Can’t get you out of my head

Photo by Flickr user _ES. Click for sourceSometimes songs get ‘stuck in our head’. In German, this experience is known as having an ‘earworm‘ and a new study shortly to be published in the British Journal of Psychology surveyed the typical features of this common phenomenon.

What particularly struck me was that “the length of both the earworm and the earworm experience frequently exceed standard estimates of auditory memory capacity”.

What is meant by auditory memory here is our ability to consciously remember a short piece of sound or to ‘repeat something back to ourselves’ – often called the ‘phonological loop’ in a popular model of working memory.

This tells us that ‘earworms’ are probably not something getting stuck in our very short-term memory but the reason why such tunes keeping buzzing around our conscious mind is still a mystery.

However, it’s interesting seeing a study address what the experience typically consists of:

Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts

British Journal of Psychology,

C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams

Two studies examine the experience of ‚Äòearworms‚Äô, unwanted catchy tunes that repeat. Survey data show that the experience is widespread but earworms are not generally considered problematic, although those who consider music to be important to them report earworms as longer, and harder to control, than those who consider music as less important. The tunes which produce these experiences vary considerably between individuals but are always familiar to those who experience them. A diary study confirms these findings and also indicates that, although earworm recurrence is relatively uncommon and unlikely to persist for longer than 24 h, the length of both the earworm and the earworm experience frequently exceed standard estimates of auditory memory capacity. Active attempts to block or eliminate the earworm are less successful than passive acceptance, consistent with Wegner’s theory of ironic mental control.

The reference to ‘Wegner’s theory of ironic mental control’ is just the fact that when you deliberately try not to think of something (sometimes called thought suppression) you tend to think about it more often.

Link to study summary.

The persuasive power of false confessions

The APS Observer magazine has a fantastic article on the power of false confessions to warp our perception of other evidence in a criminal case to the point where expert witnesses will change their judgements of unrelated evidence to make it fit the false admission of guilt.

We tend to think that no-one would confess to a crime that they didn’t commit but there are numerous high profile cases where this has happened and the article notes that “because of advances in DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has been able to exonerate more than 200 people who had been wrongly convicted, 49 of whom had confessed to the crime we now know they didn’t commit.”

As a result of some of the early discoveries of false confessions, there is now a growing amount of research on what personal and situational factors trigger false confessions.

The classic book on the topic is forensic psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson’s The Psychology Of Interrogations And Confessions. It reviews the scientific evidence but also covers numerous legal cases where false confessions have played a part.

It turns out, people falsely confess to crimes for a wide array of reasons. Some are voluntary confessions where the person might want to gain notoriety, annoy the police or might genuinely believe they’ve committed the crime due to a delusion in the context of a psychotic mental illness like schizophrenia.

In other cases, a false confession can be triggered by pressure from the police or investigators. Sometimes this happens even when the person doesn’t genuinely believe their confession, because they just want to escape the high-pressure situation. In other cases, the psychological pressure leads the person to start doubting their own memories and they come to believe they have committed the crime.

There is now a great deal of research showing that highly suggestible people and people with learning disabilities or mental illnes are much more likely to make a false confession under pressure and police interview guidelines are being changed as a result.

However, the APS article takes a different tack. It looks at the psychology of how other people involved in deciding whether the person is guilty or not are influenced by confessions.

Imagine if an accused but innocent person falsely confesses and the other evidence doesn’t suggest that they have committed the crime. In this situation, it turns out that both lay people and experts tend to change their evaluation of the other evidence and perceive it as being stronger evidence against the accused.

Some of the studies cited in the article just blew me away:

In a 1997 study, Kassin and colleague Katherine Neumann gave subjects case files with weak circumstantial evidence plus either a confession, an eyewitness account, a character witness, or no other evidence. Across the board, prospective jurors were more likely to vote guilty if a confession was included in the trial, even when they were told that the defendant was incoherent at the time of the confession and immediately recanted what he said… Other studies have shown that conviction rates rise even when jurors see confessions as coerced and even when they say that the confession played no role in their judgment…

Kassin recently teamed up with psychologist Lisa Hasel to test the effect of confessions on eyewitnesses. They brought subjects in for what was supposed to be a study about persuasion techniques. The experimenter briefly left the room and, during that time, someone came in and stole a laptop off the desk. The subjects were then shown a lineup of six suspects, none of whom was the actual criminal, and they were asked to pick out which member of the lineup, if any, committed the crime. Two days later, the witnesses were brought back for more questioning… Of the people who had identified a subject from the original lineup, 60 percent changed their identification when told that someone else had confessed. Plus, 44 percent of the people who originally determined that none of the suspects in the lineup committed the crime changed their mind when told that someone had confessed (and 50 percent changed when told that a specific person had confessed). When asked about their decision, ‚Äúabout half of the people seemed to say, “Well, the investigator told me there was a confession, so that must be true.”…

In 2006, University College London psychologist Itiel Dror took a group of six fingerprint experts and showed them samples that they themselves had, years before, determined either to be matches or non-matches (though they weren’t told they had already seen these fingerprints). The experts were now given some context: either that the fingerprints came from a suspect who confessed or that they came from a suspect who was known to be in police custody at the time the crime was committed. In 17 percent of the non-control tests, experimenters changed assessments that they had previously made correctly.

The APS Observer has plenty more examples and demonstrates that false confessions are psychological sink holes that pull in both the accused and the legal process.

Link to ‘The Psychology and Power of False Confessions’.

John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, interviewed

There’s a video interview with Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash, the subject of the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, over at 3QuarksDaily where he talks about his life, work and mental illness.

The film is a quite heavily fictionalised account of Nash’s life and he clearly has some disagreements with Sylvia Nasar’s award winning biography of the same name, so it’s interesting to get his own perspective.

Nash rarely gives interviews so this 20 minute discussion is quite comprehensive. In parts he discusses how he managed his work as a mathematician throughout his difficulties and even touches on some of his past delusions.

It’s fascinating, if not a little awkward in places, but a rare opportunity to hear Nash in person.

Link to video interview on 3QuarksDaily.

Optimal starting prices for negotiations and auctions

An article in the latest edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science reviews studies on the best starting points to increase the final price in either negotiations or auctions. In general, start high in negotiations, start low in auctions.

It turns out that negotiations, where several parties are invited to discuss a price, and auctions, where people can include themselves by jumping in when they want, are quite different psychologically.

The article, by business psychologist Adam Gilinsky and colleagues, notes that starting prices are a form of ‘anchor‘ – a piece of information which is known to affect subsequent decisions. As the authors note, anchoring has a powerful influence on our reasoning:

An anchor is a numeric value that influences subsequent numeric estimates and outcomes. When people make judgments, their final estimates are often assimilated to—that is, become more similar to—the initial anchor value (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

For example, in one of the best-known anchoring studies (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), participants were exposed to an arbitrary number between 0 and 100 from the spin of a roulette wheel and then asked to estimate the percentage of African nations in the United Nations: Participants whose roulette wheel landed on a relatively high number gave higher absolute estimates than did participants whose wheel landed on a lower number.

Even outside of trivia questions, few psychological phenomena are as robust as the anchoring effect; it influences public policy assessments, judicial verdicts, economic transactions, and a variety of psychological phenomena.

The evidence suggests that in negotiations, a high starting price most often leads to a high final price, as the anchoring effect seems to work in a relatively undiluted way (with the caveat that completely ridiculous starting prices could prevent any deal being reached).

There’s an interesting aside in the article, mentioning that you can protect yourself from high anchor points from other people by focusing on your own ideal price or your opponents weaknesses, as found by a 2001 study, or by considering why the suggested price might be inaccurate, as found by another study published in the same year.

It also turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, making the first offer is also a good strategy:

Many negotiation books recommend waiting for the other side to offer first. However, existing empirical research contradicts this conventional wisdom: The final outcome in single and multi-issue negotiations, both in the United States and Thailand, often depends on whether the buyer or the seller makes the first offer. Indeed, the final price tends to be higher when a seller (who wants a higher price and thus sets a high first offer) makes the first offer than when the buyer (who offers a low first offer to achieve a low final price) goes first.

In contrast, for auctions, starting with a low price is generally more likely to lead to a higher final price. The researchers note this is likely due to three factors: price rise in auctions seems to be driven by social competition and so starting with a low entry point encourages more people to join in; once someone has bid, they have made a commitment which is likely to encourage them to continue; and finally, more bids leads us to infer that the item has a higher value.

It’s not a huge article so is worth reading in full if you’re interested in economic reasoning. Luckily, the full text is available as a pdf pre-print if you don’t have access to the journal.

Link to DOI entry for study.
pdf of full text.

Does squinting really improve vision?

Photo by Flickr user massdistraction. Click for sourceScience radio show Quirks and Quarks had a fascinating segment on its most recent programme asking whether squinting really does help you see more clearly. It turns out, it does.

The programme talks to ophthalmologist Stephanie Baxter from Queen’s University in Kingston who notes that squinting focuses the incoming light onto the fovea – a central point on the retina responsible for sharp central vision – and cuts out light from other directions.

The short segment on squinting is at the bottom of the page.

Link to December 5th edition of Quirks and Quarks.

Possibly your average punter on sport talk radio

I’ve just been reading a fascinating study on ‘dysfunctional’ sports fans who over-identify themselves with their team and become abusive and confrontational during matches. There was one incidental finding which was only based on a small sample but has the potential to explain a great deal about radio phone-ins: dysfunctional fans were overwhelmingly more likely to call into sports talk radio shows.

Here’s the bit directly from the article:

Interestingly, although relatively few people are frequent callers to sports talk radio in this sample (n = 25; 5.5%) of predominantly highly identified fans, a disproportionate number of those who frequently call sports talk radio shows are highly dysfunctional (n = 9; 36%) fans and very few could he classified as less dysfunctional fans (n = 3; 12%).

Perhaps at least as interesting, 68% of this overwhelmingly highly identified sample of fans reported never calling into sports talk radio shows. Of these who never call in, 82.8% can be classified as non-dysfunctional fans…. Consequently, these results have intriguing implications regarding the makeup of the individuals who dominate the sports talk radio airwaves as callers.

More research is clearly needed into this important issue, even if it does confirm what we all already suspect.

Link to summary of study on ‘dysfunctional sports fans’.

Encephalon 79 ends the year

The 79th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published online with this edition appearing on the mighty Mouse Trap blog.

A couple of my favourites include coverage of a fascinating experiment on Neuronarrative that managed to induce false memories of completing certain actions and another on the recent badly reported ‘sweets linked to childhood violence’ study – Brain Blogger hits the right notes in its coverage.

There’s a whole lot more in this fortnight’s edition so have a look and see what takes your fancy.

Link to Encephalon 79.

Psychopath junior

The Onion has a satirical piece on how a funny but fictional study has found high numbers of psychopaths among the nation’s children who have “little regard for anything other than their own egocentric interests and pleasures”.

Mateo added that even when subjects were directly confronted with the consequences of their inexplicable behavior, they had little or no capacity for expressing guilt, other than insincere utterances of “sorry” that were usually coerced.

Because children are so skilled at mimicking normal human emotions and will say anything without consideration for accuracy or truth, Mateo said that people often don’t realize that they’ve been exploited until it is too late. Though he maintained that anyone can fall victim to a child’s egocentric behavior, Mateo warned that grandmothers were especially susceptible to the self- serving machinations of tiny little sociopaths.

While The Onion is riffing on how the ego-centric world-view of children has a vague similarity to being a psychopath, there is quite a bit of genuine research on psychopathy-related features in children.

Known as ‘callous-unemotional traits’ (described here) they have been weakly related to future offending and a diagnosis of psychopathy, but as there are many ‘routes’ to adult antisocial behaviour they are not a guarantee of later problems.

Link to satirical Onion piece on childhood psychopaths.

More on hallucinated voices in deaf people

After a post we featured earlier this year on whether deaf people can hear hallucinated voices, I was sent an amazing study that attempted to distil the variety of ‘hearing voices’ experiences in deaf people.

It was published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychiatry in 2007 (there’s a full text copy available online as a pdf) and attempted to avoid some of the pitfalls of studying auditory hallucinations in people with absent or limited hearing.

Some of the earlier research on deaf people who hear voices has been criticised for assuming that when a deaf person describes a ‘voice’ it automatically means they are having a similar experience to hearing people.

For example, when a deaf person describes the experience as ‘loud’ they may just mean it is particularly intrusive, rather than that it has specific auditory properties.

This later study used a sorting method, were a number of statements about what the experience could be like (some illustrated) were presented to deaf participants and they are asked to select the ones that best describe their experiences.

The data was then analysed using factor analysis – a statistical procedure that, in this case, was used to group participants whose experiences were similar.

Five groups or ‘factors’ were found, and I’ve reproduced the descriptions below as they are a completely fascinating insight into how these experiences appear in their diverse and varied forms.

Factor A: Nonauditory voices with subvisual perception of voice-articulators in the mind’s eye

These experiences were mostly reported by profoundly deaf participants who were deaf at birth or before the development of language.

Voices were reported to be nonauditory, clear, and easy to understand. Participants were certain that they did not hear any sound when voices were present. They did not consider questions about pitch, volume, and loudness relevant to their experiences. Participants knew the identity and gender of the voice but did not deduce this information from the way it sounds. They reported seeing an image of the voice communicating with them in their mind’s eye when voice hallucinations were present. All participants had experienced seeing an image of the voice signing or lips moving in their mind. Imagery of fingerspelling was also seen but was less common. These images appeared to be subvisual in nature and distinct from true visual hallucinations. They were clearly understood as originating internally and several participants stated that the image could still be perceived with their eyes closed.

Factor B: Mixed perception and uncertainty about how voices are perceived.

These experiences were mainly reported by deaf people who had experience of hearing speech and used hearing aids.

The participants were uncertain about whether their voice hallucinations were auditory in nature. Comprehensibility and clarity are variable. The voice used speech/lip movements to convey its’ message and occasionally fingerspelling and gesture. The voice was perceived as sometimes being silently articulated and sometimes having sound. Participants were uncertain if the voice was mouthing with or without vocalisation. Despite this uncertainty, Participant 10 was able to make attributions about voice pitch, volume, and loudness. No primary visual hallucinations were reported, although Participant 10 described seeing a stationary image of her deceased husband when the voice was present. There was less certainty about whether a visual image was present when the hallucinations occurred but participants agreed that the hands/lips of the voice could be perceived but that they were unclear. Strange sensations were perceived in the body both when the voice was present and not present. These included the perception of air currents, electric currents, and vibrations.

Factor C: Poorly defined voices.

These experiences were largely reported by participants who were born deaf in developing countries and spent their early years without hearing aids or formal language, only acquiring sign language as their first language after moving to the UK after the critical period for language development

The voices were poorly defined, hard to understand and unclear, with no definitive statements about exact voice properties but rather a picture of what they were not. There were contradictory responses about whether the voices made sound or not. It was not clear whether participants were completely unable to make judgements about pitch and volume because the voices were not auditory in nature, or because they did not possess a sufficiently developed concept of sound-based descriptions. There was a great deal of uncertainty about voice genesis that may have led the participants to speculate that they might be ‘‘hearing’’ something when they were present. This factor is unique because participants did not perceive imagery of the voice articulators during hallucinations. The gender and identity of the voice were unknown and there was much more uncertainty about which language or modality the voice used to communicate. Participants were unable to articulate voice content but merely described a sense of being persecuted and criticised by an external other.

Factor D: Auditory voices.

These experiences were reported by deaf people who were born moderately or moderately severely deaf and used hearing aids.

Voices were auditory and participants report that they could always hear sounds when the voices were present. Participant 11 was able to make judgements about auditory properties including pitch and volume. Participant 7 was less able to provide qualitative description of acoustic aspects but she was convinced that she could hear the voices. Interestingly, the bilingual participant showed a mixed pattern of voice perception. She experienced predominantly auditory hallucinations but also reported silently articulated sign language hallucinations, with concurrent subvisual imagery of the articulators similar to those experienced by participants on Factor A.

Factor E: Voices and true visual, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile phenomena

These experiences were reported by two deaf participants who were both profoundly deaf.

This factor was distinguished by the presence of true visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory phenomena, which occurred separately to voice hallucinations. These included tinnitus, the perception of a black shadow darting through peripheral vision, strange smells emanating from the body, and a petrol taste in the mouth. Other phenomena occurred in conjunction with the voices such as vibrations and electric currents in the body, which occurred only when the voice was present. Participant 25 reported seeing a true visual hallucination of someone signing to her in real space as well as imagery of the voice in her mind’s eye.

Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Sanjay for sending me the study.

Link to PubMed entry for Cognitive Neuropsychiatry study.
pdf of full text of study.

Clown therapy: trick or treat

Photo by Flickr user drp. Click for sourceIf you’re wondering how effective your average clown is, wonder no more. I’ve found a randomised controlled trial that tested the effectiveness of clowns in treating children’s anxiety before an operation, in comparison to midazolam, an anti-anxiety drug.

It turned out, clowns worked the best, but wow, doesn’t the study summary read weirdly.

Clowns for the prevention of preoperative anxiety in children: a randomized controlled trial.

Paediatr Anaesth. 2009 Mar;19(3):262-6.

Golan G, Tighe P, Dobija N, Perel A, Keidan I.

OBJECTIVE: To determine if specially trained professional clowns allayed preoperative anxiety and resulted in a smooth anesthetic induction compared to the use of midazolam or no intervention.

METHODS: This was a randomized, controlled, and blinded study conducted with children 3-8 years of age undergoing general anesthesia and elective outpatient surgery. Patients were assigned to one of three groups: Group 1 did not receive midazolam or clown presence; group 2 received 0.5 mg x kg(-1) oral midazolam 30 min before surgery up to a maximum of 15 mg; and group 3 had two specially trained clowns present upon arrival to the preoperative holding area and throughout operating room (OR) entrance and mask application for inhalation induction of anesthesia. The children were videotaped for later grading.

RESULTS: The clown group had a statistically significant lower modified-Yale Preoperative Anxiety Scale score in the preoperative holding area compared to the control and midazolam group. The clowns’ effect on anxiety reduction continued when the children entered the OR but was equal at this point to the midazolam group. Upon application of the anesthesia mask no significant differences were detected between the groups.

CONCLUSIONS: This study found that the use of preoperative medically trained clowns for children undergoing surgery can significantly alleviate preoperative anxiety. However, clowns do not have any effect once the anesthesia mask is introduced.

The use of ‘clown doctors’ is actually pretty common in Children’s hospitals and, as far as I know, the practice was invented by the American physician Patch Adams.

As for adverse reactions, despite the popular belief in ‘clown phobia’, variously called ballatrophobia, coulrophobia or my favourite – bozophobia, I could only find one case report of this particular anxiety disorder. Interestingly, it was discovered by a clown doctor who got a powerful negative reaction from an adult patient.

However, there is a video of a woman undergoing psychological treatment for clown phobia on that font of medical knowledge, YouTube.

Link to PubMed entry for clown trial.

2009-12-04 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

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Seed Magazine has a video discussion between linguist Noam Chomsky and sociologist Robert Trivers on the use of language in deception. Predictably political in places.

Great piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science on a study showing that believers tend to think God thinks the same as they do – ‘His’ beliefs change when theirs do.

Edge has a fascinating talk on consciousness but seem not to realise they are becoming a self-parody: “Edge organized a Reality Club meeting at The Hotel Ritz in Paris to allow neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene to present his new theory on how consciousness arises in the brain to a group of Parisian scientists and thinkers.”

A randomised-controlled trial of a behavioural programme reported in New Scientist finds early intervention in autism improves social skills and increases IQ later on. To be widely publicised by Jenny McCarthy. Oh no, my mistake.

Dr Petra’s blog was five years old the day after Mind Hacks. She has a fantastic review of the many highlights.

There’s a fascinating piece on portrayals of neurosyphilis in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. I never knew Conan Doyle did his doctoral thesis on syphilis.

The BPS Research Digest has an interesting piece on cultural differences in how we justify career changes.

The brain of famous patient with amnesia HM is currently being dissected. The New York Times reports on process and you can watch it live here. I warn you though, it’s really. very. dull.

The Guardian kicks off a tongue-in-cheek evolutionary psychology agony aunt column.

A study on how watching lots of crime shows on TV skews perception of society is covered by Neuronarrative.

BBC News has video of a neurally controlled robotic <a href="Robotic hand”>cyber hand!

We have difficulty understanding what influences our own judgements, according to a classic experiment covered by PsyBlog.

Wired UK has a piece discussing the expanding drone war in Afghanistan.

I found an odd 1941 article from Time magazine on a psychiatrist teaching magic tricks to patients so they “can become the life of the party”.

Cognition and Culture has a thought-provoking piece by anthropologist Pascal Boyer on why we have death and mourning rituals.

An activist gets GlaxoSmithKlein to stop distributing a leaflet promoting the ‘low serotonin causes depression’ nonsense in Iceland. An interesting episode covered by Neuroskeptic.

New Scientist has a piece on how people with depression show differences in visual discrimination. As always, ignore the headline.

Loneliness is transmittable from person to person, according to a study covered by the Washington Post.

Science News reports that street drug ecstasy is linked to an increase in sleep apnea – temporary stops in breathing during sleep.

A study on our memory for what we’ve told to whom – ‘destination memory‘, is covered by The New York Times. Not sure this isn’t just a variation on source memory, but an interesting article.

Medical News Today reports on a study finding that Facebook profile better reflect your actual personality than your desired personality.

President Trips

Two different types of Barack Obama themed drugs have appeared on US streets. BoingBoing notes that an LSD blotter with the President’s image on it has been found in the wild, while Drug Monkey covers a US Drug Enforcement Administration bulletin reporting Obama shaped ecstasy tablets.

There’s probably some witty political joke to be made here but I’m damned if I can rustle up enough cleverness, so you’ll have to devise one yourself.

See the links below for more images.

Link to BoingBoing on the Obama LSD blotter.
Link to Drug Monkey on Obama ecstasy tablets.

Head shaking competition

I’ve just found a short case study in the British Journal of Neurosurgery of a 12-year-old boy who suffered a bleed in the brain after taking part in a ‘head shaking competition’. Somewhat curiously, the case study notes that he won, and reports his winning time.

The patient was a 12-year-old, developmentally normal, healthy boy who presented to his primary care doctor with 2 weeks of headache accompanied by intermittent nausea and vomiting. The headaches began after the patient entered a ‘head shaking contest’ with his peers. The object of the contest was to vigorously rotate the head back and forth for as long as one could tolerate. The patient won, with a time of approximately 2 min. Afterwards he noted a mild headache that gradually worsened over the course of 2 weeks. When it was at its most severe, the headache was occasionally accompanied by nausea and vomiting. There were no visual disturbances or other focal neurological signs.

On a follow-up, he was found to have a large subdural haematoma, a type of bleed that happens under the brain’s covering which is known as the dura mater, possibly related to an otherwise benign cyst that existed before hand but may have caused damage during the rather vigorous competition.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth

One of the most regularly recited pieces of popular neuroscience is that women are more likely to use both hemispheres of the brain to process language while men tend only to use one. It turns out, this is a myth – it is simply not supported by the current evidence.

In 2008, a meta-analysis study looked at all the evidence for differences in the balance of language processing in the brains of men and women. It looked at studies on sex differences in handedness, brain structure, on perception of words heard exclusively in the left or right ears, and neural activity recorded by brain scans during language tasks.

When you look at all the studies together, there are no reliable sex differences in word processing or language-related brain activity. Men and women did not differ in how their brains processed language.

I came across this study from a fantastic talk by neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain that tackles many of the sex difference stereotypes.

She notes how an initial study, published in Nature in 1995, did find results in line with the common myth, but that these results were not replicated.

At the time, however, they got widely publicised – making headlines around the world – and they remain the basis for the common claim despite numerous subsequent studies that suggest this is not the case.

This, notes Eliot, is a common pattern in sex difference research. Results that confirm our steroetypes get widely reported, others are largely ignored by the media.

I really recommend her talk over at and I will look forward to reading the book once I get my hands on a copy.

Link to Lise Eliot on (via Channel N).
Link to PubMed abstract for damning meta-analysis.

Suicidal Tendencies or Kid Rock

The latest edition of The Psychologist is a special issue on the psychology of music and it has a great article on how music has a social influence.

One particularly interesting paragraph deals with link between rock music, suicide and self-harm.

There is indeed some evidence that preference for certain types of music is linked to thoughts of self-harm, but the second paragraph is the kicker: there are various reasons why this association is unlikely a reflection of rock causing these thoughts – an in fact, the act of labelling certain music as ‘causing suicide’ may itself strengthen the association.

The rise of heavy rock with supposedly pro-suicide lyrics in the 1970s and 1980s led to legislation (e.g. attempts to ban sales of CDs featuring a ‘parental advisory’ sticker), public protest (e.g. by the Parents’ Music Resource Center), and many apparently bizarre local actions (e.g. the suspension of a Michigan high school pupil for wearing a T-shirt promoting Korn that featured no lyrics or words apart from the band’s name). The assumption on which these were based, namely that the music causes self-injurious thoughts and actions, is not so far-fetched as might seem, as several studies suggest at least a correlation between music and suicide. For example, Stack et al. (1994) found a link between suicide rates among teenage Americans and variations in subscriptions to a heavy rock magazine; and we (North and Hargreaves, 2006) have found that fans of rock and rap were more likely than others to consider suicide and to self-harm.

Other research, though, is less suggestive of a link. We have also found (North & Hargreaves, 2006) that thoughts of suicide and self-harm precede an interest in rock, so that the latter can’t have caused the former. Similarly, merely describing a song as ‘suicide-inducing’ or ‘life-affirming’ leads listeners to perceive it as such (North & Hargreaves, 2005); by labelling music as suicide-inducing, campaigners and legislators may be helping to create the problem they aim to eradicate. Other research (North & Hargreaves, 2006; Scheel & Westefeld, 1999; Schwartz & Fouts, 2003; Stack et al., 1994) shows that the correlation between suicidal tendencies and an interest in rock is mediated by family background and self-esteem, which raises the issue of which of the latter is the better predictor of the former.

The issue also contains a freely available article on mental turmoil in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina if you’re after something a little more literary.

Link to The Psychologist article ‘The Power of Music’.
Link to The Psychologist article on the novel Anna Karenina.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor for The Psychologist and for those about to rock, I salute you.

Traffic accidents as social interactions gone bad

I’ve just read a fascinating study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention (yes ladies, I got it going on) that looked at which characteristics predicted the number of traffic deaths in particular American states.

The single biggest predictor was not statewide alcohol problems, safety belt use, number of older drivers or wealth, but the murder rate.

The researcher, psychologist Michael Sivak, argues that this is not because people are using cars as murder weapons, but because the murder rate is a proxy for aggression and “the same aggressive tendencies that contribute to homicides also demonstrate themselves, to a certain degree, in interpersonal behaviors on the road”.

In other words, driving style is a way of relating to other road users and traffic accidents are as much a social problem as a problem with road layout, driving competence or mechanical safety.

Link to PubMed entry for study.