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.
According to statistics published by the British Heart Foundation, we spend 76 days per year, on average, sitting. The World Health Organisation describes physical inactivity as a “global public health problem” that contributes to millions of deaths each year.
You might not be surprised to hear about the harmful health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, but perhaps less obvious is that physical inactivity is also associated with unwelcome changes in personality over time. Previous research has documented these effects over periods of four and ten years. A new paper in the Journal of Research in Personality has extended this, finding that greater physical inactivity at baseline is associated with deterioration in personality two decades later, even after accounting for any differences in initial personality.
As the researchers, led by Yannick Stephan at Université de Montpellier, point out, there is an upside: the findings suggest that even a moderate increase in your activity levels today could have positive implications for your personality decades from now.
Changing an unhealthy habit depends a lot on your belief that you can do it, something psychologists call self-efficacy. Take smoking, for example. Your belief that you are capable of quitting will influence the likelihood you will decide to quit in the first place, the amount your smoking reduces, and your chances of staying smoke-free in the long-term.
This self-belief doesn’t come out of nowhere. Besides seeing ourselves make progress (called “mastery”), health psychologists will tell you that one of the most important inspirations is seeing others successfully make the changes that you desire. To test how true this is, Lisa Warner from the Freie Universität Berlin and her colleagues looked at the impact on smokers of having a partner whose own attempt to quit is going well. Their findings, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, didn’t fit the expected pattern – but there’s news that co-quitting couples can help each other make a difference.
Listening to music while exercising can make a work-out feel more pleasant. But might having some control over the sound of that music have an even stronger effect? A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that it does. In theory, this approach (known as known as “Jymmin” – gym plus jammin’…) might help injured athletes and other rehab patients to complete beneficial, but painful, exercise programmes. As the researchers, led by Thomas Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, note, “Physical pain can present a significant obstacle to the success of physical exercise rehabilitation, increasing negative affect and decreasing patient motivation.”
Discussion of the menopause tends be negative. Take the video introduction to “menopause week” held this week on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Sheffield. The well-meaning presenters talk of “distress”, the impact, the “troubling” changes, and “how to get through it”. Of course the aim is to support and educate, and it’s important to acknowledge the seriousness of some women’s problems. However, there’s arguably a risk that an overly negative tone perpetuates beliefs and stereotypes that may foster unjustified dread about the menopause.
In fact, according to a recent study in the Journal of PsychoSomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, involving nearly 400 women aged between 40 and 60, overall women have a positive view of the menopause. What’s more, women who’ve gone through the menopause have a more positive take on it than those who’ve yet to start or who are in the middle of it. “In other words,” write Lydia Brown at the University of Melbourne and her colleagues, “for most women the menopausal transition may turn out to be not as bad as they think”.
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.
Last year, so few people contracted measles in England and Wales that the disease was declared technically “eliminated”. The national MMR (measles mumps rubella) vaccination programme is to thank. But set against this welcome news were some imperfect stats: in England in 2016/17, only 87.6 per cent of children had received both the required doses of the vaccine by their fifth birthday – a drop compared with the previous two years. At least part of the reason was a reluctance among some parents to have their children vaccinated. This is a problem that affects other countries, and other vaccines, too. And it’s troubling, because clusters of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children are more susceptible to disease outbreaks – indeed, a measles outbreak in Leeds and Liverpool just last year affected unprotected children, providing a reminder why all children should be vaccinated.
In a new paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, a team led by Avnika Amin at Emory University, US, reveal a previously overlooked explanation for “vaccine hesitancy”, as it’s called – and it’s to do with parents’ basic moral values.
What’s in a smile? According to a widely reported 2010 study of US major league baseball players, which we covered here at BPS Research Digest, one important answer is: an indication of how long the smiler will live.
By analysing official individual photos of players from the 1952 baseball season, and then looking at subsequent death records, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger at Wayne State University, Detroit, concluded that players who’d smiled like they meant it – with full “Duchenne smiles“, which involve muscles around the eyes as well as the mouth – lived on average seven years longer than players who’d posed with less convincing grins.
The result was taken to support existing evidence that happier people tend to live longer. It also seemed to show that smiles in posed photos – even on just one occasion – are a fairly reliable signal of people’s underlying emotional disposition and therefore their likely longevity.
But a new replication and extension of the Baseball photo study has produced very different results. This is important, because the idea that happier people live longer is widely promoted, and has implications both for individuals and policy-makers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths around the world annually. Readers of this blog need no convincing that it’s important to be active every day. But is spending more time on it enough to reduce the risk of early death? Not necessarily. How we perceive this activity turns out to be just as important. We learn of this from the authors of an intriguing study in Health Psychology devoted to physical activity and mortality.
A lot of clinical research tries its best to find the true effects of a treatment above and beyond the placebo effect – that is, the benefits that can arise purely from a person’s expectations that an intervention will be helpful. A new study in Health Psychology takes a different approach: instead of always seeing the placebo effect as “a nuisance variable with mysterious impact”, argue Lauren Howe and her colleagues at Stanford University, we should try to find out more about how to enhance it, and how to diminish its harmful twin, the nocebo effect (when negative expectations can lead to harmful effects). To this end, the researchers examined the possible moderating influence of a physician’s demeanour, finding that the placebo effect is enhanced by the impression of warmth and competence.
Howe and her team write: “Among the many demands of a career in medicine, physicians have been increasingly directed to build rapport with their patients (e.g., by exhibiting empathy). This research suggests a compelling reason for why physicians should pay attention to these psychological and social forces: They can impact physiological health outcomes.”