Number nerves

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Mathematics / Myths / Psychology

Does the thought of a maths test bring you out in a cold sweat? Maths anxiety is real. But why do so many people find maths stressful, and what can we do about it?

Feeling anxious? Image credit João Trindade via Flickr

Not a maths person

Imagine you’re sitting in a classroom, about to take a mathematics test. How do you feel? Stressed? Tense? Nervous? Wishing you could escape? Sounds like maths anxiety.

If you’re not sure, you can take a maths anxiety test (oh, the irony).

It’s common to hear ‘I’m just not a maths person’ or ‘I’m no good at numbers’. It seems to be socially acceptable to be maths anxious. But how often have you heard someone say ‘I’m just not a reading person’?

Research shows maths anxiety is common. One estimate suggests 10 – 20 per cent of all adults are highly maths anxious. Most people have at least one negative experience with maths during their school years.

An aversion to maths is not just a result of people getting stressed in tests or exams. Research shows peoples’ heart rates go up more when they are doing a maths test than during other sorts of tests.

Maths anxiety is also different to someone simply finding maths difficult. You can be very good at maths and still find it stressful. When we feel anxious, our working memory is busy with feeling worried, and we make mistakes in our reasoning and calculations. We don’t have enough brain power left over to actually do the sums.

Regardless of how good or bad you are with numbers, you’ll be worse at it if you’re feeling stressed. We tend to choke under pressure.

Maths anxiety can impact self-esteem and is more common in girls and women than in boys and men.

Time for maths class

Maths anxiety is a worldwide experience. One study explored maths anxiety in 64 countries which take part in the Program for International Student Assessment (testing maths, science and reading skills in 15-year olds).

Tunisian and Argentinian kids turn out to be the most maths anxious, while those in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are the least maths anxious. Australians are slightly more anxious than the average.

We know our opinions about maths start to form very early. Many primary school students already consider themselves to be bad at maths. Half of kids in grade 1 said they were ‘moderately nervous’ to ‘very very nervous’ about maths.

Research shows that if teachers themselves have maths anxiety, this may pass onto their students. One study of primary school teachers in the US (who are predominantly women) found that at the beginning of the school year, there was no match between a teacher’s maths anxiety and how good her students were in the subject.

But by the end of the school year, if the teacher had maths anxiety, girls (but not boys) were more likely to buy into the idea that ‘boys are good at maths and girls are good at reading’. At the same time, those girls did worse in maths.

Got any homework?

And it’s not only at school that we form opinions about maths. At home, it’s easy to imagine parents with maths anxiety might avoid helping their kids with maths homework. And one study suggests that may be a good thing.

Researchers looked at the relationship between parents’ maths anxiety and how good their grade 1 and 2 children were at maths. If parents were anxious about maths, their kids were also more maths anxious and struggled more with maths. But only if the parent frequently helped with their kid’s maths homework.

If maths anxious parents didn’t help with their kid’s homework often, the kids actually did better. So much for good intentions!

It turns out that a well-meaning parent who empathises with their child by saying something like ‘Don’t worry, I’m no good at maths either’ is doing more harm than good.

Mind your attitude

What can we do about maths anxiety? One of the best approaches would be to stop thinking about maths as something people tend to be either good or bad at. Like anything, the more we practice, the better we get.

And research shows attitude is everything. Students who believe that the key to learning maths is hard work and never giving up do much better at maths than those who believe it’s about being born smart.

A study published just last month found that if students had a positive attitude towards maths, their hippocampus (an important memory centre in the brain) worked better and they did better at maths.

Seems Henry Ford was right about maths too:

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.

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How doors make us forget

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Myths / Psychology

You’ve just walked into a room with a clear purpose in mind. Except now you can’t remember what it was you set out to do. Is it just your imagination, or does walking into a different room make you forget?

Even imagining walking through a door can impact our memory. Image credit Anthony Tran via Unsplash


We all forget things. And most of us have had the experience of walking into a room and feeling confused. Maybe you’ve just gone into the kitchen to find your keys, but by the time you got there, you’d forgotten it was the keys you were after.

To explore why this happens, researchers have carried out a number of different experiments. First, they got people playing a video game. In the game, players used arrow keys to move around the virtual space. Their task was to pick up a coloured object from a table, move to another table, put the object down and pick up another one. Sounds pretty simple. But once they had picked it up, the players could no longer see what it was they were carrying.

The researchers asked the players at various times what colour and shape the object they were carrying was. And it turned out that if the player had just moved through a doorway in the game, they were much worse at remembering. Worse than if they had moved the same distance within the same room.

The next step was to recreate this game in real life. People in the study walked around in the real world, picking up and putting down objects on real tables. They carried the objects in shoeboxes so they couldn’t see them.

Sure enough, even when people walked exactly the same distance, their memory of what was in the box was much worse if they had walked through a doorway. People were two or three times more likely to forget after walking through a door.

Location, location, location

You might think all these players needed to do was go back to the room they were originally in. We call this the encoding specificity principle. The idea is you’ll remember something better in the same context as you first took in the information. This is why we’re told the best place to study for an exam is the same place you’ll be taking the exam.

But the researchers tested this too. And in the experiment, going back to the original room where they picked up the object didn’t help people to remember what it was they were carrying.

What’s clear from this research is that location matters. It’s been called the Location Updating Effect. When we find ourselves in a new location, we have trouble remembering information from previous locations. Even if we were in the previous place only moments earlier.

Out with the old, in with the new

After lots of research, this experience is now also known as the Doorway Effect. And it explains some interesting things about how our memories work.

We know our memories are divided up into separate episodes or events. At any one moment, you have all the information you need to do during this particular event. But it’s not possible to have everything in your brain constantly at hand. Breaking our thoughts and memories up into separate sections is a good way to organise them.

Once a particular event is over, our brains discard some of the old information, ready for new, more relevant things. How do we decide when an event is over? This research suggests one of the triggers for our brains to decide a new event has begun is walking through a doorway. Researchers call it an event boundary.

When you pass through a doorway, it signals to your brain that something new has begun. Information that was relevant in the previous room probably isn’t as relevant or important now. Out with the old, to make room for the new.

Amazingly, even just imagining walking through a door was enough to make people forget things more easily.

And if you’re thinking all this is just a cover for us becoming more forgetful as we age, think again. The effects were the same for people in their late teens and early twenties as for people in their sixties and seventies.

What can we do about the Doorway Effect? Not much, unless you want to follow the advice of one of the lead authors of this research:

Doorways are bad. Avoid them at all costs. – Professor Gabriel Radvansky

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A cosmic perspective

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Astronomy / Psychology

“Something happens to you out there” said Apollo 14 pilot Edgar Mitchell. “We went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians”. Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space come back describing a major shift in how they see the world and their place in it. Is there any way for the rest of us to experience the same transformation?

How we look from a distance. Image credit NASA.

The pale blue dot

Exactly 28 years ago today, the Voyager 1 Spacecraft took an image that changed our view of ourselves. The image (taken at Carl Sagan’s request) showed the Earth from beyond Neptune: a distance of 6.4 billion kilometres. From that vantage point, our planet is nothing more than a tiny pale blue dot.

Later, Sagan wrote “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives …… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

We’ve all seen striking pictures of the Earth taken from space. The beautiful blue and green ball looks so familiar. But it’s also nothing like the day-to-day view we get from the surface. Footage taken from the International Space Station showing lightning storms and the northern lights are mesmerising. But how would it feel to see Earth from such a distance with your own eyes? Many astronauts describe it as one of the most meaningful moments of their lives.

When Yuri Gagarin returned to Earth after becoming the first human in space, he wrote “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it”.

Getting an overview

In 1987, philosopher Frank White coined the term The Overview Effect for the shared feelings of awe and wonder these astronauts describe. Researchers are fascinated by the Overview Effect because people much more commonly describe spiritual epiphanies in religious, not scientific contexts.

The Overview Effect is also extremely consistent. Researchers analysed comments from many of the astronauts who have viewed Earth from outside our atmosphere. When astronauts describe how it feels to gaze back at Earth floating in space, there are three common features. They feel an appreciation of beauty, an unexpected and sometimes overwhelming emotion and an increased sense of connectedness to Earth and its people.

Words like unity, rapture, euphoria, compassion, transcendence, fragility, wonder and awe all feature in astronauts’ descriptions. Given that the Overview Effect is a positive experience that already happens in spaceflight, researchers want to understand how to harness it for astronauts in the future who may spend extended periods in space.

The real awesome

It all sounds rather wonderful, gaining this life-changing perspective. And humans experiencing a greater sense of connectedness with each other and nature could only be a good thing given what we’re doing to our planet. And each other. A number of astronauts have suggested world leaders need to travel into space to get some perspective on what they’re making decisions about.

But the reality is only around 550 people out of a population of 7.6 billion have ever travelled into space. Even with the promise of space tourism, this number is hardly going to change dramatically.

One possibility is to use virtual reality to enable people on Earth to experience the Overview Effect. But research suggests there may be another way for earth-bound humans to experience a similar effect. The answer is awe.

Awe is the sensation of being in the presence of something beyond our understanding of the world. And it turns out if you can inspire someone to feel awe, their behaviour changes.

When people feel awe, their perception of time changes. People become more patient, more willing to help a stranger and prefer experiences to possessions. Life feels more satisfying when we experience awe.

Another study found that when people felt awe, they made more ethical decisions and were more generous. After spending time in a grove of tall trees, study volunteers felt less entitled and self-important. Whether it be from looking at images of space or immersing ourselves in nature, many studies have shown experiencing awe is powerful.

How can you go about finding awe? In the words of psychology professor Dacher Keltner, go and seek out experiences that give you goosebumps.

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Mosquito magnets

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Genetics / Health / Medicine / Myths / Zoology

Are you irresistible to mosquitos? We all know someone who gets covered in bites every time they venture outside. Why are some of us so much tastier than others?

Are you irresistible to mozzies? Image credit Erik F Brandsborg via Flickr

The deadliest animals

Only female mosquitos bite: they need the protein that comes from a blood meal to make their eggs. But there are thousands of species of mosquito, and they have different ideas about who and what is tasty. Some prefer birds, some frogs, some reptiles and some choose to bite mammals. And as we know only too well, some are particularly fond of humans.

Mosquitos are attracted to body heat and carbon dioxide, which we breathe out. That makes good sense: warmth and carbon dioxide are reliable signs that a body contains blood. So anything that increases your body temperature or makes you release more carbon dioxide will make you more of a target. This includes having a bigger body, being pregnant, or exercising.

But once a mosquito gets a bit closer there are a variety of factors that make you more or less appealing. The bacteria and chemicals we carry on our skin and that we release in sweat play a big role. In one study, researchers identified 300 different chemical compounds on skin that may play a role in attracting or repelling mosquitos.

Given mosquitos are responsible for the spread of some serious diseases – like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, Zika and Ross River fever – there has been a lot of research into what attracts them. After all, mosquitos are famous for being the ‘deadliest animals’.

Beer and genes

First of all, there’s no good evidence that anything you eat or drink changes how attractive you are to mosquitos. Taking Vitamin B tablets will not keep mosquitos away. Nor will eating garlic. But one small study did suggest drinking beer may make you more appealing to mosquitos.

One of my favourite studies of mosquito preferences compared mozzies’ responses to human hands, socks that had been worn for three days and Limburger cheese – that’s the REALLY smelly one. Human hands got the most interest from the mosquitos.

But the smelly socks were a big drawcard too – we know mosquitos respond to our sweat. Lactic acid attracts mosquitos – another reason why exercising is likely to make you more of a target. There’s also evidence some species of mosquito are attracted to people who have O-type blood.

And research published a couple of years ago showed our genes also play a role in our mosquito magnetism. The study showed identical twins were equally attractive to mosquitos, but non-identical twins weren’t. There’s a lot more work to be done on understanding the role of genetics in how mozzies respond to us.

Mozzies, be gone

If mosquitos happen like you a lot, what are your options? A study published earlier this year set up a wind tunnel in a lab designed to replicate a backyard patio. One unlucky person acted as bait at one end of the tunnel while the scientists counted how many yellow fever mosquitos moved towards the bait.

The researchers tested a variety of repellents on the human bait: sprays, wearable devices and a citronella candle. Most of them only had a weak effect, or no repellent effect. Neither bracelets containing herbal extracts or sonic mosquito repellers worked at all. Citronella candles were no good either: in fact, they might slightly attract mosquitos. But DEET and the oil of lemon eucalyptus both reduced mosquito attraction by 60%. Another study showed that while mosquito coils may reduce the number of mosquito bites, they don’t stop people getting malaria.

Australia’s mozzie expert Dr Cameron Webb has explained there are a variety of ways to avoid having your Christmas barbeque spoiled by mosquitos. For example, get rid of any places in your garden they could breed – bird baths, and other water-filled containers. Wear loose clothing and apply mosquito-repellents properly.

And the other thing to remember is that you may not be getting bitten more than your friends, you may just have more of a reaction to bites. Mosquitos inject saliva when they bite and you may react to that saliva more than others.

So if you’ve got a friend who is bragging about how they never get bitten, let them know they may very well be wrong. Something that could really matter when it comes to travelling in places where the mozzies carry nasty diseases.

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Oldest, youngest, middle or only?

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Are you a rebellious youngest child, a responsible first-born, or perhaps a people-pleasing middle child? Much has been said about how birth order affects personality and intelligence. Is there any truth to the stereotypes?

Oldest, youngest or middle: does birth order affect personality? Image credit amyelizabethquinn via Pixabay

Neurotic, spoiled or independent?

Personalities are interesting things. We like to understand our own personalities and wonder how hard it might be to change our personality. We want to know if it’s possible to predict personality, for example on the basis of what time of year we were born. It’s also widely accepted that birth order influences personality.

It seems reasonable our position in the family – oldest, middle, youngest or only – might affect who we are. It’s not a new idea. Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s, suggested in the late 1920s that birth order affected personality.

Adler suggested firstborns feel ‘dethroned’ when a younger brother or sister comes along. The arrival of a new baby makes oldest children neurotic, but also good leaders. Adler proposed youngest children are likely to be spoiled, but also outgoing, whereas middle children are more independent. Only children revel in being the sole focus of their parents’ attention but as a result are more controlled and scrutinised.

Researchers have studied the influences of birth order for many years, but among thousands of studies, there hasn’t been a lot of consensus. In just the past two years articles have appeared with the headlines ‘Birth order is basically meaningless’ and ‘Research shows birth order really does matter’.

And of course in many families, the story is much less simple than these predictions suggest. Age gaps between children, the gender of each sibling, step-children and adoptions may all have an effect. And in a big family, there are many middle children. So is there any evidence for Adler’s theories?

First-born advantage

If you’re the eldest in your family, you may have already taken note of the many claims you’re likely to be smarter and more successful than your younger siblings. Perhaps you’ve heard you’re more likely to become a president, or an astronaut, or to make more money. Potentially dubious online reporting aside, there is some truth to the idea of the first-born advantage.

Francis Galton noticed many scientists in the 19th century were first-borns. First-borns are more likely to be managers or take on other occupations that require leadership. In a 2015 study of more than 20,000 people from the US, UK and Germany, researchers did find first-born children score higher on IQ tests. The theory goes that parents have more time and energy to give their first child and this boosts that child’s intelligence. Kids who come later have to share their parents’ attention.

A study of 5000 American children found beginning at a young age, first-born kids do better on a variety of tests including reading, comprehension and maths. The researchers found younger siblings weren’t born at a disadvantage, but they got less mental stimulation from their parents as their parents became busier with a larger family. Other studies have suggested the same effect.

A large study of families in Denmark and the US found that in families with two or more children, second-born sons were much more likely to be disciplined at school and end up in trouble with the police than their older brothers. And a study carried out in Chile showed first-borns are less likely to use drugs.

Finding your place

The idea that birth order shapes personality comes from the evolutionary view that siblings compete with each other to get their parents’ attention. The best way to do this is to be different to your brothers and sisters – to stand out. For example, younger siblings need more help than their big brothers and sisters so they become outgoing and extraverted to get attention.

Interestingly, our birth order does influence who we are more likely to form close relationships with. First-borns are more likely to be married to, or friends with other first-borns, middle children with other middle children and the baby of the family is also more likely to be in a relationship or close friendship with other youngest siblings.

A study of 377,000 U.S. high school students found only a small effect of birth order on personality. Oldest children did tend to be a little more conscientious and dominant, and less sociable (although more agreeable). But these results were only significant because the researchers studied so many thousands of people. And the large study of US, UK and German families found no effect of birth order on any of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. So we certainly don’t have good evidence for the personality stereotypes we so often hear about.

Regardless of birth order, there’s no question the relationships we have with our brothers and sisters have a strong influence on us. And I count myself very lucky to have two wonderful big brothers.

But now I’d better get off the computer and go back to trying to be the centre of attention, just in case.

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Watch my space

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

We all have a bubble around us, a sense of personal space we don’t like to have invaded. How close are you happy to stand next to a friend? A stranger? And how is your comfort zone influenced by your nationality?

Need a bit of personal space? Image credit Mihai Damian via Flickr

Invisible bubbles

Remember Elaine’s ‘close talker’ boyfriend on Seinfeld, who stood too close? So close that Kramer fell over trying to get away?

Most of us have experienced meeting someone who just doesn’t seem to get personal space. It’s an icky feeling to have someone insist on standing too close. Especially when your backwards shuffle simply results in them stepping forward to close the gap.

Psychologists have been studying personal space since the 1960s, and we know quite a lot about it. You can think of personal space as the area around your body that you consider being psychologically yours. One study in the 1970s observed how long it took men to start peeing depending on how close the nearest occupied urinal was.

But personal space is an immensely variable thing. It changes, depending on where you are and who you’re with. Most of us will put up with standing much closer to a stranger on a crowded train than we would at other times.

In 1963, Edward T. Hall defined four ‘bubbles’ each of us perceives. Our intimate bubble (15 – 45 cm) is reserved for family, pets and closest friends. Next is our personal space (45 cm – 1.2 m), for friends and acquaintances. But we feel very uncomfortable if a stranger enters that zone. Then there’s social space (1.2 m – 3.6 m), fine for both new acquaintances and strangers. Finally, we all have a sense of public space, shared by all.

But this was a study of white American men. And it turns out where you’re from affects your preferred personal space.

Personal space around the world

In a study published earlier this year, researchers asked almost 9000 people from 42 countries to say how close they would be comfortable standing to a stranger, an acquaintance and a close friend.

Within each country, women and the elderly needed more space to be comfortable. But there were striking patterns across nationalities. Of the 42 countries included, Romanians had the largest personal space and Argentina the smallest. In Romania, people preferred to be almost a metre and a half from strangers, whereas Argentinians were happy to be about 80 cm from a stranger.

The researchers suggest this is because warm weather makes us feel socially closer. Beer garden, anyone? (Their alternate theory was that people living in warmer climates would stay well away from other people to reduce the risk of sharing parasites).

Interestingly, Romanians were very happy to be close to an intimate friend (50 cm). And Norwegians like to be even closer: 40 cm from a close friend. Maybe cold weather prompts us to want to get cozy with our nearest and dearest.

Unfortunately, Australians weren’t part of the study, but both England and the USA came out somewhere in the middle of the 42 countries, with Americans being happier to stand a bit closer to others than the Brits.


In monkeys, the area of the brain called the amygdala is involved in a sense of personal space. The amygdala plays an important role in memory, decision making and in our emotions.

Nearly a decade ago scientists determined the amygdala also plays a strong role in human perceptions of personal space. They worked it out by studying a patient known as ‘SM’, also known as the ‘woman with no fear.’

SM suffered major damage to the amygdala on both sides of her brain and can’t easily recognise the expression of fear in other peoples’ faces or judge the trustworthiness of other people. She also virtually never experiences fear herself. Scientists discovered SM felt comfortable standing just over 30cm from another person and it didn’t matter how well she knew the person.

Standing nose-to-nose with someone, even a stranger, didn’t make her uncomfortable. On average, other people in the study preferred to be just over 60cm from others. Experiments showed just the idea of someone standing close by is enough to make our amygdala fire up.

But next time you’re travelling, perhaps you can challenge your amygdala and do some experiments. Especially if you happen to be in one of the many countries not included in the study. Let’s fill the gaps.

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A measure of creativity

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Are you creative? Many people believe everyone is creative. But how do we define creativity and how can we measure it?

What’s creative thinking anyway? Image credit Axel Tafernervia Flickr

What’s creativity?

Creativity is a fascinating thing. We all have an idea of what it means to be creative – perhaps you’re thinking of Leonardo Da Vinci or Steve Jobs. But coming up with a solid definition of creativity has proven challenging. Most researchers use the words ‘new’ and ‘useful’ to describe creative thoughts, ideas and actions. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.

Many researchers agree creative people simply see more possibilities than others. So it makes sense that one of the most common ways scientists assess a person’s creativity are tests of divergent thinking.

Creative thinking

Convergent thinking, one aspect of being creative, is the ability to come up with the one right answer to a problem. Divergent thinking is coming up with as many solutions to a question or problem as possible. Psychologist J. P Guilford coined these terms in the 1950s. And although creativity and divergent thinking aren’t the same thing, most people agree the ability to think outside the box is an important part of being creative.

One popular divergent thinking test is known as the alternate uses test. You get two minutes to come up with as many uses as you can for an everyday object like a paperclip, cardboard box or fork. You’re scored on how many uses you can come up with, how unusual these uses are, how detailed your ideas are and how many different categories they fall into. Most adults come up with 10 or 15 uses; people who blitz the test might think of 200.

One of the most well-known studies exploring divergent thinking followed a group of children starting in kindergarten. At that age, 98% of the kids scored at the top of the charts in divergent thinking. Five years later, half of the same kids made the cut and at age fifteen, only 10% of them showed the same high level of divergent thinking.

If we accept that our ability to think creatively in this way declines as we age, it’s worth thinking about ways we might be able to increase divergent thinking.

Dark, messy, on a treadmill, or sleepy

There has been plenty of research exploring what factors lead to more divergent thinking. One study found dim lighting reduces distractions and leads to a feeling of being free from constraints. People working in darkness were more creative in their thinking.

Walking also influences our ability to think outside the box. More than three-quarters of people scored higher on the alternate uses test after walking, even if the walking was done on a treadmill. But walking outside led to the most original thinking.

Another study found working in a neat, clean ordered environment leads to healthier snack choices and people being willing to give more money to charity. But people who work in a cluttered, messy environment were better at coming up with more ideas, and more creative ideas.

Spending time living overseas and meditation also appear to lead to more divergent thinking. And people who listen to ‘positive’ classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) do better on divergent thinking tests than people who do the same tests in silence.

One study involved half of the participants going 32 hours (one night) without sleep before taking divergent thinking tests. Unsurprisingly, not getting enough sleep had a clear detrimental effect on creative thinking. Worth remembering if you’re considering an all-nighter. (Although a different study found people are more creative at solving problems at a time of day when they feel tired).

A creative placebo

What if simply believing you’re creative allowed you to think more creatively? One fascinating study found that asking people to ‘take on’ a stereotype of either an ‘eccentric poet’ or ‘rigid librarian’ had a big effect on their performance in an alternate uses test. Students who imagined themselves to be poets while they were doing the test were much better at thinking divergently than those who put themselves in librarians’ shoes.

A study published this year showed the placebo effect also has a role to play in creative thinking. Ninety students were asked to sniff a cinnamon-like substance and half were told this substance had been designed to enhance creativity. Of course in truth, there is no such thing.

But sure enough, the students who had sniffed the supposed creativity elixir were much better at coming up with alternate uses for shoes, nails and buttons. They also did better on other divergent thinking tests than the students who hadn’t been told the odour increases creativity.

So although many of us think, or have been told, we aren’t creative, clearly we just need to believe we are.

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Do dogs understand our emotions?

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Evolution / Psychology / Zoology

Dogs give the impression of understanding our every word. How well can dogs read our emotions, and can they really smell fear?

Can dogs interpret human emotions? And can they really smell fear? Image credit Alberto … via Flickr

Man – and woman’s – best friend

Anyone who grew up with, or has a pet dog will agree: dogs have an amazing ability to make us feel understood. It’s in the way their eyes study us intently, often with a sympathetic tilt of the head. Dogs tend to stay close when we need comfort and are masters at reading our body language. It’s easy to imagine dogs understand exactly what we feel. But how much is that a case of wishful thinking?

Scientists are still trying to work out exactly how long ago wolves evolved into domesticated dogs, but we know it was tens of thousands of years ago. That’s a long time for humans and dogs to get to know one another. As you’d imagine, there’s been plenty of research into our relationship with man’s best friend. For example, we’ve studied the way dogs respond to our language, voices, body language and emotions. So just how well do dogs understand us?

Reading faces

Dogs are highly tuned to our faces. They use faces to recognise their owners and look particularly to our eyes. Eye-tracking studies show dogs follow our gaze to the same degree as six-month-old babies. Tell your dog not to take a piece of food and then close your eyes. Your dog is more likely to steal the food if your eyes are closed than if you are simply distracted or have your back turned. Worth remembering next time there’s birthday cake on the table.

And just as dogs are tuned into us, dogs have their own facial expressions. We know shelter dogs with a particular facial expression (raised inner eyebrows) are more quickly adopted by new owners. We also know dogs’ faces are more expressive when we pay attention to them. So it’s possible dogs have evolved to use their facial expressions to communicate with us.

But contrary to what you might expect, although dogs’ facial expressions changed when a researcher paid attention to them, dogs didn’t use a cute begging face when there was food around.

Your dog does understand you

Dogs also appear to show empathy; dogs pay more attention to people when they are crying than when they talk or hum. And dogs will sniff, nuzzle and lick a person who is crying, even if that person is a stranger. The fact yawns are contagious has been proposed to be a form of empathy and dogs also ‘catch’ human yawns. Researchers have proposed dogs also have a sense of morality, at least similar to that of babies. One experiment found dogs shun people who won’t help their owners.

Sounds are also important to dogs – they can tell the difference between happy and sad sounds. This research suggested dogs might also ‘catch’ emotions both from humans and other dogs. We also know dogs are able to distinguish between the tone of voice we use and the words we say: researchers scanned dogs brains and found different parts of the brain were involved in processing words and processing how we say those words.

Put sounds and faces together and dogs really stand out in their abilities. A study published last year showed that dogs are the only animals (other than us) able to interpret and recognise emotions from both faces and sounds together.

Can dogs smell fear?

Dogs are renowned for their incredible sense of smell, and it’s commonly said dogs can smell fear. But until recently we didn’t have a lot of evidence.

As part of a recent study, volunteers watched videos designed to make them feel happy, scared or neutral. The researchers then collected samples of these volunteers’ armpit sweat.

Labradors and golden retrievers behaved differently depending on whether they smelled happy or scared sweat. When they were exposed to fear smells, the dogs showed signs of stress. Their heart rates went up, they looked for more reassurance from their owners and were less likely to interact with strangers. But the happy smells made the dogs more likely to approach and interact with strangers – more sociable – and less reliant on their owners.

So dogs are not only able to smell fear, but it appears they may adopt our fear too. No wonder we love them so much.


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It’s not in the way you write

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Myths / Psychology

It’s tempting to think the way you write – big or small letters, straight or on a lean, with or without swirls, neat or messy – says something about your personality. But is there any truth to handwriting analysis?

Interpreting handwriting is about as scientifically sound as reading palms, tarot cards or the bumps on your head. Image credit Anthony Citrano via Flickr

The rise of graphology

At first glance, the idea that personality is reflected in handwriting does have some appeal. After all, each of us has our own very personal writing style so perhaps the way we write is influenced by our personality.

Handwriting analysis – known as graphology – has been around for centuries. What we think was the first book proposing a link between handwriting and personality was published in 1575, by Spaniard Juan Harte de San Juan. Graphology really took off in the 19th century, led by Jean-Hippolyte Michon. For example, Michon claimed ‘all weak-willed people cross their t’s feebly’. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a series analysing the handwriting of prominent writers.

Research published in 1948 declared “it will be possible (within a not too distant future) to devise a psychodiagnostic test based upon handwriting analysis which will satisfy scientific standards”.

The British Institute of Graphologists claims ‘your handwriting gives the story of yourself’ and one popular infographic claims handwriting indicates more than 5000 personality traits. Handwriting analysts are always keen to discuss the handwriting of political leaders and incidently, Trump also declared himself a handwriting analyst.

The science is in

If you Google graphology you’ll find well over a million results. A number of them, even from what I would consider fairly reputable sites, support a link between handwriting and personality. There’s a TEDx talk, a recent article in Business Insider Australia and in the New York Times. A piece in the Guardian from only eight years ago discusses handwriting analysis as part of many recruitment processes, a practice apparently particularly commonly in France. And CNN also weighed in last year on the Trump handwriting discussion.

But in a review of over 200 studies on graphology, the results were clear: taken together, these studies show no link between personality and handwriting. For example, we know handwriting analysis can’t detect the Big Five personality traits, a staple in modern personality testing.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been the odd positive result. For example, one German study from nearly twenty years ago found a link between the personality trait of agreeableness and slower speed of handwriting. Another study suggested graphologists were able to infer extraversion from handwriting (although it raised questions about definitions of extraversion). There is also some evidence of gender differences in handwriting.

But after fifty years of study, we don’t have any solid evidence that you can reliably determine a person’s personality from their handwriting.

Another pseudoscience

Prominent skeptic and professor of psychology Barry Beyerstein was particularly vocal in declaring graphology a pseudoscience, akin to describing a person’s personality on the basis of their skull shape. But he was also interested in why many intelligent, educated people believe in it. Perhaps it’s simply because we like the idea that our handwriting is somehow a true expression of ourselves.

Interestingly, one study found students were capable of altering their handwriting in order to change their teachers’ impressions of them. That suggests we do have shared beliefs about what certain types of handwriting mean, even if they’re wrong.

And we shouldn’t dismiss looking at handwriting all together: one study found a link between signature size and personality traits. People with larger signatures tended to be more socially dominant. More importantly, there’s evidence changes in handwriting can be indicative of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

I’m happy to concede there may be occasions when scientists should analyse handwriting for health purposes. But if I’m ever asked to provide a handwriting sample with a job application, I’ll be thinking very carefully about whether I really want the job.

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Trumped-up confidence

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Know anyone whose confidence in their own ability far outweighs their actual skills? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect is the ignorance of one’s own ignorance. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

A question of confidence

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt. –Nobel Prize Winner Bertrand Russell

A lack of confidence is extremely common: seventy percent of us experience the imposter syndrome. Despite good evidence to the contrary, we worry we’re too inexperienced and incompetent to be doing our jobs. So we work harder to try to prove our abilities, all the while being filled with self-doubt.

But you probably know someone who seems to suffer from the opposite problem: misplaced confidence. Think of the infuriating person who dominates meetings despite clearly knowing very little about the topic being discussed. Or the person who is boring you stupid at a party, waxing lyrical – and apparently knowledgably – about a topic they are unmistakably ignorant about. Or the terrible driver who thinks they are one of the best. We all know someone.

This flipside to the imposter syndrome is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

How funny is this joke?

In 1999, David Dunning, and his then student Justin Kruger, published a paper ‘Unskilled and unaware of it’. They describe a series of experiments designed to uncover the relationship between a person’s skill in a certain area, and that person’s perception of their ability in the same area.

Across tests of grammar, humour and logic, students who performed worst also hugely overestimated their abilities. Although on average, they did worse in these tests than 88% of others, these students estimated they had performed better than two-thirds of the other students.

For example, Dunning and Kruger asked 65 students to rate how funny certain jokes were. They then compared the students’ ratings with those of professional comedians. The students who were terrible at predicting what other people would find funny declared themselves to be excellent judges of humour.

In all cases, the confidence of the lowest-performing students well and truly surpassed their skills. It’s easy to understand how this could happen: if you know virtually nothing about grammar, of course you are unlikely to recognise when you make grammatical mistakes. We are simply not good at knowing what we don’t know.

Kruger and Dunning begin their paper with the now-famous example of McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler attempted to rob two banks in broad daylight with no disguise. It turns out he believed that covering his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras. He wasn’t under the influence of drugs, or delusional; he was just completely wrong about a key part of his robbery plan. The story goes Wheeler was dumbfounded when police showed him the clear-as-a-bell video footage of himself mid-robbery.

This became the perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: not only was McArthur incompetent at being a bank robber, his incompetence left him completely unable to recognise his incompetence.

We don’t know what we don’t know

As John Cleese famously put it: ‘If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realise that you’re very, very stupid?’

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has now been widely researched. Whether you look at debating, financial knowledge, chess, firearm safety, emotional intelligence or driving ability, the story is the same. Unskilled people simply don’t have the ability to recognise their lack of skills. If you don’t know how to play chess very well, you are completely ignorant to all the far better chess moves you could be making.

The problem isn’t when we know absolutely nothing about a topic. ‘Most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis’. The problem arises when we know a little bit, but not enough to realise how little we know (a graph explains it better).

An important point to take away from these studies is that the Dunning-Kruger Effect isn’t about ridiculing the stupidity of others. It’s about recognising the traps we all fall into. How do we tackle the effect? By improving our skills. As we become more competent at something, at the same time we become better at recognising the limits of our abilities.

Students who originally estimated that they got five out of ten logic puzzles correct (when in reality they struggled to get one right) changed their tune after getting training. After being taught the basics of how to solve logic puzzles, the same students now predicted they would score one out of ten.

The challenge for all of us is clear. Next time we feel confident about something, we need to think carefully. Is our confidence a sign of genuine ability, or of complete incompetence?

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