Randomised experiments (also known as A/B testing) are an absolutely critical tool for evaluating everything from online marketing campaigns to new pharmaceutical drugs to school curricula. Rather than making decisions based on ideology, intuition or educated guess-work, you randomise people to one of two groups and expose one group to intervention A (one version of a social media headline, a new drug, or whatever, depending on the context ), one group to intervention B (a different version of the headline, a different drug etc), and compare outcomes for the two groups.
To anyone who believes in evidence-based decision making, medicine and policy, randomised tests make sense. But as a team led by Michelle N. Meyer, a researcher at the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy at the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, write in a new article in PNAS, for some reason A/B testing sometimes elicits moral outrage. As an example, they point to the anger that ensued when Pearson Education “randomized math and computer science students at different schools to receive one of three versions of its instructional software: two versions displayed different encouraging messages as students attempted to solve problems, while a third displayed no messages.” The goal had been to test objectively whether the encouraging messages would, well, encourage students to do more problems, yet for this, the company received much criticism, including accusations that they’d treated students like guinea pigs, and failed to obtain their consent.
Now it seems that even miniscule breaks, just seconds long, are also vital for learning new skills. A study published recently in Current Biology has found that most of the improvement while learning a motor task comes not while actually practicing, but instead during the breaks between practice sessions.
What if you could take a psychedelic drug regularly in such tiny quantities that the immediate effects were not discernible, yet over time it led to a range of psychological benefits, especially enhanced focus and heightened creativity? That’s the principle behind “microdosing” – a controversial technique that’s exploded in popularity ever since the publication of a 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorers Guide and a 2015 Rolling Stone article titled How LSD Microdosing Became The Hot New Business Trip. Large online communities of microdosing enthusiasts have since emerged on sites like Reddit, where dosing tips are shared and the supposed manifold benefits of the practice are espoused.
However, actual scientific investigations into the effects of microdosing can be counted on one hand. Earlier this year, PLOS One published one of the few systematic investigations ever conducted into the practice, by Vince Polito and Richard Stevenson at Macquarie University. Though exploratory and tentative due to “legal and bureaucratic” obstacles (meaning there was no placebo control or randomisation in this research), the results suggest that microdosing can be beneficial, although not in the ways that users most expect, and not necessarily for everyone.
It’s well known that science has a diversity problem, with women and members of minority groups being underrepresented. A new study suggests a solution aimed at children – reframing science as something that people do, rather than something that defines their identity, can reduce the potentially off-putting impact of the “white male” scientist stereotype.
According to the paper, published recently in Developmental Science, thoughtful use of language encourages greater interest in science among young children – and makes them less likely to lose confidence in their scientific abilities as they grow up.
You’ve been transported deep beneath the earth into a labyrinth of tunnels. You have a sword and a communications device, and your objective is to return to the surface. A figure appears in the dark ahead of you. Do you: (a) Use your communication device to say hello; (b) Formulate a contingency plan for escape and then approach the figure; or (c) Pause a moment to try to read its body language before stepping forward to approach the figure? [to interpret your preference, see end of post]
Personality traits are traits are traditionally assessed by asking people to rate how much various descriptive statements match their own personality, like “I enjoy talking to strangers”. This cheap and easy approach has enjoyed great success – people’s scores on such tests tend to be impressively consistent over time, and they predict important outcomes from health to career success. However, the questionnaires are far from perfect. Research volunteers might not properly engage out of boredom, for instance. Job candidates might deliberately fake their scores to give a favourable impression.
An exciting possibility for overcoming these issues, according to a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences is to use a “gamification” approach – present people with behavioural options in engaging game-like scenarios and deduce their personality traits from their choices.
You spend about 10 per cent of your waking hours with your eyes shut, simply because of blinking. Every few seconds, each time you blink, your retinas are deprived of visual input for a period lasting anywhere between tens to hundreds of milliseconds (500 milliseconds is equivalent to half a second). You don’t usually notice this, because your brain suppresses the dark spells and stitches together the bursts of visual information seamlessly. But these dips in visual processing in the brain do have an impact: a new study in Psychological Science finds that, in an important way, they cause your sense of the passing of time to stop temporarily.
Looking at the latest epidemiological data, it could be argued that we are in the midst of a pandemic of mental illness, of dimensions never before seen in human history. The WHO estimates that over 350 million people around the world are presently suffering from depression, which constitutes almost 5-6 per cent of the population. At its extreme, depression may lead to suicide, by which it is estimated that around 1 million people die every year. And the numbers continue growing. Faced with this rising tide of illness, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of hard facts and data indicating the paths researchers and clinicians may follow in search of ways to help. Sometimes, as suggested by a meta-analysis of 50 years of studies on indicators that help predict suicide attempts, we are entirely helpless. In other cases, like with the recent meta-analysis of the neural correlates of the changes brought about by psychotherapy in depressed brains, study results do bring us hope.
The results of the first systematic review and meta-analysis of biological markers evaluated in randomized trials of psychological treatments for depression in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews are another attempt at understanding methods of treating this terrifying illness. The authors – Ioana A. Cristea, Eirini Karyotaki, Steven D. Hollon, Pim Cuijpers and Claudio Gentili – quite rightly point out that understanding how psychological interventions impact or are impacted by biological variables has important implications. For many people, their depression co-occurs with a bodily illness, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and immune system and neurological disorders, and at times is a consequence of that illness. Although we still know little about the reciprocal cause-and-effect mechanisms between psychic and somatic symptoms, some studies have suggested that psychological interventions not only change mood, but also normalise the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, with a therapeutic effect on physical conditions, such as heart disease. But is this really true?
To many, the statement “Religion causes violence” seems intuitively true. After all, one can easily summon to mind a huge number of examples, from the Crusades to warfare connected with early Islam, to the September 11th attacks and sectarian warfare in the Middle East, and on and on and on. Some liberal-minded people, particularly those of an atheist bent, will rattle off these examples as clear proof that religion is a force for evil in the world.
But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if there’s less evidence than one might think that religion causes violence? That’s the provocative thesis of an upcoming new article in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations, a journal launched in April of 2018 (available as a preprint), authored by Joshua Wright and Yuelee Khoo at Simon Fraser University.
Attachment theory, which was first proposed in the 1950s by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, is one of the most influential in psychology. It argues for the importance of our earliest relationships with our caregivers, and predicts that these formative bonds will shape the nature of our connections with other people for the rest of our lives. Remarkably, however, psychologists still know relatively little about how people’s attachment style – essentially their characteristic style of relating to other people – typically varies through life. “How do attachment orientations change across the life span? Unfortunately … this critical question has eluded researchers,” write William Chopik and colleagues in their recently published paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Their research is the first to document how attachment style varies, on average, through decades of the lifespan, from age 13 to 72. The results suggest that, like other aspects of personality, attachment style is relatively stable through life, but that it is not entirely fixed, and in particular that it may be shaped by our relationship experiences, as well as the varied social demands of different life stages. “The current study is one of the first truly longitudinal investigations into life span changes in attachment orientation and the antecedents of these changes,” write Chopik and his team.
When we think of ways to calm ourselves via our senses, the obvious is to listen to relaxing music, have a massage, or perhaps to gaze upon a rustic scene. However, evidence is growing for a far less obvious option involving the vestibular system (located in the inner ear), which detects the position and movement of the head. According to a recent study, gentle rocking helps adults to fall asleep for a nap, and to sleep more soundly during an entire night, with the researchers who conducted that research hypothesising that the effect is driven by the vestibular system. Now new exploratory work by a different team provides further hints that stimulating the vestibular system can help to calm the brain — in this case, apparently reducing anxiety.
For the new study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, led by Florane Pasquier at the University of Caen Normandy, the 22 healthy young adult participants weren’t physically rocked. Rather, electrodes, placed behind their ears, delivered a very mild, 1mA current to stimulate the nerves that carry signals from the individual components of the vestibular system to the brain. This technique is called galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS).