Pareidolia Killed the Paranormal Star

Pumpkin Grill

Pumpkin with a grill. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

This is the last in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” I hope you enjoyed the series and please let me know if you have any thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

No self-respecting paranormal investigator would enter a haunted location without an audio recorder to record electronic voice phenomena (EVP). These phenomena are audio recordings of voices where none should be found. They can occur in empty rooms or amongst conversations and are the go-to evidence used as proof of the existence of ghosts, spirits, demons, Beelzebub, Elvis, Aunt Millie, or whoever is the haunter. Paranormal investigators are correct in labeling EVPs as evidence, but it’s not proof of an afterlife. It’s proof of a pareidolia life.

Pareidolia occurs when an individual creates significant meaning from vague information, usually in the form of sound or images (for example, seeing faces in clouds). Researchers Michael Nees and Charlotte Phillips, from Lafayette College in the United States, investigated the effects of paranormal priming on auditory pareidolia. They compared participant perceptions of different types of sounds (voices, actual EVPs, acoustic noise, and distorted voices) after priming.

Twenty-seven undergraduate participants (81 percent female with an average age of 20 years) were randomized into two groups: 15 were in the unprimed condition and told “This is an experimental study of the identification of voices in noisy environments;” and 12 were in the primed condition and told “This is an experimental study of the identification of electronic voice phenomena–purported voices of ghosts in recordings from paranormal research.” Participants then heard one of the recordings repeated once and were asked if they heard a voice “yes” or “no.” If they didn’t hear a voice, they moved on to the next recording. If they did hear a voice, they wrote down what they thought the voice had said. Participants listened to 34 randomized recordings from each of the four recording categories for a total of 136 recordings. After they had completed listening to the audio recordings, participants answered demographic and paranormal belief (1=skepticism to 5=strong paranormal belief) questionnaires.

The results showed that priming had a significant effect on participant responses: participants in the paranormal group answered “yes” to more recordings than the non-primed group. The sounds most responded to were voices, followed by distorted voices, actual EVPs, and then acoustic noises. Furthermore, participants in the paranormal group reported hearing a voice after listening to actual EVPs and distorted voices significantly more frequently than the non-primed group. However, there was considerable disagreement (agreement was found in 0.9 percent of EVP recordings) as to the content of the EVP recordings. Additionally, results of the paranormal belief questionnaire showed that both groups were very skeptical and they did not adhere to paranormal beliefs.

“In our experiment, the mere suggestion of paranormal research topic resulted in a perceptual shift in perception in otherwise skeptical participants.” This was troubling to the researchers because paranormal television programs frequently refer to their pseudoscientific beliefs and techniques as science. Nees and Phillips went on to say, “The perpetuation of misinformation about science in popular culture has harmed public discourse on important topics such as climate change, vaccination programs, and the teaching of science in schools.”

Put simply, shows like these – when taken seriously – make us stupid.

Rodney Steadman 06 November 2014

Works Cited

Nees M, & Phillips C (2014). Auditory Pareidolia: Effects of Contextual Priming on Perceptions of Purportedly Paranormal and Ambiguous Auditory Stimuli. Applied Cognitive Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3068

Paranormal Blindness

Ghost and lantern.

Is that lantern floating? Photo by Rodney Steadman

This is the third in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy All Hallows’ Day!

I enjoy watching paranormal reality shows where a group of “investigators” stumble around in the dark, bounce around “theories,” and collect “evidence.” I often hear one investigator – who spends way too much time working on his chest and arms – refer to what his group does as “science.” Sorry to burst your paranormal bubble, but what you do is play haunted house and not science. Science involves the scientific method: pose a question; look at past research and theories; develop a hypothesis; test your hypothesis using the appropriate study design for your field of research (usually a controlled trial); analyze your data; conclude if your results confirm a new or past theory; and present your results to your scientific community for scrutiny. If you are presenting a potentially new theory, it has to be repeatable and pass repeated tests before it becomes an accepted theory.

The paranormal crowd often talks about theories: ghosts use heat to manifest so a sudden temperature drop indicates a spectral presence, or ghosts use electromagnetic fields (EMFs) to manifest so a sudden spike in an EMF also indicates the presence of a ghost. Not a single experiment has been conducted to support either theory. Therefore, not a theory, just speculation. Furthermore, paranormal investigators frequently avoid obvious explanations for their experiences. Recent research out of the UK might have an explanation for why paranormal believers miss explanatory information. Their research suggests that believers in the paranormal might have problems registering sudden visual events while they’re involved in other tasks (also known as inattentional blindness or IB).

Anne Richards and her team conducted two studies to investigate the relationships between IB, absorption (an extremely focused state), working memory capacity (abbreviated as WMC and it is the cognitive ability of an individual to store and manipulate information over a short period time), and paranormal belief or experiences.

Study One consisted of 91 participants (81 percent were female with an average age of 21 years). Absorption was measured using the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS); a modified version of the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale (ASGS) was used to measure paranormal belief and experience; and IB was measured using a specially designed computer program similar to a program used by Steven Most and his team in 2001 (the participant is asked to ignore black letters on the screen and count the number of times white letters hit the sides, while a red cross traverses the screen). Participants were tested in individual cubicles and first completed the ASGS, then the TAS, followed by the IB computer program. After they had completed the IB computer task, they were asked how many times the white letters hit the sides and if they saw anything else while they were completing the task.

The results showed that 43 percent of participants exhibited IB to the red cross. The IB participants also had higher absorption and paranormal belief scores. Richards and her team found that absorption was a predictor of IB and a significant relationship existed between paranormal belief and absorption. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that absorption facilitated the relationship between paranormal belief and IB; therefore, an indirect relationship existed between absorption, paranormal belief and experiences, and IB in IB participants.

Study Two consisted of 66 participants (44 percent female with an average age of 23 years) and replicated the methods and procedures of Study One, except that a WMC measure (the Automated Operation Span Task or AOSPAN) was added and a different version of the ASGS was used.

The results of Study Two showed that 32 percent of participants exhibited IB and their results were consistent with Study One; however, IB participants also scored low on the AOSPAN. Richards and her team discovered that WMC significantly mediated the relationship between paranormal belief and IB. The team also found significant correlations between paranormal belief and absorption, absorption and WMC, and paranormal belief and WMC.

The researchers concluded that IB combined with low WMC might blind a paranormal believer to causally related events because they are not receiving and fully processing all of the necessary information from their environment. The team suggests that this deficit in perception and memory of causally connected events may lead susceptible individuals to jump to paranormal conclusions when none exist.

You can easily test the conclusions of Richards and her team’s research by critically watching any one of the growing numbers of ghost hunting programs. YouTube is filled with astute viewers identifying inaccuracies and posing reasonable solutions to “undeniable evidence” touted as proof of the paranormal by these programs – not to mention the outright hoaxes. If you are a believer, my advice to you is to question everything you see and hear from the paranormal world and look for logical alternatives. Yes, it might shatter the illusion, but you’ll improve your problem-solving skills and, perhaps, open yourself up to a more interesting world.

Rodney Steadman 01 November 2014

Works Cited

Richards A, Hellgren M, & French C (2014). Inattentional blindness, absorption, working memory capacity, and paranormal belief. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice., 1 (1), 60-69 DOI: 10.1037/css0000003

The Emotions of Paranormal Belief

Skull Glass

A skull looking through opaque glass. Photo by Rodney Steadman

This is the second in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy Halloween!

Belief in the paranormal may have more to do with a person’s emotional state than what goes bump in the night. Recently, a research team from the United States, lead by Jennifer Whitson, conducted three experiments to investigate the relationships between uncertain emotions and belief in the paranormal. Specifically, the team hypothesized that experiencing uncertain emotions would lead to compensatory control processes (i.e. the identification of patterns whether they exist or not).

They first conducted a pretest to determine if certain or uncertain emotions were psychologically experienced as certainty or uncertainty. The team recruited 251 online participants (51 percent were female with an average age of 33 years) from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Participants were randomly assigned to one of eight emotion categories from happiness and contentment to worry and fear and asked to, “Please recall a particular incident in which you were very [emotion]. What made you feel [emotion]? Recall this situation as vividly as you can. Please describe this situation in which you were [emotion] — what happened, how you felt, etc.”

They were then asked to what degree they felt definite, uncertain, and insecure on a scale from one (not at all) to seven (very much). The results confirmed that certain or uncertain emotions were psychologically experienced as certainty or uncertainty. A second pretest was conducted to ensure that participants were experiencing the emotion they were asked to recall:

We assigned participants to recall one of the eight emotions from the pretest and then asked them “How much did the event or experience you wrote about make you feel the following emotion” from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much, such that participants who recalled an angry experience reported how much anger they felt, participants who recalled a happy experience reported how much happiness they felt, etc.

The results of the second pretest showed that participants did feel the intended emotions upon recall.

Experiment One assessed how willing participants were to defend their government with questions like, “Most policies serve the greater good” and “American society needs to be radically restructured,” answered on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to nine (strongly agree) – this is called the government defense scale. Participants consisted of 98 undergraduate students (61 percent female with an average age of 21 years) who were randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories – the same categories as the pretest. They also completed the same emotions recall task as in the pretest. The results showed that uncertain emotions led to compensatory control; that is, participants demonstrated greater government defense after recalling uncertain emotions.

Experiment Two investigated conspiracies and the paranormal. The study consisted of 97 undergraduates (62 percent female with an average age of 21 years) randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories. They also completed the emotions recall task. Next, participants conspiratorial thinking was measured by having them read three ambiguous scenarios about individuals working together to achieve an outcome. They were then asked to determine, on a scale of one (not at all) to seven (a great deal), how connected the individuals’ behaviour in the scenario was to the outcome. This was followed up with 15 questions that measured participants’ belief in the paranormal. The findings of Experiment Two suggest that when uncertain emotions were evoked, conspiracy and paranormal beliefs had significantly greater support than when certain emotions were recalled. Therefore, uncertain emotions resulted in compensatory control in the form of belief in conspiracies and the paranormal.

Experiment Three assessed affirmation and government defense. Like the previous two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories, and they completed the emotions recall task. They were recruited using MTurk and consisted of 161 individuals (53 percent female with an average age of 30 years). Participants then completed three different assessments including the emotions survey. The first assessment was procedure affirmation manipulation where participants ranked a set of six global values according to personal importance. The affirmation group then answered questions about the value most important to them, which allowed them to engage in self-affirmation, and the no-affirmation group answered questions about their least important value, which did not allow them to engage in self-affirmation. The second assessment was the previously mentioned emotions recall task. Finally, participants answered seven questions from the government defense scale and scored them from one (strongly disagree) to nine (strongly agree). The results showed that participants in the uncertain emotion and no-affirmation group exhibited greater government defense (i.e. compensatory control) than participants in the uncertain emotion and self-affirmation group. Consequently, uncertain emotions could produce a desire to obtain a sense of control that might be mitigated through self-affirmation.

“Whether one finds comfort in a strong government, astrological predictions, or vast conspiracies mapping out our fates, all are responses potentially driven by the uncertain seeking predictable structure in our capricious world,” concluded the research team.

Belief in the paranormal may have more to do with a person’s emotional state than what goes bump in the night…but make sure to investigate the bump in the night because the living are far more unpredictable than the dead…unless they are uncertain.

Rodney Steadman 21 October 2014

Works Cited

Whitson J, Galinsky A, & Kay A (2015). The emotional roots of conspiratorial perceptions, system justification, and belief in the paranormal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 89-95 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.09.002

Ghost in the Lab

Ghost Hall

Ghost in the hall. Photo by Rodney Steadman

This is the first in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy Halloween!

The lab was haunted. Workers in the lab experienced cold shivers, feelings of being watched, and an overall feeling of depression. On one occasion a cleaner saw something upsetting. Discomfort in the lab was growing.

The lab was constructed out of two corrugated iron garages placed back to back. The width and length in feet was 10 by 30 with a door at one end and a window at the other. On the other side of the window was a cleaning bay. Three employees worked in the lab and they designed life support equipment.

Vic Tandy, an engineer in the lab, didn’t believe that the lab was haunted. He attributed the spooky experiences to wild animals or noises made by lab equipment. Hard-nosed engineers know better than to succumb to irrational fears.

You can pretty much guess what happened next. It’s a textbook ghost story: working alone at night; cold sweat; a feeling of depression and a sense that someone else was in the room. Tandy checked out the equipment to ensure that he wasn’t being exposed to some of the gases used in the lab. Nothing was left on. He returned to his work and then it happened. Tandy saw a grey figure slowly appear in his peripheral vision to his left. It was silent and moved like a person. When he turned to look at the figure, it disappeared. “It would not be unreasonable to suggest I was terrified,” said Tandy. He couldn’t explain what he had just seen, so he went home.

The following day Tandy returned to the lab to work on his fencing foil for a competition. He had all the equipment at home to work on his foil, but the vice at the engineer’s bench made his work easier. He put one end of the foil in the vice and then went searching for some oil. Tandy returned to a foil blade noticeably oscillating up and down. The previous night’s specter had returned. Not quite. The ghost had entered into Tandy’s field of expertise and the game was afoot.

Tandy knew that the foil required energy to vibrate and that energy was sound. In a rudimentary experiment to discover the characteristics of the wave, he slid the foil along the floor in a drill vice. He found that the foil’s peak oscillations were in the middle of the lab, at the location of his desk. Tandy did some quick calculations and discovered that a low frequency (19Hz), or infrasound, standing wave was the source of his foil’s movement. He also found that the long tubular shape of the lab contributed to the wave’s characteristics.

Tandy’s next questions were where was the standing wave coming from and what does it do to the human body? The first part was easy. He discovered that a new air extraction fan was slightly misaligned when it was installed in the cleaning bay. The ghost and the standing wave left when the alignment was corrected.

Tandy’s research into the effects of infrasound on the human body was consistent with what was reported in the lab including “smearing” of vision. According to research conducted by Birgitta Berglund and her team, infrasound has been linked to cardiovascular problems, sleep disturbance, annoyance and it can potentially exacerbate preexisting mental health issues. Tandy published his ghostly experience with co-author Tony Lawrence in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Their advice to paranormal researchers “is to be very wary of ghosts reported to haunt long, windy corridors!”

In 2000, Tandy tested his infrasound hypothesis in a reportedly haunted 14th Century cellar beneath the Tourist Information Centre in Coventry. The cellar was constructed of locally derived red sandstone and it would have originally been used to store trade items such as cloth and wool. Staff and visitors had reported feeling a presence, cold chills, and seeing apparitions in the cellar. Tandy placed sensitive sound equipment in the centre of the cellar in hopes that he would find a standing low frequency wave due to the tubular design of the cellar. Surprisingly, he found a 19Hz standing wave – the same frequency that vibrated his foil back in the lab – where witnesses reported their strongest feelings of a presence. Tandy repeated the experiment several times to confirm his findings and the 19Hz standing wave was still present. However, he was unable to determine the source of the wave. Tandy published his findings in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Vic Tandy died in 2005, but his work has inspired researchers to apply his findings to a variety of locations around the world. More recently, archaeologists have been investigating the acoustic properties of ancient sacred sites to determine if infrasound was associated with the sites’ selection and mystical properties. Researchers Paolo Debertolis and Niccolò Bisconti investigated the acoustic properties of two ancient sites: the Abbey of San Salvatore in Italy and Visoćica Hill in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both locations were shown to have naturally occurring infrasound or ultrasound signals. “This reaffirms the aura of legends that pervades these places, and modern technology is now able to give greater clarity to the origin of many interesting phenomena,” concluded the authors. Their research was published in the 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results.

When it comes to hauntings and ghosts, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe any of it. I believe that the people who have these supernatural experiences have had an experience, but I don’t believe it was supernatural. As infrasound has shown, we are susceptible to forces of nature that are sometimes beyond our control. Does infrasound explain everything? No, but it does show the power of the scientific method in providing a far more reasonable explanation than defaulting to Bronze Age thinking when experiencing what is perceived as an unexplainable event.

Rodney Steadman 14 October 2014

Works Cited

Tandy V, & Lawrence TR (1998). The Ghost in the Machine. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62 (851).

Berglund B, Hassmén P, & Job R (1996). Sources and effects of low-frequency noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 99 (5), 2985-3002. DOI: 10.1121/1.414863

Tandy V (2000). Something in the Cellar. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64.3 (860).

Debertolis P, & Bisconti N (2013). Archaeoacoustics in ancient sites: A new way to analyzing archaeological locations. 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results, 306-310.

The Playing Ground Part Two

Red Bars.

Red monkey bars. Photo by Rodney Steadman

“Come back daddy…DADDY!” But daddy was too busy talking on his phone while lounging on a park bench to play with her on the monkey bars. Annoying. As I stated in my last post, The Playing Ground Part One, I frequently use the playground for my workouts: pull-ups and laps on the monkey bars; dips on the handrails at the top of some slides; knee-tuck push-ups on a swing; and running drills in the field. Playgrounds, to me, are the ideal place for both parents and children to enjoy physical activity together. It provides an opportunity for parents to show, help, and encourage their kids to be physically active. Sadly, I rarely see this interaction. Parents are usually sitting on a bench talking with other parents or on the phone. Even if there are a number of kids engaged in unstructured play, who don’t need constant surveillance, parents could use this time to get in some physical activity and be role models to their children.

Researchers from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota had also noticed this lack of parental physical activity and child engagement during playground visits. The research team, led by James Roemmich, wanted to see if removal of park benches from a playground would passively increase physical activity in parents and children. The team conducted two studies over the summers of 2012 and 2013.

Study 1 investigated changes in physical activity of adults and children at a playground in a 17.5 acre park in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Roemmich and his team used an A1-B-A2 study design over seven day periods to assess the impact of manipulating eight picnic tables around the playground. During A1 (79 adults and 91 children), researchers observed how the standard positioning of the benches influenced physical activity. The team then removed the benches for seven days (B: 22 adults and 27 children) and then returned the benches to their original position for a final seven days of observation (A2: 55 adults and 57 children). Data was collected using the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities, which measures number of people, their demographics, and level of physical activity. The researchers omitted teenagers from 13 to 18 years of age because some acted as children or caregivers. The ‘child’ category consisted of children from 0 to 12 years of age and ‘adult’ was 19 years of age or older. The team combined moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) categories because they didn’t observe many park users in the separate categories.

The results of Study 1 showed that children were, overall, more intensely active than adults and their level of physical activity exceeded 3 METs. The odds of adults standing were 9.4 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.7 times greater than A2. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.1 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 22.7 times greater than A2. Overall, both children and adults increased their MET intensity when seating was removed.

Study 2, conducted in the same park a year later, consisted of the same study design as Study 1 except that the number of observed individuals was different (A1: 130 adults and 115 children; B: 48 adults and 69 children; and A2: 49 adults and 73 children). Roemmich and his team added a two-hour observation period to assess the activity level of adults and the children that accompanied them to the playground. In Study 1 these groups were not assessed together.

The results of Study 2 were similar to Study 1: children were, overall, more intensely active than adults, exceeding 3 METs, and their intensity was the highest when the benches were removed. The odds of adults standing versus sitting were the same as Study 1. The odds of adults engaged in MVPA were 4.5 times greater than the odds of them sitting during B than A1 and 4.3 times greater than A2. In both children and adults MET levels were higher in B than A1 and A2. There was no association between adult MET intensity and the MET intensity of the children they brought to the playground. However, families with a greater number of children had children who were more intensely active. The researchers also found that bench removal did not impact duration of stay, but the number of visitors to the park declined when the benches were removed. This was also observed in Study 1. Roemmich his team believes that the reduced visits may have been related to cooler temperatures during the period of observation.

Overall, “Adults were more active when seating was not accessible. Removal of seating did not shorten the time that adults were willing to allow children to play,” concluded the authors. However, Roemmich and his team suggest that, “instead of the removal of the comfort of seating, adults’ physical activity could be increased by adding positive reinforcements such as fitness stations or prompts to encourage being active.”

In my personal opinion, I would like to see playgrounds designed for multigenerational use and become meaningful focal points for our communities. They should be works of usable art that spark our imagination and inspire us to climb, jump, run, and play. Sometimes my dreams are two sizes too big.

Rodney Steadman 05 October 2014

Roemmich J, Beeler J, & Johnson L (2014). A microenvironment approach to reducing sedentary time and increasing physical activity of children and adults at a playground. Preventive Medicine, 62, 108-112 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.01.018

The Playing Ground Part One

Yellow Rings

Playground rings. Photo by Rodney Steadman

I love playgrounds. There is nothing like finding a well-built playground that can accommodate the needs of both adults and children: monkey bars, slides, swings, and a nearby field. My basic playground workout consists of pull-ups and laps on the monkey bars; dips on the handrails at the top of some slides; knee-tuck push-ups on a swing; and running drills in the field. It’s a great place for both parents and children to get some exercise and have a bit of fun. Sadly, I rarely see parents using playground equipment with their children or while their children are playing elsewhere. They’re usually sitting on a bench talking with other parents or on the phone. On one occasion, while I was in-between laps on the monkey bars, a young girl would play on the bars – I wouldn’t rush her when she wanted to play on the bars, so I would do something else until she went to another piece of playground equipment. While she was on the monkey bars she would call out to her dad to watch her and play with her. He would lumber over to her – how such a small man could lumber was beyond me – and half-heartedly support her on the bars while continuing to yammer on his phone. After this exhaustive effort, he lumbered and yammered his way back to a nearby bench while his daughter shouted, “Come back daddy…DADDY!” Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe it was an important call – it wasn’t. Maybe he had crap parenting skills. Whatever it was – probably the latter – it annoyed me. Engaging in a few minutes of quality leisure time activity with his daughter could do wonders for her.

Researchers from the UK and US looked at the effects of changes in physical activity (PA) support from parents and peers in girls from nine to 15 years of age. Kirsten Davison and Russell Jago wanted to see if the support the girls received influenced their PA during adolescence. Participants for the study were part of a longitudinal study examining girls’ health and development across the ages of five to 15 years. One hundred and seventy-four Caucasian girls from Pennsylvania were assessed at nine, 11, 13, and 15 years of age. Both families and girls received financial compensation for their participation.

Parental support of their daughter’s PA was measured using the Activity Support Scale (ACTS). The ACTS measures logistic support (e.g. providing the girls with transportation to and enrollment in PAs) and modeling (e.g. teaching the girls how to be active and joining in activities with them). Peer support for the girls was measured using a modified version of the ACTS; however, it was not administered at age 15 to reduce research burden and facilitate participant retention.

Before age 13, the girls’ PA was measured using the Children’s Physical Activity scale, body mass index (BMI), a 24-item activity checklist, and the Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run. At 13 and 15 years of age, PA was measured using an accelerometer. Data were included for analysis if the girls wore the accelerometer for four days or more and for 10 hours or more per day over seven days. Girls “maintained PA” if they recorded 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA). If they recorded less than 30 minutes, they “did not maintain PA.” The authors could not use the recommended 60 minutes of MVPA per day as a cut-off because less than five percent of participants reported this level of daily physical activity. Furthermore, only 24 girls at ages 13 and 15 were able to maintain their PA over the seven days while 72 did not. These figures are very telling and, according to the authors, “The small percentage of girls who met current recommendations for PA in this study is consistent with data from a large national longitudinal sample of youth.” This paints a pretty bleak picture, but there is hope.

Results from Davison and Jago’s research showed that girls who maintained their PA across all ages had parents who reported higher modeling of PA than girls who did not maintain PA. Furthermore, girls with parents who sustained their level of logistic support across all ages maintained their PA. Conversely, significant declines in logistic support were associated with girls who did not maintain PA. The authors also found that there was not a significant effect of peer support on girls who maintained PA, but it did increase as the girls aged.

Davison and Jago identified parental logistic support as an important factor in maintaining PA. The researchers found that the greatest rate of peer support occurred between nine and 11 years of age and that peer support and logistic support were related over time. Davison and Jago speculated that logistic support might expose the girls to new PA behaviours, maintain PA by providing transportation to practices and events, and introduce girls to new peer groups who support PA.

“Parental modeling of PA before adolescence and logistic support during adolescence could help girls establish early patterns of PA and social networks that facilitate maintained PA during adolescence,” concluded the researchers.

So to my friend in the park with his little girl, get off your damn phone, and ass, and engage with your daughter. Show her, help her, and encourage her in her monkey bar endeavours.

Part two of “The Playing Ground” will focus on getting parents more active while at the playground with their kids.

Rodney Steadman 30 September 2014

Davison K, & Jago R (2009). Change in Parent and Peer Support across Ages 9 to 15 yr and Adolescent Girls’ Physical Activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41 (9), 1816-1825 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181a278e2

Nader P, Bradley R, Houts R, McRitchie S, & O’Brien M (2008). Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity From Ages 9 to 15 Years. JAMA, 300 (3), 295-305 DOI: 10.1001/jama.300.3.295

Sound Aggression

Not a Christmas tree. Just a tree with lights. Photo by Rodney Steadman

For tomorrow, he knew, all the Who girls and boys, would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys! And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!
–Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

It’s bad enough that the Grinch had to share a valley with religious zealots, but did they have to make so much noise? Could it have been all the noise that caused the Grinch to build up so much aggression towards the Whos? Could the noise have been of such a duration and type that the Grinch’s psychological wellbeing became compromised? Recent research suggests that noise pollution could contribute to displaced aggression.

A pilot study conducted by Angel Dzhambov and Donka Dimitrova from the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, investigated the effects of noise on displaced aggression (DA) in residents from a neighbourhood in Plovdiv city. According to the authors, DA occurs when an individual is provoked, but is unable to confront the source of provocation and takes out his or her aggression on an innocent party. To determine at what point sound becomes annoying, Dzhambov and Dimitrova looked at past research and discovered that sound annoyance occurs between 57 and 67 dB. Therefore, the authors chose a neighbourhood with continuous noise levels between 60 dB and 80 dB. The research team used the Displaced Aggression Questionnaire (DAQ) to determine their participant’s level of DA, and a series of interview questions to determine noise sensitivity and annoyance.

Dzhambov and Dimitrova collected data from 182 residents with an average age of 37 (45 percent were female). The research team first looked at participant responses to the DAQ alone. The results showed that women, older adults, long-term residents, retirees, the highly educated, and those suffering from poor health had high DA scores. The authors then looked at correlations between answers to their noise interviews and DA scores. They discovered that high DA scores were significantly associated with “noises above the perceived normal threshold, higher noise sensitivity, and continuous noises.” High DA scores were also associated with low frequency and high intensity noises. However, age – specifically older adults – was the only demographic data that positively correlated with noise sensitivity and aggression. Dzhambov and Dimitrova recognized that this correlation is contrary to past research. They attributed this result to limitations in the Bulgarian healthcare system to provide care for the elderly and the increase in poverty in this population over the past decade. “Therefore, social climate might be modifying the way people perceive and react to environmental noise,” concluded the authors. Furthermore, the authors suggested that an interdisciplinary public health approach would be helpful in counteracting the psychological distress and conflict created by noise pollution.

Maybe the reason why the Grinch hated Christmas so much wasn’t because his “head wasn’t screwed on just right” or “his shoes were too tight” or “his heart was two sizes too small.” Maybe it was all the Who noise. But we’ll never know the truth because the Grinch succumbed to Who indoctrination and all is well in the valley of Who.

Rodney Steadman 14 September 2014

Works Cited

Dzhambov A, & Dimitrova D (2014). Neighborhood noise pollution as a determinant of displaced aggression: A pilot study Noise and Health, 16 (69), 95-101 DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.132090

What is Nature?

Rocky Mountains from Nahahi Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

In my previous two blogs, “Nature Helps” and “Does Nature Influence How We Think?,” I presented research that showed the benefits of exposure to nature. At the end of “Nature Helps,” I made the observation that “Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants…in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or ‘made’ by humans.” Furthermore, images that were not considered as “as beautiful” appeared to be depictions of natural environments. This is counter to how nature is defined: everything in the physical world not created by humans. My concern was that the more beautiful images of nature and plants were not natural at all. Instead, they were a human idealized vision of nature that has become the accepted view. This is troubling because if we cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. Surprisingly, the development of this growing rift can be observed in Disney animated films over the past 70 years.

Researchers from the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, France, and The College of Wooster in Ohio, USA, investigated the depictions of nature in Disney (51 films) and Disney-Pixar (an additional nine films) animated films from 1937 to 2010. Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard and her team assessed representations of nature by looking at the amount of time each film spent in a natural setting. Specifically, the amount of time dedicated to a wild natural setting showing biodiversity as opposed to a cultivated nature with crops, gardens, and domesticated animal species. The authors called wild nature “green nature.” Prévot-Julliard and her team also assessed biodiversity and they did this by counting the number of animal species depicted and used this number as a proxy for species richness and complexity.

The results of their research showed a statistically significant decrease in depictions of green nature in the 51 Disney films. According to Prévot-Julliard and her team, this decrease could not be attributed to an increased focus on interior scenes because the duration of interior and exterior scenes relative to overall film duration have not significantly changed over time. Furthermore, this change could not be attributed to changes in Disney executive ranks over time. Additionally, the research team found that the decrease in depictions of green nature was further strengthened with the addition of the nine Disney-Pixar films.

This same trend was also seen in representations of biodiversity. Depictions of species richness and complexity have significantly decreased over time in the 51 Disney films and it was again strengthened when combined with the nine Disney-Pixar films.

Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that during the first 40 years of Disney animated films green nature was used as a backdrop in the majority of outdoor scenes. Starting around 1980, 50 percent of the Disney films assessed were situated in settings devoid of green nature. Moreover, when green nature was depicted, representations of species richness and complexity decreased and cultivated environments increased over time.

The authors concluded that the decrease in green nature in Disney films reflects a similar decrease in individual connectedness with nature over the past 70 years in Western cultures. Furthermore, the decrease in representations of biodiversity may also reflect a disconnect between Disney filmmakers and nature. According to the research team, the extent of this disconnect can be seen during the period of production under the guidance of Michael Eisner (1984-2005). During this period, environmental awareness became an explicit message in Disney animated films. Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that “even when there are explicit messages about nature and the environment, there is a trend for simplification of green nature and its inherent complexity in the settings.”

Considering the popularity of Disney and Disney-Pixar films, the results of this study are troubling. If we, Western cultures, cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. In light of my recent blog posts on nature, how will this decreasing connection and understanding of nature impact future generations? How will they answer, “What is nature?”

Rodney Steadman 01 September 2014

Works Cited

Prevot-Julliard A, Julliard R, & Clayton S (2014). Historical evidence for nature disconnection in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662513519042

Does Nature Influence How We Think?

Trees and Mountains

Sheep River, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

So, does nature influence how we think? According to recent research out of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, connectedness with nature may influence cognitive styles. The research team, led by Carmen Lai Yin Leong, conducted two studies with Singaporean secondary students as participants. In the first study, Leong and her team examined how connectedness with nature correlated with innovative and holistic cognitive styles. The second study explored connectedness with nature and its potential to predict cognitive styles.

The first study consisted of 138 adolescents (46 percent female) with an average age of 15 years. Participants completed an online survey consisting of questionnaires that measured connectedness to nature, nature relatedness, analytic versus holistic thinking preference, and creative style (innovative or adaptive). The results showed statistically significant correlations between connectedness with nature and innovative and holistic thinking. Innovative thinkers are open-minded, whereas, adaptive thinkers, at the opposite end of the scale, prefer a framework of systems and seek efficiency. Holistic thinkers focus on the big picture and emphasize the interconnectedness between the object of their observation and its surroundings. At the opposite end of the analysis-holism scale are the analytic thinkers who prefer to analyze an object in a linear fashion and apart from its surroundings.

Study 2 was designed to replicate the findings of Study 1 using pen and paper and investigate if connectedness with nature predicts cognitive styles while controlling for well-being and demographics. The researchers collected data from 185 adolescents (47 percent female) with a mean age of 13 years. The results of Study 1 were replicated in Study 2. Furthermore, the connectedness to nature scale was a statistically significant predictor of cognitive styles after controlling for well-being and demographics. Specifically, Leong and her team found that high connectedness to nature scale scores were significantly associated with higher tendencies for holistic and innovative thinking.

The authors argue that activities in nature such as hiking can be physically demanding and involve various forms of risk as well as experiences of natural beauty. Therefore, individuals who venture into nature have to be open-minded to navigate challenges posed by the natural environment. It is this open-mindedness that can also produce innovative ideas. Furthermore, activities in a natural environment expose enthusiasts to various ecosystems and the interconnectedness of the natural world. The authors argue that understanding the complexity of nature requires holistic thinking.

Leong and her team recommend “repeated interactions with nature” at both school and home. These interactions “are crucial in developing a sense of connectedness to nature” and enhancing cognitive styles.

Rodney Steadman 25 August 2014

Works Cited

Leong L, Fischer R, & McClure J (2014). Are nature lovers more innovative? The relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 57-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.03.007

Nature Helps

Meadow on approach to Little Arethusa, Kananaskis, Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

Meadow on approach to Little Arethusa, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

About a month ago I started to rejuvenate a horribly conceived garden at the front of a property I own with my sister. It was a project we wanted to tackle since we purchased the property, but we had other priorities that needed our attention before we could shift our focus to the garden. Once we started working on the garden, neighbours we had never met dropped by to show their support and offer advice and help. They were excited to see some natural beauty being added to the neighbourhood. There is recent research suggesting that our neighbours’ willingness to help may be a result of their exposure to natural beauty.

Researchers at the Universities of California and Southern California found that exposure to scenes of natural beauty increased prosocial behaviours (behaviours that benefit society such as volunteering). Jia Wei Zhang led the team that conducted four studies investigating how exposure to beautiful nature affected their participants’ prosocial tendencies.

Study 1 consisted of 846 participants with an average age 40 (42 percent were female and 75 percent Caucasian). The study examined if differences in prosociality were linked to an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty (PNB). The researchers measured their participants’ PNB, agreeableness, empathy, and connectedness to nature. The results showed that participants with high PNB also reported more prosocial behaviours.

Study 2 had two parts: a pilot study to determine more and less beautiful images of nature, and a study that used the images to assess if natural beauty influenced prosociality in the dictator game¹. The pilot study consisted of 28 participants (58 percent female with an average age of 41) who were shown 10 randomly selected slides of more and less beautiful image for six seconds each. The participants then rated the slides. The slides were then sorted into two one-minute slide presentations of either more or less beautiful images of nature. One hundred twenty eight individuals with an average age of 34 (53 percent were women and 75 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to view either the more or less beautiful images of nature slide presentations. Participants rated the images after viewing and then completed a questionnaire on positive emotions, the dictator game, and PNB. The results showed that participants who were assigned to the more beautiful images of nature group were more generous in the dictator game and more positive overall. Furthermore, participants who had high PNB were more generous after viewing beautiful images of nature than participants with lower PNB. The authors conclude that viewing images of beautiful nature creates positive emotions, which in turn facilitates greater prosocial behaviour. This effect was more pronounced in participants apt to perceive natural beauty in their daily lives.

In Study 3 the researchers changed the slide presentations to see if different images elicited different responses. Similar to Study 2, a pilot study of 28 participants with an average age of 41 (46 percent were women and 79 percent Caucasian) aided in creating two one-minute slide presentations. The researchers used a different measure than Study 2 to assess prosocial behaviour: the Trust Game². As in Study 2, the authors examined the mediating effects of positive emotions and PNB on prosocial behaviour after viewing beautiful nature. The researchers recruited 112 participants with an average age of 31 (27 percent were female and 72 percent Caucasian). The authors concluded that the results of Study 3 replicated their findings in Study 2: the more beautiful images of nature group exhibited more prosocial behaviour and more positive emotions than the less beautiful images of nature group, and participants with high PNB and in the more beautiful images of nature group had the greatest prosocial behaviour.

Study 4 was also a two-part study where a pilot study of 30 participants with an average age of 39 (63 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) assessed more or less beautiful images of plants. The chosen plants were then placed in a lab where 45 participants with an average age of 21 (64 percent were female and 77 percent Caucasian) were randomly assigned to either the more or less beautiful plants group. The participants then completed a positive emotion questionnaire followed by a request to assist in creating origami cranes to show support for those who had suffered in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in 2011. The results of Study 4 showed that participants in the more beautiful plant group exhibited more prosocial behaviours – i.e. they folded more cranes than participants in the less beautiful plant group. Similar to the results of the other three studies, the authors found that natural beauty elicited more positive emotions and participants with high PNB, and in the more beautiful plant group, exhibited the greatest prosocial behaviour.

Taken as a whole, all four studies show that the positive emotions created by more beautiful images, and an individual’s tendency to perceive natural beauty, contribute dramatically to that individual’s prosociality. It’s as simple as hanging a picture of a beautiful image of nature, placing a beautiful plant in a room, or maybe even creating a beautiful garden.

On a personal note, I question what the participants in this study perceive as “nature.” I hate when articles use dictionary definitions, but I believe it is apropos. Merriam-Webster defines nature as “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.” Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants – the authors did not supply images of the plants they used so I’m speculating here – in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or “made” by humans; for example, manicured lawns, genetically modified plants, and suppressed forces of nature such as fire. It’s interesting how the samples provided in the study of more beautiful images of nature were of what looked like nature controlled by humans and the less beautiful images of nature were of nature that looked overgrown and wild. What do these studies say about humans and how we perceive our place in nature?

Rodney Steadman 04 August 2014

Footnotes

¹In this game, participants were informed that they had been paired with an anonymous partner who was also completing the study. Participants were told that they had been randomly assigned to the role of the “Sender.” Each participant was told that they had been given 10 points, each of which would equal an additional 5 cents in their final payout. Participants were then informed that they could give any amount (including zero) to their partner, and that their final compensation would depend on how many points they had remaining. Partici- pants were further told that their partner would have no strategic input into the game’s outcome and that their responses in the game would remain anonymous (all participants received the full compensation in the end). Higher allocation reflected higher levels of generosity (Zhang, 2014, p.66).

²In this game, participants read a cover story in which they were told that they had 30 points (with each point equaling one cent) to play a game with a randomly selected partner who was also completing the survey at the same time. Participants were instructed that they could choose to give a portion of their points to their partner and that their compensation at the end of the study would depend on how many points they had remaining. However many points they allocated to their partner would then be tripled, and their partner would have the opportunity to give back as many points as they would like to the participant (Berg et al., 1995; Piff et al., 2010; Saslow et al., 2013). In actuality, participants were not paired with a partner and thus only completed the allocation portion of the trust game (all participants received the full compensation in the end) (Zhang, 2014, p. 68).

Works Cited

Zhang J, Piff P, Iyer R, Koleva S, & Keltner D (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008