Millions of people around the world spend time and money on healthcare remedies that mainstream science considers ineffective (in the sense of being no more effective than a placebo), like homeopathy and acupuncture. A study published recently in Psychology and Health investigated how to address this issue in the context of multivitamins, which evidence suggests provide no benefit for healthy people – and may even cause harm in some contexts.
Despite this research evidence, huge numbers of healthy people take multivitamins because they appear to be helpful. Scientists refer to this as the “illusion of causality”: when someone takes a vitamin and then their cold goes away, for example, they may believe it was the vitamin that cured them, even though they would have recovered just as quickly anyway. Past research has shown that simply giving people the raw outcomes of clinical trials that show remedies to be ineffective doesnot necessarily help combat this problem, perhaps because the data can involve large numbers and complex findings, which are difficult for the public to interpret.
Douglas MacFarlane and colleagues from the University of Western Australia have explored how to better inoculate people against this illusion. The researchers report that people need to be told clearly about the proportion of people who benefit from the remedy versus taking a placebo – and this data has to be accompanied by a scientific explanation for why the remedy is ineffective.
Feeling good in an emotional sense helps to foster better physical health – at least that’s what’s been found in studies in the West. But “feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in all cultures. In the US, people tend to report that being excited and experiencing other so-called “high arousal positive (HAP) states” is what makes them feel good. Many people in Japan, however, place greater value on the opposite extreme, viewing calm, quiet “low arousal positive (LAP) states” as more pleasant and desirable. So, does this mean that engaging more often in stimulating activities – like a fitness work-out or a party – will make for better health in US citizens, while for people in Japan, engaging in more calming activities – like taking frequent baths – will have more of a beneficial effect? A new paper, published in Emotion, which explores this question, reveals some clear cultural variations – though not all of them are as the researchers predicted.
On the way to meet your friend at a cafe you’re confident about sticking to your resolutions for healthier living. It soon goes awry though – no, not because of your weak willpower, but due to your excess empathy.
Your friend orders first and plumps for the super indulgent Winter Warmer Chocca Mocha with added marshmallows. You follow suit, sensing that if you’d stuck with your original plans for a skinny coffee, you’d have made your friend feel awful. There is now a name for this behaviour: You just engaged in “altruistic indulgence”, the most appealing of excuses for a naughty lapse, described for the first time in a paper in Social Influence.
Asking patients to draw the parts of their body affected by illness (and similar drawing challenges) can provide insights into how they think about their illness, the seriousness of their condition, and how well they are likely to cope, among other things. For instance, when people who had experienced a heart attack were asked on repeated occasions to draw their heart, an increase in the size of their drawings over time correlated with more anxiety and a slower return to work.
This example and many others feature in a new paper in Health Psychology Review that’s charted the use of patient drawings in peer-reviewed research, finding that the approach has increased in popularity in recent years. From 1970 to 2002, the average number of papers involving patient drawings published per year was 0.5, whereas that increased to an average of 5.9 per year between 2003 and 2016. In all, Elizabeth Broadbent at the University of Auckland, and her colleagues found 101 relevant studies covering 27 categories of illness (most often cancer) and involving participants from 29 different countries, from Canada to Zimbabwe. “We can utilise patients’ drawings to improve our understanding of the illness experience and inform our clinical interventions,” they said.
If you’re planning to take off weight in the new year and it suddenly seems like food is everywhere – and is especially enticing – that’s probably your mind playing a particularly unhelpful trick on you. Thinking about food, even in terms of trying to avoid it, can actually make it more likely that you’ll notice food in your environment, especially if you’re already overweight or obese.
That’s according to a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity thatcompared how overweight and healthy weight people pay attention to food. Food cues – sights, smells, advertisements and social contexts like parties – are everywhere these days, so understanding why some people find it harder to ignore them could be key to designing weight loss programmes.
In western nations, the vast majority of sexually active women take the birth control pill at some point in their lives, usually to avoid becoming pregnant. Of increasing interest to some psychologists, the hormone-stabilising effects of the pill may have other important effects, including on the psyche and personal relationships, and these are the focus of a new study in Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research.
Some earlier studies found that women who take the pill report more emotional stability, in terms of experiencing fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer mental health problems more generally (of course this is not true of all women, in fact some women describe unwanted emotional effects from the pill). There also appear to be what Tenille Taggart at San Diego State University and her colleagues refer to as “downstream benefits” of taking the pill, including greater relationship stability and satisfaction.
However, before now, no study has measured these two outcomes (emotional stability and relationship satisfaction) simultaneously. Taggart’s team have done this and their results suggest that a key reason that women who take the pill (oral contraceptives; OCs) tend to enjoy more satisfying relationships is because they have more stable emotions.
“Our results support previous findings that OCs may confer positive psychological benefits, and that one of these, mood stability, may have diffuse effects on women’s broader wellbeing and functioning,” they write.
In chronic pain, the pain system is locked in to a high-alert mode. One of my colleagues describes it as replacing your alarm system after a burglary, but with one so sensitive it goes off when a fly goes through the room. Mere touch may now be experienced as pain. The pain is real, it isn’t “just in the head”, but nor is there a hidden injury to fix or illness that can be cured. It’s a system that needs retuning, and that calls for participation from the body itself.
According to a new paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology one particularly promising way that psychologists can help with this is by encouraging self-compassion: a practice of recognising one’s own suffering, accepting this is part of a shared human experience, and not over-identifying with the suffering.
Take a moment to consider how old you feel. Not your actual, biological age – but your own subjective feelings.
Abundant research during the past few decades has shown that this “subjective age” can be a powerful predictor of your health, including the risk of depression, diabetes and hypertension, dementia, and hospitalisation for illness and injury, and even mortality – better than your actual age. In each case, the younger you feel, the healthier you are.
The link probably goes in both directions. So while it’s true that ill-health may make you feel older, a higher subjective age could also limit your physical activity and increase feelings of vulnerability that make it hard to cope with stress – both of which could, independently, lead to illness. The result could even be a vicious cycle, where feelings of accelerated ageing lead you to become more inactive, and the resulting ill-health then further confirms your pessimistic views. And as I recently wrote for BBC Future, understanding this process could be essential for designing more effective health programmes.
Yannick Stephan at the University of Montpellier has led much of the work examining this phenomenon, and his latest paper, published with colleagues in the journal Intelligence, extends this understanding by revealing a surprising link with IQ. According to this research, the more intelligent we are in our late teens and early 20s, the younger we will feel in our 70s – and this may also be reflected in various markers of biological ageing.
The phenomenon of mothers gaining weight during and beyond pregnancy is well-researched and understood – much of it has to do with the hormonal changes that assist fetal growth and preparation for lactation. Less researched and recognised, other than through jokes about “dad bods”, is that many expectant fathers also gain weight, and that the pounds tend to stay on (one study found that fathers weigh, on average, 14 pounds more than childless men).
In Health Psychology Review, a team led by Darby Saxbe at the University of Southern California highlight the evidence for perinatal weight gain in fathers, and they review seven potential casual mechanisms for why it happens, which they hope will stimulate further research. The lack of empirical research on this phenomenon before now “is striking”, they write.
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.