Category: Methods

Psychologists are working on a fraud-proof brain scan test of deviant sexual interest

Male patient in medical scanner with red lightsBy Christian Jarrett

If the courts wanted to know if a suspected sex offender was attracted to children, they could ask him or her, or they could ask experts to measure signs of the suspect’s sexual arousal while he or she looked at different images. But a devious suspect would surely lie about their interests, and they could distract themselves to cheat the physical test.

Brain scans offer an alternative strategy: research shows that when we look at images that we find sexually attractive, our brains show distinct patterns of activation. But of course, the same issues of cheating and deliberate distraction could apply.

Unless, that is, you could somehow prevent the suspect from knowing what images they were looking at, by using subliminal stimuli that can’t be seen at a conscious level. Then you could see how their brain responds to different types of image without the suspect even knowing what they were looking at.

This is the essence of a strategy tested in a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition. Martina Wernicke at Asklepios Forensic Psychiatric Hospital of Gottingen and her colleagues have provided a partial proof of principle that it might one day be possible to use subliminally presented images in a brain scanner to provide a fraud-proof test of a person’s sexual interests. It’s a potentially important break-through for crime prevention – given that deviant sexual interest is one of the strongest predictors of future offences – but it also raises important ethical questions.

Continue reading “Psychologists are working on a fraud-proof brain scan test of deviant sexual interest”

Have we overestimated the effectiveness of psychotherapy?

By Christian Jarrett

Most people who undertake psychotherapy seem to benefit from it. How do we know? Arguably, the most important evidence comes from meta-analyses that combine the results from many – sometimes hundreds – of randomly controlled trials. Based on this, it’s been estimated that psychotherapy is effective for about 80 per cent of people (meanwhile, between five to 10 per cent of clients may suffer adverse effects).

But now the more concerning news: a team of researchers led by Evangelos Evangelou at the University of Ioannina, Greece has assessed the quality of 247 of these psychotherapy meta-analyses and they report in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica that many of them have serious methodological short-comings.

Coincidentally, a separate research group led by Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has just published in Journal of Personality some of the first observational data on how people’s personalities change after undertaking psychotherapy. In contrast to what’s been found in the clinical literature, they report that people who’ve been in therapy seem to show negative changes in personality and other psychological outcomes.

Continue reading “Have we overestimated the effectiveness of psychotherapy?”

The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Synagogue Walls Desecrated With Anti-Semitic Graffiti
Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti, but Scott Lilienfeld argues there is nothing “micro” about these

By Alex Fradera

Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the “microaggression”, a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness – prompting last month’s decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it’s hard to tell between friend and foe.

Continue reading “The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author”

Concerning study says psychotherapy research has a problem with undeclared researcher bias

sharp riseBy Alex Fradera

When a good doctor encounters research comparing the effectiveness of drugs A and B, she knows to beware the fact that B was created by the people paying the researchers’ salaries. Pharmaceutical industry funding can be complex, but the general principle of declaring financial conflicts of interest is now embedded in medical research culture. Unfortunately, research into psychological therapies doesn’t yet seem to have got its house in order in an equivalent way. That’s according to a new open access article in the journal BMJ Open which suggests that, while there is less risk in this field of financially-based conflicts, researchers may be particularly vulnerable to non-financial biases, a problem that hasn’t been adequately acknowledged until now.

Continue reading “Concerning study says psychotherapy research has a problem with undeclared researcher bias”

Was that new Science paper hyped and over-interpreted because of its liberal message?

Schoolgirls reading a fairy tale togetherBy guest blogger Stuart Ritchie

It would be very concerning if “girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait”, as The Guardian reported last week, especially if “this view has consequences”, as was argued in The Atlantic. Both stories implied girls’ beliefs about gender could be part of the explanation for why relatively few women are found working in fields such as maths, physics, and philosophy. These news stories, widely shared on social media, were based on a new psychology paper by Lin Bian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues, published in Science, entitled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests”. The paper reported four studies, which at first appear to have simple, clear-cut conclusions. But a closer look at the data reveals that the results are rather weak, and the researchers’ interpretation goes far beyond what their studies have shown.

Continue reading “Was that new Science paper hyped and over-interpreted because of its liberal message?”

How did Darwin decide which book to read next?

charles_darwin_seated_crop
A new study published in Cognition blends information theory, cognitive science and personal history

By Christian Jarrett

Between 1837 and 1860 Charles Darwin kept a diary of every book he read, including An Essay on the Principle of Population, Principles of Geology and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. There were many others: 687 English non-fiction titles alone, meaning that he averaged one book every ten days. After Darwin finished each one, how did he decide what to read next? In this decision, a scientist like Darwin was confronted with a problem similar to that afflicting the squirrel in search of nuts. Is it better to thoroughly search one area (or topic), or to continually jump to new areas (topics)? Foraging, whether for nuts or information, comes down to a choice between exploitation and exploration. In a new paper in Cognition, a team led by Jaimie Murdock has analysed the contents of the English non-fiction books Darwin read, and the order he read them in, to find out his favoured information-gathering approach and how it changed over time.

Continue reading “How did Darwin decide which book to read next?”

Replication success correlates with researcher expertise (but not for the reasons you might think)

Old businessman holding his glassesBy Christian Jarrett

During the ongoing “replication crisis” in psychology, in which new attempts to reproduce previously published results have frequently failed, a common claim by the authors of the original work has been that those attempting a replication have lacked sufficient experimental expertise. Part of their argument, as explained recently by Shane Bench and his colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is that “just as master chess players and seasoned firefighters develop intuitive expertise that aids their decision making, seasoned experimenters may develop intuitive expertise that influences the ‘micro decisions’ they make about study selection … and data collection.”

To see if there really is any link between researcher expertise and the chances of replication success, Bench and his colleagues have analysed the results of the recent “Reproducibility Project” in which 270 psychologists attempted to replicate 100 previous studies, managing a success rate of less than 40 per cent. Bench’s team found that replication researcher team expertise, as measured by first and senior author’s number of prior publications, was indeed correlated with the size of effect obtained in the replication attempt, but there’s more to the story.

Continue reading “Replication success correlates with researcher expertise (but not for the reasons you might think)”

The evidence for the psychological benefits of animals is surprisingly weak

Senior woman lying with a dog on a white chairBy Christian Jarrett

To see a man’s face light up as he strokes a dog, to hear a child’s laughter as her hamster tickles her skin, it just seems obvious that animals are good for our state of mind. Let’s hope so because not only do millions of us own pets, but also animals are being used therapeutically in an increasing number of contexts, from residential care homes to airports, prisons, hospitals, schools and universities. Unfortunately, as detailed by psychologist Molly Crossman in her new review in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the research literature has simply not kept pace with the widespread embrace of animal contact as a form of therapy in itself, or as a therapy adjunct. In short, we don’t know whether animal contact is psychologically beneficial, and if it is, we have no idea how.

Continue reading “The evidence for the psychological benefits of animals is surprisingly weak”

No reason to smile – Another modern psychology classic has failed to replicate

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Image via Quentin Gronau/Flickr showing how participants were instructed to hold the pen

By Christian Jarrett

The great American psychologist William James proposed that bodily sensations – a thumping heart, a sweaty palm – aren’t merely a consequence of our emotions, but may actually cause them. In his famous example, when you see a bear and your pulse races and you start running, it’s the running and the racing pulse that makes you feel afraid.

Consistent with James’ theory (and similar ideas put forward even earlier by Charles Darwin), a lot of research has shown that the expression on our face seems not only to reflect, but also to shape how we’re feeling. One of the most well-known and highly cited pieces of research to support the “facial feedback hypothesis” was published in 1988 and involved participants looking at cartoons while holding a pen either between their teeth, forcing them to smile, or between their lips, forcing them to pout. Those in the smile condition said they found the cartoons funnier.

But now an attempt to replicate this modern classic of psychology research, involving 17 labs around the world and a collective subject pool of 1894 students, has failed. “Overall, the results were inconsistent with the original result,” the researchers said.  Continue reading “No reason to smile – Another modern psychology classic has failed to replicate”

Are the benefits of brain training no more than a placebo effect?

If you spend time playing mentally taxing games on your smartphone or computer, will it make you more intelligent? A billion dollar “brain training” industry is premised on the idea that it will. Academic psychologists are divided – the majority view is that by playing brain training games you will only improve at those games, you won’t become smarter. But there are scholars who believe in the wider benefits of computer-based brain training and some reviews support their position, such as the 2015 meta-analysis that combined findings from 20 prior studies to conclude “short-term cognitive training on the order of weeks can result in beneficial effects in important cognitive functions”.

But what if those prior studies supporting brain training were fundamentally flawed by the presence of a powerful placebo effect? That’s the implication of a new study in PNAS that suggests the advertising used to recruit participants into brain training research fosters expectations of mental benefits.

Cyrus Foroughi and his colleagues produced two different recruitment adverts (see image below) to attract participants into a brain training study – one explicitly mentioned that the study was about brain training and mentioned that this training can lead to cognitive enhancements; the other was neutral and simply stated that participants were needed for a study. Nearly all previously published brain training research has used an overt, suggestive style of recruitment advertising.

Nineteen young men and 31 young women signed up in response to the two ads, with no gender or age differences between those who responded to each ad. Next, they completed baseline intelligence tests before spending an hour on a task that features in many commercial brain training programmes – the so-called dual n-back task, which involves listening to one stream of numbers or letters and watching another, and spotting whenever the latest item in one of the streams is a repeat of one presented “n” number of items earlier in that stream. As participants improve, “n” is increased, making the task more difficult. The next day, the participants completed more intelligence tests. They also answered questions about their beliefs in the possibility for people’s intelligence to increase.

The participants who’d responded to the overt, suggestive advert showed gains in intelligence after completing just one hour of brain training – a length of training too short to plausibly have produced any genuine benefit linked to the actual experience of doing the training. In contrast, the participants who responded to the neutral ad showed no intelligence gains. This group difference was despite the fact that the two groups performed just as well on the training task, suggesting no group differences in motivation or ability. Also, the group who’d responded to the suggestive ad reported stronger beliefs in the malleability of intelligence. This could be because people with these beliefs were more likely to respond to the suggestive ad, or because they’d been influenced by the claims of the ad – either way, it shows how the use of unsubtle recruitment advertising could be distorting research in this area.

The researchers said they’d provided “strong evidence that placebo effects from overt and suggestive recruitment can affect cognitive training outcomes”. They added that future brain training research should aim to better reduce or account for these placebo effects, for example avoiding hinting to participants what the goals of the study are, or what outcomes are expected. Their call comes after a group of psychologists warned in 2013 that intervention studies in psychology are afflicted by a “pernicious and pervasive” problem, namely the failure to adequately control for the placebo effect.

Placebo effects in cognitive training

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

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