Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but is it really as beneficial as it’s often made out to be? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears from clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Wikholm (co-author of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?); she visits the Cambridge Buddha Centre to meet people who have taken up mindfulness meditation; and she discusses some of the latest mindfulness research trials with Professor Barney Dunn, a clinical psychologist at Exeter University. Some of the evidence is indeed promising, and mindfulness meditation could offer a cost-effective way to help many people with mental health problems. However, Ginny also discovers that many trials are ongoing, mindfulness is not risk free, and it may not suit everyone.
In the first study of its kind, researchers have asked people to describe in their own words what it’s like to live with Avoidant Personality Disorder – a diagnosis defined by psychiatrists as “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation”. Like all personality disorder diagnoses, AVPD is controversial, with some critics questioning whether it is anything other than an extreme form of social phobia.
To shed new light on the issue, lead author Kristine D. Sørensena, a psychologist, twice interviewed 15 people receiving outpatient treatment for AVPD: 9 women, 6 men, with an average age of 33, and none of them in work. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the researchers said the overarching theme to emerge from the in-depth interviews was the participants’ struggle to be a person. “They felt safe when alone yet lost in their aloneness,” the researchers said. They “longed to connect with others yet feared to get close.” In the researchers’ opinion, the participants’ profound difficulties with their “core self” and in their dealings with others do indeed correspond to “a personality disorder diagnosis”.
It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.
By Emma Young
Most people find it easy to infer the emotional state underlying a scowl or beaming smile. But not all facial emotional signals are so obvious. Sensitivity to these less obvious emotional signals varies from one person to another and is a useful skill, improving relations with other people and benefiting psychological wellbeing. As well as varying between individuals, are there also shifts in this ability during a typical person’s life? And, if so, might these age-related changes be relevant to known high-risk periods for psychological problems and the onset of mental illness? A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some answers.
By Jesse Singal
When it comes to the heated subject of differences between how men and women behave, debate in psychology has centered on mate preferences and general interests. The available research shows that when it comes to (heterosexual) mating preferences, men are relatively more interested in physical beauty, while women are relatively more interested in earning capacity. As for general interests, men are more interested in physical things, while women are more interested in people.
Even the staunchest evolutionary psychologists would acknowledge these are partially overlapping bell curves: There are plenty of men who are fascinated by other people, and plenty of women looking for physical beauty in a partner above all else. Yet the findings have been met with fierce resistance in some quarters. One of the more sophisticated rejoinders is known as social roles theory: The differences do exist, but they’re entirely or largely the result of gender roles imposed by society on individuals. However, a new study released as a preprint at PsyArXiv and involving participants from 36 countries has failed to replicate a key finding that’s previously been cited in support of social roles theory.
One of the greatest temptations for psychologists is to report “marginally significant” research results. When statistical tests spit out values that are tantalisingly close to reaching significance, many just can’t help themselves.
Now a study in Psychological Science has shown just how widespread this practice is. Anton Olsson-Collentine and colleagues from Tilburg University analysed three decades of psychology papers and found that a whopping 40 per cent of p-values between 0.05 and 0.1 – i.e. those not significant according to conventional thresholds – were described by experimenters as “marginally significant”.
The placebo effect usually triggers an eye-brow raise or two among even the most hard-nosed of skeptics. We may not be able to forecast the future or move physical objects with our minds, but the placebo effect is nearly as marvellous (Ben Goldacre once called it the “coolest, strangest thing in medicine”).
The term “placebo effect” is short-hand for how our mere beliefs about the effectiveness of an inert treatment or intervention can lead to demonstrable health benefits and cognitive changes – an apparently incontrovertible demonstration of the near-magical power of mind over matter. It’s not literally magic, of course. Our beliefs are the subjective echo of physical processes in the brain – and it’s this constellation of neurochemical and electrical events , and their downstream effects, that underlies the placebo phenomenon (in some cases the placebo effect can also be interpreted as a form of conditioned response, in which a learned physiological reaction occurs in the absence of the original trigger).
There is another angle to this topic. To research psychologists, the placebo effect isn’t always a phenomenon of wonder, but a methodological nuisance. Researchers must go to extreme lengths to rule out the influence of participant expectations, so as to establish which observed effects are truly attributable to an intervention.
Here, in a celebration of the mysterious and maddening placebo effect, and to help inspire future research into this most fascinating aspect of human (and animal) psychology, we digest 10 amazing placebo-related findings:
By Emma Young
In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online. At the time, Sarah Redmond at the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues were already a year into a longitudinal study to assess psychological responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing, which happened in April 2013. They realised that they could use the same nationally representative sample of US adults to investigate what kind of person chooses to watch an ISIS beheading – and why. Their findings now appear in a paper published in American Psychologist.
We’re taught from an early age that it is polite and assertive to look people in the eyes when we’re talking to them. Psychology research backs this up – people who make plenty of eye contact – as long as it’s not excessive – are usually perceived as more competent, trustworthy and intelligent. If you want to make a good impression, then, it’s probably a good idea to meet the gaze of the person you’re talking to. However, following this advice is not necessarily straight-forward for everyone. It’s well-documented that mutual gaze can be emotionally intense and distracting, even uncomfortably so for some.
If this is your experience, you may welcome a study published recently in the journal Perception that documents a phenomenon known as the “eye contact illusion” – put simply, we are not that good at telling whether an interlocutor is looking us in the eye or not. In fact, we tend to think they are, even when they’re not (a bias that is magnified after we’ve been rejected). Thanks to this illusion, you can give the impression of making eye contact simply by ensuring you are looking in the general direction of your conversant’s face.
Claims that violent video games lead to aggression have been around since the days of Space Invaders. When young people are exposed to violent media, the theory goes, their aggressive thoughts become more prominent, leading them to commit acts of violence. But while several studies have found results that seem to back up this idea, the evidence is far from unequivocal.
Now a study published in Royal Society Open Science has failed to find any association between the time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, adding to a growing body of literature that suggests that such a link has been overstated – or may not exist at all.