How do you measure the success of a child’s education? Test results are one thing, and according to a recent global survey, British children have risen in the league tables for both maths and reading. However, these same teens reported among the lowest levels of life satisfaction. They may be performing well academically, but they’re not thriving.
This isn’t a problem only in the UK, of course. At a recent conference that I attended, organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, research psychologists, education specialists, economists and philosophers from around the world met to discuss how to help individuals and societies flourish in the 21st century. One word hung in the air as key: “character”.
Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was “climate hysteria” from a “mentally ill Swedish child”.
It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can — no matter how small — to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?
The excesses of Christmas have been and gone, and we’ve been met once again by January’s familiar call for resolution and goal-setting.
For most of us, New Year’s resolutions are a mixed bag: whether we’re looking to get fit, become more environmentally-friendly, or just keep up a new hobby, there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some habits stick and others fall by the wayside almost immediately.
Last year we published a list of ten psychology findings that reveal the worst of human nature. Research has shown us to be dogmatic and over-confident, we wrote, with a tendency to look down on minorities and assume that the downtrodden deserve their fate. Even young children take pleasure in the suffering of others, we pointed out.
But that’s only half of the story. Every day, people around the world fight against injustices, dedicate time and resources to helping those less fortunate than them, or just perform simple acts of kindness that brighten the lives of those around them. And psychology has as much to say about this brighter side of humanity as it does the darker one. So here we explore some of the research that demonstrates just how kind and compassionate we can be.
For a “rich” country, by global standards, the UK has an awful lot of people who are not. Fourteen million people — one fifth of the population — live in poverty. Of these, four million are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are classed as destitute, unable to afford even basic life essentials.
For children who grow up in poverty, there are impacts that go way beyond the fact of material shortages. “Children experience poverty as an environment that is damaging to their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development,” notes UNICEF. Clearly, there’s a critical role for psychological research in this area, first in revealing just what poverty does to children and adults — but also in developing strategies to ameliorate those impacts.
While some of us crumble in the face of adversity, and struggle to recover, others quickly bounce back from even serious trauma. Psychological resilience is undeniably important in all kinds of areas of life, so understanding what underpins it, and how to train it – particularly in children — is of intense interest to psychologists. Continue reading “Five Ways To Boost Resilience In Children”→
If you ever daydream about retirement, what do you picture? Lie-ins, instead of being woken by an alarm? Walks on a beach, in place of the morning commute? More time for beloved hobbies? Or perhaps endless open, solitary days, with nothing much to do…?
Retirement is what psychologists term a “major life transition”. As such, it’s regarded as a stressor that carries risks as well as potential rewards. Now that the number of retirees in many countries is soaring, so too is the number of studies into whether retirement is good for your mental and physical health — or not. This work certainly suggests that it can be, but there are a few warnings lurking in the results, too.
The last time I tried to learn a foreign language, I was living in an Italian suburb of Sydney. My hour a week at a local Italian class was inevitably followed by a bowl of pasta and a few glasses of wine. As an approach to language-learning goes, it was certainly more pleasurable than my German lessons at school. Despite the wine, it was also surprisingly effective. In fact, getting better at a new language doesn’t have to mean hard hours on lists of vocab and the rules of grammar. It turns out that what you don’t focus on matters, too. And a glass of wine may even help …
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: