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Including voodoo correlations; the social contagion of happiness; decarbonising; behaviour in class; RAE results out; new year honours; event reports and more

Do you do voodoo?

They are beloved by prestigious journals and the popular press, but many recent social neuroscience studies are profoundly flawed, according to a devastating critique – ‘Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience’ – in press at Perspectives on Psychological Science (

The studies in question have tended to claim astonishingly high correlations between localised areas of brain activity and specific psychological measures. For example, in 2003 Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California and her colleagues published a paper purporting to show that levels of self-reported rejection correlated at r = .88 with levels of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex

According to Hal Pashler and his band of methodological whistle-blowers, if Eisenberger’s study and others like it were accurate, this ‘would be a milestone in understanding of brain–behaviour linkages, full of promise for potential diagnostic and therapeutic spin-offs’. Unfortunately, Pashler’s group argue that the findings from many of these recent studies are virtually meaningless.

The suspicions of Pashler and his colleagues – Edward Vul, Christine Harris and Piotr Winkielman – were aroused when they realised that many of the cited levels of correlation in social neuroscience were impossibly high given the respective reliability of brain activity measures and measures of psychological factors, such as rejection. To investigate further they conducted a literature search and surveyed the authors of 54 studies claiming significant brain–behaviour correlations. The search wasn’t exhaustive but was thought to be representative, with a slight bias towards higher impact journals.

Pashler and his team found that 54 per cent of the studies had used a seriously biased method of analysis, a problem that probably also undermines the findings of fMRI studies in other fields of psychology. These researchers had identified small areas of brain activity (called voxels) that varied according to the experimental condition of interest (e.g. being rejected or not), and had then focused on just those voxels that showed a correlation, higher than a given threshold, with the psychological measure of interest (e.g. feeling rejected). Finally, they had arrived at their published brain–behaviour correlation figures by taking the average correlation from among just this select group of voxels, or in some cases just one ‘peak voxel’. Pashler’s team contend that by following this procedure, it would have been nearly impossible for the studies not to find a significant brain–behaviour correlation.

By analogy with a purely behavioural experiment, imagine the author of a new psychometric measure claiming that their new test correlated with a target psychological construct, when actually they had arrived at this significant correlation only after first identifying and analysing just those items that showed the correlation with the target construct. Indeed, Pashler and his collaborators speculated that the editors and reviewers of mainstream psychology journals would routinely pick up on the kind of flaws seen in imaging-based social neuroscience, but that the novelty and complexity of this new field meant such mistakes have slipped through the net.

‘[I]n half of the studies we surveyed, the reported correlation coefficients mean almost nothing, because they are systematically inflated by the biased analysis,’ Pashler’s team wrote. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the papers they surveyed, it was the papers that used this flawed approach that tended to have published the highest correlation figures. ‘[W]e suspect that while in many cases the reported relationships probably reflect some underlying relationship (albeit a much weaker relationship than the numbers in the articles implied), it is quite possible that a considerable number of relationships reported in this literature are entirely illusory.’

On a more positive note, Pashler’s team say there are ways to analyse social neuroscience data without bias and that it should be possible for many of the studies they’ve criticised to re-analyse their data. For example, one approach is to identify voxels of interest by region, before seeing if their activity levels correlate with a target psychological factor. An alternative approach is to use different sets of data to perform the different steps of analysis used previously. For example, by using one run in the scanner to identify those voxels that correlate with a psychological measure, and then using a second, independent run to assess how highly that subset of voxels correlates with the chosen measure. ‘We urge investigators whose results have been questioned here to perform such analyses and to correct the record by publishing follow-up errata that provide valid numbers,’ Pashler’s team said.

Matthew Lieberman, a co-author on Eisenberger’s social rejection study, told us that he and his colleagues have drafted a robust reply to these methodological accusations, which will be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science alongside the Pashler paper. In particular he stressed that concerns over multiple comparisons in fMRI research are not new, are not specific to social neuroscience, and that the methodological approach of the Pashler group, done correctly, would lead to similar results to those already published. ‘There are numerous errors in their handling of the data that they re-analysed,’ he argued. ‘While trying to recreate their [most damning] Figure 5, we went through and pulled all the correlations from all the papers. We found around 50 correlations that were clearly in the papers Pashler’s team reviewed but were not included in their analyses. Almost all of these overlooked correlations tend to work against their hypotheses.’

Ed Vul of the Pashler group has defended their analysis online  (

Report urges ‘decarbonising’
Psychological factors feature prominently in the latest report from the UK government’s Foresight Programme: ‘Powering our Lives: Sustainable Energy Management  and the Built Environment’ (see Given  that energy consumption in buildings accounts for half the UK’s carbon emissions, this new report aims to advise government on how our built environment can evolve over the next 50 years in a way that will help us secure our energy supplies while helping prevent climate change.

Recognising that ‘people, rather than buildings, consume energy services’, the report devotes a chapter to the role that human behaviours and values will play in our transition to a lower-carbon economy. For example, while people can be encouraged to install improved insulation and more efficient heating systems, it’s possible they may then spend the long-term efficiency savings on energy consumption elsewhere – a phenomenon known as the rebound effect.

A key message from the report is that over the longer term we need to switch from an emphasis on energy efficiency and energy saving towards explicit decarbonisation. Environmental psychologist Dr Patrick Devine-Wright of Manchester University (see p.116), a lead expert on the report, gave the example of ‘smartmetering’ technologies. ‘These can make carbon emissions “visible” to people in their homes or workplaces,’ he explained, ‘perhaps linked to a system of carbon trading at the household or individual level. The implications of this change are profound for our everyday lives, as the current system does not easily enable people to become engaged with the environmental implications of their consumption of energy – bills are quite opaque and meters are ugly boxes hidden under stairs or out the back door!’

Devine-Wright added that there are both personal and professional implications of the Foresight report for psychologists of every hue. ‘The coming decades will reveal our ability to respond effectively to the threat posed by climate change not only to ourselves, but to future generations, and the report’s scenarios try to capture possible futures in an imaginative way. I would encourage psychologists to take a look at the report – particularly the chapters on behaviour and scales of energy systems – it might spawn ideas for change in all kinds of ways.’

Happiness is contagious
Happiness spreads through social groups like an emotional virus, according to findings from a social network analysis study (British Medical Journal;

Using longitudinal data collected as part of the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis were able to observe fluctuating happiness levels over time among 12,067 interconnected people. They found that a person’s happiness is influenced not only by the happiness of their immediate friends and relations but also by the happiness levels of the friends of friends, and the friends of the friends of friends.

The longitudinal methodology allowed the researchers to infer that happiness actually ripples through social groups; it isn’t merely the case that happy people tend to congregate together. For example, if a person’s friend was happy at one time point, that person’s chances of being happy at the next time point were increased.

Other details to emerge were that people at the centre of social networks, with more and better connected relationships, tended to become happier over time. Proximity – spatial and temporal – were also found to influence the flow of happiness. A happy friend, relative or neighbour who lived nearer had a stronger effect on a person’s happiness than a friend who lived further a way, and the impact of a friend or relation’s happiness faded over time. Social context too, played a role. The happiness levels of co-workers, for example, was irrelevant.

Fowler and Christakis can’t say what causes happiness to spread but possibilities include the contagious nature of emotional expressions, such as laughter and smiles, and the tendency for happier people to act more kindly towards those they have contact with.

‘Most important from our perspective is the recognition that people are embedded in social networks and that the health and wellbeing of one person affects the health and wellbeing of others’, the researchers concluded. ‘This fundamental fact of existence provides a conceptual justification for the specialty of public health. Human happiness is not merely the province of isolated individuals.’

Jailed for deception
A man who lied about his qualifications to land a job in the NHS has received a three-month prison sentence.

Lee Whitehead had been appointed director of planning and modernisation at Stoke-on-Trent Primary Care Trust after falsely claiming he had a master’s in clinical psychology and a PhD in psychology, along with a first class degree in psychology, and that he was a Chartered Psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society. In fact, he had only a second class science degree.

Paul Kay, prosecuting for the Department of Work and Pensions, said: ‘The post-holder was not required to hold either a master’s or a PhD, or be a member of the BPS. But clearly these assisted him in getting the job.’

A spokesman for NHS Stoke-on-Trent said: ‘We weren’t the first organisation Mr Whitehead made his irresponsible claims to. 

Addiction or not?

The founder of Europe’s first and only gaming addiction clinic has said that he no longer sees most cases of excessive computer game-playing by young people as an addiction problem. Speaking to BBC news, Keith Bakker noted that ‘the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers – this is a social problem.’ The Smith and Jones clinic, based in the Netherlands, previously sought to reduce people’s excessive game playing using an approach resembling the 12-step programme formulated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite Bakker’s comments to the media, his clinic’s website was, at the time of writing, still describing excessive game playing as an addiction: ‘[F]or some people, games have become an unhealthy obsession. They are addicts.’ 

Technician award

Society member Peter Beaman, who works at Loughborough University as Social Psychology Technician, has been awarded Fellow Status of the Higher Education Academy. Beaman is thought to be the first technician at Loughborough University to receive this recognition. He has worked in the Social Sciences Department since 1988, and in 2007 was awarded the first national Technician Demonstrator Role Award by the Association of Technical Staffs in Psychology for his substantial role in the teaching and learning of students.

What will change everything?
‘What will change everything?’ is the latest annual question posed by Edge, the online intellectual magazine. Psychologists have again contributed many of the answers, and understanding the brain (Irene Pepperberg) and understanding the mind (Mahzarin Banaji) were both proposed. Beyond these, at least two further discernible themes emerged from the psychologists’ entries: one related to learning, knowledge and talent, the other to technology and artificial intelligence.

Howard Gardner argued that unlocking the secret of talent will change everything, while Martin Seligman plumbed for the teaching of intuition. A sufficient number of simulations of key decision-making scenarios will mean the ‘commander or surgeon who when it happens in real life has “seen it before,” will recognize it, and take the life saving action at zero cost in blood,’ he wrote. Relatedly, Alison Gopnik said that better schooling, gene regulation and understanding of neural plasticity will allow us to extend childlike learning ability into adulthood, bringing benefits in terms of flexibility, but risks in terms of there not being anyone left to play the role of grown up.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides similarly wrote about the use of technology to speed up teaching and conceptual mastery. ‘What if people could spend four months with a specialized AI – something immersive, interactive, all-absorbing and video game-like, and emerge with a comprehensive understanding of physics, or materials science, or evolutionary psychology?’ they pondered. For Lera Boroditsky, meanwhile, it is understanding how we know things that will change everything: ‘Understanding the building blocks and the limitations of the normal human knowledge building mechanisms will allow us to get beyond them. And what lies beyond is, well, yet unknown...’

Those who focused on technological change included Susan Blackmore, who wrote that technological information – techno-memes – are currently using us to create the machines that allow them to replicate, but that a time will come when we are no longer needed. ‘Then we would become dispensable. That really would change everything,’ she said. In a similar vein, Sherry Turkle pointed to the ‘robotic moment’, when we’ll see robots as true companions. ‘When we connect with the robots of the future we will tell and they will remember. But have they listened?’ she asked. ‘Have we been “heard” in a way that matters? Will we no longer care?’

Other contributors brought the blue sky thinking back down to earth. Robert Provine said we’re unlikely to notice events that will change everything because they happen too slowly. ‘Did the Renaissance, Reformation, industrial revolution, or computer revolution, have ordinary people amazed at the changes in their lives?’ he asked. Nicholas Humphrey, meanwhile, argued that nothing changes everything. Romans, he said, might be amazed at our technological prowess, but they ‘would soon discover that beneath the modern wrapping it is business as usual. Politics, crime, love, religion, heroism… The stuff of human biography. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.’

Other psychologists who contributed included Steve Pinker on personal genomics, John Gottman on lab earth colonies, Brian Knutson on targeted neurophenomics, Roger Schank on wisdom, Marc Hauser on the unimaginable, Jesse Bering on God, Jamshed Bharucha on synchronising brains, Irene Pepperberg on understanding the brain, Jonathan Haidt on growing ethnic differences, David Myers on interactive e-textbooks, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the end of analytic science, Stephen Kosslyn on leveraging individual differences, David Buss on hiding our weaknesses and Daniel Goleman on rendering environmental and societal harms more transparent.

-    For the full-range of answers see

Hands-free not risk-free
Hands-free mobile phone use while driving – currently legal in the UK – is more detrimental to driver performance than conversing with a passenger, according to new research (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied;

Frank Drews and colleagues at the University of Utah asked participants driving in a simulator to talk to friend about a time their life had been endangered. Compared with participants who chatted to a passenger sitting next to them in the simulator, those participants who conversed via a hands-free phone (with a friend located elsewhere) were less able to maintain their lane positioning, drove a greater distance from the car in front and were four times more likely to miss the motorway exit they were supposed to take. By contrast, driver performance when chatting with a passenger was barely affected compared with a control condition that didn’t involve any conversation. Speech analysis showed that on-board passengers more often referred to traffic situations in their conversation and helped drivers notice the appropriate exit.

In a separate but related development, researchers at the University of Warwick showed that conducting a hands-free telephone conversation slowed participants’ reaction times in a visual computer task by an average of 212 milliseconds – the equivalent of an extra five metres breaking distance in a car travelling at 60 miles per hour (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review;

This slowing effect was increased if the conversation was of greater complexity, akin to making a business decision. By contrast, listening to a narrated chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula prior to a brief test on the content – intended to simulate the effects of listening to talk radio – had little effect on reaction times.Lead researcher Melina Kunar said: ‘Our research shows that simply using phones hands-free is not enough to eliminate significant impacts on a driver’s visual attention. Generating responses for a conversation competes for the brain’s resources with other activities which simply cannot run in parallel.’ 

Addiction or not?
The founder of Europe’s first and only gaming addiction clinic has said that he no longer sees most cases of excessive computer game-playing by young people as an addiction problem. Speaking to BBC news, Keith Bakker noted that ‘the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers – this is a social problem.’ The Smith and Jones clinic, based in the Netherlands, previously sought to reduce people’s excessive game playing using an approach resembling the 12-step programme formulated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite Bakker’s comments to the media, his clinic’s website was, at the time of writing, still describing excessive game playing as an addiction: ‘[F]or some people, games have become an unhealthy obsession. They are addicts.’

Technician award
Society member Peter Beaman, who works at Loughborough University as Social Psychology Technician, has been awarded Fellow Status of the Higher Education Academy. Beaman is thought to be the first technician at Loughborough University to receive this recognition. He has worked in the Social Sciences Department since 1988, and in 2007 was awarded the first national Technician Demonstrator Role Award by the Association of Technical Staffs in Psychology for his substantial role in the teaching and learning of students.

Darwin’s gift to you
The Lancet has published a special issue, Darwin’s Gift, celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. There are essays about Darwin’s life and work, and the enduring legacy of his theory of evolution. What’s more, the whole issue is available at

The Psychologist intends to publish a special issue in November, to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. If you are interested in writing a ‘Looking back’ piece on the man himself and his views on human nature, please contact the editor on [email protected].

From the Research Digest…Broken window on crime
The broken windows theory of crime reduction, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, has received new robust empirical support from a series of studies by Dutch researchers.

According to the theory, more serious crimes can be averted by reducing low-level crime such as littering and graffiti. Gladwell attributed the dramatic fall in crime in New York in the 1990s to the zero tolerance approach of the police at that time, which effectively put into practice the advice from the broken windows theory.

In the new studies, published in Science (see Kees Keizer and colleagues altered various signs of orderliness in a social scene and then observed whether passers-by conformed to some other social norm, such as not dropping litter. Their main finding throughout was that signs of petty antisocial behaviour really do have a powerful effect on people’s tendency to disobey basic rules, even increasing their tendency to steal.

Here’s the complete list of effects – bicycle owners in an alley were more than twice as likely to drop litter (a flier attached to their handlebars) if the walls were covered in graffiti; people were more than twice as likely to squeeze through a forbidden entrance to a carpark if nearby bikes were illegally chained to a fence; they were far more likely to litter (a flier attached to their windscreen) if trolleys were not returned to a shop, or if fireworks were illegally set off nearby; and finally, passers-by were far more likely to steal a money-containing envelope protruding from a postbox if litter was on the ground, or graffiti was on the postbox.

‘There is a clear message for policymakers and police officers,’ the researchers said. ‘Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder. Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behaviour (e.g. litter or stealing).’


London lectures
Simon Bignell reports from December’s Society event for students

The use of PowerPoint presentations and overhead projector slides is a major contributor to boredom in university lectures. In fact, nearly a third of students find lectures boring most of the time, according to Dr Sandi Mann (University of Central Lancashire). Fortunately for the 800 students and others gathered at Kensington Town Hall, Mann and the four other psychologists speaking here were passionate about their subjects, ranging from internet dating and subliminal messages in rock music through to Barbie dolls.

The media and popular culture, a topic close to the hearts of many in the audience, featured prominently in the day. First up, Professor Adrian North (Heriot-Watt) argued that – despite becoming particular targets for the censors – aggressive or antisocial music tends not to have a negative influence on young people. Teenagers often incorrectly interpret or ignore lyrics, and more often we use music to influence our moods (see

Another traditional target, the internet and video games, were the subject of a six-month government commissioned review led by Professor Tanya Byron. Her findings are helping to inform future policy on the potential harms to children from inappropriate material ( Byron gave an open and at times candid talk about her media and clinical career and work with children, young people and their families.

The media also has an impact on young people through the 3000 or so advertising images we are bombarded with each day. Many of these feature excessively thin or muscular models, and Dr Helga Dittmar (University of Sussex) presented research to suggest they construct a false reality that can lead to body anxiety. Dittmar suggests the claim by advertisers that ‘thin sells’ is false and has recently found evidence that average-sized models are just as effective, without leading to the negative body image.

If any of the audience were flagging at this point, Sandi Mann had the answers. Boredom is an emotion that results when none of the things that a person can realistically do appeals to them(see It helps us deal with situations we do not understand, avoid knowledge overload and communicate our values. Mann showed that boredom is strongly linked to poor academic achievement and attendance, and school dissatisfaction. In classrooms, lack of structure and engagement contribute to being listless, demotivated and unable to concentrate. At university, students blame boredom on their lecturers simply ‘reading out the material’ – the traditional notion of the ‘University Lecturer’ does not help. However, Mann suggests that students are often happy to be passively ‘spoon-fed’ information to pass exams.

Eschewing boredom, the audience cheered loudly in response to Dr Monica Whitty (Nottingham Trent University) recounting the recent case of a real-life divorce that was a result of a ‘virtual’ online affair between two avatars in the online virtual world Second Life. Whitty explained how the lack of ‘social presence’ within online chat rooms and discussion groups leads to a high level of disclosure: people can feel ‘hyper-personal’ online. Comparing different types of online dating sites, Whitty offered numerous insights into the tactics used by advertisers, including white lies and omissions. For many, the first date serves the purpose of simply seeing how close the person is to their profile! Whitty also cautioned that many online dating sites match people to each other using a formula that has been derived from couples who have been married for several years – not necessarily appropriate for singletons.

RAE results out

The results of the latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) are in, and they show that 11 per cent of the UK’s psychological research, as submitted by 76 universities, was judged to be of the highest ‘world leading’ 4* standard. Considering the top two grades – ‘4* world leading’ and ‘3* internationally excellent’ – 45 per cent of psychology research achieved this level.

The results are a sensitive issue because they affect how much research funding departments will receive in the future from funding bodies – with higher-rated institutions due to be awarded more money. Interpreting the results requires caution, especially when comparing departments: the exercise allowed institutions to choose how many of their staff to submit to scrutiny, and figures on the proportion of eligible staff who were submitted from each department have not been published.

It should also be noted that clinical psychology had the option of being assessed separately from the rest of psychology, in a grouping with psychiatry and neuroscience. Just 17 institutions submitted research to the exercise under this subject heading, with 57 per cent of research in this area judged to be of ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ standard.

-    The full results and detail on how the exercise was conducted are available at the RAE

Remember HM

Amnesic patient HM, the subject of hundreds of studies on memory, died aged 82 in December. HM, whose real name is now revealed to be Henry Molaison, suffered profound anterograde amnesia after a surgeon removed tissue slices from both his hippocampi in an attempt to reduce his seizures.

‘HM is arguably the most important single patient in terms of his influence on neuroscience,’ said Professor Alan Baddeley, a pioneer in the field of working memory, based at the University of York. ‘He is important for two reasons. At a clinical level he demonstrates the potential danger of surgery to relieve epilepsy. The method certainly works and it continues to be widely used, but it is clearly important to ensure that any brain tissue removed is not essential for adequate cognitive functioning. Secondly, HM was important in demonstrating a very severe but pure amnesia in which episodic memory, the capacity to remember new experiences, is grossly impaired, while other aspects of memory are preserved.’

Indeed, studies led by British-born psychologist Brenda Milner, now at McGill University in Canada, revealed Molaison’s continued ability to learn new skills, such as mirror drawing, and showed that his short-term, working memory was also intact.

‘This had a major impact on the question of whether memory should be regarded as a unitary function or as comprising a range of separable memory systems,’ Baddeley said. Today we recognise that there are at least two types of long-term memory – procedural memories, such as those that allow people to remember how to ride a bike, and declarative memories, which allow us to recall facts and experiences. According to an obituary in the New York Times (, scientists took extensive MRI scans of Henry Molaison’s brain on the night of his death and his brain will now be preserved for future study.

Better behaviour in class

Primary school pupils in Britain are better behaved than ever before, in terms of time spent on-task in class. That’s according to research conducted by a team of over 71 educational psychologists led by Brian Apter (Wolverhampton City Council), Christopher Arnold (Sandwell District Council

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