At the start of this July (2014), Facebook hit the news worldwide, all because of research methods. If ever proof were needed that research methods are super-exciting, here it was!
A study conducted over one week in 2012 had altered the extent to which 689,000 Facebook users were exposed to emotional content in their News Feeds. The study found evidence of what it described as ’emotional contagion’: when users were more likely to see more positive content in their News Feeds, they used very slightly more positive words in their posts. When the content they saw on their News Feeds was less likely to be positive, the number of positive words was very slightly reduced.
The News Feed feature was the only part of users’ Facebook pages that was modified, and this is a feature of Facebook that is constantly modified anyway – the content from friends that is shared on News Feed is selected by a Facebook algorithm which is designed to show content that users are most likely to find interesting. All shared content was viewable as usual on users’ wall and timeline. Users’ posts (300 million of them) were monitored, but no researcher read any posts – all the processing of emotional word use was done by computers via Facebook’s own News Feed filtering system. The experiment did not alter in any way the messages that users sent to each other. And all those who were involved in the study were selected randomly, by username and pattern of use (the study made sure they were people who used Facebook regularly). So why was there such a huge reaction to news of the study?
The main problem people had with the study, it seemed, was that they hadn’t been asked if they wanted to take part. As all psychology students know, this is an ethical issue known as informed consent. Participants must be given comprehensive information concerning the nature and purpose of a study and their role in it. Participants can then make an informed decision about whether to participate in the study or not.
The difficulty for researchers is that providing comprehensive information of this kind may reduce the meaningfulness of their research because once participants know what the study is doing, it may then affect their behaviour. That would certainly seem to be an obvious problem for this Facebook-based research into emotional contagion. However, concerns over manipulation of personal information by ‘big data’ are deeply felt by large numbers of people worldwide, suggesting that the ethical issues of this study should have been much more carefully considered.
Crazy as it sounds, psychologists have found that wearing a Superman t-shirt or a white coat can improve exam performance. Professor Karen Pine, author of ‘Mind What You Wear’ suggests that what we wear can change the way we think and feel, a phenomenon known as ‘enclothed cognition’. If you have studied aggression, you may already be familiar with this idea through the concept of deindividuation, those changes in thinking and behaviour associated with the anonymity of uniform.
In the US, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinski, of Northwestern University, have demonstrated that a person’s performance on attention-related tasks increases when wearing a white coat. Subconsciously, the coat made participants feel more professional and more focused on the tasks because of the ‘medical’ association of the white coat. Their performance did not increase in the same way if they were told the coat was a painter’s coat, suggesting it is the symbolic association of the garment that is the mechanism for altered cognitions.
Pine’s team at the University of Hertfordshire put students through a range of mental ability tests and found that those wearing Superman t-shirts scored significantly higher than those in plain t-shirts (72 per cent versus 64 per cent). Pine also found that when wearing a Superman t-shirt, students rated themselves as more likeable and superior to other students.
So, when you are happy that you have covered everything you need to revise for the forthcoming exams, the only thing left to do is to dig out that old superhero t-shirt to wear on the day itself (ask your dad, he’s bound to have one…)
Earlier this month (9 April), the DfE published the results of its consulation on revised A level subject content. This includes the proposed AS and A level subject content for psychology. On the face of it, there are very few changes required: a quick comparison with the 2006 QCA requirements shows virtually no difference in requirements. This subject content will make up 60% of what exam boards will use to write their AS and A level specifications.
Does that mean we should anticipate very few changes to the new exam specs? With exam boards starting to advertise introductory training events before the summer holidays this year, it shouldn’t be long before we see the new specifications. Rumours abound about what these will be like, including the suggestion that a combination of specs A and B will involve bigger changes to the resulting AQA specification and assessment than is required by the DfE. We’ll keep you posted!
AQA has added a new section to its website all about specification change at GCSE and A Level. There’s nothing new about changes to Psychology yet, but there’s the option to sign up for email updates which might prove useful, and a selection of general resources and FAQs. This short video on how an AQA specification is made is interesting viewing – good to know that AQA is keen to share the new spec with teachers as soon as possible.
Psychologists take care to avoid bias in their investigations, for example making assumptions about differences between males and females (alpha bias) or overlooking differences between males and females (beta bias).
A study by researchers at Princeton University suggests the existence of a ‘bias blind spot’ that means people recognise that bias exists but assume they personally are not likely to be affected by it. As reported by Oliver Burkeman on his excellent blog, this meant that ‘Even when people acknowledge that what they are about to do is biased … they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.’
Does a famous name make this a better picture?
This is how the study was carried out: the researchers showed participants (a mix of Princeton students and others recruited online) a selection of 80 paintings, which they were asked to rate for artistic merit from 1 to 10. Half the group just saw the paintings, and the other half saw the paintings plus what were supposedly the names of the artists responsible.
In fact, the names were a mixture of famous artists and names chosen at random from a phone book. Those participants who saw the names exhibited a bias: they gave a higher ranking to works associated with names of famous artists. But even when the risk of bias was pointed out to them, these participants still rated their decisions as objective – while it was definitely likely that other people would be biased towards big names, no one thought it would affect them.
The DfE’s Statistical Release for January 2014 is concerned with changes in A Level candidate numbers in England over the period 1996 to 2013, particularly, it is true, with any signs of an increase in recent years in ‘facilitating subjects’ – here the data do seem to suggest a rise in Maths and Science entries since about 2005/06, though with a slight decline in A Level numbers in England overall since 2011.
The report notes that ‘[o]ne of the largest increases in the volume of students entering for a subject is psychology’, and includes a graph showing just how impressive this growth has been (reproduced below). It also includes interesting information from UCAS that this rise in numbers at A Level has been accompanied by a rise in applications to study psychology at undergraduate level from around 12,000 in 2004 to over 15,000 in 2010 – a number that has remained stable since 2010, too.
To celebrate the publication of AS Psychology: The Revision Companion (which is out in February), we’re asking students to reflect on the best ways to make revision memorable, for the chance to win a revision session with Cara Flanagan.
Best-selling co-author of The Complete Companions, Cara Flanagan, will come into the school or college of the winning student and run a half-day revision session to help all the AS students reflect and focus ahead of May’s AS exams. Each student will leave with loads of tips and advice, plus their own copy of Psychology AS: The Revision Companion by Cara Flanagan and Mike Cardwell. The winning student will also receive a £50 Amazon voucher for him or herself.
How to enter:
We’re asking students to visit our website and access the chapter on memory from The Revision Companion. They then need to choose a section of information and decide how best to present it visually and memorably.
P.S. To request your inspection copy of The Revision Companion or if you’d like to receive the Oxford Psychology enewsletter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.