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Prof Mark Johnson, Head of Department, just received the 2019 APS Mentor Award.

By from News. Published on Oct 01, 2018.

Many congratulations Prof. Mark Johnson!

1 click access to your e-resources!!

By from News. Published on Sep 21, 2018.

Working parent? Childcare policy maker? Article for free for 50 days!

By from News. Published on Sep 14, 2018.

Home Alone: The Risks to Children’s Mental Health

Applications are open for MPhil and PhD!

By from News. Published on Sep 10, 2018.

Applications for October 2019

Prof Jeff Dalley and Prof Trevor Robbins, congratulations on your recent grant award!

By from News. Published on Sep 05, 2018.

Science to improve health and well-being.

Celebrating theses!

By from News. Published on Aug 31, 2018.

Significantly increases the number of theses stored in the University repository.

Prof Trevor Robbins has been named a winner of the 2018 BPS Lifetime Achievement Award.

By from News. Published on Aug 22, 2018.

Award to Prof. Trevor, one of the most cited neuroscientists in the world.

Cameron Brick and Sander van der Linden on how psychologists can help solve the largest social dilemma in history.

By from News. Published on Aug 07, 2018.

A discussion of climate change as a stubborn problem. "Yawning at the apocalypse"

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome more likely to have a child with autism

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 01, 2018.

PCOS affects about one in ten women and is caused by elevated levels of the hormone testosterone. It is associated with fluid-filled sacs (called follicles) in the ovaries, and with symptoms such as delayed onset of puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, and excess bodily hair.

Autism is a condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication alongside unusually narrow interests, a strong preference for predictability, and difficulties adjusting to unexpected change. Some autistic people also have learning difficulties and delayed language, and many have sensory hyper-sensitivity. The signs of autism are evident in childhood even if the diagnosis is not made until later, and occurs in about 1% of the population.

The research team previously published work in 2015 which showed that before they are born, autistic children have elevated levels of ‘sex steroid’ hormones (including testosterone) which ‘masculinise’ the baby’s body and brain. The discovery that prenatal sex steroid hormones are involved in the development of autism is one possible explanation for why autism is diagnosed more often in boys.

The scientists wondered where these elevated sex steroid hormones were coming from, one possible source being the mother. If she had higher levels of testosterone than usual, as is the case in women with PCOS, then some of the hormone might cross the placenta during pregnancy, exposing her unborn baby to more of this hormone, and changing the baby’s brain development.

Using anonymous data from a large database of GP health records, the study looked at 8,588 women with PCOS and their first-born children, compared to a group of 41,127 women without PCOS. The team found that, even after taking into account other factors (like maternal mental health problems or complications during pregnancy), women with PCOS had a 2.3% chance of having an autistic child, compared with the 1.7% chance for mothers without PCOS. 

The team stressed that the likelihood of having an autistic child is still very low, even among women with PCOS – but finding this link provides an important clue in understanding one of the multiple causal factors in autism.

The team presented their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research in 2016, and their findings were replicated in a Swedish study in the same year, adding to the reliability of the result.

The team also conducted two other studies using the same data and found that autistic women were more likely to have PCOS, and women with PCOS were more likely to have autism themselves. This strongly suggests that these two conditions are linked, probably because they both share elevated sex steroid hormone levels.

Adriana Cherskov, the Master’s student who analysed the data, and who is now studying medicine in the US, said: “This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research, said: “This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child’s later behaviour and mind. These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function.”

Dr Carrie Allison who co-supervised the research, said: “We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies. The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won’t have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information.”

Dr Rupert Payne from the University of Bristol Centre for Academic Primary Care, a GP and the expert on the team in using GP health record data for this type of research, said: “Autism can have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing, and on their parents, and many autistic people have significant health, social care and educational special needs. This is an important step in trying to understand what causes autism. It is also an excellent example of the value of using anonymous routine healthcare data to answer vital medical research questions.”

The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, Wellcome, a Gates Cambridge Trust Scholarship and Rouse Ball/Eddington Research Fund Award at Trinity College.

Reference
Cherskov, A., Pohl, A Allison, C, Zhang, H, Payne, R, and Baron-Cohen, S. Polycystic ovary syndrome and autism: A test of the prenatal sex steroid theory. Translational Psychiatry; 1 Aug 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41398-018-0186-7 

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely than other women to have an autistic child, according to an analysis of NHS data carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre. The research is published today in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone
Adriana Cherskov
In His Own World

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Impressive Gold award to the Department of Psychology

By from News. Published on Jun 28, 2018.

Congratulations to all staffs and students!

Cambridge Postgraduate Open Day on Friday 2 November 2018.

By from News. Published on Jun 19, 2018.

Professor Barry Everitt President-Elect of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN).

By from News. Published on Jun 13, 2018.

Professor Barry Everitt President-Elect of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN).

Mother’s attitude towards baby during pregnancy may have implications for child’s development

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 12, 2018.

Researchers at the Centre for Family Research carried out a meta-analysis, reviewing all published studies in the field, in an attempt to demonstrate conclusively whether there was a link with the way parents think about their child during pregnancy and their behaviour towards them postnatally.

The results of their work, which draws data from 14 studies involving 1,862 mothers and fathers, are published in the journal Developmental Review.

Studies included in the meta-analysis examined parents’ thoughts and feelings about their child during pregnancy through interviews and questionnaires. For example, in interviews expectant parents were considered to have a ‘balanced’ representation of their child if they showed positive anticipation of their relationship with the child or showed ‘mind-mindedness’ – a propensity to see their child as an individual, with its own thoughts and feelings. This was contrasted by parents who had a ‘distorted’ representation of their child, with a narrow, idealised description of their child, and incomplete or inconsistent descriptions of them.

Once the child had been born, researchers in these studies would observe the interactions between parent and child. One measure they were looking for was ‘sensitivity’ – the ability to notice, interpret and respond in a  timely and appropriate manner to children’s signals, for example if the baby was upset.  

Combining the results from all 14 studies, the Cambridge team showed a modest association between positive thoughts and feelings about the infant during pregnancy and later interaction with the infant, but only in mothers.

“Studies have shown that parent-child interaction is crucial for a child’s development and learning, so we wanted to understand if there were prenatal signs that might predict a parent’s behaviour,” says Dr Sarah Foley, the study’s first author, who carried out the research as part of her PhD.

“Although we found a relationship between a mother’s attitude towards her baby during pregnancy and her later interactions, this link was only modest. This suggests it is likely to be a part of the jigsaw, rather than the whole story.”

Research has also shown that increased awareness of the baby during pregnancy is associated with healthy behaviours during pregnancy, such as giving up smoking or attending antenatal appointments.

While more work is needed to determine what form such interventions might take, options might include the midwife encouraging the mother to think about what her baby may be like, or asking the mother to imagine activities they think she and her baby might like to do together.

“This is a relatively new area of research, but could have important implications for children’s development,” adds Dr Foley. “We need more research in this area, but hope it will inform new interventions that could help new mothers engage more with their children.”

Dr Foley says there may be a number of factors that contribute to low levels of attachment with the baby during pregnancy. These include: previous experience of miscarriage, depression or anxiety, a mother’s relationship with her own parents, or cultures in which focusing on the baby is considered inappropriate. However, she says, the paucity of evidence means it is difficult to determine which of these factors would impact on prenatal thoughts about the infant, which might in turn influence the quality of later interaction with the infant.

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Reference
Foley, S and Hughes, C. Great expectations? Do mothers’ and fathers’ prenatal thoughts and feelings about the infant predict parent-infant interaction quality? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Review; June 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.dr.2018.03.007

Mothers who ‘connect’ with their baby during pregnancy are more likely to interact in a more positive way with their infant after it is born, according to a study carried out at the University of Cambridge. Interaction is important for helping infants learn and develop.

Although we found a relationship between a mother’s attitude towards her baby during pregnancy and her later interactions, this link was only modest. This suggests it is likely to be a part of the jigsaw, rather than the whole story
Sarah Foley
Baby shoes (cropped)
Researcher Profile: Dr Sarah Foley

Sarah and her cousin's baby, Sophia Murphy

“Working with children throws up lots of unexpected and fun moments,” says Dr Sarah Foley. “One day you’re being splashed while standing on a toilet-seat filming bath-times, the next you’re catching YouTube-worthy vomiting action shots and being used as a climbing frame by one child to ensure you can film another!”

Sarah has just completed an ESRC-funded PhD at the Centre for Family Research, working with Professor Claire Hughes. She has spent several years at Cambridge now, having completed her undergraduate degree in Social and Political Sciences at St Catharine’s College. The Centre, she says, “is an incredibly stimulating academic environment with immense support and lively discussions over cake on a Friday morning!”

Her doctoral research looked at expectant mothers’ and fathers’ thoughts and feelings in the last trimester of pregnancy as predictors of their adjustment to parenthood and subsequent parenting over the first two years of life. “Despite an increase in fathers’ involvement in childcare, the majority of research remains focused on mothers,” she says.

Her current research involves, in part, looking at parents’ expectations of their roles and division of childcare, and the consequences when these expectations are not met. This is timely in light of recent changes to parental leave in the UK and societal shifts in notions of the involved father, she says.

Sarah’s research is part of the ESRC-funded New Fathers and Mothers Study, a longitudinal study of 200 first time parents from Cambridge, and 200 from the Netherlands and New York.

“The children in the study are turning three this year and we’re busy seeing how they are getting on at nursery,” she explains. “This typically involves me getting down on the floor and testing the children’s social understanding and thinking skills through a variety of fun tasks.”

She hopes that her research will lead to changes in antenatal education and early parent support that promote discussion of parents’ thoughts and feelings about parenthood and their future infant. In November 2017, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, she ran a free ante-natal class for new parents that discussed the realities of parenthood, the importance of self-care and simple parenting tips rather than simply focusing on birth plans. 

“The journey through parenthood is filled with joy, but also elements of confusion, and sometimes pain. Crucially, parents should not feel alone and I hope that through greater dissemination of my research findings, through classes or perhaps a book or an app, we can support new parents and encourage more ‘honest conversations’ about parenthood.” 

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The Moustachio Quartet ~ An Exploration of Memory

By from News. Published on Jun 11, 2018.

Clive Wilkins talks to Nicky Clayton. Memory and The Moustachio Quartet.

Dr Sander Van Der Linden and BBC Tomorrow’s World Series

By from News. Published on Jun 06, 2018.

A global values quiz.

‘Cognitive flexibility’ associated with voting attitudes in EU Referendum, study finds

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 16, 2018.

A new study suggests that the way our brains process everyday information helps to shape our ideological beliefs and political decision-making – including attitudes towards the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge combined objective cognitive tests with questionnaires designed to gauge social and political attitudes in a sample of over 300 UK citizens, to investigate the psychological underpinnings of nationalistic attitudes.

The study examined differences in “cold cognition”: emotionally-neutral decision making based on attention and recall (as opposed to “hot cognition”, which is influenced by emotion).

Researchers measured the extent to which an individual displays a more “flexible” or more “persistent” cognitive style. Cognitive flexibility is characterised by adapting with greater ease to change, while cognitive persistence reflects a preference for stability through adherence to more defined information categories.

The findings demonstrate that those who displayed higher cognitive flexibility were less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic ideological stances. They were also more likely to support remaining in the EU as well as immigration and free movement of labour. Cognitive persistence was associated with more conservative and nationalistic attitudes, which in turn predicted support for leaving the EU.

The research was conducted by scientists from the University’s Department of Psychology and is published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Voting is often thought to be an emotional decision. People describe ‘voting with their heart’ or having a gut reaction to particular politicians,” said Leor Zmigrod, lead researcher and Gates Cambridge Scholar.

“While emotion is clearly integral to political decision-making, our research suggests that non-emotional cognitive information processing styles, such as adaptability to change, also play a key role in shaping ideological behavior and identity.”

“By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes,” she said.

All the study’s 332 participants were cognitively healthy adults who completed two classic evaluations of cognitive flexibility: a card-sorting task involving shifting categorisation by shape and colour, and a neutral word association task.

Participants also consented to providing responses to standardized questions on topics such as attitudes towards immigration and citizenship, and personal attachment to the UK. All data were anonymised and controlled for a number of factors including age and education.

With her Cambridge colleagues Dr Jason Rentfrow and Prof Trevor Robbins, Zmigrod constructed rigorous statistical models that revealed a tendency towards cognitive flexibility in the tests predicted ideological orientations that were less authoritarian, nationalistic, and conservative. This in turn predicted reduced support for Brexit.

“Our findings suggest that persistent adherence to a set of rules in a basic card-sorting game is associated with support for traditional social values and conservative political attitudes,” said Rentfrow. 

The researchers also found that participants who reported greater reliance on routines and traditions in their daily lives, and who strongly favored certainty over uncertainty, were more likely to prefer the traditionalism and perceived stability offered by nationalistic, authoritarian, and conservative ideologies. Increased dependence on daily routines was also related to greater support for Brexit and immigration control.

Participants were asked about their agreement with post-Referendum political attitudes. Those who supported the statement “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” and opposed the statement “the Government has a right to remain in the EU if the costs are too high” exhibited a tendency towards cognitive persistence.

“The results suggest that psychological preferences for stability and consistency may translate into attitudes that favour uniformity and a more defined national identity,” said Zmigrod.

The researchers point out that the sample size is limited, and the correlations – while strong – are on general trends in the data. “Ideologies such as nationalism are highly complex constructs, and there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do,” added Zmigrod.

“In today’s politically-polarised climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”

Latest research combining social and political surveys with objective cognitive testing suggests that “cognitive flexibility” contributes to formation of ideology. The study finds correlations between cognitive thinking styles and support for Brexit.

By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes
Leor Zmigrod
Brexit March

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Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 23, 2018.

The findings of the study, based on the Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher, help solve a debate about whether children learning to use tools are genuinely learning about physical causation or are just driven by what action previously led to a treat.

Learning about causality – about the physical rules that govern the world around us – is a crucial part of our cognitive development. From our observations and the outcome of our own actions, we build an idea – a model – of which tools are functional for particular jobs, and which are not.

However, the information we receive isn’t always as straightforward as it should be. Sometimes outside influences mean that things that should work, don’t. Similarly, sometimes things that shouldn’t work, do.

Dr Lucy Cheke from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge says: “Imagine a situation where someone is learning about hammers. There are two hammers that they are trying out – a metal one and an inflatable one. Normally, the metal hammer would successfully drive a nail into a plank of wood, while the inflatable hammer would bounce off harmlessly.

“But what if your only experience of these two hammers was trying to use the metal hammer and missing the nail, but using the inflatable hammer to successfully push the nail into a large pre-drilled hole? If you’re then presented with another nail, which tool would you choose to use? The answer depends on what type of information you have taken from your learning experience.”

In this situation, explains, Cheke, a learner concerned with the outcome (a ‘reward’ learner) would learn that the inflatable hammer was the successful tool and opt to use it for later hammering. However, a learner concerned with physical forces (a ‘functionality’ learner) would learn that the metal hammer produced a percussive force, albeit in the wrong place, and that the inflatable hammer did not, and would therefore opt for the metal hammer.

Now, in a study published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, Dr Cheke and colleagues investigated what kind of information children extract from situations where the relevant physical characteristics of a potential tool are observable, but often at odds with whether the use of that tool in practice achieved the desired goal.

The researchers presented children aged 4-11 with a task through which they must retrieve a floating token to earn sticker rewards. Each time, the children were presented with a container of water and a set of tools to use to raise the level. This experiment is based on one of the most famous Aesop’s fables, where a thirty crow drops stones into a pitcher to get to the water.

In this test, some of the tools were ‘functional’ and some ‘non-functional’. Functional tools were those that, if dropped into a standard container, would sink, raising the water level and bringing the token within reach; non-functional tools were those that would not do so, for example because they floated.

However, sometimes the children used functional tools to attempt to raise the level in a leaking container – in this context, the water would never rise high enough to bring the token within reach, no matter how functional the tool used.

At other times, the children were successful in retrieving the reward despite using a non-functional tool; for example, when using a water container that self-fills through an inlet pipe, it doesn’t matter whether the tool is functional as the water is rising anyway.

After these learning sessions, the researchers presented the children with a ‘standard’ water container and a series of choices between different tools. From the pattern of these choices the researchers could calculate what type of information was most influential on children’s decision-making: reward or function. 

“A child doesn’t have to know the precise rules of physics that allow a tool to work to have a feeling of whether or not it should work,” says Elsa Loissel, co-first author of the study. “So, we can look at whether a child’s decision making is guided by principles of physics without requiring them to explicitly understand the physics itself.

“We expected older children, who might have a rudimentary understanding of physical forces, to choose according to function, while younger children would be expected to use the simpler learning approach and base their decisions on what had been previously rewarded,” adds co-first author Dr Cheke. “But this wasn’t what we found.”

Instead, the researchers showed that information about reward was never a reliable predictor of children’s choices. Instead, the influence of functionality information increased with age – by the age of seven, this was the dominant influence in their decision making.

“This suggests that, remarkably, children begin to emphasise information about physics over information about previous rewards from as young as seven years of age, even when these two types of information are in direct conflict.”

This research was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme.

Reference
Elsa Loissel, Lucy Cheke & Nicola Clayton. Exploring the Relative Contributions of Reward-History and Functionality Information to Children’s Acquisition of The Aesop’s Fable Task. PLOS ONE; 23 Feb 2018; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0193264

Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

Remarkably, children begin to emphasise information about physics over information about previous rewards from as young as seven years of age, even when these two types of information are in direct conflict
Lucy Cheke
Dominoes 3

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Fake news ‘vaccine’: online game may ‘inoculate’ by simulating propaganda tactics

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 20, 2018.

A new online game puts players in the shoes of an aspiring propagandist to give the public a taste of the techniques and motivations behind the spread of disinformation – potentially “inoculating” them against the influence of so-called fake news in the process.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have already shown that briefly exposing people to tactics used by fake news producers can act as a “psychological vaccine” against bogus anti-science campaigns.

While the previous study focused on disinformation about climate science, the new online game is an experiment in providing “general immunity” against the wide range of fake news that has infected public debate.

The game encourages players to stoke anger, mistrust and fear in the public by manipulating digital news and social media within the simulation. 

Players build audiences for their fake news sites by publishing polarising falsehoods, deploying twitter bots, photo-shopping evidence, and inciting conspiracy theories in the wake of public tragedy – all while maintaining a “credibility score” to remain as persuasive as possible.

A pilot study conducted with teenagers in a Dutch high school used an early paper-and-pen trial of the game, and showed the perceived “reliability” of fake news to be diminished in those that played compared to a control group. 

The research and education project, a collaboration between Cambridge researchers and Dutch media collective DROG, is launching an English version of the game online today at www.fakenewsgame.org.

The psychological theory behind the research is called “inoculation”:

“A biological vaccine administers a small dose of the disease to build immunity. Similarly, inoculation theory suggests that exposure to a weak or demystified version of an argument makes it easier to refute when confronted with more persuasive claims,” says Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of Cambridge University’s Social Decision-Making Lab

“If you know what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who is actively trying to deceive you, it should increase your ability to spot and resist the techniques of deceit. We want to help grow ‘mental antibodies’ that can provide some immunity against the rapid spread of misinformation.”

Based in part on existing studies of online propaganda, and taking cues from actual conspiracy theories about organisations such as the United Nations, the game is set to be translated for countries such as Ukraine, where disinformation casts a heavy shadow.

There are also plans to adapt the framework of the game for anti-radicalisation purposes, as many of the same manipulation techniques – using false information to provoke intense emotions, for example – are commonly deployed by recruiters for religious extremist groups.

“You don’t have to be a master spin doctor to create effective disinformation. Anyone can start a site and artificially amplify it through twitter bots, for example. But recognising and resisting fake news doesn’t require a PhD in media studies either,” says Jon Roozenbeek, a researcher from Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies and one of the game’s designers.

“We aren’t trying to drastically change behavior, but instead trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption.”

Roozenbeek points out that some efforts to combat fake news are seen as ideologically charged. “The framework of our game allows players to lean towards the left or right of the political spectrum. It’s the experience of misleading through news that counts,” he says.

The pilot study in the Netherlands using a paper version of the game involved 95 students with an average age of 16, randomly divided into treatment and control.

This version of the game focused on the refugee crisis, and all participants were randomly presented with fabricated news articles on the topic at the end of the experiment.

The treatment group were assigned roles – alarmist, denier, conspiracy theorist or clickbait monger – and tasked with distorting a government fact sheet on asylum seekers using a set of cards outlining common propaganda tactics consistent with their role.    

They found fake news to be significantly less reliable than the control group, who had not produced their own fake article. Researchers describe the results of this small study as limited but promising. The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Risk Research.

The team are aiming to take their “fake news vaccine” trials to the next level with today’s launch of the online game.

With content written mostly by the Cambridge researchers along with Ruurd Oosterwoud, founder of DROG, the game only takes a few minutes to complete. The hope is that players will then share it to help create a large anonymous dataset of journeys through the game.  

The researchers can then use this data to refine techniques for increasing media literacy and fake news resilience in a ‘post-truth’ world. “We try to let players experience what it is like to create a filter bubble so they are more likely to realise they may be living in one,” adds van der Linden.

A new experiment, launching today online, aims to help ‘inoculate’ against disinformation by providing a small dose of perspective from a “fake news tycoon”. A pilot study has shown some early success in building resistance to fake news among teenagers.   

We try to let players experience what it is like to create a filter bubble so they are more likely to realise they may be living in one
Sander van der Linden
A screen shot of the Fake News Game on a smart phone.

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Opinion: We're hardwired to look away when we see someone in trouble

By ts657 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 07, 2018.

Bystander syndrome

It has become impossible to ignore the alarming extent of sexual harassment and violence in our communities, particularly against women

For example, 25% of female students report having been sexually assaulted (NUS, 2011).

In response to this widespread issue, the bystander Intervention Initiative was developed by the University of the West of England upon receipt of a grant from Public Health England, a telling indicator that the scale of sexual violence is now being seen as a public health issue.

Now being trialled in seven Cambridge Colleges, the initiative is an eight-session course designed to train those who may witness a problem situation (i.e., ‘bystanders’) to act as prosocial citizens and to help prevent harassment.

The program addresses our culture’s common attitudes and norms that are part of the problem (such as victim blaming and gender stereotypes). One of the key objectives of the course is to identify and challenge our common barriers to intervening when we witness a problem situation arising.

What stops us from stepping in?

While many people acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and violence, we often do not intervene, despite our core belief that it is wrong. Understanding barriers to action is the first step to overcoming them.

In one scenario I discuss as a facilitator for the programme, we imagine a first-year undergraduate student.  She is bright and sociable.  Her first class is in physics, and the lecturer is very difficult to understand.  During the lecture she begins to panic, thinking to herself: “What have I got myself into?!  I don’t belong here in University! I’m going to fail!”

She notices that most people appear to understand the material very well, nodding their heads, and seldom asking questions.  After the lecture, she approaches several students for help.  To her surprise, they confess that they, too, understood nothing.

The same applies to many situations, including sexual harassment; we might all register an act of harassment taking place, but group inaction reinforces a false social norm for the perpetrator’s action, which becomes increasingly difficult to challenge.  

The example with the student also illustrates an effective way to combat a pluralistic ignorance that leads a bystander to wrongly conclude that they are in the minority when thinking something is wrong. First identify the problem; then reach out to another person and, finally, ask questions (which you may have incorrectly thought were ‘stupid’).  

Now imagine a girl at a party when a man aggressively puts his arm around her waist – she cries out, ‘Leave me alone!’  What do you do?  The situation may seem confusing.  You might think to yourself that maybe they are dating and just having a tiff – but that’s irrelevant to whether or not it’s OK, right? It happens again before you have a chance to do anything.

Now fear of retaliation is not always imagined – sometimes it’s better to leave and report it, or ask friends for help in stepping in.

Be the first to speak up

But there are several barriers to even taking that step. Diffusion of responsibility is a tendency for people to feel less responsible when others are present. Breaking the norm is difficult. Inaction can be justified: ‘There are so many people here, I’m only one person, why should it be my job to intervene?’  The trouble is that most people tend to feel this way when in large groups. One consequence of this diffusion of responsibility is the ‘Bystander Effect’ – the decreased likelihood of someone intervening when more people are watching. 

And when a perpetrator witnesses no one in a room of 50 people saying anything about what they are doing, false consensus can encourage them to believe that the majority agree their actions are acceptable.

Say something.  Anything.  Simply ask what is going on, or state that something makes you feel uncomfortable. Or just ask a question to disrupt the situation.

When you step in, you’ll find others who feel and think the same as you do. Step up and you can encourage others to do the same. Do this enough times, and you begin to challenge a destructive norm and create a new culture of zero tolerance.

Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk.

Psychologist Dr Philippe Gilchrist outlines three simple steps to overcoming 'bystander syndrome'

While many people acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and violence, we often do not intervene, despite our core belief that it is wrong. Understanding barriers to action is the first step to overcoming them

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Presenting facts as ‘consensus’ bridges conservative-liberal divide over climate change

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 11, 2017.

In the murk of post-truth public debate, facts can polarise. Scientific evidence triggers reaction and spin that ends up entrenching the attitudes of opposing political tribes.

Recent research suggests this phenomenon is actually stronger among the more educated, through what psychologists call 'motived reasoning': where data is rejected or twisted - consciously or otherwise - to prop up a particular worldview.

However, a new study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour finds that one type of fact can bridge the chasm between conservative and liberal, and pull people's opinions closer to the truth on one of the most polarising issues in US politics: climate change.

Previous research has broadly found US conservatives to be most sceptical of climate change. Yet by presenting a fact in the form of a consensus - "97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening" - researchers have now discovered that conservatives shift their perceptions significantly towards the scientific 'norm'.

In an experiment involving over 6,000 US citizens, psychologists found that introducing people to this consensus fact reduced polarisation between higher educated liberals and conservatives by roughly 50%, and increased conservative belief in a scientific accord on climate change by 20 percentage points.

Moreover, the latest research confirms the prior finding that climate change scepticism is indeed more deeply rooted among highly educated conservatives. Yet exposure to the simple fact of a scientific consensus neutralises the "negative interaction" between higher education and conservatism that strongly embeds these beliefs.

"The vast majority of people want to conform to societal standards, it's innate in us as a highly social species," says Dr Sander van der Linden, study lead author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

"People often misperceive social norms, and seek to adjust once they are exposed to evidence of a group consensus," he says, pointing to the example that college students always think their friends drink more than they actually do.

"Our findings suggest that presenting people with a social fact, a consensus of opinion among experts, rather than challenging them with blunt scientific data, encourages a shift towards mainstream scientific belief - particularly among conservatives."

For van der Linden and his co-authors Drs Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach from Yale and George Mason universities in the US, social facts such as demonstrating a consensus can act as a "gateway belief": allowing a gradual recalibration of private attitudes.

"Information that directly threatens people's worldview can cause them to react negatively and become further entrenched in their beliefs. This 'backfire effect' appears to be particularly strong among highly educated US conservatives when it comes to contested issues such as manmade climate change," says van der Linden.

"It is more acceptable for people to change their perceptions of what is normative in science and society. Previous research has shown that people will then adjust their core beliefs over time to match. This is a less threatening way to change attitudes, avoiding the 'backfire effect' that can occur when someone's worldview is directly challenged."

For the study, researchers conducted online surveys of 6,301 US citizens that adhered to nationally representative quotas of gender, age, education, ethnicity, region and political ideology.

The nature of the study was hidden by claims of testing random media messages, with the climate change perception tests sandwiched between questions on consumer technology and popular culture messaging.

Half the sample were randomly assigned to receive the 'treatment' of exposure to the fact of scientific consensus, while the other half, the control group, did not.

Researchers found that attitudes towards scientific belief on climate change among self-declared conservatives were, on average, 35 percentage points lower (64%) than the actual scientific consensus of 97%. Among liberals it was 20 percentage points lower.

They also found a small additional negative effect: when someone is highly educated and conservative they judge scientific agreement to be even lower.

However, once the treatment group were exposed to the 'social fact' of overwhelming scientific agreement, higher-educated conservatives shifted their perception of the scientific norm by 20 percentage points to 83% - almost in line with post-treatment liberals.

The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the truth on scientific agreement around manmade climate change.

"Scientists as a group are still viewed as trustworthy and non-partisan across the political spectrum in the US, despite frequent attempts to discredit their work through 'fake news' denunciations and underhand lobbying techniques deployed by some on the right," says van der Linden.

"Our study suggests that even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact. By presenting scientific facts in a socialised form, such as highlighting consensus, we can still shift opinion across political divides on some of the most pressing issues of our time."

New evidence shows that a ‘social fact’ highlighting expert consensus shifts perceptions across US political spectrum – particularly among highly educated conservatives. Facts that encourage agreement are a promising way of cutting through today’s ‘post-truth’ bluster, say psychologists.

Even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact
Sander van der Linden
Protester in Seattle, US

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Industrial Revolution: damaging psychological ‘imprint’ persists in today’s populations

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 10, 2017.

People living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation, according to a new study of almost 400,000 personality tests.

The findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of areas where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a “psychological adversity”. 

Researchers suggest this is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialisation compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions.

They argue that the damaging cognitive legacy of coal is “reinforced and amplified” by the more obvious economic consequences of high unemployment we see today. The study also found significantly lower life satisfaction in these areas.   

The UK findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are supported by a North American “robustness check”, with less detailed data from US demographics suggesting the same patterns of post-industrial personality traits. 

“Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history,” says co-author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

“Those who live in a post-industrial landscape still do so in the shadow of coal, internally as well as externally. This study is one of the first to show that the Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales.”

An international team of psychologists, including researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, University of Texas, University of Cambridge and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, used data collected from 381,916 people across England and Wales during 2009-2011 as part of the BBC Lab’s online Big Personality Test.

The team analysed test scores by looking at the “big five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The results were further dissected by characteristics such as altruism, self-discipline and anxiety. 

The data was also broken down by region and county, and compared with several other large-scale datasets including coalfield maps and a male occupation census of the early 19th century (collated through parish baptism records, where the father listed his job).

The team controlled for an extensive range of other possible influences – from competing economic factors in the 19th century and earlier, through to modern considerations of education, wealth and even climate.

However, they still found significant personality differences for those currently occupying areas where large numbers of men had been employed in coal-based industries from 1813 to 1820 – as the Industrial Revolution was peaking.

Neuroticism was, on average, 33% higher in these areas compared with the rest of the country. In the ‘big five’ model of personality, this translates as increased emotional instability, prone to feelings of worry or anger, as well as higher risk of common mental disorders such as depression and substance abuse.

In fact, in the further “sub-facet” analyses, these post-industrial areas scored 31% higher for tendencies toward both anxiety and depression.

Areas that ranked highest for neuroticism include Blaenau Gwent and Ceredigion in South Wales, and Hartlepool in England. 

Conscientiousness was, on average, 26% lower in former industrial areas. In the ‘big five’ model, this manifests as more disorderly and less goal-oriented behaviours – difficulty with planning and saving money. The underlying sub-facet of ‘order’ itself was 35% lower in these areas.

The lowest three areas for conscientiousness were all in Wales (Merthyr Tydfil, Ceredigion and Gwynedd), with English areas including Nottingham and Leicester.   

An assessment of life satisfaction was included in the BBC Lab questionnaire, which was an average of 29% lower in former industrial centres. 

While researchers say there will be many factors behind the correlation between personality traits and historic industrialisation, they offer two likely ones: migration and socialisation (learned behaviour).    

The people migrating into industrial areas were often doing so to find employment in the hope of escaping poverty and distressing situations of rural depression – those experiencing high levels of ‘psychological adversity’.

However, people that left these areas, often later on, were likely those with higher degrees of optimism and psychological resilience, say researchers.

This “selective influx and outflow” may have concentrated so-called ‘negative’ personality traits in industrial areas – traits that can be passed down generations through combinations of experience and genetics.

Migratory effects would have been exacerbated by the ‘socialisation’ of repetitive, dangerous and exhausting labour from childhood – reducing well-being and elevating stress – combined with harsh conditions of overcrowding and atrocious sanitation during the age of steam.

The study’s authors argue their findings have important implications for today’s policymakers looking at public health interventions.

“The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship – most prominently high unemployment. This is only likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations,” says co-author Michael Stuetzer from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Germany.   

“These regional personality levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions.”

The team note that, while they focused on the negative psychological imprint of coal, future research could examine possible long-term positive effects in these regions born of the same adversity – such as the solidarity and civic engagement witnessed in the labour movement.  

Study finds people in areas historically reliant on coal-based industries have more ‘negative’ personality traits. Psychologists suggest this cognitive die may well have been cast at the dawn of the industrial age.

The Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales
Jason Rentfrow
Industrial workplace

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Eye contact with your baby helps synchronise your brainwaves

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 29, 2017.

When a parent and infant interact, various aspects of their behaviour can synchronise, including their gaze, emotions and heartrate, but little is known about whether their brain activity also synchronises – and what the consequences of this might be.

Brainwaves reflect the group-level activity of millions of neurons and are involved in information transfer between brain regions. Previous studies have shown that when two adults are talking to each other, communication is more successful if their brainwaves are in synchrony.

Researchers at the Baby-LINC Lab at the University of Cambridge carried out a study to explore whether infants can synchronise their brainwaves to adults too – and whether eye contact might influence this. Their results are published today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team examined the brainwave patterns of 36 infants (17 in the first experiment and 19 in the second) using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures patterns of brain electrical activity via electrodes in a skull cap worn by the participants. They compared the infants’ brain activity to that of the adult who was singing nursery rhymes to the infant.

In the first of two experiments, the infant watched a video of an adult as she sang nursery rhymes. First, the adult – whose brainwave patterns had already been recorded – was looking directly at the infant. Then, she turned her head to avert her gaze, while still singing nursery rhymes. Finally, she turned her head away, but her eyes looked directly back at the infant.

As anticipated, the researchers found that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronised to the adults’ when the adult’s gaze met the infant’s, as compared to when her gaze was averted Interestingly, the greatest synchronising effect occurred when the adults’ head was turned away but her eyes still looked directly at the infant. The researchers say this may be because such a gaze appears highly deliberate, and so provides a stronger signal to the infant that the adult intends to communicate with her.

In the second experiment, a real adult replaced the video. She only looked either directly at the infant or averted her gaze while singing nursery rhymes. This time, however, her brainwaves could be monitored live to see whether her brainwave patterns were being influenced by the infant’s as well as the other way round.

This time, both infants and adults became more synchronised to each other’s brain activity when mutual eye contact was established. This occurred even though the adult could see the infant at all times, and infants were equally interested in looking at the adult even when she looked away. The researchers say that this shows that brainwave synchronisation isn’t just due to seeing a face or finding something interesting, but about sharing an intention to communicate.

To measure infants’ intention to communicate, the researcher measured how many ‘vocalisations’ infants made to the experimenter. As predicted, infants made a greater effort to communicate, making more ‘vocalisations’, when the adult made direct eye contact – and individual infants who made longer vocalisations also had higher brainwave synchrony with the adult.

Dr Victoria Leong, lead author on the study said: “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other.  We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

Dr Sam Wass, last author on the study, said: “We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronise their brains to someone else, just as adults can. And we were also trying to figure out what gives rise to the synchrony.

“Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalisations may both, somehow, play a role. But the brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales – of three to nine oscillations per second – that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalisations create it.”

This research was supported by an ESRC Transformative Research Grant to Dr Leong and Dr Wass.

Reference
Leong, V et al. Speaker gaze increases infant-adult connectivity. PNAS; 28 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.1101/108878

Making eye contact with an infant makes adults’ and babies’ brainwaves ‘get in sync’ with each other – which is likely to support communication and learning – according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other
Victoria Leong
Lucy Kivlin and her baby Ginny
Researcher profile: Dr Victoria Leong

Dr Victoria Leong is an Affiliated Lecturer at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, and also an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research aims to understand how parents and infants communicate and learn from each other, and the brain mechanisms that help them to interact effectively as social partners.

“The Baby-LINC lab is designed to look like a home living room so that mothers and babies feel comfortable,” she says.  In the lab, they use a wireless EEG system to measure infants’ brain activity, which means that babies don’t have to be tethered to a computer and we can conduct recordings for longer periods of time. “This is invaluable if the baby needs a nap or a nappy change in-between doing our tasks!”

Dr Leong says she is passionate about “real-world neuroscience”. In other words, “understanding and not ignoring the very real – and often very messy – human social contexts that infiltrate brain processes”. This means that in addition to world class facilities and methods, the ability to collect robust data also depends on keeping the infants relaxed and happy. “Many a tantrum can be averted by the judicious and timely application of large soapy bubbles and rice cakes. The ability to blow large charming bubbles thereafter became a key criteria for recruiting research assistants!”

The research project came about “over a cup of tea [with Sam Wass] and a notepad to scratch out some frankly outlandish ideas about brain-to-brain synchrony”. They received £3,995 with the help of Cambridge Neuroscience and Cambridge Language Sciences for a pilot project and within a year went on to secure an ESRC Transformative Research Grant, which allowed them to significantly scale-up research operations, and to build the first mother-infant EEG hyperscanning facility in the UK (the Baby-LINC Lab).

“Cambridge is one of probably only a handful of highly-creative research environments in the world where young, untested post-doctoral researchers can organically come together, develop ambitious ideas, and have the support to try these out,” she says. “I am very proud of our humble beginnings, because they remind me that even a small handful of resources, wisely invested with hard work, can grow into world-class research.”

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Global Alliance approves five joint research projects

By ag236 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 13, 2017.

The Global Alliance was formed in 2016 as a tripartite agreement between University of California, Berkeley, the University of Cambridge, and National University of Singapore in order to develop innovative research across the three universities to address research questions that could not be answered by one institution alone. There are three themes within the Global Alliance: Precision Medicine, Cities, and Smart Systems.

Following a second funding call in May 2017, the Management Selection Committee has approved funding of the following five collaborative research projects:

  • "Opportunities for ecological adaptation to flood hazards in major global cities: London, Singapore and San Francisco" (Principal Investigator: Professor Thomas Spencer)
  • "Machine learning tools for personalised diagnosis in dementia"  (Principal Investigator: Professor Zoe Kourtzi)
  • "Healthy living in cities: my Personal Exposure Quality (MyPEQ)" (Principal investigator: Professor Rajasekhar Balasubramanian)
  • "Automating Approaches for Clinical Genome Interpretation" (Principal Investigator: Professor Steven  Brenner)
  • "Skin Deformation Assay Platforms for Pathogen- and Patient-Specific Diagnostics and Drug Development" (Principal Investigator: Dr Katherine Brown)

The three universities are delighted to approve these collaborative projects which will build upon the combined strengths of the universities, as well as their distinctive regional insights, to develop unique solutions to global problems.

Professor Paul Alivisatos, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, University of California, Berkeley

Professor Chris Abell, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Cambridge

Professor Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost Designate, National University of Singapore

UC Berkeley, the University of Cambridge and the National University of Singapore to support collaborative projects in themes including Precision Medicine, Cities and Smart Systems.

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