Category Archives: Psychology

Can attention span in infancy predict later executive function? (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief with some interesting studies, such as this one, although I do think it can be regarded in part for an extra argument that executive functions (note the plural) are heavily influenced by nature:

Infant attention skills are significantly related to preschool executive function at age three, according to a new study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

One hundred and fourteen children took part in the study. Jessica H. Kraybill and colleagues measured children’s attention at five months by using parental-report questionnaires and by assessing look duration and shifting rate while the children watched a video clip. Children’s single longest continuous look and the number of shifts of gaze at the video were recorded. Shorter looking durations were taken as an indication of better information processing, and high shift rates typically represent better attention. The performance on four different executive function tasks for these same children was then measured when they were three years old.

Results indicated that higher attention at age five was related to higher executive function at age three (effect size = + 0.05), supporting the notion that attention span in infancy may serve as an early marker of later executive function.

The authors measured character strengths by the Value in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth (VIA-Youth), and positive classroom behaviors with the Classroom Behavior Rating Scale (CBRS), which cover positive achievement-related behavior and positive social behavior. For primary students, achievement was obtained by teacher ratings; for secondary students, the schools’ administration offices provided their grades. The findings showed that:

  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, social intelligence, and self-regulation were positively related to positive classroom behavior for both primary and secondary students.
  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, love of learning, perspective, zest, and gratitude were positively related to school achievement for both primary and secondary students.
  • Perseverance, prudence, and hope were associated with both positive classroom behavior and school achievement across primary and secondary sectors.
According to the authors, these findings indicate there is a rather distinct set of strengths most relevant in schools. The authors also suggest that further research could explore whether teachers and students value these strengths.

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Gender differences in spatial skills probably start in elementary school (meta-analysis)

Is it nature or nurture that men seem to better in spatial skills than women? Well, a new meta-analysis suggests that nurture plays a role and a takeaway idea for parents is that parents it’s a good idea to encourage both their daughters and sons to play with blocks and other construction items that might help in the development of spatial reasoning skills.

From the press release:

It is well-established that, on average, men outperform women on a spatial reasoning task known as mental rotation — imagining multi-dimensional objects from different points of view. Men are not, however, born with this advantage, suggests a major meta-analysis by psychologists at Emory University. Instead, males gain a slight advantage in mental-rotation performance during the first years of formal schooling, and this advantage slowly grows with age, tripling in size by the end of adolescence.

The Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, is publishing the findings.

“Some researchers have argued that there is an intrinsic gender difference in spatial reasoning — that boys are naturally better at it than girls,” says lead author Jillian Lauer, who is set to graduate from Emory in May with a PhD in psychology. “While our results don’t exclude any possibility that biological influences contribute to the gender gap, they suggest that other factors may be more important in driving the gender difference in spatial skills during childhood.”

Co-authors of the paper include Stella Lourenco, associate professor of psychology at Emory, whose lab specializes in the development of spatial and numerical cognition. Co-author Eukyung Yhang worked on the paper as an Emory undergraduate, funded by the university’s Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods. Yhang graduated in 2018 and is now at Yale University School of Medicine.

The meta-analysis included 128 studies of gender differences in spatial reasoning, combining statistics on more than 30,000 children and adolescents aged three to 18 years. The authors found no gender difference in mental-rotation skills among preschoolers, but a small male advantage emerged in children between the ages of six and eight.

While differences in verbal and mathematical abilities between men and women tend to be small or non-existent, twice as many men as women are top performers in mental rotation, making it one of the largest gender differences in cognition.

Mental rotation is considered one of the hallmarks of spatial reasoning. “If you’re packing your suitcase and trying to figure out how each item can fit within that space, or you’re building furniture based on a diagram, you’re likely engaged in mental rotation, imagining how different objects can rotate to fit together,” Lauer explains.

Prior research has also shown that superior spatial skills predict success in male-dominated science, technology engineering and math (STEM) fields, and that the gender difference in spatial reasoning may contribute to the gender disparity in these STEM fields.

“We’re interested in the origins of gender differences in spatial skills because of their potential role in the gender gap we see in math and science fields,” Lauer says. “By determining when the gender difference can first be detected in childhood and how it changes with age, we may be able to develop ways to make educational systems more equitable.”

It takes most of childhood and adolescence for the gender gap in spatial skills to reach the size of the difference seen in adulthood, Lauer says. She adds that the meta-analysis did not address causes for why the gender gap for mental rotation emerges and grows.

Lauer notes that previous research has shown that parents use more spatial language when they talk to preschool sons than daughters. Studies have also found that girls report more anxiety about having to perform spatial tasks than do boys by first grade, and that children are aware of gender stereotypes about spatial intelligence during elementary school.

“Now that we’ve characterized how gender differences in spatial reasoning skills develop in children over time we can start to hone in on the reasons for those differences,” Lauer says.

Meanwhile, she adds, parents may want to be aware to encourage both their daughters and sons to play with blocks and other construction items that might help in the development of spatial reasoning skills, since evidence shows that these skills can be improved with training.

“Giving both girls and boys more opportunities to develop their spatial skills is something that parents and educators have the power to do,” Lauer says.

Abstract of the meta-analysis:

Gender differences in spatial aptitude are well established by adulthood, particularly when measured by tasks that require the mental rotation of objects (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden, 1995). Although the male advantage in mental rotation performance represents one of the most robust gender differences in adult cognition, the developmental trajectory of this male advantage remains a topic of considerable debate. To address this debate, we meta-analyzed 303 effect sizes pertaining to gender differences in mental rotation performance among 30,613 children and adolescents. We found significant developmental change in the magnitude of the gender difference: A small male advantage in mental rotation performance first emerged during childhood and then subsequently increased with age, reaching a moderate effect size during adolescence. Procedural factors, including task and stimulus characteristics, also accounted for variability in reported gender differences, even when controlling for the effect of age. These results demonstrate that both age and procedural characteristics moderate the magnitude of the gender difference in mental rotation throughout development.

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Understanding math anxiety (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief with this time many interesting studies, such as this one:

While mathematics is often considered a hard subject, not all difficulties with the subject result from cognitive difficulties. Many children and adults experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a math problem. Research conducted by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge examined the math performance of more than 2,700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy who were screened for math anxiety and general anxiety. Researchers then worked one-to-one with the children in order to gain deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and feelings towards math using a series of cognitive tasks, questionnaires, and interviews.
Emma Carey and colleagues found that a general feeling that math was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to feelings of anxiety about the subject, and that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role. Girls in both primary and secondary school were found to have higher levels of both math anxiety and general anxiety.
Students indicated poor test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings, as reasons for feeling anxious. Secondary school students also indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school was a cause of math anxiety, as the work seemed harder and there was greater pressure on tests and increased homework.
The report sets out a series of recommendations, including:
  • Teachers should be aware that math anxiety can affect students’ math performance.
  • Teachers and parents need to be aware that their own math anxiety might influence students’ math anxiety.
  • Teachers and parents also need to be aware that gendered stereotypes about math ability might contribute to the gender gap in math performance.
  • Reducing classroom pressure and using methods like free writing about emotions before a test could help to alleviate math anxiety.

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Learning a native language? That’s 1.5 MB… (But still robots won’t be able to do it that good fast)

This study has more to it than the fun fact in the title of this post. But it does seem to be something you’d share in a conversation, that

…from infancy to young adulthood, learners absorb approximately 12.5 million bits of information about language — about two bits per minute — to fully acquire linguistic knowledge. If converted into binary code, the data would fill a 1.5 MB floppy disk.

For the people who don’t know what a floppy disk was, it’s the icon in Word to save something and it’s a predecessor of the cloud, but than stored locally. And small, well the storage room on the disk.

And now the more important insight from the study taken from the press release:

The findings, published today in the Royal Society Open Science journal, challenge assumptions that human language acquisition happens effortlessly, and that robots would have an easy time mastering it.

“Ours is the first study to put a number on the amount you have to learn to acquire language,” said study senior author Steven Piantadosi, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day.”

For example, when presented with the word “turkey,” a young learner typically gathers bits of information by asking, “Is a turkey a bird? Yes, or no? Does a turkey fly? Yes, or no?” and so on, until grasping the full meaning of the word “turkey.”

A bit, or binary digit, is a basic unit of data in computing, and computers store information and calculate using only zeroes and ones. The study uses the standard definition of eight bits to a byte.

“When you think about a child having to remember millions of zeroes and ones (in language), that says they must have really pretty impressive learning mechanisms.”

Piantadosi and study lead author Frank Mollica, a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive science at the University of Rochester, sought to gauge the amounts and different kinds of information that English speakers need to learn their native language.

They arrived at their results by running various calculations about language semantics and syntax through computational models. Notably, the study found that linguistic knowledge focuses mostly on the meaning of words, as opposed to the grammar of language.

“A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order,” Piantadosi said. “But our study shows that syntax represents just a tiny piece of language learning, and that the main difficulty has got to be in learning what so many words mean.”

That focus on semantics versus syntax distinguishes humans from robots, including voice-controlled digital helpers such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

“This really highlights a difference between machine learners and human learners,” Piantadosi said. “Machines know what words go together and where they go in sentences, but know very little about the meaning of words.”

As for the question of whether bilingual people must store twice as many bits of information, Piantadosi said this is unlikely in the case of word meanings, many of which are shared across languages.

“The meanings of many common nouns like ‘mother’ will be similar across languages, and so you won’t need to learn all of the bits of information about their meanings twice,” he said.

Abstract of the study:

We introduce theory-neutral estimates of the amount of information learners possess about how language works. We provide estimates at several levels of linguistic analysis: phonemes, wordforms, lexical semantics, word frequency and syntax. Our best guess is that the average English-speaking adult has learned 12.5 million bits of information, the majority of which is lexical semantics. Interestingly, very little of this information is syntactic, even in our upper bound analyses. Generally, our results suggest that learners possess remarkable inferential mechanisms capable of extracting, on average, nearly 2000 bits of information about how language works each day for 18 years.


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Is planning only related to the prefrontal cortex? No!

Quite often you hear people say that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is key for planning, and that because of the different way the PFC works with adolescents is the reason they often are bad at planning. But maybe we need to change the textbooks, because as always it’s a bit more complicated than that. Cue this new study by Vikbladh et al published in Neuron, that shows that the hippocampus also plays a role.

The summary of the study:

Little is known about the neural mechanisms that allow humans and animals to plan actions using knowledge of task contingencies. Emerging theories hypothesize that it involves the same hippocampal mechanisms that support self-localization and memory for locations. Yet limited direct evidence supports the link between planning and the hippocampal place map. We addressed this by investigating model-based planning and place memory in healthy controls and epilepsy patients treated using unilateral anterior temporal lobectomy with hippocampal resection. Both functions were impaired in the patient group. Specifically, the planning impairment was related to right hippocampal lesion size, controlling for overall lesion size. Furthermore, although planning and boundary-driven place memory covaried in the control group, this relationship was attenuated in patients, consistent with both functions relying on the same structure in the healthy brain. These findings clarify both the neural mechanism of model-based planning and the scope of hippocampal contributions to behavior.

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A great presentation by Dorothy Bishop on insights from psychology on lack of reproducibility

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Brains of girls and boys develop more alike than previously thought, so cognitive differences are probably more nurture than nature

This is a very interesting new Dutch study by Wieringa et al with an even more interesting conclusion:

In conclusion, the results of this study do not support the hypothesis of sex difference in cortical development trajectories. The only structure showing a sex difference in cortical maturation did not relate to sex differences in cognition. We did, however, extend previous findings of greater variability in male brain structure by showing greater male than female variability in cortical develop- ment. Observed performance differences in cognition may be related to training and educational experiences, an important question to address in future research.

Does this mean that there are no differences between the brains of boys and girls? No, there are, e.g. males brains are bigger on average and there is more variance in brain structure with males than females. But the most important finding of this study is this:

These results show that sex differences in variance are present in the absence of average sex differences in brain structure. Furthermore, behavioral outcomes favored girls for reading and boys for mental counters working memory, but these results were not consistently related to brain development trajectories. The latter finding may suggest that average sex differences in cognition are more strongly related to experience than biological predispositions.

Does this mean more nurture than nature? See also:

Taken together, we observed sex differences in behavioral cognitive performance and sex difference in brain variance, but no evidence for a relation between these two patterns.

I do think there is still also a possible nature-part than can be overlooked: the part that was inherited. But gender differences in this case do seem more nurture than nature.

Abstract of the study:

Although male brains have consistently reported to be 8–10% larger than female brains, it remains not well understood whether there are differences between sexes (average or variance) in developmental trajectories. Furthermore, if sex differences in average brain growth or variance are observed, it is unknown whether these sex differences have behavioral relevance. The present longitudinal study aimed to unravel sex effects in cortical brain structure, development, and variance, in relation to the development of educationally relevant cognitive domains and executive functions (EFs). This was assessed with three experimental tasks including working memory, reading comprehension, and fluency. In addition, real-life aspects of EF were assessed with self- and parent-reported Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function scores. The full data set included 271 participants (54% female) aged between 8 and 29 years of which three waves were collected at 2-year intervals, resulting in 680 T1-weighted MRI scans and behavioral measures. Analyses of average trajectories confirmed general age-related patterns of brain development but did not support the hypothesis of sex differences in brain development trajectories, except for left banks STS where boys had a steeper decline in surface area than girls. Also, our brain age prediction model (including 270 brain measures) did not indicate delayed maturation in boys compared with girls. Interestingly, support was found for greater variance in male brains than female brains in both structure and development, consistent with prior cross-sectional studies. Behaviorally, boys performed on average better on a working memory task with a spatial aspect and girls performed better on a reading comprehension task, but there was no relation between brain development and cognitive performance, neither for average brain measures, brain age, or variance measures. Taken together, we confirmed the hypothesis of greater males within-group variance in brain structures compared with females, but these were not related to EF. The sex differences observed in EF were not related to brain development, possibly suggesting that these are related to experiences and strategies rather than biological development.

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Education and dementia, it’s more complicated

This is something that I heard many times:  having a higher level of education may protect the brain to some extent against dementia. Yeah! But wait, a new study sheds a big shadow on this idea making at least everything really more complicated.

From the press release:

Previous studies have suggested that having a higher level of education may protect the brain to some extent against dementia, providing a “cognitive reserve” that buffers against the disease. But results have been mixed, and a new study finds that education does not play a role in when the disease starts or how fast it progresses. The study was published in the February 6, 2019, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“The strengths of this analysis include that it was based on more participants who were observed for a longer period of time than previous analyses,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “It’s possible that the contribution of education to cognitive reserve depends on other factors, such as life experiences or biological factors, but these results did not show a relationship between a higher level of education and a slower rate of decline of thinking and memory skills or a later onset of the accelerated decline that happens as dementia starts.”

For the study, researchers analyzed information from the Religious Orders Study, which involves older Catholic clergy members from across the United States, and the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which involves older people from the Chicago metropolitan area. Participants in both studies take part in annual evaluations and agree to a brain autopsy upon death.

The 2,899 participants, who were 78 years old on average at the start of the study, had an average of 16.3 years of education. Participants were followed for an average of eight years. A total of 696 participants developed dementia during the study; 752 died and had the brain autopsy; and 405 developed dementia and died during the study and had the autopsy.

Researchers divided participants into three education level groups, 12 years or fewer, 13 to 16 years, and 17 or more years.

The researchers did find an association between having a higher level of education and having higher thinking and memory skills at the start of the study, decades after formal education had ended. But they did not find an association between higher education and slower cognitive decline. Education level was also not related to how old people were when the disease started.

The researchers also did not see the results shown in earlier studies that showed that once cognitive decline started in more educated people, it accelerated faster than in people with less education. They also did not replicate earlier findings that people with high levels of Alzheimer’s disease markers in their brains who had high levels of education did not decline as rapidly as people the same levels of disease markers in the brain who had lower levels of education.

“This finding that education apparently contributes little to cognitive reserve is surprising given that education affects cognitive growth and changes in brain structure,” Wilson said. “But formal education typically ends decades before old age begins, so late-life activities involving thinking and memory skills such as learning another language or other experiences such as social activities, cognitively demanding work and having a purpose in life may also play a role in cognitive reserve than may be more important than remote experiences such as schooling.”

A limitation of the study is that participants had a relatively high level of education, so it is possible that effects previously seen on cognitive reserve due to education may have been primarily driven by variations at the lower end of the education level spectrum, Wilson said.

“Of course, even if one declines at the same rate it is still better to start at a higher level of cognition,” Wilson added.

Abstract of the study:

Objective To assess the contribution of education to cognitive reserve.

Methods Analyses are based on older participants in a longitudinal clinical-pathologic cohort study who had annual cognitive testing (n = 2,899) and subgroups that developed incident dementia (n = 696), died, and underwent a neuropathologic examination from which 10 neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular markers were derived (n = 752), or both (n = 405). Cognitive test scores were converted to a standard scale and averaged to yield composite measures of cognition.

Results Participants had a mean of 16.3 years of education (SD = 3.7, range 0–30). In all participants, education was associated with initial level of global cognition but not rate of cognitive change. In those who developed dementia, rate of global cognitive decline accelerated a mean of 1.8 years before the diagnosis, but education was not related to the onset or rate of accelerated decline. In the deceased, rate of global cognitive decline accelerated a mean of 3.4 years before death, but higher educational attainment was related to earlier (not later) onset of accelerated decline and unrelated to rate of acceleration. Higher education was associated with lower likelihood of gross and microscopic cerebral infarcts but not with other neuropathologic markers. Education was not related to global cognitive change not attributable to neuropathologic burden and did not decrease the association of higher neuropathologic burden with more rapid cognitive decline.

Conclusion The results suggest that the contribution of education to cognitive reserve is limited to its association with level of cognitive function before old age.

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A week in replication, some failed, some successful: Big Five, note taking and stereotype threats

The past week I read several replication studies with mixed results:

First, although direct replications (using methods from Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014) yielded longhand-superiority effects, the effects relevant to the encoding function of note-taking were small and did not reach conventional levels of significance. Such outcomes do not support strong recommendations about whether students should take notes longhand or by laptop in class. Second, based on their evidence, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) hypothesized that the higher word count and verbatim overlap for laptop groups were in part responsible for diminished performance for laptop users. However, when combining results across the direct replications, differences in word count and verbatim overlap were large, whereas differences in performance were small (and not statistically significant). Thus, differences in word count and verbatim overlap do not appear sufficient to produce performance differences between longhand and laptop groups.

The effects of gender stereotype threat on mathematical test performance in the classroom have been extensively studied in several cultural contexts. Theory predicts that stereotype threat lowers girls’ performance on mathematics tests, while leaving boys’ math performance unaffected. We conducted a large-scale stereotype threat experiment in Dutch high schools (N = 2064) to study the generalizability of the effect. In this registered report, we set out to replicate the overall effect among female high school students and to study four core theoretical moderators, namely domain identification, gender identification, math anxiety, and test difficulty. Among the girls, we found neither an overall effect of stereotype threat on math performance, nor any moderated stereotype threat effects. Most variance in math performance was explained by gender, domain identification, and math identification. We discuss several theoretical and statistical explanations for these findings. Our results are limited to the studied population (i.e. Dutch high school students, age 13–14) and the studied domain (mathematics).

In both examples of failed replication it’s not the case that we should abolish the theories as such straightaway. It’s rather that these new studies show that it’s more complicated than thought maybe due to regional and age differences (stereotype threat), maybe due to maybe differences in personal experiences (note taking).

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Stop using long words to look smart or thrustworthy

I have been reading a lot lately and there is something I need to share. It’s an older study by Daniel Oppenheimer, but it seems a lot of the authors didn’t hear about it yet. The title of the study? Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity.

Oh you, didn’t get that? The subtitle will make it much more clear: problems with using long words needlessly.

I summarized this also in The Ingredients for Great Teaching:

If you are a speaker, it is obviously of vital importance that the people listening to you can understand what you are saying. There is no point in blinding your audience with the eloquence of your words. Nowhere is this truer than in the classroom, otherwise you run the risk that the pupils will stop listening. While research has shown that intelligent people are more inclined to use difficult words, it is ironic to note that other research suggests that the use of difficult words makes you seem less intelligent (Pennebakern, & King, 1999)! In three simple experiments, Daniel Oppenheimer (2006) has demonstrated that fluent texts with simple language are more positively assessed by readers. This does not mean that you should never learn jargon or must eliminate difficult words from your vocabulary. But the more easily a reader or listener is able to digest your message, the more highly you will be regarded as a speaker or writer.


  • Pennebaker, J.W., & King, L.A. (1999). Linguistic styles: language use as an individual diffe- rence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1296.
  • Oppenheimer, D.M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(2), 139-156.

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