From the Research Digest

A selection of the latest morsels… 

How guessing the wrong answer helps you learn the right answer

In Memory and Cognition

It’s well known that taking tests helps us learn. The act of retrieving information from memory helps that information stick. This seems intuitive. More surprising is the recent discovery that guessing aids subsequent learning of the correct answer, even if your initial guess was wrong.

Let’s consider a simple example in the context of learning capital cities. Imagine you don’t know the capital of Brazil. In the first scenario, I show you the word Brazil and your task is to say the capital. Because you don’t know, you guess ‘Rio de Janeiro’. This guessing phase takes 8 seconds. I then show you, for 5 seconds, the word Brazil together with the correct answer ‘Brasilia’. In the second scenario, you simply have 13 seconds to study the country/capital pairing Brazil and Brasilia.

Later on, I test you on the capital of Brazil. The new research on guessing finds that you’re more likely to recall the correct answer in the first scenario, in which you initially guessed wrong. This is counterintuitive for two reasons – first, you had less time to study the correct information (5 seconds vs. 13 seconds), and second, you came up with a wrong answer, which you’d think would interfere with your memory for the correct answer once I gave it to you.

How can this be? A new study by Veronica Yan and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, puts two possibilities to the test. To understand the first of these, we need to realise that prior research on the guessing effect has tended to use word pairs related by meaning, such as ‘olive’ and ‘branch’ or ‘whale’ and ‘mammal’. Some participants simply study the word pairs, others guess each partner word before being shown the correct word. The guessing process leads to superior memory for the word pairs than simply studying them, even when the guessing is wrong.

Crucially, this past research has tended to use word pairs only weakly related in meaning, while the participants in the guessing condition usually guess strongly related words. Yan and her colleagues reasoned that this could be a way for the guessing process to be a memory aid. When it comes to the memory test on the word pairs, participants in the guessing condition can use the rule of thumb ‘the correct answer is always weakly related to the first word’. This is a shrewd observation on the part of Yan and her team, but they found no evidence to support their theory. The beneficial guessing effect still occurred even when they used a mix of strongly and weakly related word pairs.

The second explanation Yan’s team tested had to do with whether a person’s guesses are always wrong. If the initial guess is always wrong, perhaps this makes it easy to always suppress the guess information, thereby aiding recall of the correct answer once it’s given. Yan’s team also found this explanation wanting. Participants still benefited from the guessing effect even when the procedure was rigged so that half their guesses were right and half were wrong.

Yan et al.’s final study examined the duration of the beneficial guessing effect. They reasoned that perhaps the benefit will only be short-lived, while participants are easily able to remember and suppress their guessed answer. In fact the learning benefits of guessing, even incorrectly, was found even when participants were tested 61 hours after the guessing process.

So why does guessing have this beneficial effect for learning? The truth is we still don’t really know. An explanation with growing support has to do with what psychologists call ‘semantic activation’. Essentially they’re saying that guessing activates the mental web of knowledge and facts associated with the correct answer, which makes the subsequent storage of that correct information easier once it’s given. ‘The basic idea is that this [guessing-related] activation.. affords a richer encoding of the subsequently presented target,’ the researchers said.

From a practical perspective, this research on the beneficial effects of guessing suggests that teachers shouldn’t worry too much about giving students tests that are too difficult. Even if they keep getting the answers wrong, so long as they’re given the correct information afterwards, the act of guessing is actually likely to assist their learning, not hinder it.

- Christian Jarrett 

Happy people think they’re good at empathising with the pain of others. They’re wrong  
In PLoS One

Which of your friends – the happier, or the more melancholy – is better at spotting your excitement that Chris is attending your birthday, or that a B+ has left you disappointed?

Evidence suggests that more upbeat people consider themselves especially empathic, and it would be reasonable to believe them, given that they know more people on average, and tend to form deeper, more trusting relationships. The reality, however, is more complicated. New research led by Yale’s Hillary Devlin suggests that cheerful people may think they’re high in empathy, but their confidence outstrips their ability.

Devlin assessed her 121 adult participants’ level of trait positive affect – essentially their average happy mood from day to day – and asked them how strong they were at empathising. Happier participants tended to believe they were better empathisers in general.

The researchers next studied videos of people giving a monologue about an autobiographical event. For each of the four videos (two positive events, two negative) participants rated, second-by-second, the level of negative or positive emotion they thought the speaker was feeling.

Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than the others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.

There was one ray of sunshine for the positive participants: they were marginally more accurate in the two positive videos at spotting upward shifts in the speakers’ emotions, for example as their happiness intensified slightly. This raises the possibility that upbeat people may be more sensitive to shifts in emotion that match their own disposition. But more generally, their high confidence in their own empathy appears unfounded, and they may struggle to drop down into the headspace of someone feeling very low.

In psychology research, measures of empathy are often based on participants’ assessments of themselves, so this new study suggests researchers need to be aware that such beliefs may not track reality. For the rest of us, it’s useful to know that you don’t need to be a Pollyanna to figure out how people are doing. Sometimes, it’s the Eeyores of this world who are more understanding. 

- Alex Fradera 

When Korea imposed a limit on working hours, did it make people happier?  
In the Journal of Happiness Studies

Across different professions, many people are familiar with the sense of having to deliver more with less, meaning clocking-off time falls later and later. One way to protect workers’ rights, and look after their well-being, is to introduce working hours restrictions. But a new paper by Korea University’s Robert Rudolf investigates the impact of such a reform, and its conclusions are disappointing.

Beginning its roll-out in 2004, the (South) Korean Five Day Working Reform was intended to manage the nation’s subservience to the office: employees there work some of the longest hours among the OECD countries – more than 50 per week on average.

Rudolf first investigated how working hours affect well-being within a dataset of roughly equal numbers of men and women, all married with children. This group is likely to experience conflict between home and work life, and is a demographic targeted by the Reform. Over 50,000 data points were available, each representing a person in a given year between 2000 and 2008 – that is, either side of the introduction of the new government policy.

Overall, Rudolf found that workers disliked very high working hours: working longer was associated with less satisfaction with their job and with their life as a whole. (These and subsequent analyses control for income.) Nothing too surprising there. But a second analysis was restricted to changes in working hours that were the direct consequence of the Working Reform, and here things become more illuminating.

Looking at the effects of imposed reductions in working hours helps reduce the complicating influence of other factors – for example, if people choose to downsize their hours to make space for a highly fulfilling new hobby, this could give an inflated impression of the value of shorter hours. The new data showed that although employees, especially women, reported a preference for their decreased hours, there was (for both genders) no significant effect on job satisfaction, and no hint of an improvement in life satisfaction. Unasked for drops in hours did not make people happier.

Clearly, individuals electing to reduce their hours are likely to reap well-being benefits, whether their aim is to ease the burden on their home responsibilities or release time to recuperate from working stressors. But this study suggests enforced reductions – in this case of about 10 per cent, an average of five hours – may not noticeably affect overall life satisfaction.

Why might this be? Rudolf points out previous evidence that in the short term, capping hours often just means employees have to get the same work done in a shorter time, which is likely to be stress-inducing. In other cases, the release of hours may have been insufficient to really impact home-life routines, as many working men and women were still clocking in between 40 to 50 hours. More radical solutions may be needed to qualitatively change our experience of work. 

- Alex Fradera 

When we get depressed, we lose our ability to go with our gut instincts
In the British Journal of Clinical Psychology

People who are depressed often complain that they find it difficult to make decisions. A new study provides an explanation. Carina Remmers and her colleagues tested 29 patients diagnosed with major depression and 27 healthy controls and they found that the people with depression had an impaired ability to go with their gut instincts, or what we might call intuition.

Intuition is not an easy skill to measure. The researchers’ approach was to present participants with triads of words (e.g. SALT DEEP FOAM) and the task was to decide in less than three and a half seconds whether the three words were linked in meaning by a fourth word (in this case the answer was ‘yes’ and the word was SEA). Some triads were linked, others weren’t.

If the participants answered that the words were linked, they were given eight more seconds to provide the linking fourth word. However, it was perfectly acceptable for them to say that they felt the words were linked, but that they didn't know how. Indeed, when this occurred, it was taken by the researchers as an instance of intuition – that is, ‘knowing without knowing how one knows’.

There were no differences between the depressed patients and controls in the number of times they provided the correct fourth, linking word, nor in the number times they provided no response at all. This suggests both groups were equally motivated and attentive to the task. But crucially, the depressed patients scored fewer correct intuitive answers (i.e. those times they stated correctly that the words were linked, but they didn't consciously know how).

Having poorer intuition on the task was associated with scoring higher on a measure of brooding (indicated by agreement with statements like ‘When I am sad, I think “Why do I have problems others don't have?”'), and in turn this association appeared to be explained by the fact that the brooding patients felt more miserable.

Remmers and her team said their study makes an important contribution – in fact, it’s the first time that intuition has been studied in people with major depression. The results are also consistent with past research involving healthy people that’s shown low mood encourages an analytical style of thought and inhibits a creative, more intuitive thinking style.

However, I couldn’t help doubting the realism of the measure of intuition used in this study. Is a judgement about word meanings really comparable to the gut decisions people have to make in their lives about jobs and relationships?

Two further questions that also remain outstanding are whether an impairment in intuitive thinking is a symptom or cause of depression; and is this intuition deficit specific to depression or will it be found in patients with other mental health problems? 

- Christian Jarrett 

Babies’ anxiety levels are related to their fathers’ nervousness, not their mothers’
In Developmental Science

Picture a one-year-old infant crawling across a table top. Half way across, the surface becomes transparent so that it appears there is a deep drop. On the other side is the infant’s mother or father, encouraging them to crawl across the ‘visual cliff’. Will the baby's anxiety levels be influenced more by the mother’s own anxiety or the father’s?

This was the question posed by Eline Möller and her colleagues in what is the first-ever study to examine paternal behaviour in the classic visual cliff paradigm. Taking part in the research were 40 mothers, 41 fathers, and their one-year-old infants. Only one parent participated at a time, so some infants crawled towards their father, others crawled towards their mother.

Surprisingly perhaps, mothers’ and fathers’ verbal and facial encouragement – examples included clapping, smiling and calling out ‘You’re doing great’ – made no difference to the infants’ anxiety levels and boldness (as measured by the baby’s body language, facial expressions, crying, and avoidance of the cliff).

What about the parents’ own anxiety as revealed in their gestures, posture, facial expressions and nervous exclamations such as ‘Be careful’? Here the researchers found that the anxiety of male and female infants was correlated with their father's anxiety, but not their mother's. We can’t know the causal direction here – it’s possible that the infants were responding to their fathers’ (but not their mothers’) nervousness, or that the fathers (unlike mothers) were made nervous by their baby’s anxiety, or possibly both.

Either way, the result suggests that fathers may play a more significant part than mothers in the anxiety levels of their infants, at least in situations involving physical hazards. This is consistent with evolutionary-based claims that human fathers have tended to be more responsible for teaching their offspring how to deal with external challenges (such as strangers and new places), whereas mothers deal with ‘internal’ situations, such as feeding and comforting. Such arguments are supported by research showing that fathers usually encourage more risk-taking and competition in their children than mothers.

Möller and her team also looked at the babies’ trait levels of nervousness and anxiety. They found that among the babies who are anxious more generally (not specifically in the visual cliff situation), there was an even stronger link between infant and paternal anxiety. For infants with an anxious temperament, then, fatherly confidence seems to be especially important. The study has some important limitations including the fact the people who coded the behaviour and body language of the babies and parents could clearly see the gender of the parent involved (this raises the possibility that the researchers’ prior assumptions about mothers and fathers may have influenced how they performed their coding). However, the coders were unaware of the study aims and hypotheses.

Limitations aside, research on the way fathers interact with their young children is rare and this study makes a novel contribution. It may also have clinical implications. The results suggest ‘anxious signals from the father can maintain or exacerbate fearful behaviour of the child, whereas with non-anxious and confident behaviour a father can teach his child that the world is safe,’ the researchers said. ‘In this sense, fathers can act as a buffer against child anxiety.’

- Christian Jarrett 

Digest Digested
See blog for full reports 

Bankers started behaving dishonestly in a coin-tossing game when they were reminded of their professional identity. The same effect wasn’t found when other professionals were primed about their own jobs, nor when students were prompted to think about banking. Nature

Ed Diener and his colleagues in the US have compiled a list of the 200 most eminent psychologists based on research citations, awards and textbook mentions. Albert Bandura tops the list, followed by Jean Piaget and Daniel Kahneman. Archives of Scientific Psychology

When our age ends in a 9 (such as 29, 39, 49, etc.) we are particularly prone to self-reflection. US researchers found that this can affect our behaviour in striking ways: first marathons, extra-marital affairs and suicides were all found to be particularly high among ‘9-enders’. PNAS

Lying to children of a certain age could encourage them to do the same. After a researcher lied to children about a bowl of sweets, those aged five and up more often lied about peeking at a toy. The same effect wasn’t found for three- and four-year-olds. Developmental Science

Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function, according to a review of human and animal research. One study found that lonely people are more likely to develop dementia; another with rats found that those kept in isolation had suppressed growth of new neurons. Psychological Bulletin

‘Confidence intervals’ are often touted as a preferred way of reporting psychology results, but a new survey of students and researchers has found that they are widely misunderstood. Rink Hoekstra and his colleagues said this is indicative of a ‘serious problem in scientific practice’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review
Collective nostalgia inspires group loyalty. For example, after students reminisced with sentimentality about memories involving their fellow students, they showed more willingness to invest in a university publicity campaign. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

- For daily reports on the latest research in psychology, see the Research Digest blog.

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