nuggets from the Society’s Research Digest

Epic adventures

In the September issue of Environment and Behaviour

Journeys into the world’s last wildernesses often prompt poetic reflection about the triumph of the human spirit. Such expeditions also attract the scientific eye of psychologists, who are interested in studying what happens to the human psyche and social relationships under extreme conditions.

A new paper by Gloria Leon and her colleagues has gauged the psychological profile and experiences of two polar explorers – given the pseudonyms Bill (age 32) and Andrew (age 35) – who in 2009 became the first team from the USA to reach the North Pole without outside support.

Personality profiles of the men prior to the challenge were largely as you might expect – they were both high-scorers in leadership and extraversion and low scorers on harm-avoidance. Andrew also scored low in conscientiousness, which may be unexpected given the preparation required for an expedition, and had a tendency to become highly engrossed in his own thoughts and surroundings.

The challenge was gruelling, with each man hauling a 300-pound sled in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. For the last 66 hours of their trip, the pair had just one hour of sleep for every 16 hours on the move. Throughout the 55 days, the men filled out weekly questionnaires about their coping methods, their relationship, and mood. They were also interviewed a few weeks after their return and again six months later.

For the duration of the expedition both men scored high on positive mood and low on negative mood. They survived and succeeded by supporting each other and communicating effectively, and by adopting flexible coping strategies, including positive reinterpretation of challenges and use of relaxation and meditation. Their relationship hit a low point around day 40 when Andrew aired his grievances about planning for the trip, but they worked through this constructively.

‘We were basically one persona when it came to goal orientation,’ Bill said. ‘We had a high degree of self-care for each other and ourselves,’ he explained. Andrew said: ‘Anytime we expressed ourselves it brought us closer... We talked more about recognising differences and embracing our similarities and we celebrated that it was really fun.’ Based on this, the researchers said it was important not to overgeneralise the effects of gender on group processes. ‘By focusing their interactions on supporting each other, competition between them was minimised or essentially eliminated,’ they said.

The men were affected somewhat differently on their return, with Andrew ‘Seeing the same patterns emerge of the past which I did not want there anymore’. However, both men experienced a greater sense of unity with nature and a reduction in their need for conventional achievement, in terms of social status and prestige.

Are we really blind to internet banners?

In the September/October issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology

It’s a line of research that Google doesn’t want you to know about. Many studies suggest people have a habit of simply ignoring web banners on internet sites – a phenomenon known as banner blindness. The evidence for this ad avoidance is based largely on tests of people’s explicit memory of ads after they’ve browsed a site. Of course that doesn’t mean that the participants hadn’t looked at the ads, nor does it mean that the ads hadn’t lodged their message subconsciously.

Now Guillaume Hervet and his team have attempted to address these points in an eye-tracking study. Thirty-two participants read eight webpages about choosing a digital camera. On the third, fourth, seventh and eighth pages, a Google-style rectangular text ad (180 x 150 pixels) was embedded in the right-hand side of the editorial content. The second ad was different from the first, and then the same two ads appeared on the seventh and eighth pages, respectively. Also, half the participants were exposed to ads that were congruent with the camera topic of the web-pages; the other half to incongruent ads. All advertised brands were fictitious.

The results may be of some consolation to Google and their advertisers. Eighty-two per cent of the participants did actually look at one or more of the ads. Or put another way: of the 128 ad exposures, 37 per cent were looked at once or more. Ad congruency made no difference to the looking stats. Had the ad content made a lasting impression? To test this, after the browsing phase, the participants attempted to read the same ads presented in varying degrees of blurry degradation. Their performance was compared to a new group of control participants who hadn’t done the earlier web browsing. If performance was superior among the participants who'd earlier been exposed to the ads, this would suggest they had a lasting memory of the ad content. In fact, performance was only superior for web-browsing participants who’d earlier been exposed to ads in a congruent context. So, congruency didn’t affect the likelihood of the participants looking at the ads, but it seems it did affect their memory for the ads. ‘One possibility’, the researchers said, ‘is that the presentation of contextual information – such as the editorial content during a web-site visit – acts as a prime and activates the participants’ related knowledge in memory.’

Another aspect to the results is how the participants’ behaviour changed over the course of the web browsing. They looked less at the second and fourth ads, which appeared on pages that had been preceded by a page with an ad on it in the same location – the participants seemed to have learned to ignore that area.

The lessons for web advertisers are clear: Don’t advertise on every page, vary ad location, and make sure the ad topic is congruent with the website content.

Steve Jobs’ gift to cognitive science


The ubiquity of iPhones, iPads and other miniature computers promises to revolutionise research in cognitive science, helping to overcome the discipline’s over-dependence on testing Western, educated participants in lab settings.

That’s according to a team of psychologists who say the devices allow experimentation on an unprecedented scale. ‘The use of smartphones allows us to dramatically increase the amount of data collected without sacrificing precision,’ say Stephane Dufau and his colleagues, ‘and thus has the potential to uncover laws of mind that have previously been hidden in the noise of small-scale experiments.’ In contrast, they argue that conducting cognitive psychology experiments over the internet has not been a great success because of problems obtaining the necessary precision of timing.

To illustrate their point, the researchers developed an iPhone/iPad App that replicates the classic ‘lexical decision task’ used by psychologists to study the sub-second mental processes involved in reading. Participants are presented with a series of letter strings and simply have to indicate as quickly as possible whether each one is a real word or not. The App was launched as a seven-language international effort in December 2010, and after just four months data had been collected from over 4000 participants. By way of comparison, it took more than three years to collect a similar amount of data via conventional means. It will be easy to add further languages to the App, including non-Roman alphabet languages like Chinese.

The free Science XL App presents the task to users as a test of word power and offers a choice of task lengths from two to six minutes. Once enrolled, participants use Yes/No buttons on the touch-screen display to indicate whether the letter strings that appear are real words or not. Each participant’s performance stats are presented at the end and they are given the option of forwarding their results to the researchers via e-mail. Extreme negative outliers were excluded from further analysis. There is the obvious issue of participants choosing to only send in favourable performance data. However, this doesn’t spoil the ability to examine the effect of different factors on performance. For example, the data collected via the App matched many known features of lexical decision time data: reaction times were quicker for more common words and mean times correlated with data collected in psychology labs.

Using smartphones ‘has wide multidisciplinary applications in areas as diverse as economics, social and affective neuroscience, linguistics, and experimental philosophy,’ say Dufau and his collaborators. ‘Finally it becomes possible to reliably collect culturally diverse data on a vast scale, permitting direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories.’

When humans play dead

In the September issue of Biological Psychology

When a rabbit or other animal is trapped by a predator, the ‘fight or flight response’ will kick in.

If that fails, a last-ditch defence mechanism is to go completely immobile, to play dead. Researchers in Brazil now say that in times of grave danger, this same automatic last resort is also exhibited by humans and is experienced as a terrifying feeling of being ‘locked-in’.

Volchan and her colleagues recruited 33 trauma survivors (15 women), including 18 with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They were asked to describe their ordeals in minute detail, and these accounts were transformed into a 60-second audio narrative presented by a male voice in the second-person, present tense (e.g. ‘You are walking home and a man appears...’). Each participant's account was played back to them over headphones while they stood on a platform that records body sway. Their heart rate was also monitored and afterwards they were asked questions about how they felt as they listened to the recording.

Participants who reported a strong sense of being paralysed, frozen, unable to move or scream, tended to show less body sway, higher heart rate and less heart rate variability. This was true across both PTSD and non-PTSD patients, but it was the PTSD patients who were more likely to report feelings of paralysis whilst listening to the recording of their ordeal.

‘We succeeded in experimentally inducing tonic immobility in humans and recording its biological correlates,’ the researchers said. ‘Tonic immobility still remains largely unrecognized in humans… essential steps to alleviate entrapment symptoms, guilt and prejudice in the aftermath of tonic immobility are the recognition of tonic immobility and dissemination of this knowledge to the public.’

The Research Digest

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.

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