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Be Careful With Confidence July 2, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
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We all know that confidence can feel amazing. It might give you that great energy where you believe you can accomplish anything at all. Confidence can encourage us to make certain decisions, meet people and take action. But what about overconfidence? Can that do more harm than good? Sometimes, it can. If a person is overconfident, they might miss some of the key details to watch out for when making a change. For example, being overconfident before a test might mean you don’t spend enough time studying. A business executive might assume an investment is a good idea without making an effort to really think the decision through.

Perhaps the important question involves how we would even go about measuring overconfidence. From a scientific standpoint, it’s not easy to assess overconfidence because this kind of study would rely on the participant to explain how they are overconfident. That’s really subjective and not a very reliable or accurate way to provide results.

Let’s Try Something New

But wait! According to Pascal Mamassian, a researcher at CNRS and Université Paris Descartes, France, overconfidence can indeed be accurately measured. Mamassian believes he has come up with a cool way to handle the problems associated with having participants assess their own overconfidence. How? With a very natural and objective visuo-motor task. If you want to get really geeky, you can check out the full version in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Bring On The Visuo-Motor Task

Computer Confidence Test

So, what did these participants in Mamassian’s study do? Well, they were asked to sit at a computer and press on a key in synchrony with a ‘blob’ that would pop up on the screen. If they pressed the key in synchrony, they were given points for their success. But if they pressed the key too early or late, they lost points. Mamassian decided to use a mathematical model to analyze the way participants manipulated a key tapping strategy, which would help participants gain the most points and reduce the points lost. Now, let’s see what Mamassian found out from the participants!

The Results Are In

Mamassian discovered that the participants regularly didn’t aim for the best time. Instead, they showed overconfidence in their actions. Mamassian explained:

They underestimated the magnitude of their uncertainty and the cost of their error. Overconfidence is not limited to the realm of subjective beliefs and cognitive judgments but appears instead to reflect a general characteristic of human decision making.

So, this means that overconfidence in their abilities led participants to be less careful in assessing their own uncertainty and the consequences of mistakes when completing the task. Because they were overconfident, they didn’t take the time to think of what they needed to do to ensure no mistakes were made. Since they were so confident, they perhaps figured they would just automatically do well. On top of that, they didn’t properly estimate the points they would lose from these mistakes because – well, their overconfidence might have meant that they didn’t expect to make mistakes in the first place!

Now, I think that a little – or sometimes even a lot – of confidence can go a long way in creating good feelings of self-esteem and accomplishment. At the same time, Mamassian’s experimental model is a new and interesting way to judge if someone is overconfident. For now though, it’s not exactly a practical reality for most of us, which means we can’t just access this test to check whether we’re overconfident. A more cautious approach might be to take those confident leaps, but look where you are going. Ultimately, be confident knowing that you can reach your goals, but don’t be overconfident so that you are blinded by all the challenges along the way!

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Blame Your Brain For Temper Tantrums March 9, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
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Temper Tantrum

Temper tantrums aren’t just a reaction that young kids exhibit when they get upset or angry. Teens can also go berserk over all sorts of issues. Yet, some teens seem to keep their cool while others fly off the handle at just the slightest aggravation. Now, a study suggests that the connection may lie in a teenager’s brain.

Checking Out Families

Nicholas Allen from the University of Melbourne, Australia investigated 137 children between the ages of 11 and 14. As part of the experiment, he also observed their parents. Allen and his team of researchers used questions – such as curfews – that were expected to trigger arguments. They videotaped these disagreements and found that there were loads of differences between the families. Some families kept calm while others were more aggressive and could barely even speak to one another.

What An Enormous Amygdala You Have

When researchers took scans of the children’s brains, they narrowed in on three specific areas. The first was the amygdala, which is what gets people fired up to react impulsively to situations. The other parts they checked out were pre-frontal regions known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – areas of the brain that play a role in the more thoughtful types of responses. The results were really interesting!


Researchers found that the boys and girls who reacted more aggressively to the family discussions had bigger amygdalas. As for the temperamental boys, they had smaller ACCs on the left side of the brain, which researchers think explains why they remained aggressive for a longer period of time. On top of that, the boys who had smaller OFCs on the left side were more likely to respond to mopey parents by acting just as moody!

Making Sense Of The Results

Basically, what the results show is that those grumpy, tantrum-prone teens aren’t getting enough control from the pre-frontal parts over the amygdala. So, the impulsive behaviors end up ruling over the thoughtful and more reflective areas of the brain. What’s the end result? You got it – temper tantrums! The results also suggest that the areas of the brain controlling emotions and aggression are different in boys and girls.

My title for this blog entry is actually a bit misleading because it implies that the structural differences in the brain are fully responsible for aggression, when this just isn’t the case. The research gives us helpful clues to one contributing factor in the puzzle of temper tantrums. Learning more about why some teens are calm when others can freak out so easily and intensely can perhaps allow researchers to find better strategies for helping teens handle their aggression. As for my teenage years, I didn’t blame my brain for temper tantrums – I usually just blamed my parents, as most of us teens do!

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A Battle Between Scientists March 6, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Psychology and Behavior, Science and Politics, Science in the Media.
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Peer Review Cartoon
Credit: Nick Kim.

Scientists can spend years performing research and the grand finale often occurs when their work is nicely written up and reviewed for publication in a prestigious journal. As you can see in this brilliant cartoon from my favorite science cartoonist – Nick Kim – the pathway to publication isn’t exactly one that’s painless!

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Good Hearing Is Always In Fashion March 5, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Easy As Pie, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior.
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Ear Plugs

Good hearing is fashionable. Or at least, it should be. Unfortunately, ear plugs aren’t generally considered an attractive and stylish accessory. The ugly reputation of ear plugs, however, will hopefully change. In fact, that change better come soon because hearing damage can happen more easily than you may think!

According to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), just a single night out listening to loud, booming music is enough to experience the initial signs of hearing loss. Generally, if a person is repeatedly exposed to 85 decibels or more of noise, they can sustain hearing damage. Given that loads of music concerts and other places have noise well above this amount, you can see how easy it is to harm your hearing.

Listen Up!

So perhaps you have been exposed to some loud noise already and you’re wondering what kinds of symptoms you might experience? Check out the list below to read about some of the symptoms of hearing damage:

  • Ringing or buzzing in your ears
  • Muted, dull or muffled sound
  • Straining to hear someone speaking

Sometimes, you might experience the first signs of hearing damage immediately after exposure but the symptoms eventually resolve. If you keep getting exposed to the loud noise, however, symptoms can become a lot more uncomfortable and damage is likely to result.

Looking Cool

The RNID conducted a survey of young folk aged 16 to 30 and the results showed that a large proportion of the respondents were not into wearing ear plugs. Why not? A third of them thought ear plugs looked silly, which meant they were not down with wearing them. Did anybody wear them regularly? Unfortunately, a mere 3 percent said they consistently wear ear plugs.

Changing An Image

While knowing that ear plugs are important to prevent hearing damage is one thing, wearing them and not caring how they look (or pretending that you don’t care!) is quite another. I remember when I was in school and I had to get braces for my teeth. I had them in my final year of high-school and I thought they were absolutely hideous. For our class photos, I kept my mouth closed while smiling. Although avoiding braces (crooked teeth) versus not wearing ear plugs (hearing damage) can obviously have hugely different consequences, the idea of image and looking cool still has a major influence on both.

Today, for instance, I see kids choosing funky, bright colors for their braces and the entire image has changed quite a lot since I wore them. Snazzy, neon ear plugs? Well actually, it’s not a bad idea at all. In fact, if you have any fabulous ideas for an ear plug design, why not consider entering the contest created by RNID? After acknowledging that young people just don’t like the look of ear plugs, they decided to start a competition that challenges design students to create a fashionable and appealing alternative to the traditional ear plug. The students who show the most engaging and innovative ideas will receive work placements with some of the nation’s top design agencies. Since pink is my favorite color, I’m hoping someone makes a fashionable, pink ear plug!

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Fun School Tests March 3, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Easy As Pie, Psychology and Behavior.
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Students 1

Now, now, don’t run away from your computer after reading the title. It’s apparently true. School tests can be fun. Nope, neither your teacher nor the government paid me to say that!

Tzu-Hua Wang at the National Hsinchu University of Education in Taiwan came up with a really super idea. He created a Web-based multiple-choice test that is guided by the fun stuff in the popular television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He figured that instead of using the usual, boring multiple-choice tests that our education system seems to adore so much, comprehension levels in students could get a much needed boost by tweaking the traditional test a bit. His work was published in the journal Computers and Education.


While you might normally have cringed to see the word above, the new Web-based test developed by Wang could put some punch back into the traditional, bland school assessments.

Let’s Play A Game

The test itself allows students to do the usual game show stuff like phone a friend or ask the class for help. They can also eliminate two of the false answers, just like you can in the actual game show. Overall, kids seemed to be down with getting quizzed when it involved Wang’s lively test system. Better still, their comprehension levels were higher after playing the game, which shows that Wang’s idea has exciting potential for use in the education system.

My Complaint

The only problem I have with Wang’s game, however, is the fact that you don’t get to win any money. Mind you, if kids really could become millionaires while also improving their comprehension, I think myself and many other adults would be galloping back to school with the hope that we could play. Plus, your parents would bug you to study even more if there was a chance you could be buying them a very nice birthday present!

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