From the Research Digest

A selection which appears in our March issue. For more, see

People quicker to dismiss evidence from psychology than neuroscience                                                            

In Basic and Applied Social Psychology

Imagine a politician from your party is in trouble for alleged misdemeanours. He’s been assessed by an expert who says it is likely he has early-stage Alzheimer’s. If this diagnosis is correct, your politician will have to resign, and he’ll be replaced by a candidate from an opposing party.

This was the scenario presented to participants in a new study by Geoffrey Munro and Cynthia Munro. A vital twist was that half of the 106 student participants read a version of the story in which the dementia expert based his diagnosis on detailed cognitive tests; the other half read a version in which he used a structural MRI brain scan. All other story details were matched, such as the expert’s years of experience in the field, and the detail provided for the different techniques he used.

Overall, the students found the MRI evidence more convincing than the cognitive tests. For example, 69.8 per cent of those given the MRI scenario said the evidence the politician had Alzheimer’s was strong and convincing, whereas only 39.6 per cent of students given the cognitive tests scenario said the same. MRI data was also seen to be more objective, valid and reliable. Focusing on just those students in both conditions who showed scepticism, over 15 per cent who read the cognitive tests scenario mentioned the unreliability of the evidence; none of the students given the MRI scenario cited this reason.

In reality, a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s will always be made with cognitive tests, with brain scans used to rule out other explanations for any observed test impairments. The researchers said their results are indicative of naive faith in the trustworthiness of brain-imaging data. ‘When one contrasts the very detailed manuals accompanying cognitive tests to the absences of formalised operational criteria to guide the clinical interpretation of structural brain MRI in diagnosing disease, the perception that brain MRI is somehow immune to problems of reliability becomes even more perplexing,’ they said.

What about the students with a very strong political identity for whom the diagnostic evidence was therefore particularly unwelcome? The researchers found that the gap between the perception of MRI and cognitive testing was largest for this group. This is because, when the students were highly motivated to disbelieve the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, those told about the cognitive tests were very dismissive, but those told about the MRI scans showed similar levels of trust to their less partisan peers. The authors said this suggests we are more willing to discount unwelcome psychological evidence than we are to discount brain-based evidence.

These new results add to past findings showing people’s bias for neuroscience and other ‘hard’ sciences and against psychology. For example, medical students think their psychology lectures are ‘soft and fluffy’; students think psychology is less important than the other natural sciences; children rate psychological questions as easier than chemistry or biology questions; and expert testimony supporting an insanity defence is seen as less convincing when delivered by a psychologist than a psychiatrist. Another line of research suggests people are particularly influenced by images of brain scans, although recent attempts have failed to replicate this finding [links to all studies can be found on the blog version of this, at].

The researchers called for their work to be extended into other contexts, and for the allure of neuroscience to be probed more deeply. ‘The need for the general public to accurately evaluate the scientific methods used by psychologists is especially relevant to real-world situations,’ they said, ‘in which strongly held values, beliefs, or identification with specific groups renders people particularly likely to discount psychological evidence.’ 
- Christian Jarrett

How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

In Journal of Applied Psychology

An unfair, uncaring manager makes for an uncertain working life, one characterised by stress, absenteeism and poor performance. But new research suggests a silver lining: when the boss is unjust, team members come together.

A multi-institution collaboration led by Adam Stoverink presented teams of students with an awkward event. The students thought they’d been recruited to solve tasks for a cash prize, but they were left twiddling their thumbs while waiting for an assigned supervisor to show up. When he eventually did, he gave a sincere apology to half of the groups, but the rest were fobbed off with a shrug, as he explained, ‘clearly my time is more important than yours’. Post-experiment, participants who were fobbed off rated their supervisor poorly, but also expressed feeling closer to their team-mates.

The evidence suggests the participants were seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by an ambiguous situation that doesn’t line up with their beliefs. One way to do this is to seek solidarity with others in the same position. This was characterised as ‘misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company’ by eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter on the back of his classic experiment, where people who had volunteered for an electric shock of unknown severity unanimously chose to wait in a room with others sharing their fate, rather than people who didn’t. In the current study, ambiguity was provoked through injustice, in the form of a leader who didn’t appear to have his team’s interests at heart. As predicted, the greater the participants’ unease, the closer they felt to others in the same boat.

Bad situations can generate perverse benefits: in this case, solidarity amongst mistreated people. But this is still a silver lining on a dark cloud: in this paper alone, a follow-up study reports that teams with a rude supervisor squandered more of their precious remaining time trying to make sense of the supervisor’s rudeness, instead of progressing on the tasks. More broadly, such employees would be beset by rumination, doubting and second-guessing motivations, to say nothing of the effects of specific acts of injustice against them. And of course, some unjust leaders end up playing team members against one another, counteracting the camaraderie effects.

The lesson for organisations is not to assume that a cohesive team is a credit to their leader; it can be the opposite. 
- Alex Fradera

Welcome to the Cyranoid illusion

In Journal of Social Psychology

Imagine if the words that came out of your mouth were spoken by another person. Would anyone notice? This idea was explored by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his studies into obedience,but he never published his results.

Milgram called the hybrid of one person’s body and another person’s mind, a Cyranoid, after the play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the handsome Christian woos a woman using the graceful words provided by plain-looking Cyrano. Now the concept has been resurrected by a pair of British researchers, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, who say the approach has huge potential as a paradigm in social psychology.

The first study was a proof of concept. Forty participants (average age 30; 22 women) spent 10 minutes in conversation with a 26-year-old man, getting to know him. They thought this man was another participant, but in fact he was working for the researchers. For half the participants, the man spoke freely as himself. For the other half, he was a Cyranoid and spoke the words of a 23-year-old woman hidden in an adjacent room. In this condition, the woman could see and hear the man’s interactions, and she fed him what to say live, via the wireless earpiece he was wearing.

Afterwards, the participants were asked whether they thought the man had spoken his own thoughts, or whether his answers were scripted. Only a tiny minority of participants in both groups thought this might be true. None of them thought he’d had his words fed to him by radio. The participants in the Cyranoid condition were astonished and amused when told the truth of the situation.

A second study went further. This time, panels of between three and five participants interrogated either a 37-year-old man or a 12-year-old boy about who they are and what they know about science, literature, history and current affairs. For half the participants, the man and boy simply answered as themselves. For the other participants, the boy or man was Cyranoid. If the Cyranoid boy was present before the panel, his answers were fed to him by the man; if the Cyranoid man was present, the words he spoke came from the boy.

Amazingly, the participants in the Cyranoid conditions were no more likely to say afterwards that they thought their interviewee had given scripted responses, spoken words relayed by radio, or wasn’t speaking his own thoughts. No participants raised any spontaneous suspicions about the interviewees’ autonomy during the interviews. And afterwards, when prompted directly, only one person out of 17 in each condition (two Cyranoid conditions and two normal) believed their interviewee’s answers had been fed to them.

The Cyranoid set-up is especially intriguing to social psychologists because it allows the influence of a person’s appearance to be weighed against the influence of their words, as spoken by another person. In this study, the participants rated the personality and intelligence of the man and boy equally positively when they spoke as themselves. Yet when the man spoke the words of the boy, he was given more negative ratings. This is in spite of the fact the participants failed to adjust the difficulty of their questions in this condition, presumably so as not to patronise the man publicly.

You can begin to see how the Cyranoid paradigm can illuminate issues to do with social stereotypes triggered by appearances and words, and the differences in people’s responses in terms of their private thoughts and public actions. Another angle is how a person’s speech is changed by the fact they are speaking through another body. In this case, the man and boy were trained to speak as themselves, yet the man shortened his sentences when speaking through the boy. The boy did not increase the length of his utterances when speaking as the man, perhaps because of the difficulty of doing so.

There could also be practical applications for this technique – for instance, imagine helping people with social anxiety. They could occupy an intimidating situation bodily, but have their words dictated by someone else; or conversely, they could practise providing the speech in such a situation while having the relative comfort of speaking their words through someone else’s body.‘Though Milgram did not live to see his Cyranoid method come to fruition, the current research provides ample basis for the continued exploration of this intriguing methodological paradigm,’ the researchers said. ‘Indeed, the Cyranoid method may yet prove to be a long overdue addition to the social psychologist’s toolkit.’ cj



Imagining walking through a doorway triggers increased forgetting
In Memory

We’ve all had that experience of going purposefully from one room to another, only to get there and forget why we made the journey. Four years ago, researcher Gabriel Radvansky and his colleagues stripped this effect down, showing that the simple act of passing through a doorway induces forgetting. Now psychologists at Knox College, USA, have taken things further, demonstrating that merely imagining walking through a doorway is enough to trigger increased forgetfulness.

Zachary Lawrence and Daniel Peterson divided 51 students into two groups. One group spent a minute familiarising themselves with a large, furnished room. The other group wandered round the same room, but this one was divided in two by drapes, with a doorway connecting the two separated areas.

Next the participants were shown an abstract swirly image, and asked to remember it as they closed their eyes and imagined walking from the podium to the piano in the room they’d just experienced. For the second group only, this imagined walk meant passing through the room’s doorway (but the walk was the same distance as the other group’s). After imagining the walk in the room, both groups had to pick out the image they’d been shown earlier from an array of ten alternatives. The group who’d imagined passing through a doorway performed worse at the task than the first group who didn’t have to go through a doorway.

This result fits with the event horizon model, which explains the forgetting effect of doorways in terms of the fact that we divide our memories into distinct events, that doorways trigger such a division, and that more forgetting occurs across event boundaries than within the same event. The new study shows that this event division effect can occur in our imagination and doesn't require literally seeing a doorway and passing through it.

The first experiment wasn’t without issues – for example, the doorway group spent more time imagining their walk than the other group. Lawrence and Peterson conducted a second experiment in which two more groups of students were first exposed to a basic virtual reality room on a computer screen. One group saw a room with a partition and doorway; the other group saw the same room with no partition or doorway. Both groups were asked to imagine making a walk through the scene they’d been shown. This time both groups took the same time to complete their imagined journeys. But again, the group who imagined passing through a doorway performed worse when attempting to remember an abstract image they’d been shown before the imagined walk (roughly 18 per cent worse, which is comparable to the effect found for actually walking through a doorway).

‘That walking through a doorway elicits forgetting is surprising because it is such a subtle perceptual feature compared to the rich environment in which it sits,’ the researchers said, ‘that simply imagining such a walk yields a similar result is even more surprising, particularly when compared with actually walking through doorways.’ This effect of an imagined spatial boundary on forgetting is consistent with a related line of research that’s shown forgetting increases after temporal or other boundaries are described in narrative text. It seems real-world influences on your memory also apply in imagined realms, whether they’re of your own creation or someone else’s. cj

Our brains respond to corporations as if they are people
In Social Neuroscience

The US Supreme Court has recently made a number of rulings that suggest it sees corporations as having similar rights and responsibilities to individual human beings, such as that they have the right to free speech, and can be exempt from laws that contradict their owner’s religious beliefs. Can a new neuroimaging study help us determine whether the court’s approach is justified?

Forty participants viewed written vignettes while their brains were scanned, each describing a prosocial, antisocial or neutral action committed either by a person or a corporation. An example of an antisocial vignette was a freelance gardener or a gardening company deciding to charge an invalid falsely, for work they didn’t carry out.

When David Eagleman, and his colleagues Mark Plitt and Ricky Savjani, directly compared the corporation and person conditions they found no significant differences in brain activity. Moreover, compared to a neutral baseline (descriptions of objects not performing a social action), there were a number of common areas of activation in response to individual people or corporations, with Eagleman’s team particularly interested in an area of the medial prefrontal cortex previously implicated in predicting mental states and discriminating emotion. They argue this is significant because past studies have shown deactivations in this area when manipulations present human beings as dehumanised, so you might expect to find a difference in this area when viewing a non-human target – but this was not the case for corporations.

After viewing each vignette, participants were also asked to make an evaluation of how they were feeling – a rating of intensity of a menu of feelings including ‘admiration’ or ‘indignation’ – and this data did point to a difference: humans behaving prosocially were met with stronger approval than were corporations, and misbehaving corporations made participants angrier.

This sense that corporations are judged more harshly is consistent with a finding from the imaging data that the superior temporal gyrus, an area that responded differently for positive versus negative actions, responded in the ‘negative’ way for corporation’s neutral actions. Previous work has also suggested that we take unethical corporate behaviour as a strong predictor of future behaviour but we are more lenient when it comes to people, as to err is human.

Can we gain any legal insight from these findings? They could be seen as an endorsement of the extension of rights to corporations. On the other hand, we could argue that our brains are simply doing their best to model the active intrusions of corporations into our lives, by treating them more like people than inanimate objects. But this wouldn’t make this an acceptable situation; in fact, low tolerance for corporate actions could suggest that we resent the people-like status that corporations already have. Ultimately, as a question of how society ought to be, science can provide insights, but not answers. af

Digest Digested

Full reports are available at

There are two types of envy, psychologists report. The benign variety is focused on the attainments of the envied. The malicious variety, by contrast, is focused more on the envied person and combating their superiority. Only malicious envy is associated with feelings of schadenfreude when the envied suffer. Cognitive and Emotion

Introverts tend to give their extravert team-mates unfair peer appraisals – that is, lower ratings than non-extravert team-mates who made the same contribution to team-performance. Extraverts do not take personality into account when rating their peers. Academy of Management Journal

When people’s cherished beliefs are threatened by hard facts, they shift the justifications for what they belief, turning to unfalsifiable arguments. Psychologists say this can make people’s beliefs increasingly hard to challenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

A study involving video games has found that people enjoy competitive challenges more when there is a serious risk of losing, as opposed to when victory comes easily. Researchers say this rewarding power of suspense has largely been neglected by current theories of motion. Motivation and Emotion

Based on in-depth interviews with nine mothers who gave birth through IVF and related medical procedures, researchers in Iran have proposed the concept of ‘super-mothers’. These women who conceive with medical help are extra protective and have heightened attachment to their offspring. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology

Helping other people makes it easier for us to accept the help we need. Researchers made the discovery by having people write hints to help others solve puzzles. Doing this made the participants feel better about receiving help from others. Journal of Applied Social Psychology

A technique that involves applying weak electrical currents to the brain – transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – makes no difference to cognition, at least not after a single session. The claim comes from a meta-analysis of previous findings and contradicts the hype the technique has attracted in the media. Brain Stimulation

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog 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 and more: including episode 1 of PsychCrunch, our new podcast!

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