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Department of Psychology

Psychology A-Z Contributors (in alphabetical order) David Belin, The Blakemore Lab, Maria Cabrera-Alvarez, Nicky Clayton, Jeff Dalley, Lee de-Wit, Hana D’Souza, Sarah Foley, Sam Friedman, Usha Goswami, Mark Haggard, Claire Hughes, Sooz Imrie, Laura Katus, Amy Milton, Rhys Proud, Sinead Rocha, Jon Roozenbeek, Will Skylark, Deborah Talmi, Andrew Thwaites, Anne-Laura van Harmelen, Clive Wilkins and Leor Zmigrod 






Drug addiction is a devastating psychiatric disorder that affects millions of individuals worldwide. It is characterised by compulsions to seek and take drugs, loss of control over intake and the emergence of a negative affective state upon cessation of use.

Over the past thirty years great progress has been made in our understanding of the brain mechanisms of drug reward, but there are still no effective therapeutic strategies to help those who suffer from an addiction. This stems from the fact that we are yet to understand the psychological, neural and cellular basis of the inter-individual vulnerability to switch from recreational drug use, mainly underlined by the rewarding properties of drugs, to the compulsive drug seeking habits that characterise addiction. Thus, the new frontier in research on drug addiction is to understand why only 10% to 40% of those exposed to addictive substances are vulnerable to developing an addiction. 

For this a large array of procedures has been developed both in humans and other animals to help identify the genetic, environmental, developmental, and associated psychological factors, as well as their underlying brain circuits, that contribute to this individual vulnerability. What we know is that this vulnerability has nothing to do with the widespread belief that those who suffer from addiction have merely a weak willpower. Instead addiction is a brain disease that stems from the interaction between the drug, genetic determinant, specific personality traits as well as the age and psychoaffective state of the individual when they engage with taking drugs. Thus, high impulsivity trait, early age of onset (before 16 years old), elevated anxiety and the use of drugs to soothe (or self-medicate) pain (physical or affective) or internal distress are factors that contribute to increase the vulnerability to develop addiction. 

The interactive nature of these factors and their highly complex underlying brain mechanisms make the study of addiction a real challenge, yet a exciting field, for researchers working on Abnormal Psychology and/or Behavioural Neuroscience

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Baby Brains


Babies are an inherently challenging group of participants. As young babies are very limited in their motor abilities and cannot be asked to follow verbal instructions, 

we need to rely on assessment methods that do not require them to overtly respond and that capture their attention for sufficient amounts of time to obtain a meaningful measurement. 

One way to work around these challenges, lies in measuring babies’ brains directly, while they listen to sounds, watch videos or interact with another person. Babies’ brains develop rapidly during the first months and years of life, and flexibly fine tune to their environments. Changes in brain activation in response to different stimuli can measure this specialisation over time. This allows us to explore a number of fascinating questions, such as ‘When do infants start to tune into their native language?’, ‘How do they form representations of the word?’, and ‘How do they respond to a new compared to a familiar social partner?’. Neuroimaging studies with babies have contributed significantly to our understanding of early development, and further can aid to detect infants who may be at increased likelihood of developmental disorders early on. For example, Lloyd-Fox and colleagues (2013) found that a group of infants who had an older sibling with autism, on average, showed reduced brain activation to social stimuli than infants without a sibling with ASD. 

Until recently, measuring early brain development meant having to rely on bulky, expensive and breakable hardware. Technological advances over the recent years however have resulted in hardware that it robust, portable and cost-effective so that it is now much easier to study babies within their homes, even in remote regions around the world. With the field of developmental neuroscience rapidly expanding, we can be sure to learn a lot more from babies’ brains in the years to come. 

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Crows and Children

Crows are often referred to as “feathered apes” because of their high cognitive abilities. Crows belong to a family of birds called corvids, which includes rooks, ravens, jackdaws, Eurasian jays, magpies and New Caledonian crows. Although corvids’ brains are very different from humans’ brains, corvids can solve problems that young children cannot. For example, corvids can solve a problem in which, in order to collect a reward from a thin transparent tube, they have to bend a piece of metal wire into a hook shape. Similarly, they know that to raise the water level to obtain a reward that would otherwise be out of beak reach they need to use stones that sink, not ones that float. Children under the age of seven years of age fail these tasks.

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Down Syndrome

Down syndrome (DS), usually characterised by an additional copy of chromosome 21 (trisomy 21), is the most common known genetic cause of intellectual disability (~1 in 1000). The general DS profile is characterised by particular difficulties in motor ability, auditory processing, verbal short-term memory, and expressive language; and relative strengths in visuo-spatial processing, receptive language, and some aspects of social functioning. However, similarly to typically developing individuals, large differences exist among individuals with DS across all domains and all ages. For example, at 3 years of age, when most typically developing children produce full sentences, some children with DS are non-verbal, while others are close to the normal expressive language range. In adulthood, IQ scores in DS may range from 30 to 90, from severe intellectual disability to the typical range. 

Although we have a strong understanding of DS genetics, we understand less well how these genetic changes relate to a range of outcomes. To study individual differences in DS, scientists have been investigating interactions between various factors across development (e.g., genes, sleep, cognitive abilities, home environment) by establishing interdisciplinary teams comprising experts in fields such as human genetics, mouse genetics, cellular biology, psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience (e.g., the London Down Syndrome [LonDownS] Consortium). The aim is to identify protective and risk factors that could inform interventions with a goal to improve the quality of life in individuals with DS.

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Extremism is a hot topic for social scientists and policy makers – citizens all over the world are vulnerable to radicalization by extremist groups. How do psychologists study whether a person possesses extreme views? Psychologists can use relative measures, in which they ask participants to indicate their beliefs with regards to social and political issues and quantify whether a participant has responded in an extreme way relative to other participants or close to the average. Alternatively, psychologists can ask participants about their ideological identities – these can reflect the extent to which they identify with political parties, national entities, religious institutions, or other contemporary social movements. Scientists can then investigate whether participants are willing to engage in extreme actions, such as endorsing violence against innocent others or even sacrificing their lives in order to protect the ideological group or cause.

Through these methodological tools, scientists can examine the psychological roots of extremism by developing research designs that address questions such as: What personality characteristics can predispose an individual towards extremist attitudes? What manipulations can make individuals more or less extreme? Rigorously studying these questions can help us design interventions to help susceptible populations and to find ways to reduce the current state of political and cultural polarization.

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Fake News

Fake news refers to (online) content that takes on the shape of genuine news but instead manipulates its audience. For psychologists, it is especially the intent to deceive that distinguishes deliberate manipulation from human error or satire. Fake news can be created about any topic, but often thrives in domains with a lot of potential for conflict and controversy, such as politics, health (e.g. vaccinations), climate change and immigration. 

Fake news is very popular. Studies have shown that fake news spreads faster, farther and deeper than other types of news. It is also a human problem: fake news is mostly spread and shared by humans, while automated bot accounts are responsible for a much smaller proportion. 

There are four main ways that scientists, governments, companies and civil society try to tackle the problem of fake news: by changing algorithms, through legislation, with fact-checking, and by way of education. Psychologists look at the psychological mechanisms that drive people to share and fall for fake news, and try to develop interventions that induce resistance against it. One way to do this is by “inoculating” people against fake news by familiarising them with the tactics that fake news creators use to manipulate their audiences: emotional or polarising language, impersonating people or movements online, creating conspiracy theories, et cetera. This has shown to induce long-term cognitive resistance against manipulation. 

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The word “gambling” often evokes brightly-lit slot machines or dimly-lit poker tables. These kinds of recreational betting are very common; in the UK about 100,000 people are employed in the gambling industry, and the National Lottery alone has annual ticket sales of about £7 billion. Gambling can also be problematic: betting can become unenjoyable and financially harmful if people develop a compulsion to gamble that they struggle to resist. Psychologists study the biological, cognitive, and social factors that explain why some people develop these kinds of problems. 

More generally, psychologists are interested in how people think about randomness and whether our behaviour deviates from what a “rational” decision-maker would do. For example, the “gambler’s fallacy” is the tendency to act as if a run of one outcome from a random process means that the other outcome is more likely to happen next -- if a coin has come up heads 5 times in a row, we often feel that we must be “due” for tails, even though the probability of that outcome remains 50%. Why? One explanation posits that we employ a “representativeness heuristic” – that is, we expect a small sequence of outcomes to be representative of what would happen in the long run. We know a fair coin will have a 50-50 split of heads and tails, so we assume that a sequence of 6 tosses will lead to about 3 heads and 3 tails. The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t really explain why we’d hold this (erroneous) belief. More recently, psychologists have examined how this apparently irrational belief can, in fact, be perfectly sensible once we take into account the fact that humans have a limited capacity to remember previous sequences of outcomes. For example, suppose you can only remember the last 20 coin-toss results. It turns out that, even though a streak of 6 heads is no less likely than a run of 5 heads followed by tails, if you look at sequences of 20 outcomes, the number of times you find “heads- heads- heads- heads- heads- heads” is less than the number of times you find “heads- heads- heads- heads- heads- tails”. In other words, a decision-maker with finite memory-capacity will fall into the gambler’s fallacy, despite making perfectly rational decisions with the information available to them!


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A hypothesis is a proposition expressing an idea that might possibly be true, but cannot yet be advanced as a thesis – something reasonably stated as established – because we do not yet know. The Greek ‘hypo’ prefix reflects that it has a lower status than a thesis, and the word was used in ancient Greek philosophy 2,500 years ago. It took off in the scientific revolution of the 17th century when natural scientists worked out that progress was best made by formally stating hypotheses, systematically seeking evidence that confirmed or falsified them, then taking stock of the balance of that evidence. The hypothesis could then graduate to various other types of status: an isolated accepted fact, a thesis with sub-parts that could be supported by separate facts, or a ‘law’, namely a generalised relationship that holds under nearly all circumstances. Because of the odd legal origin of the word ‘law’ and because many so-called ‘laws’ have many exceptions, this tends nowadays to be called an ‘empirical generalisation’. Similarly, a thesis is often associated with a single person (eg Charles Darwin), so a body of scientific thought which is largely established but still contains assumptions (which may not be testable) or hypotheses (which ought to be) is called a theory, or as if it were a commodity like oil or coffee, just ‘theory’. In everyday language, ‘theory’ is mis-used to mean a hypothesis or mere idle speculation, but this usage should be avoided.

The emergence of Psychology as a scientific subject around the beginning of the 20th century saw intense debates about what sorts of statement could be taken as psychological facts: were authoritative opinions, systematic introspection into the contents of consciousness by individuals to be accorded this status, and how much evidence was required before regarding them as established? A rightful concern grew up that a distinct majority of participants in a study should show a trend before it was accepted as fact, and the new discipline of statistics pointed clearly to the need to define ‘majority’ according to the size of the sample studies, or to be more precise, to the square root of its size. Thus if we accept a probability of being wrong at 0.04 (one in 25) we need on a sample size of 20 participants a 15:5 (variously expressable as 75% majority, or threefold, or difference of 10 instances = 50%.) Most people would call this a substantial difference. However, if we tap 2 million participants via the internet or a referendum, the same probability of being wrong attends a difference of only 0.14 of one per cent, only about 3000 individuals. Most people would rightly call such a difference as utterly trivial – a very very small effect. This contrast in scenarios captures the idea of null hypothesis significance testing (NHST), and the 0.04 used in the examples is called a p-value.

Unfortunately ‘significance’ means ‘importance’ to the layperson, whereas statistical significance relates primarily to the sample size taken and peddlers of trivial facts who happen to have had large samples to establish them reliably trade disingenuously on that link. Relatedly, the scientific thinking and practice behind hypothesis testing became degraded as an unreflecting set of routines over the 20th century, in various ways that are being called out in the 21st century. Social sciences and much of medicine have been major offenders, slow to grasp the need for widespread reform, but biology was not unaffected. Psychology as a discipline with its declaration of a ‘Replication Crisis’ from 2012 is leading the correction of these errors in a variety of ways too numerous to list here. One important benefit has been renewed emphasis on theory (correct usage) as what informs the meaning of measurements (as Einstein knew well) and generates hypotheses that are worth the effort of testing. A major incorrect practice had been to quote p-values for findings irrespective of the number of such tests conducted, which meant that the values could not be taken seriously, and often biased and even self-interested selection governed which findings were sought, published, and attracted further interest for possible replication. If someone only wishes to get a publication (s)he can dredge through hundreds of possible differences or relationships and soon find some that meet a criterion for p= 0.04 or more usually 0.05 and thereby gain the apparent right to talk about them as ’significant’. Increasingly, advance protocols are used to prevent this, requiring a statement of the tests to be conducted. But simple intellectual honesty about what an apparent finding, might really mean and the strength of the evidence is also a very good start. Awareness of the many cognitive biases that people display (towards socially desirable responses, towards confirmation of the expected, towards ‘halo’ conflating virtues which are actually independent – the list is almost endless) is part of cognitive psychology. This should help psychology to lead here. Authorities now recommend using many fewer ‘hypothesis tests’ and hence p-values, so we can expect ‘hypothesis’ to regain some of its original meaning of an important possibility, rather than just a procedural step in deciding which apparent facts have the minimum of evidence behind them that is required for use.  Psychology has entered a good decade in which the rigour of its methods bears comparison with those of physical sciences.




Idiot Savants

For much of the general population, the terms ‘autism’ or ‘savant’ conjure up images from popular media, most notably of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the popular 1980s film. And while not an all-encompassing picture of savant abilities or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Hoffman’s portrayal of this memorable character is certainly one demonstration of what is known as an idiot savant, or, in more preferred terms, an autistic savant or person with Savant syndrome. 

An idiot savant is named such because of the juxtaposition of two defining characteristics in one individual. The first feature is that the individual experiences what are considered to be severe deficiencies or deficits in varying realms, including an IQ well below the typical range. In contrast, the individual has what is referred to as ‘islands of genius’ (Treffert, 2009). These are specific topics or areas of expertise that the individual is exceedingly proficient at or remarkably knowledgeable about. It is important to note that not everyone with Savant syndrome has ASD nor does everyone with an ASD diagnosis have savant abilities. In fact, only around 10% of those with ASD would be considered savants (Treffert, 2009). 

You might also have seen reference to an autistic savant or Savant syndrome in other viral media, such as the video of Stephen Wiltshire, who draws entire city skylines from memory. Many with savant abilities rely upon an extraordinary memory to demonstrate their genius abilities; for instance, some individuals may memorise complete maps in impeccable detail or be able to recall entire rosters of sports teams in a given year and the outcomes of every game played by that team. Individuals with savant skills are often celebrated for their tremendous abilities in particular domains, and rightfully so. 


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James-Lange Theory of Emotion

How does the brain generate emotion? In the 1880s, William James and Carl Lange independently developed a theory describing the interaction between psychology and physiology in the production of emotional states. The James-Lange theory proposes that physiological states (e.g. racing heart, sweaty palms) precede the psychological experience of an emotion (e.g. fear). Perhaps counterintuitively, the theory states that the interpretation of these physiological states in the context of environmental cues leads to emotional experience, i.e. when running away from a bear, the James-Lange theory suggests that we are afraid because we run, rather than running away because we are afraid.

There is some evidence supporting the James-Lange theory of emotion. Hohman (1966) described observations from patients with spinal cord damage, who were not able to detect physiological signals relevant to emotion: these patients described still experiencing emotions, but in a different way to before the damage (e.g. “cold anger”, “a mental kind of anger”).

The James-Lange theory was criticised by the physiologists Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, who argued that physiological states were too slow and insensitive to be used to generate emotional states, and showed experimentally that removing signals from the body to the brain did not prevent emotional behaviour. However, emotional behaviour is not necessarily the same as emotional feeling. Today, most neuroscientists would accept that physiological states do contribute to emotional experience, alongside cognitive appraisal of specific situations.


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Kangeroo Care

An estimated 15 million babies a year are born preterm, that is they are born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy. There are different categories of premature birth based upon gestational age: moderate = 32 – 37 weeks, very = 28 – 32 weeks and extremely preterm < 28 weeks. There are stark inequalities in survival rates across the globe and children who survive premature birth often face a range of physical, cognitive and emotional difficulties. One cost-effective intervention that can be encouraged across a range of economic contexts is skin-to-skin contact, also known as ‘kangaroo care’. Reviews of randomised-control trials have demonstrated a range of positive outcomes associated with kangaroo care, including reduced mortality, infection and length of stay in hospital (e.g., Lawn et al., 2010; Conde-Agudelo & Diaz-Rossello, 2014). In addition to the positive health impacts, enabling physical contact has been noted to have a positive impact on the developing parent-child relationship. 

Bridging different levels of analysis, from biology to family relationships and wider societal influences, prematurity is an interesting case through which psychologists can examine the factors that predict differences in outcomes between individual children. That is, what are the factors that promote ‘resilience’ in children? 


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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Can dead salmon process visual stimuli? In 2012, a group of scientists appeared to show just that when they reported changes in blood activity in salmons’ brains when the salmon were presented with different photographs. The finding sounds improbable, but that was the point: the study aimed to highlight the widespread misuse of statistics in neuroimaging.

Scientists want to know if their hypotheses are true or false. Ideally, it would be nice to have an easy way to grade all hypotheses on a sliding 'plausibility' scale, ranging from 0 (‘It’s impossible for this hypothesis to be true’) through 0.5 (‘We’re not sure either way’) through to 1 (‘It’s certain that this hypothesis is true’). While humans are pretty good at estimating these numbers, in science we want them to be as accurate and free of bias as possible. Statistics is the field that focuses on estimating these figures accurately. Applying statistics correctly is difficult at the best of times, but especially so in psychology and neuroscience, where the hypotheses involved are inherently complex. The authors of the dead salmon study went on to win an IgNobel prize for their work – an important reminder on the worth of rigorous statistics, and of healthy scepticism.


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Modern Families

Technological advances and changes in the law have meant that families can be created in ways that weren’t possible, or even imaginable, fifty years ago.  Since the birth of the first ‘IVF baby’ in 1978, over 8 million children have been born through assisted reproductive technologies.  In some countries, single people and same-sex couples can start families through donor conception, surrogacy, adoption or fostering.  In these modern families children may have one or more than one parent in the home, they may have two parents of the same gender, and they may be genetically related to both, one or neither of their parents.  But what do we know about children’s development in these families? 

Research with modern families has challenged commonly held assumptions about what matters for children’s healthy psychological adjustment and has shown that family processes matter far more than family structure.  For children, growing up in a family with a parent who is sensitive, warm and supportive, and being in an environment with low levels of conflict, is more important than the number, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity of their parent, and whether or not they share a genetic relationship.    

As modern families become increasingly visible and grow in number, research on the effects of new family forms on parenting and child development can help us better understand and support families in all their diversity.


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Neurons to Neighbourhood 

Brains do not develop in a vacuum. The early environment (both pre- and postnatally) plays a vital role in shaping the developing brain. As proposed by Prof Mark Johnson (2011) in his theory of interactive specialisation, there is an ongoing interplay between our genes, different brain areas, our body and the environment which shape brain development. This process leads our nervous system to adapt to demands the early environment poses. 

What happens though if environmental adversity is a part of infants’ early environment? Poverty-related factors, such as undernutrition, lack of healthcare, lack of access to clean water and sanitary facilities or poor parental mental health still pose a risk to children world-wide and interfere with healthy development. It is estimated that one third of children currently does not meet their developmental milestones, the overwhelming majority of which live in low- and middle- income countries (McCoy et al., 2016). 

Research is currently underway to uncover the specific mechanisms between poverty-related adversity and child development. By measuring the developing brain early on, the aim of this research is that children who may be at the greatest risk of not developing their full potential can be identified early on, and appropriate interventions can be provided. By the same token, it is aimed to better understand the role of protective factors (cohesion within families and communities, stimulating interactions between parents and carers), which could be used to buffer against some of the negative impact of early adversity and help build resilience. 


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Object Permanence

Do babies understand that objects continue to exist when the objects are out of view? This is the concept of ‘object permanence’. When an object cannot be located, we as adults still believe that it exists. A key theorist in this area was Jean Piaget, who wondered whether infants share this conceptual belief. Piaget argued that infants used sensory-motor information to develop conceptual thought. He thus measured object permanence by studying the development of babies’ searching behavior for hidden objects. He documented a series of developmental changes in search behavior over the first 18 months of life. Infants begin by only searching when the hidden object is partially visible, then if they watch displacement to a new hiding location they in the previous hiding place, and finally they search persistently when displacement is invisible. Hence Piaget argued that the attainment of a cognitive representation of objects, detached from motor action and from sensory experience, only emerged at 18 months. More direct measures of object representations, for example via brain imaging studies, suggest however that infants have object permanence as young as 3 months of age. Motor immaturities are the main reason for their search failures.


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Psychopathology refers to the scientific study of mental illness. It is also commonly used to refer to mental disorders, such as Mood disorders, Anxiety disorders, Schizophrenia, or Eating disorders.  Mental illness often has its first onset in adolescence, and an estimated 1 in 8 young people now suffers from mental ill health. Mental illness in adolescence is associated with poor outcomes in later life, including worse school outcomes, poor interpersonal functioning and suicidality. It is therefore important to understand the causes of mental illness in order to develop effective ways of reducing its prevalence in young people. A fundamental premise within psychopathology is that disorders can best be understood as typical development gone awry.  For example, both tantrums and restless, inattentive behaviour are developmentally normative in toddlerhood, but may indicate disorder in a school-aged child.  Similarly, adolescents are highly sensitive to social rejection from peers, but equal sensitivity may underlie mental disorder in adults. 

In examining the causes and consequences of mental disorders, the field has recently shifted away from a categorical approach to mental illness, which views disorders as distinct categories, to a more dimensional approach. Categorical approaches are suitable for conditions that are fundamentally distinct, such as pregnancy; one either is or isn’t pregnant. However, mental illnesses such as Depression, are known to lie on a continuum, where individuals vary in the severity of their functioning impairment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the most influential handbook for diagnostic criteria used by clinicians worldwide, has now incorporated this approach by providing measures to assess symptom severity for selected disorders in its latest edition. Another important recent shift in the field of Psychopathology is the recognition of co-morbidity; the fact that patients often suffer from multiple disorders at the same time (e.g. patients with Depression often also experience Anxiety). Treating such patients depends upon being able to effectively target the underlying mechanisms of these disorders. To do so, it is crucial that we examine common and distinct mechanisms of mental health across disorders, or trans-diagnostically. As such, modern Psychopathology encompasses investigations aimed at better understanding the causes and consequences of disorders across their range of severity, how they develop over time, and how they fit together. 


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Quantitative Research

Psychologists work with many kinds of data which can be grouped and categorized in lots of ways. Perhaps the most basic distinction is between quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data express the amount of something – for example, the number of correct responses in a memory test, the frequency with which nerve cells fire, or the concentration of testosterone in the blood. Quantitative data are therefore numeric. In contrast, qualitative data capture the quality or type of things -- for example, the country you live in or the first story you wrote at school are non-numeric, qualitative sources of information about you. 

Quantitative data are appealing to many psychologists because they are often viewed as objective and can be subject to statistical analysis. For example, different researchers would usually agree about the level of testosterone in a blood sample but might be more likely to argue about the meaning of a child’s story. Because of this, psychologists often take rich, qualitative data and derive a quantitative variable from it – for example, the number of times the person used the word “I” in their story. 

The objectivity of quantitative data and the wealth of sophisticated tools for numeric analysis mean that quantitative research is very popular. However, there is still an element of subjectivity in research that uses numeric variables: researchers must decide which observable quantities to record, how these quantities relate to the theoretical variables of interest, and how to draw inferences from the numbers they’ve collected. How best to tackle these issues is a key issue in 21st Century quantitative research.


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Rhythm is a sequence of short repeated intervals, with regularities that allow us to build expectancies as to when the next beat will arrive (Jones, 1976). As a species, we are highly rhythmic animals. All societies produce music, and a propensity for a regular beat has been shown as a remarkable human universal (Savage, Brown, Sakai, & Currie,
2015). One of the most intriguing aspects of music is that it makes us want to move (Janata, Tomic & Haberman, 2012). It is not clear why such a relationship exists. Why do we synchronise movement to an auditory beat, but not a visual one (Repp & Penel, 2004)? It is curious that we only really move rhythmically at certain rates (Repp, 2003), and when we do, we move specific body parts in specific ways (Toiviainen, Luck & Thompson, 2010). Rhythm is an important and growing subject of scientific study.  There is evidence that fundamental beat processing and production skills are crucial for human interaction, benefitting social outcomes (e.g. Demos, Caffin, Begosh, Daniels & Marsh, 2009) as well as language and educational outcomes (e.g. Goswami et al., 2002; Tierney & Kraus,2013; Leong & Goswami, 2014), and even the ability to safely navigate the world without falling (e.g. Grahn & Brett, 2009). Studies of infants show that whilst we may find moving to a beat very natural and easy as an adult, the development of rhythmic skill is in fact quite protracted. Although infants can perceive the beat in music from birth (Winkler et al., 2009), and spend up to 40% of their time making rhythmic movements (Thelen, 1979), they are unable to synchronise their movements with a beat until they are at pre-school age (Provasi & Bobin-Begue, 2008).

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Social Brain

Humans are uniquely social. We form large and complex societies, build long and enduring relationships with one another and for many spend large portions of our day co-operating with each other at work and school. Successfully navigating these social relationships requires a number of co-ordinated brain regions to help us process social signals from the environment. In doing so, regions of the ‘social brain’ dedicated to deciphering the social world include areas at the front of the brain, within the prefrontal cortex, but also in the temporal cortices of the brain, which sit to the side (Blakemore, 2008). For example, regions of the social brain such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the temporal parietal junction are involved in mentalising. Mentalising, or possessing Theory of Mind, is the ability to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others (Frith, 2007). Mentalising is present from an early age, however recent evidence suggests that the ability to mentalise is still developing across adolescence and in some cases into the early twenties (Dumontheil et al., 2012).  

Regions of the social brain are connected by neurons, brain cells that send information from one region to another, and these regions continue to develop both structurally and functionally well into the twenties (Mills et al., 2014). The brain is comprised of grey matter, which is comprised of the cell bodies of neurons, and white matter, which is comprised of the axon of neurons among other things. Axons are covered in a fatty substance called myelin, which increases the strength of the connection between different regions of the brain.  During adolescence, which is the period of life between the ages of 10 and 24 (Sawyer and colleagues, 2018), grey matter volume reduces by approximately 17%, whilst white matter volume increases by about 15% (Mills et al., 2016). Regions of the social brain are among some of the last regions of the brain to stop developing (Mills et al. 2014). In fact, regions related to social cognition show a disruptive development of connectivity during adolescence, where strong connectivity becomes weaker and weak connectivity becomes stronger (Váša et al., 2020).

In summary, recent evidence from psychology and neuroscience have shown that a number of social cognitive abilities, such as mentalising, continue to develop throughout adolescence and that this co-incides with continued maturation of the structure of the social brain, which supports these abilities. 


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Tango and Transferable Skills

Professor Nicky Clayton and Professor Clive Wilkins

Tango is a wordless conversation between the leader and the follower~ the leader signals an intention to move so that the follower can respond in a way that allows the two bodies to move as one in perfect synchrony, a silent conversation and connection between the two. Similar movements can be seen in corvids, who also use these synchronous movements to maintain their pair bonds. When it comes to cognitive abilities, such motor control provides transferable skills. These findings pose many questions. For example, how can the body remember things that the mind is not aware of?  How do we and other animals deal with the one to one correspondence problem, of having to imitate the movements precisely and yet adapt to a differently shaped body and even a different point of view?


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Unconscious bias

When we meet a stranger, we rapidly make all kinds of assumptions about them. These assumptions often aren’t based on an in-depth analysis and reflection. Rather, they are generated automatically, on the basis of evolved, hard-wired tendencies, as well as our previous experiences with similar people and situations, stored in associative networks in our brain. These quick-and-dirty computations are sometimes accessible to us in the form of intuition or gut feelings, while in other times they influence our decisions more implicitly. 

The evolved ability to effortlessly draw on a wealth of stored knowledge is thought to have an adaptive advantage, because it limits our need to rely on scarce cognitive resources. Thus, for example, Truth Default Theory refers to evidence that people overwhelmingly believe that others are telling the truth. This bias helps ease social interactions and may have evolved in our species for this very purpose. Biases also have a dark side. For example, negative media stories about minorities bias people to reject job candidates with names that appear to belong to these groups, and even bias police offices to react more violently towards them.  

Psychological science explores these biases as instances where our brains are making predictions about the likelihood of future outcomes, by drawing on the probability distribution of stored events that are most closely associated with the current context. It is thought that similar computational mechanisms apply to brain processes across the board, beyond social situations and even to our sensory perception. For example, we are biased to believe these images are convex because of our exposure to light from above. While this perceptual bias is harmless, it is important to use emotional intelligence to understand and manage feelings when decisions can have influence on our own and others well-being. 


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Vygotsky, Thought and Language

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) has been very influential in research on the social context of children’s learning. One of his most famous sayings is:  “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological)” (Vygotsky, 1978, p57).  Pointing and private speech provide nice examples of Vygotsky’s ideas. When infants point, their grasping motions are not initially purposeful; instead the pointing gesture acquires meaning through people’s reactions – and so is an inherently social act.  From this perspective it is interesting that while children with autism can and do show pointing that is instrumental in function (e.g., pointing at a biscuit as a means of gaining that desired object), they rarely show ‘declarative pointing’ (e.g., pointing at a dog or cat simply to draw another’s attention to it).

Turning to private speech, it is worth noting that while other theorists (e.g., Piaget) wrote about private speech, they did not view it as having any developmental importance. That is, private speech was seen simply as a fledgling form of social speech.  In other words, very young children intend to direct their speech at others, but lack the communicative skills to succeed in this, such that private speech doesn’t play any key role in shaping children’s thoughts – even though it may provide the observer with a valuable window into the child’s thoughts). By contrast, Vygotsky viewed private speech as the child’s way of internalizing the speech acts of other (more expert) social partners, as a tool for self-direction.  Even adults may at times use private speech to as a means of focusing thoughts or actions (e.g., when trying to solve a problem).  By this Vygotskian account, the emergence of private speech is a landmark in cognitive development, characterised by the emergence of higher cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, working memory).


Vygotsky’s theory led to the proposal that there is a ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) that corresponds to what a child can achieve when supported by a more expert partner.  The ZPD lies between what the child can achieve alone and what is beyond a child’s capability, even with expert support.  The goal for parents and teachers is therefore to encourage children to try to work in their ZPD in order to build up their skills through supported practice.



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Williams syndrome

Williams syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic condition (~1 in 10,000) involving the deletion of around 27 genes on chromosome 7. This condition is associated with intellectual disability and particular difficulties in visuo-spatial tasks (e.g., copying an image, finding the way around a town). In contrast, domains such as expressive language and sociability have historically been considered a relative strength in this population, with individuals with WS often described as having a ‘cocktail party’-like personality. Like other neurodevelopmental disorders (see the entry on Down syndrome), substantial variation is seen in this population on a range of domains, both social and non-social. 

Scientists seek to understand the emergence of the relative strengths and difficulties associated with WS through a range of techniques. For example, eye-tracking is used to determine whether difficulties in visuo-spatial processing emerge in WS because of the way the children look at specific aspects of the task (e.g., looking less at a picture they are told to copy). Furthermore, electroencephalography (EEG) can be used to measure brain waves associated with the processing of sounds which could relate to the relative strength in the language domain. Following individuals with WS across development is necessary in order to understand whether difficulties in specific domains are seen early in development or whether they emerge over time. This is crucial to understand in order to provide support that not only focuses on important domains but also has the most beneficial timing.


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X … is for voting

Citizens in democracies are regularly asked to put an X in a box to indicate what kind of leaders they want, and what kind of society they want to live in. 

The science of voting has revealed that, in addition to lots of traditional demographic factors (like income, age and gender), there are psychological factors that predict how people vote. For example, there are reliable links between aspects of personality, and people's political preferences. In the US for example, people who are high on a personality dimension called 'conscientiousness' are more likely to vote for parties with conservative (or right leaning) economic policies (favouring tax reductions). Whereas people who are high on a personality dimension called 'openness' are more likely to vote for parties with liberal (left leaning) social policies (being more pro-immigration). 

The correlations are small, so if you're high on 'openness' you aren't necessarily going to be left/liberal, but the chances are slightly higher that you will be. The causality also isn't clear. It might be that being more open to new experiences just makes liberal policies more appealing to you, or being open to new experiences may inspire you to make life choices (living in a big city, living abroad), that might in turn influence your politics. Or perhaps the causation runs the other way, and having liberal politics shapes your life experiences, that in turn results in you becoming more open (as we know personality can change during your lifespan).


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Yerkes-Dodson curve

Stress is often equated with feeling anxious and under-performing, but the relationship between arousal and performance is far from linear - as the figure above illustrates.  Experimental studies conducted in 1908 by the American psychologists Yerkes and Dodson showed that rats improved their performance on a maze task following a mild electrical shock but performed less well if the experimenters increased the strength of shock beyond a particular limit. According to the ‘Yerkes-Dobson’ Law, the optimal level of arousal varies according to task complexity: high arousal is beneficial if performance depends upon persistence or stamina, whereas low arousal is beneficial for highly complex tasks.  That is, activities that steady the nerves can improve performance on highly complex tasks (e.g., it may be helpful to listen to calm music before going into an exam); in contrast, athletes often listen to music that raises their arousal prior to a race in order to improve their performance.  Likewise, actors may need to feel butterflies in the stomach before stepping on stage to perform a role with conviction. In other words, while “stress-busters” may be useful in limiting the impact of high levels of anxiety, physiological systems that send stress signals to the brain can also enhance performance.  


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Zebras don't get ulcers

This rather curious statement, coined by the American biologist Robert Sapolsky, implies that zebras don’t feel stress in the same way that humans do. Yet they are constantly at the mercy of lions and other alpha predators that strike in terrifying bursts of frenzied terror. The healthy stomach lining of stressed zebras is puzzling but part of the answer, it seems, lies in the brevity of the stress experienced by zebras that fleetingly interrupts their daily foraging and social activities. What follows are periods of relative calm and serenity and a rapid return to normal of stress hormones in the blood. Alas, and often to our disadvantage, we humans have developed an anticipatory stress system in the face of real or perceived dangers. So different to zebras, people fixate and needlessly worry about events over which they have no control. This ‘toxic’ form of stress can quickly come to dominate behaviour, favouring rigid habits to develop, social isolation, and even drug addiction (e.g. alcoholism). These co-called coping reactions (or secondary stressors) further exacerbate the damaging effects of stress on the body and mind. It is little wonder, therefore, that Hans Selye – the founder of stress theory – declared that “it is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”.  


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