How much are readers misled by headlines that imply correlational findings are causal?

Close-up of shocked business colleagues reading newspaperBy Alex Fradera

What do you take from this hypothetical headline: “Reading the Research Digest blog is associated with higher intelligence”? How about this one: “Reading this blog might increase your intelligence”? According to science writing guides like HealthNewsReview.org, taking the first correlational finding from a peer-reviewed article and reporting it for the public using the second wording, implying causation, is a sin of exaggeration, making a relationship appear more causal than the evidence suggests.

Yet this happens a lot. A 2014 British Medical Journal (BMJ) article showed these exaggerations to be rife in media coverage of correlational studies, with 81 per cent of news articles committing the sin. Dismayingly, one third of press releases were also guilty. These normally involve editorial input from professionals and often the scientists themselves, who should really know better. Reading about this, we might conclude that science communicators of all stripes need to get more familiar with the best practice of describing causality.

However, the authors of that BMJ analysis started to ponder whether readers interpret these headlines literally, or whether they draw their own conclusions. Now their research group has tested this for a paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology, and their findings suggest that while science writers need to pick up their game, science-writing guides also have some catching up to do.

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New meta-analysis undermines the myth that negative emotions can cause cancer

cancer cellBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

At least one in four readers of this post will die of cancer. This is a simple statistic that leads rationally thinking people to treat the possibility as very likely. And this is what many do: they try to adopt a lifestyle that minimises the risk to some degree. But how do we know what minimises and what increases this risk? Of course, by listening to experts, the best of whom are scientists who research these things. However, whenever there is disquiet brought about by uncertainty, self-titled experts come out of the woodwork. Discussion of factors increasing the risk of cancer is today not only the domain of medical doctors and psycho-oncologists, but is also engaged in by some alternative medicine proponents, pseudopsychologists, and fringe psychotherapists, whose opinions are disseminated by journalists, some more thorough than others (see myth #26 in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for more background).

Among these opinions is the common claim that negative thinking, pessimism, and stress create the conditions for the cells in our body to run amok, and for cancer to develop. Similar declarations accompany therapeutic propositions for changing our way of thinking into a more positive one that will protect us from cancer, or even cure us of the disease. Should you, therefore, begin to fear the possibility of cancer if you are not prone to optimism, or – even worse – have bouts of depression?

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10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain

running giphy2.gifBy Christian Jarrett

“One 60-minute run can add 7 hours to your life” claimed The Times last week. The story was based on a new review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases that concluded that runners live, on average, three years longer than non-runners and that running will do more for your longevity than any other form of exercise. But there’s more to running than its health-enhancing effects. Research published in recent years has shown that donning your trainers and pounding the hills or pavements changes your brain and mind in some intriguing ways, from increasing connectivity between key functional hubs, to helping you regulate your emotions. The precise effects sometimes vary according to whether you engage in intense sprints or long-distance running. Here, to coincide with a new feature article in The Psychologist – Minds run free” – we provide a handy digest of the ways that running changes your mind and brain.

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It can backfire when doctors make a show of their own healthy living

Doctor runningBy Alex Fradera

Doctors who want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy should keep themselves in reasonable shape if they intend to advise their patients to do the same. Indeed, some medical organisations explicitly encourage their physicians not only to stay fit, but to make sure that their patients know it, thereby role-modelling the recommended behaviours. However, new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that doctors who promote their own fitness may actually scare away overweight patients who are most in need of help.

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Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?

Turkey - Society - Sacred and Secular Istanbul
Young Turks – conservative and liberal – mingle on a Friday afternoon near Eyup Mosque

By Alex Fradera

“The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry” said the founder of Islam, but many unbelievers see this as the norm: that religious people rarely do the good demanded by their faith. Some evidence seems to support this cynicism. Surveys on tackling inequality and support for welfare often find that the religious show less enthusiasm for helping the poorest in society. This would seem to reflect badly on the faithful, but new research in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics involving Turkish Muslims offers some redemption. The findings suggest that the religious may be taking a pragmatic approach that expresses their compassion for the needy while remaining consistent with their beliefs about a just deity … and in fact, from a practical perspective, this approach may lead to surprisingly good outcomes.

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Why a cooperative work culture can be bad for star performers

Employee of the Month burstBy Alex Fradera

Wouldn’t it be nice to work in an environment focused on cooperation and solidarity, one that put the needs of the many above those of the few? Sounds great … but collectivism has some surprising downsides, especially if you’re a star performer. New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology looks at workplace reactions to high performers and their polarising effect on those around them, and shows that in more cooperative climates, hotshots are actually more likely to get a raw deal.

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Is your work ethic rooted in the quality of the relationship you had with your parents?

Cheerful teenage boy works on robotics project with his dad
“The influence of the father … tended to be more important than the influence of the mother”

By Christian Jarrett

Some of us work to live, others live to work – these toilers see hard graft as virtuous and they’re more than happy to go the extra mile to climb the career ladder and serve their employer. Organisations, understandably, are interested in hiring people with this kind of work ethic and so psychologists are trying to find out where it comes from.

It’s already known that children with harder working parents also tend to have a stronger work ethic. But a new study in the Journal of General Psychology is one of the first to investigate whether our relationship with our parents in the past – when we were teenagers – is related to our attitude and approach to work as adults. Monique Leenders at the University of Groningen and her colleagues found some small but statistically significant correlations, in particular men’s approach to work seemed to be related to the quality of the teenage relationship they had with their fathers.

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“I forgot” may (sometimes) be a credible excuse for breaking the speed limit

Motorcycle Officer Giving Speeding Ticket to MotoristBy Alex Fradera

When someone breaks the speed limit, we tend to explain it away as recklessness, machismo, or impatience. But new research led by Vanessa Bowden at the University of Western Australia, suggests that problems in memory, not temperament, may often be the culprit. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, traffic stops and other interruptions can disrupt our ability to keep track of recent changes to the speed limit. But the research doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: when waiting at a stop, we can reduce these interfering effects by making sure we keep our attention on the road.

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Personality differences uncovered between students at different US universities

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Students at more expensive institutions tended to score higher in trait Neuroticism 

By Christian Jarrett

Psychology is overly dependent on student samples, but on the plus side, you might assume that one advantage of comparing across student samples is that you can rule out the influence of complicating background factors, such as differences in average personality profile. In fact, writing in the Journal of Personality, a team of US researchers led by Katherine Corker at Kenyon College has challenged this assumption: their findings suggest that if you test a group of students at one university, it’s not safe to assume that their average personality profile will match that of a sample of students from a university elsewhere in the same country.

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Here’s a simple way to boost your learning from videos: the “prequestion”

WebinarBy Christian Jarrett

The “testing effect” is well-established in psychology: this is the finding that answering questions about what you’ve learned leads to better retention than simply studying the material for longer. Testing is beneficial because the act of recall entrenches learned material in our memories, and when we can’t answer, this helps us make our future revision more targeted. Less well-known and less well-understood is the effect of “prequestions”: questions pertaining to upcoming information that you attempt to answer before you’ve started learning that information. A new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition suggests that answering prequestions may be a simple and effective way to boost your learning from videos and perhaps short lectures too.

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