From the Research Digest…

Work-life balance, a neat trick for students, Scrabble vs Crosswords and more

How do male scientists balance the demands of work and family?

Academia remains heavily gendered, thanks in part to historical stereotypes asserting that men are suited to solving complex problems and ready to put ‘great works’ over other concerns such as community or family. Psychology and sociology have shown how this disadvantages women working in these fields, particularly if they wish to have children.

A new study led by Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University takes a different approach, looking at what this world is like for men. From the 73 male scientists interviewed, four groupings emerged. A minority (15 per cent) indicated they saw a fundamental incompatibility between raising a family and success in science, and as a consequence intended to forgo childrearing entirely. A second group (30 per cent) saw no such incompatibility… as long as you have a wife to raise the kids full-time. These ‘Traditional Breadwinners’ were slightly older (average age 47) and more likely to be full professors.

They were quick to accept that the family duties performed by their wives were key to their own career success. Some recognised their fortune and the compromises their partners made, whereas others saw the spheres of science and family as separate and inevitably gendered. To the question ‘Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?’, one responded ‘No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.’

But norms about working and being a father are changing, with more men wanting a greater role at home and more career opportunities for their partners. This study suggests that while some male scientists are prepared to follow through on this with action, the egalitarian commitment of others is more theoretical. This latter group (22 per cent) are ‘Neotraditionalists’: they are opposed to the idea that their working partners ought to devote themselves only to childcare, but when tensions arose between work and home life, these men presumed that their own (male) career ought to come first. They often took pains to distance themselves from having caused these tensions. One characterised his wife facing a career break during the early years of childrearing as ‘her issue’. Another stated that ‘there’s more expected of the women in terms of family life’, and a third that women were the ones ‘burdened’ with childcare. This fatalism was a common theme of the Neotraditionalists: the situation is unfair, but what are you going to do?

How about reducing your own work activities to accommodate the career of your female partner? This was the strategy taken by the final group, the ‘Egalitarian Partners’. These men (33 per cent of the sample) were likely to be together with another scientist, and saw each career track as equally important. In their interviews, they spoke of concessions made by both sides, and the recognition that other colleagues were outpacing them. Their language also betrayed awareness that their decisions were not in line with their gendered role: one qualified his decisions by saying ‘I’m trying to be a sensitive new age guy’. Data exists that suggests fathers are not expected by most managers to actually use organisational work–family policies such as crèches or shorter work-time; the true egalitarians are going against the grain, or even ‘acting female’ by placing family as equal to or more important than their devotion to the Big Questions.

Without greater societal efforts to overhaul institutional sexism, these challenges may remain for the Egalitarians. Non-child-rearing men are more likely to reach positions of power thanks to the extra time and energy they can devote to their work, and they may see less cause to introduce systems or drive cultural change to support those men who want to be an active partner in the home, however large their number may be at entry level. As a consequence, Damaske concludes, ‘the academic science pipeline may begin to leak young men as well as young women, increasing the overall loss of talent in academic science’. af

 

Students learn better when they think they’re going to have to teach the material
In Memory and Cognition

Researchers say they’ve uncovered a simple technique that improves students' memory for passages of text. All that’s required is to tell the students that they’re going to have to teach the material to someone else.

Fifty-six undergrads were split into two groups. One group were told that they had 10 minutes to study a 1500-word passage about fictional depictions of the Charge of The Light Brigade, and that they would be tested on it afterwards. The other group were similarly given 10 minutes to study the text, but they were told that afterwards they would have to teach the content to another student. Neither group was allowed to take notes.

In fact, 25 minutes after the study period was over, both groups were tested on the passage. Specifically they had to recall as much information as possible from the article, and then they faced specific questions about the content. The students who thought they were going to teach the material recalled more facts from the text, and they did so more quickly. They showed a specific advantage for the main points in the text, and their recall was also better organised, tending to reflect the structure of the original text.

A second study was similar but this time two groups of students studied an article about neurobiology and the test that followed took the form of ‘fill in the blank’ questions based on verbatim quotes from the article. This time the students who thought they were going to have to teach the article showed a slight advantage for recalling the main points, although they didn’t recall more information overall.

John Nestojko and his colleagues acknowledge that more research is needed to confirm and expand on these results (especially given the more equivocal second study), but they said their findings hint at a simple strategy for improving students’ learning. They think that cultivating in learners the expectation of having to teach the material leads them to adopt strategies ‘such as organising and weighing the importance of different concepts in the to-be-taught material, focusing on main points, and thinking about how information fits together’ that are known to boost memory performance.

In a school situation it probably wouldn't be practical for every student to go through the process of teaching learned material, but the expectation of having to teach the material could easily be fostered by announcing that one or more randomly chosen students will play the teaching role. ‘We hope the present findings encourage future researchers to discover other such potentially easy-to-implement ways of leading students to adopt more effective learning strategies,’ the researchers said. cj

 

The mental abilities of Scrabble and crossword champions
In Applied Cognitive Psychology

Every year, hundreds of word lovers arrive from across the US to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle tournament. They solve clues (e.g. ‘Caught some Z’s’) and place the answers (e.g. ‘slept’) in a grid. Meanwhile, a separate group of wordsmiths gather regularly to compete at Scrabble, forming words out of letter tiles and finding a suitable place for them on the board.

Both sets of players have exceptional abilities, but how exactly do they differ from each other and from non-players of matched academic ability? Some answers are provided by Michael Toma and his colleagues, who have performed the first detailed comparison of the mental skills of the most elite crossword and Scrabble players in the US. Previous studies on gaming expertise have mostly involved chess players, so this is a refreshing new research angle.

Toma’s team recruited 26 elite Scrabble players (in the top 2 per cent of competitive players, on average; 20 men) and 31 elite crossword players (in the top 7 per cent, on average; 22 men) to complete several tests of working memory – the kind of memory that we use to juggle and use information over short time-scales.

For example, there was a visuospatial task that involved judging whether images were symmetrical, while also remembering highlighted locations in a series of grids that always appeared after each symmetry image. Another challenge was the reading span task (a test of verbal working memory), which involved judging the grammatical sense of sentences, while also remembering the order of individual letters that were flashed on-screen after each grammatical challenge.

The researchers anticipated that the Scrabble players would outperform the crossworders on visuospatial working memory, whereas they thought the crossword players might be superior on verbal working memory. These predictions were based on the contrasting skills demanded by the two games. Scrabble players often spend hours learning lists of words that are legal in the game, but unlike crossword players, they don’t need to know their meaning. In fact many Scrabble players admit to not knowing the meaning of many of the words they play. On the other hand, Scrabble players need skills to rearrange letters and to find a place for their words on the board (a visuospatial skill), whereas crossword players do not need these skills so much because the grid is prearranged for them.

The researchers actually uncovered no group differences on any of the measures of visuospatial and verbal working memory. However, in line with predictions, the crossword competitors outperformed the Scrabble players on an analogies-based word task – identifying a pair of words that have the same relation to each other as a target pair – and the crossworders also had higher (self-reported) verbal SAT scores than the Scrabble players (SAT is a standardised school test used in the US). The two groups also differed drastically in the most important strategies they said they used during game play – for instance, mental flexibility was far more important for crossworders, whereas anagramming was important for Scrabble players but not mentioned by crossworders.

Both expert groups far outperformed a control group of high-achieving students on all measures of verbal and visuospatial working memory. This was despite the fact the students had similar verbal SAT levels to the expert players. So it seems the elite players of both games have highly superior working memory relative to controls, but this enhancement is not tailored to their different games.

Toma and his team said that by looking beyond chess and studying experts in cognitively demanding verbal games, their research ‘helps to build a more general understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie elite performance’. From a theoretical perspective, their finding of no working memory differences between Scrabble and crossword competitors is supportive of a domain-general account of working memory – a single mechanism that fulfils the processing of verbal and visuospatial information. cj

 

Little Albert – one of the most famous research participants in psychology’s history, but who was he?  
In Teaching of Psychology

In 1920, in what would become one of the most infamous and controversial studies in psychology, a pair of researchers at Johns Hopkins University taught a baby boy to fear a white rat. For decades, the true identity and subsequent fate of this poor infant, nicknamed ‘Little Albert’, has remained a mystery. But recently this has changed, thanks to the tireless detective work of two independent groups of scholars.

Now there are competing proposals for who Little Albert was and what became of him. Which group is correct – the one led by Hall Beck at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, or the other led by Russell Powell at MacEwan University in Alberta?

These developments are so new they have yet to be fully documented in any textbooks. Fortunately, Richard Griggs at the University of Florida has written an accessible outline of the evidence unearthed by each group. His overview will be published in Teaching of Psychology in January 2015, but the Research Digest has been granted an early view.

The starting point for both groups of academics-cum-detectives was that Little Albert is known to have been the son of a wet nurse at Johns Hopkins. Hall Beck and his colleagues identified three wet nurses on the campus in that era, and they found that just one of them had a child at the right time to have been Little Albert. This was Arvilla Merritte, who named her son Douglas. Further supporting their case, Beck’s group found a portrait of Douglas and their analysis suggested he looked similar to the photographs and video of Little Albert and could well be the same child (see tinyurl.com/beck0511).

The Merritte line of inquiry was further supported, although controversially so, when a clinical psychologist Alan Fridlund and his colleagues analysed footage of Little Albert and deemed that he was neurologically impaired. If true, this would fit with the finding that Douglas Merritte’s medical records show he had hydrocephalus (‘water on the brain’). Of course this would also mean that the Little Albert study was even more unethical than previously realised.

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of the Merritte theory is why the original researchers John Watson and Rosalie Rayner called the baby Albert if his true name was Douglas Merritte. Enter the rival detective camp headed by Russell Powell. Their searches revealed that in fact another of the Johns Hopkins’ wet nurses had given birth to a son at the right time to have been Little Albert. This child was William A. Barger, although he was recorded in his medical file as Albert Barger. Of course, this fits the nickname Little Albert (and in fact, in their writings, Watson and Rayner referred to the child as ‘Albert B’).

Also supporting the William Barger story, Powell and his team found notes on Barger’s weight, which closely match the weight of Little Albert as reported by Watson and Rayner. This also ties in with the fact that Little Albert looks healthily chubby in the videos (Merritte, by contrast, was much lighter). Meanwhile, other experts have criticised the idea of diagnosing Little Albert as neurologically impaired based on a few brief video clips, further tilting the picture in favour of the Barger interpretation. Indeed, summing the evidence for each side, Griggs decides in favour of Powell’s camp. ‘Applying Occam’s razor to this situation would indicate that Albert Barger is far more likely to have been Little Albert,’ he writes.

What do the two accounts mean for the fate of Little Albert? If he was Douglas Merritte, then the story is a sad one – the boy died at age six of hydrocephalus. In contrast, if Little Albert was William Barger, he in fact lived a long life, dying in 2007 at the age of 87. His niece recalls that he had a mild dislike of animals. Was this due to his stint as an infant research participant? We’ll probably never know. cj

 

Pupils benefit from praise, but should teachers give it publicly or privately?  
In the Journal of School Psychology

There’s a best practice guide for teachers, produced by the Association of School Psychologists in the US, stating that praise is best given to pupils in private. This advice is not based on experimental research – there hasn’t been any – but on surveys of student preferences, and on the rationale that pupils could be embarrassed by receiving praise in public.

Now, in the first study of its kind, John Blaze and his colleagues have systematically compared the effect of public and private praise (also known as ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ praise) on classroom behaviour. They found that praise had a dramatic beneficial effect on pupils’ behaviour, and it didn’t matter whether the praise was private or public.

The research was conducted at four high-school public classrooms in rural south-eastern United States (the equivalent to state schools in the UK). The classes were mixed-sex, with a mixture of mostly Caucasian and African American pupils, with between 16 and 25 pupils in each class. The children were aged 14 to 16. Three of the teachers were teaching English, the other taught Transition to Algebra.

The teachers were given training in appropriate praise, which must be contingent on good behaviour, make clear to the pupil why they are being praised, be immediate and effort-based. During the test sessions of teaching, the teachers carried a buzzer on their belt that prompted them, once every two minutes, to deliver praise to one of their pupils, either loudly so the whole class could hear (in the loud condition) or discreetly, by a whisper in the ear or pat on the shoulder, so that hopefully only the child knew they were being praised (in the quiet condition). For comparison, there were also baseline sessions in which the teachers simply carried out their teaching in their usual style.

Trained observers stationed for 20-minute sessions in the classrooms monitored the teachers’ praise-giving and the behaviour of the pupils across the different conditions. They found that frequent praise increased pupils’ on-task behaviours, such as reading or listening to the teacher, by 31 per cent compared with baseline, and this improvement didn’t vary according to whether the praise was private or public. Frequent praise of either manner also reduced naughty behaviours by nearly 20 per cent.

Blaze and his team said that the debate over praise will likely continue, but they stated their results are clear: ‘both loud and quiet forms of praise are effective tools that can have dramatic effects at the secondary level’. A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn’t monitor the teachers’ use of reprimands, which likely reduced as they spent more time delivering praise. cj

 

Digest Digested

Full reports are available at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog

How easily new students make friends is influenced in part by the design of their halls of residence. Lounges and shared toilet facilities help foster chance encounters, strengthening relationships and improving student well-being. British Journal of Social Psychology

After five days at a technology-free summer camp, 11-year-olds showed more improvement at reading emotions in faces than their peers who stayed at school and kept up their usual texting and video-gaming. Computers in Human Behaviour

School children aged 11 to 12 performed better on a maths test when they were given a minute at the start to skim through all the questions. The researchers think this simple strategy reduces anxiety by activating relevant ‘schemas’ in the children’s minds. Applied Cognitive Psychology

Eye contact with another person makes us more aware of our own body. After participants looked at pictures of faces that appeared to be making eye contact, they were more accurate at judging their own physiological reaction to positive and negative images. Cognition

People’s belief in free will is not threatened by neuroscience findings that show non-conscious neural activity precedes conscious decisions. US student participants still believed a fictional woman had free will when her every decision was anticipated by neuroscientists monitoring her brain activity. Cognition

Taking LSD leaves people more open to suggestion. This was especially the case for participants scoring high on trait conscientiousness. Researchers say the finding opens up the possibility of using LSD in contexts where hypnosis has proven effective, such as pain control. Psychopharmacology

Watching TV could be a great way to relax if only we forgive ourselves for the downtime. Participants who felt more depleted after work tended to experience more guilt about watching TV or gaming in the evening, and the more guilt they experienced, the less likely they were to say that they felt rejuvenated afterwards. Journal of Communication

 

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett and contributor Dr Alex Fradera. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more.

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