Research Lead

Replicating the Replicators: Is Psychology in Crisis or Not?

replicators_mainPhoto: Luke Price

[Methodological Psychology]

Science recently published a critique of the findings of the Reproducibility Project: Psychology.  The Reproducibility Project, conducted by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC), gained significant attention last fall for its sobering assessment of the state of psychological science, reporting that less than half of the 100 studies it attempted to replicate did so.

The recent critique, authored by Dan Gilbert, Gary King, Stephen Pettigrew, and Tim Wilson suggests the authors of the original report neglected to take into account a number of key factors in their study design and analysis, including key sources of random error, underpowered replication attempts, and biases in replication methodology. These failures, Gilbert and his co-authors argue, led the OSC to incorrectly portray the rate of replication within psychology as a “crisis.” Members of the OSC replied to the critique, standing by their original conclusion, and offering a critique of their own on Gilbert and his co-authors’ methods and analyses.

Since the critique and response were published, a number of people have attempted to digest the situation in which psychology currently finds itself. Brian Nosek and Elizabeth Gilbert, two of the authors on the original reproducibility report, published a follow-up piece, as did Dan Gilbert and his co-authors here. Uri Simonsohn added his thoughts, as did Sanjay Srivastava. Articles were also published in Nature, the New York Times, The Atlantic and New York Magazine, though Katie Palmer may have summed it up best in her piece for Wired: “Psychology is in Crisis Over Whether It’s in Crisis.”

Disclosure: Dan Gilbert is on The Psych Report’s Advisory Board.


Researchers Find Relationship Between Children’s Brain Structure and Parental Income, Education

[Neuroscience & Developmental Psychology]

Numerous studies have linked poverty with impaired cognitive development, but to date little is known about how socioeconomic status might relate to the physical development of the brain. In a recent study, published in Nature Neuroscience, Columbia University researchers Kimberly Noble, Suzanne Houston and their colleagues completed the largest investigation of socioeconomic status and children’s brain structure to date.

The researchers found both parental education and family income to be associated with a child’s brain structure—particularly in regions critical to language, executive functions and memory. To explore the link between socioeconomic factors and brain structure, the researchers examined the surface area of the cortex—collected from over 1000 youth ranging in age from 3 to 20, as a part of the multi-site Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition and Genetics study—in relation to family income and parental education, while controlling for age, sex, and genetic ancestry.

Children whose parents spent more years in high school or college showed increased brain surface area compared to children whose parents experienced lower levels of education. The relationship between parental education and surface area followed a linear path, “implying that any increase in parental education, whether an extra year of high school or college, was associated with a similar increase in surface area over the course of childhood and adolescence.”

Similarly, children with higher family income also tended to have increased brain surface area. However, the relationship between income and surface area was not linear, but rather logarithmic, meaning the increase in brain surface area per dollar earned was comparatively greater for children from lower earning families than for those from more financially well off households.

Understanding the link between socioeconomic status and experience-dependent brain development is an important step for both researchers and policy makers looking for ways to close the achievement gap. However, it should be noted that the present study does not identify a causal link between socioeconomic status and brain structure—it does not identify what socioeconomic related experiences impact brain development. The question remains how factors like stress, nutrition, exposure to environmental toxins, or cognitive stimulation impact a child’s brain in her prenatal environment and/or her post natal environment.

Finally, the authors make a point of stating, “Our results should in no way imply that a child’s socioeconomic circumstances lead to an immutable trajectory of cognitive or brain development.” They point out there are a number of other factors that explain differences in brain development. Nevertheless, they conclude, “Many leading social scientists and neuroscientists believe that policies reducing family poverty could have meaningful effects on children’s brain functioning and cognitive development.”


Wealth and Unethical Behavior: Understanding the Relationship Between Social Class and Moral Decision-making

[Economic & Social Psychology]

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis left a bitter taste in the cultural imagination, a sense that the rich and powerful don’t play by the same rulebook as everyone else. Recent experiments¹ have suggested that there is in fact some truth to this idea, finding that higher social class—defined by education and wealth—predicts unethical decision making. Behavioral scientists David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky reaffirmed this finding in their March 2015 paper, but they also identified situations in which the reverse was true.

It’s important, they argue in their series of six studies, to keep “selfish” conceptually distinct from “unethical” when evaluating moral decisions. For instance, one student could lie to avoid getting in trouble, while another could lie to help a friend avoid getting caught for cheating; both students act unethically, but only one acts solely in her self-interest. The researchers found that people of a higher social class were more likely to behave unethically when they would personally benefit. By way of contrast, people in a lower social class acted unethically when individuals other than themselves stood to gain. In other words, wealth predicted selfishness rather than unethical behavior per se.

This study did not ascertain causality, which is to say there’s no reason to believe that being wealthy makes you selfish, nor that selfish people become wealthy. Instead, these results add an important caveat to the research on class and morality: both upper class and lower class people can do unethical things, but the reasons and contexts in which it occurs likely differ between the two groups. This has important public policy implications, suggesting that it can pay dividends to know your audience when trying to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules.

1: Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. PNAS, 109, 4086–4091 (pdf).


Chronic Stereotype Threat and Blindness: Coping With More Than Lack of Sight

[Social Psychology]

Much is known about about how stereotype threat — the fear of behaving in a way which confirms a negative stereotype about one’s social group — undermines performance for a particular group in a particular situation, women and math for instance. Much less is known, however, about how stereotypes might threaten individuals over time and what the impact of this constant threat might be.

In a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Arielle Silverman and Geoffrey Cohen examined the degree to which people with a permanent physical disability, in this case blindness, felt a chronic level of stereotype threat and to what extent that threat affected their self-integrity, well-being, their level of employment, and their willingness to confront potentially stereotype-threatening situations.

In the first of two studies, Silverman and Cohen surveyed 497 blind adults and found that those with higher levels of perceived stereotype threat had lower well-being, higher levels of stress, were more likely to be unemployed, and were less willing to take on new challenges. Critically, Silverman and Cohen found that these life outcomes were mediated by an individual’s level of self-integrity — the perception of oneself as adequate and in control of important life outcomes.

Building off these results and their previous research, in their second study Silverman and Cohen hypothesized that for blind individuals, a values-affirmation intervention — a writing exercise in which an individual writes about personally important values — might help boost self-integrity thereby reducing threat and creating more positive life outcomes. The authors administered the values-affirmation writing intervention to adult students at a school for the blind. One month after the intervention, students who had written about personally important values were rated as progressing further on measures of attitude and course performance by their instructors, when compared with the students who had only completed a control writing task.

Overall, Silverman and Cohen suggest that chronic stereotype threat can harm self-integrity by leading individuals to avoid potentially stereotype-threatening situations, which can then negatively impact well-being, stress, employment, and lead to further avoidance of threatening situations. To break this cycle, they suggest bolstering an individual’s self-integrity, in this case through a values-affirmation exercise. Finally, the authors point out that the effects of a physical disability are not just physical, but psychological as well. To fully address the challenges people with a disability continuously face, they suggest it is both beneficial and critical to incorporate appropriate psychological interventions into therapy.


Informal Biases Impede Women and Minorities at “Pathways“ Leading into Academia


Photo: Sakeeb Sabakka

[Social & Organizational]

Although there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities face discrimination in higher levels of academia, a new study suggests that the unequal treatment exists before students even apply to doctoral programs. A working paper published on the Social Science and Research Network by Katherine Milkman et al. investigated if women and minorities experience less support in early, informal processes leading up to the decision to apply to graduate school programs. They found that women and minorities face greater difficulty in getting an email response from professors when inquiring about research opportunities for doctoral programs, and even more so from higher paid professors and those at top universities.

The researchers sent emails to 6,548 tenure-track and tenured professors at 259 top U.S. institutions across 109 academic disciplines. The emails were sent from fictional prospective doctoral students seeking a meeting to discuss research opportunities in the professor’s lab. Emails contained identical messages with the only variable being the name of the student–chosen to imply a gender and/or ethnicity*.

Milkman et al. found that professors, despite their own gender, race, or ethnic background, were more likely to respond to an email from a white male over an email from a female or a black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese student. However, Chinese professors exhibited less of a bias against Chinese students. Most academic disciplines, including almost all natural sciences, overwhelmingly replied more frequently to white males; the greatest disparity existed in business with 87% of white males receiving a response versus just 62% of female and minority students. The exception was in fine arts where reverse bias presented itself in favor of women and minorities. In addition, the researchers found that academics of private universities and those of higher pay grades were the least responsive — for every $13,000 increase in salary, response rate to women and minorities decreased by 5 percent in comparison to white males.

This study highlights barriers that women and minorities may face as they try to enter into academia, and raises important research questions about why bias might occur at the “pathways” leading to the Academy. Future work will look to answer why the diversity of an institution doesn’t necessarily alleviate discrimination, as well as why an individual’s level of pay can impact levels of discrimination.

*Sample of names used in study: Claire Smith (white female), Brad Anderson (white male), Latoya Smith (black female), Lamar Washington (black male), Gabriella Rodriguez (Hispanic female), Carlos Lopez (Hispanic male), Sonali Desai (Indian female), Raj Singh (Indian male), Ling Wong (Chinese female), Dong Lin (Chinese male)


The Too-Much-Talent Effect: How too-much talent may hurt a team’s performance

[Social & Organizational]

What do you get when you put Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh together on one team? A lot of talent. Perhaps, too much. In an article in Psychological Science, Swaab et al. challenge the popular notion that an increase in the number of highly-talented players on a team leads to an increase in a team’s success.

To understand how individual talent affects team performance, Swaab et al. analyzed the rosters, team rankings, and winning percentage for national soccer teams and professional basketball and baseball teams. To index a team’s talent, the researchers used statistics representative of a player’s ability to consistently perform at a high level including elite club team status (FIFA/soccer), estimated wins added* (NBA/basketball), and wins above replacement* (MLB/baseball). Team success was measured using 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup rankings, and winning percentages from NBA and MLB seasons over the past ten years. For both soccer and basketball teams, researchers found a significant correlation between talent and performance. As the number of highly-talented individuals on a team increased so did a team’s performance, but only up to a point, after which a team’s performance declined as talent increased.

Swaab et al. suspect that too-much talent creates competition for status, which leads to less coordination within a team. In a follow-up study of NBA teams, they found that as talent increased so did intrateam coordination (measured by assists, defensive rebounds, and field-goal percentage), but again only up to a point, after which increased talent means decreased coordination. This explanation gained further support as researchers extended their analysis to baseball, a sport which requires less interdependence between team members. For baseball, the authors found talent did not reach the same threshold of “too much” — as talent increased, so did performance.

As any leader knows, a talented team is critical to success, but finding the right balance of talent isn’t always easy. The present research raises intriguing questions about talent and team building strategy on the field, on the court, and in the office.

Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. (2014). The Too-Much-Talent Effect Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough. Psychological science, 0956797614537280.

*Estimated Wins Added (EWA) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR): “A player’s overall contribution to his team, as it gives the estimated number of wins a players adds to the team’s season total above what a replacement player would produce” (Swaab et al.).


Who’s participating in research on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk?

[Methodological Psychology]

Mimicking 10 facial expressions gets you $1.60. Taking a 90-minute survey on your emotions is worth a buck. Throughout the social sciences, it’s becoming increasingly common for researchers to employ Amazon’s Mechanical Turk–an online marketplace where “workers”are paid to complete tasks offered by “requesters”–in their empirical research. MTurk, as it’s known, is efficient and inexpensive making it an especially attractive research tool. But one of the big questions that remains is who are the workers, or in the case of research, participants, that complete the tasks?

In a recent article, published in Current Directions In Psychological Science, Gabriele Paolacci and Jesse Chandler, review the latest research examining the use of MTurk as a participant pool. Demographically speaking, the MTurk workforce is made up of over 500,000 people from 190 countries, with about 75% of workers living in the United States and India. Paolacci and Chandler report that MTurk offers researchers a participant population that is more diverse than the typical college student population, but still not representative of the population as a whole. According to the authors, “Workers tend to be younger (about 30 years old), overeducated, underemployed, less religious, and more liberal than the general population.” Furthermore, within the US’s MTurk workforce, Asians are overrepresented, while Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented.

Paolacci and Chandler report workers are motivated primarily by size of the payout, but are also motivated by the intrinsic aspects of the tasks as well. Evidence also suggests that MTurk workers respond just as truthfully, and are similarly attentive as traditional participant samples. However, because obtaining future work on the site is often dependent on how they completed previous work (accurate, on-time) the authors highlight the possibility of demand characteristics within MTurk. Likewise, increased experience completing research tasks, particularly economic games and problems, may lead to a practice effect impacting worker responses. The authors also caution that arbitrary factors in experimental design could impact participant selection, and emphasize the need for researchers to take steps to understand and report the make-up of their participant population.


To be Respected or Liked? How the goal to be respected or be liked influences a woman’s response to sexism

[Social Psychology]

In the workplace, women frequently have to choose between being respected or being liked, with professional achievement often coming at the expense of social acceptance. The dilemma that women face between being liked or respected is especially apparent in cases of sexual harassment. In their recent article, “Goal Preference Shapes Confrontations of Sexism,” published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Robyn Mallett and Kala Melchiori examined how a woman’s goal of being respected or being liked related to how she responded to sexism.

Mallett and Melchiori administered mock interviews through a computerized instant message format. Female participants took on the role of interviewee and within the interview were asked either sexist (“Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?”) or inappropriate (“Do people find you morbid?”) questions by a supposed male interviewer. At the conclusion of the interview, participants were asked to report their preference for being respected versus being liked.

Mallett and Melchiori found that the more a woman prefered to be respected rather than liked, the more likely she was to respond assertively to sexist interview questions. Important to note however, and in line with past work, the researchers also found that the majority of responses to the sexist interview questions were non-confrontational, suggesting that even if a women is seeking respect, assertiveness in the face of sexism is the “exception rather than the rule.” The authors further point out that their results raise questions with how the United States’  reasonable person standard is applied to sexual harassment cases. Though many people may assume the reasonable reaction to sexual harassment would be an immediate and assertive response, the current work illustrates that this may in fact be an unreasonable expectation.

Social Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Genetic Investigation

[Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology]

Many scientists view a deficiency in the ability to recognize faces as a major component in social interaction disorders, such as those on the autism-spectrum. Previous research has shown that mammals identify members of their own species using social recognition cues; for rodents odor cues, and for primates visual cues. Previous research has also pointed to a specific receptor, the oxytocin receptor, as key for social recognition in rodents. Now, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Skuse and colleagues implicated the oxytocin receptor as critical for face recognition in humans. The authors recruited 198 Finnish and British families, who all had at least one child diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and tested each family member’s ability to: remember faces, discriminate facial emotions, and detect “direction of gaze.” Then, using a saliva sample, the authors analyzed genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor for each participant in order to understand if genetic differences in the receptor were associated with diminished social recognition ability. The authors found that high performance on the social recognition tasks was associated with normal genetic expression of the oxytocin receptor, while a specific genetic variation in the receptor, found in one-third of the participants, was associated with decreased performance. These findings implicate a specific genetic variant of the oxytocin receptor in social recognition disorders—in this case autism—as well as suggest that the gene encoding the oxytocin receptor plays an important role in human face recognition.

Sacrificing Ethics to Achieve Money and Status, a Gender Difference

Underrepresentation of women in high-paying, executive positions within the business sector is a widely-recognized, though stubbornly persistent, phenomenon. Whereas much past research into the source of this disparity emphasizes external barriers such as stereotypes, social roles, and backlash, more recent research has focused on how women’s own perceptions and choices lead them away from such positions. Kennedy and Kray add to this alternative current by examining how women’s perceptions of ethical compromises might disincline them to pursue careers that are often expected to make such tradeoffs.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that women reported more moral outrage than men when presented with scenarios detailing ethical compromise for business gains, such as achieving company goals and increased profits. Similarly, though women did not indicate less baseline interest in business jobs than men, they expressed less interest when the positions involved such compromise, and showed stronger implicit associations between “business” and “immorality” than male participants. Kennedy and Kray also introduced a new factor to the literature by examining the role of “social status as a driver of ethical compromise.”

In conjunction with past research, the authors indicate that such results should not be seen as reason for women to avoid the business sector; instead, they suggest women’s advancement is an opportunity to bring business practices closer in line with social morality on a broad scale.  At any rate, it is becoming increasingly apparent that shattering the infamous “glass ceiling” is not just a matter of lifting women up for their own sake.

“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.


“Researcher controls colleague’s motions in 1st human brain-to-brain interface”


In our last Research Lead, we described how a human was able to move the tail of a rat through brain-to-brain interface. Now, Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco at the University of Washington have successfully performed what they believe is the first non-invasive human-to-human brain interface. Their interface was set up as follows: A “sender” wore a headset that read the electrical waves along his scalp. His brain waves were then interpreted by computer software, and when he properly produced a certain type of brain wave (by entering a focused and relaxed brain state), a computer via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) sent a signal to the “receiver’s” brain, which caused the receiver to involuntarily press a button on a keyboard. The key component of this interface was the use of TMS. There was a small TMS machine hooked up to the receiver’s motor cortex such that, when the machine was activated, the receiver experienced an involuntary motor movement. While this type of research is billed as a human brain-to-brain interface, it might be better described as a brain-to-computer-to-TMS-to-brain interface. Regardless, Rao’s and Stocco’s work represents a significant step towards more direct brain-to-brain interaction.

“Largest neuronal network simulation achieved using K computer”

[Computational Neuroscience]

In our brains, information in the form of electrochemical signals is processed and transported from one neuron to the next at speeds up to 250 miles per hour via connectors called synapses. We’re information processors—this is why computer metaphors are sometimes apt for describing our brains. But how true is this metaphor? “K computer” at the Okinawa Institute of Technology Graduate University (currently the 4th fastest computer on Earth) is getting closer to answering that question. With the processing power of 250,000 high speed PCs, K computer has performed the largest simulation of a neural network ever. The researchers simulated the activity of 1.73 billion neurons connected by 10.4 trillion synapses. Using 82,944 processors, K computer took 40 minutes to simulate 1 second of random brain activity.  While this is nowhere near as fast as a human brain, nor is the network even close to as large (human brains are estimated to have about 100 billion neurons), this is an important step in understanding neural networks. It also opens up vast research spaces to test the limits and boundaries between neural and computer networks. Is this a science fiction writer’s dream, slowly—very slowly—becoming a reality?

“Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance”

[Animal Behavior]

Research by van Schaik et al., published in PLOS ONE, provides new evidence of long-term planning behavior by an animal in the wild. In a study of Sumatran orangutans, van Schaik and colleagues found that the direction of long calls made by flanged* males predicted travel directions up to 22 hours in advance, even when the call and travel were interrupted by sleeping at night. The authors found that, in contrast to migrating birds, the orangutans adjust their travel plans and often signal this change with new spontaneous long-calls, which predict travel direction better than their initial long-calls. The authors point to the female orangutans’ desire to mate with and be protected by the dominant male as a reason why communicating travel information in advance makes sense from a reproductive point of view. The authors posit that orangutans likely make and adjust plans using features of episodic memory–the ability to recall specific events–however more research is required to understand the mechanism behind this behavior. Overall, the authors suggest that this type of long-term planning behavior by animals in the wild is unlikely limited to orangutans and they expect this behavior to exist in other apes and large-brain animals.

*“Sexually mature males may, after highly variable periods of time, grow cheek flanges (wide cartilaginous pads at the sides of their face.”

“Language can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness”

[Language & Perception]

Giving objects a name, besides being an effective memory tool, serves to direct our attention towards familiar things in our visual environment. For example, while walking through a forest, knowing the linguistic label for an oak, maple, or birch tree can help us recognize and differentiate various trees that otherwise we may not have noticed. Along these lines, researchers Lupyan and Ward found that activating the linguistic label for an object is enough to propel an otherwise unseen object into visual awareness. In their experiment, participants indicated whether or not they saw familiar objects on a screen. The catch? These objects were suppressed from conscious visual awareness using a method called Continuous Flash Suppression; a method where one eye sees the object and the other eye sees a random scribble of lines, essentially making the original image incomprehensible. Lupyan and Ward found that participants responded faster to the suppressed image and noticed it more often when it was paired with an appropriate linguistic label (i.e. they heard the word right before the images appeared), compared to when participants heard an invalid label, or nothing at all. The authors conclude that simply hearing the appropriate label for an object can bring that object to attention, when it would have otherwise gone unseen.

“Non-Invasive Brain-to-Brain Interface (BBI): Establishing Functional Links between Two Brains”


Who moved my cheese? How about who moved my tail? This past spring, a team of researchers successfully linked the brains of a human and a rat, such that a human participant was able to move a rat’s tail with only his thoughts. Through a noninvasive approach, Yoo et al. used an image of a flashing strobe light to prompt specific brain signals in the human participant, which were then translated into the appropriate neural stimulus for the rat, and thus invoke the movement of the rat’s tail. Methodologically, Yoo et al. were able to achieve this brain-to-brain interface by successfully translating, computer recorded, EEG signals of the human brain into a transcranial focused ultrasound (FUS) burst, which stimulated the area in the rat’s motor cortex corresponding to tail movement. Though Yoo and colleagues acknowledge the potential for brain-to-brain communication between humans, they approach expanding upon mind control technology with caution, as further advancements pose questions of ethics that remain unanswered.

“Predicting ethnic and racial discrimination: A meta-analysis of IAT criterion studies”

[Social & Methodological Psychology]

The creation of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in 1998, sparked a new wave of theory and research focused on understanding people’s implicitly held attitudes and beliefs, and how those implicit attitudes and beliefs might affect behavior. One of most researched topics using IAT methodology is racial and ethnic discrimination. Employing the IAT, many researchers seemed to uncover implicit biases and prejudices that explicit measures, specifically because they were explicit, could not uncover. However, a new meta analysis, by Oswald et al. revealed the IAT to be a poor predictor of racial or ethnic discriminatory attitudes and behavior, and in fact no better than an explicit measure. Given these results, Oswald et al. question the construct validity of the IAT, and in turn its ability to predict actual behavior. These new findings raise significant questions about psychology and other domains widespread use and application of IAT based results, specifically with regard to racial and ethnic discrimination, and have broad implications for the legal system that has made significant use of the IAT since its inception 15 years ago.

“Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment”

[Social Psychology]

Born on third base and thought you hit a triple. A recent study by Kraus and Keltner showed that individuals who perceived themselves as higher in social class rank tended to understand their elevated position in essentialist terms. That is, high social rank individuals tended to believe that differences in social standing can be explained by natural or inherent factors, rather than the social-situation context. This effect held, even for participants whose perception of their social class rank was experimentally manipulated to be relatively higher, which, the researchers suggest, points to an initial causal link between high class rank and the tendency to adopt essentialist beliefs about social class. Kraus and Keltner also demonstrated that individuals who were more likely to explain social rank in terms of natural ability, were less likely to favor restorative justice, the idea that criminals should be rehabilitated, as opposed to retributive justice, which is based on the idea of deterrents. This research has implications for how people perceive social mobility and class, and the researchers pose a question for future research: “Do essentialist beliefs in social hierarchy underlie current punishment practices in the United States?”

“The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers”

[Cognitive Psychology]

Did you see the gorilla? Contributing to the growing body of evidence on inattentional blindness, –the phenomenon that people often fail to recognize salient stimuli while engaged in another task–Drew et al. performed a study that examined how expert radiologists would fare if an anomalous stimuli was placed in lung CT scans. In the experiment, professional radiologists were tasked with detecting cancer nodes in 5 chest CT scans. In the final scan, the experimenters inserted the outline of a gorilla. Of the 24 radiologists who performed the task, 20 missed the gorilla. Eye tracking data of the radiologists who “did not see” the gorilla, indicated that the majority had looked directly at its position. The researchers suggest these results illustrate that even individuals with high levels of expertise can still fall victim to the limits of attention and perception. This work has implications for understanding how mistakes can be avoided during search tasks, especially in the healthcare industry, where the consequences of missed information can be catastrophic.

“Disruption of alcohol-related memories by mTORC1 inhibition prevents relapse”

[Clinical & Neuroscience]

Unable to overcome the gauntlet of cravings and withdrawal, alcohol abusers often succumb to relapse. However, a recent article in Nature Neuroscience describes a potential avenue of treatment that may aid with recovery. According to Barak et al., the tastes and smells associated with alcohol cue memories that evoke cravings, and thus spur relapse. Using alcohol dependent rats, Barak et al. found that by inhibiting a memory related pathway, they were able to mitigate cravings for alcohol in the rats. In the study, the researchers first identified the activation of the mTORC1 neural pathway as part of the memory reconsolidation process, and subsequently hypothesized that inhibiting this pathway could disrupt alcohol related memories and ultimately suppress relapse. As predicted, Barak and his team found that the mTORC1 inhibitor, rapamycin, effectively suppressed relapse in alcohol dependent rats that had been prompted with alcohol related taste and smell cues. This finding–that disruption of a neural pathway related to memory consolidation can lead to clinical benefits–has implications for the treatment of alcohol and substance abuse, as well as for clinical conditions involving recurrent memories, such as PTSD.

“Human Cooperation”

[Evolutionary Psychology]

How did human cooperation evolve? In review of both the theoretical and empirical research, Rand and Nowak set out to understand the theoretical frames of cooperation alongside the behavioral evidence. Theory suggests that human cooperation developed via five different mechanisms: reciprocity, reputation, group interaction, competition, and kin recognition. These mechanisms are significant, the theory posits, because within these behavioral patterns cooperation was favored from a reproduction and selection standpoint. Drawing on research in game theory, the authors present the existing behavioral evidence for each of the five identified mechanisms, in order to describe why and how, in a seemingly competitive world, cooperative behavior developed. The authors also examine one-off instances of cooperation where no mechanism was involved. They conclude that regularly used cooperative strategies often “spill over” to affect anonymous, one time interactions. Lastly, the authors suggest avenues for future research and ways in which the fields of Evolutionary Dynamics and Psychology can work together to better understand human cooperation.

“Mere exposure to money increases endorsement of free-market systems and social inequality”

[Economic Psychology]

How does the concept of money affect an individual’s perception of the social and economic systems in the United States? A research team lead by Eugene Caruso found that individuals who were merely exposed to a computer background image of $100 dollar bills while reading the instructions of the experiment (compared with those who were not), were more likely to: 1) endorse a free-market ideology, 2) justify the current social order of the United States, 3) believe that the world is just (people get what they deserve), 4) believe that it is acceptable for some social groups to dominate others, and 5) structure resources according to a free-market ideology. The researchers suggest that activating an individual’s concept of money may lead him/her to believe in and even promote social and economic systems that maintain and foster inequality.

“The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics”

[Biological & Clinical Psychology]

Nature versus Nurture? You may be asking the wrong question. In their recent article in Clinical Psychological Science, Slavich and Cole review the emerging science of Human Social Genomics (HSG). This research suggests that human genetic expression may not be as fixed as previously thought, and that our genetic expression depends on the ever changing social and environmental factors that occur throughout an individual’s life. Furthermore, research indicates that genetic expression is not necessarily tied to objective factors in a person’s environment, but rather their subjective experience of the environment. Slavich and Cole also discuss the existence of a human metagenome; the idea that an individual’s genetic expression continuously influences and is influenced by the genetic expression of other individuals. HSG research represents a paradigm shift in how we understand gene-environment interactions. The implications are far reaching, especially for Clinical and Positive Psychology, where a better understanding of the dynamic gene-environment interaction may lead to an increased ability to prevent disease and create environments that promote well-being.

“The meaning and role of ideology in system justification and resistance for high- and low-status people”

[Social Psychology]

The American Dream, touting equality, meritocracy, and democracy, is still very much alive, though it remains, as always, just that: a dream. In a series of three studies, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Zimmerman & Reyna found that participants still endorsed those quintessentially-American ideals, but participants also felt like actual society is currently falling short of attaining them. The difference between the actual and the idealized was pronounced in lower socio-economic participants, who perceived a bigger difference between the two than participants with higher incomes. Interestingly, however, lower-income participants tended to affirm the existing system at least as strongly, if not more so, than their wealthier counterparts.  Previous research has been taken this as evidence of a system justification that sustains inequality. Zimmerman & Reyna instead argue that idealized belief endorsement among the low-income group represents holding an existing and imperfect system to its higher aspirations. Though this only looks at financial divisions, this research suggests that underprivileged and oppressed groups may support the ideals of a failing system without endorsing its faulty actualization.

“The Pervasive Problem With Placebos in Psychology: Why Active Control Groups Are Not Sufficient to Rule Out Placebo Effects”


Proper methodological design is paramount for any scientific study, especially those making causal claims. In a recent article, Boot et al. demonstrate that many psychology studies fail to control for differences in expectation between participants in the control and experimental groups. For many studies, the effects observed in the experimental group may in fact be due to the placebo effect of expectation, rather than the intervention itself, calling into question any causal claims. Through a case study and a simple test of expectations, Boot and colleagues show that expectations do infact differ between the control and experimental groups, and how the failure to control for such differences can lead to faulty or at least premature claims of causation. To help remedy this pervasive problem, the authors point to certain methodological designs that can control for expectations, and call on researchers, reviewers, and editors to set a higher methodological standard when making causal claims for a psychological intervention.

“Perceived Hotness Affects Behavior of Basketball Players and Coaches”

[Statistical Psychology]

Things might not be quite as good as they seem on the court. In July’s issue of Psychological Science, Attali empirically analyzes how the well-known and much-disputed “hot hand,” the idea that players who have made recent shots are more likely to make their next shot. The pervasive perception of “hot hand” – accepted by players and coaches alike –  was found to significantly increase a player’s chances of taking the next shot, and of taking more risky shots. However, these “hot” players were in fact less likely to make a shot after a hit than after a miss. Though there is sound reason behind the psychological tendency to seek out and identify patterns among repeated events, this research adds to past literature showing how intuitions concerning statistical probability may result in suboptimal behavior.

“Paradoxical effects of stress and an executive task on decisions under risk”


Two wrongs don’t make a right, but when it comes to cognitive neuroscience, sometimes two simultaneous impairments counterintuitively make for improved performance. Previous research has established that decisions made either under stress or while multitasking tend to be impaired. Extending this research in the June issue of Cognitive Neuroscience, Pabst and colleagues examined the combined effect of these impairments on decision making, uncovering a paradoxical result. A simple prediction might hold that this combination of impairments would combine or synthesize, resulting in even worse decision making; puzzlingly, however, Pabst et al. found that decisions made by stressed, multitasking individuals performed better than a control group acting in the absence of either factor. The most likely explanation, according to the authors, is that the combination of stress and dual task monitoring induces a cognitive switch from serial to parallel goal monitoring, potentially by means of elevated dopamine concentrations in areas of the brain implicated in goal monitoring.

“Infant ERPs separate children at risk of dyslexia who become good readers from those who become poor readers”

[Developmental Psychology]

Developmental dyslexia, most widely recognized as a reading disorder, and whose causes are not precisely known, is characterized by multiple deficits. In this longitudinal study, van Zuijen et al. examine how one of these, a phonological deficit (the difficulty connecting letters to the sounds they make), may be an early indicator of later reading trouble. Starting with at-risk infants as young as 2 months old, the researchers studied brain activity during a phonological differentiation task. Years later, when the participants were in second grade, the researchers followed up with a reading fluency test. The children whose brain scans during the phonological task had exhibited a mismatched response (MMR) were reading fluently, but those who did not show MMR were not. These results are consistent with theories of dyslexia as a phonological deficit, and show that there are very early neurophysiological precursors to dysfluent reading, which could be valuable in early identification. Furthermore, lateralization differences between the subjects and controls supports theories of alternative speech processing circuitry that may develop as a compensatory mechanism for some children with phonological impairments early on.