Digest

A selection which appeared in the January issue.

Feeling like you’re an expert can make you closed-minded
In Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

What happens to us as we accrue knowledge and experience, as we become experts in a field? Competence follows. Effortlessness follows. But certain downsides can follow too. We reported recently on how experts are vulnerable to an overclaiming error – falsely feeling familiar with things that seem true of a domain but aren’t. Now a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores how feelings of expertise can lead us to be more dogmatic towards new ideas.

Victor Ottati at Loyola University and his colleagues manipulated their participants (US residents, average age in their 30s) to feel relative experts or novices in a chosen field, through easy questions like ‘Who is the current President of the United States?’ or tough ones like ‘Who was Nixon's initial Vice-President?’ and through providing feedback to enforce the participants’ feelings of knowledge or ignorance. Those participants manipulated to feel more expert subsequently acted less open-minded toward the same topic, as judged by their responses to items such as ‘I am open to considering other political viewpoints’.

People’s perceptions of their all-round expertise – provoked in the participants via an easy rather than a hard trivia quiz – also led them to display a close-mindedness in general, even though it was the participants who took the hard quiz who failed more, and reported feeling more insecure, irritable and negative – ingredients that are normally associated with close-mindedness. This isn’t to say that these emotional states didn’t have any effect, just that any effect was swamped by perceptions of expertise.

These findings are somewhat counterintuitive because there are good reasons to have expected the opposite results. Firstly, real-life experts take a long road that involves acquiring and synthesising new information, at times requiring them to flip their way of thinking about things – for instance, a chemist might recall how atoms operated one way in early grade science, only for later schooling to reveal a very different picture. Therefore dogmatism is an obstacle to true expertise. Secondly, research on stress and emotion tells us that feeling relaxed and successful – as you might expect an expert to feel more than a novice – encourages open-mindedness.

But Ottati and his colleagues point out that open-mindedness doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it ebbs and flows according to the social situation. It’s not as acceptable to pooh-pooh the content of a university lecture the same way you might do the street demagogue’s patter. The researchers argued too that as well as the situation, your own social role matters, and the ‘expert’ is a social role that gives you permission to opt out of open-mindedness.

How do we know the closed-mindedness associated with feeling expert was driven by assumptions that the participants were making about the social role of expert, and not the effect of some other psychological state? For example, an alternative explanation could be that the participants made to feel expert were overwhelmed by a sense of power, something past research has shown to make contributions from others appear less relevant. We know it must be about social role because the effect was maintained when participants didn’t themselves feel special at all. In another experiment, the researchers asked their participants whether it was justified for someone to ignore the political opinions of other people at a party, when the individual in question was more expert than, more novice than, or similar to the other guests. The hypothetical was framed in two ways: ‘You are at a party where…’ or ‘John is at a party where…’ – in both cases, the participants considered an expert was justified in acting dogmatically.

Taken altogether, how robust are these findings?

On the main effect itself (linking feelings of expertise with close-mindedness), note that the sample sizes were quite small – there were only 30–60 participants per experiment. However the effect was uncovered using slightly different methods across six experiments, giving us faith that there’s something real here. However we need to be cautious in how we interpret these results. The study shows us the effect of the social role of expertise, manipulated independently from the true possession of expertise. In other words, the path of acquiring knowledge, and being wrong a lot along the way, may produce countervailing positive influences upon open-mindedness, something not examined in this study. This means we can conclude from this research a narrow but important point: that thinking of yourself as ‘being the expert’ can be an obstacle to open-mindedness. af

 

Sports psychologists understand surprisingly little about ‘the yips’  
In International Review of Sports and Exercise Psychology

A golf champion prepares for the easiest of putts on the final green, only for his wrist to jerk suddenly, sending the ball wide of the mark. A darts player pulls back his arm for a winning throw, takes aim, but finds he can’t let go. Incidents like this – in which highly skilled sports players find their fine motor control has gone awry – are very common. And yet a new review published in the International Review of Sports and Exercise Psychology makes it clear that psychologists really know surprisingly little about what causes ‘the yips’ (also known as ‘dartitis’ in darts) or how best to intervene to help.

Philip Clarke and his colleagues trawled the sports psychology literature for relevant English-language articles published between 1989 and 2013. They identified 25 papers that involved study of the yips, which the authors define as ‘a psycho-neuromuscular impediment affecting the execution of fine motor skills during sporting performance’. Together, these studies involved 876 sports people who experienced the yips and 1003 competitors without the condition. Most of the research is on golf players, but a minority of studies have involved other sports including running, cricket, tennis and shooting.

Research conducted on the yips to date falls into three main categories: psychological research, physiological studies and neurological studies. The psychological research has focused mainly on the role of anxiety, with mixed results. Competitors’ subjective accounts of the yips suggest that anxiety is key, yet studies that have compared sufferers and non-sufferers have often failed to reveal any differences in their levels of state (i.e. in the moment) or trait anxiety. There are also mixed findings regarding the role of obsessional thoughts and perfectionism, with the evidence to date suggesting that self-consciousness (i.e. the feeling of being watched) might be most relevant.

Regarding physiological research, most studies have used electromyography to record athletes’ muscular activity, and there’s some evidence here that people who experience the yips have higher than normal muscle activity in some situations, and in turn that this extra activation can affect technique and performance. Neurological research, nearly all of it based on case studies, has failed to find evidence of dystonia (pathological muscle spasms) or other neurological illness in yips sufferers.

Crossing these research categories are other studies that have looked at interventions, including, but not limited to, the use of drugs that are usually used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, which proved effective; a form of alternative therapy known as the ‘emotional freedom technique’, which also supposedly helped; and acupuncture (also apparently helpful). But crucially, this intervention research has all been based on case studies (that is the stories of one or two people, rather than properly controlled trials) – in other words, this is the kind of evidence that would carry little weight were it used to support treatments for more serious medical conditions.

Part of the reason there’s so much inconsistency in the research on the causes of the yips, explain Clarke and his team, is that until recently nearly all studies failed to distinguish between sports players who experienced purely physical yips in the absence of any psychological aspect, and those who experience the converse – choking mentally, but without the physical jerks or other uncontrolled movements (referred to as type 1 and type 2 yips). Clarke’s team say future research should also recognise a third group (type 3), who experience the physical element of the yips and the psychological element.

Another limitation of the research conducted on the yips to date is that it has all been exclusively cross-sectional in design, making it very difficult to establish whether, for example, stress and performance anxiety causes the yips, or if instead, experiencing the yips prompts performance anxiety. Clarke and his colleagues conclude that we need more research into the yips, especially longitudinal in design and in sports besides golf. The yips – a topic which is attracting increased interest from sports psychologists and scientists, but which remains ‘in its infancy’. cj

 

Does it matter whether or not pain medication is branded?
In Health Psychology

Around the world many health services are moving towards generic (non-branded) medicines as a way to reduce costs. Where does psychology come into this? Well, we know that, thanks to the placebo effect, people’s expectations about a treatment can influence the effects that treatment has on them. We also know, thanks to research conducted over the last decade, that people expect branded medicines to be more effective and to have fewer side-effects than their generic counterparts. A new study is one of the first to explore whether this matters – specifically, whether a generic painkiller is less effective than its chemically identical branded counterpart.

Kate Faasse and her colleagues recruited 87 undergraduates, most of them were female, who answered an advert seeking people who suffer frequent headaches (at least one per fortnight). The participants were given four doses of ibuprofen to use in the coming weeks as and when they suffered a headache, and to keep a diary of the relief the medicine brought them, and any side-effects they experienced. Crucially, two of the doses were branded as Nurofen, while the other two were generic in plain packaging. Unbeknown to the participants, one of the branded doses was actually a placebo, as was one of the generic doses.

When it came to the active doses, there was no difference between the branded and generic ibuprofen – both were equally effective at pain relief and the students reported the same amount of side-effects for each. However, with the placebo doses, the branded medicine was more effective than the generic at pain relief and was associated with fewer side-effects.

Although these findings imply that branding makes no difference to an active pain-relief medicine, they do show how branding exerts a placebo effect in terms of pain relief and reduced side-effects. This effect was not detectable beyond the actions of the active medicine. But Faasse and her colleagues explained that this branding-related placebo effect could have real-life significance for other types of medicine for which the actions of the drug are less easy for patients to monitor or detect (as compared with pain relief), such as blood pressure medication or antidepressants, meaning that the patients’ beliefs about the drug might be more important.

The researchers said: ‘The additional placebo effect associated with branding has the potential to enhance medication effectiveness, which may subsequently be lost during a switch to a generic alternative’. cj

 

The ideal therapist doubts their professional skills, but loves themselves as a person   
In Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 

Given a choice, you might think it better to undertake psychotherapy with a confident therapist than a self-doubting one. After all, you want a firm hand to guide you through a storm. But in fact, there’s evidence that therapy clients do better when their therapist has professional self-doubts. Now Helene Nissen-Lie and her colleagues tested their idea that therapist self-doubt might not always be helpful, and specifically that the ideal mix is professional doubt combined with personal self-compassion.

To see if this is true, the researchers analysed data from 255 mental health clients treated at 16 outpatient clinics in Norway by 70 different psychotherapists (including 46 psychologists, 14 psychiatrists and 8 physiotherapists specialising in a form of ‘psychodynamic body treatment’). The clients are described as having a wide range of clinical symptoms and disorders, the most frequent diagnoses being anxiety disorder and depression, and over half the sample met the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder. The majority of the therapists followed a psychodynamic approach, just over 29 per cent were humanistic therapists and over 28 per cent used cognitive techniques.

The therapists filled out questionnaires about their professional doubts and confidence (for example, they said whether they ever worried that they were doing more harm than good); answered questions about their coping strategies; and also about how much compassion they showed themselves (for example, they said whether they cherished themselves, or whether they are their own worst enemy; how much they self-protect or self-blame). The clients meanwhile completed measures of their interpersonal problems and their symptom distress before and after treatment, and periodically for two years after treatment ended (the results are based on comparing pre-treatment scores with the average of the distress and symptom scores that were recorded at all the post-treatment time points).

Consistent with past research, therapists who were self-doubting appeared to be more effective at their job – their clients showed greater reductions in interpersonal distress. But furthermore, and as the researchers predicted, there was an interaction between therapists’ self-doubt and self-compassion. That is, the most successful client outcomes were seen for therapists who expressed a combination of professional self-doubt and greater personal self-compassion. This combination ‘seems to pave the way for an open, self-reflective stance that allows psychotherapists to respect the complexity of their work, and, when needed, to correct the therapeutic course in order to help clients more effectively with their challenges,’ the researchers said. cj

 

When anticipating their future needs, children can’t see past their current state   
In Infant and Child Development

You know how it feels after you’ve gorged on a large packet of pretzels or crisps – you have a mouth like a salt mine, an unquenchable thirst, and the thought occurs to you that wouldn’t mind if you never saw another pretzel again in your life. Except you know that’s not really true. That’s why you leave the other packets snug in the kitchen cupboard, fully aware that tomorrow evening you’ll be happily munching again.

In other words, you have ‘episodic foresight’. You are able to look beyond your current physical state (extreme thirst) to anticipate being in a different state in the future, and thus plan accordingly (let’s ignore for now the fact you’re not thinking about the long-term health effects of eating all those pretzels!). Psychologists are interested in when and how this sophisticated anticipatory ability develops. A new study published in Infant and Child Development finds that young children, up to the age of seven, mostly can’t discount their current states when anticipating their future wants.

Caitlin Mahy invited 90 children (aged three to seven) to her lab and offered them a drink of apple juice. This was to make sure they weren’t thirsty at the start of the study. Next she showed them a photo of some pretzels and a glass of water and asked them which they’d prefer to have now. Nearly 80 per cent said they’d prefer pretzels. Regardless of how they answered, all the children were offered pretzels to eat as they listened to a six-minute children’s story.

Next the pretzels were taken away and Mahy asked the children to imagine that they were coming back to the lab tomorrow, and to say whether they’d prefer water or pretzels during the story. Now nearly 70 per cent said they’d prefer water tomorrow, presumably because their current state was that they were feeling thirsty. Finally, the children were offered a drink of water and the question about tomorrow was repeated. Having quenched their thirst, most of them now said once again that they'd prefer pretzels tomorrow, contradicting the answer they’d given moments earlier. There was no evidence that the older children were any better at thinking about their future preferences than the younger children.

What was going on in the children’s heads? To try to find out, Mahy asked them to justify their choices. The children’s answers suggest they had little insight into how their current state was influencing their thoughts about the future. For example, after eating the pretzels and saying they'd prefer water tomorrow, one child said ‘because focusing makes my mouth get dry’; another said ‘because it's healthy for you’. After having a drink of water and switching back to a future preference for pretzels, one child said ‘since I wouldn’t want to unscrew the bottle cap’. It seems the ability to mentally time travel and think in sophisticated ways about our future needs does not emerge until some time after age seven. However, the ability to make creative excuses like a seasoned politician seems to come quite naturally much earlier! cj

 

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

Super-recognisers – people who perform unusually well on lab tests of face memory and recognition skills – are also highly adept at tasks designed to be more akin to the challenges met by police and security professionals, such as recognising a face from a CCTV still. Applied Cognitive Psychology

People find some nonsense words, like finglam, consistently funnier than others, like sersice. The reason, researchers have found, is that funnier nonsense words are less like real words and so are more unexpected. Their finding provides support for the established ‘incongruity resolution’ theory of humour. Journal of Memory and Language

An investigation into people’s trust of automated systems has found that regular video gamers tend to be over-trusting, but that this can be rectified by priming them beforehand, for example through showing them negative feedback that other users had provided about the system. Human Factors

We tend to think of liberals as being more open-minded than conservatives, and prior research has supported this generalisation. However, a new study found that this rule depends on the topic at hand. On some issues, such as smoking and the death penalty, liberals are more dogmatic than conservatives. Political Psychology

Conflict in a relationship is usually bad news – people who clash with their partner usually say they’re less happy with the relationship as a result. But a new study finds that this rule does not apply to those who feel that their partner understands them. In fact, for such people, relationship conflict can even be beneficial. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Are introverts or extraverts more inclined to selfishness in group tasks? Researchers have found that the answer depends on the context. When the opportunity exists to cheat the group, extraverts are more inclined to selfishness. Yet when such acts are made public and are punishable, extraverts become the ones most inclined to cooperate. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Loneliness tends to correlate with unpleasant outcomes, such as poorer mental and physical health. However, a new study suggests that ‘being true to yourself’ may act as a protective buffer – lonely people who scored high on authenticity did not appear to experience the usual negative effects. Journal of Health Psychology

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 and contributor Dr Alex Fradera. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment, our podcast and more.

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