Monday, 10 April 2017

Research Bulletin: Videogames May Enhance Cognitive Abilities, But Only For Those Who Play a Lot

Studies on whether playing videogames improves cognitive abilities have often found conflicting results. Nash Unsworth (Oregon) and his colleagues (2015) point out several methodological and statistical limitations in past studies showing that videogame players have better cognitive abilities than non-videogame players. For example, many of these studies compare the most experienced videogame players with non-videogame players, ignoring those in-between. By excluding those with moderate levels of experience, very small sample sizes are left and this can cause all kinds of problems. 

To improve on past work, Unsworth and his colleagues (2015) did two studies based on large samples, using many different cognitive measures, and examining both extreme groups (experienced versus non-gamers) and the full range of videogame experience. In Study 1, 198 participants completed various measures of cognitive abilities along with a videogame experience questionnaire. The extreme-groups analysis, which included only 47 participants, found that gamers outperformed non-gamers on many of the cognitive ability measures. These results are consistent with other studies that use this same method. However, when looking at the full range of participants, very few associations were found between videogame playing and cognitive abilities. In a second study, 466 participants completed very similar measures to those used in Study 1 and a similar result was observed: there were few associations between videogame playing and cognitive abilities.

These studies provide important insight into the question of whether videogames can improve cognitive abilities. It may be that associations between videogame playing experience and cognitive abilities only occurs for those who play very frequently. In addition, it may be that the genre or type of videogame is important. Future research will hopefully help to clarify these issues. 

Posted by Riana Fisher


Unsworth, N., Redick, T. S., Mcmillan, B. D., Hambrick, D. Z., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2015). Is Playing Video Games Related to Cognitive Abilities? Psychological Science, 26, 759-774. doi:10.1177/0956797615570367

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Monday, 3 April 2017

Research Bulletin: Spoiler Alert! Not all Spoilers Reduce Enjoyment of Short Stories

Leavitt and Christenfeld (2011) led a study that analyzed whether spoiling the ending of a story would increase or decrease its enjoyment. Surprisingly, readers enjoyed short stories more when they were spoiled (i.e., given a preview of the story that gave away the ending). Recently, William H. Levine (University of Arkansas), Michelle Betzner (University of Arkansas), and Kevin S. Autry (Grand Valley State University) attempted to replicate this previous study in order to see if the results were reliable. 

A total of 215 psychology students participated in their study. Participants were randomly assigned to read 1 of 3 possible short stories: (1) stories without a spoiler, (2) stories with a preceding spoiler, (3) and stories that included a spoiler of the ending mid-way through the story. Participants then reported how much they enjoyed the story. The researchers found that spoilers presented before the stories reduced enjoyment of these stories, relative to unspoiled stories. This was the exact opposite of what the past study found. Spoilers presented mid-way through a story had no effect on enjoyment. 

Although this study failed to replicate the past study, it also differed in some ways from this past work. More specifically, the current researchers used different stories, different spoilers, and the study was completed on a computer instead of on paper.

In conclusion, different studies using different methods have produced conflicting findings. Some studies find that spoiling a story can increase the reader’s enjoyment while other studies have found the exact opposite. Until further research is done, we cannot conclude that spoilers increase or decrease enjoyment. 

Posted by Elina Gama Fila


Leavitt, J. D., & Christenfeld, N. S. (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological Science, 22, 1152–1154.

Levine, W. H., Betzner, M., & Autry, K. S. (2016). The effect of spoilers on the enjoyment of
short stories. Discourse Processes, 53, 513–531.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Arts and Empathy: Update

I previously wrote about my participation in a fascinating panel discussion regarding the arts and empathy, organized by the Roots of Empathy foundation. Thanks to my fellow panelists, Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival) and Martha Durbin (Chair, Board of Trustees for the Royal Ontario Museum), as well as the moderator (Mary Ito, CBC), we had a very stimulating discussion of how exposure to all formats of artistic expression might relate to empathy and understanding. The full video of this discussion can now be viewed on the Roots of Empathy website. I would be happy to elaborate or clarify any of my comments from this discussion, just post your questions below in the Comments section.

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Monday, 20 February 2017

Black Box → Illuminating Experience: Beginning to Uncover How Video Game Players Transform Negative Emotions into Valued Experiences

Julia Bopp, Elisa Mekler and Klaus Opwis (University of Basel) conducted an exploratory study on video-game player experience. The authors explored emotionally moving experiences, noting how little research has been done on seemingly negative, but still valued, emotional experiences along with those characterized by mixed emotions. A total of 121 participants, of whom 23.1% were female, were recruited from various online gaming forums. Participants were asked to describe an “emotionally moving experience [they] had with a digital game” (p. 2998), and to make attributions as to its cause. They were then asked to rate the features of this experience, divided broadly into enjoyment, appreciation, emotion, and need-fulfillment. 
Sadness was prominent in these moving experiences, with sad emotions predicting a participant’s level of both appreciation and enjoyment of the experience. Appreciation is tied to an acknowledgement that there is some deeper meaning behind something. The researchers thus concluded that a part of players’ appreciation and enjoyment derives from feelings of sadness, as can be seen in one participant’s account of their experience: “‘Never has a video game presented the story of the hero, who sacrifices himself, this beautifully and this touching. I will never forget this moment!’” (p. 3001). These kinds of positive responses to sad situations are perhaps driven by players’ need to experience emotions. 
Another interesting result was the paradoxical role of loss of agency, or loss of direct control within a game. Agency was related to enjoyment and happiness, whereas loss of agency was associated with sadness. However, sadness was also a predictor of both enjoyment and appreciation. In one case of loss of agency, a participant reports having had “…to torture that guy. I really hated it and did not want to do it but the game didn’t leave the choice to me…It was really disturbing’” (p. 3002). However, Bopp and colleagues (2016) noted that for another participant, having no choice but to bury a brother makes for a highly emotional and vivid experience (p. 3003), which participants value. Thus, choosing to take away a player’s agency during a game should endeavor to strike a delicate balance between evoking just enough sadness to enhance appreciation and enjoyment, but not so much loss of control as to erode the happy affect and enjoyment borne of autonomy.

Posted by Krithika Sukumar.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Bopp, J. A., Mekler, E. D., & Opwis, K. (2016). Negative Emotion, Positive Experience?
Emotionally Moving Moments in Digital Games. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2996-3006.

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Monday, 6 February 2017

Photography and Truth

Ferdinand von Schirach is a defence lawyer who became famous with Crime, a book of cases that are fascinating. His most recent book is a novel: The Girl Who Wasn’t There.

The first third of the novel is about someone called Sebastian, who grows up without much affection, though he has fond memories of a lake near where he lived as a child. The second part of the novel is about photography, in which Sebastian becomes interested, and in which he undertakes an apprenticeship. He starts to do very well as a photographer, and is offered commissions, many of which are to take pictures of women.

He doesn’t seem to have friends, and he is not very involved with women in a romantic way until he meets Sofia. He takes photographs of her, and after they have been seeing each other for a while she says to him, “You’re never entirely with me. There’s always only part of you here.” The chapter in which this appears ends with this sentence: “All he knew was that he would hurt her.”

The book then moves into some sordid aspects, about why men like to look at photographs of unclothed women, although by the the end of the book one can see some of their purpose.

The last third of the book is about Sebastian’s trial for murder, of a young woman whose body can’t be found, of whom, perhaps, he was taking photographs.

It seems as if this novel will be a detective story (a mystery) and, indeed, the murder trial to which the book leads up seems to bear this out. But whereas the typical detective story turns out to be some version of  “it was the butler who did it,” this one is completely different. it is about the relation of photography and certain kinds of painting to truth.

When we see a photograph of a woman, we infer that although the picture might have been posed and touched up, that there was someone there whose visual likeness has been recorded. But what does a photograph or a painting tell you about the person?  And what might it tell you of yourself as you look at it?

von Schirach, Ferdinand. 2015. The girl who wasn't there. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Little Brown.

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What Traits Allow Actors to Embody Their Character?

As you close your eyes, you begin to visualize, carry the weight, and conjure the emotion. For those who are fascinated by the ability to create seemingly real experiences from imagined ones, this particular study may catch your eye. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of how actors are able to become their character so convincingly, a group of researchers examined whether acting ability is related to traits linked to hypnotizability (Panero, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Hughes, & Winner, 2016). This connection was drawn from the fact that in both acting exercises and hypnotic induction, individuals draw on personally-experienced events. Actors draw on their emotions and experiences and then fit those events to the character they wish to play. In a hypnotic state, individuals also draw on real-life experienced that parallel the instructions delivered. For example, if the hypnotic suggestion was for an individual’s arm to feel heavy, this individual would likely draw on a time when they truly experienced their arm feeling weighed down (Panero et al., 2016). 
To examine this putative link between acting abilities and hypnotizability, this study looked at different tendencies associated with hypnotizability: imaginative suggestibility, absorption, and fantasy proneness. Imaginative suggestibility is the ability to recreate an imagine situation so that it feels real. Absorption is a state of focus completely dedicated to experiencing an object (Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974). And, lastly, a fantasy prone individual is someone who spends a great deal of time fantasizing and daydreaming (Merckelbach, 2004). The researchers found that actors did indeed score higher than musicians and nonartists on all three tendencies. So it seems that actors do indeed rate themselves higher in traits that have been linked to hypnotizability. This study provides important insight into the abilities actors may possess that allow them to become their character. 

Posted by Michelle Vinitsky

Merckelbach, H. (2004). Telling a good story: Fantasy proneness and the quality of fabricated memories.
Personality and Individual Differences, 37, 1371–1382. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2004.01.007

Panero, M. E., Goldstein, T. R., Rosenberg, R., Hughes, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Do actors possess traits
associated with high hypnotizability? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(2), 233-239. doi: 10.1037/t10470-000

Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”),
a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83, 268–277. doi: 10.1037/h0036681

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Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Arts and Empathy

Last night I participated in a wonderful symposium on the relation between the arts and empathy, organized by Roots of Empathy and hosted at the Bata Shoe Museum. The panel consisted of Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival) and Martha Durbin (Chair, Board of Trustees for the Royal Ontario Museum), along with myself. Dr. Ellen Winner (Boston College) was also an intended participant via Skype, but unfortunately the technology did not cooperate. Mary Ito (CBC, Roots of Empathy) did a wonderful job as moderator, guiding us through a discussion of how various forms of the arts might possibly help to foster empathy with others, particularly those who are different from ourselves and often members of vulnerable populations. So many interesting ideas got bandied about, but a few broad ideas stood out to me:

1. How might different forms of art, such as theatre, film, historical artifacts, and even non-representational/non-figurative abstract visual art potentially provoke and challenge people to take on the experiences of others who live quite different lives from our own?

2. Does art attract empathic people? Does it foster empathy in people who come to art? Or could both things be true simultaneously?

3. Why do some instances of art succeed in encouraging the audience to empathize with someone quite different from him or herself, whereas other instances of art might fail to do so?

4. How might art affect children differently from adults, with respect to the promotion or engagement of empathy?

This night was also a reminder to me of the absolutely fantastic work that Roots of Empathy does throughout the world. For those who don't know, Roots of Empathy is a program in which young schoolchildren, often those living in under-served neighbourhoods, are guided through a series of lessons centred around visits by a parent and her baby. I had the very good fortune of witnessing the program in action and I have to say it's absolutely amazing. You can read more about my take in a previous post. Please consider supporting this wonderful organization in any way you can. For those interested in making a financial contribution, it is possible to do so here.

A huge thank you to the organizers for allowing me to a part of this, Mary for her deft moderating skills, and Cameron and Martha for fostering such an interesting and entertaining discussion.

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Quick Hit: Photos of Reading

Photographer Steve McCurrry (Magnum) has a beautiful new book out by Phaidon of people all around the world engaged in reading. Many more examples and additional information can be found in this BBC article

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Monday, 2 January 2017

Writing and Inspiration

Do writers who feel themselves to be inspired enable their readers to feel the same way? This is the question that Todd Thrash and his colleagues asked in a recent paper (Thrash et al., 2016). The authors quote Maurice Bowra (1951) who wrote “inspired words create life in us because they are themselves alive” (p. 36).

Thrash and his colleagues gave 195 students half an hour to write a poem on “the human condition,” and then to rate how inspired they felt when writing their poem. All the poems were scored on a series of measures by independent raters. The most important independent rating was of Insightfulness: “The degree to which the poem transcends the obvious or superficial and discerns the hidden nature of things.” All the poems were also read by 220 student readers, who rated how inspired they felt on reading each poem.

The main results of the study were that poems by writers who felt more inspired when writing elicited more inspiration from their average readers, and that the effect was moderated by the independent ratings of the poems’ Insightfulness.

What is inspiration? For the researchers the answer is indicated by the scale of nine items, which they gave their student writers. The items included, “I felt inspired while expressing my ideas,” and ‘I was inspired to revise this poem.” It may be, therefore, that what the researchers call “inspiration” is of writers having the sense that they have had a good idea to write about, with the additional sense that its wording catches something that is worthwhile, and is of a kind that can be offered to readers. It may be interesting to wonder what other ways there may be of thinking about this kind of mental state when one is writing.

Bowra, M. (1951). Inspiration and poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thrash, M. T., Maruskin, L., Moldovan, E. G., Olevnick, V., & Belzac, W. C. (2016). Writer-reader contagion of inspiration and related states: Conditional process analyses within a cross-classified writer x reader framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, advance online publication.

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Monday, 7 November 2016

Open Mind

The story of Haruki Murakami's novel Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and his years of pilgrimage is that of a quest. In late adolescence, Tsukuru had been one of a group of five young people who were very close. They were not just friends, they thought and acted almost as one. Then, in his second year at university, his four friends cut him off, and told him not to get in touch with any of them again ... ever. It seemed as if he had done something, but he did not know what it was. For months he was extremely depressed. He wanted to commit suicide. The novel is a pilgrimage in which Tsukuru journeys through his life, and tries to find out what the meaning of all this had been.

In his twenties Tsukuru meets Haida, a young man of about the same age as himself, and they become close. Haida is a graduate student who says that his idea in life is "to think deeply about things. Contemplate ideas in a pure, free sort of way ... kind of like constructing a vacuum" (p. 48).

I think what Haida is talking about here is a kind of reflection, a kind of contemplation, a kind of mindfulness, in which in the "vacuum" one lets thoughts just come into one's mind. I think this is the mode in which Murakami may write his books. It is the mode in which I write mine. It's the mode one enters when one takes up a literary novel or short story, and lets it in. One puts aside one's mundane concerns and goals, and opens one's mind to whatever may occur.

Whereas in the East, a kind of meditation has grown up in which one concentrates on one particular thing, perhaps one's breathing, and allows other thoughts that enter the mind just to drift out of it without paying attention to them, this kind of mode is an opposite. It is a welcoming of all the thoughts that come into the mind, an allowing of them to move around in there, to make associations with other thoughts, with memories, with ideas. It's on these kinds of associations, when they are meaningful to us, that we may concentrate, whether we are writing or reading.

We have featured Murakami's short stories before in OnFiction (click here). In some of these he starts by depicting what seems to be an ordinary world. Then, one finds that growing out of it, or growing alongside it, is an extra-ordinary world, something like a dream world. This idea is developed further in Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki. Just as, in A midsummer-night's dream, Shakespeare was able to present us with a dream world, in order to see our day-to-day world more clearly, so too is Murakami. The dream-world is something like the unconscious. It's composed of inward meanings. Moving between the two—the ordinary world and a dream world—is part of this novel. By means of such movements Tsukuro, and we, are able to think about ourselves, and each other, and our relationships with others, in new and clarifying ways. In life, or as one makes one's own pilgrimage through this book, in the vacuum that one may create in the mind, thoughts and memories can connect with each other and, by means of associations between and among them, we can change from the sometimes colourless, to the more colourful. That is to say that among our thoughts, memories, and reflections, we can choose what is important for us, and understand it more deeply.

Murakami, H. (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and his years of pilgrimage (P. Garbriel, Trans.). Toronto: Anchor Canada.

Shakespeare, W. (1600). A midsummer night's dream. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1995).

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Monday, 24 October 2016

A Single Brush with Fiction Does Not Improve Mental-State Inferencing Ability

A paper published in 2013 entitled Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano may not have as simple a story behind it as its title would seem to imply. The results of the paper, which were widely reported in mainstream media, showed that reading a short piece of literary fiction immediately alters the reader’s ability to infer the mental states of others, or theory-of-mind ability. However, a recent paper attempting to replicate the findings of Kidd and Castano failed to find any such effect of reading literary fiction. 
The replication attempt, Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication (2016) by Maria Panero and her colleagues, is a combined analysis of three separate studies that each sought to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings. All three studies asked one group of participants to read literary fiction and compared performance on a subsequent mental-state inference task to that for those who read other things (popular fiction, non-fiction) or nothing at all. All of the replication attempts used the same texts as in the original Kidd and Castano study. 
The studies reported by Panero and colleagues found no significant difference in mental-state inferencing ability after reading literary fiction compared to other kinds of texts or nothing at all. However, what they did find was a consistent replication of a correlation between lifelong exposure to fiction and performance on the theory-of-mind task, reported previously by others (e.g., Mar et al., 2006). In light of these results, Panero and colleagues advise against jumping to the conclusion that a brief exposure to literary fiction results in immediate gains in mental-state inferencing ability. 

Posted by Krithika Sukumar

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016, September 19). Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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Monday, 10 October 2016

Long-Term Potential or Just Another Bad Storyteller?

Could the best pick up line be, “I have to tell you what happened to my friend last weekend”? According to findings by Donahue and Green (2016), this very well may be the case as it seems that being a great storyteller can have impactful consequences on one’s relationships. 

Donahue and Green (2016) conducted three studies in which they examined the effect of storytelling ability on perceptions of an individual’s attractiveness, examining both short-term and long-term romantic relationships. In the first study, undergraduate students were given a picture of someone of the opposite gender and a biographical sketch. The sketch included neutral background information as well as the person’s story telling ability: good, moderate, poor, or no information. Participants then rated the individual’s physical attractiveness and attractiveness in terms of a casual date, long-term partner, or friend. They found that boasting good storytelling abilities made men more attractive to women, but only in terms of a long-term partner. In other words, men who are skilled in storytelling appear to have an advantage in attracting long-term partners. 

One limitation of the first study was that participants were simply told of the quality of the storyteller rather than experiencing the story being told. In the second study, with a new set of participants, half of the individuals read an effectively-told story and the other half read an ineffectively told account. Also, the degree to which participants felt transported or engaged by the story was measured. The results of this study were consistent with the first: women rated skilled male storytellers as more attractive than poor storytellers, with respect to a long-term relationship. For the other measures (e.g. physical attractiveness, casual date, and friend), the quality of the storyteller did not impact women’s ratings of attractiveness. In terms of men’s attraction to women, a female’s storytelling ability was irrelevant to men for all measures of attractiveness. In addition, attractiveness was not influenced by engagement with the story.  

In the final study, the researchers investigated whether storytelling ability might reflect perception of increased status. Participants rated the degree to which the target individual exhibited characteristics such as popularity, good leadership, and admiration. These results revealed that perceived status was a substantial mediator between storytelling ability and attractiveness of a long-term mate. In other words, effective storytelling led to perceptions of higher status because this very skill is interpreted to reflect a person’s ability to gain resources. Someone who is a good storyteller may be more capable of influencing others or gaining prestigious positions. So, from an evolutionary perspective, higher status could indicate greater means and thus a better chance of survival, which would be attractive to another potential mate. 

So the next time you find yourself on the lookout for that special someone, be mindful that entertaining her with a great story could mean long-term potential in her eyes. 

Posted by Michelle Vinitsky


Donahue, J. K., Green, M. C. (2016). A good story: Men’s storytelling ability reflects their attractiveness and perceived status. Personal Relationships, 23, 199-213.

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