Amid all the talk of a “replication crisis” in psychology, here’s a rare good news story – a new project has found that a sub-field of the discipline, known as “experimental philosophy” or X-phi, is producing results that are impressively robust.
The current crisis in psychology was largely precipitated by a mass replication attempt published by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC) project in 2015. Of 100 previously published significant findings, only 39 per cent replicated unambiguously, rising to 47 per cent on more relaxed criteria.
We could say without exaggeration that the discovery of a means of achieving full control over oneself is something of a “holy grail” for psychology. There is nothing to indicate that we are getting any closer to finding one, but recent decades have brought us a growing number of discoveries that at least partially allow us to enhance self-control mechanisms. One of them is the light which has been shed on the importance of rituals in boosting self-control. Now in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Allen Ding Tian and his collaborators have examined whether enacting rituals (defined as “a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterised by rigidity and repetition”) can enhance subjective feelings of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioural self-control.
We all know someone who is convinced their opinion is better than everyone else’s on a topic – perhaps, even, that it is the only correct opinion to have. Maybe, on some topics, you are that person. No psychologist would be surprised that people who are convinced their beliefs are superior think they are better informed than others, but this fact leads to a follow on question: are people actually better informed on the topics for which they are convinced their opinion is superior? This is what Michael Hall and Kaitlin Raimi set out to check in a series of experiments in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality?
While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.
This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.
Celebrities are people famous for being famous. Have you ever given any thought to how it happens that pop-culture figures become so well-known, even when they have risen to the top upon a wave of interest for which there was not the slightest rational explanation? What is the real root cause of our lemming-like rush to keep tabs on insignificant but famous people? What leads us to share this information on social media? Why do we visit gossip portals and read tabloids, even though they’re totally worthless to us? Partial answers to these questions are given by a trio of researchers via a series of creative experiments that they’ve reported in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
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.
Can a brief video telling students that it’s possible to improve their intelligence and abilities make much difference to their educational outcomes? And if fostering a “growth mindset” in this way does make a difference, does it benefit all students and schools equally?
Research on growth mindset over the past twenty years has progressed from experiments in a laboratory into real world settings, such as classrooms. This has shown that having a growth mindset leads to a small but positive improvement in grades and better mental health. But to date, little work has examined whether a brief mindset intervention is likely to help some adolescents more than others, especially those at greater risk of poor outcomes later in life.
Keen to rectify this, 23 of the leading researchers in this field, including the likes of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and David Yeager, recently collaborated on a large study which they released briefly as a pre-print (they are now revising the manuscript pending submission to peer review). As a Chartered Psychologist who delivers mindset workshops, I believe the preliminary findings are extremely promising.
Across the globe, ADHD prevalence is estimated around 5 per cent. It’s a figure that’s been rising for decades. For example, Sweden saw ADHD diagnoses among 10-year olds increase more than sevenfold from 1990 to 2007. Similar spikes have been reported from other countries, too, including Taiwan and the US, suggesting this may be a universal phenomenon. In fact, looking at dispensed ADHD medication as a proxy measure of ADHD prevalence, studies from the UK show an even steeperincrease.
Does this mean that more people today really have ADHD than in the past? Not necessarily. For example, greater awareness by clinicians, teachers or parents could have simply captured more patients who had previously had been “under the radar”. Such a shift in awareness or diagnostic behaviour would inflate the rate of ADHD diagnoses without necessarily more people havingclinical ADHD. However, if this is not the true or full explanation, then perhaps ADHD symptoms really have become more frequent or severe over the years. A new study in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry from Sweden with almost 20,000 participants has now provided a preliminary answer.
Historically, the kind of false memories induced in volunteers by psychologists have been relatively mundane. For example, a seminal study used leading questions and the encouragement to confabulate, to apparently implant in participants the memory of getting lost in a shopping mall as a child. This reliance on mundane false memories has been problematic for experts who believe that false memories have critical real world consequence, from criminal trials involving false murder confessions, to memories of child abuse “recovered” during therapy using controversial techniques.
The discrepancy between psychologists’ lab results and their real world claims vanished abruptly in 2015 when Julia Shaw (based then at the University of Bedfordshire) and Stephen Porter (University of British Columbia) shocked the memory research community with their staggering finding that, over several interview sessions, and by using false accounts purportedly from the participants’ own caregivers, they had successfully implanted false memories of having committed a crime as a teenager in 70 per cent of their participants, ranging from theft to assault with a weapon. But now other experts have raised doubts about these claims.
It’s hard to imagine a crueller fate than when a child receives a diagnosis of an illness as difficult as cancer. A young human being, still not fully formed, is suddenly and irrevocably thrown into a situation that many adults are unable to cope with. Each year, around 160,000 children and youngsters worldwide are diagnosed with cancer, and this trend is growing in industrialised societies. Faced with such facts, it is particularly important to understand how children cope. What traces of the experience remain in their psyche if they manage to survive?
Partial answers to these questions come from a trio of Australian researchers in their systematic review and meta-analysis of existing research into the psychological effects of cancer on children, published recently in Psycho-Oncology. Their findings give us reason for some optimism. It turns out children and adolescents affected by cancer are no more likely to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms than their healthy peers. In fact, several studies have found that children affected by cancer go on to experience greater than usual adjustment and quality of life and lower anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms. In psychology, we refer to this as the post-traumatic growth (PTG) effect, which can arise from the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances or trauma.