1. Study suggests oxytocin is released during relationship crises

    May 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release:

    Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical,” but American and Norwegian researchers have found out that it may as well be called a “crisis hormone.”

    “When people notice that their partner is showing less interest in their relationship than they are, the level of this relationship-building hormone increases,” says Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, a research assistant in NTNU’s Department of psychology.

    The hormone oxytocin has long been associated with relationships in several different ways. Oxytocin has a great reputation, because it is thought that it can make us feel better by reducing anxiety and making us feel more generous. Our brain secretes it during orgasm. It also influences the relationship between mother and child.

    But it’s not all cuddling and love.

    Two — or more — possibilities

    “Two main theories exist. Some scientists believe that oxytocin is released primarily to enhance a relationship and make it stronger when you’re with someone you love,” says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

    But others believe that oxytocin levels increase primarily when we find ourselves in difficult or even threatening situations. In those cases, the hormone helps us seek out new social relationships.

    However it may not just be either-or.

    Hormone increases in good and bad times

    NTNU researchers joined researchers from the University of New Mexico to study the connection between oxytocin and investment in couple relationships.

    The researchers examined 75 American couples, and 148 Norwegian individuals who were one of the partners in their relationships. Newly minted Ph.D. Nicholas M. Grebe is the study’s first author and visited Professor Kennair at NTNU’s Department of Psychology. Kennair has collaborated with Grebe’s Ph.D. advisor Professor Steven W. Gangestad.

    “Participants in the study were asked to think about their partner and how they wish their partner would connect with them in the relationship,” says Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, PhD, from the Department of Psychology.

    Oxytocin levels were measured both before and during the tasks. In both studies, individuals showed elevated hormone levels when they felt strong personal investment in the bond. In this case, oxytocin’s reputation as a love hormone holds up.

    “Yes, oxytocin relates to one’s feelings of involvement — but, this association is particularly strong when one feels more involved than their partner,” says Nick Grebe.

    But the crucial finding came from simultaneously examining both partners’ involvement.

    The partners who were more invested in a relationship released more oxytocin when they thought about their relationship than the less invested partner did. Considering both members together, it was the difference in investment between partners that predicted an increase in oxytocin. Here, oxytocin may be acting more like a “crisis hormone.”

    “It’s seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they’re not, but that’s how it is,” says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

    But why would that be?

    Put more effort into the relationship

    “This may be because people in a relationship where their partner is waffling need to engage more,” Aarseth Kristoffersen says.

    “The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” says Professor Gangestad.

    For example, the partner who is most invested in the relationship might benefit from putting even more effort into making it work, so that the more sceptical party re-engages.

    “What’s implied here is a statement about what oxytocin is doing: It’s perhaps fostering attention to and motivation to “take care of” the relationship,” says Gangestad.

    Nevertheless, there is apparently — some would say fortunately — a limit. This would apply to relationships where everything seems lost and is clearly heading for a break-up. In those situations, the more invested partner does not show the same increase in oxytocin levels.

    “There’s no point in investing more in a lost cause,” says Kennair.

    There appears to be a limit to how long you should spend energy and resources on a relationship that is simply over.

    However, this is still mostly speculation for now.

    What you believe is what matters

    The researchers found no significant difference between US and Norwegian results. Responses to the study tasks were consistent across cultural conditions, which reinforces the theory that the underlying explanation is biological.

    The procedure in the two countries differed somewhat. The American couples were asked directly about how committed they were in their relationships. The Norwegian individuals were asked how invested they thought their partner was in the relationship. This made no difference for the results.

    It is enough if you think the relationship is weakening because your partner is losing interest. This will trigger your brain to release extra oxytocin.

    “I might emphasize that it isn’t necessarily “bad” or “good” for a person to release oxytocin. Yes, it might motivate attention that helps to maintain a relationship, but as the article hints, that isn’t necessarily desirable, though it could be! What is biologically “functional” and socially “desirable” are two different things,” says Nick Grebe.

    “We think that viewing oxytocin in this way can help us understand why it plays a role in other kinds of interdependent social relationships — new romances, mother-infant bonds, as two examples. The idea is that emotionally salient relationships, especially when those relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin system,” Nick Grebe concludes.


  2. Study suggests voice and scent play a role in attractiveness

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Attractiveness isn’t just a matter of good looks, but also the right voice and scent, highlights a mini review in Frontiers in Psychology.

    “Recently, most reviews have focused on visual attractiveness — for example, face or body attractiveness,” says Agata Groyecka, lead author of the review and a researcher at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. “However, literature about other senses and their role in social relations has grown rapidly and should not be neglected.”

    Whether by an off-putting body odor or a grating voice, it’s easy to understand how the nose and ears are just as important as the eyes in noticing how attractive someone is. It’s not particularly surprising that attractiveness spans more than just physical appearance, but most research has focused on looks, neglecting vocal and olfactory factors.

    “Perceiving others through all three channels gives a more reliable and broader variety of information about them,” says Groyecka.

    Groyecka and her collaborators recently combed through over 30 years of literature to provide a brief overview of the few studies that have looked into the role of voice and scent. While not extensive, this research field has already given insight into the quantity and variety of information that can be gathered by these other senses — which it turns out can be quite a lot.

    Some findings are relatively intuitive, such as people guessing gender and age based on voice alone. But listeners have also proven to be skilled at detecting an unexpected range of characteristics from a voice, including the dominance, cooperativeness, emotional state, and even the body size of the speaker.

    Even more surprisingly, other studies have shown that people can correctly deduce very similar types of information based on scent alone. Recent brain imaging studies also suggest that combinations — sight and smell, for example — appear to be synergistic, producing even stronger reactions than would be expected from summing the individual responses.

    Perceived attractiveness impacts day-to-day life in a variety of ways, influencing not only romantic relationships, but also friendships and professional interactions. Without incorporating such information, psychological studies of everyday decision making and social communication can’t capture the whole picture. Groyecka’s review also highlights a variety of proposed evolutionary explanations for these multisensory aspects of attraction, such as the utility of having traits that can be detected both from a distance (voice and looks), as well as up close (scent).

    “I hope that this review will inspire researchers to further explore the role of audition and olfaction in social relations,” says Groyecka.


  3. Building a better ‘bot’: Artificial intelligence helps human groups

    by Ashley

    From the Yale University press release:

    Wireframe head and printed circuit. Digital illustration

    Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be super-sophisticated to make a difference in people’s lives, according to a new Yale University study. Even “dumb AI” can help human groups.

    In a series of experiments using teams of human players and robotic AI players, the inclusion of “bots” boosted the performance of human groups and the individual players, researchers found. The study appears in the May 18 edition of the journal Nature.

    “Much of the current conversation about artificial intelligence has to do with whether AI is a substitute for human beings. We believe the conversation should be about AI as a complement to human beings,” said Nicholas Christakis, co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science (YINS) and senior author of the study. Christakis is a professor of sociology, ecology & evolutionary biology, biomedical engineering, and medicine at Yale.

    The study adds to a growing body of Yale research into the complex dynamics of human social networks and how those networks influence everything from economic inequality to group violence.

    In this case, Christakis and first author Hirokazu Shirado conducted an experiment involving an online game that required groups of people to coordinate their actions for a collective goal. The human players also interacted with anonymous bots that were programmed with three levels of behavioral randomness — meaning the AI bots sometimes deliberately made mistakes. In addition, sometimes the bots were placed in different parts of the social network. More than 4,000 people participated in the experiment, which used a Yale-developed software called breadboard.

    “We mixed people and machines into one system, interacting on a level playing field,” Shirado explained. “We wanted to ask, ‘Can you program the bots in simple ways?’ and does that help human performance?”

    The answer to both questions is yes, the researchers said.

    Not only did the inclusion of bots aid the overall performance of human players, it proved particularly beneficial when tasks became more difficult, the study found. The bots accelerated the median time for groups to solve problems by 55.6%.

    Furthermore, the researchers said, the experiment showed a cascade effect of improved performance by humans in the study. People whose performance improved when working with the bots subsequently influenced other human players to raise their game.

    The findings are likely to have implications for a variety of situations in which people interact with AI technology, according to Christakis and Shirado.

    For instance, there may be an extended period in which human drivers share roadways with autonomous cars. Likewise, military scenarios may include more operations in which human soldiers work in tandem with AI. There also are myriad possibilities for online situations pairing humans with AI tech.

    “There are many ways in which the future is going to be like this,” Christakis said. “The bots can help humans to help themselves.”


  4. Cognitive scientist suggests numerical cognition is not biologically endowed

    by Ashley

    From the University of California San Diego press release:

    Clocks and calendars, sports scores and stock-market tickers — our society is saturated with numbers. One of the first things we teach our children is to count, just as we teach them their ABCs. But is this evidence of a biological drive? No, says cognitive scientist Rafael Nunez of the University of California San Diego. It is evidence of our cultural preoccupations. “Numerical cognition,” he says, “is not biologically endowed.”

    Writing in the June 2017 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Nunez takes on the conventional wisdom in the field right now — a widely accepted view in cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and animal cognition that there is a biologically evolved capacity for number and arithmetic that we share with other species.

    For example, Alex the African grey parrot wowed millions with his mathematical genius, not only on YouTube and TV but in scientific journals as well. Respected researchers are publishing studies suggesting that not only Alex but an incredible array of other animals can deal with numbers, too, from our evolutionary cousins the chimpanzees to more distant relatives like newborn chicks, salamanders and even mosquitofish. Human babies have also been shown to discriminate between different quantities at ages so young that it would seem language and culture couldn’t have yet played much of a role.

    That all points to a primordial ability for math, right? We’re wired for it like we are for language? Not so fast, says Nunez, professor of cognitive science in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences and director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory.

    He believes that part of the problem is muddled terminology. There is a difference, he says, between number and quantity, between doing math and perceiving relative amounts of things. We — human and nonhuman animals alike — do seem to have a shared ability, grounded in our biology and helped along by evolutionary pressures, to tell apart “some” and “many” or even small amounts of something. But numbers, more strictly speaking, he says, need a symbolic system and the scaffold of culture.

    In the same issue of the journal, neuroscientist Andreas Nieder writes a rebuttal to Nunez. And Nunez, in turn, rebuts the rebuttal. Is this an argument for the birds, though? A debate only a specialist could love? Nunez says the implications go far beyond the field. As society seeks to apply findings from neuroscience to solve problems in education, for example, we need a clearer view of where to look for solutions.

    To support his argument that we and other animals don’t have an evolved capacity for number per se, Nunez cites several different strands of research in the current literature, including experimental work with humans from non-industrialized cultures, which suggests an imprecise approach to quantity.

    Many of the world’s languages, he points out, don’t bother with exact terms for numbers larger than a few and rely on quantifiers like “several” or “many.” People can get along surprisingly well with just those kinds of words and occasional linguistic emphasis like “really” to distinguish between “a lot” and “really a lot.” A survey of 193 hunter-gatherer languages from different continents found that most of these languages stop at the number five or below: 61 percent in South America, 92 percent in Australia and 41 percent in Africa. Nunez suspects that until the need arose to make precise counts of commodities, most humans throughout history just worked with “natural quantifiers.”

    He points also to brain-imaging research that shows native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of English process the same Arabic numerals in different parts of their brains, suggesting that language and culture influence even which neurons are recruited to deal with numbers.

    According to Nunez, as much as we might be wowed by what some trained animals can do, we have to remember that doesn’t necessarily point back to an evolved capacity. They are trained over many hours and months, and they’re trained by humans. “A circus seal may jump through a burning ring but it doesn’t tell us anything about the animal’s ability to deal with fire in its natural environment,” he said.

    To drive home his point about humans, Nunez uses what he describes as the “absurd” analogy of snowboarding. To be able to snowboard, we need our biology- “we need our limbs and our vestibular system for balance, we need optic flow navigation, but those don’t give an account of snowboarding and no one argues that we evolved to do it.” Without a culture that allows for thermal suits and ski lifts, he said, we wouldn’t be on the slopes at all.

    Nunez calls on researchers to become more precise with their terms and suggests that it could be productive to investigate “what seems to be nearly universal in human cultures and in many nonhuman animals too: a ‘quantical‘ ability and not a numerical one.”

    “Quantical skills,” he said, are a good candidate for more intensive study and might even be informative for education. We study early ability to count and draw correlations with later achievement in school. Perhaps there are even stronger correlations with the ability to quantify, he said.


  5. Loneliness in young adults linked to poor sleep quality

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Kings College London press release:

    Researchers from King’s College London have found a link between loneliness and poor sleep quality in a study of more than 2,000 British young adults.

    Lonelier people were 24 per cent more likely to feel tired and have difficulty concentrating during the day, according to the study published in Psychological Medicine.

    Loneliness is defined by researchers as a distressing feeling that people experience when they perceive their social relationships to be inadequate. This is distinct from the concept of social isolation, as people can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel lonely despite being surrounded by many people.

    While the effect of being lonely is well documented among the elderly, it is a common problem for young people too — the Mental Health Foundation reports that loneliness is most frequent between the ages of 18-34. Despite this, little is known about health problems that are associated with loneliness among young adults, or the impact on sleep.

    The researchers from King’s College London sampled data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a cohort of 2,232 18-19 year-old twins born in England and Wales. They measured loneliness by scoring responses to four questions: ‘How often do you feel that you lack companionship?’, ‘How often do you feel left out?’, ‘How often do you feel isolated from others?’ and ‘How often do you feel alone?’

    They also measured sleep quality in the past month, including the time it takes to fall asleep, sleep duration and sleep disturbances, as well as daytime dysfunction such as staying awake during the day.

    Overall 25-30 per cent of the sample reported feeling lonely sometimes, with a further five per cent reporting frequent feelings of loneliness. The researchers found that the association between loneliness and sleep quality remained even after they accounted for symptoms of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, which are commonly associated with sleep problems and feeling lonely.

    One of the proposed reasons for restless sleep in lonely individuals is the possibility they feel less safe, so the researchers examined the impact of past exposure to violence, including crime, sexual abuse, child maltreatment and violent abuse by family members or peers. The association between loneliness and poor sleep quality was almost 70 per cent stronger among those exposed to the most severe forms of violence. The study authors suggest a number of biological processes which may explain the association between loneliness and sleep quality, including a heightened biological stress response. Previous research suggests that loneliness is associated with changes in circulating cortisol, indicating elevated activation of the stress response system. Physiological arousal resulting from this process may play a role in the disrupted sleep of lonely individuals.

    Professor Louise Arseneault from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘Diminished sleep quality is one of the many ways in which loneliness gets under the skin, and our findings underscore the importance of early therapeutic approaches to target the negative thoughts and perceptions that can make loneliness a vicious cycle.’

    Professor Arseneault added: ‘Many of the young people in our study are currently at university, living away from home for the first time, which can compound feelings of loneliness. It is therefore important that they receive appropriate support to address these feelings before they turn into severe mental health problems.’

    Timothy Matthews from the IoPPN at King’s College London, added: ‘We also found that past exposure to violence exacerbated the association between loneliness and poor sleep, which is consistent with the suggestion that sleep problems in lonely individuals are related to feeling unsafe. This makes sense as sleep is a state in which it is impossible to be vigilant for one’s safety, so feeling isolated from others could make it more difficult to sleep restfully, and even more so for individuals who have been exposed to violence in the past. It is therefore important to recognise that loneliness may interact with pre-existing vulnerabilities in some people, and that these individuals should receive tailored support.’


  6. Study looks at pros and cons of workday interruptions

    by Ashley

    From the Baylor University press release:

    Consider these scenarios.

    You’re focused on an important project at work and your phone rings. It’s your spouse.

    You’ve just finished dinner with your family and you’re cleaning up the table. Your phone buzzes. An email from your boss.

    Are these interruptions of your work and family time harmful or helpful?

    Yes and no, according to a new study from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. The study, published in the Journal of Management, analyzed daily diaries kept by 121 employees, who agreed to log their activities for 10 days as part of the research. Each participant worked at least 35 hours per week during traditional business hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and was in a committed relationship, living with a spouse or partner.

    “Our results demonstrate that the effect of interruptions in the work and home domains are twofold: On one hand, they may lead to unwelcome consequences, including obstruction of goals, negative affect, decreased satisfaction with investment in work and family and work-family conflict,” researchers wrote. “On the other, greater integration of work and family may afford workers increased positive affect, as these interruptions help them meet certain work or family goals.”

    Emily Hunter, Ph.D., associate professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, served as lead author on the study. She said technology is blurring the boundaries between work and family, and this can have daily consequences on workers.

    “When you give to one domain, you must take from the other. There are only so many hours in the day,” Hunter said. “Interruptions from family ‘take’ from work in the form of work goal obstructions, negative emotions and lower satisfaction with investment in work.”

    She said that proper planning could turn these interruptions into benefits that help employees meet work and family goals.

    The study shows that boundary violations at work were relatively common, and the researchers suggest managers and employees seek strategies to actively manage work and family boundaries.

    “For example, employees could set aside specific times in their workday when they invite and initiate communication with family, such as lunch time or a midafternoon break when their children arrive home from school,” researchers wrote. “In this way, they allow their work boundary to be permeable to family violations at certain times while setting limits on family interruptions that would otherwise interfere with workflow. Not only does this minimize work goal obstruction, but it also may generate positive outcomes for their family members.”

    When work invades family time, employees can use that to their advantage as well, Hunter said.

    “Workers who work from home in off-job hours can also benefit from managing co-worker expectations about availability after hours, setting aside time after children go to bed to accomplish work tasks with minimal obstruction to their family role and setting limits on hours of smartphone use for work purposes,” she said.

    In the study, researchers suggest workers request that coworkers or supervisors contact them after hours using communication mediums with varying levels of urgency: emergencies only by phone call or text message whereas matters that can wait until morning via email.


  7. Study looks at effect of bad advice about workplace bullying

    by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Targets of workplace bullying get plenty of advice from coworkers and family on how to respond to the situation and make it stop. While well intentioned, much of the advice victims receive is impractical or only makes their situation worse, said Stacy Tye-Williams, an assistant professor of communication studies and English at Iowa State University.

    “If you haven’t experienced bullying, you don’t understand it and it is hard to imagine what you actually would do in the situation,” Tye-Williams said.

    Still, that doesn’t stop people from offering advice. Friends and family do so because they want to be helpful, Tye-Williams said. In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Tye-Williams and Kathleen Krone, a co-author and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, interviewed nearly 50 employees who were being bullied at the time or had been bullied in the past. The most common advice the employees received — quit your job.

    Tye-Williams says not only is quitting an unreasonable option financially, but several targets of bullying felt they had done nothing wrong and should not have to leave a job they enjoy. They expressed a “sense of moral justification” and were willing to take the abuse, not to let the bully win. Choosing to suffer silently rarely improved the situation for the target, Tye-Williams said.

    In the paper, researchers shared the following response from a woman who had invested 20 years in her job and was the target of bullying.

    “I’ve worked really, really hard, and why should I have to give up a job that I was good in because of…the unprofessional way that somebody else was behaving? I just didn’t feel it was fair,” the woman told researchers.

    Researchers found some common themes among the advice victims received. These were the top five recommendations:

    • Quit or get out of the situation — 27 percent
    • Ignore it or blow it off — 23 percent
    • Fight or stand up to the bully — 17 percent
    • Stay calm — 10 percent
    • Report the bullying — 10 percent

    A small percentage of victims were also told to “punch the bully” or to “quit making things up.”

    Victims would offer same bad advice

    Many victims feared retaliation or further humiliation if they directly confronted the bully, and lacking a better option, they did nothing about the abuse. Despite the bad advice, most victims said they would tell others in their situation to do the same thing. This was initially puzzling to researchers, but Tye-Williams says it soon became clear that victims lacked insight into strategies that were helpful for dealing with workplace bullies.

    “Targets really felt stuck and didn’t know what to do about the bullying. They repeated the same advice even though they felt it would not have worked for them, or if they did follow the advice it made the situation worse,” Tye-Williams said. “It became clear how important it is to help targets understand alternative approaches to addressing bullying.”

    Developing a method or model for responding to workplace bullying must start with an open dialogue, in which people can share what has worked for them and brainstorm creative or different solutions, Tye-Williams said. An important start is to develop advice that is more useful, and disseminate stories in which targets successfully managed their situation. The best thing family members, friends, and colleagues can do is to simply listen without judgment to help targets work through available options, she said.

    Dismissing emotion causes more harm

    Employees shared very emotional accounts of the bullying they suffered, and strongly reacted when coworkers or friends told them not to cry or get upset. Telling a victim to calm down or conceal their emotion minimizes the experience and is not helpful, Tye-Williams said. She describes it as “really strange advice” given how some of these people were treated.

    “To me it would be abnormal for someone to be treated in this way and have no emotional reaction,” Tye-Williams said. “Telling victims to calm down does a lot of damage. When we’re talking about traumatic work experiences, it’s important to allow people to have a space to express their very normal emotions.”

    Researchers found that some victims, when told to calm down, tended to shut down and stop talking about the abuse and suffer silently. That’s why it’s necessary to provide victims with a safe space to openly talk about the situation and feel that their voice is being heard, Tye-Williams said. Through this research, she found going to a supervisor or human resources manager did not guarantee victims were taken seriously and the problem would be corrected.

    Tye-Williams says the lack of managerial response or resolution is another example of the complexity in handling workplace bullying. Part of the complexity is trying to develop a rational, logical response to what is often an irrational situation. In many cases, managers expected employees to resolve the situation on their own, which was not a reasonable expectation, she said.

    “Management is not always good about helping people navigate a conflict to reach a resolution. They don’t want to get involved, they expect employees to figure it out or that it’ll blow over,” Tye-Williams said. “It’s not that managers don’t want to be helpful, they often just don’t know how to be helpful.”

    Understanding that common pieces of advice to combat workplace bullying often don’t work may help managers, coworkers, family members and friends move beyond “canned advice” and develop more appropriate alternatives to addressing bullying, she added.


  8. Study suggests economic status and reactions to issues may be inferred from position in social networks

    by Ashley

    From the City College of New York press release:

    New big-data analytics by a City College of New York-led team suggests that both an individual’s economic status and how they are likely to react to issues and policies can be inferred by their position in social networks. The study could be useful in maximizing the effects of large-scale economic stimulus policies.

    A team led by City College physicist Hern´an A. Makse was legally granted access to two massive big datasets: all the phone calls of the entire population of Mexico for three months and the banking information of a subset of people. All the data, approximately 110 million phone calls and 500,000 bank clients, was anonymous with no names.

    “It is commonly believed that patterns of social ties affect individuals’ economic status, said Makse, whose research interest includes the theoretical understanding of complexity. “We analyzed these two large-scale sources — the telecommunications and financial data of a whole country’s population. Our results showed that an individual’s location, measured as the optimal collective influence to the structural integrity of the social network, is highly correlated with personal economic status.”

    The social network patterns of influence observed mimicked the patterns of economic inequality. For pragmatic use and validation, Makse and his colleagues carried out a marketing campaign that showed a three-fold increase in response rate by targeting individuals identified by their social network metrics as compared to random targeting.


  9. Study suggests photos are more credible but cartoons are more persuasive when conveying a message

    May 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) press release:

    If you’re creating a message to educate, inform, or persuade, don’t underestimate the power of a well-executed cartoon. A new study at the University of Illinois suggests if you’re trying to convince the public to change their stance on a topic such as wind energy, you may be more successful if you use a cartoon rather than a photograph.

    “Photographs were shown to be more credible, but cartoons were more likely to change behavior,” says U of I agricultural communications professor Lulu Rodriguez who led the study. “A cartoon grabs people’s attention long enough to deliver the message. That’s what you need in today’s message-heavy atmosphere. Why not use a tool that has proven ability to cut through the others and inform people in a way that actually works?”

    In the study, participants were shown one of two versions of the same set of brochures. Each set was designed to debunk a myth about wind energy, the intent being to give readers scientific information about wind energy and assuage their fears. Each pair of brochures was identical in design, text, color, size, etc. The only difference was that the originally designed brochures featured a beautiful, professional photograph of wind turbines, while the look-alike brochures created for the study swapped out the photograph with a cartoon.

    “You have to spend more time with a cartoon to figure out the meaning of the illustrations, and the situation,” Rodriguez says. “People look at cartoons longer, so they’re more cognitively engaged with the cartoon. Usually it includes humor and people work hard at figuring out the punch line. The photos used to represent wind energy on the original brochures were just beautiful scenic shots of the turbine blades or a landscape dotted with turbines so people didn’t look at them as long.”

    Interestingly, the respondents said the content was better in the cartoon brochures (even though the text was identical), but the credibility was lower than the brochures using photographs.

    “It may be because of the more light-hearted approach of cartoons,” Rodriquez says. “Cartoons make a topic like wind energy, which may be a bit scary to people, more accessible. But this notion of credibility is a different issue. We teach students to be conversational in writing. Don’t put on your ‘tuxedo’ language. And yet, people associate big words with credibility.”

    Rodriguez says the use of comics has already been shown to be effective in explaining scientific concepts and principles in high school chemistry classrooms. (Rodriguez is also the director of the agricultural communications program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the College of Media.) She says she has not seen the comparison of photos versus cartoons studied in non-classroom settings.

    In addition to educational settings, the power of cartoons to persuade can be of value to agencies working to educate the public about a science-laden concept — one for which they would like to change opinion, intentions, or behaviors.

    “My interest is in making science more accessible to the public,” Rodriguez says. “This study offers real recommendations to communicate science better to a general audience. Understanding the science helps get people past whatever might be controversial about a scientific breakthrough or innovation. The controversies usually arise out of a lack of understanding.”

    In terms of wind energy, Rodriguez says, people worry about claims that the turbines kill birds, when in fact, cars kill more birds. “We kept hearing scientists say that people do not fully understand wind energy. So we thought, how can we deflect that misunderstanding?”

    Rodriguez cites communicating about GMOs as another possible case in which incorporating cartoons may inform people.

    “Most people don’t know about all the regulatory layers at the local and national level involved in producing GMOs. If you try to describe that for people in text, they may not get it or they may not be motivated to read lines and lines of words. Perhaps a cartoon showing safety regulations or the similarity of genetic engineering to natural crossing of plants would be more convincing,” she says.

    “I have a colleague who actually did this to explain how they got the vitamin A into golden rice using a cartoonish infographic. Not very scientific — but people get it. It’s a lot easier to explain complex scientific concepts that way.”

    Rodriguez admits that text and photos may be the easier route to take.

    “Truth be told, this is easy to recommend, but cartoons and effective information graphics are difficult to create. You have to hire someone with real skills to do it. Making things easier to understand is a difficult thing to do,” she says. “And, when people hire an advertising agency to create a brochure for their product or cause, they may lean toward using photos because they convey prestige or credibility. It may be difficult to convince them to use a cartoon because they think it reduces the classiness of the brochure.”

    The article, “The impact of comics on knowledge, attitude and behavioural intentions related to wind energy,” is published in an issue of the Journal of Visual Literacy.


  10. Study examines psychological effect of mixing energy drinks with alcohol

    by Ashley

    From the INSEAD press release:

    Energy drinks adverts high on risk taking and a lack of inhibition, profoundly influence the way young people believe they are intoxicated when they are mixing them with alcohol. When told an energy drink is mixed in their vodka cocktails, young men feel more intoxicated, daring, and sexually self-confident, new research suggests. The effects of intoxication were stronger in those who believe that energy drinks boost the effect of liquor.

    Previous studies suggested that mixing energy drinks with alcohol could mask the effects of liquor, leading consumers to believe they weren’t drunk but, in a trial of 154 young men at the Paris-based INSEAD Sorbonne University Behavioral Lab, the opposite was found to be true.

    The study participants were told they would drink a cocktail of an energy drink, vodka and fruit juice. Although all drinks had the same ingredients, they had different labels: Red Bull & vodka, a vodka cocktail or a fruit juice cocktail. The effect of the label alone on participants’ self-assessment of intoxication was remarkable.

    Researchers found that participants who believed they were drinking an energy drink and alcohol cocktail were more likely to believe themselves quite drunk and uninhibited. This was especially true among those who had a strong belief that mixing energy drinks with liquor would boost the effects of liquor.

    Labeling the same cocktail as vodka & Red Bull increased perceived intoxication by 51%, compared to labelling it a vodka cocktail or a fruit juice cocktail. It also increased the young men’s intentions to approach and “chat up” women, and their confidence that they would welcome it. Finally, it led also to more risk-taking in a gambling game. All these effects were stronger for the participants who most strongly believed that energy drinks boost the effects of alcohol and that being intoxicated reduces inhibitions and increases risk-taking.

    On the positive side, the authors found that the Red Bull & vodka label increased intentions to wait before getting behind the wheel of a car by 14 minutes because of the perceived intoxication.

    Yann Cornil, Assistant Professor of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, Pierre Chandon, the L’Oréal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD, and Aradhna Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, published the results of their study in paper “Does Red Bull Give Wings to Vodka? Placebo Effects of Marketing Labels on Perceived Intoxication and Risky Attitudes and Behaviors,” forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

    “Red Bull has long used the slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings,’ but our study shows that this type of advertising can make people think it has intoxicating qualities when it doesn’t,” said lead author Cornil. “Essentially, when alcohol is mixed with an energy drink and people are aware of it, they feel like they’re more intoxicated simply because the marketing says they should feel that way.”

    Labelling functions as a “placebo” in this study. People read “placebo” and see “fake” but the marketing placebo effect is a real psychological effect in which a brand influences consumers’ expectations and, as a result, their behavior.

    This study shows for the first time that there is a causal effect of mixing alcohol and energy drinks on perceived intoxication and real behaviors driven by the expectation that energy drinks boost the effects of alcohol, rather than the contents of the cocktails. All participants had the same drink yet their belief about what they were drinking had an impact on their behavior.

    “Beliefs that people have about a product can be just as important as the ingredients of the product itself,” said Chandon, co-author and director of the INSEAD Sorbonne Behavioral Lab. “Regulations and codes of conduct should consider the psychological — and not just physiological — effects of products.”

    According to the researchers, the findings highlight a need for policymakers and consumer protection groups to re-examine how energy drinks are advertised and labelled.

    “Given the psychological effects of energy-drink marketing, energy drink marketers should be banned from touting the disinhibiting effects of their ingredients,” said Cornil.

    “The silver lining was that emphasizing the energy drink in the cocktail made the participants less likely to drive,” said study co-author Krishna. “It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk.”

    This article has implications for consumers of energy drinks and alcohol, government regulators, and those who market new products which could be pitched in way that encourages reckless behavior.