Callous? Unemotional? Chances are you won’t be losing any sleep over it

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Alice M. Gregory is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a member of the Advisory Board for a digital parent education endeavor on infant and toddler sleep that is being supported by Johnson’s Baby. She is a Corresponding Editor (Sleep) for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. She has previously received funding to support her work from multiple sources including the MRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. She is a member of the Labour Party. She is currently writing a book (Nodding Off: Sleep from Cradle to Grave) to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in Spring 2018.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Alice M Gregory, Goldsmiths, University of London; Dan Denis, Harvard University, and Essi Viding, UCL

If you’ve ever suffered from problems with your emotions or behaviour, you might have struggled with disturbed sleep, too. But are emotional or behavioural difficulties always associated with poor sleep? Are some types of people with difficulties actually better sleepers than your average person? New research from our team suggests that this might just be the case.

Researchers have shown that a wide variety of emotional and behavioural problems are intricately interwoven with the way we sleep. Those suffering from depression, for example, may experience fragmented sleep or their sleep stages may appear unusual. Schizophrenia has also been linked to taking longer to fall asleep and less time spent sleeping when in bed. Post-traumatic stress disorder can involve a recurrence of distressing dreams related to the trauma as well as insomnia or restless sleep. Different aspects of sleep have also been associated with anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Recently, research focus has turned to the association between poor sleep and disruptive behaviour, including aggression and rule-breaking. Researchers have speculated that poor sleep may lead to aggression. It’s also possible that other disorders such as ADHD, which is common among those who are disruptive, could help to explain the association between disruptive behaviour and poor sleep.

Not all people with disruptive behaviour are the same. They can be distinguished by whether or not they have callous and unemotional traits, in other words whether they lack empathy and guilt. There is clearly a difference between someone who behaves badly and feels awful about it afterwards and someone who experiences no remorse or guilt.

We wanted to find out whether greater callous and unemotional traits might be one class of emotional and behavioural problem which was not associated with disrupted sleep. We had hypothesised this previously, based on what we knew about these traits. Perhaps if you are not troubled by guilt or concern for others, you will sleep more soundly.

To test our hypothesis, we asked 1,556 young adults about their sleep as well as their disruptive behaviour, callous and unemotional traits and anxiety. As expected, those who slept poorly tended to report more disruptive behaviour. This is what other researchers have found, too.

This association was partly explained by the anxiety reported by our participants. What was also noteworthy was that the association between poor sleep and disruptive behaviour was significantly stronger for those people who had low levels of callous and unemotional traits. If you had disruptive behaviour, but you also lacked empathy and guilt, your sleep was not disturbed to the same extent. We also found that callous and unemotional traits were not associated with poorer sleep quality.

Being callous and unemotional is associated with good quality sleep.

Belt and braces

We wanted to see if our results could be replicated, so we asked similar questions of another group of 338 participants, aged between 18 and 66 years of age. This time we went beyond simply asking questions. We asked some of the participants (43 of those tested) to wear watch-like devices with motion sensors to measure their sleep.

Again, we found that poorer sleep quality was associated with disruptive behaviour, but only when we asked the participants about their sleep. The association was not found when we measured sleep using the motion sensors. We’re not sure why this should be, but it could be that we did not have enough participants wearing motion sensors (only 43 did) to detect an association.

Perhaps the most striking finding from this sample was that, after considering the effects of age and sex of the participants, better sleep quality (assessed both by asking the participants questions and from some information provided by the motion sensors) was associated with higher levels of callous and unemotional traits.

The ConversationSleeping well has been an important health trend in 2017. But we’re only just beginning to understand this elusive state and the way it is associated with our functioning during the day. A lot of attention has been paid to the way poor sleep has been associated with a number of different emotional and behavioural difficulties. But it may be that some risk traits and behaviour are actually associated with better sleep, and we need to do more work to understand if and why this is the case.

Alice M Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London; Dan Denis, Postdoctoral researcher, Harvard University, and Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, UCL

Parenting Science Gang: Citizen Science takes to the hills

Recently, I gave a talk to a group of scientists about emotional development in children. Not much new there, that’s pretty much what I do. Except this time I got to give the talk in my socks, in an activity centre in the middle of the peak district, and the scientists weren’t my usual peer group – these scientists were a group of parents who’d signed themselves up for Parenting Science Gang, a fully immersive citizen science programme, led by Sophia Collins and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The programme is multi-faceted, engaging with several different parent interest groups and offering live chats with scientists, encouraging groups to ask questions and look for existing research, and this – the first residential session for parents to come together.


I know that some of the questions that I am interested in have been shaped by my own parenting experiences so far, and so it makes perfect sense that parents have questions about child development that scientists haven’t addressed yet. Our session focused on how children develop emotion regulation skills, and most importantly for our group, who were largely parents of toddler and pre-schoolers – how can we best support that, and manage tantrums for the best.


We considered research on parent-child communication, sleep and sensory processing, the typical development of children’s understanding of own and others’ emotions, and the possible impact of screen time; and came up with a whole lot more questions that are still unanswered. The groups will continue to work on refining their questions, and will work with scientists to develop a research programme that allows them to address this. For my part, I am hopeful that this group will help me to shape the next stage of our pre-school project on behaviour development.


The benefit of a weekend residential was clear. Parents were able to meet each other, with and without their children (who were most usually entertained by the wonderful storyteller, pile of dressing up clothes and great outdoors), and were able to test out ideas in a space that allowed for constructive questioning and collaborative idea-sharing. Parents came from all different backgrounds, but shared the goal of asking useful questions. It was a privilege for me to spend time with interested and involved people, and to learn so much more about how citizen science might best be realised – a genuinely collaborative effort, with structure, support and group willing to ask questions.


Parents also benefit from being part of these projects in other ways –knowing how and where to find research promotes confidence in parenting decisions, and allows parents to make their own distinctions between ‘advice’ and something more evidence-based. I think the children who came along got to see something a little bit different; their parents taking part in active conversations about science, and them getting to trial out some of their own experiments.


If you want to know more about the project (and, really, you should), then have a look here:

CBT isn’t a talking therapy it’s a doing therapy.

IMG_1199Dr. Lucy Oldfield is a practising Clinical Psychologist working in a primary care adult mental health setting in the NHS alongside  lecturing at Goldsmiths on the Foundations in Clinical Psychology and Health Services MSc programme. Her clinical work is focused around anxiety and mood disorders with a specialist interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sometimes suffers from bold aspirational claims, usually made by politicians that it is a talking therapy that offers a panacea for all ills. That a few sessions of CBT will enable anyone to feel better, to go back to work or work for the first time and to live a richer, more meaningful life. Just like that. Some of these outcomes are absolutely possible for some people but the sophistication of the therapy and the demanding nature of it for both the therapist and the client is often not talked about. Unsurprisingly therefore many people come to therapy with an idea that CBT can ‘fix’ them and quickly. Many people think that CBT is sitting and having a nice chat with another person who listens and responds in a non-judgmental and encouraging manner. A good CBT therapist absolutely does listen with a non-judgemental stance and does encourage but they also need to do much more to offer the best chance of a successful outcome. The other buzz words commonly associated with CBT are ‘tools and techniques’. These make me think of hammers and drills and oil painting versus watercolours. In CBT the so called tools and techniques are actually ideas, principles and abstract knowledge which are learned through doing things and feeling things. In order to learn something about emotions the emotions need to be felt in the room to some extent, otherwise conversation could become a purely cerebral exercise. Similarly, the only way of developing confidence which many clients say they want more of, is to do things that prove our confidence to ourselves. No amount of thinking about it or talking about it on its own is going to change how confident we feel.

The most fundamental principle underpinning CBT is deceptively simple: that emotions are felt as a result of our appraisal of situations and events rather than as a result of the situations and events themselves (Beck, 1979). So for example if three different people at the same music festival all find themselves in the same thunder and lightning storm at the same time they might have very different emotional reactions to it which will affect their behavioural responses:

Person 1: “Whoo! This is exciting, look at the lightning isn’t it amazing, let’s dance in the rain!” (Excited, happy)

Person 2: “I might get hit by lightning, the tent might blow away, we’re not near any trees or metal are we? Let’s get inside quick!” (Frightened)

Person 3: “This is so typical, the weekend’s ruined now and I bet we won’t be able to get a refund. Let’s go home.” (Disappointed/angry/sad)

Each person’s perspective on the storm has directly determined their feelings and their behaviour. So how is it that the three can have such different perspectives on the same situation? Each person’s memories, biases and assumptions – all of their life experiences before the storm will have a bearing on how they see it.

People come to therapy when their habitual way of seeing things and reacting to events causes problems (usually emotional distress) for them and/or for other people. Good therapists require creativity and sophisticated understanding to help clients learn new perspectives. The ultimate aim of CBT is to help people to develop metacognitive awareness – or put another way to become one’s own therapist – spotting when we might be using a habitual or learned way of thinking or behaving that doesn’t have a good outcome for us and then choosing to try responding differently.


The psychotherapist Aaron T Beck is considered by many to be the father of cognitive therapy. He defined CBT as, ‘an active, directive, time limited structured approach… based on an underlying rationale that an individual’s affect and behaviour are largely determined by the way in which he sees his world’ (Beck, 1979).

It is striking that the first word of this definition is active. One of the most active elements of CBT and one of the most fun, interesting and challenging ways to discover different outcomes and shift our world view is to do behavioural experiments. These can look weird or nonsensical until we understand why they have been devised in the way that they have and what new information it is hoped will be obtained by doing them. Usually they are done in or between CBT sessions to try to test out patient’s existing beliefs about themselves, others and the world or to build up and test new more adaptive beliefs (Bennett-Levy, 2004).

I have done a whole host of seemingly odd things for and with my clients. For example: asked tube staff at Kings Cross Station where Kings Cross Station is (learnt they didn’t laugh or think us stupid); raced up a steep hill to try to bring on a heart attack (learnt that increased heart rate after sprinting just like in a panic attack is not dangerous), walked about behaving suspiciously up and down a crowded tube carriage (learnt that people did not think we were terrorists), tried to make myself go insane (learnt that it is not possible to think ourselves into madness), put my hands into the toilet bowl then ate an apple without washing my hands (learnt that contamination is everywhere, we can bear to feel disgusted and our bodies are capable of preventing us from getting as ill as we might imagine).

The learning in all cases was more memorable to clients because they felt it rather than thought it and when I asked them at the end of therapy which bits were most useful they always referred to the experiments. I usually feel a mixture of anxiety and excitement when I do them with clients which is understandable because there is always some element of spontaneity even in pre-planned experiments. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. It is necessary and useful for me to feel that way to be authentic to my client and to model that it’s ok not to always know what’s going to happen and that whatever happens we will learn something.

CBT isn’t a talking therapy, it’s a doing therapy and it usually requires both the client and the therapist to be courageous and tenacious in trying to discover alternative perspectives about themselves, others and the world. Embracing new or adapted perspectives may ultimately lead to living richer, more meaningful lives.

Find out more:

Clark,D. (1995) Perceived limitations of standard cognitive therapy: A reconsideration of efforts to revise Beck’s theory and therapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 9 (3) 153–172

Teasdale, J. (1997). The transformation of meaning: The interacting cognitive subsystems approach.In M. Power, C.R. Brewin (Eds.), The transformation of meaning in psychological therapies,  (pp. 141–156). Chichester: Wiley.




Dr. Lucy Oldfield is on Twitter @oldfieldLuc


Hypnosis may still be veiled in mystery – but we are starting to uncover its scientific basis

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On the count of three, you will forget this ever happened. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Devin Terhune, Goldsmiths, University of London and Steven Jay Lynn, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This piece was originally published in The Conversation

Some argue that hypnosis is just a trick. Others, however, see it as bordering on the paranormal – mysteriously transforming people into mindless robots. Now our recent review of a number of research studies on the topic reveals it is actually neither. Hypnosis may just be an aspect of normal human behaviour.

Hypnosis refers to a set of procedures involving an induction – which could be fixating on an object, relaxing or actively imagining something – followed by one or more suggestions, such as “You will be completely unable to feel your left arm”. The purpose of the induction is to induce a mental state in which participants are focused on instructions from the experimenter or therapist, and are not distracted by everyday concerns. One reason why hypnosis is of interest to scientists is that participants often report that their responses feel automatic or outside their control.

Most inductions produce equivalent effects. But inductions aren’t actually that important. Surprisingly, the success of hypnosis doesn’t rely on special abilities of the hypnotist either – although building rapport with them will certainly be valuable in a therapeutic context.

Rather, the main driver for successful hypnosis is one’s level of “hypnotic suggestibility”. This is a term which describes how responsive we are to suggestions. We know that hypnotic suggestibility doesn’t change over time and is heritable. Scientists have even found that people with certain gene variants are more suggestible.

Most people are moderately responsive to hypnosis. This means they can have vivid changes in behaviour and experience in response to hypnotic suggestions. By contrast, a small percentage (around 10-15%) of people are mostly non-responsive. But most research on hypnosis is focused on another small group (10-15%) who are highly responsive.

In this group, suggestions can be used to disrupt pain, or to produce hallucinations and amnesia. Considerable evidence from brain imaging reveals that these individuals are not just faking or imagining these responses. Indeed, the brain acts differently when people respond to hypnotic suggestions than when they imagine or voluntarily produce the same responses.

Preliminary research has shown that highly suggestible individuals may have unusual functioning and connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. This is a brain region that plays a critical role in a range of psychological functions including planning and the monitoring of one’s mental states.

There is also some evidence that highly suggestible individuals perform more poorly on cognitive tasks known to depend on the prefrontal cortex, such as working memory. However, these results are complicated by the possibility that there might be different subtypes of highly suggestible individuals. These neurocognitive differences may lend insights into how highly suggestible individuals respond to suggestions: they may be more responsive because they’re less aware of the intentions underlying their responses.

For example, when given a suggestion to not experience pain, they may suppress the pain but not be aware of their intention to do so. This may also explain why they often report that their experience occurred outside their control. Neuroimaging studies have not as yet verified this hypothesis but hypnosis does seem to involve changes in brain regions involved in monitoring of mental states, self-awareness and related functions.

Although the effects of hypnosis may seem unbelievable, it’s now well accepted that beliefs and expectations can dramatically impact human perception. It’s actually quite similar to the placebo response, in which an ineffective drug or therapeutic treatment is beneficial purely because we believe it will work. In this light, perhaps hypnosis isn’t so bizarre after all. Seemingly sensational responses to hypnosis may just be striking instances of the powers of suggestion and beliefs to shape our perception and behaviour. What we think will happen morphs seamlessly into what we ultimately experience.

Hypnosis requires the consent of the participant or patient. You cannot be hypnotised against your will and, despite popular misconceptions, there is no evidence that hypnosis could be used to make you commit immoral acts against your will.

Hypnosis as medical treatment

Meta-analyses, studies that integrate data from many studies on a specific topic, have shown that hypnosis works quite well when it comes to treating certain conditions. These include irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pain. But for other conditions, however, such as smoking, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, the evidence is less clear cut – often because there is a lack of reliable research.

But although hypnosis can be valuable for certain conditions and symptoms, it’s not a panacea. Anyone considering seeking hypnotherapy should do so only in consultation with a trained professional. Unfortunately, in some countries, including the UK, anyone can legally present themselves as a hypnotherapist and start treating clients. However, anyone using hypnosis in a clinical or therapeutic context needs to have conventional training in a relevant discipline, such as clinical psychology, medicine, or dentistry to ensure that they are sufficiently expert in that specific area.

We believe that hypnosis probably arises through a complex interaction of neurophysiological and psychological factors – some described here and others unknown. It also seems that these vary across individuals.

But as researchers gradually learn more, it has become clear that this captivating phenomenon has the potential to reveal unique insights into how the human mind works. This includes fundamental aspects of human nature, such as how our beliefs affect our perception of the world and how we come to experience control over our actions.

How to make babies happy

AddymanCasparCaspar Addyman is a Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously spent 10 years working at Birkbeck Babylab. Caspar is a specialist in baby psychology with a particular interest in positive emotions in infancy. On his Baby Laughter website he has collected data and videos from parents all over the world. Here, he writes about how two psychologists and an army of babies helped Grammy winner Imogen Heap to write her new happy song for babies.

Being a new parent is an emotional rollercoaster. It is an even wilder ride for a baby. Baby experts often focus on coping with lows. As someone who studies infant psychology I think the highs are no less interesting. So for the last four years I’ve been researching baby laughter. Can I guarantee to make a baby laugh? Well, I’ve been working on it.

I conducted a survey of parents all over the world and have run various studies in the lab. I’ve come to see infant laughter as the flipside to all those tears. Crying and laughter are both social signals that let babies communicate with us. Crying is a signal of frustration and discomfort, laughter signals success and satisfaction. Laughs accompany each tiny triumph and each little “Eureka!”. This makes infant laughter a wonderful window into infant learning. In fact, laughter may be a tool babies use to learn about the social world.

It’s clear that a crying baby needs your help. What is less obvious is that a laughing baby is rewarding your assistance and holding your attention in order to learn from you. The biggest mystery in anyone’s life is other people. This is even more true for babies. They crave quality interactions with adults. Laughter is their secret weapon to get it. This is why laughing babies pull in hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. It also why one of the best ways to make a baby laugh is to take her seriously.

Now, if only more people would take this research seriously I might have funding to do it. Fortunately, last year I started a new job at Goldsmiths, University of London; a place with a reputation for encouraging radical ideas and creative approaches to research. (I always suspect that having blue hair may have helped me get the job.)  

Shortly after I arrived I gave a talk to my new department about my research. Straight after the talk Prof. Lauren Stewart came up to me and suggested we collaborate on something. Lauren is a professor of the psychology of music and was interested in how babies respond to music. Music is laden with emotion and so it would be fascinating to learn more about its effect on young babies. I readily agreed but couldn’t find a suitable project.

Then by weird and happy coincidence in April last year C&G baby club called Lauren up saying they wanted help to create ‘a song scientifically proven to make babies happy’. At first we were wary. Brands have a fairly poor track record when it comes to using science. However, I had previously had a very positive experience doing research funded by Pampers. I had seen that baby brands cannot afford to lose their credibility and so have to be assiduous in what they do and what they claim.  We met with C&G baby club to discuss their intentions. Our first proviso was that they shouldn’t use the word ‘prove’. Our second was that they had let us do real science. They readily agreed.

Once these ground rules were established the first step was to discover what was already known about the sounds and music that might make babies happy. We had some experience. My previous work on the Baby Laughter project had asked parents about the nursery rhymes and silly sounds that appealed to babies. Lauren’s previous research has looked at ‘earworms’, songs that get stuck in your head. We discovered surprisingly little research on babies’ musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant this was a worthwhile project from a scientific point of view.

The next step was to find the right composer.  With the help of FELT music consultancy, Grammy winner Imogen Heap was recruited as the composer. Imogen is a highly tech-savvy musician who just happened to have an 18 month old daughter of her own. She was intrigued by the challenges of the project. Few musicians had taken on the challenge of writing real music to excite babies while still appealing to parents.  Musician Michael Janisch recorded a whole album of Jazz for Babies, but that was very slow and designed to soothe babies. Most music written specifically for babies sounds frankly deranged.

Plenty of research has looked at adults’ emotional response to music (such as the recent brain imaging study of Tinie Tempah). Research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies can hear and remember music even while they are still in the womb and one curious study from 2000 found that newborn babies prefer Bach to Aerosmith. Most systematic work has been conducted by Laurel Trainor at McMaster University and her colleagues. She has found young babies have clear preferences for consonance over dissonance and can remember the tempo and timbre of music they’ve heard before. Babies prefer the female voice but like it even more when it takes on the qualities of ‘motherese’ (the high-energy sing-song tone we all naturally adopt when talking to babies.)

We met with Imogen and gave her a set of recommendations based on what we had discovered.The song ought to be in an major key with a simple and repetitive main melody with musical devices like drum rolls, key changes and rising pitch glides to provide opportunities for anticipation and surprise. Because babies’ heart rates are much faster than ours so the music ought to be more up-tempo than we would expect. And finally, it should have an energetic female vocal, ideally recorded in the presence of an actual baby.

Fortunately Imogen had her daughter, Scout, to help her with the composition. Imogen created 4 melodies for us to test in the lab, 2 fast and 2 slow ones. For each of these she created a version with and without simple sung lyrics. Twenty-six babies between 6 and 12 months came to our lab with their mums to give us their opinion on these 8 short pieces of music. Amazingly most of the mums and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to share a clear preference for one particular melody. In line with our predictions this was a faster melody.  Even more amazingly, this is was the tune that had started out as a little ditty made up by Scout.

We knew which song the mums liked because we could ask them. We also asked the mum’s to tell us what their babies prefered best, because they are the experts on their own babies. But we also filmed the babies’ responses and coded the videos for laughs, smiles and dancing. We tried measuring changes in the babies’ heart rates and using a motion capture system to see if they were moving in time with the music. Unfortunately, this hit quite a few technical difficulties and there wasn’t time to solve the problems on our very tight schedule. This was worthwhile as pilot work and will be a really interesting area for future research.

But now we had a winning melody, Imogen needed to turn it into a full length song and it needed to be funny (to a baby). The secret was to make it silly and make it social.  Around 2500 parents from the C&G baby club and Imogen’s fan club voted on silly sounds that made their babies happy. The top 10 sounds included “Boo!” (66%), raspberries (57%), sneezing (51%), animal sounds (23%) and baby laughter (28%). We also know babies respond better to plosive vocal sounds like “pa” and “ba” compared to sonorant sounds like “la”. Imogen very cleverly worked many of these elements into the song.

Next it needed to be something that parents could enjoy themselves and share with their children. Happiness is a shared emotion and the success of nursery rhymes is that they are interactive. Imogen carefully crafted the lyrics to tell a joyous tale of how we love our little babies wherever we are – from the sky to the ocean, on a bike or on a rocket. The transport theme permitted lots of plosives “Beep, beep” and bouncing actions.

Our baby music consultants came back to the lab and listened to two slightly different sketches of the full song. This time we found that slightly slower seemed to work better (163 vs 168 beats per minute). Perhaps because it gave mums and babies a little more time to respond to the lyrics. We also found that the chorus was the most effective part of the song and determined which lyrics and sound effects worked better or worse.

After one final round of tweaks from Imogen, we went for a different kind of test. We assembled about 20 of the babies in one room and played them the song all together. It was perhaps a silly thing to do but as Imogen and I sat on the sofa in front of a colourful and chaotic room full of mums and babies and pressed play we were cautiously optimistic. If you ever met an excited toddler or young baby, you will know that 2 ½ minutes is a long time to hold the attention of even one child, let alone two dozen. When The Happy Song played we were met by a sea of entranced little faces. This certainly wasn’t very scientific as tests go but it definitely convinced me that we had a hit on our hands. You can hear the song here. Please tweet me (@czzpr) and let us know if it makes your little ones happy too.

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Thanks to all the mums, dads and babies who helped with the project. We couldn’t have done it without our small army of tiny music consultants. Nor without my two assistants Omer and Kaveesha who came to us through the excellent Nuffield Brilliant Club which arranges internships for A-level student in real working science labs. It was a frantic summer but we are very happy with the final song. You see a short video about the process here:

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Now that we have a song that both novel and highly baby friendly, Lauren and I have a range of follow up studies planned. We are planning to use the song in a range of experiments looking at how mothers introduce their babies to music and hope to look properly at babies physiological responses to happy music. Meanwhile, I am finishing a popular science book called the Laughing Baby. It is all about how to make babies happy and why that is so important. You can preorder your copy here

Caspar Addyman is happy to be on Twitter @czzpr

It’s time to change the face of psychology

Worm emerging from an apple - hungrymindlab.comVanessa, Hannah and Sophie are members of the Hungry Mind Lab, which is currently based at Goldsmiths University of London. Their research focuses on the causes and consequences of individual differences for lifespan cognitive development. Vanessa is studying for her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Chemnitz in Germany, but she visited the Hungry Mind Lab last autumn for a placement. Hannah has been working as a research assistant and the lab’s co-ordinator for two years, whilst also doing an MSc in Forensic Psychology at King’s College London. Sophie is the lab’s director and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, where she teaches Personality and Individual Differences.

The Research Whisperer

Worm emerging from an apple - hungrymindlab.comVanessa Günther, Hannah Rachel Scott and Sophie von Stumm are a psychological research group at Goldsmiths University of London.

Our lab is called Hungry Mind Lab (@HungryMindLab) and we investigate the complex interplay of various dimensions of individual differences.

We focus on cognitive ability and personality traits and explore how and why these dimensions are interrelated, their causes and consequences for lifespan cognitive development, and their behavioral manifestations. 

Although females outnumber male psychology students at undergraduate levels, senior positions in psychological science are mostly held by men. This disparity has been previously attributed to two principal reasons:

  1. Women’s tendency to prioritise raising a family over pursuing a scientific career, and
  2. Systematic faculty gender biases against hiring and promoting women in academia.

We want to raise awareness of a third crucial issue that hinders women’s progression into the most respected posts in psychological research:

  1. The typical image of the psychological…

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Tricking the brain: how magic works

23_GustavKuhn.jpgGustav Kuhn is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. The main focus of his research is attention and awareness and in particular how attention and eye movements are influenced by social factors. Related to this, he has a keen interest in the science of magic and use magic to investigate a wide range of cognitive mechanisms, such as attention, memory, illusions, and beliefs. Read on…

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The magician snaps his fingers and a ball disappears right in front of your eyes. How is this possible, you ask yourself? You have a pretty good understanding of how objects behave and you know from experience that objects cannot simply disappear into thin air, yet this is exactly what you see. Magic is one of the oldest art forms and since written records began, magicians have baffled and amazed their audiences by creating illusions of the impossible. While most of their tricks remain precious secrets, scientists, myself among them, have started studying magic to gain insights into how and why our minds are so easily deceived.

Magic allows you to experience the impossible. It creates a conflict between the things you think can happen and the things that you experience. While some magicians would like you to believe that they possess real magical powers, the true secret behind magic lies in clever psychological techniques that exploit limitations in the way our brains work. Many of these limitations are very counter-intuitive which is why we can experience the magical wonder of the impossible.

How? Let’s start with the basics. Vision is our most trusted sense, and influences many of our thoughts and behaviours. In fact, vision is so important that we often don’t believe things until we see them with our own eyes. But it turns out that our visual experiences are far less reliable than we intuitively think. It’s relatively easy to distort your perceptual experience and these distortions become very apparent when we look at visual illusion.

Visual illusions occur when there is a mismatch between your perceptual experience and the true state of the world. In the Müller-Lyer illusion, for example, the top line appears shorter than the bottom, although they are exactly the same length.

Seeing the future

We are often surprised by how these illusions deceive us, but it turns out that pretty much all of our perception is an illusion, whether we’re walking down the street or attempting to suss the latest card trick. Intuitively, we think of our eyes as simply capturing truthful images of the world. But in reality, our visual experience results from complex neuronal processes that make clever estimates about what the world is like. And as with all predictions, they are never 100% correct. This leads to errors, and it is these errors that magicians have mastered and exploit.

For example, the vanishing ball illusion is one trick that colleagues and I have studied. In this trick, a magician throws a ball in the air a couple of times and then makes it seem to disappear by pretending to throw it again when in fact it remains secretly concealed inside his hand. What is surprising about this illusion is that most people – almost two thirds – experience an illusory ball being tossed up in the air at the third throw, even though it never leaves the magician’s hand. We experience this “ghost ball” because we see what we believe is going to happen, rather than what has actually taken place. The illusion shows that people perceive things that they believe will happen in the future, even when this belief is completely unfounded.

Ignoring the present

A further misconception about visual experience relates to the amount of detail that we think we are aware of. Intuitively we feel that we are aware of most of our surroundings, but this vivid and detailed subjective experience turns out to be another powerful illusion, equally counter-intuitive and therefore equally open to exploitation by magicians.

Processing large amounts of information is computationally expensive: if you want to process lots of visual information, you need large brains. But large brains come at a cost, since they require large heads and lots of food to support them. So instead of evolving into creatures with humongous brains, we developed extremely efficient strategies that allow us to prioritise aspects of the environment that are of importance, while ignoring things that are less relevant.

What this means is that unless you are paying close attention to something you simply won’t see it. Phenomena such as inattentional blindness or change blindness result from this, where people fail to spot very obvious changes simply because they don’t attend to them. These very powerful examples illustrate that if people are sufficiently distracted they can fail to see a gorilla even when one is right in front of their eyes.

Magicians frequently exploit these attentional limitations by misdirecting your attention and so preventing you from seeing their secret moves. In some of our research we have shown show how this can be used to prevent you from seeing fully visible events.

In the lighter trick, for example, a magician is seated at a table across from the viewer (a). He picks up the lighter and flicks it on (c–f). He pretends to take the flame away and make it vanish, providing a gaze cue as misdirection away from his other hand. At (f), the lighter is visibly dropped into his lap (g–h). The lighter appears to have vanished. Although the lighter is dropped in full view, half of the viewers completely fail to see this happen because they are distracted.

What this, and other tricks show, is that people often fail to see things even when they are looking straight at them. So don’t be so sure to trust your vision in the future. You never know what’s really happening.

Fight or Flight

lucyDr. Lucy Oldfield is a practising Clinical Psychologist working in a primary care adult mental health setting in the NHS alongside  lecturing at Goldsmiths on the Foundations in Clinical Psychology and Health Services MSc programme. Her clinical work is focused around anxiety and mood disorders with a specialist interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Here, in honour of #TimeToTalk Day, she recounts recent work for iCope on specific phobia. 

This piece was originally published here.


Jessica* had a lifelong phobia of butterflies but being a new mum she was very conscious of transferring this phobia to her two-year-old son.


“I’d put myself in dangerous situations before. I had run onto a road of traffic without any control because a butterfly had come near me and I’d never want to be in that kind of a position while I was holding my little boy’s hand. I was also having panic attacks and dealing with stress at work too, so I self-referred to iCope. And, I have family who are based in the Philippines. So although the UK isn’t scattered with butterflies there are large breeds in my home country and it used to really put me off going there.”

iCope is a psychological therapies service, they provide talking therapies and work with a range of conditions including stress, worry, depression and insomnia. Clinical Psychologist, Dr Lucy Oldfield, who worked closely with her, explained: “I met Jessica for a face-to-face assessment to get some more detail about the problem. “Treatment for phobias, anxiety and panic is psychological, and ultimately it is about exposing the person to their fear in gradual steps but to tackle this you need an overarching understanding of their condition. “There was a particular traumatic event in her history which she hadn’t connected to why she had this phobia. It was an important factor in itself because she was feeling very ashamed of being afraid of butterflies and thought most people would think this was a silly fear and that it didn’t make sense. “Jessica was also having panic attacks when there were no butterflies around. On her way into work she would sometimes feel very nervous and think she needed to get off public transport. We realised this was all connected as fear of fear.”

There were a number of stages to her treatment. Jessica explained, “We created the behaviour that someone displays during a panic attack. For me, I would start breathing differently and we experimented with that. This was before we began to look at my phobia.“ The first stage was to outline the most feared outcomes in a gradual order. For example, it was anything from saying the word ‘butterfly’ which was making Jessica feel sick and disgusted, to actually physically seeing the insect. The treatment involved confronting each item in the list head on as quickly as possible. Jessica said: “In the early stages we began by drawing butterflies on paper, we’d cut them out, throw them in the air to simulate their flying which initially made me feel very anxious and panicky but became fun over just a few minutes. After that session I continued doing this at home. I played a game with my son, colouring in and drawing butterflies. I did feel like I was making progress. Then we began looking at photos, still images, colour, black and white. I had control over the computer and was choosing the right image. I was looking at the screen long enough that the physical symptoms actually subsided and I learned that the panic was easing.”

Exposure to these fears allows us to rationalise what is happening at the emotional, ‘felt’ level, so it is powerful to learn that anxiety always drops if we stay in the situation for long enough. Lucy explained: “The session was going well, but at the end a picture jumped out. It was a huge butterfly which looked as if it was on somebody’s face. This was the first time I witnessed the peak of Jessica’s anxiety. She sprang off her chair, onto the other side of the room, cowering, clearly very distressed. She was very embarrassed about it but it was useful for me to see, because if we were outside she may have run into a road – she didn’t have any control over it. These kinds of reactions are useful for me to use as a learning tool.” Jessica went away and decided to look at more pictures on the internet, then she started to watch documentaries.

Before the next step – seeing a real butterfly. “I went to an exhibition at the Natural History Museum and looked at the cases of dead butterflies. I felt like I had learnt to manage my emotions.” But that wasn’t the final step – the final step was to face her fear. “We went to an exhibition where there were real butterflies. Initially, I was very calm but as we got tickets and walked towards it my panic increased. Before we walked in, there were some strips of plastic and I didn’t want to go in but we spend a lot of time recapping what I had learnt. “I knew that the worst thing for me would be coming so far and not being able to actually walk in and face my fear. We began by putting one hand through the gap, one foot and then we were inside. I did jump a few times but after a while I was walking around myself. Although I was feeling panic-stricken it was nowhere near how I felt before the treatment.”


*Jessica is not her real name

Dr. Lucy Oldfiewld is on Twitter @oldfieldLucy




What to expect when collective narcissists get political power

a_golecDr. Agnieszka Golec de Zavala is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. Her research interests and expertise lie in the areas of social and political psychology.  She is  interested in how prejudice is embodied. For example – why do we use a metaphor of cleansing when we mean exterminating others (e.g. ´ethnic cleansing´). She  has examined how intergroup attitudes are shaped by the interaction of ideological orientations – such as political conservatism, nationalism or religious fundamentalism – and epistemic motivations (need for cognitive closure, death anxiety, uncertainty avoidance). She is also particularly interested in predictors of political radicalisation, violence and prejudice, and in  in collective and individual narcissism and their social consequences. It is to this  interest that her post speaks.

Our ongoing research showed that people who agreed with statements like ‘My national group deserves special treatment‘; ‘Not many people seem to fully understand the importance of my group.‘ or ‘I will never be satisfied until my group gets the recognition it deserves.’ voted to Leave the European Union in the referendum in the UK in June 2016. They elected ultraconservative, isolationist government in Poland. They voted for Donald Trump in the US presidential election. These people can be described as collective narcissists and we will face the consequences of their getting to power in the years to come. Thus, we should understand how they think and act.


Collective narcissism is analogous to individual narcissism: emotional dependence on admiration by others (Rodthewald & Morf, 2001) but collective narcissists seek admiration for groups they belong to. In general, people relate to important groups in similar ways they relate to the self (Scheepers, et al., 2013). Insightfully, Jean-Jacques Rousseau differentiated two types of self-love.  Amour propre (self-love) is a preoccupation to amount to something in the eyes of others. It can be compared to individual narcissism, self-esteem contingent on recognition by others. Amour de soi-même (love for the self) is a need to care for and nourish oneself.  It can be compared to self-acceptance or self-compassion.

Similarly, attachment to groups can take two distinct forms. Collective narcissism is an emotional investment in an exaggerated image of an(y) important group contingent on recognition and admiration of others (analogous to image-cautious self-love). It is characterized by an unrealistic belief in group’s grandiosity and demands for privileged treatment (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2009). Collective narcissism may be contrasted with attachment to a highly valued group expressed as feeling responsible for the group’s welfare (analogous to love for the self). The two forms of group love have distinct consequences for inter-group relations. Collective narcissists are hostile towards groups that they see as a threat to their group’s image. People satisfied with their group but not narcissistic about it hold positive attitudes towards other groups (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2013).

Collective narcissists believe their group is unique but not sufficiently recognized by others. In fact, they themselves unconsciously doubt their group: They do not automatically associate group symbols with positive stimuli. People who are attached to a group believe in its good qualities (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2009). For example, in our ongoing studies collective narcissists voted to Leave the European Union because they feared and rejected immigrants. Those who were proud but not narcissistic about being British, voted to Remain because they saw their country as indispensable in defining the European Union’s identity.

Collective narcissists are determined to get the recognition of others. When they think their group is not sufficiently recognized, they advocate hostile revenge. They attack not only the ‘offenders’ but the whole groups they represent. In our studies, when their group was criticized by one person, collective narcissists responded with aggressive intentions and behaviours towards the whole group (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2016). Collective narcissists are also indirectly hostile. They rejoice in misfortunes of groups or people they hold accountable for offending their group.

Worryingly, collective narcissists can construe almost anything as offence to their group. For example, Polish collective narcissists felt offended by a movie about one of the least laudable aspects of Polish modern history: post-war anti-Semitism. In response, they attacked a celebrity actor who played the protagonist in this movie. They expressed intentions of harming and offending him. They rejoiced in his personal hardships (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2016).

Since they constantly monitor their group image, collective narcissists are prone to conspiracy thinking to explain anything that may undermine their group (Golec de Zavala & Cichocka, 2012; Cichocka, et al., 2015). Consider the catastrophic plane crash in 2010 that killed 96 members of the Polish ruling elite including the President and his wife. Collective narcissists could not believe such monumental national loss might have been caused by something as mundane as human mistake. Especially, not one made by the president himself who ordered the plane to land despite averse atmospheric conditions. Thus, they spread and believed in conspiracy theories about a secretive Russian attack. Our ongoing research shows that national collective narcissism predicts support for political parties that most actively promoted such theories.



Collective Narcissism Scale

So what can we expect from collective narcissism being now in power and on the rise? Collective narcissistic rulers are likely to make unrealistic demands on other countries. This will result either in increased international tensions or international marginalization, depending on the country’s actual economic and political power.  Their alliances are likely to be short-lived. Collective narcissists look for allies but they quickly get used to their support and make further demands. Conspiracy theories are likely to become more prominent in political rhetoric. In internal affairs, the divide between ruling parties and opposition is likely to increase. Active opposition undermines the image of the governors.  Internal intergroup tensions are likely to increase because collective narcissists rely on a narrow definition of what constitutes a nation. They do not like it when their group is comparable to other groups. We are likely to witness efforts to marginalize minority groups and limit the rights of immigrants and foreign workers. The more immigrants are presented as economically successful (and comparable to hosting nationals), the more threatening they would seem to national collective narcissists. There will be less help for refugees. Refugees who can successfully settle in a host country become comparable to the hosting group. Such prospects are likely to be threatening to national collective narcissists. In short, we will also see more efforts to secure, legitimize, and further legalize group-based privileges.

There is a chance that collective narcissists’ hostile sentiments may become ‘tamed’ by participation in democratic processes and institutions based on transparency and equal rights. However, there is a real danger that democratic institutions and processes may become compromised by collective narcissistic sentiments.

There are also drawbacks to being bilingual

juliaouzia_profilephoto-1Dr. Julia Ouzia is a Teaching Fellow at Goldsmiths.The main objective of her work is to understand the cognitive functioning of individuals who use two or more languages in everyday life. Specifically, her research has focused on the impact of adverse emotional states and traits on cognition, spoken language comprehension in the presence of interference, probabilistic learning abilities, and metacognitive efficiency of bilingual individuals.

From a methodological standpoint, she is interested in using multi-dimensional approaches involving a variety of psychometric and behavioural paradigms, as well as other research methods, such as eye tracking, in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the bilingual mind. Here she, with colleague Tomas Folke, looks at some of the draw backs of bilingualism as researched at Anglia Ruskin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ability to speak more than one language certainly has its perks. It enables you to work in another country, for example, interact with people while travelling, or consume foreign media.

Bilingualism is very common – current estimates are that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual and that this prevalence is rising.

Cognitive psychologists have been interested in how bilingualism shapes the mind for almost a century. There are those who suggest that in order to speak in one language, bilinguals have to suppress the influence of the other. Research from the past three decades has argued that this unique form of language processing “trains the brain” in the use of non-verbal abilities known as “executive functions” such as ignoring irrelevant information or shifting attention.

Bilinguals of different ages and cultural backgrounds have been shown to be faster and more accurate than their monolingual peers when performing cognitive tasks demanding these abilities. Furthermore, it has been argued that bilingualism may lead to a delayed onset of symptoms associated with dementia.

But the scientific community recently has become increasingly sceptical of the bilingual advantage hypothesis. One of the main points of criticism is that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals when it comes to executive function are not always apparent. This has generated a heated debate, especially in the Bilingualism Forum of the scientific journal Cortex, about whether bilingualism is associated with cognitive advantages or not.

Fresh challenge

It appears that research on bilingualism is at a turning point. We need to pursue a new approach to understand, beyond those individual examples of executive functions, how the bilingual mind works. We have attempted to address this challenge by testing whether bilinguals and monolinguals differ in terms of how accurately they can assess their own performance.

Might come in handy in parts of Wales.

This ability is called metacognition and is associated with, but separate from, other areas where bilinguals have been shown to have an advantage. Surprisingly, however, we found that bilinguals had less insight into their performance than their monolingual peers.

Joining the dots

In an effort to find out whether bilinguals also display advantages in other cognitive abilities (beyond executive function), we evaluated metacognitive processing in young adult monolinguals and bilinguals. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive performance or simply to have “thoughts about thoughts”.

This ability is a crucial function of everyday life, when we have to make decisions where the outcomes are not immediate. For example, when an entrepreneur reviews their company’s performance, they need to take into account a variety of factors – including, for example, revenues and expenses – in order to evaluate whether the company is doing well. Confidence in their ideas and performance can be the determining factor in whether they decide to keep investing time in their company or give up and apply for another job (the so-called “exploitation exploration trade-off”).

In our research, we presented participants with a situation in which they had to observe two circles on a screen and guess which one contained more dots. Sometimes the difference was obvious, making the decision easy, while at other times the decision was very difficult (for example, one circle contained 50 dots and the other 49). Participants were then asked to determine how confident they were in their decision on a scale from less to more confident than normal.

Illustration of the metacognition paradigm employed by Folke et al., 2016.
Folkes et al, 2016, Author provided

Over the course of two experiments, we found that bilinguals and monolinguals were equally likely to choose the circle containing the highest number of dots. However, monolinguals were better able than bilinguals to discriminate between when they were right and when they were wrong. In other words, bilinguals had less insight into their performance than monolinguals. This went against our initial predictions, as we expected to find a bilingual advantage in metacognitive processing. These results indicate that bilingualism may be associated with cognitive disadvantages as well as benefits.

What’s next?

The Multilanguage & Cognition lab (MULTAC) at Anglia Ruskin University is currently undertaking a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to enhance our understanding of the bilingual mind.

The lab has already published evidence of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, suggesting that bilinguals are better at filtering out verbal interference as well as visual attention, specifically spotting the difference in a visuo-spatial working memory task.

This new research indicates that bilingual people may experience a disadvantage in metacognition. We hope that this new direction in bilingualism research will encourage further attention and enable us to resolve theoretical debate through the adoption of open-minded, empirically driven exploration of cognitive effects (both positive and negative) that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Julia tweets monolingually from @JuliaOuzia

Tomas Folke, is a PhD candidate, University of Cambridge