Category Archives: psychological research and other things academic

goals, learning and contracts

after my post about small and SMART goals on garfield’s blog, i got inspired to write another one at brainblogger about the pitfalls and benefits of goal setting, this time taking a bit more of an academic slant. larry ferlazzo took up that post and talked about goal setting in the classroom. it made me think about learning goals. i won’t get much into this right now but i found it interesting that when i was googling around a bit about the topic, pretty much everything i saw were not really learner-directed goals. they were either goals clearly set by the teachers, or contracts that were not really contracts, i.e. they don’t meet the criterion of containing mutual promises. a lot of learning contracts (and contracts in counselling, too, by the way) are of the mafia sort: if you don’t pay up, we’ll break your leg. fortunately, there is usually little leg-breaking involved in learning or counselling contracts but they tend to be one-sided. the promises by one party (e.g. the learner) are numerous and clearly laid out, and often there are no promises made by the other party, or they are not specified.

depression and exercise

exercise – it works for depression is the title of a post i wrote for brainblogger the other day. it is about a large-scale study, the SMILE study (standard medical intervention and long-term exercise, conducted at duke university), which found that vigorous exercise three times a week for half an hour or forty-five minutes reduced symptoms of depression as effectively as antidepressants. there is the beginning of an interesting discussion in the comments about how to discuss findings like with people who are in the midst of depression.

any thoughts on this?

8 from google

my brain is still only functioning at 42.718% capacity (as opposed to the usual 60 7/8th) so i don’t find myself to be able to say much. what little brain power i had went to work today and another fabulous mental health chat on twitter. but i feel guilty for not blogging enough so i thought i’d show you what blog posts i’ve liked today in my google reader. i’ll even do the shocking thing and not convert everything into lower case! here we go:

The @5days_Vancouver campaign for homeless/at risk youth

from Hummingbird604.com by Raul

York and Wellington

photo credit: Danielle Scott

I was alerted by Nathan Tippe to the 5 Days Vancouver campaign, the local branch of the national 5 Days campaign, created by students to raise awareness of the situation of homeless people and at-risk youth. I was more than happy to promote the cause (a) because it is a fundraiser and (b) because the local chapter is being organized by UBC students (and as you know, I teach at UBC).

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Mental health report focuses on multicultural groups

A March 15th news release from the Mental Health Commission of Canada:
CALGARY, March 15 /CNW Telbec/ – Statistics Canada is predicting that 1 in 3 Canadians will belong to a visible minority by 2031. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has released a report addressing the needs of multicultural, immigrant and refugee groups. The study is part of its mandate to improve mental healthcare across all areas of Canadian society.

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8 Studies Demonstrating the Power of Simplicity

from PsyBlog by Jeremy Dean

3 people liked this

cloud

Psychological research on cognitive fluency shows why easy to understand = more profitable, more pleasurable, more intelligent and safer.

Which of these would you say sounds like the more dangerous food additive: Hnegripitrom or Magnalroxate?

The majority of people say Hnegripitrom sounds more dangerous. It turns out that the word ‘Magnalroxate’ is easier to think about than ‘Hnegripitrom’, probably because it’s more pronounceable, and people equate simplicity with safety (actually both words are made up).

This is one example of psychological research on meta-cognition: thoughts about other thoughts. Whether or not something is easy to think about”cognitive fluency”is one important type of meta-cognition, with all sorts of benefits accruing to things that are easily processed.

Here are 8 of my favourite studies on cognitive fluency, showing just how much can be explained by the feeling that something is easy to think about (or otherwise).

1. Complex writing makes you look stupid

Many of us did it in school: tried to impress teachers with fancy language and convoluted sentences, assuming it would make us look clever. As we soon discovered, though, most people can’t carry it off.

This has been tested by a study that manipulated text complexity to see how readers would judge the author’s intelligence. It found that as the text became more complicated, readers gave lower estimates of the author’s intelligence (Oppenheimer, 2005).

So if you want to be perceived as more intelligent (and who doesn’t?) keep your writing simple. This chimes perfectly with the standard advice given to wannabe writers. Sadly simplicity can be a lot harder to achieve than complexity.

(Note: the context of this study was students judging other students’ essays. This study might not extend to other types of writing and other types of readers.)

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Babies are born to dance, new research shows

A study of infants finds they respond to the rhythm and tempo of music and find it more engaging than speech. The research suggest that babies may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music.
from Mind on Fire by John
Past collaborative projects here at Mind on Fire have produced some fine creative work, like the results of the 18-hour comic day, and the virtual First of May Choir-you know, the JoCo song that goes, “First of May, First of May, Outdoor fucking starts today” (original call, final song). In that same spirit of group play, I would like to propose a new project. I would like to propose a group creative experiment with chance, disorder, fate, Jupiter, Steve-whatever you choose to call it.

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Too Big to Trust? Or Too Untrustworthy to Scale?

from Trust Matters by cgreen@trustedadvisor.com (Charles H. Green)

This will be my fourth week on the road; more on that later in the week. At least all that plane time (and waiting in lines time) makes for good reading time”thanks to the iPhone Kindle Reader app. (and no they don’t pay me for saying it).

I’m re-reading Francis Fukuyama’s 1995 classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

It’s the perfect companion for Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System”and Themselves.

Here’s why they belong together.

Fukuyama’s View of Trust

Fukuyama makes a compelling case that economic development is strongly affected by the cultural norms of a society”in particular, the propensity to trust. In this, he is up against both neo-classical economists (who argue people are rational utility-maximizers), Marxians (who argue it’s all about the money), and a ton of management theorists (who pretty much believe both).

As Fukuyama puts it:

The Chinese, Korean and Italian preference for family, Japanese attitudes toward adoption of non-kin, the French reluctance to enter into face-to-face relationships, the German emphasis on training, the sectarian temper of American social life: all come about as the result not of rational calculation but from inherited ethical habit.

Who we trust, it turns out, radically determines the nature of business we engage in.

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The Neuroscience of Anorexia Nervosa

from Dr Shock MD PhD by Dr Shock

anorexia nervosa

One of the most striking features of those suffering from anorexia nervosa is their perception of their bodies. You can put them in front of a mirror and they will still tell you they’re to fat when in fact they’re skinny. A recent publication in Nature Proceedings has an explanation.

This explanation is based on the fact that our spatial experience is based on the integration of two different kinds of input, two different sensory inputs within two reference frames. These two reference frames are the egocentric frame and the allocentric frame.

With the allocentric frame you can “see yourself engaged in the event as an observer would”, it’s the observer mode, you can see your self in the situation. This allocentric representation involves long term spatial memory mostly located in the hippocampus and the surrounding medial temporal lobes of the brain.

affirmations and research

a little while ago, a paper was published that suggests that positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. we examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. a survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective.

two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (”i’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.

among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ”need” them the most.

ray at the affirmation spot has an interesting discussion of this. let me add a few more thoughts.

as ray points out, it looks like the researchers didn’t quite know how affirmations are best used (and i think that ray’s suggestion of how the research might be conducted next time are fabulous). unfortunately, this happens more than occasionally in social science research. from what i can tell, that can come from a) truly not having a good understanding of the research subject and b) some of the traditional methodologies in social science research.

as for a), my husband, an avid poker player, often complains about that. he is very interested in psychology and enjoys participating in poker-related research. almost all of the time, however, he finds that psychologists who research poker have little understanding of the game, not appreciating, for example, that many serious poker players don’t approach it as a game of chance (like roulette, for example) but as a game of skill. consequently, the researchers ask questions that are irrelevant to these serious poker players and therefore end up with irrelevant results. i wonder whether that was similar in the research ray talks about.

regarding methodologies used, we need to keep in mind that experimental research as it traditionally carried out needs to be tightly controlled, which means that the more variables are introduced into an experiment, the less control there is possible – which in turn means that researchers like to have as few variables as possible (i.e. they just use one question). there are some good uses of experimental research – the famous pavlovian dog, for instance, has spawned some truly remarkable work – but experimental research also has its limits. perhaps using this methodology was not the best one for the topic of affirmations. that, of course, poses a problem – experimental research is often seen as the only methodology that will give reliable results.

on the other hand, i think it’s important that these topics are taken under the microscope of research and science. i would not be sitting here on this laptop that is a hundred times faster than the first million-dollar computer i ever worked with if it was not for science, and you wouldn’t be reading it on your iPhone or on facebook. science is a great treasure. the argument “affirmations have worked for me, so this research is bogus” is not – not, not, not – valid. qualitative experimental research is about statistics and probabilities and the question is not, “did/do/will affirmations work for joe?” but, “for how many of these 100 people did affirmations work, and does this give us reason to believe that they will work for an equal percentage of a given population in the future?”

in the end, we need to figure out how we would like to use this research. if affirmations have worked for you and perhaps also your clients, great. you can just look at this research and say, “hm, interesting, doesn’t seem to apply to me.” on the other hand, if you have found that affirmations haven’t always delivered what you had hoped, perhaps this research has a clue to what’s going on. note the “perhaps”. that’s what research and other sources of knowledge (and maybe even wisdom) are – little pieces of a puzzle that sometimes but not always show us the way to a bit more understanding.

suicide prevention

today is the last day of suicide prevention week. to honour those who have attempted suicide and survived, those who have lost loved ones, and the lives of people who have chosen this sad way out, i’ve collected a few worthwhile links on the topic. if we put them all together, here are some ways to further the work of suicide prevention:

  • stop focusing in the individual, switch to a population approach, one that is working so well with smoking and cardiovascular disease. the refinement of individual assessment has passed the point of diminishing returns.
  • address the social ills connected with suicide
  • pay attention to high risk individuals, e.g. LGBTQ youth
  • create a corporate culture where workers feel comfortable seeking help from their company’s EAP or other resources
  • learn and teach positive life skills to the whole family
  • create a buddy system to prevent the profound sense of loneliness, alienation and isolation that often precedes suicide
  • help people with chronic health problems such as depression, ptsd, seniors and people with chronic pain tunderstand that they are not a burden
  • accessible counseling
  • use the expressive arts to help prevent suicide
  • pay attention to the feeling of powerlessness that often precipitates suicide attempts in girls
  • listen and talk to your loved ones!
  • trust your gut
  • take seriously any sudden and troubling behaviour changes you see in your loved ones

and here are the links, with excerpts from the articles:

suicide prevention: stop focusing in the individual, switch to a population approach

firstly, identifying and treating high-risk individuals is unlikely to result in lower suicide rates. the refinement of individual assessment has passed the point of diminishing returns, and the obsessive study of suicidal individuals will not uncover the holy grail of perfect prediction …

secondly, pessimism about suicide may not be justified, despite the rising rates. the turnaround in the rising road toll and in cardiovascular disease teaches what can be done. the lesson is that measures which reduce overall risk in the whole population will reduce the number of people above the fatal threshold, and we do not need to identify the high-risk people individually.

consequently, we may have to abandon the frontal assault on suicide. we cannot justify prevention campaigns driven by the suicidal risk of individuals, despite the intuitive and political appeal of such measures. indeed, to the degree that they drive resources into ineffective strategies, current approaches to “suicide prevention” may impede suicide prevention. instead, we must “bite the bullet” in restricting access to means of suicide, the most proximate factor. beyond that, we need the diligent, unspectacular work in the population which mitigates those factors which lead, among other things, to suicide. for medicine, it is to treat the ill, whether or not they are suicidal, and, from a public health pulpit, to address the social ills which produce morbidity, whether or not they lead to suicide.

suicide and anti-gay bullying – a preventable epidemic

when two 11-year-old boys died by suicide in april of this year after enduring relentless anti-gay bullying at their separate schools, shocked citizens across the country were forced to come to terms with an uncomfortable but blatant epidemic. the hallways of schools, homes, churches and other places where all young people should be able to safely learn and grow are plagued with its tragic prevalence. youth who identify as or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide at a disproportionately high rate as a result of the increased risk factors sexual minorities face.

workplace suicides

there was a 28 percent increase in the number of suicides committed in the workplace last year”251″compared with the prior year, according to a census by the US department of labor released in august.

and that number does not include the much greater number who kill themselves elsewhere, experts say.

employers are expressing increasing worry about employee suicide, say employee assistance plan providers.

there have been a greater number of calls recently from employers about how to handle potential suicides, said dr. doug nemecek, eden prairie, minnesota-based senior medical director for cigna corp.’s health solutions organization, which includes its behavioral health and EAP business.

in some cases, employees are informing managers about co-workers who have expressed suicidal thoughts on their facebook pages, he said.

but creating a corporate culture where workers feel comfortable seeking help from their company’s EAP or other resources can help, experts say.

suicides in the army

the army wants soldiers and their families to know help is available to those struggling with issues that sometimes bring about suicide.

“this year’s strategy focuses on three key points – training the army family in positive life skills, buddy care and counseling through a variety of ways,” said army chief of chaplains chaplain (maj. gen.) douglas l. carver. “i think educating our leaders, soldiers and families on what to look for in suicidal behaviors has made our people more sensitive and aware.”

soldiers who commit suicide usually do so because they can’t see another way out of a painful situation chaplain carver said. frequent and longer deployments add yet more burden, especially on relationships, he said.

using the arts to prevent suicide

a while ago, a friend of mine started a nonprofit. she’s a bit mad herself, splitting her time between denver and DC, working, writing a book and taking classes in addition to her passion: the nonprofit. mad to live is “a suicide prevention and awareness foundation, which aligns with and supports the arts as a way to augment mental health services.”

the organization leverages creative expression and the arts as part of therapeutic healing. over the weekend, mad to live teamed with the kristin brooks hope center to raise awareness about the center’s Vet2Vet crisis line. the event revolving around the arlington arts center exhibit, picturing politics 2008, included the work of two veterans’ organizations, featuring photographs depicting life in iraq and afghanistan.

a new theory of why people commit suicide

dr. joiner has proposed a new theory of why people suicide which he believes is more accurate than previous formulations offered by writers like edwin schneidman, ph.d. and aaron beck, md. according to schneidman’s model, the key motivator which drives people to suicide is psychological pain. in beck’s understanding, the key motivator is the development of a pervasive sense of hopelessness. dr. joiner suggests that these are correct understandings but are also too vague to be useful for predictive purposes and not capable of offering a complete motivational picture.

joiner proposes that there are three key motivational aspects which contribute to suicide. these are: 1) a sense of being a burden to others, 2) a profound sense of loneliness, alienation and isolation, and 3) a sense of fearlessness. all three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide. psychological pain and a sense of hopelessness correspond roughly to joiner’s concepts of burdensomeness and alienation, and contribute to the content of much suicidal ideation. these are necessary but not sufficient preconditions for a suicide act, however. so long as a person remains fearful of death and the actions and consequences of the activities that will create death, the actual act of suicide is unlikely.

girls and suicide

girls are four times more likely to attempt suicide than boys. the risk factors leading to suicide among teens — family disruption, substance/sexual abuse, gay/lesbian sexual orientation — lead to feelings of powerlessness in our society. girls, i believe, have less avenues to excise these feelings and are therefore more likely to act out on their own bodies (e.g., cutting, anorexia, bulimia, and suicide) than boys.

listen to your kids!

a parent shares tips on helping children to overcome the desire to end their lives:

talk to your kid.
really talk to them with no outside distractions and try and get to the bottom of what is going on. if you do not feel like you can do that, do not be afraid to enlist the help of a professional. that is what they are there for. that is their job. they have been there and done that and they can be a world of help.

look for marked behavior changes.
has your bright and cheery twelve year old suddenly become this child who you do not recognize? is he/she doing things that you never would have dreamed that they would do like drinking, smoking or skipping school? while that kind of behavior can sometimes be a “teenager thing”, you know your child. you know what is normal and what is not.

trust your gut.
one of the most important things to remember is that a kid who is seriously considering suicide is most likely not going to broadcast it. i have never heard of a person saying, “i’m going to kill myself tomorrow. someone stop me.”. if they mean to die, they are secretive and this is when knowing your child’s friends and habits becomes so important.

of schizophrenic mice and men

here is some exciting new research on schizophrenia, which i found through changeseeker. the full text is at psycport; i’ve added a few links and comments.

new research from the northwestern university feinberg school of medicine has revealed how schizophrenia works in the brain and provided a fresh opportunity for treatment. in a new, genetically engineered mouse model [which was pioneered by the good people at johns hopkins], scientists have discovered the disease symptoms are triggered by a low level of a brain protein necessary for neurons to talk to one another.

in human and mouse brains, kalirin [named after the multiple-handed hindu goddess kali for its ability to interact with numerous other proteins] is the brain protein needed to build the dense network of highways, called dendritic spines, which allow information to flow from one neuron to another. northwestern scientists have found that without adequate kalirin, the frontal cortex of the brain of a person with schizophrenia only has a few narrow roads. the information from neurons gets jammed up like rush hour traffic on an interstate highway squeezed to a single lane.

“without enough pathways, the information takes much longer to travel between neurons and much of it will never arrive,” said peter penzes, assistant professor of physiology at the feinberg school. he is senior author of a paper reporting the findings published in a recent issue of the proceedings of the national academy of science. michael cahill, a feinberg doctoral student in neuroscience, is the lead author.

“this discovery opens a new direction for treating the devastating cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia,” penzes said. “there is currently no treatment for that. it suggests that if you can stimulate and amplify the activity of the protein kalirin that remains in the brain, perhaps we can help the symptoms.”

currently the only drug treatment for schizophrenia is an antipsychotic. “the drugs address the hallucinations and calm down the patient, but they don’t improve their working memory (the ability of the brain to temporarily store and manage information required for complex mental tasks such as learning and reasoning) or their ability to think or their social behavior,” penzes said. “so you end up with patients who still can’t integrate into society. many attempt suicide.”

here is a study on the effect of the use of antipsychotics, particularly clozapine, by people with schizophrenia.

the following is an excerpt from an article which reviews the literature on suicide and suicide prevention of people with schizophrenia, where the suicide rate is anywhere from 5% to 29%:

mann et al. [250] reviewed the literature and identified a number of strategies that are effective in the prevention of suicide such as education and awareness programs for the general public, primary care providers and other gatekeepers, screening for individuals at high risk, and providing treatment using pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. in particular, the prevention of suicide in schizophrenia should include providing proper information for the family members of the patient in the hope of reducing their hostility toward the patient. in addition, continuity of care after suicide attempts, restricting access to lethal methods and media reporting guidelines are important strategies to prevent suicide. since it is such a strong predictor of future suicide, preventing and reducing attempted suicide in schizophrenia may have a positive long-term impact.

researching motivation

a beautiful body, a calm mind, health into old age, a job that makes you bounce out of the bed in the morning with excitement – aaah, we all want it. and for many of us, these dreams area attainable.

what often stands in the way is our sluggish attitude towards changing our ways to make those great things come true.

once in a while this really bugs me and i sit there frowning, pondering the mysteries of motivation. today i went on a hunt to see what other equally puzzled people have found. here are five researchers who are working on interesting angles:

jeff stone: how hypocrisy motivates change
in their article, stone and fernandez wrote:

“the dissonance and the need to restore consistency are induced by subsequently making people aware of the fact that they themselves have failed to practice the target behavior in the past. mindfulness for past failures is accomplished by having people examine or generate a list of their reasons for not performing the behavior when they had the opportunity.”

when a person has the realization, the co-authors wrote, they begin to feel discomfort which then leads them to feel motivated to make a change.

one study in particular asked students to help develop an aids prevention and education program. during the process, students talked publically about important safe sex acts and half of them were later asked to write down their own personal behaviors. others were also asked to video tape messages about safe sex.

“it’s really most effective when people publically advocate to people and allow people to discover on their own – or lead them to discover on their own – that they don’t perform the behaviors that they tell others to do,” stone said.

the researchers found that those students who were realized that their words did not necessarily follow their actions were most likely to report that they would change.

this is tied to a person’s perceptions of self-integrity and also to honesty and sincerity. “following a hypocritical act,” the co-authors wrote, “maintaining or restoring these perceptions of self-integrity requires that people act in a more honest and sincere manner than in the past. thus, when they behave like a hypocrite, people become motivated to be honest and sincere about the norms for behavior, which is most directly accomplished by bringing their behavior into line with the proposed course for action.”

what motivates older people?
an excerpt from the online book when i’m 64 by the committee on aging frontiers in social psychology, personality and adult developmental psychology:

older people might have unique motives for change: for example, they might be especially and uniquely family oriented, and thus, wish to be less of a burden to their families, or they might be motivated to maintain an exercise program in order to retain physical functioning. or they might be uniquely motivated by a behavior change that would promote global good. for instance, older adults might be willing to make a contribution to the needs of one generation in hopes that their contribution might flow through to other generations.

stephen intille – cell phone health
dr. stephen intille from MIT is

developing and evaluating software for a common mobile phone that uses context-aware, tailored, just-in-time presentation of information and operant conditioning, a training technique, to encourage brisk walking. the system uses subtle audio cues as positive reinforcement. the prototype is an example of a ubiquitous computing health intervention that presents behavior-specific prompts and encourages incremental behavior change using successive approximation. to evaluate the effectiveness of the system, it is being deployed in a population of finnish mobile phone users. the impact of the technology on physical activity and feelings about fitness and readiness to engage in physical activity will be measured.

fear, romance and motivation
vladas griskevicius (university of minnesota) suggests that the effectiveness of persuasion tactics can be dramatically changed by two primal emotions – fear and romantic desire.

in the forthcoming paper “fear and loving in las vegas: evolution, emotion, and persuasion,” griskevicius and his co-authors find that the emotion we are currently feeling has a strong effect on whether we decide to conform or to go against the grain “being afraid especially leads people to go along with the crowd, activating a ‘safety-in-numbers’ psychology,” says griskevicius. “a feeling of lust, however, motivates people to go it alone, activating a desire to be seen as unique. feeling scared or amorous can greatly change the way people make decisions.”

power motivates
the thought of acquiring power motivates people to act.  in the wake of barack obama’s “yes we can” victory, a study has emerged from stanford about what motivates people to take action. the prime mover, say researchers, is acquiring a position of power.

specifically, it is people’s new, more elevated perception of themselves after assuming a position with more power that inspires them to take more risks and pursue goals more confidently. taking on a formal position of power”be it managerial, political, or cultural”gives people the illusion they have more control over their organization and their world, which, in turn, can propel them to go for the gusto. in the best-case scenarios, this can lead to achieving unimaginable accomplishments. in the worst, it can lead to poor decision making and devastating losses.