Around the world, more people than ever are locked up in prisons – estimated to be in excess of 11 million people, up by almost 20 per cent since the turn of the millennium (pdf). According to a recent House of Commons Briefing Paper the rate of increase is even higher than this in the UK where prison populations are at a record high. Many of these incarcerated individuals have intensifying mental health needs – for instance, the same briefing paper reports that UK rates of self-harm in prisoners were 25 per cent higher in 2015 than in 2014. Ahead of this week’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology on the topic of Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System, here we provide a digest of research into the mental health of prisoners.
Three years ago, in a time before Trump and Brexit and Yanny and Laurel, someone posted an overexposed photograph of a black and blue striped dress on Tumblr. Soon millions of people had seen it and started arguing about it. The reason? It quickly became apparent that about half of us – more often women and older people – perceive the dress, not as black and blue, but white and gold.
In a neat example of real life echoing a classic psychology experiment (I’m referring to Asch), #thedress was enough to make you think your friends were gas lighting you – how could it be that you and they were looking at the exact same picture and yet seeing entirely different things?
Of course there are many optical illusions, including others that involve colour (see, for example, the “checker shadow” illusion, pictured right). What was special about #thedress was that it triggered a bimodal split in perceptual experience among the population. Also, many illusions trigger a fluctuating percept, but once someone perceives the dress one way, they usually keep seeing it that way.
Viral hits happen overnight. Science is slow, but it’s catching up. With the passing of the years, numerous studies into #thedress have now been published – 23 according to a new review. Here we present you with a fascinating digest of what’s been discovered so far about the famous frock – researchers have made progress, certainly, yet much remains mysterious, making this a humbling experience for perceptual science.
By guest blogger Jon Brock
Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
Ahead of the world heavyweight boxing championship reunification fight on March 31, 2018, featuring Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua versus Joseph Parker from New Zealand – the first time that two undefeated heavyweight world champions competed in the UK – we trawled the psychology literature looking for intriguing findings involving boxers and other sporting fighters. From the curse of the pre-match smile, to the cognitive biases that sway your choice of greatest ever boxer, here’s the psychology of fighting, digested:
Psychologists have long studied chimps and other animals with two principal, related aims: to find out the capabilities of the animal mind, and to discover what makes us truly unique, if anything. This is a challenging field. As any pet owner knows, it’s tempting to project a human interpretation onto animal behaviour. Researchers, especially when they’ve spent many years studying the same animal, can fall victim to this very bias (you’ll see a theme of this field is the powerful, close bonds frequently formed between psychologist and animal). At the same time, though, there is also a temptation to overestimate our human uniqueness. Which emotions and capabilities are exclusively human? Tool use, perspective taking and deceit were once contenders, but no more, and the list is getting shorter all the time.
This Digest feature post is a celebration of the contribution that animals have made to psychology, including eight that we’ve come to know on first-name terms:
Basic facts about the brain are a key part of many introductory psychology courses, including information about brain cells. For instance, for years, students (and the public) have been taught that, thanks to the ageing process, the older we get, the more brain cells we lose. But as outlined in a new review in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy by Christopher von Bartheld at the University of Nevada, many established facts about brain cells (like the idea we lose lots of them as we get older) have been shown by modern techniques to be misconceptions. Taken mostly from the review, here are four myths about brain cells, plus one unresolved issue.
There are behavioural differences, on average, between the sexes – few would dispute that. Where the debate rages is over how much these differences are the result of social pressures versus being rooted in our biology (the answer often is that there is a complex interaction between the two).
For example, when differences are observed between girls and boys, such as in preferences for play, one possibility is that this is partly or wholly because of the contrasting ways that girls and boys are influenced by their peers, parents and other adults (because of the ideas they have about how the sexes ought to behave). Studying non-human primates allows us to identity sex differences in behavior that can’t be due to human culture and gender beliefs.
Learning more about the biological roots of behavioural sex differences should not be used as an excuse for harmful stereotyping or discrimination, but it can help us better understand our human nature and the part that evolved sex differences play in some of the most important issues that affect our lives, including around diversity, relationships, mental health, crime and education.
There are a lot of pairs of terms in psychology that sound as if they refer to the same thing, and can therefore be used interchangeably, when in fact they refer to different concepts that are distinct in important ways. As Emory University professor Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues point out in their new open-access paper in Frontiers in Education, even experienced psychologists and science communicators sometimes confuse these pairs of terms, which inevitably impedes their understanding of the underlying concepts.
Their new paper outlines 50 “frequently confused term pairs in psychology” from across different fields of psychology and related subjects. “Our list … should hopefully be a modest contribution toward enhancing psychological literacy and critical thinking in psychology more broadly,” they write.
Below we’ve highlighted 10 of the pairs of psychology terms that Lilienfeld and his co-authors believe you might be getting confused (check the full paper for the other 40):
Studying people who have brain damage or illness has been hugely important to progress in psychology. The approach is akin to reverse engineering: study how things go wrong when particular regions of the brain are compromised and it provides useful clues as to how those regions usually contribute to healthy mental function.
As a result, some neuropsychological conditions, such as Broca’s aphasia (speech deficits), prosopagnosia (a difficulty recognising faces, also known somewhat misleadingly as “face blindness”) and Alien Hand syndrome (a limb seeming to act of its own volition) have become extremely well-known – at least in psychological circles – and extensively studied. However, others are virtually unheard of, even though their importance to our understanding of the brain is significant.
Neuropsychologist Alfredo Ardila at Florida International University has just published in the journal Psychology and Neuroscience an overview of four of these little-known conditions, “so rare that they are not even mentioned in basic neuropsychology textbooks”: Central achromatopsia, Bálint’s syndrome, Pure-word deafness, and aphasia of the supplementary area. This follows a paper he published last year covering four other rare but important neuropsychological syndromes: Somatoparaphrenia, Akinetopsia, Reduplicative Paramnesia, Autotopagnosia.
“In neuropsychology … there are some unusual syndromes that are found very sporadically,” he writes. “But their rarity does not diminish their importance in the fundamental understanding about the brain organisation of cognition, as well as in clinical analysis of patients with brain pathologies.”
Here’s a brief breakdown of what Ardila has to say about these rare conditions and why they’re important.
Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.
Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.
We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here I’ve pulled out five key insights: