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Trevor Robbins returns from sabbatical leave

By from News. Published on Apr 25, 2017.

Elephants’ ‘body awareness’ adds to increasing evidence of their intelligence

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 12, 2017.

Self-awareness in both animals and young children is usually tested using the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ to see if they understand that the reflection in front of them is actually their own. Only a few species have so far shown themselves capable of self-recognition – great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. It is thought to be linked to more complex forms of perspective taking and empathy.

Critics, however, have argued that this test is limited in its ability to investigate complex thoughts and understanding, and that it may be less useful in testing animals who rely less on vision than other species.

One potential complement to the mirror test as a measure of self-understanding may be a test of ‘body-awareness’. This test looks at how individuals may recognise their bodies as obstacles to success in a problem-solving task. Such a task could demonstrate an individual’s understanding of its body in relation to its physical environment, which may be easier to define than the distinction between oneself and another demonstrated through success at the mirror test.

To test for body-awareness in Asian elephants, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test of self-awareness together with his colleague Rachel Dale (now a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna). The new test was adapted from one in which children were asked to push a shopping trolley, but the trolley was attached to a mat on which they were standing.

In the elephant version of the test, Plotnik and Dale attached a stick to a rubber mat using a rope; the elephants were then required to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to an experimenter standing in front of them. The researchers wanted to investigate whether elephants understood the role of their bodies as potential obstacles to success in the task by observing how and when the animals removed themselves from the mat in order to exchange the stick. In one control arm of the test, the stick was unattached to the mat, meaning the elephant could pass the stick while standing on the mat.

The results of the study, which was largely funded by a Newton International Fellowship from the Royal Society awarded to Dr Plotnik, are published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief,” says Dale. “We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”

Plotnik and Dale found that the elephants stepped off the mat to pass the stick to the experimenter significantly more often during the test than during the control arm. Elephants stepped off the mat an average (mean) of around 42 out of 48 times during the test compared to just three times on average during the control.

“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” says Dr Plotnik. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognising themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”

Species that have demonstrated a capacity for self-recognition in the mirror test all show varying levels of cooperative problem-solving, perspective taking and empathy, suggesting that ‘self-awareness’ may relate to effective cooperative-living in socially intelligent animals. A more developed self-understanding of how an individual relates to those around may underlie more complex forms of empathic perspective taking. It may also underlie how an individual targets help towards others in need. Both aspect are seen in studies of human children.

Both self-awareness as demonstrated by the mirror test and body-awareness as demonstrated by the current study help scientists better understand how an animal’s understanding of self and of its place in the environment may impact social decision-making in the wild.

Plotnik argues that studies such as this are important for helping increase our understanding of and appreciation for the behaviour and intelligence of animals. He also says that understanding elephant behaviour has important implications for the development of human/elephant conflict mitigation strategies in places like Thailand and India, where humans and elephants are competing for land. Only through careful consideration of both human and elephant needs can long-term solutions be sustainable.

“The more we can understand about elephants’ behaviour, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think and the strains they face in their social relationships,” he says. “This will help us if we are going to try to come up with viable long term solutions to the problems that these animals face in the wild, especially those that bring them into regular conflict with humans.”

Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM. Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports; 12 April 2017; DOI: 10.1038/srep46309

Asian elephants are able to recognise their bodies as obstacles to success in problem-solving, further strengthening evidence of their intelligence and self-awareness, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge.

The more we can understand about elephants’ behaviour, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think and the strains they face in their social relationships
Josh Plotnik
Elephant body awareness tast

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Human rights of people with autism not being met, leading expert tells United Nations

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 31, 2017.

In his keynote speech, Professor Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, argued that even with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities having been adopted in 2006, people with autism still do not enjoy human rights to the same extent as everyone else.

At least 1% of the world’s population is on the autism spectrum, which equates to some 70 million people with autism on the planet.  Autism is a spectrum of neurological disabilities involving difficulties with social relationships, communication, adjusting to unexpected change, dealing with ambiguity, and entailing sensory hypersensitivity and anxiety. Autism also leads to a different perceptual and learning style, so that the person has a preference for detail, and develops unusually narrow interests, and an unusually strong preference for facts, patterns, repetition and routine.

“People with autism account for a significant minority of the population worldwide, yet we are failing them in so many respects,” he said. “This creates barriers to their participation in society and to their autonomy that must be addressed. We have had a UN Convention to support people with disabilities for over 10 years now and yet we still are not fulfilling their basic human rights.”

In his speech, Professor Baron-Cohen reminded the UN that in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, people with intellectual disability were killed in their thousands, under the compulsory euthanasia laws. Many of these individuals likely had autism, even before we had a name for it, as the first report of autism by Dr Leo Kanner was published during the Second World War.

However, historical violations of the human rights of people with autism go back further than that: in the US, in the 1920s, many States passed laws to compulsorily sterilize people with intellectual disability, including those whom today we would recognize had autism, in the name of eugenics.

Professor Baron-Cohen highlighted six examples where he believes the human rights of people with autism are not being met.

First, the right to dignity: According to the National Autistic Society in the UK, half of adults with autism report they have been abused by someone they thought was a friend. Half of adults with autism report they stay home because of fear of being abused in some way. Individuals with intellectual disability, including those with autism, are three times more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect, robbery, or assault.

Second, the right to education: one in five children with autism have been excluded from school. Whatever the reason for being excluded, they are being deprived of the right to education.  And of the other 80% of children with autism who have stayed in school, half report having been bullied, which is a risk factor for depression.

Third, the right to equal access to public services: one in three adults with autism experiences severe mental ill health because of lack of support. In Professor Baron-Cohen’s clinic for adults with Asperger Syndrome, a subgroup of autism, two thirds have felt suicidal and one third have felt so bad that they have attempted suicide. Research from the Universities of Cambridge and Coventry in the UK found that among those who have died by suicide, approximately 12% had definite or probable autism. Professor Baron-Cohen called for a minute’s silence to remember those people with autism who have died by suicide.

Finding such a high rate of autism in people who have died by suicide is not surprising when you consider how many of these individuals did not have the benefit of early diagnosis, explained Professor Baron-Cohen. Early diagnosis is possible in childhood – there are screening measures that can detect autism in young toddlers, but most countries do not screen for autism.

He drew attention to the fact that in the UK, in many areas, the waiting time for a diagnosis can be up to a year or longer, and that in high- and middle-income countries, people with autism may receive a formal diagnosis, but in low-income countries, the majority of people with autism may remain undiagnosed, either because of stigma, ignorance, or lack of basic services.

Fourth, the right to work and employment: Professor Baron-Cohen said that only 15% of adults with autism are in full time employment, despite many having good intelligence and talents. The right to work should extend to everyone, whatever support they might need. Unemployment is another well-known risk factor for depression.

He commended some enlightened employers, like the German company Auticon, the Danish company Specialisterne, and the German company SAP, for setting an example of how to help people with autism into employment and how employers can make reasonable adjustments for people with autism.

Fifth, the right to protection from discrimination, and the right to a cultural life, and to rest and leisure: He described how many people with autism have been asked to leave a supermarket or a cinema, because of their different behaviour. He said this is discrimination and again would never be tolerated for other kinds of disabilities.

In addition, half of adults with autism report feeling lonely, a third of them do not leave the house most days, and two thirds of them feel depressed because of loneliness. One in four adults with autism have no friends at all.

Finally, the right to protection of the law, and the right to a fair, impartial trial: one in five young people with autism have been stopped and questioned by the police, and 5% have been arrested. Two-thirds of police officers report they have received no training in how to interview a person with autism. Many legal cases involving someone with autism result in imprisonment for crimes the person with autism may not have committed, or for crimes others committed, but the person with autism became tangled up in, because of their social naivete. Some of these crimes are the result of the person with autism becoming obsessed with a particular topic, a product of their disability, and yet the courts often ignore autism as a mitigating factor.

Professor Baron-Cohen ended his address with a call to action. “We must take action. I want to see an investigation into the violation of human rights in people with autism. I want to see increased surveillance of their needs, in every country. And I want us to be continuously asking people with autism what their lives are like, and what they need, so that they are fully involved in shaping their future. Only this way can we ensure their human rights are met.”

The basic human rights of autistic people are not being met, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a world expert on autism, told the United Nations in New York today, to mark Autism Awareness Week.

People with autism account for a significant minority of the population worldwide, yet we are failing them in so many respects
Simon Baron-Cohen

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The OCD Brain: how animal research helps us understand a devastating condition

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 28, 2017.

When David Adam was just 18, a teasing comment from a university friend triggered a series of thoughts that he had contracted HIV and would die of AIDS. This was around the time of peak hysteria about this new disease, but even so, his thoughts represented more than the worries of a naïve, newly-sexually active young man: the fear was unshakeable and the thoughts consumed him, dominating his life.

For a long time, David remained silent about his obsession, afraid to tell anyone what he was going through. It was only a couple of decades later, when the thoughts began to affect his relationship with his young daughter, to whom he was sure he would transmit his ‘infection’, that he sought help. He was subsequently diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

OCD is sometimes viewed as a personality quirk – “I’m a little bit OCD,” people will say as they carefully arrange the books on their shelf. The truth is far more devastating. People living with OCD will scrub their hands compulsively, often with bleach, till they are bleeding. Others will check that they have locked the back door thirty, forty times – otherwise, they are sure a family member will come to harm - making going out almost impossible.

David, a journalist and science writer, has written and spoken extensively about his condition. He considers himself fortunate: his condition is under control, thanks to a combination of ‘talking therapies’ and medication. Others are not so fortunate: despite intensive therapy and medication, they are still unable to hold down a job or a relationship, so dominant are their OCD behaviours.

Now, in a series of short films for the University of Cambridge, David has visited leading researchers who study OCD and asks what we know about the underlying biology that leads to the condition: just what is going on in the brain?

In the films, Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of Psychology at Cambridge, introduces David to scientists who use a combination of studies to explore the inner workings of the brain. These include studies involving rats and marmosets (small monkeys), as well as people.

One of the studies is a so-called ‘reversal learning’ test. In this test, the marmoset learns that pressing one button gives it a juice reward, while it gets no reward if it presses a second button. But then, unexpectedly, the buttons swap: how good is the marmoset at changing its thinking to adjust to this new information? A common trait in people with OCD is a tendency to have rigid, obsessive thinking that dominates their behaviour.

By manipulating localised regions of the animals’ brains, either permanently or via temporary drug infusions, scientists are able to understand better the exact pathways within the brain that malfunction in OCD and cause this rigid behaviour. As Professor Robbins explains, this would not be possible in human studies. But this knowledge will help underpin the development of new, more effective treatments – and this is crucial, as around 60% of patients with OCD do not respond to existing treatments.

The films have been produced as part of the University of Cambridge’s commitment to openness on animal research. In 2014, the University announced that it had signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. The following year, it launched its first film on the subject, Fighting Cancer: Animal research at Cambridge.

We welcome comments about this article. However, as with discussions on all of our news and feature pages, comments will be moderated so please do not post contributions that are offensive or contain profanities, and please stay on topic. We do not moderate comments in real-time so there may be a delay before they appear.

OCD can be a devastating condition: therapy and medication often doesn’t work, leaving many people unable to hold down a job or a relationship – or even to leave their house. In our series of films, science writer David Adam looks at how research at Cambridge using animals helps us understand what is happening in the brain – and may lead to better treatments.

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In Memorial

By from News. Published on Mar 06, 2017.

David Theobald

Cambridge scientist shares world’s largest neuroscience prize for research on the brain’s reward system

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 06, 2017.

The capacity to link reward to events and actions is the foundation of human and animal survival, and problems with the processing of reward lie at the heart of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The Brain Prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is worth €1 million.  Awarded annually, it recognises one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.  

The research of this year’s winners has far-reaching implications for understanding human behaviour, including decision-making, gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia.

Reward is essential to survival because humans and other animals need to learn to direct their decisions and their actions towards outcomes that will satisfy their needs, and away from danger.  This means that they have to learn which events in the environment predict future rewards and punishments. For instance, if you feel hungry and see a building with a sign ‘restaurant’, you are likely to enter because the sign predicts that your hunger will be reduced if you go inside.

The sense of reward is surprisingly complicated. It is influenced and determined by many things, such as taste and smell, as well as by fundamental motivations such as hunger or thirst. In turn, it influences choices, decisions and even attention. Many regions of the brain process information associated with reward, but one central linchpin for the regulation of learning and performance is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the brain called dopamine.

Thirty years ago, German-born Wolfram Schultz, professor of neuroscience now at the University of Cambridge, was studying learning in monkeys at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He developed methods for recording activity from neurons (nerve cells) that use dopamine to transmit information to other neurons.  He found that before learning, these dopamine neurons respond whenever a reward - fruit juice - is given to the monkey, but if the monkey is shown various visual patterns and has to respond to one of them in order to secure the reward, the pattern of response changes as the animal learns. The dopamine neurons now respond when the correct visual pattern appears, and the response to the reward itself disappears. If no reward is given, the activity of dopamine neurons actually decreases at the expected time after the visual signal; but if the reward is delivered at an unexpected time, the neurons respond to it.

“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” said Schultz. Every time we get the reward, our dopamine neurons affect our behaviour.  “They are like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards.”

Dopamine neurons play a ‘devilish’ role in drug addiction. “Addictive drugs generate, hijack and amplify the reward signal and induce exaggerated and uncontrolled effects of dopamine on the brain,” Schultz explained. 

British computational neuroscientist, Peter Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, is recognised internationally as a leader in the rapidly developing field of computational neuroscience. When working at the Salk Institute in California, Dayan realised that the pattern of activity of dopamine neurons described by Schultz corresponds to a signal known - from the earliest days of artificial intelligence - as a ‘reward prediction error’.

This signal is the difference between the reward that is actually delivered and the reward that is predicted to be delivered.  Prediction errors sculpt our expectations and experience of the world.

“For example, imagine that you choose between restaurants based on predicting how good they are. Then, if the one you chose is better than expected, the positive prediction error allows you to update your prediction. Next time you are faced with a restaurant choice, you are more likely to pick the one that was better,” said Dayan.

This link between dopamine and prediction error was one of the spurs for an explosion of work using theoretical ideas and computational models to link artificial intelligence, economics, mathematics, engineering and statistics to swathes of results in psychology and neuroscience.

Professor Ray Dolan was born in the Irish Republic and is the director of the new Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing at University College London, and the Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging. Dolan has been a leader in the development and use of methods for imaging the human brain, in order to understand the mechanisms of emotion, learning and decision-making. 

Through his pioneering application of mathematical models to brain imaging and behaviour, together with his discoveries on the action of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, he has shown how humans learn about reward and punishment and also how we learn about the preferences of other people.

Dayan and Dolan have worked collaboratively over the past decade to probe how reward learning impacts on complex human questions, including motivational drive, variation in happiness, and a propensity towards gambling. 

“One puzzling clinical problem is why some patients treated with drugs that boost dopamine function, for example in Parkinson’s disease, fall prey to pathological gambling. Our work has shown that this effect is, at least in part, due to dopamine amplifying an innate tendency to repeat activities that are rewarding,” said Dolan.

Schultz gratefully acknowledged the contributions of his many colleagues and collaborators, as well as the institutions and funding agencies that have supported his work, especially the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust.  

“The Brain Prize is a fantastic reward for our research group. I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down!” Schultz said.

Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, chairman of the Brain Prize selection committee said, “The judges concluded that the discoveries made by Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan were crucial for understanding how the brain detects reward and uses this information to guide behaviour. This work is a wonderful example of the creative power of interdisciplinary research, bringing together computational explanations of the role of activity in the monkey brain with advanced brain imaging in human beings to illuminate the way in which we use reward to regulate our choices and actions. The implications of these discoveries are extremely wide-ranging, in fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry.”

The winners will share the prize of €1 million, which will be presented to them at a ceremony on 4 May in Copenhagen by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.

Adapted from a press release by the Lundbeck Foundation.

A Cambridge neuroscientist has today won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research, shared with two London neuroscientists. This year, The Brain Prize for 2017 is awarded to Cambridge’s Wolfram Schultz, together with Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan from University College London for their analysis of how the brain recognises and processes reward. 

The Brain Prize is a fantastic reward for our research group. I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down!
Wolfram Schultz

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Viral charity campaigns have a psychological 'recipe' and all-too-brief lifespan

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

A University of Cambridge researcher has identified a recipe for the new breed of wildly successful online charity campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – a phenomenon he has labelled “viral altruism” – and what might make them stick in people’s minds.    

However, he says the optimistic use of global digital networks to propel positive social change is balanced by the shallow, short-lived nature of engagement with anything viral.

Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden has outlined the key psychological levers he says underpin the new wave of viral altruism that is increasingly taking over our Facebook feeds.

These include the power of social norms, particularly the appeal of joining a social consensus and the desire to conform to prosocial behaviour (such as appearing charitable), having a clear moral incentive to act, and the appetite for a ‘warm glow’: the positive emotional benefit derived from feeling compassionate.

One of the most important ingredients – and the hardest to achieve – is ‘translational impact’: the conversion of online token support, or ‘clicktivism’, into sustained real world contributions, whether financial donations or a long-term commitment to an issue.   

This, he says, involves a shift in motivation from the ‘extrinsic’ – incentives conditional on outside social pressures – to the ‘intrinsic’: an incentive that has been internalised to become a “new personal normal” for an individual.

Part of van der Linden’s initial research has been to pull together data such as Google and Wikipedia searches as well as donations to indicate the longevity and engagement levels of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. 

The Challenge reached unprecedented ‘virality’ during August 2014. The formula of videoing ice-cold water being poured over your head and posting it to social media while publicly nominating others to do the same in support of a motor neurone disease charity reached approximately 440 million people worldwide, with over 28 million joining in.  

'Brightly but briefly'

Yet van der Linden found that the Challenge burned brightly but briefly: with online interest and donations reverting to pre-viral levels in mere weeks. The engagement was also superficial: estimates suggest that 1 in 4 participants did not mention the ALS charity in their videos and only 1 in 5 mentioned a donation.

And, while the 2014 campaign caused a significant spike in donations – some $115m – when the ALS charity attempted to reboot the Ice Bucket Challenge the following year it raised less than 1% of the previous summer.

Other examples of viral altruism considered to be successful also appear to have an equally brief “half-life”. The Facebook organ donor initiative elicited more than 60% of its total online registrations in the first two days before numbers rapidly dropped off. Save Darfur was one of the largest campaigns on Facebook; after joining, most members never donated money or recruited anyone else.

Van der Linden believes converting the brief social pressures of viral altruism into self-sustaining personal motivations is the key to leveraging new digital networks for long-term engagement with the big issues of our time, such as climate change.

However, he argues that it may be the very viral nature of ‘viral altruism’ that acts as a barrier to this.

“Society now has the ability to connect and mobilise over a billion Facebook users to action on specific social issues in a fast and low-cost manner, but it is becoming clear this entails viral phenomena which by their very nature are ephemeral and superficial,” says van der Linden, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology. 

Hyper-viral paradox

“Just as a flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so a rapid social consensus spike reaches an equally rapid saturation point.

“Once the social tipping point of a campaign has passed, momentum can decay quickly and the purpose can get diluted. Once the ALS campaign had reached peak virality, many people were just pouring cold water over their heads without necessarily referencing the charity.

“Paradoxically, increasing meaningful engagement through viral altruism might actually require deliberately hindering the hyper-viral nature at some point with a stabilising force. Perhaps introducing aspects to a campaign that increasingly require more commitment – slowing growth and encouraging deeper engagement. If we want people to internalise a new normal, we need to give them a window big enough to do that.

“Deeper engagement seems especially vital. Something as simple as a single phrase connecting a campaign to its cause can make a difference. For example, those who mentioned the ALS charity in their Ice Bucket Challenge video were five times more likely to donate money than those who did not.”

SMART recipe

Van der Linden has set out his recipe for viral altruism using the acronym SMART: Social influences; Moral imperatives; Affective Reactions; Translational impact.

The ALS campaign managed to exploit a two-pronged approach to 'social influences'. People were influenced by the example of those in their network, and wanted to join the burgeoning consensus. The nature of the campaign also meant that many were publicly challenged to participate by their social network, and risked the 'social sanction' of being seen to lack compassion if they then didn't.

Helping people with a debilitating disease was seen as a 'moral imperative'. Van der Linden says that having 'identifiable victims' such as scientist Prof Stephen Hawking allowed people to relate to the cause.

Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact.

Sander van der Linden

'Affective Reactions' is the response to strong emotional content. "Empathy is an emotional contagion," says van der Linden. "We are evolutionarily hard-wired to 'catch' other people's feelings. Responding with an altruistic act give us a 'warm glow' of positivity. Similarly, people often respond to social injustice, such as genocide, with strong moral outrage."

However, where almost all campaigns stumble is 'Translational impact', he says. "Extrinsic incentives, such as competitions or network pressure, can actually undermine people's intrinsic motivation to do good by eroding moral sentiment. Motivation to participate can get sourced from a desire to 'win' a challenge or appear virtuous rather than caring about the cause itself."

Climate change is an example of a major global issue that currently scores pretty much zero for the SMART recipe, says van der Linden.

"Climate change often fails to elicit strong emotional engagement, there is little to no societal pressure to act on climate change in our daily lives, most people do not view it as a fundamental moral issue, and the long-term nature of the problem requires more than a one-off donation."

He suggests that using the SMART recipe could be a way to reverse engineer more effective climate change campaigns that harness viral altruism, but the problem of translating impact remains.

One of the more impactful campaigns van der Linden highlights is 'Movember': the month-long growing of a moustache to raise awareness of men's health. Starting with just 30 people in 2003, the campaign didn't experience viral hypergrowth, but developed over years to reach about 5 million members by 2014 - by which time the charity reported 75% of participants were more aware of health issues facing men.

"Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact."

New work focusing on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reveals very brief shelf life of such viral campaigns, and suggests the nature of ‘virality’ and social tipping points themselves may be a stumbling block to deeper engagement with social issues that campaigns aim to promote.    

Increasing meaningful engagement through viral altruism might actually require deliberately hindering the hyper-viral nature at some point with a stabilising force
Sander van der Linden
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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Pets are a child’s best friend, not their siblings

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 26, 2017.

The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development, and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.       

Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships.

‘‘Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

This study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Prof Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. Researchers surveyed 12 year old children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

‘‘Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” says Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.

“While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.’’ 

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

​Cassells, M et al. One of the family? Measuring early adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology; 24 Jan 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2017.01.003

Adapted from a press release by WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition.

Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings.

The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental
Matt Cassells

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Research by Dr Jason Rentfrow gets New York Times coverage

By from News. Published on Jan 25, 2017.

'Psychological vaccine’ could help immunise public against ‘fake news’ on climate change – study

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 23, 2017.

In medicine, vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a body to a weakened version of the threat, enough to build a tolerance.

Social psychologists believe that a similar logic can be applied to help “inoculate” the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change.

A new study compared reactions to a well-known climate change fact with those to a popular misinformation campaign. When presented consecutively, the false material completely cancelled out the accurate statement in people’s minds – opinions ended up back where they started.

Researchers then added a small dose of misinformation to delivery of the climate change fact, by briefly introducing people to distortion tactics used by certain groups. This “inoculation” helped shift and hold opinions closer to the truth, despite the follow-up exposure to ‘fake news’. 

The study on US attitudes found the inoculation technique shifted the climate change opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike.

Published in the journal Global Challenges, the study was conducted by researchers from the universities of Cambridge, UK, Yale and George Mason, US. It is one of the first on ‘inoculation theory’ to try and replicate a ‘real world’ scenario of conflicting information on a highly politicised subject. 

“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” says lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts.

“The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible.”

Fact vs. Falsehood

To find the most compelling climate change falsehood currently influencing public opinion, van der Linden and colleagues tested popular statements from corners of the internet on a nationally representative sample of US citizens, with each one rated for familiarity and persuasiveness.

The winner: the assertion that there is no consensus among scientists, apparently supported by the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project. This website claims to hold a petition signed by “over 31,000 American scientists” stating there is no evidence that human CO2 release will cause climate change.

The study also used the accurate statement that “97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change”. Prior work by van der Linden has shown this fact about scientific consensus is an effective ‘gateway’ for public acceptance of climate change.

In a disguised experiment, researchers tested the opposing statements on over 2,000 participants across the US spectrum of age, education, gender and politics using the online platform Amazon Mechanical Turk.

In order to gauge shifts in opinion, each participant was asked to estimate current levels of scientific agreement on climate change throughout the study.

Those shown only the fact about climate change consensus (in pie chart form) reported a large increase in perceived scientific agreement – an average of 20 percentage points. Those shown only misinformation (a screenshot of the Oregon petition website) dropped their belief in a scientific consensus by 9 percentage points. 

Some participants were shown the accurate pie chart followed by the erroneous Oregon petition. The researchers were surprised to find the two neutralised each other (a tiny difference of 0.5 percentage points).

“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society,” says van der Linden. “A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one.”

Psychological 'inoculation'

Alongside the consensus fact, two groups in the study were randomly given ‘vaccines’:

  • A general inoculation, consisting of a warning that “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”.
  • A detailed inoculation that picks apart the Oregon petition specifically. For example, by highlighting some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

For those ‘inoculated’ with this extra data, the misinformation that followed did not cancel out the accurate message.

The general inoculation saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, despite exposure to fake news.

When the detailed inoculation was added to the general, it was almost 13 percentage points – two-thirds of the effect seen when participants were just given the consensus fact.

The research team point out that tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used psychological inoculation in the past to sow seeds of doubt, and to undermine scientific consensus in the public consciousness.

They say the latest study demonstrates that such techniques can be partially “reversed” to promote scientific consensus, and work in favour of the public good.

The researchers also analysed the results in terms of political parties. Before inoculation, the fake negated the factual for both Democrats and Independents. For Republicans, the fake actually overrode the facts by 9 percentage points.

However, following inoculation, the positive effects of the accurate information were preserved across all parties to match the average findings (around a third with just general inoculation; two-thirds with detailed).

“We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science,” says van der Linden.

“What’s striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn’t seem to retreat into conspiracy theories.

“There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”      

New research finds that misinformation on climate change can psychologically cancel out the influence of accurate statements. However, if legitimate facts are delivered with an “inoculation” – a warning dose of misinformation – some of the positive influence is preserved. 

There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little
Sander van der Linden
Victorians rally for No New Coal projects

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Jason Rentfrow on Radio 4

By from News. Published on Jan 06, 2017.

Physical activity, even in small amounts, benefits both physical and psychological well-being

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 05, 2017.

A new study, based on reports from more than 10,000 individuals, has found that physical activity, whether or not it is classified as exercise, can have a positive effect on emotional well-being. The results, by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex, are reported in the journal PLOS ONE, and demonstrate how smartphones can be used to collect large-scale data to examine psychological, behavioural and health-related phenomena as they occur in everyday life.

Using data gathered from users of a mood tracking app for Android phones, the researchers found that modest levels of physical activity – even if it couldn’t be classified as exercise – can increase a person’s reported emotional well-being, regardless of their baseline level of happiness. They also found that people reported being happier when they were physically active.

Earlier studies in this area have focused on the relationship between exercise and happiness, with mixed results. Some studies have found that happier people report exercising more, while others have found no relationship between happiness and exercise. Much of this past research has relied solely on retrospective self-reports, on data collected at only one time period, and on small samples.

For the new study, data on physical activity was passively gathered from smartphone accelerometers, and participants were also sent a short survey at two random intervals throughout the day which asked questions about their emotional state. Users reported their emotional state on a grid, based on how positive or negative, and how energetic or sleepy, they were feeling. Users were also asked a handful of questions about how their mood compared to normal.

The activity data was then averaged over the course of the day, so while the researchers could not pinpoint what participants were doing at any given time, they found that participants who had higher levels of activity throughout the day reported a more positive emotional state.

“Our data show that happy people are more active in general,” said the paper’s senior author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. “However, our analyses also indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness. There have been many studies about the positive psychological effects of exercise, but what we’ve found is that in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon – all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day.”

“Most of us don’t keep track of all of our movements during the day,” said study co-author Dr Gillian Sandstrom from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. “A person might track whether they went for a walk or went to the gym, but when asked, most of them probably wouldn’t remember walking from the desk to the photocopier, or from the car to the office door.”

“This study shows how mobile and wearable technology really can allow social psychologists to perform large longitudinal studies as well as open a direct and permanent connection with the users for advice and intervention,” said study co-author Professor Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory.

The research was supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Research Council’s UBhave (Ubiquitous and Social Computing for Positive Behaviour Change) project.

Lathia, N. Sandstrom, G.M., Mascolo, C., & Rentfrow, P.J. ‘Happier people live more active lives: Using smartphones to link happiness and physical activity.’ PLOS ONE (2016).

The largest-ever smartphone-based study examining the relationship between physical activity and happiness has found that even minimal levels of activity can have a positive effect on happiness. 

In order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon.
Jason Rentfrow

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Hard Brexiter or ardent Remainer? Psychologists aim to find out what drives our political ideologies

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 01, 2016.

Now, researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge have launched an online survey looking at the relationship between political attitudes and cognitive thinking styles, exploring different aspects of our personalities and our cognitive abilities, as well as our attitudes towards Brexit and the issues that surround it.

The survey is a follow-up to a recent study carried out by the team during the US elections, which looked at issues relating to Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’s respective campaigns. The researchers are currently analysing the data from 800 respondents who completed the survey.

“The events of this year have really highlighted how strongly people feel about certain political issues,” explains Leor Zmigrod, a PhD student at the Department, who is leading the research. “We are interested in how these attitudes might relate to individuals’ identities and thinking styles.”

The survey asks questions on everything from attitudes towards the Monarchy, the EU and religion, to how much you agree it is acceptable to fight someone making fun of Britain, and to how anxious, creative or disorganised you consider yourself to be. It also includes cognitive games that look at your cognitive thinking style.

“It’s important to stress that this isn’t about making judgements about ideologies,” adds Zmigrod, “it’s about understanding how they arise.”

Dr Jason Rentfrow, Zmigrod’s supervisor, adds: “We think of ideologies usually in relation to politics, but in fact they come into many areas of our lives. We want to find out what links people to their ideologies and what drives them to protect their nation and communities in different ways.”

“It will be interesting to see if we can determine how basic cognitive styles relate to our political thinking,” says Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of Psychology, and Zmigrod’s advisor.


At a time of increasing divisions within politics – think of the recent battles over whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union – many are asking what it is that drives political ideologies.

The events of this year have really highlighted how strongly people feel about certain political issues. We are interested in how these attitudes might relate to individuals’ identities and thinking styles
Leor Zmigrod
EU referendum CONTRAST

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News from Trevor Robbins whilst on sabbatical leave

By from News. Published on Nov 07, 2016.

Does your empathy predict if you would stop and help an injured person?

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 31, 2016.

A team of psychologists at the University of Cambridge has conducted a social psychology experiment to test the theory that an individual’s level of empathy influences their behaviour. The results of their preliminary study, dubbed “The Trumpington Road Study” and published in the journal Social Neuroscience, suggest that this theory is correct.

In the experiment, one of the team posed as an injured person, sitting on the grass on Trumpington Road, one the main roads running through Cambridge, next to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Next to the ‘injured’ person was his upturned bicycle. Another member of the team was standing innocently across the road, watching to see if anyone was approaching from the side road of Brooklands Avenue.

As soon as a member of the public approached the street corner, alone, and was about to turn into Trumpington Road, he gave a quiet signal to the ‘injured’ person to start rubbing his ankle. The experiment had begun. The researcher across the street then noted if the passer-by stopped to ask the ‘injured’ man if he was OK.

Irrespective of whether passers-by stopped or not, once they had walked further up Trumpington Road, they were intercepted by a third researcher who told them she was conducting a ‘memory’ experiment, inviting them to describe what they had seen along the road in the last few minutes. Various items had been left on the sidewalk (such as a scarf) to make this a plausible cover story. Those who agreed to take part were also asked to visit a website in their own time, and complete the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaires, and were told they would receive a token payment of £6 for taking part.

As the team predicted, EQ scores were higher in those who had stopped to help the injured cyclist, than in those who walked past him, presumably focused on their own agenda.

The study was led by Richard Bethlehem, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. 37 (19 males, 18 females) completed both the EQ and also the AQ. They ranged in age from 18 to 77 years old.

Interestingly, how many autistic traits a person recorded was not related to whether they stopped to help or not, suggesting that empathy is the key factor, not autistic traits. Nor did age predict who stopped or not. Of those who stopped to help, 80% were female.

Richard Bethlehem said: “Experimental studies are often confined to the lab, which means they lack ‘ecological validity’. In this novel study we tested if empathy scores predict if people will act altruistically in a real-world setting. Our results support the theory that people who do good are, at least partially, driven by empathy.”

Dr Carrie Allison, a member of the team, commented: “How much empathy one has is itself a complex outcome of both biological factors and early upbringing and is a skill that can improve with development, learning, and practice.”

Professor Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy and the Chair of Trustees of the Canadian-based charity “Empathy for Peace”, said: “This research is a first step towards understanding why some people may or may not stop to help a person in distress. Studies conducted ‘in the wild’ are notoriously difficult to undertake, and even this small sample was derived from over 1,000 passers by. We will need to await a larger-scale replication. These results suggest that one factor that predicts which individuals will not stand idly by, is how many degrees of empathy they have.”

The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Pinsent Darwin Trust, and the Cambridge Trust, and was conducted in association with the NIHR CLAHRC for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

Bethlehem, CA et al. Does empathy predict altruism in the wild? Social Neuroscience; 19 Oct 2016; DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1249944



If you see an injured person by the side of the road, would you stop and help them, or are you more likely to walk on by? What motivates people to do good in such a situation? 

How much empathy one has is itself a complex outcome of both biological factors and early upbringing and is a skill that can improve with development, learning, and practice
Carrie Allison
'Injured' cyclist on Trumpington Road

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