Digest & Media

more nuggets from the Digest; Media: health in the forces, and parliamentary communication, with Mark Sergeant
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. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more. Subscribe by RSS or e-mail at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog Become a fan at www.facebook.com/researchdigest Follow the Digest editor at www.twitter.com/researchdigest

‘Smelling’ others’ anxiety increases risk taking

When people are anxious they release a chemical signal that’s detectable on a subconscious level by those close to them. That’s the implication of a new study that collected sweat from people as they completed a high-rope obstacle course, and then tested the effect of that sweat on study participants as they played a gambling game.Katrin Haegler’s team placed the sweat samples inside odourless tea bags which were attached with an elastic band to the underside of the gambling participants’ noses. For comparison, the participants were also exposed to sweat collected from non-anxious riders of an exercise bike.

When exposed to the anxious sweat, the participants took longer to decide over, but were more likely to bet on, the highest-risk scenarios – wagering that the next playing card in a pair would be higher than
a 9 (where 10 was as high as the cards went) or lower than a 2 (where 1 was the lowest). In other words, the detection of another person’s anxiety made them more willing to take risks.

Quite why this should be remains unclear. However, the idea that humans can detect the anxiety of others via chemical signals is not new. For example, a 2009 study showed that sweat collected from an anxious person, compared with from an exerciser, triggered extra activity in a range of emotion-related brain areas.

The participants in the present study rated the anxiety-laced sweat and anxiety-free sweat as equally unpleasant and intense, suggesting, consistent with past research, that they couldn’t consciously tell the difference between the two. So the effect of anxiety-laced sweat on risk-taking seems to have been a non-conscious influence.

‘Although it is not fully understood if perception of emotional chemical signals in humans may have the ability to alert conspecifics about possible danger [as happens with some animals],’ the researchers said, ‘our findings suggest that anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses.’


Queen Bees and sexist workplaces

In the British Journal of Social Psychology 

Queen Bee’ is a term used in business psychology to refer to women in senior positions who boast about their own masculine attributes, whilst derogating their female subordinates and endorsing sexist stereotypes. According to articles in the popular press (e.g. tinyurl.com/27soorj), the presence of Queen Bees is as much a cause of gender inequality at work as is the sexism shown by men. A new article by Belle Derks and her colleagues challenges this claim, arguing instead that sexist workplaces are a breeding ground for Queen Bees – that the latter are a consequence, not a cause, of sexism at work.

Derks’ team surveyed 94 women holding senior positions in several Dutch organisations (in the Netherlands, women make up only 7 per cent of the boards of the largest 100 companies and on average earn 6.5 per cent lower pay than men). The central finding was that those women who showed all the hallmarks of a Queen Bee tended to recall having suffered more sexism and prejudice in their own careers and, moreover, tended to report feeling less identification with other women when they started their careers.

According to Derks and her colleagues, when women join a sexist workplace, they have two options – they can either bolster their ties to other women or they can distance themselves from their feminine identity. The new findings are consistent with the idea that women who have a weaker feminine identity in the first place are more likely to go for the second option. Derks' central point is that it's the sexist culture that forces women to make this choice and start on the path to becoming a Queen Bee.

In common with much psychological research, this study suffers from the serious weakness of being cross-sectional in design. This means that rather than a sexist culture causing women to reject their feminine identity and become a Queen Bee, the effect could work backwards such that being a Queen Bee somehow makes you more likely to recall being the victim of sexism. However, the researchers argue this is unlikely – if anything they think established Queen Bees would be likely to downplay the presence of gender discrimination.

The new results have important implications for organisations seeking to reduce sexism. Simply appointing a few token female senior managers in a sexist culture is likely to backfire as this will dispose them to becoming Queen Bees, thus worsening the situation for their female subordinates. Instead greater emphasis should be placed on reducing sexist beliefs and practices in the organisation. ‘In companies that ensure that women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification,’ the researchers said, ‘women in senior positions are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of their female subordinates.’


The knowledge of the unfamiliar
In the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology

ondon taxi drivers undertake years of intense training to gain their operating licence, learning the layout of over 25,000 of the city’s streets. But does ‘the Knowledge’ generalise to skilled way-finding in new situations? The answer is far from obvious given that previous research using ‘table-top’ tests of visuospatial memory have actually found taxi drivers to perform worse than controls, almost as if their London expertise comes at a cost.

Katherine Woollett and Eleanor Maguire had 20 male London taxi drivers and 18 IQ-matched male controls (London residents) watch four repeats of a five-minute video of two unfamiliar routes through a town in Ireland. All participants then completed several tests of their knowledge of the new routes. The two groups were equally good at saying which route, if any, photos of buildings and other scenes came from, and making judgements about the relative proximity between landmarks; but taxi drivers were substantially better at navigating new routes within and across the two areas, and were superior at sketching out the routes with a pencil and paper.

‘Taxi drivers undergo years of training… Similarly in their job, day in day out, they are required to plan and execute routes,’ the researchers said. 'Clearly these general attentional, learning and memory mechanisms are finely-tuned and readily called upon when they are required to learn a new town.’

However, it wasn’t all good news for the cab drivers. A second investigation tested their ability to learn unfamiliar routes (taken from Bath and featuring similar architecture) that were integrated into familiar areas of London. At this task, the taxi drivers struggled compared with their performance when learning entirely new routes. Woollett and Maguire speculated that in this case the drivers’ expertise was getting in the way of learning the new routes: ‘When presented with new information to learn that is similar to their existing knowledge, their poorer performance may reflect expert inflexibility and an inability to inhibit access to existing (and now competing) memory representations.’

This finding tallies with the real-life experiences of taxi drivers. For example, several of them reported struggling a few years ago to incorporate new layouts around the Canary Wharf district into their existing knowledge.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth
In the November issue of Behavioral Sciences and the Law

t may sound twee, but a North American study claims that merely asking children and teenagers to promise to tell the truth can be surprisingly effective.

Angela Evans and Kang Lee had just over 100 8- to 16-year-olds complete a trivia test, which unbeknown to the youngsters featured two impossible questions. The participants were promised a $10 reward if they got all 10 answers right and told to refrain from peeking at the answers located on the inside of the testing booklet. For 54 per cent of the sample, the temptation proved too great and hidden cameras caught them peeking.

When interviewed, 84 per cent of the peekers lied and said they hadn’t peeked. Next they answered some questions about their understanding of truth and lying and the morality of dishonesty. Finally, all the participants were asked to promise to tell the truth in answer to the next question. This was a repeat of the question about whether they'd peeked at the answers. This time just 65 per cent lied.

Of course this doesn’t show that the promise to tell the truth was the active ingredient in reducing lying – perhaps it was the discussion about morality or merely the act of being asked the same question twice. A second experiment with another 41 youths was identical to the first except the bit about promising to tell the truth was omitted. Eighty-two per cent of peekers lied when first asked if they’d peeked. When asked again after the morality questions, 79 per cent still lied.
The lying youngsters in the first experiment who were asked to promise to tell the truth were eight times as likely to switch from lying to truth-telling than were those in the second. ‘When conducting forensic interviews with child and adolescent witnesses, police officers, social workers, and lawyers could use the honesty-promoting technique of promising to tell the truth,' the researchers said. 


Mark Sergeant on a military seminar, and parliamentary communication

On 2 November the British Psychological Society, in conjunction with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) held a seminar on Health of Military Personnel at the House of Commons (see also p.958, December). Military health research (tinyurl.com/2g3qqtd) and military psychology (tinyurl.com/apadiv19)
has an extensive history with researchers examining topics such as physical and mental well-being among members of the military and civilian support personnel. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted the needs of those who have served in these theatres of war.

The goal of the seminar was to showcase research in psychology and psychiatry, and effective strategies for supporting the UK military. The chair of the event was The Rt Hon. James Arbuthnot MP (Chairman of the Defence Select Committee), with presentations from Dr Jamie Hacker-Hughes (Head of Defence Clinical Psychology and Defence Consultant Adviser), Colonel John Etherington (Director of Defence Rehabilitation, Headley Court, Ministry of Defence) and Professor Matthew Hotopf (Professor of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry). The audience was an interesting mix of MPs and other policy makers, a smattering of journalists, and senior army officers. Among this last group a comment about being hopelessly outranked (take a quick glance at my surname) proved to be an effective icebreaker. 

Although military psychology is a far cry from my own research, the seminar was interesting and certainly effective in challenging my ideas about the mental health concerns of the UK armed forces. Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continues to be an issue for military service personnel, particularly among those directly involved in combat and among reservists (the Territorial Army), a larger problem is actually alcohol misuse. A higher proportion of people in the UK armed forces drink at hazardous levels than in the civilian population. Furthermore, although alcohol misuse is common among regular personnel deployed to combat situations, PTSD is not. Among reservists, PTSD rates are significantly higher and alcohol misuse is common among those who have been deployed.  

The seminar was conducted under The Chatham House Rule: ‘When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed’ (see (tinyurl.com/2fn83n9).

The benefit of this approach, particularly when dealing with a politically sensitive topic such as the health of military personnel, is that it allows for the free and frank exchange of ideas. The downside, however, is that it reduces the chances of such a meeting being covered in the mainstream media. Journalists covering scientific stories, including psychology-related ones, usually attribute quotes to specific individuals. Readers or viewers of a story like to hear the key facts expressed by a human being in their own words. Because of this there was comparatively limited coverage of the topic in most media outlets (though see tinyurl.com/3yuz8j4 for related coverage).

You may now be thinking that conducting the seminar under The Chatham House Rule was a bad move, but this is far from the truth. In this case the target audience of the seminar was not journalists per se, though they were certainly more than welcome, but the policy makers. Hence the event was organised in conjunction with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) at the House of Commons rather than in conjunction with an organisation such as the Science Media Centre (tinyurl.com/23zssoc).

As Society President Dr Gerry Mulhern said: ‘Our programme of joint parliamentary seminars attracts many MPs, policy makers and advisers giving psychologists the opportunity to ensure that sound, evidence-based research helps influence opinion at all levels of government’. This is actually the main point of this type of seminar. Focusing on the psychological component of topical issues, such as the health of military personnel, actively puts the BPS at the heart of policy development and helps to influence the thinking of key policy makers.

It is interesting to note that the government has recently pledged to further improve mental health services for the armed forces. While at the headquarters of the charity Combat Stress (www.combatstress.org.uk) representatives from the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health stated they would continue to work together to implement recommendations from a report on military mental health by Dr Andrew Murrison, entitled Fighting Fit. Andrew Robathan, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, stated ‘I am determined to ensure that our armed forces receive the best mental health care available, both while serving and after leaving the service’.

The Society is working to strengthen its influence in policy-making arenas. Communication is about reaching audiences with appropriate messages, and parliamentary seminars give us the opportunity to present evidence-based psychological science to a key audience. (For more information about the Society’s Parliamentary Office, see tinyurl.com/2e7cby4). As a science communicator, I can see that my media communications training would stand me in good stead should I ever be called upon by the Society to address a seminar in my particular field of expertise.

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