Digest

The selection in the August issue.

What the textbooks don’t tell you about psychology’s most famous case study
In Teaching of Psychology

It’s a remarkable, mythical tale with lashings of gore – no wonder it’s a favourite of psychology students the world over. I’m talking about Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railway worker who somehow survived the passing of a three-foot long tamping iron through the front of his brain and out the top of his head. What happened to him next?

If you turn to many of the leading introductory psychology textbooks (American ones, at least), you’ll find the wrong answer, or a misleading account. Richard Griggs, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, has just analysed the content of 23 contemporary textbooks (either released or updated within the last couple of years), and he finds most of them contain distortions, omissions and inaccuracies.

It needn’t be so. Thanks to painstaking historical analysis of primary sources (by Malcolm Macmillan and Matthew Lena) – much of it published between 2000 and 2010 [for example, see ‘Looking Back’, September 2008] – and the discovery during the same time period of new photographic evidence of post-accident Gage, it is now believed that Gage made a remarkable recovery from his terrible injuries. He ultimately emigrated to Chile where he worked as a coach driver, controlling six horses at once and dealing politely with non-English-speaking passengers. The latest simulations of his injury help explain his rehabilitation – it’s thought the iron rod passed through his left frontal lobe only, leaving his right lobe fully intact.

Yet, the textbooks mostly tell a different story. Of the 21 that cover Gage, only four mention the years he worked in Chile. Only three detail his mental recovery. Fourteen of the books tell you about the first research that attempted to identify the extent of his brain injuries, but just four of the books give you the results from the most technically advanced effort, published in 2004, that first suggested his brain damage was limited to the left frontal lobe (see video at tinyurl.com/p5dgvlz). Only nine of the books feature either of the two photos to have emerged of Gage in recent times.

So the textbooks mostly won’t tell you about Gage’s rehabilitation, or provide you with the latest evidence on his injuries. Instead, you might hear how he never worked again and became a vagrant, or that he became a circus freak for the rest of his life, showing off the holes in his head. ‘The most egregious error’, says Griggs, ‘seems to be that Gage survived for 20 years with the tamping iron embedded in his head!’

Does any of this matter? Griggs argues strongly that it does. There are over one and half million students enrolled in introductory psychology courses in the US alone, and most of them are introduced to the subject via textbooks. We know from past work that psychology textbook coverage of other key cases and studies is also often distorted and inaccurate. Now we learn that psychology’s most famous case study is also misrepresented, potentially giving a misleading, overly simplistic impression about the effects of Gage's brain damage. ‘It is important to the psychological teaching community to identify inaccuracies in our textbooks so that they can be corrected, and we as textbook authors and teachers do not continue to “give away” false information about our discipline,’ Griggs concludes.

- Christian Jarrett 

Toddlers learn better when you make them giggle  
In Cognition and Emotion

There is probably nothing more fun than making a baby or toddler laugh. And now there’s news that it could even help with learning – the toddler’s not the adult’s.

In the first study to look at the effects of humour on learning at such a young age, Rana Esseily and her colleagues began by showing 53 18-month-olds how to reach a toy duck with a cardboard rake (other toddlers who had spontaneously used the rake as a reaching tool were excluded). Crucially, half the participating toddlers were given several non-humorous demonstrations of how to use the rake to reach and pull the duck nearer. In these straight demonstrations, the experimenter was smiley, but just played with the duck for a bit after getting hold of it. The other toddlers were given several humorous demonstrations. In this case, after getting hold of the duck, the experimenter suddenly threw it on the floor and smiled. Sixteen of the 37 toddlers in the jokey condition laughed at least once when shown the funny demonstrations.

Next, the researchers placed the rake near each toddler’s hand, to see if they would imitate the action and use the rake to reach the duck for themselves. Among the laughing toddlers, all but one (93.7 per cent) used the rake to reach the duck. In comparison, just 19 per cent of the non-laughing toddlers in the jokey condition used the rake, and just 25 per cent of the 16 toddlers who had been given the straight (non-jokey) demonstrations.

‘Our results suggest that laughing might be a stimulant of learning even during the second year of life,’ the researchers concluded. However, they conceded that there are other possible interpretations of their findings. For example, perhaps infants who laugh at jokes are just more cognitively advanced and that’s why they showed superior learning (although if that were true, you’d also expect a similar range of ability in the control group, which wasn’t found). Or maybe it‘s not laughter per se that aids toddlers’ learning, but any kind of positive emotion. ‘Further work is clearly now required to elucidate the question of the mechanisms underlying this effect of laughter on infants’ learning,’ the researchers said.

cj

Here's a technique that helps self-critical people build confidence from a taste of success  

In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Last week Kathleen finally put aside her fears about public speaking to give a presentation… and it went pretty well! But when you caught her at lunch today and asked if she wanted future opportunities to present, you found she was as pessimistic about her ability as ever.

This story reflects an unfortunate truth: people with low self-belief are liable to hold on to negative assumptions about themselves despite concrete evidence of the contrary; that is, they fail to ‘generalise from success’. Thankfully, in a new paper, psychologist Peter Zunick and his colleagues describe a technique, called directed abstraction, that can help the self-critical change their mindsets.

Direct abstraction means stopping to consider how a specific success may have more general implications – this is the abstraction part – and also ensuring this thinking is directed towards how personal qualities were key to the success. Let’s see what this means in practice.

In a first study, 86 students guessed the number of dots flashed up on screen, and were given fake but convincing positive feedback on their performance. Half the students were then asked to explain how they completed the task, which kept their thoughts on a very concrete, specific level. The other half were prompted to engage in directed abstraction by completing the sentence: “I was able to score very high on the test because I am: ... ” This query is not about how, but why – a more abstract consideration – and also focuses on the individual’s own qualities.

Engaging in directed abstraction appeared to give a particular boost to those participants who’d earlier reported believing they have low competence day to day: afterwards, they not only had more confidence in their estimation ability (than similarly self-critical control participants), they also believed they would do better at similar tasks (like guessing jelly beans in a jar) that they faced in the future.

In another experiment, Zunick’s research team sifted through hundreds of students to find 59 with low faith in their public speaking skills. Each of them was given a few minutes to prepare and then make a speech to camera on the topic of transition to college life, a fairly easy one to tackle. Each participant then watched themselves on video, with the experimenter offering reassuring feedback and implying that they did surprisingly well.

The same participants then engaged in directed abstraction (or the control ‘how’ query) before being thrown once more into the breach with a second speechmaking experience, this time on a tough topic, with no coddling feedback afterward – this was the real deal. Did the directed abstraction participants gain confidence from their early success that could survive a rockier second round? They did, reporting more confidence for future public speaking than their peers.

The technique seems to be appropriate for a range of settings, although obviously it’s only useful to use it following an event that can be reasonably seen as a success, otherwise it could backfire. And it’s simple to use to help a friend or yourself, just by taking the time after a success to think through what it owes to your personal qualities. Then confidence can follow. af

 

Is dyslexia associated with exceptional visual-spatial abilities?   
In Current Psychology

Children and adults with dyslexia have reading skills that are weak relative to their overall intelligence. That’s why it is often referred to as ‘specific learning disability’. But what if such a profile also tended to be associated with exceptional strengths in other areas, such as visual skills? That’s certainly what some experts have proposed, for example based on the observation that people with dyslexia are overrepresented in fields that involve visual-spatial abilities, such as art and architecture.

Now a team led by Mirela Duranovic has tested 40 children aged 9–11 and diagnosed with dyslexia, on a range of tests of imagery and visual memory. The children with dyslexia performed similarly to 40 age-matched, non-dyslexic controls on most tests, including the mental rotation of shapes; copying a complex, abstract figure (the so-called Rey-Osterrieth Figure); and following the beginning of a line to the end, through a tangle of other lines.

On memory for simple geometric shapes there was a tendency for the dyslexic children to underperform. And on one test, the children with dyslexia clearly performed worse than the controls: this was drawing the Rey-Osterrieth Figure from memory. However, on yet another test, the dyslexic children excelled, outperforming the controls. This was the Paper Folding Test, which requires looking at a depiction of how a piece of paper is folded and where a hole is punched through it, and then judging which one of several illustrations correctly depicts how the paper will look once unfolded again.

The superior performance of the dyslexic children on the Paper Folding Test is intriguing – this test is arguably more challenging and complex than simple mental rotation tasks, and involves a larger sequence of mental steps to complete.

This new study adds to a complicated, contradictory literature on visual spatial skills in dyslexia, filled with studies that have reported no differences between dyslexic people and controls, deficits in dyslexic groups, and advantages in dyslexia.

More research is now needed to explore why the currently reported dyslexia advantage was observed: what is it about the mental processes involved in the Paper Folding Task that meant the dyslexic children performed better than controls? Also, will the finding replicate, and will it generalise to other tasks that require the same mental processes?

‘Connecting dyslexia to talent leads us in a more optimistic direction than only associating dyslexia with a deficit,’ the researchers concluded. ‘The revelation of talent in individuals with dyslexia opens a door to more effective educational strategies and for choosing professions in which individuals with dyslexia can be successful.’ cj

 

The monster in the mirror
In Journal of Health Psychology

One of the participants in an upsetting series of new interviews says she once stared into the mirror for 11 hours straight. She was looking, searching, trying to find a perspective where she felt good enough about herself to be able to go outside.

The woman in question, Louise, has body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is defined by psychiatrists as a disabling and distressing preoccupation with a perceived physical flaw or flaws. For their study, Joanna Silver and Jacqui Farrants at City University in London interviewed 11 such people (four men) about their relationships with mirrors – an important, but previously unexplored aspect of their condition. The participants’ reasons for mirror gazing were complex and contradictory. Jane describes mirrors as ‘f*cking bastards’ and mirror gazing as a ‘form of self-harm’. Others spoke of the practice as masochistic and addictive and imprisoning. ‘It’s just like I need to look,’ said Hannah. ‘I do feel kind of bereft if there are no mirrors.’

The participants also described what they perceived as the ugliness of the person staring back at them. ‘I look like a monster,’ said Hannah. Jenny said she is ‘truly hideous’ and ‘repulsive’. The participants questioned how other people could bear to look at them. Jane said, ‘How don’t people throw up every time they seem me?’

To catalyse the interview process, the researchers asked their participants to bring in photographs that represented their experience of BDD and mirror gazing. Chris brought a photograph of the Sponge Bob cartoon character, which he said shows the ‘hideous’ image with ‘really protruding teeth’ that he sees in the mirror. Jenny brought a photo of a Raggy Dolls reject bin and Louise shared her ‘getting ready station’ featuring stop watch and scissors for scratching the desk-top in frustration.

The researchers said their participants’ experiences could be understood in terms first described by the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty: ‘…it seems that participants do not experience their body as a “lived body” but instead as an “objectified body”.’ While they cautioned that the findings of this study may not generalise to all people with BDD, the researchers said their results highlight an important aspect of the condition that is not found in standard textbook accounts. ‘Detailed accounts given by participants suggest that mirror gazing in BDD is a complex and embodied phenomenon and it is vital that health psychologists ask clients open questions about their individual experiences at the mirror,’ they concluded. cj

 

Digest Digested
Full reports are available at www.bps.org.uk/digest

We’re three times more likely to cheat on our last opportunity to do so, on average, according to a coin-flipping study. Researchers say the motivation is the anticipated regret of missing the last opportunity, not because of weakened willpower. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Expert philosophers are just as irrational in their thinking as the rest of us. Hundreds of them were found to be as prone as non-philosophers to so-called framing effects and order effects when faced with moral dilemmas. This was true even when they were prompted to take their time and be extra reflective. Cognition

Thinking about the future can make it harder for us to recall autobiographical memories on a similar topic. This interference effect adds to other evidence that has suggested the same brain mechanisms are involved in remembering the past and imagining the future. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

A survey of Harry Potter fans has found they tend to have personalities that match the characters who belong to their favourite House: Gryffindor fans were the most extraverted, Hufflepuffs more agreeable, Ravenclaws sought more ‘need for cognition’, and Slytherins reported more ‘"Dark Triad’ personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences

A series of meta-analyses of over a hundred studies has found little support for the popular idea that willpower is a ‘limited resource’ that runs out with repeated use. Unlike a previous influential meta-analysis that supported that theory, the new analyses included unpublished data. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

New findings suggest that the memorability of a face is affected by its emotional expression and the congruency of that emotion with the wider context. So, for example, if you smile at a party, people are later more likely to remember your face and where they saw it. Acta Psychologica

Researchers need to beware that people who volunteer for free brain scans may differ in systematic ways from those who decline. A new survey of older adults found that brain scan volunteers were more likely to be younger, male, better educated, married, employed, and mentally and physically healthier. Brain Imaging and Behaviour

 

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at www.bps.org.uk/digest, 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, our brand new podcast, news of an exciting live event (see above), and more.

Subscribe to the fortnightly e-mail, friend, follow and more via www.bps.org.uk/digest

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber