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Qi Wang Retraces Her Path to Memory Research

Qi Wang, an Association for Psychological Science (APS) Fellow esteemed for her scientific contributions on culture and autobiographical memory, reflects on her career path in an interview with Suparna Rajaram, the President of APS.

 


Special Issue on Women in Science 

Wendy Williams, founder, and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science (CIWS) has edited a special edition of a journal on evidence-based research about factors that affect the academic and professional lives of women in STEM fields. In her editorial of Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate, Williams provides a framework for understanding some of the issues and viewpoints that surround the debate of women in science.


Mothers Instill Eco-Awareness

Gary Evans and colleagues are the first to show that parenting can have long-term effects on pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood. This has important implications for education and public policy.

 


Long-Term Depression Risk for Girls Who Start Puberty Early

In his blog, The Methods Man, F. Perry Wilson MD, commends the quality of Jane Mendle's research on how early puberty may lead to depression in adulthood. Her results have important implications for depression screening recommendations of girls in early puberty.

 


Too Young to Plead

In a recent paper, Valerie Reyna and Rebecca Helm reported that adolescents are more likely than adults to plea guilty to crimes they have not committed. They argue that the decision-making processes involved with plea-bargaining are developmentally immature in adolescents and they are vulnerable to pleading to a lesser charge even if innocent.

 


Mapping Emotion in the Brain

Daniel Casasanto and graduate student Geoffrey Brookshire propose an exciting new theory that, contrary to the prevailing view that different emotions are localized in specific areas of the brain, emotions are “smeared over both hemispheres” depending on an individual’s handedness.

 


The Accents We Trust

Katherine Kinzler studies the development of social cognition, with particular emphasis on exploring infants’ and children’s attention to the language and accent with which others speak as a marker of group membership. A recent article by the BBC explores her research and its implications for empathy, cultural learning, and trust.

 


 

Excerpted from APS ObserverThe Memories of Memory Researchers

by Suparna Rajaram

In this Presidential Column, it is my pleasure to bring to you my Q&A with four internationally renowned psychological scientists who will speak at the Presidential Symposium I will host during the 30th APS Annual Convention on May 25, 2018, in San Francisco. These eminent scientists — APS Past President and William James Fellow Henry L. (Roddy) Roediger, III, APS Board Member Dorthe Berntsen, APS Fellow Qi Wang, and psychological scientist Charan Ranganath — have fundamentally shaped our understanding of human memory through a wide range of perspectives, techniques, and groundbreaking discoveries. I was struck by the varied paths they have taken in their lives and education, the challenges they have faced, and the ingenuity they have brought, time and again, to scaling new heights. I was also inspired by their singular love for science, their dedication to our discipline, and their overall leadership.  I hope that students and early investigators reading these interviews will enjoy the infectious optimism and strength evident in their answers and the priceless advice the speakers have offered based on their vast experience. –APS President Suparna Rajaram

Qi Wang, Chair of Human Development

What piqued your interest in the general area of your research?

Here is a description of how I came to study autobiographical memory and culture, from my book The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture (2013):

“About fifteen years ago, in mid 1990s, when I went to graduate school in the Psychology Department at Harvard, I had no idea of what autobiographical memory was. Although I had attended the best university in China and had gained a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, the term meant second to nothing to me. At that time, the study of autobiographical memory in Western psychology had grown into a dynamic, interdisciplinary field with exciting discoveries, theoretical debates, controversial issues, and intriguing phenomena. It had drawn researchers from diverse disciplines with such varied interests in human memory in natural contexts, in life histories and narrative self-making, and in the practical implications of memory in clinical, legal, and everyday settings. Autobiographical memory was not a subject of research in China then, however. Neither was autobiography an eminent genre in Chinese literature. I was amazed by the large sections of autobiographies and memories in the Cambridge bookstores, a scene foreign and somewhat bizarre to me. What is the driving force behind the cultural difference in the popularity of autobiographical memory in research and autobiography in pop culture more generally? This question has motivated my research ever since.”

Can you share with us a little about your educational path, and whether/how it led you to pursue research in psychological science?

Both my parents were engineers before their retirement. So my pursuit in psychology was informed by early exposure outside home. When I was 11, I was admitted into a boarding school that was one of the top-ranked middle-high schools in our province. The school was very far away from where we lived. So I stayed with my aunt’s family for about a year before a dorm-bed spot opened up (That was back in the early 1980s when China was still in economic devastation). My aunt was a psychology professor at a teacher’s college. It was through her that I first learned about psychology. I read many books in general and developmental psychology from my aunt’s collection.

Naturally, when I was later admitted to Peking University (or Beijing University), I chose to be a psychology major.

Did you take any detours along the journey to where you are today, and if so, how would you describe the significance of these markers?  

Although I set my foot in psychology at a fairly young age (primarily due to my aunt’s influence), I took some major detours before arriving to where I am today.

At the time when I graduated from college, in 1989, China was undergoing historical transformations in every aspect of the society — economically, politically, and culturally. Many new career opportunities emerged that my generation who grew up in Communist China had never heard of. They attracted many young and adventurous people and I was one of them. I had worked in foreign-invested hotels (a brand new concept at the time), in public relations and sales (where my psychology training was somewhat useful), and I had worked for a major French company in Beijing, doing administrative work.

Six years post-graduate, I found myself missing psychology and wanted to get back to my “roots.” So I started applying to graduate programs in Europe and the United States, which eventually led me to Harvard.  (A side story: My original plan was to study developmental psychology at University of Geneva, where Jean Piaget had taught. I was admitted into the program and in fact went there, but then found out that my French was inadequate for me to begin the graduate work right away).

The detours were well worth it: They made me realize what I wanted for my career and where my intellectual strengths were. They allowed me to stay focused during my graduate study and remain motivated. I formally enrolled in the psychology PhD program at Harvard in 1996 and received my degree in 2000. I then joined the faculty in Human Development at Cornell.

What have been the most exciting parts of your scientific career?

The pursuit itself is the most exciting part: coming up with interesting and original ideas, brain-storming with students and collaborators, persevering in the data-collection process, writing and thinking through writing. These are all exciting parts of the scientific endeavor.

Did you face any obstacles in pursuing your scientific projects?  

Nothing unusual. Working with a small and transient community to recruit children and families, especially ethnic minority families, and trying to follow them longitudinally, has been perhaps the biggest challenge in our projects.

How have you balanced research demands with teaching and administrative responsibilities?

I took the role of department chair this past July. I have come to appreciate the complexity of the job. Most of the work is done behind the scene. However, it is truly rewarding to lead a dynamic department with brilliant colleagues and outstanding students, and to work closely with the faculty to implement critical changes to build on and extend the Department’s scholarly excellence and to maintain and improve its leadership in research, teaching, and outreach.

To balance research with my teaching and chair responsibilities, I set aside time (two mornings each week) for writing. I also try to do what the Chinese call 见缝插针 — meaning literally sticking in a pin wherever there’s room — to make use of every bit of time, with the goal of writing one paragraph a day.

I have an active lab of graduate and undergraduate students, with many ongoing projects at various stages. We hold a weekly lab meeting to discuss the projects and address any issues. We also use the time to talk about new ideas.

I make sure to remain accessible over emails to students in my lab and my class, and make myself available whenever an emergency meeting is required.

What/who have been major influences in your academic career?

So many! My aunt through whom I had the first exposure to psychology. My graduate school advisors Michelle Leichtman and Shep White who helped me set my career path. There are then many informal mentors with whom I have had the fortune to work or collaborate, including Steve Ceci, Michael Ross, Robyn Fivush, Martin Conway, David Pillemer, Carole Peterson, among others.

What’s been your guiding compass in your academic career?

Focus on the process, not the outcome. This makes the scientific pursuit more exciting and enjoyable, and makes obstacles and temporary failures (e.g., rejections from journals) less interruptive or upsetting. This compass also allows me to see what would be usually considered to be an outcome (e.g., tenure) as part of the process, and thus not to get stressed about it.

What advice do you have for handling rejections from journals?

There can be frustration, but never give up. If you truly believe in your work, revise and improve the paper based on reviewer feedback and submit it elsewhere.

Careful preparation is key: Submit a paper as if it were the final version that no further changes could be made. This is out of respect for the journals, the reviewers, and our profession.

What advice, in general, would you give budding scientists around the world?

Stay attuned to the field and be mindful of the everyday life, in the process of developing exciting ideas that are theory driven, evidence based, and of real-world relevance. Focus on and enjoy the process of your scientific pursuit.

Wendy Williams, Co-Director of Cornell Institute for Women in Science

Wendy Williams, founder, and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science (CIWS) has edited a special edition of a evidence-based research on factors that affect the academic and professional lives of women in STEM fields. In her editorial of Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate, Williams provides a framework for understanding some of the issues and viewpoints that surround the debate of women in science.


There is no shortage of articles and books exploring women's underrepresentation in science. Everyone is interested—academics, politicians, parents, high school girls (and boys), women in search of college majors, administrators working to accommodate women's educational interests; the list goes on. But one thing often missing is an evidence-based examination of the problem, uninfluenced by personal opinions, accounts of “lived experiences,” anecdotes, and the always-encroaching inputs of popular culture. This is why this special issue of Frontiers in Psychology can make a difference. In it, a diverse group of authors and researchers with even more diverse viewpoints find themselves united by their empirical, objective approaches to understanding women's underrepresentation in science today.

Overview of Articles in Special Issue

The questions considered within this special issue span academic disciplines, methods, levels of analysis, and nature of analysis; what these article share is their scholarly, evidence-based approach to understanding a key issue of our time.

Sexism in Professorial Hiring

Ceci and Williams re-visited the experimental paradigm from their 2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article in which (in four of their five experiments) faculty were asked to rate three short-listed finalists for a tenure-track position. The 2015 study revealed a 2:1 preference for women when finalists were equivalently excellent. The new study contrasted a male finalist who was slightly superior to the female finalist. Women's advantage vanished when the male applicant was depicted as slightly stronger, suggesting that fears that affirmative action goals will undermine hiring of most-qualified applicants are unfounded.

Allen-Hermanson examined an overlooked aspect of the women's underrepresentation debate: Are philosophers prejudiced against hiring women applicants despite professing conscious, explicit egalitarian beliefs? Unlike other humanities departments, philosophy departments have far fewer women professors than might be expected. He reviewed several recent data sets demonstrating that female applicants are favored when it comes to tenure-track hiring in philosophy departments.

Exploring the Gender Gap via National Datasets

Using 1993–2010 nationally representative data, Kahn and Ginther examined whether the gender gap in engineering has narrowed recently. They discovered that the majority of the gender retention gap was due to women leaving the labor force coincident with child-bearing. There was no gender retention difference by 7–8 years post-bachelors for those full-time employed; single childless women were more likely than men to remain in engineering than were single childless men, and women who left engineering entirely were just as likely as men who left to remain in math-intensive fields. Their findings caution against past assertions that women do not persist in STEM fields as long as men.

In their latest meta-analysis, Su and Rounds examined data from 52 samples entailing over 430,000 respondents between 1964 and 2007. Gender differences in interests favoring males were largest in engineering-related fields, and favored women in allied health fields and social sciences. This adds to the large body of empirical findings that have revealed similar sex differences along the people-thing dimension.

Miller and Wai reported the results of their analysis of longitudinal data to examine the baccalaureate-to-PhD transition. In contrast to the traditional leaky pipeline metaphor, they found that over time, women have segued from the baccalaureate to PhD programs in increasing numbers. Their work suggests that researchers and policy makers need to look elsewhere for causes of women's underrepresentation.

Wang et al. studied factors predicting gender differences in selection of STEM occupations, and whether math task values and altruism mediate the pathway through which gender affects STEM career choice through math achievement. Based on longitudinal analyses, they found that the association between gender and working in a STEM career by one's early- to mid-thirties was mediated by math achievement scores in twelfth grade; females did more poorly on standardized math tests than did males.

Stereotypes about “Brilliance” and “Male-Oriented” Fields

Meyer et al. examined field-specific beliefs regarding the importance of brilliance. They provide support for the hypothesis that women are most likely to be underrepresented in fields that members believe require raw intellectual talent, which women are stereotyped to possess less of than do men. The beliefs of participants with exposure to a field predicted the magnitude of the field's gender gap, independent of their beliefs about the level of mathematical ability required. Their findings are consistent with female high school students taking fewer AP courses in all areas of science except biology (Ceci et al., 2014).

Cheryan et al. presented data and argument showing that modern American culture stereotypes as male-oriented those fields that involve social isolation, an intense focus on machinery, and inborn brilliance. These stereotypes are compatible with qualities that are typically more valued in men than women in American culture. Their work continues their recent insights and is consistent with the findings of some of the other contributors, particularly Meyer et al.

Smyth and Nosek explored whether variation in female representation across scientific disciplines is associated with differences in the strength of gender-science stereotypes, explicit and implicit, held by men and women in these fields. For explicit stereotypes that associate science with “male,” the strength of stereotyping varied across scientific disciplines as a function of gender ratios in the disciplines; however, implicit stereotypes did not vary as a function of such ratios. Giving currency to their findings is recent evidence that children continue to associate science with being male (Miller et al., in press).

Importance of Competitive Schools and Perceived Math Ability

Mann et al. analyzed findings from PISA data from 55 countries. They placed schools along a continuum from most to least competitive, based on average math and science performance. Schools that are most competitive are often associated with stronger math-science environments. The authors found that the aspirations gender gap narrowed for high-performing students in stronger performance environments.

Nix et al. reported an analysis of longitudinal, nationally representative high school data. They found that perceived mathematics ability when under challenge predicted important outcomes such as taking advanced science courses in high school, and that high school men scored higher than women did in their perceived ability under mathematics challenge. Their findings are consistent with female high school students taking fewer AP courses in all areas of science except biology (Ceci et al., 2014).

Wisdom from the Trenches of Academia

Finally, Williams et al. collected and analyzed an original national empirical dataset in which provosts, deans, associate deans, and department chairs of STEM fields at 96 U.S. research-intensive universities rated the quality and feasibility of strategies for retaining women in STEM fields. For example, administrators agreed that gender quotas were a weak idea, and that campus childcare centers were an excellent idea. Women administrators were more supportive than were men of shared tenure lines, and saw it as more feasible for men to stop the tenure clock for 1 year for childrearing.

In sum, readers will find multiple perspectives in this special issue, and the editors hope it will stimulate new directions of thinking and scholarship on women and science.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

References

Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., and Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in academic science: a changing landscape. Psychol. Sci. Public Interest 15, 75–141. doi: 10.1177/1529100614541236

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Miller, D. I., Nolla, K. M., Eagly, A. H., and Uttal, D. H. (in press). The development of children's gender-science stereotypes: a meta-analysis of five decades of U.S. Draw-A-Scientist studies. Child Dev.

Keywords: women in science, underrepresentation of women, women in STEM, STEM careers, work-life balance

Citation: Williams WM (2018) Editorial: Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate. Front. Psychol. 8:2352. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02352

Received: 17 October 2017; Accepted: 22 December 2017;
Published: 22 January 2018.

Edited and reviewed by: Jessica S. Horst, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Copyright © 2018 Williams. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Wendy M. Williams, wendywilliams@cornell.edu

Reprinted from Mothers Plant the Seeds for Children's Future Eco-Friendliness, APS Observer, April 9, 2018.

From remembering to turn off a light to purchasing an electric car, psychology researchers are examining individuals’ proenvironmental behaviors to gain insight into how people become environmentally responsible citizens.

Gary Evans

Building on previous work, researchers Gary W. Evans and Siegmar Otto of Cornell University, and Florian G. Kaiser of Otto von Guericke University, Magdeburg wanted to explore the early contributors that have a lasting influence on proenvironmental behavior into young adulthood.

“Given the central contributions of human decision making and behavior to local, regional, and global environmental challenges,” the researchers explain, “better insight into the early origins of adult environmental behavior is fundamental to understanding and ultimately changing environmentally destructive human activity.”

People who hold progressive political values and attain higher levels of education tend to be more inclined toward proenvironmental behavior. Previous research has also shown that parents’ eco-friendly behaviors, especially easily observable ones such as recycling, have an impact on the environmentally responsible behavior of their children. But what kind of effects do these early experiences have on children’s behaviors and attitudes as they age into adulthood?

Evans and colleagues recruited 99 children and their mothers from a rural and suburban area of the Northeast United States to participate in a 12-year longitudinal study, which tracked the children from ages 6 to 18.

When the children were 6 years old, the researchers assessed both the mothers’ and children’s proenvironmental behaviors and attitudes. Mothers completed the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP), a self-report measure of environmental attitudes, and the General Ecological Behavior (GEB) scale. The 6-year-olds completed modified versions of the NEP and GEB that used interactive games and pictures. The researchers also measured how much time the children spent outdoors and they collected data on mothers’ political ideology and educational attainment.

At age 18, 74 of the children returned to complete the second round of data collection. The young adults completed the same versions of the NEP and GEB scale that their mothers completed 12 years before.

The longitudinal data showed that individuals whose mothers had more proenvironmental attitudes demonstrated more proenvironmental behaviors themselves as young adults. Mothers’ educational attainment was also found to be an influential factor, although the researchers point out that there was low variance in the mothers’ level of education, as most had some post-college education and very few were high school dropouts.

As in past research, children who spent more time outdoors tended to report more environmentally responsible behavior and attitudes as adults. Evans and colleagues suggest that future studies should investigate whether different types of activities, such as fishing in wild nature versus gardening in the domestic outdoors, have divergent effects.

Interestingly, children’s environmental attitudes and behaviors at age 6 did not predict their behavior at 18. This could be due to potential methodological issues with the modified childhood measures, but another possibility, the researchers note, is that it simply takes time for these attitudes and behaviors to become stable.

Evans and colleagues note the significance of the results, explaining that “this is the first study to show that these parental factors matter for the eventual development of an adult’s engagement in proenvironmental behavior.”

Identifying early contributors to later environmentally responsible behaviors is a critical step in creating interventions, policies, and other strategies to improve these behaviors on a local, regional, and global scale.

Reference

Evans, G. W., Otto, S., & Kaiser, F. G. (2018). Childhood origins of young adult environmental behavior. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797617741894

In his blog, The Methods Man, F. Perry Wilson MD, commends Jane Mendle's research on how early puberty may lead to depression in adulthood. Her results have important implications for screening girls in early puberty for depression.


Several animal studies and basically all of human experience have taught us that puberty is a particularly difficult stage of life psychologically. A new study appearing in the journal Pediatrics now suggests that early puberty in girls can lead to depression and anti-social behavior well into adulthood, suggesting that the difficulties of those teenage years are far from fleeting.

Jane Mendle

Researchers led by Jane Mendle, at Cornell used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative survey study which ran from 1994 to 2008. More than 10,000 girls, average age 16 years, were interviewed at the start of the study and followed into their late 20's. Over that span, they were asked about depressive and antisocial symptoms. They also reported the date of their first period, which is a proxy for pubertal development.

The average girl reported the onset of menarche at around 12 years, but there was a wide distribution, with about 10% of girls reporting a first period at age 10 or younger.

The study showed that a younger age of menarche was associated with greater depressive symptoms in the later teen years.

Perhaps more interestingly, it showed that younger age at menarche was associated with more depressive symptoms even as the women approached 30 years of age.

In an elegant analysis, the authors went on to show that the driver of that elevated depression rate in later adulthood was the depression in the teenage years. In other words, girls who develop early are more likely to get depressed as teenagers, and that depression may set the tone for decades to come.

Now there are some factors here that were unaccounted for, body weight being a major one. Overweight and obese girls go through puberty earlier, and body weight is a risk factor for depression. I asked Mendle about this potential confounder.

"We know that people treat girls who look very physically mature different from girls who do not look physically mature and that is not purely attributable to weight. We know that parents do it and we know that teachers do it. There is also not any good evidence that weight would be influencing the antisocial and externalizing behaviors that were seen".

Clinically, whether early puberty is a sign of other stressors or a cause of distress in itself might not matter. If early puberty is associated with depression, the implication is that pediatricians should start screening for depression earlier in girls who develop earlier. The United States Preventative Services Task Force currently recommends screening for depression starting at age 12. For some girls, an even earlier intervention may have long-lasting effects.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE, is an assistant professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. He is a MedPage Today reviewer, and in addition to his video analyses, he authors a blog, The Methods Man. You can follow @methodsmanmd on Twitter.

Reprinted from Phys.org, March 15, 2018.

Teenagers are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they are less able to make mature decisions, new research shows.

Experts have called for major changes to the criminal justice system after finding innocent younger people are far more likely admit to offences, even when innocent, than adults.

Those who carried out the study say teenagers should not be allowed to make deals where they face a lesser charge in return for pleading guilty. The study suggests young people are more likely to be enticed by these deals, and take what they see as an advantageous offer even when they have done nothing wrong.

Most criminal convictions in the UK and the USA occur as the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial. This means the majority of convictions are the result of decisions made by people accused of crimes rather than jurors.

The research was carried out in the USA, where a system known as "plea bargaining" is utilised, but the academics say their discovery has implications for countries across the world that allow teenagers accused of crimes to receive a sentence or charge reduction by pleading guilty. Specifically, the researchers recommend restricting reductions that may entice innocent teenagers into pleading guilty and making it easier for teenagers to change pleas after they have been entered.

Other research has found adolescents are less able to perceive risk and resist the influence of peers because of developmental immaturity.

Rebecca Helm, Ph.D., HD '18

Dr Rebecca Helm, from the University of Exeter Law School, who was part of the research team said: "It is important to ensure the people accused of crimes have the capacity and freedom to make sensible decisions about whether to plead guilty. Where systems allow defendants to receive a reduced sentence or charge by pleading guilty they need to ensure that defendants are suitably developed to make such decisions and that they have the necessary levels of understanding, reasoning, and appreciation.

"We hope this research will lead to plea systems becoming fairer and less coercive for adolescents. Any restrictions on guilty pleas for adolescents would have to be introduced in a way that avoids harsher average sentences being imposed on adolescents. However, research increasingly suggests that in the same way as they are too young to vote, too young to drink alcohol, and too young to rent a home, perhaps adolescents are too young to plead guilty."

Valerie Reyna, Lois and Melvin Tukman Professor

Dr Helm and Professor Valerie F. Reyna, Allison A. Franz, and Rachel Z. Novick from Cornell University tested decision making among people of different ages. Participants were 149 adolescents recruited from high schools and middle schools in New York aged from 9 to 17, 200 students from Cornell University aged between 18 and 22, and 187 adults from across America.

Participants were given the same hypothetical situation in which they were asked to indicate the decisions they would make if accused of a crime. Participants were either asked to imagine they were guilty or not guilty of the crime, and were told the approximate likelihood of conviction at trial and the reductions that could be gained by pleading guilty as opposed to being convicted at trial.

The research found that as people become older, those who are innocent are less likely to plead guilty. Innocent teenagers indicated that they would plead guilty in roughly one-third of cases, while innocent adults indicated that they would plead guilty in just 18 per cent of cases. Importantly, when examining the decisions researchers found that teenagers were significantly less influenced in their decision-making by whether they were guilty or innocent than adults were. Results also suggest that adolescents are making decisions that do not reflect their values and preferences, including those relating to admitting guilt when innocent, due to developmental immaturity.

Although this was an experiment, the academics believe the findings have important implications for the juvenile justice system.

"Too Young to Plead? Risk, Rationality, and Plea Bargaining's Innocence Problem in Adolescents" is published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-03-teenagers-guilty-crimes-didnt-commit.html#jCp

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, June 18, 2018

by Susan Kelley

According to a radical new model of emotion in the brain, a current treatment for the most common mental health problems could be ineffective or even detrimental to about 50 percent of the population.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of studies have suggested that each hemisphere of the brain is home to a specific type of emotion. The neural system for emotions linked to approaching and engaging with the world – like happiness, pride and anger – lives in the left side of the brain, while emotions associated with avoidance – like disgust and fear – are housed in the right.

Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology, adjusts electrodes on the scalp of a study participant.

But those studies were done almost exclusively on right-handed people. That simple fact has given us a skewed understanding of how emotion works in the brain, according to Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology.

That long-standing model is, in fact, reversed in left-handed people, whose emotions like alertness and determination are housed in the right side of their brains, Casasanto suggests in a new study. Even more radical: The location of a person’s neural systems for emotion depends on whether they are left-handed, right-handed or somewhere in between, the research shows.

“The old model suggests that each hemisphere is specialized for one type of emotion, but that’s not true,” Casasanto said. “Approach emotions are smeared over both hemispheres according to the direction and degree of your handedness … . The big theoretical shift is, we’re saying emotion in the brain isn’t its own system. Emotion in the cerebral cortex is built upon neural systems for motor action.”

The study, “Approach motivation in human cerebral cortex,” appeared June 18 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The paper’s first author, Geoffrey Brookshire, was a doctoral candidate in Casasanto’s lab at the University of Chicago and a visiting doctoral student in Casasanto’s lab at Cornell.

The idea for the researchers’ theory, called the “sword and shield” hypothesis, stems from Casasanto’s observation that we use our dominant hands for approach-oriented actions, while nondominant hands are used for avoidance movements.

“You would wield the sword in your dominant hand to make approach-related actions like stabbing your enemy, and use the shield in your nondominant hand to fend off attack,” he said. “Your dominant hand gets the thing you want and your nondominant hand pushes away the thing you don’t.”

The researchers theorized that approach and avoidance emotions are built on neural systems for approach and avoidance actions.

“If this sword and shield hypothesis is correct,” he said, “then three things should follow: Approach motivation should be mediated by the left hemisphere in strong right-handers, as it has been in tons of previous studies. But it should completely reverse in strong left-handers. For everyone in the middle of the handedness spectrum, approach emotions should depend on both hemispheres.”

Casasanto and Brookshire tested this idea by stimulating the two hemispheres of the brains of 25 healthy participants with a pain-free electrical current. The goal was to see if they could cause the participants to experience approach-related emotions – including enthusiasm, interest, strength, excitement, determination and alertness – depending on which hemisphere of the brain was stimulated and whether they were righties or lefties or somewhere in between. The study participants got zapped for 20 minutes a day for five days, and reported before and after the five days how strongly they were feeling emotions like pride and happiness.

The experiment worked – and corroborated the researchers’ first test of the sword and shield hypothesis using brain imaging. Strong righties who were zapped in the left hemisphere experienced a boost in positive emotions. So did strong lefties zapped in the right hemisphere. But when lefties are zapped in the left hemisphere – or righties in the right – “you see either no change or a detriment in the experience of these emotions,” Casasanto said.

The work has implications for a current treatment for recalcitrant anxiety and depression called neural therapy. Similar to the technique used in the study and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it involves a mild electrical stimulation or a magnetic stimulation to the left side of the brain, to encourage approach-related emotions.

But Casasanto’s work suggests the treatment could be damaging for left-handed patients. Stimulation on the left would decrease life-affirming approach emotions. “If you give left-handers the standard treatment, you’re probably going to make them worse,” Casasanto said.

“And because many people are neither strongly right- nor left-handed, the stimulation won’t make any difference for them, because their approach emotions are distributed across both hemispheres,” he said.

“This suggests strong righties should get the normal treatment, but they make up only 50 percent of the population. Strong lefties should get the opposite treatment, and people in the middle shouldn’t get the treatment at all.”

However, Casasanto cautions that this research studied only healthy participants and more work is needed to extend these findings to a clinical setting.

The research was funded by a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award and the National Science Foundation.

On 14 November 1922 the BBC broadcast its first radio report to the nation. We can’t listen to it because it was not recorded, but we know this: the broadcast was read in flawless received pronunciation (RP), commonly known as the Queen’s English. It is considered to be the language of elites, power and royalty.

For many years, the BBC would only allow RP accents to appear on its airwaves. That this accent became synonymous with the voice of a nation had clear connotations. RP was trusted, authoritarian and sincere. Fortunately, the BBC now allows all sorts of regional accents on its broadcasts – and even encourages it, aiming to both represent the diverse audience the BBC has and to draw new people in.

While the BBC no longer broadcasts only in RP, it turns out that the bias that once existed for it is still ripe in society today. Our accents can provide a window into our social backgrounds – and our biases. Our partialities can be so strong that they even affect our perception of who is, or is not, trustworthy.

Humans are very quick to judge a person based on accents, and are often unaware we do so. “Accent can trigger social categorisation in a prompt, automatic, and occasionally unconscious manner,” says Ze Wang of the University of Central Florida. We often can identify a person’s accent as soon they say hello.

Babies learn to recognise familiar voices in the womb (Credit: Getty Images)

Babies learn to recognise familiar voices in the womb (Credit: Getty Images)

Our trust for certain accent starts extremely young. There is evidence to show that affinity for language even starts before birth. We know for instance that babies prefer the languagethey heard most while in the womb. In one study, researchers repeatedly played a made-up word while women were pregnant. When the babies were born, brain scans showed that only babies who had heard this word responded to it.

By the time babies are several months old, they can differentiate between languages and dialects. Early on, babies start to have an affinity for others who speak their native language. In one 2007 Harvard University experiment, babies watched two people speak on a screen, one in a familiar tongue and one that was foreign. One on-screen speaker then offered the babies a toy – which magically popped up from behind the screen at the same time. The babies preferred the toy given by the person who spoke their native language and accent.

“Right away in the first year of life babies are starting to show this social preference – moving towards someone who speaks in a way that’s familiar to them,” says the study’s lead researcher Katherine Kinzler, now at Cornell University.

The UK has many accents

Prince Charles speaks the Queen's English while Cheryl Tweedy has a strong Newcastle accent (Credit: Getty Images)

To Kinzler, accents are under-studied. They tie us to our identity in a similar way that our gender and race does. For some children, accent can be a more powerful indicator of group identity than race, she has found. When five-year-olds were shown pictures of either black or white children, they preferred those who were the same race. At this age, they don’t have the motivation to control prejudice in the way adults do, says Kinzler.

Children trust native speakers better than they do foreign-accented speakers

But when colour was pitted against accent, the children preferred those who shared their accent – even if they were of a different race.

This work reveals that in our early years, the accents we trust most are those which sound familiar. It makes sense that we trust somebody who speaks like us, says Kinzler; they are likely to know more information about your own community.

In another study, she found that children trust native speakers better than they do foreign-accented speakers.

Some people are prejudiced against regional accents (Credit: Alamy)

Some people are prejudiced against regional accents (Credit: Alamy)

As children grow up they become more attuned to the social status or stereotypes that have been glued on to various accents. RP English is said to sound posh and powerful, whereas people who speak Cockney English, the accent of working-class Londoners, often experience prejudice. The Birmingham accent fares even worse – which could be the result of TV shows which depicted its residents as “slow, lazy and thick”, researchers wrote. Indeed, one poll found the Birmingham accent least attractive but rated Irish as having the nicest twang.

(Take our quiz on British accents to find out which part of Britain you speak most like – even if you aren’t British.)

Trust in accents can change over time depending on our social circles and daily relationships

When it comes to trusting accents, there seem to be two things at play. First, an accent represents part of your identity. But as you get older this might clash with an accent you aspire to sound more like, say one that is deemed more prestigious, or less stuck-up. One 2013 poll of more than 4,000 people found RP and Devon accents the most trustworthy, while the least trustworthy was deemed to be Liverpudlian (from Liverpool). The Cockney accent came a close second for untrustworthiness. These accents scored similarly when asked about intelligence.

These are snapshot results, though. In real life, trust in accents can change over time depending on our social circles and daily relationships. A study by Ilaria Torre of Plymouth University found that trust in an accent can change depending on first impressions and judgements. In her study, participants heard either a standard southern English accent or a lesser-trusted Liverpudlian accent. If a person who spoke in the ‘trustworthy’’ accent then went onto behave fairly – by returning a generous monetary investment, for example – then this first impression of trustworthiness increased.

Some teachers feel they have to modify regional accents

Some teachers feel they have to modify regional accents (Credit: Getty Images)

If, however, a person spoke with the ‘trusted’ accent and they went on to behave in an untrustworthy manner, they were deemed even less trustworthy than the person who had both an ‘untrustworthy’ accent and behaviour. The study participants “were punishing them, so to speak, for not living up to the participants’ expectations,” says Torre. The opposite happened, too: those who were judged as untrustworthy but acted nicely were able to undo negative preconceptions. In other words, the ‘untrustworthy’-sounding Liverpudlians (apologies, any readers from Liverpool) were redeemed when they behaved in a desirable way.

Our accent biases can be reduced by contact with individuals we initially think sound suspicious

This reveals something Torre feels has been overlooked – our accent biases can be reduced by contact with individuals we initially think sound suspicious. “By interacting with speakers of many different accents we might realise our biases are unfounded and our trustworthy perception of that accent can change as well,” she says.

The media plays a role too. Upmarket grocer Marks & Spencer frequently has a soothing, RP voice-over on its adverts, for example, while the more budget brand Iceland often featured former popstar Kerry Katona, who grew up in Warrington, a town between Manchester and Liverpool – until she was kicked off their adverts because of an alleged drug problem.

Children prefer those who sound most like them (Credit: Alamy)

Children prefer those who sound most like them (Credit: Alamy)

In the UK, some school teachers even have been asked to modify their accents to sound less regional. Of course, says the University of Manchester’s Alexander Baratta, while some people find regional accents to sound less educated, others think they sound more in-touch, sincere and friendly and that posh accents are more cold or arrogant. (This may be one reason why the Queen has been toning down her RP voice throughout the decades.) Some studies have found that people from Yorkshire seem to sound more honest than Londoners, for instance.

People often have negative bias toward non-standard accents

Accent biases are common against foreign accents too. A study led by Ze Wang showed that US participants trusted British accents more than Indian accents. “People often have negative bias toward non-standard accents, particularly those with disadvantaged and low-prestige minority groups,” she says. For instance, she found that those with Mexican or Greek accents were perceived as less intelligent or professional than those who speak standard US English.

Another study showed that our accents can even limit our professional opportunities. Regional German accents were seen as less desirable than standard German, despite the same being said. But in Switzerland people preferred their surgeon to have a regional accent than a “standard” German one, perhaps because Swiss German is the most commonly spoken dialect.

When it comes to trusting accents, we depend both on what we know and on what society has conditioned us to aspire to. But if we all took a moment to stop and really listen to each other, we might learn to love the eclectic and varied accents that make up our multicultural world… rather than basing our trust on implicit biases that we acquire even before birth.

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Future’s staff writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on twitter.

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