Monday, July 27, 2015

Why shaking hands is still a big deal

Researchers find the gesture creates better cooperation and trust between humans - even when it is carried out by a robot

Shaking hands before negotiations results in a better deal for both parties - even when one is represented by a robot, a study has found.

The act of shaking hands at the start of a conversation has already been shown to create better cooperation and trust between humans.

Research has now found that these benefits extend when a robot takes the place of a human - who is situated remotely - during a business meeting.

Scientists say using robots provides a powerful two-way experience that allows people to have a physical presence in a distant place unlike using Skype or video conferencing.

Developing such interaction could lead to robots conducting business meetings or allowing people with severely limited mobility to interact with the world in a unique way.

The study, by the University of Bath, used NAO, a 58-cm tall humanoid robot which was designed to be a companion around the house, in mock real-estate negotiations.

One person - assigned the role of buyer or seller - was present in the meeting with NAO while the other took part in the meeting through the robot's inbuilt head camera and microphone. Touch sensitive sensors in the robot's hand transmitted a signal when it was grasped, leading to a controller in the remote person's hand vibrate at the same time.

Results showed that the act of shaking hands was as important when people interacted virtually through the robot as when they met face-to-face.

The remote person, who could be thousands of miles away and essentially hidden from view, did not exploit their tactical advantage in such conditions.

Researcher Dr Chris Bevan, of the University of Bath's Department of Psychology, said: "This experiment highlights just how important the symbolic ritual of shaking hands is upon the way people come to judge others as being trustworthy and willing to cooperate.

"Using a robotic avatar, we were able to demonstrate that this effect holds true even when a person cannot see the face of their counterpart."

The study focused on the impact of handshaking on levels of cooperation and trustworthiness, as well as an individual's willingness to deliberately mislead.

Mock negotiations were set up with 120 people, each involving two participants who were randomly assigned to either the role of buyer or seller, in a fake real-estate scenario.

One person was represented with NAO, allowing researchers to create a system where individuals shook hands prior to negotiations, even though they were in different locations.

The 'virtual' handshake created "connectedness" between both people as they experienced the sensation of grasping a hand or vibration through a controller during the handshake.

Professor Danae Stanton Fraser added: "The formation of interpersonal trust and cooperation are key to future success of computer supported cooperative work, yet the availability of many of the social cues we rely upon when interacting one-to-one are often restricted in these scenarios.

"These findings underline the significance of touch and the simple gesture of a handshake, and will be important as we work to further develop robot systems with valuable applications across society."

In each session of the experiment, one person performed their role through a computer using NAO, which enabled them to see and hear their business partner but not be present in the room. The person who was present and interacting with NAO could hear the other through the robot's built in speakers but could not see them.

Researchers varied the experiment with negotiations conducted either with no handshake at the beginning, or with handshakes with and without vibration to the remote person.

The robot was used to represent both buyers and sellers, in 60 mock real-estate deals worth between 38m US dollars to 66m US dollars (£24.5m - £42.6m).

The Telegraph. 2015. “Why shaking hands is still a big deal”. The Telegraph. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Children exposed to multiple languages may be better natural communicators

Young children who hear more than one language spoken at home become better communicators, a new study from University of Chicago psychologists finds. Effective communication requires the ability to take others' perspectives. Researchers discovered that children from multilingual environments are better at interpreting a speaker's meaning than children who are exposed only to their native tongue. The most novel finding is that the children do not even have to be bilingual themselves; it is the exposure to more than one language that is the key for building effective social communication skills.

Previous studies have examined the effects of being bilingual on cognitive development. This study, published online May 8 by the journal Psychological Science, is the first to demonstrate the social benefits of just being exposed to multiple languages.

"Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage," explained Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and an expert on language and social development. "These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children's skills at taking other people's perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication."

Study co-author Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology and an internationally known expert on communication and cognition, said this study is part of a bigger research program that attempts to explain how humans learn to communicate. "Children are really good at acquiring language. They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators," said Keysar. "A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures."

Keysar, Kinzler and their co-authors, doctoral students in psychology Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman, had 72 4- to 6- year- old children participate in a social communication task. The children were from one of three language backgrounds: monolinguals (children who heard and spoke only English and had little experience with other languages); exposures (children who primarily heard and spoke English, but they had some regular exposure to speakers of another language); and bilinguals (children who were exposed to two languages on a regular basis and were able to speak and understand both languages). There were 24 children in each group.

Each child who participated sat on one side of a table across from an adult and played a communication game that required moving objects in a grid. The child was able to see all of the objects, but the adult on the other side of the grid had some squares blocked and could not see all the objects. To make sure that children understood that the adult could not see everything, the child first played the game from the adult's side.

For the critical test, the adult would ask the child to move an object in the grid. For example, she would say, "I see a small car, could you move the small car?" The child could see three cars: small, medium and large. The adult, however, could only see two cars: the medium and the large ones. To correctly interpret the adult's intended meaning, the child would have to take into account that the adult could not see the smallest car, and move the one that the adult actually intended -- the medium car.

The monolingual children were not as good at understanding the adult's intended meaning in this game, as they moved the correct object only about 50 percent of the time. But mere exposure to another language improved children's ability to understand the adult's perspective and select the correct objects. The children in the exposure group selected correctly 76 percent of the time, and the bilingual group took the adult's perspective in the game correctly 77 percent of the time.

"Language is social," noted Fan. "Being exposed to multiple languages gives you a very different social experience, which could help children develop more effective communication skills."

Liberman added, "Our discovery has important policy implications, for instance it suggests previously unrealized advantages for bilingual education."

Some parents seem wary of second-language exposure for their young children, Kinzler commented. Yet, in addition to learning another language, their children might unintentionally be getting intensive training in perspective taking, which could make them better communicators in any language.

Science Daily. 2015. “Children exposed to multiple languages may be better natural communicators”. Science Daily. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

New population genetics model could explain Finn, European differences

A new population genetics model developed by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health could explain why the genetic composition of Finnish people is so different from that of other European populations. The results of the study were published in this month's issue of Nature Genetics.

UTHealth researchers discovered a previously unknown bottleneck that likely happened between 10,000 to 20,000 years ago in the Finnish population that did not occur in other European populations. A bottleneck is a period of time when the population size decrease significantly and then recovers. Bottlenecks can be explained by major events such as migration, environmental events, disease or war. Because there are fewer people left after a bottleneck, the population's offspring have fewer genetic differences, as is the case in Finland.

"Inferring human history from population size is an important question in population genetics. There are some methods out there to determine population size, but this new model can provide a more detailed picture," said Xiaoming Liu, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

In the past, researchers could either predefine a demographic model or try to be model-flexible when studying population genetics. The second model is better suited for exploratory analysis.

The new method is a form of model-flexible. Called the stairway plot, it models the frequency of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in whole genome sequences of hundreds of individuals. SNPs are the most common and abundant DNA sequence variations in genomes. The researchers applied this model to a sample of thousands of genomes collected through the 1000 Genome Project.

The 1000 Genomes Project, established in 2008, is an international research effort to establish the most detailed catalog of human genetic variation. The project includes genetic samples from institutes around the world.

Liu and co-author Yun-Xin Fu, Ph.D., Betty Wheless Trotter Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at UTHealth School of Public Health, examined genomes from nine populations including European, African and Asian ancestries.

Researchers also confirmed a previously found bottleneck in the African population between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. According to Liu and other genetic researchers, this bottleneck may be associated with the origin of the modern human. Experts are still speculating about the cause of the Finnish bottleneck.

EurekAlert2015. “New population genetics model could explain Finn, European differences”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Friday, July 24, 2015

When do mothers need others?

Hillary Clinton once famously said, "It takes a village to raise a child." It turns out that's been true for centuries: New research by a University of Utah anthropologist explains how and why mothers in ancient societies formed cooperative groups to help raise their children. Karen Kramer, an associate professor of anthropology, published a study in the Journal of Human Evolutiontitled, "When Mothers Need Others: Life History Transitions Associated with the Evolution of Cooperative Breeding."

Her research examines how mothers underwent a remarkable transition from the past -- when they had one dependent offspring at a time, ended support of their young at weaning and received no help from others -- to the present, when mothers often have multiple kids who help rear other children. "We simulated an economic problem that would have arisen over the course of human evolution -- as mothers became more successful at producing children, they also had more dependents than they could care for on their own," said Kramer of her research.

"We found that early in that transition, it was a mother's older children who helped to raise her younger children and only with more modern life histories did mothers also need the cooperation of other adults. This suggests that early human families may have formed around cooperating groups of mothers and children."

Her findings are departure from earlier hypotheses by other anthropologists. Most hypotheses about who helped mothers in ancient societies point to other adults. Kramer's study, however, found that it is a mother's own children who were the most reliable as helpers.

Other key points in Kramer's study include:

  • Human motherhood has undergone a remarkable transition from a past when mothers likely nursed children until the age of 5 to 6, did not nutritionally support children after weaning, and received no help raising the children. Going back in time, it might be possible to find groups of mothers and cooperating siblings who helped to raise other children. As time progressed, mothers have relied on other adult relatives and fathers to help out.
  • Mothers make tradeoffs. Do they take care of the children they already have, do they have another one, or do they do something else with their time? These same decisions that mothers made in the past are still being made today.

"Human mothers are interesting. They're unlike mothers of many other species because they feed their children after weaning and others help them raise their children. As an anthropologist, I live and work in traditional societies where, like other researchers, I have observed many times that it takes a village to raise a child. Not only do mothers work hard to care for their young, but so do her older children, grandmothers, fathers and other relatives. But this wasn't always the case," Kramer said.

"Deep in the past, mothers likely received no help and consequently had much lower rates of fertility and lost many children. So we have to ask, why do others cooperate with mothers and help them raise their children? This is an important question because you could do many other things with your time beside help someone else raise their children."

Kramer's research methodology used a set of mathematical formulas, plugged different variables into them in order to simulate the evolution of families from the past to the present. She said there is still much to learn in the field of anthropology about how humans began to cooperate and how cooperation became more complex over time.

"Humans are extraordinary cooperators. However, most research has focused on adults and we know very little about how cooperation develops in children," Kramer said.

"We know that the psychological mechanisms that prepare us for a life of cooperation -- such as a sense of fairness and the ability to show empathy, share food and help each other -- begin to develop in very young children. What we need to explore is what children actually do -- how they cooperate and at what price -- in societies where they still play an important economic role."

EurekAlert. 2015. “When do mothers need others?”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 8, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Revealing a dead man's story through his bones

Little is known about the Royal Naval Hospital's cemetery in Antigua, and with little but the bones themselves to go on, researchers turn to synchrotron imaging to uncover the histories of the men buried there.

The Naval Hospital served naval personnel, enslaved labourers, and the general public from 1793-1822. The region was an important outpost for the British in the West Indies, and Antigua itself was an important military site at the time. The cemetery was moved due to modern construction, making some human remains available for study.

Metals in the bones tell a story as well. For example, strontium concentrations can tell researchers a great deal about diet. One of the individuals at the site, a young man in his 20s, was found with unusually high mercury levels. We know that mercury was often used for medical purposes, but it may have been simply taken up by the bones after burial. To find out, a multi-institutional research team that included bioarchaeologists from the University of Saskatchewan and Lakehead University used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence imaging to determine the distribution and type of mercury in the bone. Because bone remodels as it grows, it provides a clear record of elements taken up during life, and the man's bone samples show clear evidence that the mercury had been ingested during his life, and he may have been poisoned with mercury. At the time, mercury had also been used to treat syphilis-induced rashes and yellow fever.

The team continues to collect more information about the site, combining the search for documentation and synchrotron-enabled bone studies for a detailed look at colonial life in the West Indies.
Reference: 2015. “Revealing a dead man's story through his bones”. Posted: May 8, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Archaeologists Believe They Have Found Lost Cloister

It is believed the remains of the much-searched-for Þykkvabær cloister may have been found. Icelandic and British archaeologists saw the remains of a very large building yesterday, using ultrasound techniques, at Álftaver in South Iceland.

The discovery came as a complete surprise, as it was not thought the remains of the cloister were in that area.

“I think we’ve just hit the jackpot, because I think we’ve discovered the remains of Þykkvabæjarklaustur. It came as a complete surprise, you can say that much. The remains are not on the site it was assumed the cloisters stood,” archaeology professor Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir told Stöð 2 television.

Þykkvabæjarklaustur, east of Mýrdalur, was a monastery of Augustine monks and its location has been lost to archaeologists until now. This week, ten Icelandic and British archaeologists have been searching for the remains with high tech instruments. The remains of an unusually big building were discovered under the ground yesterday, measuring around 40 x 45 meters.

“It is very big compared to the buildings of the time – as it is from the Middle Ages – and the footprint is around 1,500 square meters,” Steinunn says.

The cloister was in use from 1168 until 1550. Until recently it was assumed that Þykkvabæjarklaustur must have stood near the present-day Þykkvabæjarkirkja church, but searches revealed nothing; and this leads Steinunn to strongly believe yesterday’s find to be the lost cloisters. It is still possible, however, the remains are of a cow shed—but in that case it would be the cloister’s own cow shed and still therefore relevant.

Elliott, AlËx. 2015. “Archaeologists Believe They Have Found Lost Cloister”. Iceland Review. Posted: May 7, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Stone bracelet is oldest ever found in the world

Dating back 40,000 years to the Denisovan species of early humans, new pictures show beauty and craftsmanship of prehistoric jewellery.

It is intricately made with polished green stone and is thought to have adorned a very important woman or child on only special occasions. Yet this is no modern-day fashion accessory and is instead believed to be the oldest stone bracelet in the world, dating to as long ago as 40,000 years.

Unearthed in the Altai region of Siberia in 2008, after detailed analysis Russian experts now accept its remarkable age as correct. 

New pictures show this ancient piece of jewellery in its full glory with scientists concluding it was made by our prehistoric human ancestors, the Denisovans, and shows them to have been far more advanced than ever realised.

'The bracelet is stunning - in bright sunlight it reflects the sun rays, at night by the fire it casts a deep shade of green,' said Anatoly Derevyanko, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

'It is unlikely it was used as an everyday jewellery piece. I believe this beautiful and very fragile bracelet was worn only for some exceptional moments.'

The bracelet was found inside the famous Denisova Cave, in the Altai Mountains, which is renowned for its palaeontological finds dating back to the Denisovans, who were known as homo altaiensis, an extinct species of humans genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans.

Made of chlorite, the bracelet was found in the same layer as the remains of some of the prehistoric people and is thought to belong to them.

What made the discovery especially striking was that the manufacturing technology is more common to a much later period, such as the Neolithic era. Indeed, it is not clear yet how the Denisovans could have made the bracelet with such skill. Writing in the Novosibirsk magazine, Science First Hand, Dr Derevyanko said: 'There were found two fragments of the bracelet of a width of 2.7cm and a thickness of 0.9 cm. The estimated diameter of the find was 7cm. Near one of the cracks was a drilled hole with a diameter of about 0.8 cm. Studying them, scientists found out that the speed of rotation of the drill was rather high, fluctuations minimal, and that was there was applied drilling with an implement - technology that is common for more recent times.

'The ancient master was skilled in techniques previously considered not characteristic for the Palaeolithic era, such as drilling with an implement, boring tool type rasp, grinding and polishing with a leather and skins of varying degrees of tanning.'

Chlorite was not found in the vicinity of the cave and is thought to have come from a distance of at least 200km, showing how valued the material was at the time.

Dr Derevyanko said the bracelet had suffered damage, including visible scratches and bumps although it looked as if some of the scratches had been sanded down. Experts also believe that the piece of jewellery had other adornments to make it more beautiful.

'Next to the hole on the outer surface of the bracelet can be seen clearly a limited polished zone of intensive contact with some soft organic material,' said Dr Derevyanko. 'Scientists have suggested that it was a leather strap with some charm, and this charm was rather heavy. The location of the polished section made it possible to identify the 'top' and 'bottom' of the bracelet and to establish that it was worn on the right hand.'

Located next to the Anuy River, about 150 km south of Barnaul, the Denisova Cave is a popular tourist attraction, such is its paleontological importance. Over the years a number of remains have been found there, including some of extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth. In total evidence of 66 different types of mammals have been discovered inside, and 50 bird species.

The most exciting discovery was the remains of the Denisovans, a species of early humans that dated back as early as 600,000 years ago and were different to both Neanderthals and modern man.

In 2000 a tooth from a young adult was found in the cave and in 2008, when the bracelet was found, archaeologists discovered the finger bone of a juvenile Denisovan hominin, whom they dubbed the 'X woman'. Further examination of the site found other artifacts dating as far back as 125,000 years.

The institute's deputy director Mikhail Shunkov suggested that the find indicates the Denisovans - though now extinct - were more advanced than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

'In the same layer, where we found a Denisovan bone, were found interesting things; until then it was believed these the hallmark of the emergence of Homo sapiens,' he said. 'First of all, there were symbolic items, such as jewellery - including the stone bracelet as well as a ring, carved out of marble.'

The full details of the ring are yet to be revealed. 

'These finds were made using technological methods - boring stone, drilling with an implement, grinding - that are traditionally considered typical for a later time, and nowhere in the world they were used so early, in the Paleolithic era. At first, we connected the finds with a progressive form of modern human, and now it turned out that this was fundamentally wrong. Obviously it was  Denisovans, who left these things.'

This indicated that 'the most progressive of the triad' (Homo sapiens, Homo Neanderthals and Denisovans) were Denisovans, who according to their genetic and morphological characters were much more archaic than Neanderthals and modern human.' 

But could this modern-looking bracelet have been buried with older remains?

The experts considered this possibility but rejected it, saying they believe the layers were uncontaminated by human interference from a later period. The soil around the bracelet was also dated using oxygen isotopic analysis.

The unique bracelet is now held in the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East in Novosibirsk. Irina Salnikova, head the museum, said of the bracelet: 'I love this find. The skills of its creator were perfect. Initially we thought that it was made by Neanderthals or modern humans, but it turned out that the master was Denisovan, at least in our opinion.

'All jewellery had a magical meaning for ancient people and even for us, though we do not always notice this. Bracelets and neck adornments were to protect people from evil spirits, for instance. This item, given the complicated technology and 'imported' material, obviously belonged to some high ranked person of that society.'

While bracelets have been found pre-dating this discovery, Russian experts say this is the oldest known jewellery of its kind made of stone.

Liesowska, Anna. 2015. “Stone bracelet is oldest ever found in the world”. Siberian Times. Posted: May 7, 2015. Available online: