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Melisa Basol Gates Profile, Inoculating Against Fake News

By from News. Published on Dec 06, 2018.

Nicky Clayton and Mark Baldwin discuss ten years of working together at the Royal Society on 6th of December.

By from News. Published on Dec 05, 2018.

FREE ADMISSION - 6 DECEMBER 2018 (6:30PM) at the Royal Society.

Prof Nicola Clayton and Mark Baldwin exploring collaborations between the arts and science

By from News. Published on Nov 28, 2018.

When science meets dance: Prof Nicola Clayton FRS in conversation with Mark Baldwin OBE

How could multilingualism benefit India’s poorest schoolchildren?

By sjr81 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 20, 2018.

The crowded and bustling streets of Delhi teem with life. Stop to listen and, above the din of rickshaws, taxis and buses, you’ll hear a multitude of languages, as more than 20 million men, women and children go about their daily lives.

Many were born and raised there, and many millions more have made India’s capital their home, having moved from surrounding neighbourhoods, cities and states or across the country, often in search of a better job, a better home and a better life.

Some arrive speaking fluent Hindi, the dominant language in Delhi (and the official language of government), but many arrive speaking any number of India’s 22 officially recognised languages, let alone the hundreds of regional and tribal languages in a country of more than 1.3 billion people.

Around 950 miles south of Delhi lies Hyderabad, where more than 70% of its seven million people speak Telugu. Meanwhile, in Bihar, in the northeast of India, Urdu has replaced Hindi as the dominant language across this poor and populous state of more than 100 million people.

What links Delhi, Hyderabad and Bihar is a four-year project, Multilingualism and multiliteracy: raising learning outcomes in challenging contexts in primary schools across India, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development. Led by Professor Ianthi Tsimpli, from the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, the project involves Dr Dénes Szucs from the Department of Psychology, plus researchers from the University of Reading and project partners in Karnataka, Hyderabad and New Delhi.

The overriding aim of the project is to find out why in a country where multilingualism is so common (more than 255 million people in India speak at least two languages, and nearly 90 million speak three or more languages), the benefits and advantages of speaking more than one language, observed in Europe for instance, do not apply to many of India’s schoolchildren.

For Tsimpli, the answers to this conundrum may lie within the dataset she and her colleagues are compiling with the help of more than 1,000 primary-age schoolchildren across Delhi, Hyderabad and Bihar.

“Each year across India, 600,000 children are tested, and year after year more than half of children in Standard 5 [ten-year-olds] cannot read a Standard 2 [seven-year-olds] task fluently, and nearly half of them could not solve a Standard 2 subtraction task,” says Tsimpli, who co-leads Cambridge Language Sciences, the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Centre that brings together researchers from different fields to tackle ‘grand challenges’ where language is a factor.

“Low literacy and numeracy limit other important capabilities, including critical thinking and problem solving. Low educational achievement can lead to many dropping out of school – a problem disproportionately affecting female students. And the gap between state schools and private schools increases every year.”

She and colleagues are looking at whether these low learning outcomes could be a by-product of an Indian school system whereby the language that children are taught in often differs from the language used at home.

“We are looking at eight to 11-year-old schoolchildren in rural and urban areas,” she explains. “Within those urban areas we make the distinction between boys and girls living in slum and non-slum areas.

“Many children are internal migrants who move from remote, rural areas to urban areas. They are so poor they have to live in slums and, as a result of migration, these children may speak languages that are different to the regional language.

“By looking at the mismatch between home and school languages, and by using tests and other socio-economic and educational variables, we try to find out whether these children are advantaged or disadvantaged in literacy, numeracy, mathematical reasoning, problem solving and cognitive skills.”

Two years into the four-year project, the team has discovered considerable variation in the provision of education across government schools in the three areas, with different teaching practices and standards.

Having tested all 1,000 children, they will now embark on retesting them, looking not only at test results, but also allowing for other variables such as the standard of schooling, the environment and the teaching practices themselves. It’s possible that one of the causes of low performance is the lack of pupil-centred teaching methods; instead, the teacher dominates and there is little room for independent learning.

Although the findings are at a preliminary stage, Tsimpli and her team have found that the medium of instruction used in schools, especially English, may hold back those children who have little familiarity with, or exposure to,the language before starting school and outside of school life.

“Most of the evidence from this and other projects shows that English instruction in very disadvantaged areas might not be the best way to start, at least in the first three years [Standards 1 to 3] of primary,” says Tsimpli.

“What we would recommend for everyone, not just low socio-economic status children, would be to start learning in the language they feel comfortable learning in. The medium of instruction should reflect the strengths of the child. When it does, that child will learn better. English can still be used, but perhaps not as the medium of instruction in primary schools. It could, for example, be one of the subjects that are being taught alongside other subjects, starting perhaps from the third year of primary school.

“We are not suggesting that English be withdrawn – that ship has sailed – but we perhaps have to think more about learner needs. There is perhaps too much uniformity in teaching and less tailoring to the children’s language abilities and needs.”

While the preliminary results show that there is no difference in general intelligence among boys and girls from slum versus urban poor backgrounds, a surprising finding has been that children from slum backgrounds in Delhi do not seem to lag behind other children from other urban poor backgrounds – and in some cases perform better (e.g. in numeracy and literacy tasks).

This unexpected finding may be down to the life experiences of children growing up in slums, where they are likely to mature faster and come into closer contact with the numeracy skills essential for day-to-day survival.

Tsimpli adds that, despite the project only being at its midpoint, it has already caught the attention of government ministers, including Delhi’s Minister for Education, who is keen to use their findings to inform and adjust school policy in India’s capital city and the wider state.

“Delhi may be keen to adopt root-and-branch reform if our findings support it,” explains Tsimpli. “They are as keen as us to understand how the challenging context of deprivation can be attenuated when focusing on the languages children learn and use while at school.

“Our findings don’t mean that you’re doomed if you’re poor. It may be that these low learning outcomes are because of the way education is provided in India, with a huge focus on Hindi and English as the mediums of instruction, to the potential detriment of children unfamiliar with those languages.

“Language is central to the way knowledge is transferred – so the medium of instruction is obviously hugely influential. We hope to be able to show that problem solving, numeracy and literacy can and do improve in children who are educated in a language of instruction that they know. The trick may be to bridge school skills with life skills and make use of the richness of a child’s life experience to help them learn in the most effective ways possible.”

Inset image: credit Ianthi Tsimpli.

Read more about our research on the topic of children in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

 

Multilingualism is the norm in India. But rather than enjoying the cognitive and learning advantages seen in multilingual children in the Global North, Indian children show low levels of learning basic school skills. Professor Ianthi Tsimpli is trying to disentangle the causes of this paradox.

The trick may be to bridge school skills with life skills and make use of the richness of a child’s life experience to help them learn in the most effective ways possible
Ianthi Tsimpli
One of the partner schools
Research partnership

Co-Investigators (India)
National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Karnataka (Prof. Suvarna Alladi); The English & Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad (Dr Lina Mukhopadhyay); Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (Prof. Minati Panda)

Co-Investigators (UK)
University of Cambridge (Dr Dénes Szucs); University of Reading (Prof. Theodore Marinis and Prof. Jeanine Treffers-Daller)

Project partners
British Council, India
Language and Learning Foundation (India)
Bilingualism Matters (UK)
Quest for Learning (UK)
The Communication Trust (UK)

Funding
ESRC Research Grant Number:  ES/N010345/1

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Inside the mind of a young person

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 15, 2018.

Read more here.

Our brains begin to form in the womb but continue to take shape into adolescence. In a series of articles, we look at how the latest research could help us support children’s development, helping them overcome learning disorders and build resilience against future mental health problems.

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Prestigious WhatsApp Research Award for Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

By from News. Published on Nov 13, 2018.

"The goal of these research awards is to facilitate high quality, external research on these topics by academics and experts."

Thank you for the amazing happy hour + bring and share

By from News. Published on Nov 12, 2018.

Our departmental happy hour + bring and share event was a success!

The British Psychological Society's Annual Conference 2019

By from News. Published on Nov 05, 2018.

Psychological Society’s Annual Conference 2019 to be held on 01-02 May at the Harrogate International Centre.

Spotlight on children

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 01, 2018.

The importance of supporting children to grow into happy, healthy and inquiring adults is abundantly clear. Physical and mental wellbeing in children is a foundation for a healthy and productive life.

And yet we live in a world where one in four of us will experience the isolating and traumatic effects of mental health disorders, three-quarters of which begin before the age of 18; children are still held back throughout life as a result of low levels of literacy and numeracy; and up to one billion young people worldwide are likely to be victims of violence this year.

Our researchers are studying all aspects of children, helping to understand how a child’s early experiences can shape their lifelong development. Today we launch both a Spotlight on children and the latest issue of the University’s Research Horizons magazine to showcase examples of this research.

We address some of the big questions, such as what are the origins of mental health and why are teenagers so vulnerable to mental disorders? We take a life course and multidisciplinary approach to the problem: from a child’s genes and clinical development in the womb, through the neuroscience and psychology of learning disorders, to psychiatric approaches aimed at understanding why some children are more at risk of developing mental health problems in later life and why some are resilient.

“We marvel at the brain’s complexity,” says Professor David Rowitch, who leads the Department of Paediatrics. “Across the University, no stone is left unturned in our attempts to better understand how to ensure healthy brain development and learning, as well as neurological and mental health, throughout life. We recognise how profoundly quality of life is affected. As this Spotlight focus will show, neurological and mental health has high priority both in basic research and clinical medicine, and in government policy.”

We also ask about life experiences. Tragically some children and their mothers are exposed to violence and drugs before they are even born, or grow up in communities entrenched in crime, and where healthcare systems are failing. Yet we know little about the effects of adverse environments – on people and on the stability of societies in which they become citizens. A pilot study to understand what it means to be a child of the city today is following 1,200 children in eight cities in all major regions of the Global south.

Professor Manuel Eisner, from the Institute of Criminology and who leads the study, explains: “By comparing a new generation from each city, we can build a scientific backbone for interventions to prevent violence against children as well as against their mothers, and support stakeholders to take wellbeing initiatives that work in different global contexts.” 

Education features prominently in our research. In India, for instance, researchers are working with local partners to ask whether low learning outcomes could be a by-product of an Indian school system in which the language that children are taught in school often differs to the language spoken at home. And in Cambridge, where the University of Cambridge Primary School is sponsored by the University to provide education for the local community in North West Cambridge, we examine how the School places research at its heart – in both informing education practice and in furthering research at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and elsewhere.

What about the role of parents? It’s clear that our mothers, fathers and families affect our lives and the people we become, but are we focusing too much on the ‘skill’ of parenting and losing sight of things that matter more – like how we talk to and play with children? Researchers are piecing together the complex jigsaw that involves families, language, play, and physical and psychological health to better understand what gives a child the best chance in life.

“The modern digital age challenges us to cope with rapidly changing settings at home, school, work and leisure,” says Professor Zoe Kourtzi from the Department of Psychology. “Our propensity to learn and rapidly adapt is thus central to 21st-century life. These challenges are particularly marked in the early and later periods of life, when young children are preparing or progressing through years of intensive education and older adults are facing major changes to their health and social circumstances.

“Research at Cambridge aims to understand how learning supports flexible behaviour and resilience to the new challenges that individuals face across the life course. Using interdisciplinary methodologies, we aim to enhance basic understanding of the mechanisms of lifelong learning, and transform this knowledge into innovative personalised interventions that will promote public wellbeing through applications in education, social care, public health and policy.”

Some of our research is having unexpected effects – such as a book of ‘lost words’ that encourages children to love and protect the natural world. Thanks to crowdfunding campaigns, the book is appearing in primary schools across the UK – an outcome that has surprised and moved its creators, who hope the book will help to bridge social gaps in the uneven distribution of access to nature. 

Underpinning much of the Spotlight is the idea so eloquently put by the 19th-century American social reformer Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.

Professor Manuel Eisner (Institute of Criminology), Professor Zoe Kourtzi (Department of Psychology) and Professor David Rowitch (Department of Paediatrics) are editorial advisors for the 'Spotlight on children' issue of Research Horizons magazine (see inset image), which is available as a PDF and on Issuu

 

Welcome to our new ‘Spotlight on children’, a focus on research taking place at the University of Cambridge relating to children and childhood – from health to education, language to literacy, parents to playtime, risk to resilience.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men
Frederick Douglass, 19th-century American social reformer

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Tools and Resources for Graduates (STEM) - Showcase

By from News. Published on Oct 24, 2018.

Participants can drop in to the event at any convenient time but we do encourage you to book so we can have an idea of numbers. All are welcome but this event will have a particular relevance for STEM graduate students and researchers.

Thursdays - ReproducibiliTea event!

By from News. Published on Oct 18, 2018.

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!

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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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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‘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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