Saturday, June 18, 2011

Animal Instincts: Why Do Unhappy Consumers Prefer Tactile Sensations?

Source: ScienceDaily

ScienceDaily (June 16, 2011) — A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research explains why sad people are more likely to want to hug a teddy bear than seek out a visual experience such as looking at art. Hint: It has to do with our mammalian instincts. "Human affective systems evolved from mammalian affective systems, and when mammals are young and incapable of thinking, their brain systems have to make these pups able to perform the 'correct' behavior," write authors Dan King (NUS Business School, Singapore) and Chris Janiszewski (University of Florida, Gainesville). One way the brain encourages correct behavior is to use the mammal's affective state to change the pleasure response to major sensory channels.
For example, mammal pups that are in a negative state are typically injured, sick, heat deprived, or lost. The brain tries to restore physical resources to these vulnerable creatures by increasing their pleasure response to tactile stimulation. "In this way, the mammal will experience pleasure from engaging in behaviors that mitigate the negative affect state (for example, returning to its mother for warmth, protection, and nourishment)," the authors write.
Mammals that are in a positive state are primed for visual exploration, to fulfill goals of protection and territorial expansion. "Animal studies have shown that excited organisms have heightened visual systems and make more visual explorations," the authors explain.
Across five experiments the authors found that consumers felt more pleasure from tactile attributes of products when they were in negative states, and more pleasure from visual aspects when they were in positive states. For example, in one experiment, participants who were in a negative affective state were more appreciative of the tactile qualities of a hand lotion, whereas those in a positive state were more appreciative of the lotion's visual qualities.
"This research suggests that marketers may be able to segment their markets based on the affective propensities of the consumer, and prioritize tactile and visual quality for these different segments," the authors write. "A dollar invested in the 'correct' attribute will generate more pleasure, and hence, will be more likely to be rewarded in terms of higher sales." Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by
University of Chicago Press Journals, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Environment Plays Key Role in Developing Reading Skills, Study Finds.

A new study of twins is the first to demonstrate that environment plays an important role in reading growth over time. (Credit: iStockphoto/Ekaterina Monakhova)
Source: ScienceDaily
ScienceDaily (Jan. 14, 2010) — While genetics play a key role in children's initial reading skills, a new study of twins is the first to demonstrate that environment plays an important role in reading growth over time.
The results give further evidence that children can make gains in reading during their early school years, above and beyond the important genetic factors that influence differences in reading, said Stephen Petrill, lead author of the study and professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.
"We certainly have to take more seriously genetic influences on learning, but children who come into school with poor reading skills can make strides with proper instruction," Petrill said.
"The findings support the need for sustained efforts to promote reading development in children that take both genetic and environmental influences into account."
While other studies have shown that both genetics and environment influence reading skills, this is the first to show their relative roles in how quickly or slowly children's reading skills improve over time.
The study appears online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
The study participants were 314 Ohio twins participating in the Western Reserve Reading Project. This study included 135 identical twins and 179 same-sex fraternal twins.
The twins began the study when they were in kindergarten or first grade and were assessed in their homes when they enrolled, and annually for the next two years.
At each home visit, the twins were given a 90-minute battery of reading-based measures. Among other things, the tests measured word and letter identification, the ability to sound out words, and the speed at which children could name a series of letters.
The researchers compared how twins scored on the tests and then used a statistical analysis to determine how much growth in their performance could be explained by genetics and how much by environmental factors.
Environmental factors include everything the children experience -- how they are cared for by their parents, how much they are read to, the neighborhood they live in, nutrition and their instruction in schools, among other factors.
The findings showed that when children start out reading, both genetics and environment play a role in readings skills, depending on the skills assessed. For word and letter identification, genetics explained about one-third of the test results, while environment explained two-thirds. For vocabulary and sound awareness, it was equally split between genetics and environment. For the speed tests, it was three-quarters genetic.
But when the researchers measured growth in reading skills, environment became much more important, Petrill said.
For reading skills that are taught, such as words and letters, the environment is almost completely responsible for growth. For awareness of sounds in reading, about 80 percent of growth was explained by the environment. Speed measures were the only ones where genetics still played a large role.
"Regardless of where children start as far as reading skills, and the impact that genetics and environment had on their initial skills, we found that their environment had an impact in how fast or how slowly those reading skills developed," Petrill said.
Petrill emphasized that a child's environment is much more than just the instruction he or she receives in school. However, instruction is likely a key part of how reading skills grow over time.
Petrill said much more research needs to be done examining the roles of genetics and the environment in shaping how children learn to read.
"We believe that both factors play a role in reading, which is very similar to what researchers find in health issues such as heart disease and obesity," Petrill said. "But we know a lot more about the relative impacts of genetics and environment on the biological systems that influence heart disease than we do in reading."
For example, people can change their environment to help lower their risk of heart disease, no matter their genetic susceptibility to the disease, he said.
Petrill said he hopes we can do the same to help children improve their reading.
"Understanding the causes of why kids differ in reading skills, and the roles of genetics and environment, could help us understand how to teach them better," he said.
Story Source:
Adapted from materials provided by
Ohio State University. Original article written by Jeff Grabmeier.
Journal Reference:
Stephen A. Petrill, Sara A. Hart, Nicole Harlaar, Jessica Logan, Laura M. Justice, Christopher Schatschneider, Lee Thompson, Laura S. DeThorne, Kirby Deater-Deckard, Laurie Cutting. Genetic and environmental influences on the growth of early reading skills. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2010; DOI:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why Do People 'Play the Longshot' but Buy Insurance? It's in Our Genes.

New research by economists and molecular geneticists helps answer why people tend to be risk-preferring when facing longshot risks involving significant gains, such as playing the lottery. (Credit: iStockphoto/Steve Snowden)
Source: ScienceDaily
ScienceDaily (Jan. 13, 2010) — Why do some people like to take risks by playing "longshot" payoffs while, on the other hand, taking the opposite tack by buying insurance to reduce risks? A team of economists and molecular geneticists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and two Asian universities says the answer can be found in our genetic makeup.
The team set out to tackle the long-standing question in economic theory as to why people tend to be risk-preferring when facing longshot risks involving significant gains, such as betting on race horses, and on the other hand are risk averse when facing significant losses -- buying home or car insurance, for instance.
Many economists have struggled with this paradox, says Richard Ebstein, the Sylvia Scheinfeld Professor of Human Genetics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has probed this subject along with economists Prof. Soo Hong Chew of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Dr. Songfa Zhong of NUS and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Ebstein notes the psychological explanation suggested by former Hebrew University psychology Professors Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel Prize laureate) and Amos Tversky, as embodied in their widely accepted prospect theory, to explain why people play the lottery and at the same time purchase insurance. Although prospect theory offers a psychological explanation for this facet of economic behavior, the underlying neurobiological and neurogenetic mechanisms have remained obscure until now, said Ebstein.
In an article just published online on PLoS ONE, Ebstein and his colleagues combined the tools of experimental economics and molecular genetics to examine the role of a well-characterized gene, monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), in predicting whether subjects are more likely to buy the lottery or insurance (or both) under well-controlled laboratory conditions.
In the experiment, 350 Han Chinese subjects were recruited in Beijing and participated in two simple choice tasks, representing proclivities to purchase lottery tickets and insurance, using real monetary incentives.
For example, the subjects were given options to keep a very small cash return upfront, with no risk, or of gambling bigger amounts that they were given upfront but with a minimal chance of actually winning and keeping the money in a lottery drawing. In the second task, concerning insurance, subjects were asked whether or not they would insure a certain but insignificant loss or would take out insurance on a larger amount with a real but low risk of actual loss.
They found that subjects with a high-activity variation of the MAOA gene are characterized by a preference for the longshot lottery and also less insurance purchasing than subjects with the low-activity genetic version. This is the first result to link attitude towards longshot risks to a specific gene. It complements other, recent findings on the neurobiological basis of economic risk taking.
As the world financial system slowly emerges from the near economic meltdown, it is worth considering, says Ebstein, that inborn biases, coded by common genetic variants, may be a major factor in fueling people's actions regarding longshot options --- with concomitant effects on financial markets.
Story Source:
Adapted from materials provided by
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
Journal Reference:
Songfa Zhong, Salomon Israel, Hong Xue, Richard P. Ebstein, Soo Hong Chew. Monoamine Oxidase A Gene (MAOA) Associated with Attitude Towards Longshot Risks. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4 (12): e8516 DOI:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Birth Order Affects Your Personality.

For decades the evidence has been inconclusive, but new studies show that family position may truly affect intelligence and personality.
Joshua K. Hartshorne
When I tell people I study whether birth order affects personality, I usually get blank looks. It sounds like studying whether the sky is blue. Isn’t it common sense? Popular books invoke birth order for self-discovery, relationship tips, business advice and parenting guidance in titles such as The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell, 2009). Newspapers and morning news shows debate the importance of the latest findings (“Latter-born children engage in more risky behavior; what should parents do?”) while tossing in savory anecdotes (“Did you know that 21 of the first 23 astronauts into space were firstborns?”).
But when scientists scrutinized the data, they found that the evidence just did not hold up. In fact, until very recently there were no convincing findings that linked birth order to personality or behavior. Our common perception that birth order matters was written off as an example of our well-established tendency to remember and accept evidence that supports our pet theories while readily forgetting or overlooking that which does not. But two studies from the past three years finally found measurable effects: our position in the family does indeed affect both our IQ and our personality. It may be time to reconsider birth order as a real influence over whom we grow up to be.

Size Matters:
Before discussing the new findings, it will help to explain why decades of research that seemed to show birth-order effects was, in fact, flawed. Put simply, birth order is intricately linked to family size. A child from a two-kid family has a 50 percent chance of being a firstborn, whereas a child from a five-kid family has only a 20 percent chance of being a firstborn. So the fact that astronauts are disproportionately firstborns, for example, could merely show that they come from smaller families—not that firstborns have any particularly astronautic qualities. (Of course, firstborns may indeed have astronautic qualities. The point is that with these data, we cannot tell.)
There are many reasons that family size could affect our predilections and personalities. More children mean that parental resources (money, time and attention) have to be spread more thinly. Perhaps more telling, family size is associated with many important social factors, such as ethnicity, education and wealth. For example, wealthier, better-educated parents typically have fewer children. If astronauts are more likely to have well-educated, comfortable parents, then they are also more likely to come from a smaller family and thus are more likely to be a firstborn.
Of the some 65,000 scholarly articles about birth order indexed by Google Scholar, the vast majority suffer from this problem, making the research difficult to interpret. Many of the few remaining studies fail to show significant effects of birth order. In 1983 psychiatrists Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst of the University of Zurich determined, after a thorough review of the literature, that birth-order effects were not supported by the evidence. In 1998 psychologist Judith Rich Harris published another comprehensive attack on the concept in The Nurture Assumption (Free Press). By 2003 cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Harvard University found it necessary to spend only two pages of his 439-page discussion of nature and nurture, The Blank Slate (Penguin), dismissing birth order as irrelevant.

New Evidence:
Even so, the case in 2003 against birth-order effects was mainly an absence of good evidence, rather than evidence of an absence. In fact, the past few years have provided good news for the theory. In 2007 Norwegian epidemiologists Petter Kristensen and Tor Bjerkedal published work showing a small but reliable negative correlation between IQ and birth order: the more older siblings one has, the lower one’s IQ. Whether birth order affects intelligence has been debated inconclusively since the late 1800s, although the sheer size of the study (about 250,000 Norwegian conscripts) and the rigorous controls for family size make this study especially convincing.
In 2009 my colleagues and I published evidence that birth order influences whom we choose as friends and spouses. Firstborns are more likely to associate with firstborns, middle-borns with middle-borns, last-borns with last-borns, and only children with only children. Because we were able to show the effect independent of family size, the finding is unlikely to be an artifact of class or ethnicity. The result is exactly what we should expect if birth order affects personality. Despite the adage that opposites attract, people tend to resemble their spouses in terms of personality. If spouses correlate on personality, and personality correlates with birth order, spouses should correlate on birth order.
Thus, the evidence seems to be shifting back in favor of our common intuition that our position in our family somehow affects who we become. The details, however, remain vague. The Norwegian study shows a slight effect on intelligence. The relationship study shows that oldest, middle, youngest and only children differ in some way yet gives no indication as to how. Moreover, although these effects are reasonably sized by the standards of research, they are small enough that it would not make any sense to organize college admissions or dating pools around birth order, much less NASA applicants.
Still, I expect people—myself included—will continue to try to make sense of the world through the prism of birth order. It’s fine for scientists to say “more study is needed,” but we must find love, gain self-knowledge and parent children now. In that sense, a great deal about who we are and how we think can be learned reading those shelves of birth order–related self-help books, even if the actual content is not yet—or will never be—experimentally confirmed.

This story was originally published with the title "Ruled by Birth Order?".

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Protection Or Peril? Gun Possession Of Questionable Value In An Assault, Study Finds.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 30, 2009) — In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun. The study was released online this month in the American Journal of Public Health, in advance of print publication in November 2009.
“This study helps resolve the long-standing debate about whether guns are protective or perilous,” notes study author Charles C. Branas, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology. “Will possessing a firearm always safeguard against harm or will it promote a false sense of security?”
What Penn researchers found was alarming – almost five Philadelphians were shot every day over the course of the study and about 1 of these 5 people died. The research team concluded that, although successful defensive gun uses are possible and do occur each year, the chances of success are low. People should rethink their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures, write the authors. Suggestions to the contrary, especially for urban residents who may see gun possession as a defense against a dangerous environment should be discussed and thoughtfully reconsidered.
A 2005 National Academy of Science report concluded that we continue to know very little about the impact of gun possession on homicide or the utility of guns for self-defense. Past studies had explored the relationship between homicides and having a gun in the home, purchasing a gun, or owning a gun. These studies, unlike the Penn study, did not address the risk or protection that having a gun might create for a person at the time of a shooting.
Penn researchers investigated the link between being shot in an assault and a person’s possession of a gun at the time of the shooting. As identified by police and medical examiners, they randomly selected 677 cases of Philadelphia residents who were shot in an assault from 2003 to 2006. Six percent of these cases were in possession of a gun (such as in a holster, pocket, waistband, or vehicle) when they were shot.
These shooting cases were matched to Philadelphia residents who acted as the study’s controls. To identify the controls, trained phone canvassers called random Philadelphians soon after a reported shooting and asked about their possession of a gun at the time of the shooting. These random Philadelphians had not been shot and had nothing to do with the shooting. This is the same approach that epidemiologists have historically used to establish links between such things as smoking and lung cancer or drinking and car crashes.
“The US has at least one gun for every adult,” notes Branas. “Learning how to live healthy lives alongside guns will require more studies such as this one. This study should be the beginning of a better investment in gun injury research through various government and private agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, which in the past have not been legally permitted to fund research ‘designed to affect the passage of specific Federal, State, or local legislation intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.’”
This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors are also indebted to numerous dedicated individuals at the Philadelphia Police, Public Health, Fire, and Revenue Departments as well as DataStat Inc, who collaborated on the study.
Therese S. Richmond, PhD, CRNP, School of Nursing; Dennis P. Culhane, PhD, School of Social Policy; Thomas R. Ten Have, PhD, MPH, and Douglas J. Wiebe, PhD, both from the School of Medicine, are co-authors.
Journal reference:
Charles C. Branas, Therese S. Richmond, Dennis P. Culhane, Thomas R. Ten Have, and Douglas J. Wiebe. Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault. American Journal of Public Health, 2009; DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.143099
Adapted from materials provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ego City: Cities Are Organized Like Human Brains.


ScienceDaily (Sep. 19, 2009) — Cities are organized like brains, and the evolution of cities mirrors the evolution of human and animal brains, according to a new study by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Just as advanced mammalian brains require a robust neural network to achieve richer and more complex thought, large cities require advanced highways and transportation systems to allow larger and more productive populations. The new study unearthed a striking similarity in how larger brains and cities deal with the difficult problem of maintaining sufficient interconnectedness.
“Natural selection has passively guided the evolution of mammalian brains throughout time, just as politicians and entrepreneurs have indirectly shaped the organization of cities large and small,” said Mark Changizi, a neurobiology expert and assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, who led the study. “It seems both of these invisible hands have arrived at a similar conclusion: brains and cities, as they grow larger, have to be similarly densely interconnected to function optimally.”
As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organization in order to achieve the right level of interconnectedness. One couldn’t simply grow a double-sized dog brain, for example, and expect it to have the same capabilities as a human brain. This is because, among other things, a human brain doesn’t merely have more “dog neurons,” but, instead, has neurons with a greater number of synapses than that of a dog – something crucial in helping to keep the human brain well connected.
As with brains, interconnectedness is also a critical component of the overall function of cities, Changizi said. One couldn’t put together three copies of Seattle (surface area of 83.9 sq. miles) and expect the result to have the same interconnectedness and efficiency as Chicago (surface area of 227.1 sq. miles). There would be too many highways with too few exits and lanes that are too narrow.
In exploring this topic, Changizi discovered evidence linking the size of a city or a brain to the number and size of its supporting infrastructure. He investigated and documented how the infrastructures scale up as the surface area of brains and cities increase.
As cities and the neocortex grow in surface area, the number of connectors – highways in cities and pyramidal neurons in brains – increases more slowly, as surface area to the 3/4 power, Changizi found. This means the number of connectors increases in both brains and cities as S3/4, where S = surface area. Similarly, as cities and brains grow, the total number of highway exits and synapses — which share a similar function as terminal points along highways and neurons — increases with an exponent of about 9/8. The number of exits per highway and synapses per neuron were also closely aligned, with an exponent of approximately 3/8.
These and other findings are detailed in the paper “Common Scaling Laws for City Highway Systems and the Mammalian Neocortex,” published this week in the journal Complexity. The complete paper may be viewed online at the Complexity Web site.
“When scaling up in size and function, both cities and brains seem to follow similar empirical laws,” Changizi said. “They have to efficiently maintain a fixed level of connectedness, independent of the physical size of the brain or city, in order to work properly.”
Marc Destefano, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, co-authored the paper.
Adapted from materials provided by
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.