Facial Composite Systems Give Poor Results

February 2007 – A review by Gary Wells and Lisa Hasels of Iowa State University published in Current Directions in Psychological Science has found that recent technological advances in facial composite systems have failed to improve identification and apprehension of criminal suspects.

The era of an artist’s skilful pencil sketches has been replaced by computer software offering witnesses a huge range of different facial features. The review highlights poor results from such facial composite systems. In one study, only 2.8 per cent of participants correctly identified a well-known celebrity created by other participants using face-composite software. In separate research, participants were unable to discriminate composites of their classmates from those of students at different schools.

The report suggests that these poor results do not reflect software deficiencies as such but more a discrepancy between how we remember faces and how composites are produced.

The authors comment:

“Numerous lines of evidence converge on the view that faces are generally processed, stored and retrieved at a holistic level rather than at the level of individual facial features.

“The psychological process of remembering faces may include more complex representations such as multidimensional similarity to other faces or relative sizes and distances of features and so on that are not readily retrieved by memory nor utilized by facial composite software.”

The report highlights encouraging results from early tests using the concept of holistic processing to develop face-composite systems using “whole-face” methods for recall. Generation of a random set of faces enables the witness to select the one most similar to their memory of the perpetrator. This “parent” image is subject to several mutations to produce a set of similar looking faces. The witness again chooses, continuing the process until unable to discriminate from the face in their memory.

The authors fit attempts to improve face-composite systems into the larger problem of the US criminal justice system. Analysis of the first 180 DNA exonerations involved mistaken eyewitness testimony in 75 per cent of cases. Poor composites may also encourage guilty suspects.

Gary Wells commented:

“Imagine the solace of the culprit who sees a composite of his face in the newspaper that looks nothing like his face.”

The report argues that increasing knowledge of memory processes involved in facial recognition will help improve the accuracy of facial composites and reduce the number of those falsely convicted.

The authors conclude:

“As the historical and natural home of the science of memory, psychological science has great promise for helping to solve an age-old problem.”


Explaining Out-of-body Experiences

September 2007 – Two recent studies published in Science offer insight into how individuals perceive their own bodies and a possible explanation for out-of-body experiences. This phenomenon has been associated with drug use and neurological disorders such as epilepsy but patients were commonly thought to have imagined it.

Researchers suggest that in addition to reducing stigma, the studies use techniques that may facilitate ‘teleoperating’ training in areas such as remote surgery.

H. Henrik Ehrsson of University College London and Karolinska Institute Stockholm and researchers led by Olaf Blanke of Ecole Polytechique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and University Hospital in Geneva both showed volunteers images of their bodies from the perspective of a person viewing them from behind using video cameras and virtual reality goggles. Participants were also simultaneously touched physically and virtually. Both studies conclude that out-of-body experiences thereby induced may result from “multi-sensory conflict” – disconnection between brain circuits responsible for processing both types of information.

Henrik Ehrsson said:

“I’m interested in why we feel that our selves are inside our bodies – why we have an ‘in-body experience’ if you like. This has been discussed for centuries in philosophy, but it’s hard to tackle experimentally.”

Participants in Henrik Ehrsson’s study looked at recorded images through headsets and saw a plastic rod moving toward a point just below the camera. Their real chests were simultaneously touched in the relevant place. They reported feeling they were located where the camera was and watching a dummy or body belonging to someone else. Volunteers also watched a hammer swing to a point below the camera posing the threat of injury to an invisible part of the virtual body. Researchers measured skin conductance to assess emotional responses such as fear and found that volunteers sensed that their “selves” had moved to the virtual body.

Henrik Ehrsson commented:

“This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are.”

The second team converted video images into computer simulations similar to holographs which they caution limits comparisons with full out-of-body experiences. After a virtual reality exercise, volunteers were blindfolded and guided backwards. When asked to return to their original position, they tended to gravitate toward the position where they had seen their virtual bodies. However, when participants viewed a human-sized block instead of a body they successfully returned to their original place.

Researchers suggest that this finding indicates that self-consciousness of one’s body may involve a cognitive dimension “the ability to distinguish between one’s own body and other objects” in addition to sensory signals. Some out-of-body experiences may be related to distorted “full-body perception”.

Olaf Blanke said:

“Full-body consciousness seems to require not just the ‘bottom up’ process of correlating sensory information but also the ‘top down’ knowledge about human bodies.”

“We have decades of intense research on visual perception, but not very much yet on body perception. But that may change, now virtual reality offers a way to manipulate full body perception more systematically and probe out-of-body experiences and bodily self consciousness in a new way.”

Henrik Ehrsson concluded:

“Brain dysfunctions that interfere with interpreting sensory signals may be responsible for some clinical cases of out-of-body experiences. Though whether all out-of-body experiences arise from the same causes is still an open question.”


Why Psychosis Rates Vary

December 2006 – Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London have found higher rates of schizophrenia and other psychoses in certain ethnic minority groups and also that parental separation in childhood is associated with an increased risk of developing psychosis later in life. These findings, published in separate papers in Psychological Medicine provide new insights into these disorders and their social risk factors.

Researchers from London, Nottingham and Bristol have been collaborating in the Aetiology and Ethnicity of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses (AESOP) study since 1997. Funded by the Medical Research Council, the overall aims of the study are to elucidate the overall rates of psychotic disorder, to confirm and extend previous findings of raised rates of psychosis in certain migrant groups in the UK, and to explore biological and social risk factors and their possible interactions.

Researchers found that African Caribbean and black Africans in England suffer from significantly higher rates of schizophrenia and manic psychosis than the white British population. For example, schizophrenia was nine times more common in African Caribbean and six times more common in black Africans. These rates applied to both men and women and across all ages from 16 to 64. Other ethnic minority groups had more modestly increased rates. For example, non-British whites had a 2.5 fold increased risk for schizophrenia.

Dr Paul Fearon, senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry explains:

“Although all ethnic minority groups have a greater risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses, our study found that African Caribbean and black African communities in England appear to be at particularly high risk, regardless of age or gender. If we can understand and explain these phenomena, we can not only plan better services for these groups, but we may also more fully understand the underlying causes of these disorders.”

Researchers found that separation from one or both parents for more than one year before the age of 16, as a consequence of family breakdown, was associated with a 2.5 fold increased risk of developing psychosis in later life. This factor was more common in the African Caribbean community sample (31 per cent) than in the white British community sample (18 per cent).

Dr Craig Morgan, MRC research fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, added:

“These findings provide evidence that early social adversity may increase the risk of later psychosis. Such early adversity may be one factor contributing to the high rate of psychosis in the African Caribbean population. However, while these findings are an important step forward, further research is now needed to more fully understand how specific types of early social adversity interact with psychological and biological factors to cause psychosis.”


The Origins of Morality

May 2007 Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, reviews a new consensus that scientists are reaching on the origins and mechanisms of morality in the May 18 issue of the journal Science. He poses questions such as:

  • How much money would it take to get you to stick a pin into your palm?
  • How much to stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know?
  • How much to slap a friend in the face (with his or her permission) as part of a comedy skit?
  • What about slapping you father (with his permission) as part of a skit?

Haidt argues that the way in which you answer such questions may reveal something about your morality – and even your politics. His findings show, for example, that conservativestend to care more about issues of hierarchy and respect, while liberals concentrate on caring and fairness.

Haidt’s review shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles:

  1. Intuitive primacy – human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments
  2. Moral thinking if for social doing – we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us
  3. Morality binds and builds – morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, allowing humans – but no other primates – to live in large, highly cooperative groups.

“Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves,” said Haidt. His own research indicates that, in general, people follow their gut feelings and make up moral reasons afterwards.

“Since the time of the Enlightenment,” Haidt said, “many philosophers have celebrated the power and virtue of cool, dispassionate reasoning. Unfortunately, few people other than philosophers can engage in such cool, honest reasoning when moral issues are at stake. The rest of us behave more like lawyers, using any arguments we can find to make our case, rather than like judges or scientists searching for the truth. This doesn’t mean we are doomed to be immoral; it just means that we should look for the roots of our considerable virtue elsewhere – in the emotions and intuitions that make us so generally decent and cooperative, yet also sometimes willing to hurt or kill in defense of a principle, a person or a place.”

According to Haidt, human morality is a ‘cultural construction’ that has been built on top of – and constrained by – a small set of evolved psychological systems. Haidt considers that political liberals base their moral perspectives mainly on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, utilise the same two systems and an additional three, involving emotional sensitivities to:

  • in-group boundaries
  • authority, and
  • spiritual purity

“We all start off with the same evolved moral capacities,” said Haidt, “but then we each learn only a subset of the available human virtues and values. We often end up demonizing people with different political ideologies because of our inability to appreciate the moral motives operating on the other side of a conflict. We are surrounded by moral conflicts, on the personal level, the national level and the international level. The recent scientific advances in moral psychology can help explain why these conflicts are so passionate and so intractable. An understanding of moral psychology can also point to some new ways to bridge these divides, to appeal to hearts and minds on both sides of a conflict.”


Why Women Prefer Pink

August 2007 – A study by Newcastle University researchers Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling published in Current Biology supports the popular notion that men and women differ when it comes to colour preference. Researchers found that women prefer pink “or at least a redder shade of blue” than men do.

Anya Hurlbert said:

“Although we expected to find sex differences, we were surprised at how robust they were, given the simplicity of our test”.

Young men and women (171 British Caucasians) were asked to select, as rapidly as possible, their preferred colour from a series of paired rectangles. Overall, the differences were sufficiently clear to predict the sex of a participant. To investigate whether biology or culture was more influential, researchers also tested a small group of Chinese people. Results were similar, supporting the hypothesis that sex differences might have a biological component. Results indicated that the universal favourite colour was blue.

Anya Hurlbert speculated:

“Going back to our ‘savannah’ days, we would have a natural preference for a clear blue sky, because it signalled good weather. Clear blue also signals a good water source.”

“On top of that, females have a preference for the red end of the red-green axis, and this shifts their colour preference slightly away from blue towards red, which tends to make pinks and lilacs the most preferred colours in comparison with others” she added.

Researchers suggest the explanation might go back to hunter-gatherer societies, when women as primary gatherers would have benefited from an ability to identify ripe, red fruits.

Anya Hurlbert commented:

“Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colours – reddish fruits, healthy, reddish faces. Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference.”

Researchers plan to modify the test for use in young babies to further investigate the respective roles of “nature versus nurture” in colour preference.


Negative Influences

October 2007 – Research from Indiana University published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that while we tend to believe that we are capable of forming independent opinions, what other people think can influence our conclusions, with negative attitudes resulting in the biggest changes.

The researchers explained:

“Consumer attitudes toward products and services are frequently influenced by others around them. Social networks, such as those found on Myspace and Facebook suggest that these influences will continue to be significant drivers of individual consumer attitudes as society becomes more inter-connected. Our research seeks to understand the conditions where group influence is strongest.”

Adam Duhachek, Shuoyang Zhang, and Shanker Krishnan asked participants for independent evaluations about a new product. As anticipated, some were positive and others negative. The researchers then told them whether other volunteers had evaluated the product negatively or positively. They found that negative opinions had a particularly strong influence on the attitudes of others. Participants who had privately given a positive evaluation were more susceptible to group opinion than those who initially held negative views. The study also found that those with negative opinions tended to become even more negative when participating in a group discussion.

Researchers commented:

“When consumers expect to interact with other consumers through these forums, learning the views of these other consumers may reinforce and even polarize their opinions, making them more negative.”

The researchers concluded:

“This research has several interesting implications. First, given the strong influence of negative information, marketers may need to expend extra resources to counter-act the effects of negative word of mouth in online chatrooms, blogs and in offline media. Conversely, companies could damage the reputations of competitors by disseminating negative information online. Consumers should be aware that these social influence biases exist and are capable of significantly impacting their perceptions.”


Experiences More Satisfying Than Possessions

March 2009 – Research from San Francisco State University presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology has found that purchasing experiences rather than possessions results in increased well-being for consumers and others around them. The study concludes that this is because purchases of this type address higher order needs such as the need for social connectedness.

Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology said:

“These findings support an extension of basic need theory, where purchases that increase psychological need satisfaction will produce the greatest well-being.”

Participants asked to write reflections and answer questions about recent purchases reported that those involving experiences represented better value and greater happiness for both themselves and others regardless of income or the amount involved. They also resulted in longer-term satisfaction.

Ryan Howell explained:

“Purchased experiences provide memory capital. We don’t tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object. People still believe that more money will make them happy, even though 35 years of research has suggested the opposite. Maybe this belief has held because money is making some people happy some of the time, at least when they spend it on life experiences.”


IQ And Short-term Memory

September 2007 Research from the University of Oregon published in Psychological Science suggests that short-term memory capacity is a strong predictor of IQ.

Professors of psychology Edward Awh and Edward Vogel and recent graduate Brian Barton have found that people with high IQs may be able to remember more than the average four items. Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the complexity of items being stored in short-term memory may determine this apparent limit.

The current study based on laboratory experiments found that participants aged 18 to 30 were able to hold four items in active memory even when very complex objects were involved. However, clarity was not perfect and varied between participants. The people who could remember a lot of objects at one time did not necessarily have clearer memories of them.

Edward Awh commented:

“Knowing the number of things a person can remember tells you nothing about how clear a person’s memory may be. So even though people with high IQs can think about more things at once, there are not guarantees about how good those memories might be.”


Power and Poor Decision-Making

March 2012 – A recent study sheds light on how power can fuel the overconfidence that causes people in leadership positions to make bad decisions.

The study was conducted by USC Marshall assistant professor of management and organization. Nathanael Fast and co-authors, Niro Sivanathan of London Business School, Nicole D. Mayer of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

The researchers point to a fundamental truth in the world of business: unconstrained power can hinder decision-making. It is a truism that can be extended to political leaders as well.

According to Nathanael Fast:

“The aim of this research was to help power holders become conscious of one of the pitfalls leaders often fall prey to, The overall sense of control that comes with power tends to make people feel overconfident in their ability to make good decisions.”

The researchers conducted a number of experiments to explore this tendency. In one experiment, subjects were asked to bet money on the accuracy of their own knowledge. But first, participants were put in touch with feelings of either power or powerlessness by being asked to recall and write down accounts in some detail of a specific experience when they either had, or did not have, power over other people. Then the subjects were asked to answer six factual questions and to set a “confidence boundary” on how well they thought they had performed.

Nathanel Fast commented:

“What we found across the studies is that power leads to over-precision, which is the tendency to overestimate the accuracy of personal knowledge.”

The study found that subjects who were primed to feel powerful actually lost money betting on their knowledge while, those who did not feel powerful made less risky bets and did not lose money.

According to Nathanel Fast:

“This was one piece of puzzle, the idea that a subjective feeling of power leads to over-precision.”

The research team hypothesized that overconfidence among high-power individuals could be limited through blocking their subjective sense of power by directing attention to the limits of their personal competence. They tested this by allocating subjects to high-power or low-power roles. But subjects’ feelings of competence were also manipulated by asking them a series of yes/no “leadership aptitude” questions. The subjects were then randomly given a false score – ranging from “poor” to “excellent” – through a computer and told that their scores reflected their aptitude for leadership. Participants with “low” scores were advised that they “may not be as competent as others.”

After being given their results, the subjects were asked to bet money on how well they would answer six trivia questions.

Yet again, the ‘powerful’ subjects lost more money but participants who had been led to doubt their own competence did not. Put another way, when subjects felt subjectively powerful they were at their most most vulnerable to overconfident decision-making.

Nathanael Fast considers that the best decision-makers can find ways to avoid this vulnerabity:

“The most effective leaders bring people around them who critique them. As a power holder, the smartest thing you might ever do is bring people together who will inspect your thinking and who aren’t afraid to challenge your ideas.” But, ironically, the study shows that the more powerful they become, the less help leaders think they need.

Adam Galinsky concluded:

“Power is an elixir, a self-esteem enhancing drug that surges through the brain telling you how great your ideas are. This leaves the powerful vulnerable to making overconfident decisions that lead them to dead-end alleys.”

“Power and Overconfident Decision-making” by Nathanael Fast, Niro Sivanathan, Nicole D. Mayer and Adam Galinsky is in press at Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.


Loneliness and the Baby Boomer

April 2012 – Single baby boomers have a lonely old age ahead according to new statistics from Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR).

Data from three decades worth of censuses and the 2009 round of the American Community Survey, analyzed by Dr. I-Fen Lin, associate professor of sociology, and Dr. Susan Brown, a professor of sociology and NCFMR co-director show that a third of people aged 45-63 are unmarried. This is 50% more than their equivalents in 1980, when only a fifth of middle-aged Americans were unmarried. Today, one in three single baby boomers have never been married.

According to I-Fen Lin:

“The shift in marital composition of the middle-aged suggests that researchers and policymakers can no longer focus on widowhood in later life and should pay attention to the vulnerabilities of the never-married and divorced as well.”

Dr Brown says that 1 in 5 of single baby boomers live in poverty. This compares with 1 in 20 of married counterparts. Also, they are twice as likely to be disabled – but less likely to have health insurance. Divorced baby boomers, on the other hand, have both better economic resources and better health than widowed or never married counterparts. Never-married boomers are a particular concern because research shows that most of them will remain unmarried.

Susan Brown concludes:

“The economic and health vulnerabilities of single boomers are concerning because boomers are now moving into old age when failing health becomes even more common and severe. In the past, family members, particularly spouses, have provided care to infirm older adults. But a growing share of older adults aren’t going to have a spouse available to rely on for support. Our figures indicate one in three boomers won’t have a spouse who can care for them. And, unmarrieds are less likely to have children who might provide care. These shifting family patterns portend new strains on existing institutional supports for the elderly. As more singles enter older adulthood, we as a society may have to reconsider how we care for frail elders. The family may no longer be a viable option for an increasing segment of older adults.”

Loneliness and Alzheimer’s

A study by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2007 found that lonely people may be twice as likely to develop the type of dementia linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers acknowledge previous studies showing a link between social isolation and increased risk of dementia and decline in cognitive functioning. However, the current study sheds new light on the effects of emotional isolation (or feeling alone) and pays tribute to “the remarkable dedication and altruism” of the volunteers who participated.

Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and colleagues analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four year period. Participants underwent evaluations including assessments of loneliness, classifications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and testing of thinking, learning and memory abilities. Loneliness was measured on a scale of one to five, the score increasing with the degree experienced.

Participants’ average loneliness score was 2.3 at first examination. Over the course of the study, 76 individuals developed dementia that met criteria for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease increased by approximately 51 per cent for each point scored on the loneliness scale. A person with a high score (3.2) had about 2.1 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than a person with a low score (1.4). The findings did not change significantly when social isolation indicators, such as a small network and infrequent social activities, were taken into account.

The study concluded that loneliness is a risk factor, not an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Autopsies performed on 90 individuals who died during the study found no relationship between loneliness and typical brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, including nerve plaques and tangles, or tissue damaged by lack of blood flow.

Robert Wilson commented:

“Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health. The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”

Researchers call for more investigation into how negative emotions cause changes in the brain.

Robert Wilson added:

“If loneliness is causing changes in the brain, it is quite possible that medications or changes in behavior could lessen the effects of these negative emotions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”