From the Research Digest, November 2016

The latest selection from our blog.

No reason to smile – Another modern psychology classic has failed to replicate
In Perspectives on Psychological Science

The great American psychologist William James proposed that bodily sensations – a thumping heart, a sweaty palm – aren’t merely a consequence of our emotions, but may actually cause them. In his famous example, when you see a bear and your pulse races and you start running, it’s the running and the racing pulse that makes you feel afraid.

Consistent with James’s theory (and similar ideas put forward even earlier by Charles Darwin), a lot of research has shown that the expression on our face seems not only to reflect, but also to shape how we’re feeling. One of the most well-known and highly cited pieces of research to support the ‘facial feedback hypothesis’ was published in 1988 and involved participants looking at cartoons while holding a pen either between their teeth, forcing them to smile, or between their lips, forcing them to pout. Those in the smile condition said they found the cartoons funnier.

But now an attempt to replicate this modern classic of psychology research, involving 17 labs around the world and a collective subject pool of 1894 students, has failed. ‘Overall, the results were inconsistent with the original result,’ the researchers said.

The replication effort which has been published online in Perspectives on Psychological Science attempted to stay extremely close to the original 1988 study, but there were a few differences. For example, the instructions to the participants were delivered by video to avoid experimenters inadvertently influencing the participants. And the participants were videoed during the study to ensure that they held the pen correctly in their mouth. As in the original, the aims of the research were disguised as test of motor control and consistent with this cover story, participants first had to perform some tasks with the pen (such as drawing lines between numbers) before looking at the cartoons.

Overall, nine of the participating labs found results that were in the same direction as the original research – participants with a smiling expression caused by holding the pen in their teeth tended to rate the cartoons as funnier than the pouting participants. But the size of the difference was much smaller than in the original research. And when the results from these nine labs were added to the eight who found results in the other direction, the overall outcome was no effect.

The replication researchers, led by E.J. Wagenmakers of the University of Amsterdam, said their results had failed to replicate the original ‘in a statistically compelling fashion’, but they noted that this does not mean the entire facial feedback hypothesis is dead in the water. Many diverse studies have supported the hypothesis, including research involving participants who have undergone botox treatment, which affects their facial muscles.

In a commentary published alongside the replication effort, Fritz Strack, lead author of the original 1988 classic, said that he lauded ‘the replicators’ effort in this extensive enterprise’ but that there were several issues with their methodology that cause him to be concerned with the validity of what he considers to be a surprising outcome (note that Strack proposed that his 1988 study be subjected to a replication attempt and he provided all his original materials to the replication team). Among the issues he raises is that being videoed may have affected the students’ emotional experience through causing them to feel self-conscious.

‘…while a first look at the current data seems to suggest that the [1988] SMS facial-feedback study has been convincingly “non replicated”,’ he writes, ‘a closer inspection of the replication studies reveals several methodological and statistical issues that need to be considered before drawing further conclusions on the validity of the method, of the model, or of the underlying mechanism.’

- Christian Jarrett 

Wisdom is more of a state than a trait   
In Social Psychological and Personality Science 

We all know the kind of person who did really well at school and uni but can’t seem to help themselves from forever making bad mistakes in real life. And then there are those characters who might not be surgeons or rocket scientists but have this uncanny ability to deal calmly and sagely with all the slings and arrows of life. We might say that the first kind of person, while intelligent, lacks wisdom; the second kind of character, by contrast, has wisdom in abundance. The assumption in both cases is that wisdom is a stable trait – how much someone has is an essential part of their psychological profile and remains constant through their life.

But a new study says this way of viewing wisdom is mistaken. The research in Social Psychological and Personality Science used a diary approach to gauge people’s wisdom in response to everyday problems, and the results showed that there is more variation in one person’s wisdom from one situation to the next, than there is variation in the average wisdom between people. Wisdom, it seems, is more of a state than a trait.Igor Grossman and his colleagues recruited 152 men and women in Germany (average age 27) to complete a daily diary for nine days. Each day they were emailed and asked to recall a specific negative experience from the previous day and to describe it in detail, including how they responded. Most of the recalled experiences were arguments or disputes of some kind. To look for signs of wisdom the researchers specifically asked the participants to say whether they showed intellectual humility (for example, realising that they couldn’t know for sure what the consequences of the incident would be) and self-transcendence (for example, seeing the situation from the perspective of different people).

The researchers found that there was considerable variation in how much wisdom people showed from one situation to the next. Yes, if they averaged a person’s wisdom across the nine-day study period, some people did tend to show more wisdom than others. But this difference between individuals in average wisdom was smaller than the fluctuations in wisdom typically shown by individuals from one situation to the next.

What’s more, it was a person’s display of wisdom specific to a given situation, not their average or trait wisdom, that was more strongly associated with the psychological fallout they experienced from that situation. Put differently, handling a situation with greater wisdom than is normal for you is beneficial, for example in terms of experiencing less negative emotion, seeing the bigger picture and feeling more forgiving, whether your trait levels of wisdom are high or not. And conversely, being a generally wise person is of little benefit for a specific situation if you happen to handle that situation unwisely (which was a common thing for people to do, regardless of their trait wisdom).

Another finding was that people generally tended to handle difficult situations with more wisdom when there were other people present, as compared to when they were on their own. The act of keeping the diary also seemed to lead to a general increase in wisdom levels (especially self-transcendence) as the study progressed, no doubt because the study prompted beneficial self-reflection.Of the various demographic measures that the researchers took, such as gender, education level and age, only age was related to average levels of wisdom shown across the study, with older people showing more wisdom.

The researchers said their results dovetail with ‘the recent shifts in views on malleability of other human characteristics that have long been regarded as fixed, such as intelligence, which are now seen as greatly influenced by sociocultural and motivational factors’.

- Christian Jarrett 

New clues about the way memory works in infancy
In Nature Neuroscience

Can we form memories when we are very young? Humans and non-humans alike show an ‘infantile amnesic period’ – we have no memory of anything that happens during this time (usually up to age three or four in humans) which might suggest we can’t form very early memories. But of course it might be that we can form memories in these early years, it’s just that they are later forgotten. The idea that at least something is retained from infancy is consistent with the fact that disorders present in adult life can be associated with very early life events.

Now Nature Neuroscience has published a paper confirming that in rats some kind of memories are created during the amnesic period, but that these operate differently and are produced by different brain chemistry from adult memories. What’s more, such events may have a role in kickstarting memory system maturation.

The research team from University of New York and Mount Sinai Hospital looked at rats aged either 17 or 24 days – the former still in the infantile amnesic period and who I’ll henceforth refer to as infants, the latter grown to non-amnesic status – and specifically how they were affected by the experience of being electrically shocked when exploring a novel, dark chamber adjoining their brighter home.

The infant rats showed almost no indication of being able to retain a memory of the shock. Given the chance, they sometimes returned to the chamber within the next 30 minutes, And after 24 hours, any memory of the unpleasant experience seemed entirely absent, in that they showed no hesitation in re-entering the chamber. This suggests that, at least in rats, infantile amnesia in due to a failure to store memories in the first place.

But with further tests Alessio Travaglia’s team showed that some kind of memory had in fact been formed. They first gave the rats an opportunity to wander back into thechamber, which was now a safe place (again they were happy to do this, suggesting they’d forgotten the earlier shocks). A few days later the researchers gave the rats a shock in a different location – crucially, after this unpleasant experience, the rats showed a new, persistent (days long) reluctance to enter the dark chamber when given the chance, even though it was now safe. It’s as if a memory of the earlier shocks in the chamber had been reawakened by the later shocks somewhere else.


What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer?
In Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry

When the dreadful newsarrives that a child has cancer, understandably the focus of parents and health professionals turns to supporting the sick child as best they can. But also caught up in the nightmare are the child’s siblings. Not only are they likely to be consumed by shock and fear, but they must adapt to the cancer journey the whole family has to embark on.

Official health guidance here in the UK and in the USA states that it’s important to provide support to the siblings of children with cancer. Yet the reality is we know relatively little about their experience. A new study in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry helps address this research gap, based on interviews with two brothers and four sisters – now aged 12 to 18 – of children and teenagers with cancer. The results reveal the shock and fear the siblings experienced, and the challenges they’ve faced, but also uncover a silver lining in the form of post-traumatic growth.

The researchers, led by Anita D’Urso at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the UK, interviewed each sibling for between 40 and 80 minutes, including asking them questions about what it was like when they heard their brother or sister had been diagnosed, and whether they’d experienced any positive changes.

The interviewees’ siblings with cancer were now aged between 11 and 16 and their diagnoses, for brain tumour or leukaemia, had been made between 18 and 36 months earlier. Two of the siblings with cancer were still in treatment, the other four in remission.

The interviews revealed the complex emotions the teens (and 12-year-old) had experienced, from the initial shock of their sibling’s diagnosis (I didn’t even cry, ’cos it was like  punch in the face’) to feelings of guilt and sadness and helplessness, and sometimes anger and jealousy (‘X [ill sibling] used to get loads and loads and loads of presents’).

Another recurring theme was the positive impact on the interviewees’ relationships, especially with their sick sibling (‘…’cos me and her [ill sibling], since this happened, we are like best mates … we are well close now’), the family as a whole, with their fathers (because their mothers had become so involved with caring for thesick sibling), and with outside support, including enriched friendships and helpful school counsellors and therapists.

While often mentioning the downsides, like being forced to grow up too fast, the interviewees also described how they’d changed for the better in the wake of their sibling’s illness – such as becoming more mature and empathic (‘I’m more understanding of others, like with children with disabilities… I would think “is there anything I can do to help?” cos I know how their siblings or their mum and dad are feeling.’ They also described their changed priorities (‘It’s only recently that I have had an interest in charity work’) and outlook on life (‘If I want to do things now I do them… life can be too short’), though there were also mentions of sustained anxiety.

Some practical insights to come out of the interviews include the interviewees’ recurring comments about the lack of any support they’d had in hospitals (in contrast with positive support received at school and elsewhere). The teens also advised others in their situation to not be afraid to ask for help from parents (‘I didn’t want to ask [parents] because I didn’t want to make them more stressed and upset but…when I did ask, it made them [parents] feel better… Be rationally selfish. Everyone in the family is actually important.’ They also spoke of how helpful it had been to keep up their hobbies as a way to maintain some sense of normality.

It’s important to note that this study concerned the siblings of children with cancer who had thankfully survived their illness – the researchers cautioned that the experiences of siblings of deceased cancer patients or patients in palliative care is likely to be different. Also, they acknowledged the limitations of their qualitative approach, including the possibility that by asking questions about the potential positive effects of their sibling’s illness, they may have primed their participants to see themselves as ‘survivors’ and to focus on positive outcomes.

These issues aside, D’Urso and her team said that their research supported the ‘paradigm shift’ taking place ‘across academic disciplines, from a problem-oriented approach to one which nurtures strengths’. The interviews showed that ‘most siblings were able to uncover some benefit from the ill child’s diagnosis while still acknowledging the distressing side of their situation,’ they said. Crucially, they explained, ‘unpicking of factors that lead to post-traumatic growth may begin to provide guidance for those supporting siblings (including parents, hospital staff and schools).’ cj

What was going on? First, whatever was happening involved the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in the laying down of normal memories in mature brains. We know this because, just before the initial shocks, the researchers used a chemical to block normal functioning in the hippocampus of some rats, and for these animals no amount of jogging and reminders were able to bring back any indication of remembering.

The researchers also uncovered some signs of learning and memory in the infant rats’ brains at a molecular level. Infant rats have less of a specific version of a chemical receptor in their hippocampus than mature rats. Analysing the extracts of brain tissue taken from the trained infant rats showed that after the initial training shocks in the dark chamber, they showed a sudden increase in this specific receptor (an effect not seen in the mature rats).

Let’s make sense of this. Imagine that we enter the world with just a pared-down version of memory, appropriate to being newborn, where the necessities of life, milk and warmth, are just there without your having to understand much about the world. Within weeks, this system is to be superseded by one using the same functional circuitry but fine-tuned, ready to capture novel information and store it accessibly. Until then, the system operates in a bare way, but still preserves what it can about significant events. Crucially, such events accelerate the transition to the full system, by triggering the development of more of the chemical receptors that are seen in adults. It’s too late to capture an accurate memory of this threat – the horse has bolted – but the brain gets busy building a better stable for the next one.

We don’t know, of course, whether still earlier stages in the amnesic period involve the capacity to capture memory information – it’s hard to do this kind of work with animals too small to explore their environment. But this new research suggests that in rats, and likely in infant humans too, the system is far more active than expected, not only retaining some information (which the researchers dub a ‘latent memory’ to account for its difficulty in retrieval) but also acting as a developmental critical period, akin to the way infant visual systems begin to change themselves in response to light. Given this sensitivity, the researchers speculate that early wrong experiences – or deprivation from experience – may harm us in later life through an upset of this critical period, and may contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders as a consequence.

- Alex Fradera


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