Cognitive Science Applications

Memory training boosts IQ

Is the IQ set in stone once we hit adulthood? ‘Yes it is’ used to be the received wisdom. A new meta-analysis challenges this view and gives hope to all of us who feel that mother nature should have endowed us with more IQ points. But is the training worth it?

a perfectly realistic depiction of intelligence training

a perfectly realistic depiction of intelligence training

Intelligence increases in adults

I have previously blogged about intelligence training with music (here). Music lessons increase your intelligence by round about 3 IQ points. But this has only been shown to work in children. A new paper shows that adults can also improve their IQ. Jacky Au and colleagues make this point based on one big analysis incorporating 20 publications with over 1000 participans. People did a working memory exercice, i.e. they trained the bit of their mind that holds information online. How? They did the so-called n-back task over and over and over again. Rather than explain the n-back task here, I just invite you to watch the video.

Increasing memory, increasing intelligence

Of course you cannot change your intelligence if you only do the task once. However, once you do this task several times a week over several weeks, your performance should increase, which shows that you trained your working memory. However, you will also improve on seemingly unrelated IQ tests. The meta-analysis takes this as a sign that actual intelligence increases result from n-back training. Working memory training goes beyond improvements on working memory tests alone.

The catch

So, the training is effective. It increases your intelligence by three to four IQ points. But is it efficient? You have to train for around half an hour daily, over a month. Such a training regime will have a considerable impact on your life. Are three to four IQ points enough to compensate for that?

— — —

Au, J., Sheehan, E., Tsai, N., Duncan, G., Buschkuehl, M., & Jaeggi, S. (2014). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: a meta-analysis Psychonomic Bulletin & Review DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0699-x

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How to increase children’s patience in 5 seconds

A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch.

How do researchers know this? Here is one experiment. In a recently published study (Leonard et al., 2014), four and five year old children were asked to wait for ten minutes in front of candy. The experimenter told them to wait before eating the candy because he had to finish paperwork. How long would children wait before calling the experimenter in because they wanted to eat the candy earlier? Four-year-olds waited for about six minutes while five-year-olds waited for about eight minutes. The task was similar to the classic Marshmallow test shown in the video.


The positive effect of touch

However, it all depends on whether the experimenter gave children a friendly touch on the back during the request to wait. If she did, four-year-olds waited for seven minutes (versus 5 minutes without touch) and five-year-olds waited for nine minutes (versus seven minutes without touch). A simple, five-second-long touch made four-year-olds behave as patiently as five-year-olds. It’s surprising how simple and fast the intervention is.

Touch across the ages

This result nicely fits into a wider literature on the benefits of a friendly touch. Already back in the eighties Patterson and colleagues (1986) found that adults spent more time helping with the tedious task of scoring personality tests if they were touched by the experimenter. Interestingly, the touch on the shoulder was hardly ever reported as noteworthy. In the early noughties Gueguen picked this effect up and moved it to the real world. He showed that touch also increases adults’ willingness to help by watching after a large dog (Gueguen & Fisher-Loku, 2002) as well as students’ willingness to volunteer to solve a math problem in front of a class (Gueguen, 2004).

The reason underlying these effects remains a bit mysterious. Does the touch on the back reduce the anxiety of being faced with a new, possibly difficult, task? Does it increase the rapport between experimenter and experimental participant? Does it make time fly by because being touched feels good? Well, time will tell.

Touch your child?

There are obvious sexual connotations related to touching people, unfortunately this includes touching children. As a result, some schools in the UK have adopted a ‘no touch’ policy: teachers are never allowed to touch children. Research shows that such an approach comes at a cost: children behave less patiently when they are not touched. Should society deny itself the benefits of people innocently touching each other?


Guéguen N, & Fischer-Lokou J (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: a field setting. Psychological reports, 90 (1), 267-9 PMID: 11898995

Guéguen, N. (2004). Nonverbal Encouragement of Participation in a Course: the Effect of Touching Social Psychology of Education, 7 (1), 89-98 DOI: 10.1023/B:SPOE.0000010691.30834.14

Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, & Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 1-11 PMID: 24666195

Patterson, M., Powell, J., & Lenihan, M. (1986). Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10 (1), 41-50 DOI: 10.1007/BF00987204

Music training boosts IQ

There are more and more brain training companies popping up which promise the same deal: improved intelligence. While there are doubts about their results, another sort of brain training has existed since the beginning of humanity: music. The evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly strong.


Music Lesson, 1936

Brain training in the 1930’s.

Over the years, researchers have noticed that people who have taken music lessons are better on a wide range of seemingly unconnected tasks. Just look at this impressive list:


Mathematics (across many different tasks; Vaughn, 2000)
Reading (understanding a written text; Corrigall & Trainor, 2011)
Simon task (quickly overcoming an easy, intuitive response in order to do a task right; Bialystok & DePape, 2009)
Digit Span (repeating a long list of random digits; Schellenberg, 2011)
Simple Reaction Time (pressing a button as soon as possible; Hughes & Franz, 2007)


None of these tasks has anything to do with music classes. What is it that makes music lessons correlate with them? It could just be the socio-economic background: the more well-off or well-educated the parents the better the education of their children, including their music education (e.g., Corrigall et al., 2013). However, one can adjust for these differences with statistical tricks and the general picture is that the family background cannot fully explain the advantage musically trained children have on all sorts of tasks (e.g., Corrigall & Trainor, 2011; Schellenberg, 2011). If not family background, then what is underlying the music children advantage?


Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin

Brain training in the 18th century. I am referring to the left lady.

Another contender is a common factor making some people good on all sorts of seemingly unrelated tasks and other people bad on nearly any task. This factor is called ‘g’ or general intelligence. An indeed, people who have enjoyed a musical education score higher on intelligence tests than people who did not. This has been shown across the globe: North America (Schellenberg, 2011), Europe (Roden et al., 2013), Asia (Ho et al., 2003†). The consistency across age groups is also impressive: 6-11 year olds (Schellenberg, 2006), 9-12 year olds (Schellenberg, 2011), 16-25 year-olds (Schellenberg, 2006). So, what holds these tasks and music education together is general intelligence. But that just opens up the next question: what causes this association between general intelligence and music lessons?
Music lessons cause higher intelligence
The most exciting possibility would be if music lessons actually caused higher intelligence. In order to make such a claim one needs to take a bunch of people and randomly assign them to either music lessons or some comparable activity. This random assignment ensures that any previous differences between music and non-music children will be equally distributed across groups. Random chance assignment at the beginning of the experiment ensures that any group differences at the end must be due to the whether children took music lessons during the experiment or not. Glenn Schellenberg did exactly this experiment with over 100 six-year-olds in Toronto (2004). Over a period of one year the children who learned to play the keyboard or to sing increased their IQ by 7 points. Children who were given drama lessons instead or simply no extra-curricular activity only increased by 4 points (likely because they started school in that year). A similar study which recently came out of Iran by Kaviani and colleagues (2013) replicates this finding. After only three months of group music lessons, the six-year-old music children increased their IQ by five points while children who were not assigned to music lessons only improved by one point. Across studies music lessons boost IQ.
It is worth reiterating how impressive this effect is. It has been found across three different music teaching approaches (standard keyboard lessons, Kodály voice lessons, Orff method). It has been replicated with two different sorts of intelligence tests (Wechsler and Stanford-Binet) as well as most of their subscales. It even came up despite the cultural differences between testing countries (Canada, Iran).
The take-home message couldn’t be any clearer. Music lessons are associated with intelligence not just because clever or well-off people take music lessons. A musical education itself makes you better across many tasks generally and on IQ tests specifically. No other ‘brain training’ has such a strong evidence base. Music is the best brain training we have.


Eros and a youth

Ancient Greek brain training. I am referring to the gentleman on the right.


Bialystok E, & Depape AM (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35 (2), 565-74 PMID: 19331508

Corrigall KA, Schellenberg EG, & Misura NM (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23641225

Corrigall, KA, & Trainor, LJ (2011). Associations Between Length of Music Training and Reading Skills in Children Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,, 29 (2), 147-155 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.147

Ho YC, Cheung MC, & Chan AS (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3), 439-50 PMID: 12959510

Hughes CM, & Franz EA (2007). Experience-dependent effects in unimanual and bimanual reaction time tasks in musicians. Journal of motor behavior, 39 (1), 3-8 PMID: 17251166

Kaviani H, Mirbaha H, Pournaseh M, & Sagan O (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive processing PMID: 23793255

Roden, I, Grube, D, Bongard, S, & Kreutz, G (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612471239

Schellenberg EG (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological science, 15 (8), 511-4 PMID: 15270994

Schellenberg, EG (2006). Long-Term Positive Associations Between Music Lessons and IQ Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (2), 457-468 DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.457

Schellenberg EG (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British journal of psychology, 102 (3), 283-302 PMID: 21751987

Vaughn, K (2000). Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship Journal of Aesthetic Education,, 34 (3/4), 149-166 DOI: 10.2307/3333641



† Effect only marginally significant (0.05<p<0.1)



1) By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Johann Heinrich Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin, via Wikimedia Commons

3) attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, between circa 460 and circa 450 BC, via Wikimedia Commons

Are some languages easier than others?

‘Long time no see’ is something I heard repeatedly in Britain even though it totally violates all the English grammar I learned at school. Clearly, Brits should correct this expression originating from Chinese Pidgin English rather than adopt it. The reason it entered common usage anyway is at the heart of why you might find English a lot easier to learn than the other British languages like Welsh or Gaelic. In a nutshell: when you learn English, it learns something from you as well.

Three years ago Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale published a (freely available) paper in which they looked at over 2,000 languages across the globe and quantified how difficult they are, e.g. by looking at their morphological complexity. Morphological complexity refers to how difficult it is to say a word in its correct form (‘went’ rather than ‘go-ed’). Its simpler counterpart is usually the use of more words to say the same thing (compare the sometimes irregular past like ‘gone’ with the always regular future ‘will go’). Using these principles Lupyan and Dale could show that languages which are spoken by more people tend to be simpler. Why?
When languages grow big, they tend to get simple.
When languages grow big, they tend to get simple.
Lupyan and Dale hypothesise that languages with more speakers also include more people who learned it when they were no longer children. As an adult, when you are not that good at learning a language anymore, you make yourself understood without speaking perfectly. Over time, these mistakes and simplifications are adopted by the language simply because difficult things never get learned by a new generation of learners. They are just forgotten. In some sense, the language learns what it can expect from its learners and what not. This drive towards simplification is a lot less strong when only expert language learners, i.e. children, are responsible for language transmission.
This year, a new study got published which directly looked at the proportion of adult second language learners in a given community rather than just assume it from the community size, as Lupyan and Dale did. Christian Bentz and Bodo Winter looked at case marking which is another pain to learn. In many languages around the world the Who does What to Whom pattern is not expressed through word order, like in English, but instead through case marking on words (similar to difference in roles marked by ‘he – him – his’). It turns out that on average languages which managed to retain a case system only have 16% of its speakers learn it after childhood, while the comparable number for no-case languages is 44%. Adults are bad at learning grammatical case systems, so it is forgotten if many adult learners speak the language.


Melting Pot, English, Foreign Language, L2

His forebearers shaped English. As does he.

So, yes, some languages are indeed easier. Learning them is a lot simpler. The reason being that language is not an invention of a single person. Instead, it is a communication tool shaped by the people using it. When Chinese people started using English they made many mistakes, some of them got adopted like ‘Long time no see’. Notice how it uses very little morphology, i.e. the words are all like you would find them in a dictionary, and no case at all (by that time English no longer had a full case system).
Follow the path of other adult language learners and you will meet with less resistance.

Bentz C, & Winter B (2013). Languages with more second language learners tend to lose case Language Dynamics and Change, in press

Lupyan G, & Dale R (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098492


1) adapted from Lupyan & Dale, 2010, p. 7
2) By Eneas De Troya from Mexico City, México (Melting Pot  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The biological basis of orchestra seating

Many cultural conventions appear like the result of historical accidents. The QWERTY – keyboard is a typical example: the technical requirements of early typewriters still determine the computer keyboard that I write this text on, even though by now technical advances would allow for a far more efficient design. Some culturally accepted oddities, however, appear to reflect the biological requirements of human beings. The way musicians are seated in an orchestra is one such case, but the listener is, surprisingly, not the beneficiary.

When one goes to a concert one typically sees a seating somewhat like the one below: strings in the front, then woodwinds further back, then brass. What is less obvious is that, in general, higher pitched instruments are seated on the left and lower pitched instruments on the right. The strings show this pattern perfectly: from left to right one sees violins, violas, cellos and then basses. Choirs show the same pattern: higher voices (soprano and tenor) stand left of the lower voices (alt and basses). Why is that?


orchestra; seating arrangement; Nijmegen; Nijmegen studenten orkest

An orchestra I have personally performed with.

It turns out that this is not a historical accident but instead a biological requirement. Diana Deutsch has used a series of audio illusions which all showed a curious pattern: when you present two series of tones each to one ear, you have the illusion that the high tones are being played to your right ear and the low ones to the left ear. In case you don’t believe me, listen to this illustration of Deutsch’s scale illusion:
Apparently, there is a right ear advantage for high tones. So, seating the higher instruments on the left side (as seen on the photo) makes complete sense as this way musicians on stage tend to hear higher tones coming from their right. However, from the point of view of the audience this is actually a really bad idea as their right ear advantage is not taken into account. It turns out that orchestra seating arrangements are not favouring the hearing of the audience or the conductor but instead the musicians!
The right ear advantage for high tones is even mirrored in musicians’ brains. We know that the right ear projects mostly to the left auditory cortex and vice versa for the left ear. So, one would expect that people who play high instruments have trained their right ear / left auditory cortex the most when they practiced their craft. These training effects should be mirrored in differences in cortex size. This would mean that people sitting on the left in an orchestra have bigger left auditory cortices. In a fascinating article Schneider and colleagues showed that by and large this is the case: professional musicians who play high instruments or instruments with a sharp attack (e.g., percussionists, piano players) tend to have greater left auditory cortices than right auditory cortices. Their figure says is all.
Schneider; orchestra; seating; brain; Heschl's gyrus; primary auditory cortex; cortical size

How the brains are seated in an orchestra.

The orchestra seating arrangement mirrors not only the listening biases of most human ears but on top of that the brain differences between musicians. By and large, the orchestra is organised according to biological principles. Thus, not all cultural conventions – like the seemingly arbitrary seating arrangement of orchestras – have their roots in historical accidents. Cultural oddities are sometimes merely down to biology.

Deutsch, D. (1999). Grouping Mechanisms in Music The Psychology of Music, Second Edition, 299-348 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012213564-4/50010-X

Schneider P, Sluming V, Roberts N, Bleeck S, & Rupp A (2005). Structural, functional, and perceptual differences in Heschl’s gyrus and musical instrument preference. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 387-94 PMID: 16597790



1) Nederlands: Symfonieorkest Nijmegen in de grote zaal van de Vereeniging, The SON photo library, via wikimedia

2) as found in Schneider et al., 2005, p. 392

delaying dementia without pills

‘What’s this? A potato?’ asked my friend’s grandfather during lunch. As always, he used his charming grin and characteristically loud voice. Even though the entire conversation was in Argentine Spanish – which I had learned only a short while before – I understood the oddity of the situation at once. Instead of a potato, the grandfather held a kiwifruit in his hands.
After only a short time of living with this family I noticed that the grandfather no longer had the mental abilities he once must have possessed in order to lead a successful business and raise an adorable family. He was undiagnosed but his behaviour reminded me of Mild Cognitive Impairment, which can progress to a more severe general cognitive impairment – Alzheimer’s Disease or more generally dementia – which usually cannot be cured. ‘What can be done?’ I was asked by my friend’s grandmother afraid of slowly losing the husband she had shared most of her life with. In broken Spanish I tried to explain to her what I would do: build up a cognitive reserve. This concept – related to the beneficial effects of, for example, high education or mentally demanding spare time activities – is perhaps the most promising strategy for delaying dementia.
A large scale analysis illustrates what a cognitive reserve can achieve. First of all, it can delay dementia. An Australian research team (Valenzuela & Sachdev, 2006) collected studies which recruited old people when they were still perfectly healthy and then tested them again after a few years to find out by how much their cognitive abilities had declined. The trend across more than 47,000 people was for higher education and more demanding leisure activities to slow down the creeping loss of mental abilities leading to dementia.

A German nun without experimental confounds.

The savvy reader may already notice a problem with this theory: high education is associated with a generally healthier lifestyle. Rather than cognitive reserve, we should perhaps simply be talking about healthy vs. non-healthy life styles. A Bavarian study ruled this problem out (Bickel & Kurz, 2009). They gained access to the education and dementia records of older female members of a religious order who lived as similarly as one can imagine. The 442 participants had shared a roof for more than five decades, shared meals together, had the same access to medical care. None smoked. None had any personal items. And still, 39% of sisters with low education suffered from dementia, compared to only 14% in the remaining group. Clearly, whether life style has an effect or not, the benefits of a cognitive reserve cannot be reduced to it. It delays dementia all by itself.
This beneficial effect of a cognitive reserve led me to give my advice. However, this strategy cannot stave off dementia forever or even slow it down once it kicks in. Nikolaos Scarmeas and colleagues from Columbia University (2006) found that more highly educated New Yorkers above 65 lose their memory faster around the time of an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis compared to less educated city dwellers. Apparently, the benefits of a high education are absent around the time of diagnosis.
This raises the obvious question whether my advice was perhaps too late. Once on the road to Alzheimer’s there may be no turning back and efforts to delay the inevitable could make things worse. Given what we know about how the cognitive reserve actually works, I do not believe that this is true. First of all, a cognitive reserve is no cure against dementia but merely a way to delay it. The theory goes that brain pathology progresses whether you have a cognitive reserve or not. What a high education level and demanding leisure activities actually do is to avoid the usual outcome of brain pathology – e.g., easily noticeable memory problems of the kind I have described above. This is supported by studies which compared the brains of people with equal mental function in high age. Those with higher education have more amyloid deposits – a peptide associated with Alzheimer’s disease – as if they were able to deal with their reduced brain function in a better way (Kemppainen et al., 2008; Rentz et al., 2010). At some point though, the progressively worse brain function catches up with you and the resulting cognitive decline is faster.
Charles Hall and colleagues (2007; 2009) tested this overall model in the real world. His analyses of memory test scores of over 100 Bronx residents over the years shows the predicted trend. At first, a high cognitive reserve – whether education or leisure activities – delays the point in time when mental abilities suddenly decline rapidly. Each year in education delays this moment by two and a half months. Each day of mentally stimulating leisure activities delays it by two months. Once this moment is reached, though, the decline is faster with a higher cognitive reserve – as if the aforementioned brain pathology catches up. A cognitive reserve helps you to delay dementia but not to escape it.
cognitive decline; Alzheimer's disease; old age; dementia; cognitive reserve

The higher the education the shallower the decline before a break point, the later that break point, and the steeper the decline thereafter.

My friend’s grandfather had long been out of education. But the second source of a cognitive reserve – mentally demanding leisure activities – was not beyond him. What sort of activities work? A French research team led by Tasnime Akbaraly (2009) took a better look. They found that only a certain kind of leisure activity will delay dementia onset. Watching television and other passive behaviours won’t do. Neither do physical activities like going for a walk. Nor social ones like have friends or family over. The crucial set of activities are the mentally demanding ones: doing crosswords, playing cards, attending organisations, going to the cinema/theatre, practicing an artistic activity etc.
It is a mystery to me why this knowledge is not more widely spread. Dementia is one of the central challenges facing an ageing population as well as many old couples individually. Research shows that one does not need to be a passive spectator of mental decline. If a cognitive reserve has been built up, one can enjoy more years without showing signs of an incurable disease. That’s what I tried to say in broken Spanish to my friend’s grandmother: make him use his mind.


Akbaraly, T., Portet, F., Fustinoni, S., Dartigues, J., Artero, S., Rouaud, O., Touchon, J., Ritchie, K., & Berr, C. (2009). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly: Results from the Three-City Study Neurology, 73 (11), 854-861 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181b7849b

Bickel H, & Kurz A (2009). Education, occupation, and dementia: the Bavarian school sisters study. Dementia and geriatric cognitive disorders, 27 (6), 548-56 PMID: 19590201

Hall CB, Derby C, LeValley A, Katz MJ, Verghese J, & Lipton RB (2007). Education delays accelerated decline on a memory test in persons who develop dementia. Neurology, 69 (17), 1657-64 PMID: 17954781

Hall CB, Lipton RB, Sliwinski M, Katz MJ, Derby CA, & Verghese J (2009). Cognitive activities delay onset of memory decline in persons who develop dementia. Neurology, 73 (5), 356-61 PMID: 19652139

Kemppainen NM, Aalto S, Karrasch M, Någren K, Savisto N, Oikonen V, Viitanen M, Parkkola R, & Rinne JO (2008). Cognitive reserve hypothesis: Pittsburgh Compound B and fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography in relation to education in mild Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of neurology, 63 (1), 112-8 PMID: 18023012

Rentz DM, Locascio JJ, Becker JA, Moran EK, Eng E, Buckner RL, Sperling RA, & Johnson KA (2010). Cognition, reserve, and amyloid deposition in normal aging. Annals of neurology, 67 (3), 353-64 PMID: 20373347

Scarmeas, N., Albert, S.M., Manly, J.J., & Stern, Y. (2005). Education and rates of cognitive decline in incident Alzheimer’s disease Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 77 (3), 308-316 DOI: 10.1136/jnnp.2005.072306

Valenzuela MJ, & Sachdev P (2006). Brain reserve and cognitive decline: a non-parametric systematic review. Psychological medicine, 36 (8), 1065-73 PMID: 16650343



1) By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Doris Ulmann, 1882–1934. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3) Hall et al., 2007, p. 1661


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When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.



Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.



So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

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Mental Fitness – How to Improve your Mind through Bodily Exercise


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Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on government approval

Romney should pray for rain because rain improves a conservative’s chances of getting elected. Having covered this ‘Republican rain advantage’ in my last post, I will turn to a second reason why the presidential candidates should monitor the election day weather in this post. It turns out that the weather influences how well the government is perceived. Could this be exploited by the candidates?

George Bush; Ariel Sharon; Mahmud Abba; Red Sea Summit

Bush finding approval under the sun.

The weather has got a curious effect on the government’s approval ratings. Alex Cohen looked at Bush’s approval ratings of the year 2005. He found that they were significantly better when the sun was out at the respondent’s location compared to ambiguous weather. Note that this is opposite to the ‘Republican rain advantage’ covered in the last post suggesting that a different explanation needs to be found to explain this one.
The easiest explanation would be this: it is a simple coincidence. However, German researchers Michael Mutz and Sylvia Kämpfer did a similar analysis for German polling data gathered in 2008. Just like Cohen they found sunshine to increase government satisfaction. Going beyond this ‘incumbent sunshine advantage’, they found that a rainy day actually reduced government satisfaction. It should be noted that in 2008 Germany was ruled by a so called grand coalition formed by the two main centre-right and centre-left parties. Therefore, the Republican rain advantage cannot account for this effect either. So, given a replication in a different year and a completely different democratic system, there must be a reason for this effect other than coincidence.
But is it worth our time to dwell on this issue? Yes it is. Compared to what sort of things political candidates – and the media – usually focus on, the weather effect is substantial. In Germany it was found to be stronger than the effect of gender and appeared comparable to the effect of education. In the US study it was, depending on season, stronger than the effect of age, unemployment or income. In other words, if it is worth worrying about ‘the female vote’ or the ‘pensioner vote’ it is also worth looking at the weather effect.
Brack Obama; Joe Biden; White House; Sun; Golf

Obama during a time of high approval.

The reason given for this ‘incumbent sun advantage’ mirror to some degree what I suggested to be the reason for the ‘Republican rain advantage’. The effect of weather on mood is the key link. By and large, sunshine improves mood. Whether it does so directly by increasing the availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin or indirectly by facilitating outdoor events with friends does not matter. Once the weather has changed your mood there are three ways it can cloud your judgement. First, the information we take in tends to conform to our mood – mood-congruent attention. Second, the more a memory agrees with our mood the more likely it is to be remembered – mood-congruent memory. Third, when faced with complex, vague or unimportant decisions people tend to be guided by their gut feeling, i.e. they use their mood as explicit information for their judgement.
In sum, when you are asked to evaluate the government and the sun is shining, you are more likely to attend to something good, remember something good and have your assessment clouded by your good gut feeling. No wonder you tend to evaluate the government as better even though it is not responsible for the weather.
However, this effect has no obvious application for the candidates. Obama appears to benefit from the political climate as much as from the actual weather. Romney, though, will have to pray for rain – or hope that the good feelings not just lead to a better assessment of the incumbent but also of the challenger.


Cohen, A. (2011). The photosynthetic President: Converting sunshine into popularity The Social Science Journal, 48 (2), 295-304 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.11.007

Mutz, M., & Kämpfer, S. (2011). …und nun zum Wetter: Beeinflusst die Wetterlage die Einschätzung von politischen und wirtschaftlichen Sachverhalten? Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 40 (4), 208-226


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share



1) By White House photo by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share

I would not be surprised if Mitt Romney was going through the weather forecast for November 6th, the date of the next US presidential election. As the Republican candidate, he will know that his chances of being elected are higher if people are faced with pouring rain upon leaving for the ballot box. Research supports this opinion but the underlying reasons could give the Obama campaign a strategy to undo this Republican rain advantage.

Mitt Romney; GOP; Republican; President; Candidate

Must have been raining outside. Good for him.

The media love covering election day weather under the assumption that it somehow matters for the political outcome. Is that true? Research by Brad Gomez and colleagues indeed supports this notion. They looked at all US presidential elections since 1948 and found that Republican candidates tended to benefit from rain and snow. In 1960 this effect may have helped Kennedy to win the election due to dry weather. Moreover, in 2000 it may have affected the infamous Florida vote in Bush’s favour due to higher than usual rain in many counties.
This effect is not spurious. It has recently been replicated in a completely different electoral system: the Netherlands. Rob Eisinga and colleagues have shown that various left parties benefit from dry election days and that various right or liberal parties benefit from pouring rain. The conservative advantage on rainy days seems to be real.

 The rationality in weather effects

The usual reason given for this bizarre effect is a rational one. The story goes a bit like this. Bad weather increases the cost – i.e. effort or reluctance – of going to the polling booth. Such cost-considerations may not affect conservative voters that much because they are more politically committed, more used to working outdoors (farming) or have got a higher chance of owning a car. The typical left voter, on the other hand, could be imagined as being urban, without car, possibly old and, thus, unwilling to wait for the bus in the rain in order to get to the polling station.
Does this story work? Is the Republican rain advantage really due to people behaving like rational actors? The data don’t really support this story. Consider that every inch of rain above normal reduces the voter turn-out by only 0.9% whereas it changes the election outcome by 2.5%. Simple Democratic voter abstention cannot account for the full effect. Many voters must be influenced by the weather in terms of their actual voting decision – rather than just whether to vote or not.

 The irrationality in weather effects

Obama in New Hampshire; president; Barack Obama; election

Obama with help from above.

Given that the rational actor model fails a more sophisticated psychological theory is needed. The relation between mood and helping behaviour may be the key link between the weather and election outcomes. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the most persistent difference between right and left wing parties is captured in a ‘each for his own’ vs ‘help where help is needed’ dichotomy. Whether it comes to civil rights, health care or the tax system, right wing parties tend to favour individual responsibility and opportunity over collective responsibility and protection. The effect of the weather on voting decisions may be related to changing a feeling of responsibility for one another.
There is some suggestive evidence for this proposal. Psychological studies carried out by Matthew Keller and colleagues have shown that mood is positively influenced by going out and experiencing good weather (at least in the spring). Next, good mood is associated with more helping behaviour – clearly established in a review by Carlson and colleagues. So, a causal chain linking the weather to voting could look like this: weather –> mood –> helping.
One should not trust such causal chains too much without a direct test of the first cause affecting the last effect. Michael Cunningham has provided just that. He looked at helping behaviour through people’s readiness to participate in a lengthy questionnaire. People approached outside were more likely to stop to hear the experimenter’s request on a sunny day. Once stopped they were ready to answer more questions if the sun was out. Clearly, randomly chosen members of the public are more ready to help during good weather – as predicted by the causal chain ‘weather –> mood –> helping’. By changing voters’ readiness to provide concrete help the weather may also influence how people think the government should treat its citizens – whether to leave them alone or whether to assist them.

 What can Obama do?

Given the role of the ‘mood –> helping’ effect in explaining the ‘weather –> vote’ effect, what strategy should the Obama administration adopt to counter-act the Republican rain advantage? Following this model, I suggest that they should emphasize health care and minority/women rights if key states are predicted to show good weather. Military successes like the bin Laden raid in Pakistan should be focussed on with bad weather. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should catch up in the polls within the next few weeks and then pray for rain.

Carlson M, Charlin V, & Miller N (1988). Positive mood and helping behavior: a test of six hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55 (2), 211-29 PMID: 3050025

Cunningham, M. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 1947-1956 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.1947

Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, Côté S, Johnson K, Mikels J, Conway A, & Wager T (2005). A warm heart and a clear head. The contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological science, 16 (9), 724-31 PMID: 16137259

Eisinga R, Te Grotenhuis M, & Pelzer B (2012). Weather conditions and political party vote share in Dutch national parliament elections, 1971-2010. International journal of biometeorology, 56 (6), 1161-5 PMID: 22065127

Gomez, B., Hansford, T., & Krause, G. (2007). The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections The Journal of Politics, 69 (03), 649-663 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00565.x
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Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on approval ratings



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canine confirmation confound – lessons from poorly performing drug detection dogs

Intuitively, the use of police dogs as drug detectors makes sense. Dogs are known to have a better sense of smell than their human handlers. Furthermore, they cooperate easily. Still, compared to the generally good picture sniffer dogs have in the public eye, their performance as drug detectors in real life is terrible. The reason why scent dogs get used anyway holds important lessons for behavioural researchers working with animals or humans.

Survey data coming out of Australia paints an appalling picture of sniffer dog abilities. Their noses hardly ever detect drugs that they are trained on. For example, only about 6% of regular ecstasy users in possession of drugs reported that they were found out by a sniffer dog they saw (Hickey et al., 2012). But once they bark, you can be pretty sure that a drug was found, right? No, you can’t be sure at all. An Australian review by the ombudsman for New South Wales found that nearly three quarters of dog alerts did not result in any drugs being found. It’s clear: using sniffer dogs to detect drugs just does not work very well.
drug detection, military, dog

Both looking in the same direction. Who is following whom?

This raises the question why scent dogs are actually used at all. My guess is that they perform a lot better in ability demonstrations compared to real life. This is because in demonstration scenarios their handlers know the right answer. This answer can then be read off unconscious behavioural cues and thus guide the dog. This is exactly what a Californian research team led by Lit et al. (2011) found. When an area was marked so as to make the handler believe that it was containing an illicit substance, more than 80% of the time the handler reported that his/her dog had found the substance. However, the researchers in this study misled the dog handlers and in fact never hid any illicit substances, i.e. every alarm was a false alarm. Interestingly, when an area was not marked, significantly fewer dog alerts were reported. This suggests that the dog owners control to a large extent when their own dog responds. Apparently, sniffer dogs game the system by trusting not just their nose but also their handler when it comes to looking for drugs. This trick won’t work, though, if the handler himself doesn’t have a clue either, as in real life scenarios.
The deeper issue is that good test design has to exclude the possibility that the participant can game it. The most famous case where this went wrong was a horse called Clever Hans. Early last century this horse made waves because it could allegedly count and do all sorts of computations. Hans, however, was clever in a different way than people realised. He only knew the answer if the person asking the question and recording the response also knew the answer. Clearly, Hans gamed the system by reading off the right answers from behavioural cues sent out by the experimenter.
Whether reading research papers or designing studies, remember Hans! Remember that the person handling the participant during a test should never know the right answer. If s/he does, the research is more likely to produce the intended result for unintended reasons. This can happen with scent dogs (Lit et al., 2011), with horses but also with adult humans (see the Bargh controversy elicited by Doyen et al., 2012). Unfortunately, after 100 years of living with this knowledge, reviewers start noticing that the lesson has been forgotten (see Beran, 2012). Drug detection dogs show where this loss leads us.


Beran, M.J. (2012). Did you ever hear the one about the horse that could count? Front. Psychology, 3 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00357

Doyen S, Klein O, Pichon CL, & Cleeremans A (2012). Behavioral priming: it’s all in the mind, but whose mind? PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22279526

Hickey S, McIlwraith F, Bruno R, Matthews A, & Alati R (2012). Drug detection dogs in Australia: More bark than bite? Drug and alcohol review, 31 (6), 778-83 PMID: 22404555

Lit L, Schweitzer JB, & Oberbauer AM (2011). Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes. Animal cognition, 14 (3), 387-94 PMID: 21225441

NSW Ombudsman (2006). Review of the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 Sydney: Office of the New SouthWales Ombudsman

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1) By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Douglas G. Morrison [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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