Training attentional control improves cognitive and motor task performance

This post was contributed by Emmanuel Ducrocq, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. It is about a paper based on research he and his supervisor (Professor Naz Derakhshan) did in collaboration with Dr Mark Wilson and Dr Samuel Vine, and which is published today in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Emmanuel tweets at @manuduc and Professor Derakhshan at @ProfNDerakshan

tennis-player-676310Successful performance in sports is usually evaluated in terms of technical, tactical or physical abilities. However a crucial index of performance is the ability to perform under stress and high pressured situations. This is especially relevant sports demanding a high level of attention, such as tennis, golf, archery or shooting.

Recent research in sports psychology has shown that a key factor responsible for poor performance in sports under pressure is the inability to focus on what needs to be done and reduce distraction. This is often referred to as attentional control: the ability to resist distraction and attend to task goals efficiently. If athletes can’t exercise attentional control efficiently then they cannot plan and execute a skilled movement flexibly. The pressure to perform well, increases anxiety and so maintaining attention focus on task goals becomes exceptionally challenging giving way to worries, and doubts about performance  as well.

Attentional control has usually been targeted in sports by trying to promote specific gaze behaviours which has proven to show benefits to motor performance in sporting tasks such as golf or basketball. Crucially though, while this method is useful, it hasn’t been able to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for sports improvement.

In a series of three exciting studies we wanted to improve motor task performance and we specifically focussed on tennis, which requires good attentional control to flexibly resist distraction. To this end, we trained inhibitory control using a computer-based training task to see how it could improve performance in a tennis task.

In the first experiment, participants were allocated to a training or control group and underwent six days of training on a visual search task that included task-irrelevant distractors requiring inhibition (training) or contained no distractors (control). Performance was measured pre- and post-intervention using an antisaccade task measuring distractibility. We found that training elicited a near-transfer effect; as performance on the antisaccade task was improved in the training group, and not in the control group. This was important to establish, as it showed that training on the visual search task could improve inhibition on another unrelated task.

In the second experiment training on the same paradigm showed transfer benefits on an attentional control index that we validated for tennis performance. Tennis players were assessed on a return of serves task and we found an initial far-transfer effect of training. Participants in the training group displayed an enhanced ability to focus on the ball around the time of contact with the ball.

The third experiment pushed the boundaries of this work further by assessing the potential effect of the training task on an objective gaze measures of inhibitory control during performance of a tennis task. Participants’ pre and post intervention performance was assessed on a volleying task performed under pressure while their gaze behaviour was recorded. We found a substantial effect of training on tennis performance when levels of pressure were elevated. Transfer effects of training were also observed on a specific gaze behaviour index of ‘inhibition’ in the field, confirming the mechanism by which training protected participants against the negative impact of anxiety.

Taken together, we have shown that a simple computer-based training task that reduces distraction and improves attentional control can have direct transfer benefits to tennis performance under pressure. This can obviously have great implications for improving motor performance in any competitive sport that needs to be performed under pressure.

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Hard Brexit? Only if it’s free

This post was contributed by Professor Eric Kaufmann from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

Lowering immigration was the key motivation behind the Brexit vote, and how to achieve it dominates the current political debate. Drawing on new data, Eric Kaufmann analyses the propsects of support for a hard and a soft Brexit, based on how much Britons would be willing to pay to reduce the number of Europeans entering the UK.

A new survey shows most Britons are not willing to pursue hard Brexit if it will cost them personally. Thus far, the economic indicators post-Brexit don’t look bad. Consumer spending and investment are holding up well, despite a lower pound. But if the going gets tough, there is a two-thirds majority willing to accept current levels of EU migration to retain access to the single market.

The leading motivation for Leave voters was reducing immigration while Remain voters prioritised the economy. This hasn’t changed. According to my YouGov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey data, two-thirds of British people want less immigration, including 47 percent of Remainers and over 91 percent of Leavers.

Hard Brexit is a good way to bring numbers down. However, some suggest that when Theresa May triggers Article 50, the EU will drive a hard bargain, inflicting pain on the British economy. With economistsclaiming entry to the single market is worth 4 percent of GDP by 2030, I asked how much the average Briton is willing to sacrifice to reduce European immigration in the event the doomsayers are right. The final deal between Britain and the EU over leaving will hinge on how much economic pain, in the form of reduced market access, Britain is prepared to absorb to restrict European immigration.

The survey, carried out by the polling firm YouGov, asked a sample of over 1500 people the following question: “Roughly 185,000 more people entered Britain last year from the EU than went the other way. Imagine there was a cost to reduce the inflow. How much would you be willing to pay to reduce the number of Europeans entering Britain?” The options ranged from “pay nothing” for no reduction to paying 5 percent of personal income to reduce numbers to zero. Each percent of income foregone reduced the influx by 35,000. The results are shown in figure 1.


Source: YouGov survey, August 20, 2016.

Among those surveyed, and excluding those who didn’t know, 62 percent said they were unwilling to pay anything to reduce numbers, and would accept current levels of European immigration.


Source: YouGov survey, August 20, 2016.

As figure 2 shows, even among those who said they voted to leave the European Union, 30 percentreported they would prefer the current inflow of 185,000 to paying any of their income to cut the inflow. In other words, there is a significant ‘soft’ component within the Leave vote.

On the other hand, there is a considerable core of Brexit voters willing to tighten their belts to reduce migration: over a third of Leave voters indicated they would contribute 5 percent of their income to cut European migration to zero. More than half of Brexiteers are willing to pay at least 3 percent of their income to reduce European net migration from the current 185,000 to under 80,000. The average person who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election is willing to stump up 2.5 percent of their pay packet to reduce European immigration to half its current level.

This means that if the costs of Brexit mount in line with pessimistic predictions, most British people favour a deal that preserves market access even if this results in only limited reductions in European immigration. May’s Conservative voters will put up with more pain, but not if it costs more than 2 percent of GDP. This suggests a deal between Theresa May and her EU interlocutors based on significant market access in exchange for limited migration controls may be acceptable to the 45 per cent of voters who currently back her party. It certainly will pass muster with a majority of the electorate.

If the economy continues to hold steady, the question is moot and hard Brexit remains a strong option. But if pain is on the way after Article 50, Middle Britain will be inclined to prefer soft over hard Brexit.

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The Painful Tooth: sampling crocodilian mouth bacteria

This post was contributed by Dr Simon Pooley, Lambert Lecturer in Environment (Applied Herpetology) in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

Professor Ward sampling a Nile Crocodile

Professor Ward sampling a Nile Crocodile

Adverse encounters between humans and eight species of crocodilians are widespread, from the Americas and the Caribbean, across Africa, Asia and parts of Australia and Oceania. Crocodile attacks, particularly by large animals, are always traumatic and can be fatal or result in permanent disability with devastating personal and social consequences. Most occur in rural areas in developing countries with limited resources for prevention or medical treatment for attack victims. While the initial trauma can prove fatal, as crocodiles have more than 60 teeth and their jaws have tremendous crushing power, many victims survive the attack only to succumb to vicious infections which can result in death or amputations.

Record keeping of attack data has been poor in developing countries, something we are trying to remedy through the online database CrocBITE, developed by Dr Adam Britton and Brandon Sideleau. The medical literature on crocodile attacks is particularly sparse, and a recent survey (Pooley, unpublished) shows that many published papers repeat a small number of research studies, some in obscure journals which are difficult to access. Some microbiological analysis of crocodiles’ mouths and cloaca has been undertaken, most on American alligators (A. mississippiensis), and using now dated techniques. There is some information on infections in bite wounds, but again the literature cites a handful of studies, and little recent microbiological analysis has been undertaken.

nile-croc-bacteria-in-dishFor these reasons I have begun working with Dr John Ward, Professor of Synthetic Biology for Bioprocessing at UCL, on sampling the mouth microbiomes of crocodilians. This study is in its infancy, but in order to see whether crocodiles of various kinds harbour interesting bacteria in their mouths, John and his team have taken samples from captive crocodiles at the UK’s only crocodile zoo, Crocodiles of the World. John’s group will look at both the microorganisms they can culture on agar plates and also the DNA extracted from microbes in the oral cavity of the crocodiles. This DNA can be used to search for genes from microbes that cannot be cultured. This work is in partnership with Prof Helen Hailes, Professor of Chemical Biology at UCL, who with members of her group helped with the sampling.

We have focussed on crocodiles known to bite humans, notably the Nile crocodile (Crocodilus niloticus) and the saltwater crocodile (C. porosus), but also sampled species representing the full geographical range of crocodilians. Thanks to Shaun Foggett and his keepers Jamie and Terry at Crocodiles of the World, we sampled 12 species including crocodilians from the USA, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Australia.

Should John and his team find interesting results, we will develop a proposal to fund an in-depth study using more advanced sampling techniques and identification procedures drawing on his lab’s expertise in epigenetics and bioinformatics. We will work with partners in Australia, the USA, India and Africa to obtain samples from wild crocodiles. In addition to the pure scientific interest of such a study, my primary intention is to discover whether it is bacteria in crocodiles’ mouths that cause the nasty infections we see in crocodile bite wounds on humans. In order to develop an effective treatment protocol, we need to know whether it is just unusual aquatic bacteria, or something peculiar to crocodiles, which we need to treat for. Further, there may be variations between species of crocodilian, or within species across regions (as is the case with snake venom). The next stage will be to medical research partners to study infections in bite wounds, so we can compare these with what I hope John and his team will find.

An additional dimension to this research is discovering how local people in the areas where bites occur respond to bites. My recent research suggests that there are very varied explanations for the causality of crocodile bites across Africa, and treatments for bites and infections may also vary. Working out what is causing infections in crocodile bites, and how we can treat these is a vital step, but convincing local peoples of the efficacy of medical treatments will also be important.

Further reading:

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Assimilation and the immigration debate

This article was written by Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the Fabian Society‘s blog.

Immigration has proven one of the hardest issues for Britain’s main parties to address, and UKIP has been the beneficiary. But, according to my YouGov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey data, many UKIP voters will change their views on immigration if politicians can reassure them by highlighting the impressive rate of assimilation already taking place in British society. This doesn’t obviate the need to control immigration, but it offers a partial solution for what is a cultural problem, not an economic one.

In a hard-hitting piece in a recent Fabians’ report by senior Labour figures,Facing the Unknown, pollster James Morris writes that Labour must engage with the genuine concerns many ordinary Britons have about immigration. However, Labour’s leaders continue to deflect concerns onto the comfortable terrain of public spending and local planning. On Andrew Marr’s programme, when asked about his views on free movement, Jeremy Corbyn talked up the idea of an immigration impact fund. Sadiq Khan, in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, spoke mainly about housing, planning and laws. Unfortunately, academic research suggests these policies will have little or no effect on the public’s view of immigration.

The consensus from scholarly research across the West is that cultural, not economic, motivations are central for those who want lower immigration. Immigration strips away the hazy illusion in the minds of many White Britons that their group is more or less the same thing as Britain. This ethnicises the majority, notably those who cherish their cultural traditions, myths and memories.

In response, politicians from Gordon Brown to David Cameron have articulated a centralised Britishness based on common values and institutions. But the  question politicians need to be asking is not, ‘What does it mean to be British,’ but rather ‘What does it mean to be WhiteBritish’ in an age of migration. This is not racist, but reflects the fact that all ethnic groups – including the majority – want their community to have a future.

One liberal way groups perpetuate themselves is by assimilating others who wish to join. And the fact is that majority groups have an in-built advantage due to their influence on the mainstream national culture. In view of this, it is astounding how little we hear about the fact many members of ethnic minority groups – especially Europeans and those of mixed race – intermarry or identify with the White British majority.

Having written about this following UKIP’s ascent in 2014, I was curious whether knowing these facts might change the way White British people think about immigration. To find out, I conducted a survey, but split it into three random groups. All answered questions about immigration, but two of the groups were assigned to read a short passage about national identity.

Nations are like rivers: on the one hand, you can never put your foot in the same water twice, but if you look at it from a distance, it is unchanging. My first passage took the first path, offering the conventional storyline about a rapidly changing Britain:

‘Britain is changing, becoming increasingly diverse. The 2011 census shows that White British people are already a minority in four British cities, including London. Over a quarter of births in England and Wales are to foreign-born mothers. Young Britons are also much more diverse than older Britons. Just 4.5 per cent of those older than 65 are nonwhite but more than 20 per cent of those under 25 are. Minorities’ younger average age, somewhat higher birth rate and continued immigration mean that late this century, according to Professor David Coleman of Oxford University, White British people will be in the minority nationwide. We should embrace our diversity, which gives Britain an advantage in the global economy. Together, we can build a stronger, more inclusive Britain.’

The second changed the tune to one of timeless continuity through assimilation:

‘Immigration has risen and fallen over time, but, like the English language, Britain’s culture is only superficially affected by foreign influence. According to Professor Eric Kaufmann of the University of London, a large share of the children of European immigrants have become White British. Historians tell us that French, Irish, Jews and pre-war black immigrants largely melted into the white majority. Those of mixed race, who share common ancestors with White British people, are growing faster than all minority groups and 8 in 10 of them marry whites. In the long run, today’s minorities will be absorbed into the majority and foreign identities will fade, as they have for public figures with immigrant ancestors like Boris Johnson or Peter Mandelson. Britain shapes its migrants, migration doesn’t shape Britain.’

It’s rare for stories such as these to shift people’s attitudes on contentious issues like immigration, yet this is precisely what happened. When White British respondents read a story about change and diversity, this made them slightly more worried about immigration than when they read no passage. But when they read about how immigrants are assimilating into their ethnic group, they became noticeably more relaxed. This is especially true for working-class, tabloid-reading or UKIP-voting whites, many of whom simply haven’t heard this argument. In figure 1, for instance, 61 per cent of white working-class (C2, DE) respondents who read the diversity passage wanted immigration reduced a lot compared to 47 per cent of those who read the assimilation passage. Those who read no passage were in the middle, at 56 per cent.

Figure 1

Source: Yougov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey, Aug. 20, 2016. Note: results significant at p<.05 level.

Respondents were also asked about the extent to which they were willing to pay for ‘hard Brexit’. In the event that Brexit causes financial hardship, this is a barometer of how much people would be willing to trade off access to the benefits of the single market in order to reduce European migration. Once again, what we see is that whites, especially working-class, tabloid-reading and UKIP voters, are reassured by the facts on assimilation. In Figure 2, for instance, the share of White British UKIP voters willing to pay 5 per cent of their income to cut European immigration to zero drops from 45 per cent after reading the diversity story to 16 per cent when reading the assimilation piece.

Figure 2

Source: Yougov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey, Aug. 20, 2016. Note: results significant at p<.05 level.

If this is the case, why is it that politicians continue to hammer away at the diversity story? Probably because it’s the mainstream view and therefore all they know. In addition, they may be skittish about offending minorities who fear assimilation. But it’s not inconsistent to say, as Sadiq Khan did, that minorities can keep their culture, while pointing to evidence of voluntary assimilation. Dual identity is also common, with minorities pulled between their roots and the culture of the majority. For instance many British Jews identify with their ethnic group, yet most consider themselves – and are considered to be – White British.

It’s also the case that national identity is not monolithic but in the eye of the beholder: some members of minority groups may prefer to see Britain as ever-changing while conservative white Britons consider it a timeless river. It’s up to politicians to reach out to both with a different message, secure in the knowledge there is no single way of perceiving the nation.

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