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Personality differences uncovered between students at different US universities

By Christian Jarrett

Psychology is overly dependent on student samples, but on the plus side, you might assume that one advantage of comparing across student samples is that you can rule out the influence of complicating background factors, such as differences in average personality profile. In fact, writing in the Journal of Personality, a team of US researchers led by Katherine Corker at Kenyon College has challenged this assumption: their findings suggest that if you test a group of students at one university, it’s not safe to assume that their average personality profile will match that of a sample of students from a university elsewhere in the same country.

Corker and her colleagues measured the personality of over 8,500 students studying a range of majors (including psychology, business and nutrition) at 30 colleges and universities across 20 different US states. They found some significant differences in average student personality between different sites. The amount of difference that was explained by the site of testing was modest – about 1 to 3 per cent – but Corker and her colleagues said that this “should not be dismissed as necessarily trivial or unimportant”.

Among the site-specific effects, larger universities tended to have more extraverted students; more urban and diverse universities had more open-minded students;  universities requiring letters of recommendation had more agreeable students; public colleges had less agreeable students than private colleges; and more expensive colleges had higher trait Neuroticism. Differences like these could reflect students with particular personality profiles being drawn to particular institutions; selection could be at play, in the sense of university selectors showing a preference for particular personality types; and also students’ personalities could be shaped by the culture of their university.

“All told, these results suggest there is more variability between students at different colleges and universities than some researchers might have expected,” Corker and her team said, though they warned their colleagues not to leap to this finding as an explanation for the replication crisis in psychology (the difficulty labs often have in trying reproduce earlier findings reported by researchers based at another institution), at least not until there is more data and a thorough theory in place to account for the site differences in personality.

It’s a shame the current research didn’t include students studying a more diverse set of subjects, but if anything, this makes it likely the observed between-institution differences are an underestimate. Perhaps for now the lesson to take is that if you’re comparing data from two sets of students at different institutions, it’s unwise to be overconfident about how similar they are likely to be.

College Student Samples Are Not Always Equivalent: The Magnitude of Personality Differences Across Colleges and Universities

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Circle time rituals help children beat the Marshmallow Test of self control

By Christian Jarrett

Sweet, old-fashioned circle time rituals involve young children sitting in a circle with a teacher and copying his or her specific actions as closely as possible. These rituals can seem a bit out of place in today’s culture with its emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, and the ubiquity of interactive educational games employing the latest beeps and whistles of technology. But a new study in Child Development says there is something about the conformity and attention to detail in ritualistic games that makes them a highly effective way to improve children’s executive functioning (their mental nimbleness) and self-control.

Veronica Rybanska at the University of Oxford and her colleagues tested two groups of 7- and 8-year-old children, one from Slovakia, the other from Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. The children first completed tests of their executive functioning and self control. The executive functioning test involved learning to respond accurately to reversed commands, such as touching toes when hearing the command “touch your knees”. The self control test was a version of Walter Mischel’s classic Marshmallow Test: if the children could resist eating a single piece of chocolate for 15 minutes, they could have three afterwards.

Next, for three months, some of the children undertook 35-minutes of circle time games twice per week (others acted as controls and didn’t perform these games). The games involved things like dancing, clapping or learning new traffic light rules, such as stopping for purple rather than red. Crucially, among the children who played the circle time games, half experienced them as rituals. They were told they must follow the actions of the game because “it has always been done this way” or “those are the rules and they must be followed”. The others experienced the games in a more “instrumental” way that emphasised the purpose of the games. For example, they were told “if we do it this way, we will learn how to dance”.

After the three month period, the children took the tests of executive function and self-control again. The children who’d completed the circle time games showed greater improvements in their executive function and self-control than the control group children, but crucially these gains were larger in the children who experienced the circle time games as ritual. Moreover, the superior improvements in self-control in the ritual group seemed to be explained by their greater increase in executive functioning ability. These effects were similar in Slovakia and Vanuatu even though the latter culture places a greater emphasis on rituals.

“Far from being a simple matter of ‘mindless’ copying, ritual participation arguably requires the kind of rigorous computation of arbitrary detail and avoidance of normatively proscribed deviation from the script that engages and exercises our executive functioning abilities,” the researchers said. They admitted to the limitations of their study: for one thing, they didn’t measure the children’s behavior during circle time, so it’s not certain the ritual group children really did pay closer attention to the games. Nonetheless, they said there could be educational implications to their results: “the irony may be that in devising strategies for parenting and schooling geared to a world of rapid technological change while neglecting the importance of traditional cultural practices, we may be contributing to a deterioration of young people’s attentive and inhibitive resources, thus promoting impulses toward instant gratification”.

Rituals Improve Children’s Ability to Delay Gratification

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Smarter people are happier, says new analysis involving 80,000 participants, but only a bit

By Christian Jarrett

“happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” Ernest Hemingway

A lot of us would like to be smarter and happier, but does one lead to the other? Folk wisdom suggests not: old sayings tell us that “ignorance is bliss” and that “only a fool can be happy”. What does the psychology literature say? A new meta-analysis in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour has combined the results from dozens of previous studies involving many tens of thousands of participants and, contrary to the received wisdom, it concludes that higher intelligence actually does correlate with greater happiness (or “life satisfaction”) and job satisfaction, but only weakly.

Erik Gonzalez-Mulé at Indiana University and his colleagues sifted the literature, identifying relevant papers, published and unpublished, going back to 1980. Combining the results from 33 papers involving nearly 50,000 participants, they found that intelligence (or what they called “general mental ability”) had a weak but statistically non-significant positive correlation with life satisfaction, and a modest, statistically significant positive correlation with job satisfaction.

They found further evidence for the apparent benefits of higher intelligence for life satisfaction by factoring in the influence of “job complexity” (greater complexity meaning a job with more variety, skill demands and autonomy) and job income, two factors that are themselves correlated with greater happiness. This showed that higher intelligence has indirect links with greater happiness because more intelligent people tend to earn more, but especially because they tend to have more complex jobs, which presumably are more rewarding.

According to 38 studies involving nearly 30,000 participants, higher intelligence also had indirect links with job satisfaction by virtue of the fact that it correlated with job complexity and income. But this is psychology, so of course there’s a twist that somewhat supports the folk wisdom about intelligent people rarely being happy. When the researchers held job complexity and income constant in their analysis, they found that higher intelligence actually correlated with less job satisfaction. Put differently, if you imagine a range of people at a given level of job complexity and income, those with higher intelligence will tend to be less happy with their jobs. This makes intuitive sense if you consider that smarter people will be more likely than others to experience boredom and frustration at jobs that are not challenging enough.

The great strength of meta-analyses like this one is in the huge amounts of data that they can draw on. But the new study also has some obvious limitations: some of the data is decades-old and may not be relevant to today’s world. Also, this is cross-sectional data which can’t convincingly address whether intelligence is causing changes in life and job satisfaction, nor how such processes may unfold over time.

Are smarter people happier? Meta-analyses of the relationships between general mental ability and job and life satisfaction

Image by Orren Jack Turner, via Wikipedia

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Risk-taking teens’ brains seem to disregard past bad outcomes

By guest blogger Lucy Foulkes

Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.

Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.

Ethan McCormick and Eva Telzer at North Carolina University asked 58 adolescents (aged 13 to 17) to play a game that involved risks. The researchers scanned the participants’ brains while they played, and also monitored how losing the game in one round (taking a risk that didn’t pay off) affected their behaviour in the subsequent round.

The game involved blowing up 24 virtual balloons shown on a computer screen. Each balloon started small, and the more that participants pumped it up (by pressing a keyboard key), the more points they earned. However, there was a catch: as the balloon got bigger, there was always a chance that it would pop, causing a loud explosion on the screen and losing the participant all the points they had obtained on that round. So the teenagers had to make a series of risky decisions: should they cash out and save the points they had accumulated so far, or risk the balloon popping for the chance of even more points?

On average, the outcome from one balloon affected the teens’ behaviour on the next one. After an explosion outcome (a risk that turned out badly), they tended to pump fewer times on the subsequent balloon before cashing out. Conversely, when they successfully cashed out the points before the balloon popped, the teens tended to risk more pumps the next time round. Importantly, though, this wasn’t the same for all of them: some of the teenagers continued to pump a lot even after their last balloon had just exploded.

McCormick and Telzer found that this behaviour was linked to a distinctive pattern of neural activation. Specifically, teens who were less sensitive to past explosions (i.e. less likely to change their behaviour on subsequent rounds) had reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved in decision making processes, like judging how risky we think a decision is, and how good we consider the result. These same teens also said they engaged in more real-life risk-taking, like drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

The current findings suggest that – for some teenagers at least – it’s not just about remembering the good times, it’s about forgetting the bad times, too: some teenagers are not using past outcomes to change their current behavior. It’s not clear from the brain activity differences whether this is a conscious decision, or whether this insensitivity to the past is happening outside of the person’s awareness. It’s also important to note that the study focused on teenagers only, and didn’t include a group of children or adults, so we don’t know whether the findings reported here are unique to this age group, or common to big risk-takers of all ages.

Could we use this information to reduce risk taking in teenagers? Might it be beneficial to encourage those who take risks to consider their past behavior, to remember when things turned out badly, and suggest they use this to guide their behaviour? From the present data, it’s not clear whether this is a skill that could be taught. It’s also important to consider just how much we want to reduce risk taking. Adolescence is a time of potential vulnerability, and we need to educate young people to protect them from harming themselves. But risk taking is not inherently bad. Within limits, taking risks allows us to become independent and to learn about the world around us. It’s a fundamental part of growing up. We need to walk the fine line between encouraging our young people to stay safe, whilst also allowing them to navigate the world for themselves – even when this means taking risks.

Failure to retreat: Blunted sensitivity to negative feedback supports risky behavior in adolescents

Post written by Dr Lucy Foulkes (@lfoulkesy) for the BPS Research Digest. Lucy is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate in Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s lab at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience on the MYRIAD project – a Wellcome Trust-funded project assessing the feasibility of teaching mindfulness in schools, and the ways in which mindfulness might promote mental health and resilience in adolescents.

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Autistic people’s social difficulties linked to unusual processing of touch

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Besides problems with social interactions, it has been known for a while that many people with autism experience sensory difficulties, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, light or touch. With sensory impairment now officially included in diagnostic manuals, researchers have been trying to see if there’s a link between the sensory and social symptoms. Such a link would make intuitive sense: For instance, it is easy to imagine that if someone experienced sensory stimuli more strongly, they would shun social interaction due to their complexity. More specifically, you would expect them to struggle with filtering out and making sense of social cues against the backdrop of sensory overload.

Past research has suggested that tactile hyper-responsiveness in particular may be relevant. The correct processing of tactile information plays an important role in differentiating yourself from others (so-called “self-other discrimination”), a crucial requirement for social cognition. In fact, touch may be unique among the senses because there is a clear difference in the tactile feedback received when you touch something compared to when you see someone else touch something. Now a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has used recordings of participants’ brain waves to provide more evidence that tactile sensations are processed differently in people with autism and that this may contribute to their social difficulties.

The researchers from Ghent recruited 19 men and women diagnosed with high functioning autism and 17 neurotypical control participants matched for gender, intelligence and age – both groups had an average age of around 32 years. While everyone filled out questionnaires assessing everyday problems with sensory processing, participants with autism received an additional questionnaire on the severity of their autism symptoms

To deliver tactile sensations, two electrodes were placed on the participants’ index and middle fingers of their right hand, which was covered with a dark cloth. Before the experiment began, 30 tactile stimulations (mild electric currents) were delivered to both fingers to familiarise participants with the device.

The actual experiment was relatively straightforward and involved the researchers recording the participants’ brain waves with EEG throughout. Each trial began with a picture displaying either a human or a wooden hand in a non-flexed position, resembling the position of the participants’ hidden right hand. Next, a picture was shown of either a tapping index or middle finger, which was accompanied by a single stimulator “tap” sent to the electrode on either the participant’s index or middle finger. This way, the tactile feedback the participants experienced was either congruent with the observed action (e.g. they saw a tapping index finger and received stimulation to their index finger) or incongruent (e.g. they saw a tapping index finger but received stimulation to their middle finger).

The researchers were especially interested in spikes of brain activity that are known to be relevant to processing tactile sensations, including the so-called N100 (a negative spike that occurs 100ms after the sensation) and a later positive spike (the P3) that has been linked with self-other discrimination in various contexts. For example, previous studies found an amplified P3 signal when participants heard their own name compared to another name or saw their own face compared to someone else’s. Crucially, this congruency effect is also seen when observed movements match experienced tactile sensations.

The researchers hypothesised that if social impairment is related to sensory processing, then the participants with autism would show a reduced congruency effect in P3, and the size of this irregularity would be negatively correlated with their social functioning. And this is exactly what they found.

Compared to controls, participants in the autism group demonstrated differences in their brain waves both at earlier stages of sensory processing (the N100) as well as later stages. In line with the hypothesis, congruent trials (tactile feedback compatible with the observed action of a human hand) led to amplified P3 signals in the controls, but not in the autistic group. Furthermore, in the participants with autism, the greater their sensory and social impairments, the smaller the amplitude of the P3 component of their brain waves in response to congruent pictures.

These findings allow for two suggestions: First, individuals with autism struggle to differentiate between themselves and others (based on purely tactile information), which is similar to what other studies have found. Second, this difficulty was more pronounced in those individuals who also showed a higher degree of social and sensory impairment, suggesting these two domains are linked.

So does this mean that sensory hypersensitivity causes the social deficits that individuals with autism face? While this study cannot establish which is caused by which (or if they are both caused by a completely different factor), it does provide experimental evidence of a link between the two. To what extent this knowledge will improve treatment options for patients with autism remains to be studied by future investigations.

Action-based touch observation in adults with high functioning autism: Can compromised self-other distinction abilities link social and sensory everyday problems?

Post written by Helge Hasselmann. Helge studied psychology and clinical neurosciences. Since 2014, he is a PhD student in medical neurosciences at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, Germany, with a focus on understanding the role of the immune system in major depression.

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