Category: Feature

The Psychology of Sex Differences – 5 Revealing Insights From Our Primate Cousins

GettyImages-519106121.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

Earlier this year, as part of a special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research – titled “An Issue Whose Time Has Come: Sex/Gender Influences on Nervous System Function” – Elizabeth Lonsdorf at Franklin and Marshall College published a useful mini-review detailing some of the sex differences observed among monkey and ape infants and juveniles.

“Many sex differences in behavioral development exist in nonhuman primates,” she writes, “despite a comparative lack of sex-biased treatment by mothers and other social partners”. Here is a digested account of five of these behavioural sex differences:   

Continue reading “The Psychology of Sex Differences – 5 Revealing Insights From Our Primate Cousins”

Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement + 9 More Pairs of Psych Terms You’re Getting Confused

By Christian Jarrett

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):

Continue reading “Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement + 9 More Pairs of Psych Terms You’re Getting Confused”

5 Reasons It’s So Hard To Think Like A Scientist

By Christian Jarrett

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:

Continue reading “5 Reasons It’s So Hard To Think Like A Scientist”

10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain

By 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.

Continue reading “10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain”

The Psychology of Eye Contact, Digested

By Christian Jarrett

Many of our relationships begin with that moment when our eyes meet and we realise the other person is looking right at us. Pause for a second and consider the intensity of the situation, the near-magical state of two brains simultaneously processing one another, each aware of being, at that very instant, the centre of the other’s mental world. Psychologists have made some surprising discoveries about the way that mutual gaze, or the lack of it, affects us mentally and physically and how we relate to each other. Here we digest the fascinating psychology of eye contact, from tiny babies’ sensitivity to gaze to the hallucination-inducing effects of prolonged eye-staring.

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Ten Famous Psychology Findings That It’s Been Difficult To Replicate

By Christian Jarrett

Every now and again a psychology finding is published that immediately grabs the world’s attention and refuses to let go – often it’s a result with immediate implications for how we can live more happily and peacefully, or it says something profound about human nature. Said finding then enters the public consciousness, endlessly recycled in pop psychology books and magazine articles.

Unfortunately, sometimes when other researchers have attempted to obtain these same influential findings, they’ve struggled. This replication problem doesn’t just apply to famous findings, nor does it only affect psychological science. And there can be relatively mundane reasons behind failed replications, such as methodological differences from the original or cultural changes since the original was conducted.

But given the public fascination with psychology, and the powerful influence of certain results, it is arguably in the public interest to summarise in one place a collection of some of the most famous findings that have proven tricky to repeat. This is not a list of disproven or dodgy results. It’s a snapshot of the difficult, messy process of behavioural science. Continue reading “Ten Famous Psychology Findings That It’s Been Difficult To Replicate”

10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology

In a sense we’re all amateur psychologists – we’ve got our own first-hand experience at being human, and we’ve spent years observing how we and others behave in different situations. This intuition fuels a “folk psychology” that sometimes overlaps with findings from scientific psychology, but often does not. Some erroneous psychological intuitions are particularly widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent. This post is about 10 of these myths or misconceptions. It’s important to challenge these myths, not just to set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing.  Continue reading “10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology”

Psychology’s 10 Greatest Case Studies – Digested

These ten characters have all had a huge influence on psychology and their stories continue to intrigue each new generation of students. What’s particularly fascinating is that many of their stories continue to evolve – new evidence comes to light, or new technologies are brought to bear, changing how the cases are interpreted and understood. What many of these 10 also have in common is that they speak to some of the perennial debates in psychology, about personality and identity, nature and nurture, and the links between mind and body. Continue reading “Psychology’s 10 Greatest Case Studies – Digested”

What is it like to experience mental health problems?

We’ve rounded up some of the research we’ve covered over the years that’s explored what it’s like to live with mental health problems, from obsessive compulsive disorder to hearing voices. Psychologists call these kind of studies “qualitative research”, where the aim is not to put a score against particular symptoms, but to discover the first-hand perspective and experience of the people who take part, based on their own words. Such studies are often distressing to read, but their insights make a vital contribution to our understanding of the human condition.

Depression feels like a kind of emptiness

A recurring theme from interviews with seven people diagnosed with depression was their sense of depletion and emptiness, both bodily and in thinking about the past and future. “It’s like something’s gone inside me and swept my happiness away,” said one participant. “I feel like sometimes my life is on hold,” said another. Isolation was another key theme, as captured by this man’s description: “You get into a state I think mentally where, you’re just like out on an island … You can see from that island another shore and all these people are there, but there’s no way that you can get across [ ] or there is no way that you want to get across.” Writing in 2014, the researchers Jonathan Smith and John Rhodes said it was clear that all the interviewees had in common that they felt alone, empty and that they had no future.

Selective mutism does not feel like a choice
People with selective mutism can’t speak in certain situations even though there is nothing physically wrong with their vocal chords and they don’t have brain damage. Four people diagnosed with the condition were interviewed via Skype’s instant messenger interface. Their descriptions challenged the traditional idea that selective mutism is a choice. “It isn’t me,” said one participant. “I know who I am and I’m not shy or quiet, maybe that makes it harder. When I’m with my parents I can be myself but around everyone else it’s like it [selective mutism] takes over. I can get the words in my head but something won’t let me say them and the harder I try the more of a failure I feel like when I can’t.” The interviewees also revealed how the condition became self-fulfilling as people came to expect them to stay silent. And they talked about the extreme loneliness they experienced. “It’s like that scene from Scrooge where he looks through the window and he can see people having fun being together,” said one interviewee. “I’ll always be stuck outside looking in.”

To be a refugee with psychosis is to feel there is no future
The first-hand experience of refugees with symptoms of psychosis was documented for the first time in a heart-wrenching study published this year. Based on interviews with seven African refugees or asylum seekers, the researchers identified six main themes: bleak agitated immobility; trauma-related voices and visions (mostly the sounds or sights of lost relatives or attackers from the past); fear and mistrust; a sense of a broken self; the pain of losing everything; and the attraction of death. The last theme was captured by the words of 26-year-old Sando: “The worst part,” he said, “is I keep harming myself, … and you know knocking my head to the wall, kinda too much stuff in there, you know, I just want to open my head and finish with this.”

Some people have a love-hate relationship with their OCD
Based on their hour-long interviews with nine people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the researchers Helen Murphy and Ramesh Perera-Delcourt identified three main themes: “wanting to be normal and fit in”; “failing at life”; and “loving and hating OCD.” The first two themes were often related to the painful situations provoked by the interviewees’ compulsions. One man who house-shared described how he had to scrub the entire bathroom with powerful cleaning product for an hour every day before he could use it. But at the same time, the interviewees explained how they actually feared losing the crutch that the condition provides. “I wish I could do that [stop checking], I wish I could stop,” one man said, adding: “Well, not totally.”

Being labelled as “schizophrenic” feels hugely stigmatising but also unlocks much-needed treatment
In a 2014 study, seven patients diagnosed with schizophrenia described their dilemma: they needed the diagnosis to access treatment, but had also feared and avoided the label because of the stigma associated with it. The interviewees said they tried to hide their diagnosis from people, and they noted how mental health professionals used alternative words like “psychosis” as if aware of the stigma of schizophrenia. “People are always afraid of saying that word to me,” said said one woman, “… because it is a dirty word.” The interviewees also described the chasm between their clinician’s view of the illness as biological (a “chemical imbalance”) and the perspectives of other people in their lives. “My mother … all she said was ‘I told you, it’s because you’re psychic …,” said another interviewee. The researchers said more needs to be done to overcome delays in treatment caused by ill people’s fearful avoidance of a diagnosis.

For many people who self-harm, seeing their own blood makes them feel calm
Among 64 people who self-harm, recruited from a mass screening of 1,100 new psychology students, just over half said that the sight of their own blood was important to them. The most common explanation the students gave was that seeing their blood made them feel calm. Other explanations were that it “makes me feel real” and shows that “I did it right/deep enough”. Those students who highlighted the importance of seeing their blood tended to cut themselves more often than those who didn’t (a median of 30 times compared with 4 times) and they were more likely to say they self-harmed as a way of regulating their own emotions. Another study from 2013 asked self-harming teenagers to carry a digital device for two weeks, in which to record their motives for self-harming as they occurred. Just over half the sample reported self-harming to achieve a particular sensation, the most common being “satisfaction”, followed by “stimulation” and “pain”.

Anorexia starts out feeling like a solution but then takes over
“Anorexia became a friend,” said Natalie, one of 14 people recovering from anorexia who were interviewed as part of a study published in 2011. “When I was alone … I knew that at least I had A.” Eventually though, for Natalie and the others, anorexia became overpowering, almost like a separate entity which they had to fight against for control of their own mind. As Jon, another interviewee, put it: “It’s like there are two people in my head: the part that knows what needs to be done and the part of me that is trying to lead me astray. Ana [his nickname for anorexia] is the part that is leading me astray and dominates me.”

For some people, mirrors are addictive and imprisoning 
A diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder is made when someone has a disabling and distressing preoccupation with what they see as their perceived physical flaw or flaws. In upsetting interviews that were published this year, 11 people diagnosed with the condition described their complicated, troubling relationship with mirrors. One woman said she’d once stared into a mirror for 11 hours straight, searching for a perspective where she felt good enough about herself to be able to go out. Another interviewee, Jane, described mirrors as “f*cking bastards” and mirror gazing as a “form of self-harm”. The interviewees also described what they perceived as the ugliness of the person staring back at them. “I look like a monster,” said Hannah. Jenny said she is “truly hideous” and “repulsive”. Lucy said: “Everyone else, everyone is beautiful. I just feel that I am that one ugly person.”

People’s experiences of hearing voices vary hugely 
Last year, researchers analysed seven previous studies that had explored people’s first-hand experiences of hearing voices. Taken together, the most striking finding was that to hear voices that aren’t there is not a homogenous condition. While most people described attributing an identity to the voices, they differed in whether they saw the voices as separate from their own thoughts or not, and in whether they felt in control of the voices. Those who subscribed to a biomedical account, believing that their voices were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, tended to feel less in control of their voices. Similarly, heard voices could interfere with social relationships, for example by making critical comments about friends or family. But voices could also play a beneficial role by reducing loneliness. “I have not got many friends … so the only thing I can stay very close to are the voices and I do stay very close to them,” said one interviewee.

Positive change is a gradual process that is realised suddenly
As well as asking people about their experiences of mental illness, psychologists also research what the process of recovery feels like. In 2007, researchers interviewed 18 women and 9 men diagnosed with conditions like depression and anxiety about their experiences of positive change during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. “It was gradual but the realisation was sudden,” one interviewee said. Many of the participants could remember the exact moment: “I could actually hear it,” one said. Other themes in the clients’ descriptions of how change happened were: motivation and readiness (“I was desperate to get back to my old self”); tools and strategies (“It’s the changes in behaviour that I learned”); learning (“I would take a lot of stuff home to read about assertiveness”); interaction with the therapist (“…they don’t judge your character or think they know you”); changes to self-perception (“I am a strong person mentally”); and the relief of talking (“Let me get everything out, let me relieve myself of everything”).
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further reading
What is mental illness?
World Mental Health Day 2015

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The Psychology of Mindfulness, Digested

26223-thinkstockphotos-77742590Right now, mindfulness is a hot topic in psychology and beyond. In 2012, 40 new papers on mindfulness were published every month, a number that has probably risen since. Last September, the Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books had been released on the topic that very week. There are numerous conferences devoted to mindfulness around the world, multiple organisations and even dedicated science journals and magazines. And yet, a dissenting voice in this chorus of enthusiasm, a new book out last month – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – warned that mindfulness is not harmless. To bring you up to speed in a jiffy, here we digest the psychology of mindfulness:
Continue reading “The Psychology of Mindfulness, Digested”