The Research Lead: Selection of Latest Psychology Research

“Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections”


"Zooming in on the subject's eye reveals hidden bystanders"

“Zooming in on the subject’s eye reveals hidden bystanders.” Jenkins and Kerr (2013).

In an experiment seemingly ripped from Law and Order or CSI, UK Psychologists Rob Jenkins and Christine Kerr demonstrated that it is possible to identify the faces of unseen bystanders in a photograph via the reflections in the eyes of the photographed individuals. Jenkins and Kerr took portrait pictures of individuals while other participants stood out of the photograph but in the line of site of the photographed subject. The researchers then used photo-editing techniques to extract faces in the reflections of the eyes of those photographed. Using these extracted facial images, they conducted two tests of identification: a face-matching task and a spontaneous recognition task. In both tasks participants were able to identify those in the picture at rate better than chance. Given the well-documented human ability to recognize faces, even in poor quality images, the result is not especially surprising. What is striking, however, is the original source of the image, and the fact that despite being 30,000 times smaller than the subject’s face in the original photograph, the extracted faces were still identifiable–which is a testament to both modern photographic technology and the human ability to recognize faces. Generalizing their work, Jenkins and Kerr highlight the applicability of this technique to aid in criminal investigations, where film and camera are recovered as evidence.


“Misinformation, disinformation, and violent conflict: From Iraq and the “War on Terror” to future threats to peace”

[Political Psychology]

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” stated Aeschylus circa 500 BC*. Those words ring just as true 2500 years later. In a special issue of American Psychologist, Lewandosky et al. examined the ways misinformation in the digital age can contribute to war and conflict and reviewed the psychological processes that contribute to the support and perpetuation of misinformation. Lewandosky et al. employ two case studies in their review: a retrospective examination of the effect of misinformation during the 2003 Iraq War and the “War on Terror,” and a prospective look at the potential conflicts that could arise as a result of climate change–partly due to the misinformation that surrounds the subject.

In both cases, an individual’s worldview is a key determinant of the way he or she will process information, with research demonstrating that conservatives and liberals are likely to believe in the narratives that align with their worldview. With regard to the Iraq War, called for by a Republican president, an aggregate of poll data showed that 61% of Republicans and 18% of Democrats believed WMDs existed in Iraq before the US invasion. In the case of climate change, Lewandosky point out that although 97% of climate scientists agree that the globe is warming and human activity is a cause, misinformation abounds. One study found that 20% of those asked in a US survey felt climate change was a hoax.

The authors point out that people are predisposed “to believe what they hear or read because speakers are assumed to be truthful,” and once belief in a certain argument takes hold it can be hard to correct, even if people are presented with correct information. This is best illustrated by the worldview backfire effect, which occurs when people who believe in misinformation are presented with the actual facts, yet subsequently believe more strongly in the misinformation. The authors hope that an understanding of the psychological processes surrounding the belief in and perpetuation of misinformation will help refute incorrect information and thereby help avoid conflict. Throughout their discussion, they identified several ways adherence to one’s worldview can be lessened and belief in misinformation can be corrected: by reframing the narrative, inducing skepticism of the message’s source, correction of misinformation by the media, and through self-affirmation.

*Aeschylus as cited by Lewandosky et al. (2013)


“How Experts Practice: A Novel Test of Deliberate Practice Theory”

[Learning and Sport Psychology]

“Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes, but not all practice is created equal. Researchers point to deliberate practice as a key to learning and high levels of achievement. Deliberate practice is categorized as an activity designed to improve specific aspects of performance, and is often rated as more challenging, more effortful, and less enjoyable than other activities. In an online-first publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Coughlan et al. investigated the ways in which expert and intermediate Gaelic football players differed in aspects of deliberate practice, and the extent to which these differences related to improvement in a kicking task. The expert and intermediate footballers were evaluated based on their ability to perform two types of kicks in a pre-test, acquisition phase (4 practice sessions), post-test, and retention test.

The results revealed that expert players chose to focus more on their weaker of the two kicks, while intermediate players tended to focus on their stronger kick. Both groups showed improvement, from the pre to post-test, on the respective kicks they practiced most, however only experts maintained the improvement in the retention test. This, the authors suggest, may indicate more permanent learning for the experts, and, consistent with predictions of deliberate practice theory, experts were also more likely to find practice more physically and mentally effortful, and less enjoyable. The researchers also found that experts were also more efficient during practice and planned their kicks more often. Overall, the study represents a new way to study the effects of practice in real time, rather than through retrospective reports, and supports the idea that experts engage in practice that is qualitatively different than those with lesser skill.

-For readers new to Gaelic Football check out the video here.


“Money, Well-Being, and Loss Aversion”

[Economic Psychology]

Do the negative psychological consequences of a pay cut differ in magnitude than the positive psychological consequences of a pay raise? Researchers haves shown that people tend to be loss averse. That is, people anticipate losses, in money for example, will have greater negative effects than an equally sized gain will have positive effects. While a significant body of research demonstrates the effect anticipated losses or gains have on anticipated well-being, a recent study, published in Psychological Science, Boyce et. al set out to examine the actual effects of pay cuts and pay raises on actual psychological well-being. Boyce et al. utilized two large, longitudinal, national datasets from German and British Households to compare changes in income to changes in subjective well-being. The researchers found that actual raises and cuts in income have similar psychological effects as anticipated raises and cuts, and thereby provide the first evidence that the concept of loss aversion applies to both anticipated and actual experience. Thus, a lower income, if stable, may be better for psychological well-being than a higher, but less stable one. Such findings have significant sociopolitical implications, as small reductions in national income levels, for example, may negate the increases in subjective well-being that a nation’s inhabitants receive from overall income growth.


“Intuitive Prosociality”


Many theories of human prosociality suggest human beings must exert reflective-control over selfish impulses in order to behave prosocially. However, new evidence from three areas of psychology research, reviewed by Jamil Zaki and Jason Mitchell in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggests prosociality may be an impulse in its own right. More specifically, evidence from decision-making, neuroscience, and developmental psychology demonstrates that prosocial behaviors and preferences often follow patterns of intuitive psychological processes, rather than control-oriented processes. The decision-making evidence illustrates the automatic qualities of prosocial choices, such as faster decision times when making prosocial choices versus selfish ones. Neuroscience research reveals control-related brain systems are rarely activated when people make prosocial decisions, with the automatic reward-system more likely to be engaged. Finally, developmental research shows that young children, often exhibit prosocial behaviors such as spontaneous helping, despite having not yet developed reflective control over their behavior. Given this evidence, Zaki and Mitchell support an intuitive-model of prosociality, and posit, ”Prosocial acts, instead of requiring control over selfish impulses, may represent a class of intuition in and of themselves.”


“Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping”


Does an individual’s status affect the kind of help he or she will likely be offered? New research, published in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests it does. In a series of four experiments, Arie Nadler and Lily Chernyak-Hai examined the relationship between a help-seeker’s status*, the type of help people chose to give, and the perceptions of those seeking help. The first three experiments revealed that participants were more likely to offer low status help-seekers the answer to the problem (dependency-oriented help), while they were more likely to offer high-status help-seekers the tools to solve the problem (autonomy-oriented help).

Why the difference in helping behavior? Nadler and Chernyak-Hai found that participants were more likely to attribute the need for help by low-status individuals to internal, more permanent causes, like low ability or low motivation. However, participants were more likely to attribute the need for help by high-status individuals to more temporary circumstances, like a lapse in concentration. Moreover, help seeking behavior was perceived as a sign of weakness in low-status individuals, but as a sign of strength in high-status individuals. The relationship between status and helping behavior is malleable however. The fourth experiment demonstrated that perceptions of individuals can change depending on whether a low or high status individual requests autonomy or dependency-oriented help.

Lastly, the authors found that an important factor in the type of help provided is the helper’s identification with the help-seeker**. Overall, these results reveal how status can affect helping behavior and the perception of those who seek help. This research has broad implications for social-welfare programs that often face support or opposition based on varying arguments of why individuals need help.

*Status was defined by: performance on a problem-solving task (Experiment 1), socioeconomic status (Exp. 2 and 4), and scholastic achievement (Exp. 3).

**The majority of participants in the study were identified as medium or medium-high SES individuals, and the authors point to the need for further research to better understand how different status combinations of helpers and help-seekers affects the type of help given and the attributions of why the help is needed.


“Social status and anger expression: The cultural moderation hypothesis”


In a cross-cultural study of emotion, published in the December issue of Emotion, Park et al. explored the relationship between anger and social status in American and Japanese adults. Park et al. point out that while research has linked low status individuals to higher levels of anger, the work to date has been conducted primarily on Western populations. In the West, anger is primarily used to vent frustration–a precursor to anger thought to be the result of limited opportunity to pursue individual goals. In Japan, however, due to the interdependent nature of the culture, anger is not as readily expressed. Japanese of high status, however, may be more willing to display anger as a way to exert authority and dominance over others.

In the present work, Park et al employed large representative surveys in both the United States and Japan to study the relationship between anger, subjective and objective social status, and frustration. Consistent with previous research Park et al. found that Americans who reported lower subjective social status were more likely to report being angry, with the link between status and anger mediated by level of frustration. Conversely, objectively higher status Japanese were more likely to report anger, with the link between status and anger mediated by decision-making authority. These results suggest culture moderates the link between an individual’s expression of anger and his or her social status. More broadly, this study highlights the role culture plays in emotional expression.


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