1. How challenges change the way you think

    November 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Research published today in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that challenging situations make it harder to understand where you are and what’s happening around you. A team of researchers showed participants video clips of a positive, a negative and a neutral situation. After watching the challenging clips — whether positive or negative — the participants performed worse on tests measuring their unconscious ability to acquire information about where and when things happen. This suggests that challenging situations cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

    Previous research suggests that long-term memories formed under stress lack the context and peripheral details encoded by the hippocampus, making false alarms and reflexive reactions more likely. These context details are necessary for situating yourself in space and time, so struggling to acquire them has implications for decision-making in the moment as well as in memory formation.

    The research team, led by Thomas Maran, Marco Furtner and Pierre Sachse, investigated the short-term effects of challenging experiences on acquiring these context details. The team also investigated whether experiences coded as positive produced the same response as those coded as negative.

    “We aimed to make this change measurable on a behavioral level, to draw conclusions on how behavior in everyday life and challenging situations is affected by variations in arousal,” Thomas Maran explains.

    The researchers predicted that study participants would be less able to acquire spatial and sequential context after watching challenging clips, and that their performance would worsen the same way faced with either a positive or a negative clip. To test this, they used clips of film footage used previously to elicit reactions in stress studies: one violent scene (which participants experienced as negative), one sex scene (which participants experienced as positive), and one neutral control scene.

    Immediately after watching the clips, two groups of participants performed tasks designed to test their ability to acquire either spatial or sequential context. Both the sex scene and violent scene disrupted participants’ ability to memorize where objects had been and notice patterns in two different tasks, compared to the neutral scene. This supports the hypothesis that challenging situations — positive or negative — cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

    So if challenging situations decrease the ability to pick up on context cues, how does this happen? The researchers suggest that the answer may lie in the hippocampus region of the brain — although they caution that since no neurophysiological techniques were applied in this study, this can’t be proven. Since existing evidence supports the idea that the hippocampus is deeply involved in retrieving and reconstructing spatial and temporal details, downgrading this function when faced with a potentially dangerous situation could stop this context acquisition and achieve the effect seen in this behavioral study. Reflexive reactions are less complex and demanding, and might stop individuals from making decisions based on unreliable information from unpredictable surroundings.

    Changes in cognition during high arousal states play an important role in psychopathology,” Thomas Maran explains, outlining his hopes for the future use of this research. He considers that the evidence provided by this study may have important therapeutic and forensic applications. It also gives a better basis for understanding reactions to challenging situations — from witnessing a crime to fighting on a battlefield — and the changes in the brain that make those reactions happen.


  2. Modeling social interactions to improve collective decision-making

    November 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the CNRS press release:

    How are we affected by other peoples’ opinions? To answer this question, scientists[1] at the CNRS, Inra and Université Toulouse 1 Capitole conducted a study in France and Japan, quantifying this impact on our decisions. They identified five behaviors common to both countries: a majority of subjects make a compromise between their opinion and that of others (59% of people in France), some hold to their opinion (29% in France), whereas others follow faithfully, amplify or contradict the information they receive. The study also shows how social information can help a group collectively improve its performance and the precision of its estimates. From this analysis, a model has been developed that reproduces the results of the study and predicts the performance of a group depending on the amount and quality of information exchanged between its members. The long-term goal would be to develop algorithms for decision-making support tools. The results of this study were published on November 6, 2017 in PNAS.

    The fast growth of digital technologies and content availability is making us interact more with others. Increasingly, social networks are becoming important sources of information that we choose to take account of or ignore. Many e-commerce sites make extensive use of review and scoring systems, which allow their customers to use the opinions of others to make their own choices. Without even considering false information, that is sometimes difficult to detect, we are each exposed to too much information to process it correctly every time.

    These observations call for the development of tools to help in collective decision-making, which could assist with processing information and making decisions in a group that uses social interactions. The group of researchers involved in the study focused on the impact of social information, i.e., the way that others affect what we do. Under what conditions can this social information increase the effectiveness of our collective decision-making?

    The experiments involved 186 people in France and 180 in Japan. Each participant had to estimate values, such as Gandhi’s age when he died, or the number of stars in our galaxy, and give a degree of confidence in their answer. After the first stage, the average of the previous participants’ responses — the social information-was given to them, and the subject had to reply again to give a final estimate. One of the unique features of this study is the introduction of virtual agents who were controlled by the researchers without the knowledge of the participants — and always gave the correct answer. These agents, whose number varied, therefore favorably influenced the social information sent to subjects.

    This work shows how social information leads the group to collectively improve its performance and the precision of its estimations. It can also accurately measure how sensitive subjects are to social information. The researchers identified five sensitivity profiles that are independent of cultural bias, because they are present in both countries. In France, an analysis of almost 11,000 responses shows that 29% of the people sampled hold to their opinion, 4% strictly follow the information given to them, and 59% find a compromise between their initial opinion and the social information. Thinking that the rest of the group has, the same way as they did, underestimated their initial response, 6% of people amplify the social information received. Finally, 2% end up contradicting their own estimation and that of the group, most often without being able to justify their decision. In addition, the further a participant’s personal feeling is from the social information received, the more sensitive this subject is to the information. In another more surprising result, the scientists have shown that the performance of a group may be improved by a limited quantity of incorrect information, which compensates for a human cognitive bias that underestimates quantities.

    Based on these experiments, a mathematical model has been developed. It faithfully reproduces the social information sensitivity mechanisms observed experimentally and predicts the impact of the amount and quality of information exchanged between the individuals in a group on their collective performance. A better understanding of the governing processes of how social information influences individual choices and collective information opens new perspectives. Personalized algorithms could be developed to anticipate the different types of answers according to the form of social information received. This could contribute to improving cooperation and collaboration on the scale of groups.

    Note:

    [1] The French laboratories involved in this study:

    The Centre de recherches sur la cognition animale (CNRS/Université Toulouse III — Paul Sabatier)

    The Laboratoire de physique théorique (CNRS/Université Toulouse III — Paul Sabatier)

    TSE Recherche (CNRS/Université Toulouse 1 Capitole/INRA/EHESS) a Toulouse school of economics laboratory


  3. Study suggests spending decisions are influenced by adaptation in neural circuits

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Washington University School of Medicine press release:

    The British have a pithy way of describing people who dither over spending 20 cents more for premium ice cream but happily drop an extra $5,000 for a fancier house: penny wise and pound foolish.

    Now, a new study suggests that being penny wise and pound foolish is not so much a failure of judgment as it is a function of how our brains tally the value of objects that vary widely in worth.

    Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that when monkeys are faced with a choice between two options, the firing of neurons activated in the brain adjusts to reflect the enormity of the decision. Such an approach would explain why the same person can see 20 cents as a lot one moment and $5,000 as a little the next, the researchers said.

    “Everybody recognizes this behavior, because everybody does it,” said senior author Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience, of economics and of biomedical engineering. “This paper explains where those judgments originate. The same neural circuit underlies decisions that range from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. We found that a system that adapts to the range of values ensures maximal payoff.”

    The study is available online in Nature Communications.

    While you are contemplating whether to order a scoop of vanilla or strawberry ice cream, a part of your brain just above the eyes is very busy. Brain scans have shown that blood flow to a brain area known as the orbitofrontal cortex increases as people weigh their options.

    Neurons in this part of the brain also become active when a monkey is faced with a choice. As the animal tries to decide between a sip of, say, apple juice or grape juice, two sets of neurons in its orbitofrontal cortex fire off electrical pulses. One set reflects how much the monkey wants apple juice; the other set corresponds to the animal’s interest in grape juice. The faster the neurons fire, the more highly the monkey values that option.

    A similar process likely occurs as people make decisions, the researchers said. But what happens to firing rates when a person stops thinking about ice cream and starts thinking about houses? A house might be hundreds of thousands of times more valuable than a cup of ice cream, but neurons cannot fire pulses 100,000 times faster. The speed at which they can fire maxes out at about 500 spikes per second.

    To find out how neurons cope with different values, Padoa-Schioppa and colleagues repeatedly gave monkeys a choice between two juices, offered in the range of 0 to 2 drops. After a break, the same two juices were offered in the range of 0 to 10 drops. The researchers recorded which neurons were active — and how quickly they were firing — as the monkeys made their choices.

    The researchers discovered that the neurons’ firing rates reset between the two sessions. In the first session the maximum firing rate corresponded to the option of two drops of juice, and in the second it corresponded to 10 drops of juice. In other words, the same change in how rapidly the neuron fired corresponded to a fine distinction in value when the range was narrow, and a coarse distinction when the range was broad.

    “As we adapt to large values, we lose some ability to consider smaller values,” Padoa-Schioppa said. “This is why salesmen try so hard to sell you upgrades when you’re buying a car. Spending $100 to add on a radio seems like no big deal if you’re already spending $20,000 on a car. But if you already have a car and you are thinking of spending $100 for a radio, suddenly it seems like a lot. They know that people don’t come back and buy the radio later.”

    While having adaptable neurons allows us effectively to shop for items ranging in value from groceries to cars to houses, it does introduce a theoretical quirk: It should be possible to change someone’s preferences simply by adjusting the range of each option. For example, by offering a large range of apple juice and a small range of grape juice, the researchers could make a drop of apple juice look less valuable than a drop of grape juice, convincing an apple-loving monkey to select grape juice instead.

    When they changed the ranges of the juices, however, the researchers found that the monkeys did not fall for it. Apple-loving monkeys continued to choose apple juice.

    The researchers concluded that making a choice between two juices is not a simple matter of comparing the firing rates of the apple-juice neurons to the firing rates of the grape-juice neurons. Instead, neurons pegged to each option feed into a neural circuit that processes the data and corrects for differences in scale.

    It’s a system optimized for making the best possible choice — the one that reflects true preferences over a vast range of values, even though some detail gets lost at the higher end.

    “It was a puzzle: How does the brain handle this enormous variability?” said Padoa-Schioppa. “We showed that a circuit that has adaptation and corrects for it ensures maximal payoff. And these findings have implications for understanding why people make the choices they do. There’s a good neurological reason for behavior that might seem illogical.”


  4. Researcher suggests rational decision-making doesn’t require language

    November 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Houston press release:

    Previous research has shown that animals can remember specific events, use tools and solve problems. But exactly what that means — whether they are making rational decisions or simply reacting to their environment through mindless reflex — remains a matter of scientific dispute.

    Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, argues in an article published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research that a wide range of animal species exhibit so-called “executive control” when it comes to making decisions, consciously considering their goals and ways to satisfy those goals before acting.

    He acknowledges that language is required for some sophisticated forms of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. But bolstered by a review of previously published research, Buckner concludes that a wide variety of animals — elephants, chimpanzees, ravens and lions, among others — engage in rational decision-making.

    “These data suggest that not only do some animals have a subjective take on the suitability of the option they are evaluating for their goal, they possess a subjective, internal signal regarding their confidence in this take that can be deployed to select amongst different options,” he wrote.

    The question has been debated since the days of the ancient philosophers, as people considered what it means to be human. One way to address that, Buckner said, is to determine exactly what sets humans apart from other animals.

    Language remains a key differentiator, and Buckner notes that serious attempts in the 1970s and ’80s to teach animals human language — teaching chimpanzees to use sign language, for example — found that although they were able to express simple ideas, they did not engage in complex thought and language structures.

    Ancient philosophers relied upon anecdotal evidence to study the issue, but today’s researchers conduct sophisticated controlled experiments. Buckner, working with Thomas Bugnyar and Stephan A. Reber, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna, last year published the results of a study that determined ravens share at least some of the human ability to think abstractly about other minds, adapting their behavior by attributing their own perceptions to others.

    In his latest paper, Buckner offers several examples to support his argument:

    • Matriarchal elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park were able to determine the threat level of human intruders by differentiating ethnicity, gender and age, suggesting an understanding that adult Maasai tribesmen sometimes kill elephants in competition for grazing or in retaliation for attacks against humans, while Kamba tribesmen and women and children from both tribes don’t pose a threat.
    • Giraffes are not generally considered prey by lions in Africa, due to the long-necked animals’ ability to deliver skull-crushing kicks. Lions in South Africa’s Selous Game Reserve, however, are reported to have learned that giraffes found in a sandy river bed can get stuck and even trip, making them suitable prey.

    His goal, Buckner said, was to compile the empirical research, “to see that we’ve accumulated enough evidence to say that animals really are rational in a distinctive way.”


  5. Study suggests babies are able to estimate how likely one event is compared to another

    November 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Our whole life we have to make decisions and weigh up probabilities of different events. By learning to estimate which event is more likely to happen, we become better at analysing risks and benefits to guide our actions. But when do we start to gain a sense of stochasticity? Are babies even able to determine likelihood?

    Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and the University of Uppsala, Sweden, have now discovered that even six-month-old babies can estimate probabilities. The babies already succeed in determining which colour makes up the majority of the balls and therefore which one is more likely to be drawn. “Six months seems to be the minimum age at which infants start to deal with probability information. One previous study showed that babies at just four months old were not able to perform this task and therefore seemed to not yet be sensitive to this information,” says Ezgi Kayhan, neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the underlying study. “We suppose that from early on in life, our brains represent statistics of the environment. Within the first six months of life, babies are able to extract information about which events follow on from each other, or how likely one event is compared to another.”

    The neuroscientists investigated these relations by presenting animated film clips to 75 babies aged six, twelve and 18 months. These short movies featured a machine filled with balls, most were blue, some yellow, which in a second sequence ejected lots of the mainly available blue balls into one basket, and into another container mainly yellow balls. In this context it was 625 times less likely that the machine chose yellow balls instead of blue. Therefore, the basket being filled with mainly yellow balls was a very unlikely event.

    While the babies watched the movies the scientists observed them using the so-called eyetracking method to see which of the two baskets they looked at for longer — the likely or the unlikely option. “We noticed that the infants stared longer at the unlikely option independently from the tested age group to which they belonged — presumably because they were surprised that it was just made up of the rare yellow balls and that it was therefore a very improbable event,” explains the Turkish-born scientist. To make sure that the babies were not just more attracted by the colour yellow in some of the trials, the researchers also used green and red balls.

    “In fact, several studies have already investigated whether infants can assess probabilities, but we’ve been the first to research whether the difficulty level of the likelihood information makes a difference,” Kayhan states. Accordingly, Kayhan and her team wanted to test the limits of these estimations: Are babies still sensitive to this information when the likely and unlikely sample are difficult to distinguish?

    Indeed, the babies’ looking preferences changed depending on the ratio of blue and yellow balls. When it was only nine times more likely that the machine would pick the blue ball instead of a yellow one, the babies preferred to look at the likely blue-dominated sample for longer. “This outcome was especially surprising. One explanation could be that with decreasing ratio between the two colours, the complexity of the information increased and therefore infants preferred to focus their attention on the subset that looked more familiar. From previous studies it is known that babies prefer to look at familiar objects if they still need to encode information. In the difficult case, the information was more complex, thus the processing load was heavier within this time period,” Kayhan adds. Regardless of a possible explanation the study made clear that the infants’ ability to estimate probabilities strongly depends on how difficult it is to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely sample.


  6. Study shows how the brain reacts to difficult moral issues

    October 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Aalto University press release:

    Are we more prone to help the person that resembles us the most? Social neuroscientists have studied the effects of similarity by showing a re-edited version of the film My Sister’s Keeper to a group of subjects and by giving them a moral dilemma to consider while measuring their brain function by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging.

    The subjects comprised 30 women who were shown a version of the film shortened to 25 minutes and asked to observe the film in the light of different questions. The study focused particularly on how the subjects felt about one sister refusing to donate an organ to another sister diagnosed with cancer. Before starting the film, the researchers told the subjects that the sisters were either biological siblings or that the younger sister had been adopted to the family as a baby.

    The study discloses a major conflict between what the subjects told they felt about the moral issue presented to them and what actually happened inside their brains. 90 per cent of the subjects responded that genetic relationship between the sisters was of no significance to them compared to a situation in which one of the sisters had been adopted to the family as an infant. Still, functional magnetic resonance imaging reveals major differences in brain function between the two viewing conditions.

    ‘The impact on brain functions was amazingly high when we told about the difference in kinship between the sisters. The brain sees these two situations very differently,’ says Mareike Bacha-Trams, Postdoctoral Researcher from Aalto University.

    The various impacts of genetic ties

    When the viewers thought that the sisters were genetically related there was significant correlation between their brain activity in the insula, cingulate cortex, medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex and superior parietal cortex. These areas of the brain control for instance such matters as morals, feelings, and decision-making.

    Based on the study, we can thus assume that the moral expectations of the subjects are more similar when the sisters are thought to be genetically related.

    The same subjects were also asked to select which one person or several persons they would rather save from a crisis region. A sister, a best friend and unknown people were presented in various combinations, and more than 90 per cent of the subjects said that they would rather save their sister. The best friend came right after the sister. The response times got longer as the subjects had to choose whether they would, in addition to their sister or friend, save four unknown people.

    ‘The study is of significance in the field of social neuroscience when we want to know how people observe interactions between two people with a close relationship. This may also give rise for debate even in situations where scandals related to nepotism emerge in societal decision-making,’ Professor Iiro Jääskeläinen describes.


  7. Study discovers new role for brain network previously associated with daydreaming

    October 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    A brain network previously associated with daydreaming has been found to play an important role in allowing us to perform tasks on autopilot. Scientists at the University of Cambridge showed that far from being just ‘background activity’, the so-called ‘default mode network’ may be essential to helping us perform routine tasks.

    When we are performing tasks, specific regions of the brain become more active — for example, if we are moving, the motor cortex is engaged, while if we are looking at a picture, the visual cortex will be active. But what happens when we are apparently doing nothing?

    In 2001, scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine found that a collection of brain regions appeared to be more active during such states of rest. This network was named the ‘default mode network’ (DMN). While it has since been linked to, among other things, daydreaming, thinking about the past, planning for the future, and creativity, its precise function is unclear.

    Abnormal activity in the DMN has been linked to an array of disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and disorders of consciousness. However, scientists have been unable to show a definitive role in human cognition.

    Now, in research published today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the University of Cambridge have shown that the DMN plays an important role in allowing us to switch to ‘autopilot’ once we are familiar with a task.

    In the study, 28 volunteers took part in a task while lying inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Functional MRI (fMRI) measures changes in brain oxygen levels as a proxy for neural activity.

    In the task, participants were shown four cards and asked to match a target card (for example, two red diamonds) to one of these cards. There were three possible rules — matching by colour, shape or number. Volunteers were not told the rule, but rather had to work it out for themselves through trial and error.

    The most interesting differences in brain activity occurred when comparing the two stages of the taskacquisition (where the participants were learning the rules by trial and error) and application (where the participants had learned the rule and were now applying it). During the acquisition stage, the dorsal attention network, which has been associated with the processing of attention-demanding information, was more active. However, in the application stage, where participants utilised learned rules from memory, the DMN was more active.

    Crucially, during the application stage, the stronger the relationship between activity in the DMN and in regions of the brain associated with memory, such as the hippocampus, the faster and more accurately the volunteer was able to perform the task. This suggested that during the application stage, the participants could efficiently respond to the task using the rule from memory.

    “Rather than waiting passively for things to happen to us, we are constantly trying to predict the environment around us,” says Dr Deniz Vatansever, who carried out the study as part of his PhD at the University of Cambridge and who is now based at the University of York.

    “Our evidence suggests it is the default mode network that enables us do this. It is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are. So for example, when you’re driving to work in the morning along a familiar route, the default mode network will be active, enabling us to perform our task without having to invest lots of time and energy into every decision.”

    “The old way of interpreting what’s happening in these tasks was that because we know the rules, we can daydream about what we’re going to have for dinner later and the DMN kicks in,” adds senior author Dr Emmanuel Stamatakis from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University Of Cambridge. “In fact, we showed that the DMN is not a bystander in these tasks: it plays an integral role in helping us perform them.”

    This new study supports an idea expounded upon by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate 2002, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that there are two systems that help us make decisions: a rational system that helps us reach calculated decisions, and a fast system that allows us to make intuitive decisions — the new research suggests this latter system may be linked with the DMN.

    The researchers believe their findings have relevance to brain injury, particularly following traumatic brain injury, where problems with memory and impulsivity can substantially compromise social reintegration. They say the findings may also have relevance for mental health disorders, such as addiction, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, where particular thought patterns drive repeated behaviours, and the mechanisms of anaesthetic agents and other drugs on the brain.


  8. Study points to the value of acknowledging adolescents’ perspectives

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Across very different cultures — Ghana and the United States — when parents acknowledge the perspectives of their adolescent children and encourage them to express themselves, the youths have a stronger sense of self-worth, intrinsic motivation, and engagement, and also have less depression. Yet having the latitude to make decisions appears to function differently in the two cultures, with positive outcomes for youths in the United States but not in Ghana.

    Those are the conclusions of a new study by researchers at Clark University that looked at approaches to parenting teenagers in the two countries. The study appears in the journal Child Development.

    “A parenting approach that allows teens to feel they are being heard has been linked to youths being happier, more self-motivated, and more confident,” explains Kristine N. Marbell-Pierre, head of guidance and counseling at Ghana International School, who was at Clark University when she led the study. “This type of parenting is considered western in its approach and there have been questions about its benefit in nonwestern, more hierarchical cultures that place greater emphasis on respect for and obedience to elders by children and youths. In our study, helping adolescents feel that their perspective mattered was helpful to youths — in both Ghana and the United States — while the role of decision making and choice differed between the two cultures.”

    The researchers examined responses to questionnaires filled out by 401 adolescents in seventh and eighth grades; 245 were from the United States and 156 were from Ghana. Teens answered questions about the extent to which their parents acknowledged their point of view and allowed them to make decisions, have choices, and express their opinions. Questionnaires also assessed the extent to which adolescents perceived their parents as controlling their behavior, as well as adolescents’ academic motivation, sense of self-worth, level of depression, and perception of themselves as independent from their parents or as a unit with their parents.

    The study found that parenting approaches that encouraged students to express themselves and acknowledged their points of view boosted youths’ self-motivation, engagement in school, and self-worth, and decreased their levels of depression in both countries. Allowing adolescents to make decisions and have choices was associated with positive outcomes only in the United States. This difference in the effects of who makes decisions and of choice was in part due to how adolescents viewed themselves, the authors found: Those who saw themselves as independent felt that being allowed to make decisions supported their autonomy, while this was not the case for youths who perceived themselves as more a part of the family unit.

    “Our study resolves conflicting findings from previous studies,” says Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark University, who coauthored the study. “It suggests that supporting adolescents’ sense of agency is universally beneficial, but how this support is given may not necessarily look the same across cultures.”

    The authors caution that while there are cultural differences overall between Ghana and the United States with respect to factors such as the extent to which autonomy is fostered in youths, there are also important variations across families within each culture that contribute to patterns for subgroups and individuals.

    The findings have implications for how parents in different cultures can support positive development in their adolescents, suggest the authors. While some forms of support appear to function similarly across cultures, others appear to be culture-specific. Practitioners who work with parents should consider cultural differences as they recommend specific parenting strategies.


  9. Study suggests new way to assess presence of psychopathic traits

    October 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Plymouth press release:

    New research shows that people would sacrifice one person to save a larger group of people — and in addition, the force with which they carry out these actions could be predicted by psychopathic traits.

    The study, led by the University of Plymouth, compared what people ‘said’ they would do with what they actually ‘did’ by comparing a questionnaire with actions in immersive moral dilemmas created using virtual-haptic technologies (i.e. using a robotic device which measures force, resistance, and speed, whilst simulating the action of harming a human).

    In several dilemmas, participants had to decide whether to sacrifice a person by performing a harmful action against them, in order to save a larger group of people.

    While all individuals were more likely to sacrifice others in these immersive environments than in questionnaire-based assessments, people with strong psychopathic traits were more likely to generate these harmful actions with greater physical power.

    Psychopathy is generally characterised by antisocial behaviour and impaired empathy. As such, it is thought that individuals with strong psychopathic traits find it less emotionally challenging to sanction utilitarian actions.

    In the present research, this resilience to performing actively harmful acts appears to enable these individuals to act for the ‘greater good’ (i.e. to save the many). This result therefore indicates that, in certain circumstances, psychopathic traits could be considered beneficial, since they can lead to a more vigorous response.

    This study is a result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between Dr Kathryn Francis, Dr Sylvia Terbeck, Raluca Briazu, Dr Michaela Gummerum, and Dr Giorgio Ganis in the University’s School of Psychology, Agi Haines, a designer based in the University’s Transtechnology research group, and Dr Ian Howard of the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems.

    Dr Francis, now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Reading, said: “This research highlights our proneness to moral inconsistency; what we say and what we do can be very different. For the first time, we demonstrate how personality traits can influence the physical power of our moral actions. Importantly, the multidisciplinary approaches that we have used here, combining virtual reality, robotics, and interactive sculpture, places further emphasis on the need to unite the sciences and the arts when investigating complex phenomena such as morality.”

    Dr Sylvia Terbeck, Lecturer in Social Psychology and study co-author, added:

    “This study opens up the possibility to assess psychopathy using novel virtual reality technology — which is vital to better understand how and why people with these behavioural traits act in certain ways.”

    Dr Ian Howard, Associate Professor in the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems, said: “This work shows how techniques developed to study human movement can play a value role in psychological assessment and thereby lead to new insights into human social behaviour.”


  10. Making healthier decisions, step by step

    October 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the San Diego State University press release:

    Nobody wakes up expecting they’ll make unhealthy choices, but the daily grind can compromise our otherwise healthy intentions: fast food instead of a home-cooked meal because we’re exhausted; driving instead of walking to the grocery store because it’s more convenient. But what if life came with little reminders to make healthy choices? To address that question, researchers from San Diego State University looked at whether a simple sign could encourage airport visitors to take the stairs rather than the escalator.

    Even small amounts of activity can have important health benefits, particularly for Americans who sit most of the day, said the study’s first author, John Bellettiere, an SDSU alumnus currently working as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego. He is researching ways to boost physical activity at the population-level to help people “sit less and move more.”

    For 10 non-consecutive days, a team led by SDSU public health researchers Yael BenPorat, Brent Bishop and Melbourne Hovell posted one of five signs at the bottom of a set of stairs and escalators ascending to a sky bridge into San Diego International Airport’s Terminal 1. The signs read:

      • -“Please reserve the escalator for those who need it.”

    -“Don’t lose time, lose weight. Use the Stairs.”

    -“Don’t waste Time, trim your Waistline. Use the Stairs.”

    -“You’ll get more stares if you use the stairs.”

    -“If you want to feel younger, act younger. Step it up! Use the stairs.”

    On alternating days, they posted no signs at all. The researchers counted how many people took the stairs versus the escalator on the sign days and no-sign days. They also interviewed people atop the stairs about their health history and physical activity levels.

    When one of the signs was present, about twice as many people took the stairs compared to a no-sign day, the researchers reported recently in the Journal of Primary Prevention. The most important finding: The prompts appeared to nudge both people who regularly exercised and those who never exercised, explained study coauthor Natasha Bliss, an alumna of the SDSU Graduate School of Public Health and current associate director of development for the university’s College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts.

    “We saw the effect even when people were carrying luggage, even when they were in a rush,” Bellettiere said. “It’s the first time this kind of effect has been shown at an airport.”

    Encouraging even small amounts of exercise is important, Bellettiere added, because of its compounding effect in people’s lives: If they take the stairs early in the day, they may make similar healthy choices later in the day. Also, when people see others taking the stairs, they are more likely to do so themselves, creating a ripple effect.

    “These nudges are small environmental changes that can really help boost physical activity in the population,” Bellettiere said.