New index of children’s ‘school readiness’ highlights importance of family support
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 28, 2015.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Psychometrics Centre have completed a study in which they developed the simple questionnaire for teachers, dubbed the Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI).
The government has indicated that it wishes to introduce testing for all children at Reception (when they first enter school at age four) in September this year. These tests seek to provide baseline assessments of a child’s ‘school readiness.’ However, the proposals have been criticised by several teaching organisations as being too narrowly focused and likely to add to the difficulties of an already challenging period for both children and their teachers.
“If schools are to deliver the extra support needed to help children make a successful transition to school, some form of assessment is required, but the tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds,” says Professor Claire Hughes from the Centre for Family Research, who led the research.
“Teachers need something that is brief but reliable and that harnesses their own skills and experience to identify children in need of extra support. A short teacher questionnaire such as the BESSI could provide all the necessary information and be easier to implement.”
The Cambridge study was a study commissioned by Frank Field MP who, following his 2010 report, The Foundation Years: how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults set up and now chairs the Foundation Years Trust. Part of the Trust’s work is to develop, implement and promote life chance indicators, which are seen as playing a key role in driving policy and incentivising a focus on improving children’s long-term life chances.
The BESSI questionnaire is unique in being both brief (one page) and broad (including, for example, items about the kinds of support children receive at home). A previous, much longer questionnaire, the Early Development Instrument (EDI), was designed by a Canadian research team and has enabled teachers in Australia to profile the development and wellbeing of more than 260,000 five-year-olds. This national census revealed worrying regional disparities in the proportion of children with ‘developmental vulnerabilities’, with clear policy implications for mobilizing extra support. However, the EDI is not appropriate for use in the UK because British children start formal schooling one year earlier than children almost everywhere else in the world – a significant time difference in terms of a child’s development and a source of concern for many.
Professor Hughes and colleagues carried out focus groups with teachers in Field’s Birkenhead constituency with a view to getting a first-hand view of variation in children’s school readiness. This highlighted an additional problem: a lack of consensus on how ‘school readiness’ should be defined.
Researchers in the USA have noted that for politicians, whose primary interest is in the extent to which schools produce employable young adults, school readiness hinges on achieving foundation skills in literacy and numeracy. As Professor Hughes explained, “For teachers, who face the more immediate challenge of 30 small children in a confined space, the obvious starting point is children’s behaviour and emotional and social development.”
Defining school readiness is also complicated by the fact that learning takes many forms – from ‘surface learning’ (e.g. letter recognition) to ‘deep learning’ (e.g. finding patterns or principles). Some theorists argue that the very term ‘school readiness’ is intrinsically unfair, in that it appears to place the burden of responsibility on the child. The Cambridge researchers noted that a lack of educational support at home was a frequent issue raised by teachers.
To address these various problems, the researchers developed and piloted the BESSI. So far, this has been tested in three waves involving schools and nurseries in the Wirral, in London and in Manchester. The first wave was with teachers of over 800 children in Reception, the second was with nursery staff working with a similar number of much younger children, and the third was with teachers of a further 270 children to check the reliability of BESSI ratings.
Amongst other factors, the BESSI provides information about children’s social and behavioural adjustment (e.g. are they able to play with other children or to wait their turn?) as well as measures of their daily living skills (e.g. can they use cutlery and can they go the toilet by themselves?) and language / cognitive skills. Importantly, it also captures variation in family support and includes items about reading, praise and fun at home. The findings around fun are particularly interesting as they indicate that parental support is not simply a matter of regular reading at home – although there may be a virtuous circle by which parents and children who have fun together are also more likely to read together.
As the researchers expected, some problems, such as distractibility and trouble sitting still, were very common, even among the older children in the sample. However, the BESSI also provided some surprising insights. First, not only were problems typically almost twice as common in boys as in girls, but these gender differences were also evident in family support. For example, compared with girls, boys received much lower ratings of ‘fun at home’.
Second, children from low-income families lagged behind their more affluent peers – but these differences were removed when scores for family support were taken into account. In other words, when families facing financial difficulties are still able to have fun together, the children appear better prepared for school – but teachers’ ratings indicated that fun at home was often lacking.
“We should not blame parents who provide low levels of support, or recast problems of inequality as a matter of parental responsibility, or let these findings detract from efforts to reduce inequality in order to give all children a fair start in life,” adds Professor Hughes. “Instead, our hope is that the BESSI will help educational professionals support all children, regardless of family background, who display difficulties during the transition to school or nursery.”
The research was funded by the Westminster Foundation and the Foundation Years Trust.
Hughes, C et al. Measuring the foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology; 8 May 2015
The importance of family support on a child’s ‘school readiness’ is highlighted in a study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Researchers developed and piloted a new index that might provide a simple and stress-free alternative to the government’s proposed baseline assessments for four-year-olds starting school.
Cambridge is top for psychology in the Guardian's University Guide 2016 subject tables
By from News. Published on May 26, 2015.
Memory and mental time travel at the Hay Festival 2015
By from News. Published on May 24, 2015.
Dr Simone Schnall chairing symposium at 27th Annual Convention of the APS
By from News. Published on May 22, 2015.
Professor Trevor Robbins gives 22nd Annual Norman Geschwind Memorial Lecture at HMS
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“Talk PhD to me!”
By from News. Published on May 20, 2015.
Student–led teachers’ awards recognise staff
By admin from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 13, 2015.
Student union thanks staff for supporting students and enhancing the educational experience
Staff from across the University have been recognised for their work by the students they support and teach.
The CUSU Student-Led Teaching Awards 2015 saw 265 nominations from students who submitted testimonies about why their chosen member of staff deserved to win.
Among the nominees were lecturers, supervisors, tutors, chaplains, librarians, custodians, and a whole range of people who have provided student support and enhanced the educational experience at Cambridge.
The winners - judged by a panel of students working alongside CUSU - were presented with their awards at a ceremony on Tuesday, May 12.
Rob Richardson, CUSU Education Officer 2014-15, said: "It has been a pleasure to read the quality and passion of the testimonies from students. The CUSU Teaching Awards provide a great opportunity to highlight the world class teaching that students at Cambridge have access to, and the ceremony itself was an extremely enjoyable occasion. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, and it has been a pleasure to be involved in the awards."
The list of winners and the categories they were recognised in, is below:
Dr Laura Moretti, AMES
Dr Rory Finnin, MML
Dr Katharine Hubbard, Plant Sciences
Christine Counsell, Education
Dr Richard Turner, Engineering
Dr Fiona Maine, Education
Dr Richard Barnes, PDN
Dr David Whitebread, Education
Dr Jason Rentfrow, Psychology
Dr Helen Thaventhiran, English
Dr Jenny Koenig, Pharmacology
Dr Ruth Abbott, English
Dr Julian Sale, Pathology
Dr Yannis Galanakis, Classics
Prof Graham Virgo, Law
Matthew Simpson, Philosophy
Dr Louise Joy, Homerton
Dr Paola Filippucci, Murray Edwards
Dr Kevin Greenbank, Wolfson
Don Stebbings, Divinity
Katheryn Ayres, Veterinary Medicine
Karen Kempton, Robinson College
Libby Tilley, English
Memory and mental time travel at the Hay Festival
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Nicky Clayton & Clive Wilkins to present The Spoon Lecture 2015
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Professor Usha Goswami gives media interview on dyslexia ahead of Hay appearance
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Listen to your heart: why your brain may give away how well you know yourself
By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 21, 2015.
In research published today in the journal Cerebral Cortex, a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, studied not only whether volunteers could be trained to follow their heartbeat, but whether it was possible to identify from brain activity how good they were at estimating their performance.
Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, a Wellcome Trust Fellow and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, says: “‘Follow your heart’ has become something of a cliché, but we know that, consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between our heart rate and our decisions and emotions. There may well be benefits to becoming more attuned to our heartbeat, but there’s very little in scientific literature about whether this is even technically possible.”
A recent study from Dr Bekinschtein and colleagues showed that people with ‘depersonalisation-derealisation disorder’ – in which patients repeatedly feel that they are observing themselves from outside their body or have a sense that things around them are not real – perform particularly badly at listening to their heart. Another study from the team, looking at a man with two hearts – his natural, diseased heart and a replacement artificial heart – found that he was better able to tune into the artificial heart than the diseased one.
Other studies have highlighted a possible connection between heart rate and task performance. For example, in one study, volunteers given the drug propranolol to increase their heart rate performed worse at emotional tasks than the control group. Changing heart rate is part of our automatic and unconscious ‘fight or flight’ response – being aware of the heart’s rhythm could give people more control over their behaviour, believe the researchers.
Thirty-three volunteers took part in an experiment during which scientists measured their brain activity using an electroencephalograph (EEG). First off, the volunteers were asked to tap in synchrony as they listened to a regular and then irregular heartbeat. Next, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat in synchrony. Then, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat whilst listening to it through a stethoscope. Finally, the stethoscopes were removed and they were once again asked to tap out their heartbeat.
During the task, when the volunteers were tapping out their heartbeat unaided, they were asked to rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘inaccurate’ and 10 ‘extremely accurate’. Once the task was completed, they were asked how much they thought they had improved from 1 (‘did not improve’) to 10 (‘improved a lot’).
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that brain activity differed between people who improved at tapping out their heartbeat and those who did not,” says Andrés Canales-Johnson from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. “But interestingly, brain activity also differed between people who knew whether or not they had improved and those people who under- or over-estimated their own performance.”
Just over four in ten (42%) of the participants showed significant improvement in their ability to accurately tap along unaided with their heartbeat. This is most likely due to the fact that listening to their heartbeat through a stethoscope had allowed them to fine tune their attention to the otherwise faint signal of their heartbeat. In those whose performance had improved, the researchers saw a stronger brain signal known as the ‘heartbeat evoked potential’ (HEP) across the brain.
The researchers found no significant differences in the HEP when grouping the participants by how well they thought they had performed – their subjective performance. This suggests that the HEP provides a marker of objective performance.
In the final part of the test – after the participants had listened to their heartbeat through the stethoscope and were once again tapping unaided – the researchers found differences in brain activity between participants. Crucially, they found an increase in ‘gamma phase synchrony’ – coordinated ‘chatter’ between different regions in the brain – in only those learners whose subjective judgement of their own performance matched their actual, objective performance. In other words, this activity was seen only in learners who knew they had performed badly or knew they had improved.
“We’ve shown that for just under half of us, training can help us listen to our hearts, but we may not be aware of our progress,” adds Dr Bekinschtein. “Some people find this task easier to do than others do. Also, some people clearly don’t know how good or bad they actually are – but their brain activity gives them away.
“There are techniques such as mindfulness that teach us to be more aware of our bodies, but it will be interesting to see whether people are able to control their emotions better or to make better decisions if they are aware of how their heart is beating.”
The research was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC in the UK, and the Chilean National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development, the Argentinean National Research Council for Science and Technology, and the Argentinean Agency for National Scientific Promotion.
“Listen to your heart,” sang Swedish pop group Roxette in the late Eighties. But not everyone is able to tune into their heartbeat, according to an international team of researchers – and half of us under- or over-estimate our ability.
Study finds GB’s most extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable regions
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 25, 2015.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge used the data to analyse a sample of just under 400,000 people from England, Wales or Scotland (Northern Ireland was excluded as sample sizes were too small), around two-thirds of whom were female. The results of their study are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.
The study is based on data that was gathered as part of the Big Personality Test, an online survey published by the BBC in 2009 as part of a collaboration between the BBC and the scientific community, BBC Lab UK.
“Understanding how personality traits differ by region is more than just ‘a bit of fun’,” explains Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College. “Geographical differences are associated with a range of economic, social and health outcomes – and hence how important resources are allocated. Although participants in an online test are self-selecting, the demographic characteristics are representative of the British population, so we can develop an accurate snapshot of the psychology of the nation.”
The test looked at five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness.
Extroverts tend to be more assertive, energetic, enthusiastic and sociable, and previous research has linked extraversion with physical health and wellbeing, leadership and occupational performance. Our research found high levels of extraversion concentrated in London as well as Manchester and pockets of the South and South East of England, Yorkshire and Scotland. In contrast, the East Midlands, Wales, Humberside, the North of England and East Scotland showed significantly low levels, suggesting that their residents tend to be quiet, reserved and introverted.
Agreeableness reflects traits such as cooperation, friendliness and trust. The study found that ‘agreeable’ regions tended to have higher proportions of females, married couples and low-income residents as well as lower rates of violent crime.
The most agreeable regions were to be found throughout Scotland, as well as in the North, South West and East of England, suggesting that disproportionate numbers of residents of these areas were friendly, trusting, and kind. This contrasted with London and various districts throughout the East of England, which had lower levels of agreeableness, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were uncooperative, quarrelsome, and irritable.
Images: Maps of personality characteristics across the UK. The redder the area, the level of the characteristic in the region. Click on images to enlarge.
People who are conscientiousness tend to have a stronger sense of duty, responsibility and self-discipline, and research has shown that this trait is linked with career and educational success, longevity and conservatism. According to the study, conscientiousness reflects the degree to which residents of an area are socially conservative, nonviolent, and physically healthy.
The survey found the most conscientious regions were in Southern England, pockets of the Midlands, and the Scottish Highlands, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were self-disciplined, cautious, and compliant. London, Wales, and parts of the North of England showed significantly lower levels, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were disorderly, rebellious, and indifferent.
Conscientiousness individuals were more likely to be married, older and on a higher income, with lower rates of deaths from cancer and heart disease.
People who are emotionally stable tend be calm, relaxed, and happy, and several studies have shown that such traits can have a positive impact on relationship satisfaction, psychological wellbeing, career success and longevity. In regions where there are large proportions of emotionally stable individuals, there appear to be large proportions of physically healthy and middle-class residents.
The research found significantly low levels of emotional stability throughout most of Wales and in a number of districts throughout the Midlands. People were more likely to be emotionally stable in the South West and much of Southern England, as well as across most of Scotland, suggesting that residents of these areas tend to be calm, relaxed, and happy. Overall, the survey found that regions with large proportions of people scoring low in emotional stability had more residents who were working class and physically unhealthy.
At an individual level, openness represents creativity, curiosity, imagination, and intellect, and is associated with pursuing a career that involves creativity, living an unconventional lifestyle, earning a college degree and supporting liberal attitudes.
Metropolitan areas tended to show greater Openness appeared mainly in metropolitan areas, with London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow, but also in parts of Wales, indicating that a disproportion number of residents of these areas were creative, unconventional, and curious. Significantly low levels of Openness emerged throughout most of the East Midlands and East of England, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were conventional, down-to-earth, and traditional.
According to the study, openness was positively related to residents with university education, income, prevalence of high-status professionals, foreign-born residents, same-sex couples, and rates of violent crime. Overall, the results suggested that regions with large numbers of highly open people were cosmopolitan, economically prosperous, and liberal.
To help the general public find out how they fit within these results, the BBC has produced an iWonder guide called Take the test: Where in Britain would you be happiest?
The BBC’s interactive guide asks people to answer 10 questions about how they see themselves and then matches the answers to the region in Britain that most suits that person – i.e. the district where they would be happiest – according to the published research. The guide also estimates how well-matched participants are to the area they currently live in, the nearest place to where they live that they would be happier, and their worst place to live.
Rentfrow, PJ et al. Regional Personality Differences in Great Britain. PLOS ONE.
A survey of almost 400,000 British residents has highlighted significant differences in personalities between regions. Amongst its findings, it shows Scots to be amongst the friendliest and most co-operative residents, Londoners the most open and Welsh people the least emotionally stable.
|Personality trait||Highest scoring||Lowest scoring|
|Extraversion||Hammersmith & Fulham (86.7)||Boston, Lincs (11.3)|
|Agreeableness||Isles of Scilly (87.6)||City of London (8.3)|
|Conscientiousness||Isles of Scilly (77.5)||Merthyr Tydfil (13.6)|
|Neuroticism||Barrow-in-Furness (83.3)||Orkney Islands (4.5)|
|Openness||Hackney (100)||Maldon, Essex (28.1)|
The #GBpersonality quiz just told me I should live in the Shetland Islands...lovely, but no. Should have asked how much I like being cold!
— Felicity Sedgewick (@SedgewickF) March 25, 2015
— Diana Caulfield (@dsw26) March 25, 2015
Spooky. BBC #GBpersonality thing says I should live near Coalville Leics. That would be Whitwick where my Dads family lived for centuries
— Janet Kearns (@Jan2555) March 25, 2015
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Families with a difference: the reality behind the hype
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 12, 2015.
Over the past 40 years the family has altered in ways that few people imagined back in the days of the Janet and John reading books in which mummy baked and daddy mowed the lawn. In the 1970s, the ‘nuclear’ family (heterosexual married couple with genetically related children) was in a clear majority. Advances in assistive reproductive technologies, a rise in numbers of single parent and step families resulting from divorce, and the creation of families by same-sex couples and single people have changed all that. Today ‘non-traditional’ families outnumber nuclear families in the UK and many other countries.
When it comes to family, everyone has opinions – but they are just opinions. In her new book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms (published 12 March 2015), Professor Susan Golombok charts the remarkable changes that have taken place in the context of the empirical research that has sought to answer a series of contested questions. Are children less likely to thrive in families headed by same-sex parents, single mothers by choice or parents who conceived them using assisted reproductive technologies? Will children born to gay fathers through egg donation and surrogacy be less likely to flourish than children conceived by IVF to genetically related heterosexual parents?
Golombok’s contribution to family research goes back to 1976 when she responded to an article in the feminist magazine Spare Rib by conducting an objective study of the development of children of lesbian mothers. Spare Rib had revealed that, both in the UK and USA, lesbian mothers in child custody disputes invariably lost their cases to their ex-husbands. Courts argued that it was not in children’s best interests to be raised by lesbian women, not least because their gender development would be skewed. Golombok, and other researchers, have shown in successive studies that boys are no less masculine and girls no less feminine than boys and girls with heterosexual parents.
In 2006 Golombok was appointed director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – a research centre known for its focus on family influences on child development. Modern Families brings together for the first time the growing body of research into the wide range of family forms, undertaken not just in the UK but also in the USA and around the world. Most strikingly, these studies show, again and again, that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.
These findings fly in the face of the media hysteria that greeted the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978. Societal attitudes have since moved on. However, deep-seated assumptions of what is ‘right and proper’ continue to colour notions of what a family ‘should’ be in order to raise a well-balanced child. Real families are complex. Golombok is careful to be even-handed in her unpacking (family type by family type) of the issues, the arguments and the relevant research in a field that, by virtue of its human intimacy, demands a high level of sensitivity and diplomacy.
She also addresses the fact that research into so emotionally charged a field is bound to be imperfect. Parents willing to take part in research are more likely to be those who are functioning well than those who struggle. “It is important to study new family forms to find out what they are really like. Otherwise, all we have is speculation and assumption, usually negative, which simply fuel prejudice and discrimination and are harmful to the children involved,” she says.
Some findings are counterintuitive, others less so. One of the arguments most famously used against same-sex parenting has been that children may lack models on which to base their own gender identity and behaviour. In a study of play preferences, lesbian mothers chose a mix of masculine and feminine toys but their children chose toys and activities that were highly sex-typed. It seems that parents have little influence over the sex-typed toy and activity preferences of their daughters and sons.
In studies of children born through assisted reproduction, their mothers have consistently been found to show more warmth and emotional involvement, and less parenting stress, than natural conception mothers.
“Contrary to the expectation that parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies would experience difficulties in parenting, research has found them to be highly committed and involved parents, even in donor-conceived families where one or both parents lack a genetic relationship with their children,” says Golombok.
“A key factor in the positive functioning of children in new family forms appears to be that they are very wanted children. Parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of infertility before becoming parents; others become parents in the face of significant social disapproval; and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child.”
When surrogacy hit the headlines in 1985 with the case of Kim Cotton, the furore about the payment made to her by the intended parents of the child she was carrying led the UK to outlaw commercial surrogacy. Although attitudes to surrogacy have softened, it remains the most controversial form of assisted reproduction. Studies report that relationships between intended parents and surrogate mothers are generally both enduring and positive. Children born through surrogacy sometimes form relationships with the surrogate’s own children.
Modern Families offers a measured appraisal of the broader issues that are likely to prove increasingly salient (and debated) as reproductive technologies offer novel routes to the conception of a healthy child and society’s understanding of what constitutes ‘family’ is increasingly extended. Last month’s approval in the UK for the use of a technique called mitochondrial replacement has rekindled accusations of scientists ‘playing God’. Perhaps, in time, society will be more accepting of techniques like mitochondrial replacement, developed primarily to avoid a child being born with a devastating medical condition.
Two generations ago, same-sex parenting was widely vilified as ‘against nature’. Today, same-sex couples and single people are considered alongside heterosexual couples as prospective adoptive and foster parents. “Attitudes towards same-sex parent families in the UK have changed enormously over a relatively short period of time. In less than half a century we have moved from a situation in which lesbian mothers were ostracised, and gay men were at risk of imprisonment, to a time where same-sex couples can marry, adopt children jointly, and become the joint legal parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies,” says Golombok.
“But it’s important to remember that these laws are far from universal. Lesbian and gay relationships remain a criminal offence in some countries of the world with lesbian and gay people still living in fear of their lives.”
Families aren’t self-contained units. How do parents handle the prejudice they and their children are almost bound to encounter and how do children cope with what are perceived as ‘differences’? Sometimes the attitudes of the wider world make things hard. While children of same-sex parents are just as likely to flourish as those with heterosexual parents, children with lesbian or gay parents have to ‘explain’ their families in a way that their peers don’t. The need to explain can be burdensome.
“It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms,” says Golombok.
Children born through egg or sperm donation grow up with a realisation that they have a biological mother or father who may not live with them. The research covered in Modern Families shows that the question of disclosure – informing children conceived through donated gametes about their genetic parentage – is a foggy one.
Legislation that took effect in 2005 gives anyone conceived with donated gametes after that date the right to have, at the age of 18, access to information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek information about their donors from the HFEA. If adoption law is any guide, the numbers will not be insignificant.
As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason to seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure. Interestingly, although many parents profess the intention of bringing their children up with the knowledge that they were donor conceived, significant numbers of parents never find the right moment to broach the subject.
Golombok says: “Parents fear that telling children about their donor conception will jeopardise the loving relationship that has developed between the child and the non-genetic parent. However, our research has shown this fear to be unfounded. Parents who are open with their children when they are young – before they reach school age – say that their children accept this information and are not distressed by it. Finding out in adolescence or adulthood appears to be more difficult to accept.”
Modern Families is a timely reminder that every family is different – and that families are both fluid and flexible. There is more variation within family types than between them. Many of the newer routes helping people to fulfil their desires to have a family are still in their infancy. Progress is never smooth – and, quite rightly, innovations in conception are bound to be, and need to be, a matter for public debate. Research by Golombok and her colleagues, at Cambridge and beyond, provides a firm and informed basis for discourse to take place.
Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms by Susan Golombok is published on 12 March 2015 (Cambridge University Press).
Top two inset images from Flickr Creative Commons
Families come in many guises. Some parents are same-sex; others are single by choice. Growing numbers of children are conceived through assistive reproductive technology. What do these developments mean for the parents and children involved? Professor Susan Golombok’s book, Modern Families, examines ‘new family forms’ within a context of four decades of empirical research.
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Your brain might not be as ‘old’ as you think
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 09, 2015.
How ‘old’ is your brain? Put another way, how ‘aged’ is your brain? The standard, scientific answer, suggests that the older you get, the greater the changes in the activity of your neurons. In fact, my colleagues and I have found out that this isn’t necessarily the case: older brains may be more similar to younger brains than we’d previously thought.
In our study, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, we’ve shown that changes in the ageing brain previously observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – one of the standard ways of measuring brain activity – may be due to changes in our blood vessels, rather than changes in the activity of our nerve cells, our neurons. Given the large number of fMRI studies used to assess the ageing brain, this has important consequences for understanding how the brain changes with age and it challenges current theories of ageing.
The fundamental problem of fMRI is that it measures the activity of our neurons indirectly through changes in regional blood flow. Without careful correction for age differences in how the blood vessels respond, differences in fMRI signals may be erroneously regarded as differences in our neurons.
An important line of research focuses on controlling for noise in fMRI signals using additional baseline measures of vascular (blood vessel) function, for example involving experimental manipulations of carbon dioxide levels in blood. However, such methods have not been widely used, possibly because they are impractical to implement in studies of ageing.
An alternative way of correcting makes use of the resting state, ’task-free’, fMRI measurement, which is easy to acquire and available in most fMRI experiments. While this method has been difficult to validate in the past, the unique combination of an impressively detailed data set across 335 healthy volunteers over the lifespan, as part of the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (CamCAN) project, has allowed us to probe the true nature of the effects of ageing on resting state fMRI signal amplitude. This showed that age differences in signal amplitude at rest – in other words, while volunteers perform no task during the scan – originate from our blood vessels, not our nerve cells. We believe we can use this as a robust correction factor to control for vascular differences in fMRI studies of ageing.
A number of research studies have previously found reduced brain activity in the areas of the brain related to our senses and movement during tasks that study these aspects. Using conventional methods, we replicated these findings, but, after correction, we found that it is more likely to be vascular health, not brain function, that accounts for most age-related differences in fMRI signals in sensory areas. In other words, neuroscientists may have been overestimating age differences in brain activity in previous fMRI studies.
Why is this important? We’re an ageing society, with more and more people living into old age, so it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions. We clearly need to refine our fMRI experiments, otherwise we risk creating a misleading picture of activity in the brain as we age. Without refinement, such fMRI studies may misinterpret the effect of age as a cognitive phenomenon, when really it has more to do with our blood vessels.
Dr Tsvetanov is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Tsvetanov, KA et al. The effect of ageing on fMRI: correction for the confounding effects of vascular reactivity evaluated by joint fMRI and MEG in 335 adults. Human Brain Mapping; 27 February 2015
Our standard way of measuring brain activity could be giving us a misleading picture of how our brains age, argues Dr Kamen Tsvetanov from the Department of Psychology.
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Acting ‘out of character’ in the workplace
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 20, 2015.
We are often typecast as introverts and extroverts. People do have biological propensities to behave in certain ways; some of us are naturally more talkative and sociable while others prefer more time alone. But, according to Canadian-born research psychologist Professor Brian Little, our traits are by no means fixed. Little is now collaborating with Cambridge University PhD candidate Sanna Balsari-Palsule on an in-depth study of 'free-traits'.
In his new book Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, Little suggests that we are often able to override our biological make-up through the adoption of free-traits which allow us to act in different ways to our natural selves. We call on these free-traits to meet the demands of different situations and achieve projects and goals that are important to us.
Little recommends that we might usefully think of ourselves as amateur scientists. We are continually exploring and testing the world around us to discover what works and what doesn’t. We do things, say things, and then we observe the reactions and unconsciously store the results. We apply what we learn from our ‘experiments’ to the advancement of what Little describes as our ‘personal projects’ – a description he devised back in 1983 to describe the goals and pursuits that underlie people’s behaviour.
The personal projects in question might be big ones (such as career ambitions) or small ones (like cleaning the car) but they form the bedrock of our day-to-day behaviour and our relationships with our friends, family and workmates. Sometimes our personal project pursuit requires us to engage in free-traits; other times, we can just be ourselves. Little proposes that the successful pursuit of ‘core projects’ that are meaningful, manageable, supported by others and generate positive feelings can greatly impact our happiness and the quality of our lives.
Since 2010, Little has lectured in the Department of Psychology and Cambridge Judge Business School. The course he teaches is based on his lifetime’s research covered in Me, Myself and Us – and it offers undergraduate, graduate and executive MBA students the chance to reflect on their own personality. In 2011, Little taught a group of graduate students that included Sanna Balsari-Palsule.
“I loved the idea that acting is not something restricted to the stage, but that we are so often faced with the need to perform in daily life. With the amount of time spent in our jobs, our occupations hold such a prominent place in our lives. In an ideal world, one’s job would fit one’s traits perfectly, but that’s very rarely the case. As so much can hinge on how we behave with others in the workplace, I became fascinated with exploring what happens when people push the limits of their ability to act out of character. Do they experience detriments in their well-being or work performance and does this increase their chances of burnout?” said Balsari-Palsule.
In collaboration with Little, Balsari-Palsule has been conducting projects that explore the experiences of employees in organisations. Initial results from the first stage of research in a large marketing company are intriguing. The findings suggest that extroverts initially experience advantages over introverts in terms of getting noticed and promoted more rapidly. However, when introvert employees higher up in the organisation act out of character and become extraverted ('pseudo-extroverts'), they have equal performance ratings as extroverts, and do not report feeling drained.
Little and Balsari-Palsule offer an explanation: introvert employees make frequent use of ‘restorative resources’. These are spaces in the workplace designed to allow employees to read quietly or simply relax in order to recover their equilibrium after a strenuous session of acting out of character that would otherwise drain their energy. However, if the same employees were expected to act out of character for more prolonged periods, without the chance to recover, the benefits could quickly turn into costs.
In the same study, however, extroverts report strikingly different, and much less rewarding, experiences of acting out of character. It appears that more outwardly confident personality types find it extremely hard – and stressful – to rein back their personalities and act as if they were introverted (‘pseudo-introverts’).
“We found this difference was most common among younger employees. It may be that introverts are generally so accustomed to acting extrovertly in situations outside of the workplace that it becomes a relatively easy force of habit, particularly in Western cultures where extroversion is often highly valued. On the other hand, extrovert employees at the beginning of their careers are much less used to being isolated in an office for long periods of time, so may feel like caged animals, needing to feed off the energy of others in order to thrive,” said Balsari-Palsule.
In the second stage of research, Balsari-Palsule is looking into the idiosyncrasies of people’s work projects and how the work environment plays a vital role in supporting or, in some cases, constraining them. For example, highly competitive work environments, that place strict demands on employees to conform to certain types of behaviour, may leave little time for employees to pursue their personally important and valuable core projects, which could eventually be detrimental to their well-being. She expects that a closer look at the influences of different factors in the work environment in conjunction with how people behave will shed more light on when the costs and benefits of acting out of character are drawn out.
The practical implications of this research are numerous. Balsari-Palsule suggests that it would serve employers well to not disregard the costs of free-trait acting as compromised psychological well-being and physical health can quickly translate into costly reductions for productivity and performance and increases in absenteeism. Instead, organisations must adopt policies and build work environments that are supportive of free-trait expression but also provide the spaces for people to be themselves.
She said: “Management should rely less on handing out personality questionnaires that pigeonhole employees into introvert and extrovert categories, but instead be aware of the powerful driving force of core projects on personality in the workplace.”
Look around your workplace – and ask yourself which colleagues you’d describe as extravert and which as introvert. Perhaps your most talkative workmate is actually an introvert? Research by Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, investigates the ways in which people act 'out of character' – and how the consequences play out in the workplace.
“You need to ignore it, babe”: how mothers prepare young children for the reality of racism
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 19, 2015.
An in-depth study of mothers and young children living in multicultural areas of London found that many of the women interviewed had prepared children for coping with a social environment that might be likely to include elements of racism. Many parents advised their children to ignore racist barbs which were made by people who were “rude and ignorant”.
While at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Dr Humera Iqbal carried out a small-scale but intensive study of 36 British-born mothers – 12 British Indian, 12 British Pakistani and 12 White British – living in multicultural areas of the capital.This qualitative research into families from the UK’s three largest ethnic groups was part of a larger project on ethnicity and family life.
The study, ‘Multicultural parenting: Preparation for bias socialisation in British South Asian and White families in the UK’, is published in the January 2015 issue of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.
The 36 families studied in depth were all non-immigrant British citizens. The mothers interviewed were at least the second generation to live in the UK. All had one child or more aged between five and seven years old. The children, who came from a range of socioeconomic settings, attended state primary schools in areas of London with high proportions of each of the groups being studied.
Iqbal found that, overall, parents described positive experiences of diversity. However, mothers and children from all three groups also reported experiencing discrimination – sometimes on a daily basis. Mothers of children as young as five found themselves addressing topics related to racism, either as a result of prejudice or in anticipation of it, to help their youngsters cope with the discrimination they were likely to face.
A marked difference emerged in the use of these ‘preparation for bias’ strategies across the three groups studied with 75% of British Pakistani families reporting their use, compared with 50% of White British families and just 16% of British Indian families.
“It’s important to stress that my research looks at a small number of families. However, it is clear that increased diversity in the UK has encouraged families to adapt their parenting strategies.This is particularly the case for groups who are experiencing wider societal pressures. British Pakistani Muslims, for example, increasingly face Islamophobia,” said Iqbal.
“International political events, such as the rise of the Islamic state and local negative attitudes towards immigration and the corresponding rise of UKIP in Britain, have all heightened the current mistrust towards Muslims - a highly diverse and complex set of groups often described as a single entity which is seen to include British Pakistanis.”
The research is notable for its inclusion of White British families who, as the dominant group, might not be expected to experience discrimination. “It was important to include White mothers and children because few studies have looked at the experiences of majority ethnic groups,” said Iqbal.
“A shift in the demographics of an area can mean that White British families find that, in their particular neighbourhood, they are no longer in the majority. One mother described this as ‘informal segregation’. She felt that many of the White families previously living in the community had chosen to move outwards leaving fewer White families behind and a predominance of families from one or two other ethnicities,” said Iqbal.
“Several of the White families interviewed reported feeling different and more vulnerable to experiencing both subtle and less subtle forms of discrimination as they now represented a group that was in smaller numbers.”
Previous research into similar issues has concentrated on older children, particularly teenagers. In concentrating on young children, who were just starting school, Iqbal shows that issues related to race and ethnicity begin to impact on children very early in their lives. Her study makes an important contribution to awareness of the potential implications of racism for child health and development.
“Previous research has found that stressful environments and ethnic inequalities are associated with unfavourable development profiles in children,” she said. “For example, a recent big study found that mothers who had experienced racism first-hand were more likely to have children at risk of obesity. Other research showed that mothers’ perception of racism was associated with socio-emotional difficulties in children such as being withdrawn or isolated.”
Iqbal looked at two types of ‘preparation for bias’ strategies: reactive and proactive. Her research showed that, while some parents downplayed race-related incidents and encouraged children to ignore such behaviour, other parents addressed incidents directly and urged their children to make a stand.
A White British mother told her son to ignore news reports and comments related to racism. “I’ll try to explain what’s going on, and, I just kind of say to him that you need to ignore it, babe… Don’t bite back if it happens, because…that’s what they want.”
How parents responded to discrimination depended on a range of factors – including their own experiences of racism. A study by researchers at New York University found that parents who had been victims of discrimination were more likely to prepare their children to cope with similar problems. This concurred with findings from the present study. British Pakistani parents, in particular, anticipated that their child would encounter racial barriers and did their utmost to equip their child with tools for future success by stressing the importance of a good education.
Some mothers used a discussion about racism as an opportunity to promote the importance of equality and to bolster their children’s psychological resources. Also, talking about discrimination following an incident emerged as an important way of protecting the emotional state of the child.
A British Pakistani mother had experienced frequent racism about her niqab (head covering with veil) from a group of teenagers, and these incidents had made her young son increasingly distressed and angry. She worried that as a result he would have negative views of white people and explained that he shouldn’t “discriminate against a whole bunch of people because there’s a few idiots…”
A British White mother said that her child and his friends had been called “white rats” by some children visiting the same block of flats. “My attitude is… you’re no different, you’re a different colour but you are no different to us… I won’t have racism at all…”
However, a number of White parents did look for “people like us” when choosing a school. Some felt that a multicultural school intake was a good thing but should be a “healthy” mix – in other words not too diverse. Two White British mothers reported moving their children to schools with more White pupils as they were worried about their children being marginalised.
Mothers did not always agree with schools about the best way to handle questions relating to race and faith and gave examples of schools either being heavy-handed or lacking in awareness of children’s sensitivities about differences.
A White mother said that her son had asked for the halal dish being served to his Muslim friend in the school canteen.Told he couldn’t have it, because he was “clearly not a Muslim child”, he was upset and asked his mother if he was “only allowed to eat Christian food”. She said that the incident was “making him aware of differences between everyone when really there was no need for it or it could have been dealt with in a more positive way”.
Iqbal’s study gives a vivid, and valuable, snapshot of the topics navigated by many parents living in multicultural areas in talking to young children about issues of profound importance to their development. She emphasises that, while parents spoke of many positive encounters with diversity, discrimination remained an underlying problem in modern Britain. Experiences varied in intensity and severity between groups.
She concludes that parents are often instilling protective and positive messages about race and ethnicity. Researchers and policy-makers, she argues, need to acknowledge the way in which parents adapt to changing environments and, in particular, how interactions within these settings lead to discussions of race and ethnicity with children at an early age.
Humera Iqbal was a member of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge until 2014. She is currently a researcher at the Institute of Education in London.
Research among mothers with young children living in multicultural London shows that racism is a reality for children as young as five – and that many mothers adopt parenting strategies to help their children deal with it.
Computers using digital footprints are better judges of personality than friends and family
By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.
A new study, published today in the journal PNAS, compares the ability of computers and people to make accurate judgments about our personalities. People's judgments were based on their familiarity with the judged individual, while computer models used a specific digital signal: Facebook Likes.
The results show that by mining Facebook Likes, the computer model was able to predict a person's personality more accurately than most of their friends and family. Given enough Likes to analyse, only a person's spouse rivalled the computer for accuracy of broad psychological traits.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University describe the finding as an "emphatic demonstration" of the capacity of computers to discover an individual's psychological traits through pure data analysis, showing machines can know us better than we'd previously thought: an "important milestone" on the path towards more social human-computer interactions.
"In the future, computers could be able to infer our psychological traits and react accordingly, leading to the emergence of emotionally-intelligent and socially skilled machines," said lead author Wu Youyou, from Cambridge's Psychometrics Centre.
"In this context, the human-computer interactions depicted in science fiction films such as Her seem to be within our reach."
The researchers say these results might raise concerns over privacy as such technology develops; the research team support policies giving users full control of their digital footprint.
In the study, a computer could more accurately predict the subject's personality than a work colleague by analysing just ten Likes; more than a friend or a cohabitant (roommate) with 70, a family member (parent, sibling) with 150, and a spouse with 300 Likes.
Given that an average Facebook user has about 227 Likes (and this number is growing steadily), the researchers say that this kind of AI has the potential to know us better than our closest companions.
The latest results build on previous work from the University of Cambridge, published in March 2013, which showed that a variety of psychological and demographic characteristics could be predicted with startling accuracy through Facebook Likes.
In the new study, researchers used a sample of 86,220 volunteers on Facebook who completed a 100-item personality questionnaire through the 'myPersonality' app, as well as providing access to their Likes.
These results provided self-reported personality scores for what are known in psychological practice as the 'big five' traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism— the OCEAN model. Through this, researchers could establish which Likes equated with higher levels of particular traits e.g. liking 'Salvador Dali' or 'meditation' showed a high degree of openness.
Users of the 'myPersonality' app were then given the option of inviting friends and family to judge the psychological traits of the user through a shorter version of the personality test. These were the human judges in the study—those listed on Facebook as friends or family expressing their judgement of a subject's personality using a 10-item questionnaire
Researchers were able to get a sample of 17,622 participants judged by one friend or family member, and a sample of 14,410 judged by two.
To gauge the accuracy of these measurements, the online personality judgements were corroborated with a meta-analysis of previous psychological studies over decades which looked at how people's colleagues, family and so on judge their personality. Researchers found their online values similar to the averages from years of person-to-person research.
In this way, the researchers were able to come up with accuracy comparisons between computer algorithms and the personality judgements made by humans. Given enough Likes, the computers came closer to a person's self-reported personality than their brothers, mothers or partners.
Dr Michal Kosinski, co-author and researcher at Stanford, says machines have a couple of key advantages that make these results possible: the ability to retain and access vast quantities of information, and the ability to analyse it with algorithms the techniques of 'Big Data'.
"Big Data and machine-learning provide accuracy that the human mind has a hard time achieving, as humans tend to give too much weight to one or two examples, or lapse into non-rational ways of thinking," he said. Nevertheless, the authors concede that detection of some traits might be best left to human abilities, those without digital footprints or dependant on subtle cognition.
The authors of the study write that automated, accurate, and cheap personality assessments could improve societal and personal decision-making in many ways—from recruitment to romance.
"The ability to judge personality is an essential component of social living— from day-to-day decisions to long-term plans such as whom to marry, trust, hire, or elect as president," said Cambridge co-author Dr David Stillwell. "The results of such data analysis can be very useful in aiding people when making decisions."
Youyou explains: "Recruiters could better match candidates with jobs based on their personality; products and services could adjust their behaviour to best match their users' characters and changing moods.
"People may choose to augment their own intuitions and judgments with this kind of data analysis when making important life decisions such as choosing activities, career paths, or even romantic partners. Such data-driven decisions may well improve people's lives," she said.
The researchers say that this kind of data mining and its inferences has hallmarks of techniques currently used by some digital service providers, and that—for many people— a future in which machines read our habits as an open book on a massive scale may seem dystopian to those concerned with privacy.
It's a concern shared by the researchers. "We hope that consumers, technology developers, and policy-makers will tackle those challenges by supporting privacy-protecting laws and technologies, and giving the users full control over their digital footprints," said Kosinski.
Take the Facebook personality test yourself here: http://applymagicsauce.com/
Researchers have found that, based on enough Facebook Likes, computers can judge your personality traits better than your friends, family and even your partner. Using a new algorithm, researchers have calculated the average number of Likes artificial intelligence (AI) needs to draw personality inferences about you as accurately as your partner or parents.
Liberal & artistic
Shy & reserved
Calm & relaxed
|TED||J-pop||Life of Pi||Ferrari|
|John Coltrane||Minecraft||the Bible||Volunteering|
|The Daily Show||Wikipedia||smiling||Usain Bolt|
|Atheism||The X-Files||Bourne Identity||Kayaking|
Tired of London? Maybe it’s time to change postal districts
By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.
Between 2009 and 2011, the BBC collected data from almost 590,000 people as part of its Big Personality Test. An international team of researchers has analysed data from the subset of 56,000 Londoners to examine how associations between personality and life satisfaction differed across the 216 postal districts of Greater London. The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s very common for people to talk about where is the best place to live, but most research has tended to look at factors such as income and low crime rates, and only on a very broad geographical scale, failing to consider individual differences in personality,” says Dr Markus Jokela from the University of Helsinki, Finland. “As a result, studies imply that all people would be equally happy in the same places. It’s a one-size-fits-all conclusion that, as we show, is misleading because one’s level of happiness is dependent on whether their environment is suited to their personality.”
The researchers found geographical differences and clustering in levels of life satisfaction and certain personality traits. For example, people clustered around central and urban areas were the most open – and, to a lesser degree, the most extroverted – with levels decreasing when moving to outer regions. Areas of greater average openness also showed a mixture of neighbourhood characteristics, including higher population density and higher housing prices, higher ethnic and religious diversity, and higher crime rate. The findings support previous research showing that openness is associated with broad interests and tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas, and that these dispositions are often thought to characterize residents of densely populated urban areas.
Click on the images to expand
The least agreeable areas were found in western central London, an area that has the highest crime rate, busiest pedestrian traffic, and some of the highest housing prices in the capital. The researchers believe this could be interpreted to support the popular notion that residents of big cities tend to be less considerate towards other people.
The researchers found higher levels of life satisfaction in the most affluent regions of London and pockets of low life satisfaction in northwest, northeast, and south London. As with previous studies, the researchers found that people who were most emotionally stable and/or extroverted tended to have the greatest life satisfaction – and this was not affected by the area in which they lived.
Importantly, the researchers also showed that the strength of associations between personality traits and life satisfaction were dependent on neighbourhood characteristics. For example, in postal districts with higher extraversion, lower agreeableness and lower conscientiousness, people tended to show greater life satisfaction if they were more open to new experiences.
In areas that reported lower levels of life satisfaction, the most agreeable and conscientious tended to fare best – to be the most satisfied – suggesting that these personality traits are more important determinants of life satisfaction for individuals living in less favourable environmental circumstances.
Overall, the analysis of personality–neighbourhood interactions showed that openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were differently associated with life satisfaction of individuals depending on their residential location and specific characteristics of those locations. This suggests that finding the best place to live will depend on the match between individual dispositions and neighbourhood characteristics.
“Together, these findings not only add to our understanding of the ways in which features of our personalities relate to our physical environments, but they also provide potentially useful information for choosing a place to live,” says Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. “Granted, most people don’t have the luxury of complete control over where they live, but given their budgets, people can decide whether it’s more important to live in the centre of town, where daily life is vibrant and accommodation is small, or further out where daily life is slower but space is more plentiful. Making the decision that fits with your personality could have an effect on your overall life satisfaction.”
This study was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” observed the writer Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. In fact, research published today suggests such a man may be merely living in the wrong postcode. A study of 56,000 Londoners found that a person’s life satisfaction depends, at least in part, on whether their personality suits the place where they live.