smaller studies), and the over-representation of spurious large effects, due to researchers retrospectively constructing their papers around surprising effects that were only stumbled across thanks to inventive statistical methods.

The analysts rejected one alternative explanation. To detect powerful effects a small sample is sufficient, so researchers who anticipate a big effect thanks to an initial "power analysis" might deliberately plan on small samples. But only 13 per cent of the papers in this report mentioned power, and the pattern of correlation in these specific papers appears no different to that found in the ones who never mention power. Moreover, the original 1000 authors were surveyed as to what they expected the relationship between effect size and sample size to be. Many respondents expected no effect, and even more expected that studies with more participants would have larger effects. This suggests that an up-front principled power analysis decision is unlikely to have been driving the main result.

Kühberger and his co-analysts recommend that in future we give more weight to how precise study findings are likely to be, by considering their sample size. One way of doing this is by reporting a statistic that takes sample size into account, the “confidence interval”, which describes effect size not as a single value but as a range that we can be confident the true effect size falls within. As we all want to maintain confidence in psychological science, it’s a recommendation worth considering (but see here for an alternative view).


Kühberger, A., Fritz, A., & Scherndl, T. (2014). Publication Bias in Psychology: A Diagnosis Based on the Correlation between Effect Size and Sample Size PLoS ONE, 9 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105825

--further reading--
Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests
Serious power failure threatens the entire field of neuroscience
Made it! An uncanny number of psychology findings manage to scrape into statistical significance
Fake data or scientific mistake?

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

2014-10-23   How reminders of money affect people's expression and perception of emotion

Bank robbers and gamblers will tell you what people are prepared to do for the sake of money. But money also has more subtle influences. Back in 2006, researchers showed that mere reminders of money made people more selfish (although note a later attempt failed to replicate this result).

In the latest research in this field, a team led by Yuwei Jiang have shown that exposing people to pictures of money, or to money-related words, reduces their emotional expressivity and makes them more sensitive to other people's expressions of emotion. The researchers think the effect occurs because money primes a business mindset, and in business the cultural norm is to conceal emotion.

There were six studies in all, involving a mixture of dozens of undergrads in Hong Kong, and dozens of US adults recruited via the Amazon Mechanical Turk website. In every case some participants were exposed to money and some weren't. The money exposure was either via looking at pictures of cash and coins, ostensibly to judge the clarity and lighting of the pictures (control participants saw pictures of sea shells, furniture or green leaves), or through rearranging words into sentences, many of which pertained to money (control participants only dealt with neutral sentences).

Being exposed to pictures of money or money-related words led participants to say they were less keen on sharing their emotions; to actually convey less negative emotion when asked to write a negative review about a product they were unhappy with; to convey less positive emotion when asked to write a description of a funny movie clip; to perceive other people's facial expressions of emotion as more intense; and to have less desire to interact with a smiley or angry person. In each case these effects were shown in comparison with control participants who were not exposed to money.

A couple of details to consider. Jiang and his colleagues said these effects weren't simply related to motivation. For example, on the writing tasks, the money condition participants wrote just as many words and for just as long as the control participants; the specific difference was that they included less emotion in their writing. Also, there were ways to reduce the effects of money. For example, when money-exposed people were told that other people's emotions were being displayed in private, they no longer rated those people's emotions as more intense - this is consistent with the idea that money primes a business mindset that has implications for the public, but not private, expression of emotion.

The researchers said their findings have several practical implications. "... if a consideration of money increases individuals' perception that the public expression of emotion is inappropriate," they explained, "it may decrease the desirability of using money as a medium of exchange when strong feelings are being conveyed." They also added that more research is needed to see if the effects they reported will apply in nations or cultures that are less commercialised than the US and Hong Kong.


Jiang, Y., Chen, Z., & Wyer, R. (2014). Impact of money on emotional expression Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 228-233 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.07.013

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

2014-10-22   Can a brain scan tell us anything about the art of creative writing?

When an accomplished creative writer gets on with their craft, their brain operates in a somewhat different way to a novice's. A new imaging study suggests that the expert approach may be more streamlined, emotionally literate, and initially unfiltered.

Katharina Erhard with her colleagues from the German universities of Greifswald and Hildesheim asked participants to read a fragment of a story, to brainstorm what could continue the narrative, and then, for two minutes, to write a continuation of the story. Their brains were scanned throughout. This is an improvement on previous studies that have simply involved participants imagining a story while lying in a scanner.

Participants were 20 experts - students on competitive creative writing courses with over 10 years experience and a weekly average of 21 hours practice - and 28 novices practicing less than an hour per week. Independent judges considered the experts' writing significantly more creative: "unmade laundry, unloved days" was how one expert closed his response to an account of a bitter bachelor killing himself in a laundry, whereas a tale of a violinist losing his instrument in the snow conjured this image: "the glacier, winding its tongue around the sounds, suddenly gulped the violin". The differences between expert and novice brain activation during the writing phase offers some tantalising clues to how such quality emerges.

In the frontal cortex, expert brains showed greater activity in areas crucial to language and goal selection, including across the inferior frontal gyri (IFG). Verbal creativity has been associated with left IFG activation many times before, but involvement of the right IFG was unexpected. The area is associated with emotional language processing, such as interpreting expressive gestures, so this may suggest that experts are attending more deeply to the emotional currents of text and their ideas. Together with recent evidence that metaphor comprehension recruits the right temporal lobe, this suggests a role for processes housed in the right hemisphere when a verbal task is more abstract and less factual.

Expert writing also involved more activation in the left caudate. This is part of the basal ganglia, long known to be critical to learning and expert performance, and seems to reflect ordinarily cortical cognitive processes becoming automatised and bundled together within the deeper brain. In this case, these may be to do with visually processing text, as the experts showed less activation in occipital areas involved in visual and perceptual processing.

One final finding: during brainstorming, expert brains showed increased activation relative to novices in several regions associated with speech production. Taking these findings together, they paint a picture of expert creative writers: ideas bubble within them, already on the road from concept to expression, readily communicable, almost rising into their throats. These are handled by neural systems streamlined to take care of the basics, while the writer devotes greater attention to the emotional interpretation of their text. It will be down to future researchers to verify or reject this characterisation - and hopefully, some great future writers to tell us about it. Maybe you.


Erhard, K., Kessler, F., Neumann, N., Ortheil, H., & Lotze, M. (2014). Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task NeuroImage, 100, 15-23 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.05.076

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) 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…