From the Research Digest, July 2016

A selection from our blog.

Classic finding about babies’ imitation skills is probably wrong
In Current Biology

Pick up any introductory psychology textbook and under the ‘developmental’ chapter you’re bound to find a description of ‘groundbreaking’ research into newborn babies' imitation skills. The work, conducted by Meltzoff and Moore in the 1970s, will typically be shown alongside black-and-white images of a man sticking his tongue out at a baby, and the tiny baby duly sticking out her tongue in response.

The research was revolutionary because it appeared to show that humans are born with the power to imitate – a skill crucial to learning and relationships – and it contradicted the claims of Jean Piaget, the grandfather of developmental psychology, that imitation does not emerge until babies are around nine months old.

Today it may be time to rewrite these textbooks. A new study in Current Biology, more methodologically rigorous than any previous investigation of its kind, has found no evidence to support the idea that newborn babies can imitate.

Janine Oostenbroek and her colleagues tested 106 infants four times: at one week of age, then at three weeks, six weeks, and nine weeks. Data from 64 of the infants was available at all four time points. At each test, the researcher performed a range of facial movements, actions or sounds for 60 seconds each. There were 11 of these displays in total, including tongue protrusions, mouth opening, happy face, sad face, index finger pointing and mmm and eee sounds. Each baby’s behaviour during these 60-second periods was filmed and later coded according to which faces, actions or sounds, if any, he or she performed during the different researcher displays.

Whereas many previous studies have compared babies’ responses to only two or a few different adult displays, this study was much more robust because the researchers checked to see if, for example, the babies were more likely to stick out their tongues when that’s what the researcher was doing, as compared with when the researcher was doing any of the 10 other displays or sounds. Unlike most prior research, this new study also looked to see how any signs of imitation changed over time, at the different testing sessions. According to the researchers, this makes theirs ‘the most comprehensive, longitudinal study of neonatal imitation to date’.

Following these more robust standards, Oostenbroek and her team found no evidence that newborn babies can reliably imitate faces, actions or sounds. Take the example of tongue protrusions. Averaged across the different testing time points, the babies were no more likely to stick out their tongue when the researcher did so, as compared with the researcher opened her mouth, pulled a happy face or pulled a sad face. In fact, across all the different displays, actions and sounds, there was no situation in which the babies consistently performed a given facial display, gesture or sound more when the researcher specifically did that same thing, than when the researcher was doing anything else.

Based on their results, the researchers said that the idea of ‘innate imitation modules’ and other such concepts founded on the ideal of neonatal imitation ‘should be modified or abandoned altogether’. They said the truth may be closer to what Piaget originally proposed and that imitation probably emerges from around six months.

- Christian Jarrett 

Your pilot’s decisions are probably as irrational as yours and mine
In Applied Cognitive Psychology

Flying a plane is no trivial task, but adverse weather conditions are where things get seriously challenging. Tragically, a contributing factor to many fatal accidents is when the pilot has misjudged the appropriateness of the flying conditions. Now in a somewhat worrying paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology Stephen Walmsley and Andrew Gilbey of Massey University have shown that pilots’ judgement of weather conditions, and their decisions on how to respond to them, are coloured by three classic cognitive biases. What’s more, expert flyers are often the most vulnerable to these mental errors.

The researchers first addressed the ‘anchoring effect’, which is when information we receive early on has an undue influence on how we subsequently think about a situation. Nearly 200 pilots (a mix of commercial, transport, student and private pilots) were given the weather forecast for the day and then they looked at visual displays that showed cloud cover and horizontal visibility as if they were in a cockpit, and their task was to quantify these conditions by eye.

The pilots tended to rate the atmospheric conditions as better – higher clouds, greater visibility – when they’d been told earlier that the weather forecast was favourable. Essentially, old and possibly irrelevant information was biasing the judgement they were making with their own eyes. Within the sample were 56 experts with over 1000 hours of experience, and these pilots were especially prone to being influenced by the earlier weather forecast.

Next, hundreds more pilots read about scenarios where a pilot needed to make an unplanned landing. An airstrip was nearby, but the conditions for the route were uncertain. Each participant had to solve five of these landing dilemmas, deciding whether to head for the strip or re-route. For each scenario they were told two statements that were reassuring for heading for the strip (e.g. another pilot had flown the route minutes ago) and one that was problematic (e.g. the visibility was very low). In each case, the participants had to say which piece of information was most important for deciding whether to land at the nearby airstrip or not.

Across the scenarios, the participants showed no real preference for one type of statement over another. This might sound sensible, but actually it’s problematic. When you want to test a hypothesis, like ‘it seems safe to land’, you should seek out information that disproves your theory. (No matter how many security guards, alarms and safety certificates a building possesses, if it’s on fire, you don’t go in.) So pilots should be prioritising the disconfirming evidence over the others, but in fact they were just as likely to rely on reassuring evidence, which is an example of what’s known as ‘the confirmation bias’.

In a final experiment more pilot volunteers read decisions that other pilots had made about whether to fly or not and the information they’d used to make their decisions. Sometimes the flights turned out to be uneventful, but other times they resulted in a terrible crash. Even though the pilots in the different scenarios always made their decisions based on the exact same pre-flight information, the participants tended to rate their decision making much more harshly when the flight ended in disaster than when all went well.

It concerns Walmsley and Gilbey that pilots are vulnerable to this error – an example of the ‘outcome bias’ – because pilots who decide to fly in unwise weather and get lucky could be led by this bias to see their decisions as wise, and increasingly discount the risk involved. Note that both the confirmation and outcome experiments also contained an expert subgroup, and in neither case did they make better decisions than other pilots.

The use of cognitive heuristics and shortcuts – ‘thinking fast’ in Daniel Kahneman’s memorable phrase – is enormously useful, necessary for helping us surmount the complexities of the world day-to-day. But when the stakes are high, whether it be aviation or areas such as medicine, these tendencies need to be countered. Simply raising awareness that these biases afflict professionals may be one part of the solution. Another may be introducing work processes that encourage slower, more deliberative reasoning. That way, when pilots scan the skies, they might be more likely to see the clouds on the horizon.

- Alex Fradera 

After learning to identify with someone else’s face, do people think their appearance has changed?
In Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Past research has shown that it’s possible to hack our sense of our own bodies in bewildering ways, such as perceiving another person’s face as our own by stroking both in synchrony. These body illusions can alter our sense of self at a psychological level too. For example, embodying a child-sized body in a virtual-reality environment leads people to associate themselves with childlike concepts. Can such effects also operate in the opposite direction, from the psychological to the physical? A new paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology aimed to find out by seeing if shifting people’s sense of self at a psychological level warped their sense of their facial appearance.

Sophie Payne’s team at Royal Holloway, University of London manipulated their participants’ sense of self by repeatedly presenting them with a black-and-white cropped photo of a gender-appropriate face that was labelled ‘self’, and with two other face images that were labelled as ‘friend’ and ‘stranger’. To consolidate these associations, the researchers then tested the participants, repeatedly showing them one of the earlier faces together with the correct label used earlier or the wrong label, and the participants had to say each time whether the label matched the face or not.

As the test went on, the participants became especially quick at spotting when the ‘self face’ was correctly labelled as ‘self’, just as the researchers hoped would happen. This suggests that the previously unknown face had been incorporated into their self concept, at least temporarily. Think of it as a weaker version of the way we are particularly sensitive to any sounds that resemble our name, even against the hubbub of a cocktail party.

Having incorporated this face into their self-concept, did the participants view their facial appearance any differently? To address this, the researchers presented the participants with 100 faces and asked them to rate how similar each face was to their own. Fifty of the faces were blends of their own real face with the ‘stranger’ face from earlier, and another 50 blended their real face with the ‘self face’ paired earlier with their self concept.

The participants had actually completed this resemblance task earlier, before they had learned to associate the ‘self face’ with their self concept. The crucial test was whether, now that they had learned to associate themselves with the ‘self face’, they would see themselves as resembling that face physically, more so than they had done earlier. Payne’s team predicted that they would, but in fact the results showed that this hadn’t happened. Identifying themselves with the face hadn’t made them believe that they looked like the face.
Payne’s prediction was credible partly because we know the psychological self is malleable, body perception is malleable, and changes to body perception usually result in shifts in sense of self. Furthermore, and making this new result extra surprising, psychological influences have already been shown to affect our judgements about the physical appearance of our own face.

For example, a study from 2014 showed that people were more likely to say that they resembled a face that reflected a blend of their own face with someone else’s, when that other face belonged to a trustworthy partner in an earlier trading task rather than a cheat. Essentially, that result showed that the lines between self and other can be easily blurred, unlike in the current study. What gives?

The non-significant result in the current study may have uncovered the limits to these kinds of blurring effects. The findings suggest that it may be quite easy to adapt our self-concept, for example attuning us to identify with a new nickname or onscreen avatar, but that for this process to go deeper and influence how we perceive our own physical appearance, we need a more motivated, involving, and perhaps social context, like being betrayed or treated loyally.

The new hypothesis, then, is that we are engineered to perceptually link – or distance ourselves – from those who have helped or wronged us, and that the heat of social emotion is the soldering iron that fixes these connections fast. Further research will tell.

- Alex Fradera

A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching
In Journal of Health Psychology

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology is the first to provide a scholarly definition of binge TV watching and to investigate some of the factors that explain how much people indulge in it.

According to Emily Walton-Pattison at Newcastle University and her colleagues, binge TV watching is when you ‘watch more than two episodes of the same TV show in one sitting’ a habit that has become more frequent since the popularity of DVD box sets and streaming TV services.

I have fond memories of my own first binge TV session: watching 24 with my wife in a holiday cottage in the Lake District, a crackling fire in the background, snow falling outside. Bliss. But the researchers see things differently: binge TV watching contributes to sedentary behaviour, increases risk of obesity and interferes with healthy sleep habits.

They surveyed 86 people (recruited via social media) about their binge TV watching habits and various psychological constructs, such as whether they expected to experience regret after a binge session. Based on the researchers’ definition, the participants had binge-watched an average of 1.42 times in the past week, taking in an average of 2.94 episodes in 2.51 hours. BBC iPlayer and Netflix were the most popular means of bingeing.

A quarter of the difference in how much people binged was explained by their intentions to binge and expectations that it would be a rewarding, fun thing to do. Other factors that were also relevant included experiences of automaticity (‘I did it without thinking’) and anticipated regret and goal conflict (seeing bingeing as interfering with other activities) – both of which were associated with less bingeing.

The researchers said that ‘further more in-depth and rigorous research into being watching is warranted’ but that their preliminary findings already offer hints as to how to curtail people’s binge watching habits. For example, they said that TV streaming services could be adapted to counter the mindless aspect of bingeing. ‘Some online streaming services include in-built interruptions after a number of consecutive episodes have been reached. There would be opportunities to harness these interruptions,’ they said. 

- Christian Jarrett

Why organisations should encourage their staff to become friends
In Personnel Psychology

They say you should never mix business and pleasure, but in reality many of us find that we become friends with the people who we work with. No wonder, when you consider the hours spent together and the deep bonds formed through collaboration and sharing the highs and lows of the job.

A new study in Personnel Psychology is among the first to examine the effects on job performance of having more ‘multiplex relationships’ – colleagues you work with directly who are also your friends outside of work. The researchers say these relationships are ‘a mixed blessing’, but on balance they found that the more of them people had, the better their work performance as judged by their supervisors.

Jessica Methot and her colleagues first surveyed 301 staff at a large insurance company in southeastern United States. These staff, who had varied roles across the firm, provided a list of 10 colleagues they worked with closely in pursuit of their responsibilities and 10 staff who they considered to be friends and who they socialised with outside of work. The more overlap there was between a person’s two lists, the more multiplex relationships they had. The participants also completed measures of emotional exhaustion and work-related positive emotions. Four weeks later, the participants’ supervisors were contacted and rated the participants’ job performance.

The more multiplex relationships that participants had, the better their job performance. What’s more, this was explained in part by the fact that such relationships were associated with experiencing more positive work-related emotions, like feeling excited and proud. In short, being friends with more of their colleagues appeared to be good for staff and for their employer.

However, the picture gets a little more complicated because the researchers dug deeper and found that multiplex relationships were also associated with more emotional exhaustion – presumably because of the effort involved in maintaining more complex relationships and of providing support to friends. In turn, emotional exhaustion was related to poorer work performance, hence the researchers describing workplace friendships as a mixed blessing. Overall though, the benefits to work performance outweighed the costs.

The second study was similar but involved 182 workers at three shops and six restaurants. This time the participants also completed measures of the emotional support, trust, felt obligation and ‘maintenance difficulty’ (the effort of sustaining and juggling relationships) experienced in their work relationships. The results were similar, with more multiplex relationships again correlating with superior work performance – and this time the association was explained in part by feelings of greater trust towards colleagues who are also friends. But once more, although the overall association was positive, there were signs that these relationships can be a mixed blessing – the more multiplex relationships a person had, the more they tended to report having difficulties maintaining their relationships, which in turn was related to poorer job performance.

We need to be aware that these studies were correlational so they haven’t demonstrated that work friendships causes better job performance, although that is certainly a plausible interpretation, especially in light of the mediating factors that the researchers identified. Given that having more friends at work appears to be beneficial overall, Methot and her colleagues recommended that ‘organisations should focus on practices that promote friendship among coworkers who can interact for work-related purposes’ such as introducing friendly competition between staff, or implementing social intranet systems ‘that simultaneously allow employees to collaborate and share task information while getting to know each other on a social level’.

- Christian Jarrett

A laughing crowd changes the way your brain processes insults
In Social Neuroscience

We usually think of laughter as a sound of joy and mirth, but in certain contexts, such as when it accompanies an insult, it takes on a negative meaning, signalling contempt and derision, especially in a group situation. Most of us probably know from experience that this makes insults sting more, now a study in Social Neuroscience has shown the neural correlates of this effect. Within a fraction of a second, the presence of a laughing crowd changes the way that the brain processes an insult.

Marte Otten and her colleagues asked 46 participants to read 60 insults and 60 compliments presented onscreen one word at a time. Half these insults (e.g. ‘You are antisocial and annoying’) and compliments (e.g. ‘You are strong and independent’) featured the silhouette of a crowd of people at the bottom of each screen, and the end of the insult or compliment was followed immediately by a final screen showing the phrase ‘and they feel the same way’ together with the sound of laughter lasting two seconds. Throughout this entire process, the researchers recorded the participants’ brainwaves using EEG.

Otten’s team were particularly interested in the N400 – a negative spike of brain activity that tends to be larger when people hear something unexpected or incongruent with the context – and in the so-called ‘Late Positive Potential (LPP)’ which is a positive spike of brain activity that can occur 300ms to 1 second after a stimulus and is usually taken as a sign of emotional processing.

The participants’ brains appeared to register the difference between insults and compliments very quickly. Within 300 to 400ms after the onset of the first insulting or complimentary word, the participants’ showed a larger LPP in response to insults, and a more widespread N400.

Moreover, when there was the sound of laughter, the size of the LPP was even greater in the insults condition, whereas the compliments condition was unchanged. In other words, insults almost immediately prompt more emotional processing in the brain than compliments, and this more intense processing is accentuated rapidly by a public context and the sound of laughter.

The researchers said their findings are ‘highly relevant for research that focuses on negative interpersonal interactions such as bullying, or interpersonal and intergroup conflict.’ They added: ‘While the insulted is still busy reading the unfolding insult, the extra sting of publicity is already encoded and integrated in the brain.’

A problem with interpreting the specifics of the study arises from the way that it combined a visual signal of a public context (the silhouette of a crowd) and the sound of laughter, with the image of the crowd preceding the start of the laughter. This makes it tricky to untangle the effects of a public context from the specific effects of hearing laughter. Indeed, the brainwave data showed that, at a neural level, participants were already responding differently to public insults before they could have registered the sound of the laughter.

This issue aside, the researchers said their findings show that ‘the presence of a laughing crowd...leads to stronger and more elongated emotional processing. In short, it seems that public insults are no laughing matter, at least not for the insulted.’

- Christian Jarrett

For much more, see the Research Digest blog and download the new app for iOS / Android.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

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