Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Simple guide to citing research studies

At the end of every report or article in Psychology, the author puts a list of references, giving the sources of information and ideas mentioned in the text.

But how should you format them? Every reference list that you look at seems to be slightly different!

This post is not meant to be a complete guide, but it should cover the vast majority of sources of that new Psychology students will need to cite, because these tend to fall into three categories: books, journal articles, and websites.

A reference list helps a reader to find your sources. Image by Farrukh


Author(s), initials (year). Title of book. Place of publication: publisher.

  • Example: Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Author(s), initials (year). Title of article. Journal Title, issue number, pages numbers.

  • Example: Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, 223, 96-105.

Author(s), initials (year). Title. Retrieved (date) from (url).

What about capitals and italics?

The convention is to use italics and capital letters for the title of a book or journal, and italics for the journal's issue number, as with the examples above. Otherwise just use capitals as in everyday English grammar.

Where do I find the place of publication?

Usually this detail appears just inside the front cover, before the contents page of a book.

Is this true in all countries?

This style of referencing is called Harvard Style and is used in Psychology throughout the world. The examples above are based on the British BPS format, and there are minor variations in other countries- check with your school/university, but above all, try to be consistent!

What should be in the references section?

Only things that are mentioned in an 'in line citation' during your text, e.g. "Smith, 2000". All such citations should link to a full reference at the end. Nothing else at all should appear in your reference section - it is not a general bibliography, so don't include background reading.

What if there is no name?

If the source is an organisation rather than an individual, use that instead of surname, e.g. Wikipedia (2014).

Any questions, please leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Have we evolved to fear snakes and spiders?

A phobia is a strong and irrational fear of something, a fear which is out of proportion to the dangers presented. If it is irrational, then why do we have them?

The psychology of phobias has been influenced by some of the biggest names in the field - Sigmund Freud felt that a phobia is the result of a repressed unconscious fear of one's parents (Freud, 1909), while the eminent behaviourist John B. Watson thought that while fear was a basic human emotion, any specific fear could be learned or unlearned through experience (Watson and Raynor, 1920).


Later, researchers began to think that our evolutionary past might play a major role in phobias. People tend to develop phobias of things which would could have been harmful for our ancestors, such snakes, spiders or heights. In contrast, it seems to be much rarer to have a phobia of things which have only recently presented a danger, e.g. cars, guns or electricity.

The idea that evolution has prepared us to fear certain harmful things is called preparedness theory, and it was proposed by Seligman (1971).

Mineka research on monkeys

Susan Mineka and colleagues conducted several studies of rhesus monkeys. They noted that when brought up by a parent who feared snakes, infant monkeys in captivity did not develop a fear of snakes, while wild monkeys did. They reasoned that this was because the captive infant monkeys were never exposed to snakes, and so they did not get a chance to observe their parents' fear reactions (Mineka et al., 1984).

Rhesus monkeys in the wild. Image by Kai Yan, Joseph Wong.

To test this theory, Mineka and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment to see whether the infant monkeys could learn a fear. Using 5 wild-reared and 6 captivity-reared infants, they exposed them to their parents acting fearfully in the presence of a snake. The infants rapidly learned to fear the snake - and their new fear was found to be permanent!

This shows that fears can be passed on from parent to child.

Will a monkey learn to fear something irrelevant, like flowers?

How strong is this tendency to learn fears through observation? Researchers know that we can learn some evolutionary 'newer' fears from observation - Townend et al. (2000) report that parental anxiety about dental visits is a factor in whether children learn to fear the dentist, even though dentists did not exist in our evolutionary past. Would a monkey learn to fear an irrelevant stimulus like a toy rabbit or a bunch of flowers?

To test this, Cook and Mineka (1989) spliced a video of an adult monkey reacting with fear to make it look like it was afraid of one of the following four objects:
  • A toy snake
  • A toy crocodile
  • A toy rabbit
  • A bunch of flowers
Each of the four versions of the video was shown several times to a group of around 10 young monkeys (42 monkeys were used in total). Researchers then measured how long it would take the monkeys to collect food, if the toy from the video was placed beside the food. It was found that the time greatly increased when the toy snake or crocodile was present (i.e. these objects made the monkeys more wary) but there was no increase in time with the rabbit or flowers present.

It appeared that a monkey will only learn a fear though observation if the object is biologically relevant.


So it appears that it is much easier to learn a phobia if it is biologically 'prepared' - but learning some form of anxiety through observation is still possible without preparedness. As with other experiments on animals, though, it is important to be cautious about generalising the results of the above research to humans.

See also: Fear and ugliness of animals (Bennett-Levy and Marteau, 1984).


Cook, M and Mineka, S. (1989). Observational conditioning of fear to fear-relevant versus fear-irrelavant stimuli in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 448-459.
Mineka, S., Davidson, M., Cook, M. and Keir, R. (1984). Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology,  93(4), 355-372.
Seligman, M. (1971). Phobias and Preparedness. Behaviour therapy, 2, 307-320.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Do People Conform When They Have Strong Beliefs?

Research into conformity has shown a rather dismal tendency for people to be swayed by others around them, even if their gut feeling is telling them not to.

For example, the classic experiment of Solomon Asch showed that people will say that two lines of unequal length are the same, just because everyone else is saying so (Asch, 1955).

But who really cares about the length of lines! What about conformity to the bigger issues in life? What happens when people are pressured to abandon their political or moral values?

Will people abandon their political views and conform? Image: Tom Hagerty

This was the question asked by Hornsey et al. (2003). Using questionnaires, they identified 205 Australian university students (152 female, 53 male) who identified themselves as being 'pro' same-sex marriage - a controversial topic at the time of the research.

They then told the participants that they were either in a majority or a minority on the issue relative to their peer group of other students - by showing faked graphs of student attitudes to this and other issues.

Behaviour on both private and public statements of opinions was measured using further questionnaires which asked about willingness to engage in private behaviours (e.g. voting, signing a petition) or public behaviours (e.g. distributing information leaflets, attending a rally).


A key aspect to the study was that the researchers had asked how much each participant's beliefs were based on a strong sense of morals. This had an effect on results. For example, for those with weaker moral beliefs, there was a tendency to go with the majority regarding private actions, but the majority view made no difference to private actions for those with strong beliefs - they were unaffected.

Even more interestingly, those with strong moral beliefs were likely to become stronger in their attitudes in terms of public behaviours, rather than conforming. Researchers call this 'counter-conformity'. The sense of others being against them actually made them firmer in their statements.


This study provides an interesting counterpoint to the classic 20th century research on conformity which tended not to examine political or moral issues. In contrast, this study had a strong real-world element, boosting its ecological validity.

However, it did rely entirely on questionnaires. It has long been established that what people say in a questionnaire and how they actually behave can differ (e.g. LaPierre, 1934)

Also, the participants were all university students - a social group which can place a high value on being politically outspoken and radical. It is hard to say how the results would generalise to social groups which traditionally avoid public expressions of their political views.

Overall, it does provide a bit of hope that we are not all socially malleable, and that people are capable of holding on to the views that matter.


Asch, S.E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31-35.
Hornsey, M.J., Majkut, L., Terry, D.J. and McKimmie, B.M. (2003). On being loud and proud: Non- conformity and counter-conformity to group norms. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(3), 319-335.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Substances that affect sleep

Quality of sleep is a key issue in health - and according to widely-reported recent research, sleep is also of vital importance in the consolidation of memory.

A major factor that affects brain function in relation to sleep is the use of drugs. A drug, in this context, means any substance that crosses the blood-brain barrier and directly affects our brain cells - not necessary an illegal drug.

Stimulants are drugs which can help keep people awake - and can reduce the quality of sleep. One example of a stimulant is caffeine. It is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, and is present in popular food and drinks such as coffee, tea, chocolate and red bull. It can also be taken in tablet form.

Coffee is a popular source of caffeine. Image by Toshiyuki IMAI

People - such as myself - drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks to keep them alert, but taking it in the evening can make it harder to get to sleep. It can take over 5 hours for caffeine levels in your body to halve - and therefore considerably longer for it to leave your system entirely. This is worth considering if you drink coffee in the evening. Even if you manage to get to sleep ok, your brain's natural sleep cycles may be disturbed.

Illegal stimulants have an even more powerful effect. Amphetamine (street names include 'speed') directly stimulates the central nervous system, making the user more alert for longer. This occurs because it increases the activity of dopamine neurons in the brain’s reward system. In the UK it is a 'class B' drug, used illegally for socialising and sometimes in the workplace e.g. by people working long shifts. It is also prescribed for ADHD and for some sleep disorders.

Prescription drugs can also affect sleep - for example, antidepressants such as fluoxetine (branded as Prozac or Sarafem). These are prescribed to millions of people around the world and can be effective in reducing the symptoms of depression, but one of the more common side effects is to disrupt sleep. They especially impact on REM sleep - the stage of sleep where you dream.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Weekly round up 3 - best Psychology from around the web!

Eye-catching articles on Psychology and related matters that appeared on the internet over the last week or so:

Sinister! Threats from the Left Are Scarier

LiveScience reports on this peculiar research finding, which suggests that our response to threat may be based on visual processing.

Narcissists can be taught to empathise...

Narcissism means having an inflated sense of your own value, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to use other people. It is often viewed as a fixed personality trait, but according to new research summarised by Christian Jarrett for BPS, narcissistic people are able to show empathy, if given the right type of instruction.

Learning second language 'slows brain ageing'

Or at least, the two are correlated. Still, this useful research links to other findings on second language learning/bilingualism, and paves the way for future studies to test the role of language learning in cognition and ageing.

How to Raise a Moral, Responsible Child - without Punishment

Psychology Today blogger Laura Markham discusses what is surely one of the most important and trickiest issues for any parent - how to raise a child into a good human being without being overly directive. Should be popular with the kids, too!

Image by Brett Davies

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Women more aggressive than men? - Anderson and Dill's (2000) study of violent video games

Studies of the effects of violent games are often non-experimental, making it hard to separate out confounding variables. If you compare gamers v's non-games in the real world, there may be some pre-exisiting differences between the groups - perhaps more violent people are drawn to violent video games, rather than video games making people violent...

An experimental study

Anderson and Dill (2000) tried to avoid this confounding variable by assigning a randomly allocated group of psychology students to a violent video game (Wolfenstein 3D) in a lab experiment. A control group played a non-violent game (Myst). Overall, 210 students were used (106 male, 104 female).

The researchers wanted to test the effect of violent v's non violent games. However, it was important to hide the aim from participants, to avoid demand characteristics. They therefore told participants that the study aimed to test how quickly they learned motor skills required in games, and how it affected later tasks.

Image by Katherine McAdoo

Participants played the game for 30 minutes, stopping after 15 mins to complete a questionnaire provided by researchers.

One week later, researchers invited participants back to play a competitive 1-to-1 reaction time game. They were led to believe that there was another participant in the next cubicle, who they were playing against. In fact they were alone, and the researchers had fixed the outcome so that they would win around half of the tasks. After each trial, they could 'punish' their opponent by playing a blast of noise in the neighbouring cubicle. Crucially, participants could pick the noise volume and duration.


The key finding was that those who had played the violent game gave longer blasts of noise to their (fictional) opponents.

Males generally show more violence throughout society, but in this task, the reverse was found - women showed a greater degree of aggression, by delivering longer blasts of noise than men did.

Conclusion and evaluation

The researchers concluded that violent video games can lead directly to long-term increases in violent behaviour. It can also be concluded that sex differences in aggression have more to do with culture and environment (e.g. males playing more violent games) than to do with biological differences. It was a lab experiment, replicable and well controlled, and used a large sample.

However, there are some flaws in this research:

  • Although the participants were decieved, they were psychology students, and may still have guessed what the researchers were looking for. They may have altered their behaviour to fit expectations.
  • The differences in noise duration were statistically significant but nevertheless rather small in real terms - a mean of 6.81 seconds for the violent game v's 6.65 seconds for the non-violent game condition.
  • Also, the task is unrealistic. Showing aggression by playing loud noises is quite different in scale/degree from attacking someone in real life. People may have found it funny or not taken it seriously. It can't be concluded that they would be more likely to stab/shoot someone.
  • Also, the participants were implicitly given permission by the researchers to be aggressive. Real world violence tends to break laws, and is therefore more deviant than the experimental task.
  • There is the possibility of researcher bias, as the conclusions supported their theory.
  • No differences were found in choices of noise intensity. It might have been expected that more aggressive people would use louder blasts of noise.

Overall it is an interesting study in what is still an emerging picture about the role of video games in violence. More recent research by Goodson and Pearson (2011) suggests that the brain does not treat violent video games as 'real' and responds less strongly to simulated violence than to other events. The is still a lot of work to be done in order to figure out exactly what long term effects - if any - video games have on aggression.

Syllabus note: this is a key study for Edexcel GCSE Psychology (2012 onwards 'linear' version)


Anderson, C.A. and Dill, K.E. (2000).  Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772-790.

Goodson, S. and Pearson, S. (2011). The boot is mightier than the gun! Virtual football elicits real strong emotional responses but virtual violence gives only despair in death: A dense array EEG comparison of football and violent video games. Proceedings of the British Psychological Society Conference. Retrieved 15 May 2014 from http://abstracts.bps.org.uk

Monday, 2 June 2014

What is Sleep For? Oswald's Restoration Theory of Sleep

What is sleep for? In some ways it is a paradox - evolution is a race to survive, yet we have evolved to be unconscious of our surroundings for several hours a day!

We know that it must have had a benefit to have evolved. Even when there is an apparent adaptive pressure not to sleep, animals don't evolve to stop sleeping. For example, in some aquatic mammals such as dolphins, sleep occurs in one brain hemisphere at a time, so that they do not lose consciousness and drown!

Bottlenose dolphins sleep with
half their brain at a time. Image: Willy Volk

Restoration theory

So why do we sleep? It seems to make sense to assume that the body uses sleep to repair itself. Oswald (1966) was one of the first to suggest that sleep - especially slow-wave sleep - is important in allowing the body and mind to rest and repair itself before the rigours of another day. This could include:
  • Repairing minor injuries
  • Removal of waste chemicals in the muscles
  • Replenishing neurotransmitters in the nervous system 
However, there is evidence against this too. Horne (1978) reported that sleep deprivation did not interfere with participants’ ability to play sport, and it didn't make them physically ill, either.

Exhausting the body

So, a lack of sleep does not stop us from exercising. But what happens when people do a lot of sport, and tire themselves out?

This question was asked by Shapiro et al. (1981). In a sleep study of runners who had completed a 92km road race, it was found that their sleep lasted on average 90 minutes longer than normal over the next two nights. In particular, it was slow-wave sleep which increased in duration, rising from 25% to 45% of their total sleep. This support's Oswald's restoration theory.

Body... or brain?

However, Horne and Harley (1988) believe that repair of the body is not the main function of sleep. Instead, they suggest, extended exercise can lead to a heating of the brain, and it is this which results in longer sleep, not wear and tear to the body. In an experiment, they heated people's faces and heads using a hairdryer! 4 out of their 6 participants were then found to have a longer period of slow-wave sleep.

McGinty and Szymusiaka (1990) agree that sleep would have benefits to an overheated brain, including protecting it from damage, and facilitating immune defence.

In other words, perhaps it is the brain which needs to rest and repair, and not the body.

Overall, the idea that the body sleeps in order to repair itself now looks overly-simplistic, and it is becoming evident that slow-wave sleep plays a key role in the maintenance of brain functioning.

See also: REM sleep and creativity


Horne, J.A. and Harley, L.J. (1989). Human SWS following slective head heating during wakefulness. In Sleep '88 by Horne, J.A. (ed.) New York: Gustav Fischer Verlag.

McGinty, D. and Szymusiaka, R. (1990). Keeping cool: a hypothesis about the mechanisms and functions of slow-wave sleep.  Trends in Neurosciences, 13(12), 480–487.

Oswald, I. (1966). Sleep. London: Pelican.

Shapiro, C.M., Bortz, R., Mitchell, D., Bartel, P. and Jooste, P. (1981). Slow-wave sleep: a recovery period after exercise. Science, 11(214/4526), 1253-1254.