Category Archives: Experimentation

New perfume darling… or is it just my wine?

man-sniffing-wineThe human sense of smell is quite amazing.  We can distinguish the distinctive odour of our blood relations in a room full of strangers, for instance, and we can out-perform the very best mechanical nose in distinguishing between a huge range of scents.  But are we using this amazing ability as well as we could?

New research by Endevelt-Shapira and her colleagues, however, suggests we may not be even coming close to maximising our sense of smell – but a drop of the hard stuff can help!  In a series of experiments looking at olfactory performance at increasing rates of blood-alcohol content (BAC), the researchers found that our skill at identifying a variety of odours improves after a glass or two of wine. The reasons for this remain unclear, but it seems the effects of alcohol on the brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a significant role.  The prefrontal cortex “dampens” our sense of smell under normal circumstances to avoid us becoming over-whelmed with inputs, but this suppression is impaired by rising levels of BAC so our sense of smell improves.  

So, next time you feel your partner is wearing a new brand or perfume or cologne, pause a moment – it may be just that glass of Shiraz you’ve consumed and it’s the regular brand after all – useful advice if, like me, you have a tendency to get into those “you never notice what i’m wearing” conversations!

Why my physiotherapist should walk the plank!

elbow-plank-with-donkey-kicA year ago this week, I was in a golf buggy accident.  Ironic really as it had nothing to do with golf, I was simply being shown around a tea plantation when the accident occurred, but that’s life I guess.

Could’ve been worse and I’m fine now, more or less, but the main injury was a broken arm and it took almost the full year to heal – something the doctors just love attributing to the fact that I’m getting older, I smoke, or both.   One of the indignities of a broken bone, of course, is that hospitals afterwards feel compelled to send you for physiotherapy.  Yuk!

For someone like me who avoids exercise at all costs (other than regular walks to the smoking area, obviously), physiotherapy is a particular ordeal as you’re not used to stripping off in front of strangers and being bent around into strange positions, so the whole thing becomes something of a nightmare and you end up with the strange feeling that this is designed to do nothing more than subject you to ritual humiliation!  Doesn’t help that sometimes, just like other professionals, physiotherapists seem to speak their own language and assume you know more about exercise than you actually do.  And of course, we go along with it rather than admit we don’t know what they’re talking about for fear of looking stupid.

The exercise depicted in the illustration is apparently called the plank.  It’s an exercise designed to strengthen abdominals, the back and shoulders, and good at helping develop a six-pack apparently (whatever that is!).  I know this not because I’m turning into some kind of fitness fanatic, my mid-life crisis has long since passed, but because when the physio asked me what I thought of the plank, he was somewhat puzzled by my reply when I said I rated it as one of Eric Syke’s finest pieces of work. Embarrassing!

Anyway, like all embarrassing things we want to forget about, we inevitably keep encountering reminders of them over and over again!  Tonight, while looking for an article on something entirely unconnected to exercise, golf-buggies or broken limbs, I came across a new paper by Priebe and Spink that uses the plank in an experiment designed to explore the psychological power of expectations.

In the study, the experimenters took around 70 regular gym-goers and asked them to perform the plank to the point of exhaustion.  After a suitable rest, they then asked them to perform the plank a second time.  Under normal circumstances, individuals perform better on the first attempt and, indeed, in this study the control group averaged a performance drop of around 18% in the time they were able to hold the position.

Here’s the intriguing thing, though… a second experimental group were falsely told that 80% of people in their age group normally hold the position for 20% longer on the second attempt.  The outcome?  Well, the group given false information achieved a 5% increase in the average time they were able to hold the plank position!  So, simply being told that most people do better second time around led them to buck-the-norm and conform to their false expectations.  Mind over matter?  Not really… this is a great example of social norms messaging at work.  Although some of us like to think we are rebels, we aren’t in practice.  We want to be different, but not too different, so we tend to conform to social norms (or what we believe the norms to be, in this case).

Ever stayed in a hotel and seen the little sticker asking us to “help the environment” by only washing towels if absolutely necessary?  Some people go along with that request, most don’t.  I personally go one step further and make sure every towel is washed every day, whether I’ve used it or not, just to annoy the hotel by not helping it reduce its operating costs!  Messages stating how many people have helped the environment by reusing their towels work far better, while messages stating the percentage of people staying at that specific room reusing towels will work best of all.  The power of the social norm at its best.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, if you’re involved in coaching in any type of sport, Priebe and Spink’s work suggests a “little white lie” about average performance levels can go a long way in helping boost individual performance. Similarly, the work on hotel towels suggests that messages crafted around social norms can be very effective in changing behaviour in a social marketing context, whether we want to encourage people to take more exercise, quit smoking or eat their greens.

I’m probably a lost cause on all these healthy counts, alas, and my embarrassment over the Eric Sykes movie simply means I’ve never been back to physiotherapy since!  So, I guess I will just build up my upper arm strength in other ways (probably my lifting the TV remote) and watch the only video on the plank I ever want to see…..

Disney’s Indecent Enterprise?

subThe phenomenon of subliminal advertising has long been a contentious issue in consumer psychology.  Nice play on words here from Subway to illustrate the point.

Around 75% of the population believe we are regularly exposed to hidden messages, some 50% going so far as to insist they have been “coerced” into buying a product as a result of such influences.  But is this a real effect and, if so, are we perhaps being tricked into purchasing products we don’t want against our will?

A recent Psychology Today post from Ian Zimmerman succinctly sums up the current state of research in this area.  First and foremost, while a general consensus has developed in the literature that certain words loaded with evolutionary significance will subconsciously raise our attention levels (can you spot two in this post’s headline?), the degree to which such factors might then trigger an involuntary behaviour remains is a much more contested issue.  So what do we actually know  for sure about all this?

Experiments show that we can be influenced by subliminal stimuli, at least up to a point.  Exposing thirsty people to the hidden word “cola”, for instance, will trigger an increase in subsequent volume consumed compared to those not exposed to the stimulus.  In a similar vein, playing German background music in a  liqueur store will encourage an increase in sales of German wine, while the word “sex” hidden on the packaging of a well-known brand of candy has reputedly worked wonders for sales of a well-known confectionary product (clue: think ten-pin bowling).

Does all this mean we have been subject to cynical manipulation by advertisers since the 1940s after all?  Well, not quite… although such effects certainly exist, their magnitude is far less than most of us believe.  Exposing thirsty drinkers to the subliminally-presented word “cola” may well increase subsequent consumption, but it will have no effect whatsoever on people who aren’t thirsty.  Similarly, if we tell liqueur store customers that the German music playing is designed to boost sales of Liebfraumilch, they will actually buy less simply because they’ve been made consciously aware of it.

In other words, as Zimmerman rightly concludes, subliminal messages can increase or decrease a behaviour that is likely to happen anyway (e.g. prompting a hungry person to eat more chocolate), but it can’t trigger a totally unwanted behaviour, and simply paying more attention to our environment can eliminate such effects anyway.

So what of my headline for this post?  The word “indecent” is, of course, a very significant word in Darwinian terms, associated as it is with sex, and the initials of the three words also spell out the equally important trigger word “die”.  Oh…and for those of you who think I may be being unfair to Disney here, check out this image over on the slightlywarped.com site to see why the DVD release of The Rescuers was delayed due to the subliminal sabotage of three frames of footage.  Other strange-but-true examples also on show there – but be warned, some are a little naughty in more ways than one!

Should psychology repeat repeat itself?

ReplicationIt’s one of those great paradoxes of the scientific world, particularly for those social scientists seeking to adopt a more natural science model of enquiry.

On the one hand, Skinner and others taught us that science is a process of exploration in which general laws are discovered through systematic replication of experimental results.  At the same time, it is extremely difficult to get a paper published if it is a pure replication of past work because it is deemed to have no original “contribution” to make.  Indeed, a survey in 2012 of papers accepted by psychology journals since 1900 found that only 2 studies out of every 1000 involve replication in any way, shape or form.  Quite depressing!  It is therefore refreshing to find that one leading journal, Social Psychology, has devoted its entire latest issue to systematic replications of well-known studies from the past.  It’s a fascinating read and, I think, completely justified and long overdue because quite a number of studies failed to replicate past results, challenging some of our long-held assumptions.

A number of studies will be of interest to both consumer psychologists and marketing practitioners alike, covering topics as diverse as the use of stereotypes through to temperature effects.  A paper that particularly caught my own attention was one which reports three experiments designed to recreate the conditioning of consumer product preferences through the use of popular music; a staple “we-all-know-that” in the retail marketing literature.  Interestingly, only one of the experiments actually managed to achieve the “well-established” results, with no overall effect when the three studies are aggregated.

The authors challenge the findings of the past a little on the basis of these results, but I’m not convinced we should dismiss the previous work in this area so easily.  The two studies that failed to replicate former ones used the exact same pieces of music, whereas the experiment that “did work” used contemporary music on the basis that this is exactly what the researchers in the past were doing at the time.  Seems to me this dimension is worth further exploration too, another reason why we should be a little more open to engaging in replication in the best interests of science – journal editors, please take note!