May 2018
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Aberdeen council leaders won’t rule out more outsourcing in bid to save £250m

Aberdeen council leaders have refused to rule out outsourcing services.

The authority is aiming to trim around £250 million from its budget in five years as part of a massive restructure and has already proposed cutting 370 jobs through voluntary and early redundancy.

Yesterday members of the strategic commissioning committee clashed when the opposition SNP group proposed a ban on any council services being outsourced in the future.

Group leader Stephen Flynn said: “I believe we now have the option to draw a line in the sand and tell our staff there will be no more outsourcing of services.”

But Aberdeen Labour’s Sarah Duncan told members she was “not ideological” about the issue – pointing out that services such as road repairs and cleaning were already often carried out by contractors.

The SNP amendment was defeated by six votes to three.

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New cross-cultural analysis suggests that g or “general intelligence” is a human universal

GettyImages-685703560.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Intelligence is a concept that some people have a hard time buying. It’s too multifaceted, too context-dependent, too Western. The US psychologist Edwin Boring encapsulated this scepticism when he said “measurable intelligence is simply what the tests of intelligence test.” Yet the scientific credentials of the concept are undimmed, partly because intelligence is strongly associated with so many important outcomes in life. Now Utah Valley University researchers Russell Warne and Cassidy Burningham have released evidence that further strengthens the case for intelligence being a valid and useful concept. Their PsyArXiv pre-print presents a cross-study analysis suggesting a single intelligence-like factor underpins mental performance across a wide range of non-western cultures.

Thanks to work pioneered by Charles Spearman, we know that in Western populations performance on a range of mental tasks seems to reflect a more basic mental ability, a “general intelligence” or simply g. 

You can’t see g – it’s a statistical reality more than anything else, but it’s very robust, and modern research suggests that the g factor accounts for roughly half the variability in performance within and between people on all kinds of mental tests. Being strong verbally doesn’t guarantee you will be mathematical too, but it tips the odds strongly in your favour. 

But it’s conceivable that g is not culturally universal – after all, there are many countries, especially non-Western, where relatively greater value is placed on the social and emotional aspects of intelligent behaviour (and where these non-cognitive skills are more closely tied to a successful life) – for instance, in Zimbabwe it is considered socially intelligent to prioritise caring for your relatives over friends or strangers. Also, people from different cultures performing the same task will often tackle it in a different way: past research found that Zambian children struggled in a traditional expression task using pen and paper, but were talented clay-moulders, for example. Could these cultural variations in behaviour and in the conception of what is considered smart reflect fundamental differences in how minds work? 

To find out, Warne and Burningham searched the literature to find mental ability studies in non-industrialised, non-Western cultures (defined as less than half the population being White or European). They selected datasets that included participant results on four or more cognitive tasks so that it was possible to perform a “factor analysis” to identify how many factors seemed to be driving variation in performance across the different tests. Mostly there were standard intelligence measures, but also other types of test, including Piagetian development tasks, and tests designed to be specific to the cultural conditions, such as children’s willingness to interact with unfamiliar toys after seeing them used. 

The analysis covered nearly 100 datasets from 31 cultures including Thailand, Uganda, Papau New Guinea, Guyana – from every inhabited continent and world region save Europe and Australia. The median sample size was 150, but due to some very large samples Warne and Burningham were working with 50,000 participants in all. They wanted to explore which cultures and which sets of tasks featured performance variation that could be reduced down to one factor akin to g, and which would firmly resist.

There are many ways to do factor analysis, especially around the decision rule of when to stop generating underlying factors, and this choice obviously influences the results that follow. Warne and Burningham argue that they chose rules that are deemed the most accurate in these sorts of circumstances, and they ran the analysis with two versions of the decision rule for safety, but it’s worth noting that others may disagree and to remember that this study is a pre-print so it has not yet been subjected to peer review. 

Using Warne and Burningham’s rules, between three quarters and four-fifths of the datasets immediately yielded just one factor that explained variability in participants’ performance across different tests. In other cases, two underlying factors emerged, but these were similar enough to also end up reducing to one factor in a second round of analysis, saving one single exception. 

Now, reducing variation in test performance to a general factor in dataset after dataset doesn’t mean that it must be the same general factor for all datasets, but it’s an obvious explanation. More so when you note that, on average, the first factor extracted explained almost half of the variance in performance across different tests – very similar to the g research in Western samples. Warne and Burningham state they “are astonished at the uniformity of these results” – given the wide variety of sample sizes, test content, and cultural locations. 

This adds more evidence for g, which we know from previous research correlates with brain size, white matter tract integrity, genetic markers, and also seems to explain mental performance differences in other mammals, from primates to mice. The authors close by doubting whether we will ever solve the disagreement about what the culturally loaded term “intelligence” means worldwide. But we can still do the work to identify properties of the mind that are common to us all, and shape our ability to act in the world.

Spearman’s g Found in 31 Non-Western Nations: Strong Evidence that g is a Universal Phenomenon [this paper is a pre-print meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review]

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Study of long-term heterosexual couples finds women over-estimate and men underestimate their partner’s sexual advances

By Emma Young

Imagine that, during a quiet evening at home watching a movie with your romantic partner, you feel intense sexual desire and sensually put a hand on your partner’s thigh. Your partner does not respond and blithely continues to watch the movie… Is your partner truly not interested in sexual activity, or did she/he simply miss your cue?

So begins a new paper, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, that explores how accurate heterosexual people are at judging their partner’s attempts to initiate sex – in terms of their ability to the spot their partner’s cues, and also their overall impression of how often their partner makes sexual advances. It’s important, because as the researchers, led by Kiersten Dobson at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, note, “Sexual satisfaction is associated with relationship happiness, whereas sexual dissatisfaction is associated with relationship dissolution.”

Other studies have found that in casual, short-term relationships, men tend to overestimate a partner’s sexual interest (while women either underestimate it, or show no bias either way; they’re fairly accurate). An evolutionary psychology explanation for a male tendency to think women are more interested than they actually are is that – in a casual relationship – while incorrectly perceiving interest and being rejected might not feel great, missing the signs of interest, and so a chance to mate, is worse.

To explore what happens in longer-term relationships, the researchers recruited 120 heterosexual couples aged 18-51 (but with a mean age of 22), who had been together for between three months and 30 years.

An initial, exploratory study involved half the couples. The participants all privately completed a battery of questionnaires, which included questions about how often they and their partner attempt to initiate sex and how often they and their partner turn down an opportunity for sex. Then they rated how often these events typically occur over a one-month period (from “never” to “more than 11 times a month”). 

Next, they read short descriptions of 29 behaviours that might indicate sexual interest (such as “I put my hand on my partner’s thigh”) and were asked to rate the degree to which they and they partner use each of these behaviours to indicate that they are interested in having sex. The participants also completed questionnaire assessments of their sexual satisfaction and love for their partner. 

The results showed that both men and women were pretty good at identifying the behaviours that their own partners use to indicate that they’d like to have sex. However, on average, the women overestimated the number of times that their partner tried to initiate sex, whereas the men got it about right. 

A second, similar, confirmatory study, involving the other 60 couples, found that the participants were again pretty good at recognising the behaviours that their own partner uses to indicate interest in having sex. In this group, the women also thought that their partners made more sexual advances than they actually did (according to the partner data), but only marginally. However, the men underestimated their partner’s advances. 

Again from an evolutionary psychology perspective, the researchers speculate that for men in a long-term relationship, compared with a casual one, the costs associated with missing the signs of sexual interest may be lower (as there will be plenty more opportunities to have sex) and the costs of rejection will be higher (as being rejected by a long-term partner could be more painful). But as the results from the two studies were in part inconsistent, more work is needed before any firm conclusions on bias can be drawn, they note.

When it came to sexual satisfaction and love, people who overestimated their partner’s sexual advances reported feeling more sexual satisfaction. This might be because they felt more attractive and desired by their partner, the researchers suggest. 

On the other hand, people with partners who under-estimated their own advances reported feeling more love and greater sexual satisfaction – perhaps because the under-estimater feels motivated to do something to strengthen the relationship, which may then make their partner feel more satisfied. 

As the researchers note, “Navigating sexual activity can be difficult, especially when partners’ behaviours that indicate their sexual interest are subtle.” 

The researchers would like to see studies investigating how perceptions – and misperceptions – of sexual advances may affect relationships in the long term. But it would also, I think, be interesting to see a more real-time version of this study. Since other work has found that men under-report their own sexual intentions, it’s hard not to wonder whether the women in this study were really over-estimating their partners’ advances. Asking participants to report back daily, or every time they thought they or their partner had made a sexual advance – and whether or not it led to sex – would surely provide more accurate data than retrospective estimates of what happened in the course of a month.

Are you coming on to me? Bias and accuracy in couples’ perceptions of sexual advances

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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