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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Hearing accents

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

We all speak with an accent, and we judge each other by our accents. Our accents can change gradually, or sometimes dramatically. But if you want to speak an additional language without any foreign accent, you may be facing an uphill battle.

Did you know that some animals – like these Japanese macaques – have accents too? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Accent, accents everywhere

Everyone has an accent. And I’m not just talking about humans. The clicking sounds sperm whales use to communicate with each other vary by region, and Japanese Macaques have local accents too. In fact a variety of animals have patterns to their calls that are influenced by where the animal lives – for example wolves, other monkeys and cod. There has even been research into whether a cat’s miaows are affected by its owner’s accent.

Our accents can change over time – both as individuals and as whole countries. One study observed the way reality TV participants regularly changed their accents while living in isolation together for three months.

In the case of the rare foreign accent syndrome, a person’s accent can drastically and immediately change as a result of damage to the brain. Well-known examples are an Australian who has spoken with something similar to a French accent since a car accident twelve years ago, an American who has been speaking with a Cockney accent since having a stroke and a Brit who spoke in a thick Russian accent for several years after a brain hemorrhage. The first recorded case of foreign accent syndrome was in 1941 when a Norwegian woman began speaking in a German accent after being hit by shrapnel. The story goes that she was thought to be a German spy and was shunned by the people around her.

Talk like an Egyptian

If you’re hoping to speak a second language and sound like a native, you may be running out of time. The strength of your accent is directly correlated with your age at the time you learned the additional language. Unfortunately, your ability to speak an additional language accent-free has been tapering off since puberty. If you want to speak an additional language accent-free, your best bet is to learn it before the age of six. How much of the time you continue to speak in your native language will also affect the accent you speak with in a second language.

It’s difficult to sound like a native speaker when you’re not because the sounds you recognise (and will later copy) are established before your first birthday. In one study, researchers played the sounds ‘la’ and ‘ra’ to six-month old Japanese and English babies. At that age, all the babies could pick the difference between the two sounds. But at the ripe old age of ten months, Japanese babies could no longer hear the difference between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds, which don’t exist in Japanese. It’s amazing to think your pattern of speaking was already largely set before you spoke your first word.

Here’s a sobering fact for all of us who speak additional languages with a detectable accent: speaking with an accent makes you harder to understand. And research shows we are less likely to trust someone we find harder to understand. The more severe your accent, the less credible people assume you to be. This accent discrimination may be frustrating for travellers but of course is far more damaging for immigrants.

Can I borrow your accent?

Do people ever tease you about the fact you pick up accents easily? You might not even be aware you’re doing it but what’s been dubbed a ‘wandering accent’ is quite common. Without intention, you mimic whatever accent you hear at the time. It’s also known as the chameleon effect. It turns out we even imitate other peoples’ speaking styles when lip reading, and not able to hear their voice.

We mimic other people as a result of wanting to empathise and bond with them and imitating someone’s accent is the best way to improve your ability to understand that person. We now know exactly which part of the brain is active when impersonating someone else which may help to treat someone who has lost their own accent through foreign accent syndrome.

A head’s up: if you suddenly find yourself speaking with a distinctly British accent, a whole new line of acting work may be open to you. In the movies, most villains are portrayed by people with posh British accents – also known as received pronunciation (RP).

We perceive speakers with this accent as highly intellectually but low in morals. Sounds like a villainous combo to me.

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There’s a face in there

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

Ever seen Elvis in a corn chip? How about a face in a building or a cloud? Spotting faces – even ones that don’t exist – is something your brain is very good at.

Seeing faces? Image credit Mk2010 via Wikimedia Commons

Do you see what I see?

One of my favourite Twitter accounts is Faces in Things. You’d be amazed where people have spied faces and other human and animal shapes.

You’ve probably heard about Jesus on a banana peel, the Man in the Moon and the face of Madonna on a toasted sandwich (which sold for US$28,000). We’ve seen capsicums that look like British politicians and a crab tainted with the face of Osama bin Laden.

Melbournians may know the Hume Highway rooster tree, now with its own Facebook page and song.

Since the 1700s, the surface of Mars has been a particularly rich source of these illusions. In 1976, people were captivated by images of a face on Mars, which turned out to be nothing more than a trick of light and shadows. Mars also boasts a smiley face in a crater, a lava flow that resembles Kermit the frog, the face of Mahatma Gandhi, a rat and Bigfoot.

Famous cases aside, people have spied faces in power points, trees, buildings, rocks and USB drives. If you tend to see faces everywhere, don’t worry. You’re not going crazy: our brains are exceptionally good at spotting faces.

It’s called pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a familiar pattern when one doesn’t exist.

Faces, faces everywhere

There are many different kinds of pareidolia, but seeing faces is the most common. Why are we so quick to see a face where there isn’t one? Simple – because we spend so much of our time looking at faces. And we’ve evolved to depend on our ability to recognise and extract information from these faces.

We’ve over-learned human faces so we see them where they aren’t – Professor Takeo Watanabe, Brown University

We are hard-wired to recognise faces: our social lives have long relied on us being able to spot a face from a distance or in low light. Not only that, it’s extremely useful to be able to deduce other things from a face: mood, age, gender and the direction a person is looking. Is this person a friend, or a threat? Even as very young babies, we prefer to look at faces over non-faces.

It turns out we have an entire brain area dedicated to recognising faces – the Fusiform Face Area (FFA). This area is active when we see a face, even in blind people.

Research shows this area of the brain lights up in the same way when we see an illusory face as when we see a real face. The FFA is active when a person reports seeing a face, even when there is absolutely no pattern (in a pure noise image).

True believers

Identifying patterns is nothing new – it’s the basis of the infamous Rorschach inkblot test. But some of us are more likely to see faces than others.

A Finnish study firstly asked volunteers whether they saw faces in dozens of objects and landscapes. The researchers then asked about the belief systems of the participants. Did each person believe in God? And how about the paranormal? Religious people and those who believed in the paranormal were much more likely to see faces than atheists and skeptics. ‘Believers’ were also more likely to see emotions in the illusory faces.

And if you’re thinking our ability to see faces in toast, tortillas and toilets is something that makes us uniquely human, think again.

Recent research shows rhesus monkeys see faces that aren’t there too. And it makes perfect sense – if a monkey thinks it sees a tiger when there’s no tiger around, it isn’t a big deal. But the consequences of not spotting a real tiger might not be so pretty. It’s not just humans who have evolved to be highly tuned to faces.

Now given I’m hard-wired to spot faces, excuse me while I waste a bit more time indulging my pareidolia.

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How to rock paper and scissors

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Anthropology / Mathematics / Myths / Psychology

We’ve all used rock-paper-scissors to resolve a dispute. Is there a foolproof winning strategy?

Want to win at rock-paper-scissors?

The earwig and the elephant

When all else fails, rock-paper-scissors (also known as RPS) is an excellent way to make a decision. The rules are simple. At an agreed moment – usually after two or three ‘primes’ to get in sync, two people each make a symbol with their hand. The symbols are rock (closed fist), paper (flat hand) and scissors (index and middle fingers form a V to represent scissor blades).

There is an agreed hierarchy to determine who wins each round: rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock. Despite considerable debate as to whether the rock smashes the scissors or blunts them, the outcome is the same. There are three possible results: win, lose or tie.

There’s plenty of discussion about the origins of RPS – it probably dates back to the Chinese Han Dynasty. The Japanese version, Junken, has a long history and continues to play an important role in Japan today. There are many variations on the theme: for example, the tiger, village chief and village chief’s mother (who trumps the village chief). My personal favourite – earwig-man-elephant – hails from Indonesia. Earwig beats elephant because it crawls up the elephant’s trunk and eats its brain. The game is also sometimes called Rochambeau or Roshambo (remember the Southpark episode?)

Just a kid’s game?

At one level, RPS is a kid’s game, good for settling playground disputes. Among adults, it can decide who should pay for a round of drinks. But don’t be fooled: RPS is a cultural phenomenon.

International competitions offer five-figure prize money. The World RPS Society has an Internationally Recognised Throwing System of hand symbols. There’s also a Player’s Responsibility Code including the sage advice “Think twice before using RPS for life-threatening decisions.”

Why do we love RPS so much? Because despite the deceptively simple rules, there’s a whole world of strategy.

RPS is written off as a kids’ game … but when you delve into it, it’s one of the purest forms of competition that two minds can have with each other – Professional rock-paper-scissors player Jason Simmon

Let’s talk strategy

We tend to think RPS is a fair way to resolve disputes because the winner is decided by chance. Each player picks a hand symbol at random meaning each has an equal likelihood of winning that round.

Except that we are lousy at being random. We follow patterns and if you understand those patterns, you suddenly have a distinct advantage over your opponent. You can find a variety of RPS strategy guides and most suggest different tactics depending on your opponent’s gender and level of experience. For example, inexperienced men tend to lead with rock whereas most women lead with scissors. If you’re not convinced experience makes any difference, play against a computer first in Novice mode, then in Veteran mode where the computer “pits over 200,000 rounds of previous experience against you.” Experience matters.

Recent studies have revealed on average, we choose each action about a third of the time, which is what you would expect if our choices were random. But closer inspection shows there are predictable patterns to our choices. In a study of 360 students playing 300 rounds of RPS, the patterns were clear.

Players who won the last round will most likely stick with the same action. If it worked once, it may well work again.

Importantly, players who lost the last round will most likely switch to the next action in a clockwise direction (where R → P → S is clockwise). This is the tendency you can exploit to your advantage.

Can you always win?

The latest research led to dozens of claims that with maths on your side, you can always win at rock-paper-scissors.

The latest research findings can definitely up your chances of winning. If your opponent just won with rock (because you played scissors), you should choose paper next because they are likely to play rock again. If your opponent lost, you should respond to the likelihood that they will switch from rock to paper to scissors in that order by playing the actions in the opposite order. For every scenario, the research predicts which action will most likely win you the next round.

But the problem here is that if your opponent has also read up on strategy, your plans may be foiled. I don’t think you can ever be guaranteed of winning.

Unless, of course, you’re a robot. The Janken robot wins RPS every time because it recognises in one millisecond what shape your hand is forming and almost simultaneously makes the winning action.

Time to channel your inner robot.

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