There Is Only Weak Evidence That Mirror Neurons Underlie Human Empathy – New Review And Meta-Analysis

GettyImages-1080455448.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

It is not too long ago that mirror neurons were touted as one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience (or most hyped, depending on your perspective). First discovered in monkeys, these brain cells fire when an individual performs a movement or when they see someone else perform that movement. This automatic neural mirroring of other’s actions was interpreted by some scientists as the seat of human empathy. The cells’ most high-profile champion, US neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, described them as “the neurons that shaped civilisation” and, in 2000, he (in)famously said they would do for psychology what DNA did for biology. Nearly 20 years on, what evidence do we have that mirror neurons provide the basis for human empathy? According to a new meta-analysis and systematic review released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, the short answer is “not a lot”.

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Psychopaths And Narcissists Have Hogged The Limelight, Now It’s Time To Explore The Saintlier Side Of Human Personality, Say Researchers, As They Announce A Test of The “Light Triad” Traits

GettyImages-654174920.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have devoted much time over the last two decades documenting the dark side of human nature as encapsulated by the so-called Dark Triad of traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. People who score highly in these traits, who break the normal social rules around modesty, fairness and consideration for others, seem to fascinate as much as they appall. But what about those individuals who are at the other extreme, who through their compassion and selflessness are exemplars of the best of human nature? There is no catchy name for their personality traits, and while researchers have studied altruism, forgiveness, gratitude and other jewels in our behavioural repertoire, the light side of human personality has arguably not benefited from the same level of attention consumed by the dark side.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team led by US psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman at Barnard College, Columbia University says it is high time we redressed this imbalance. “Too much focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of the other misrepresents the full capacities of humanity,” they write. Through four studies featuring more than 1,500 online participants, Kaufman and his team have created a new questionnaire that taps what they are calling the Light Triad (see example items below, and you can take the test online). They’ve also provided preliminary evidence for the kind of personal characteristics and psychological outcomes that are associated with being a high scorer on the light side of personality – or what they call an “everyday saint”.

Continue reading “Psychopaths And Narcissists Have Hogged The Limelight, Now It’s Time To Explore The Saintlier Side Of Human Personality, Say Researchers, As They Announce A Test of The “Light Triad” Traits”

Brazilian Researchers Say Smartphone Addiction Is Real, And That It’s Associated With Impaired Decision-making

GettyImages-525949841.jpgBy Emma Young

Smartphone addiction (SA) is a controversial concept that is not recognised by psychiatry as a formal diagnosis. Critics say that a problematic relationship with one’s phone is usually a symptom of deeper underlying issues and that it is inappropriate to apply the language of addiction to technology. Nonetheless, other mental health experts believe SA is real and they’ve accumulated evidence suggesting it is associated with reductions in academic and work performance, sleep disorders, symptoms of depression and loneliness, declines in wellbeing – and an increased risk of road traffic accidents. According to a group of psychiatry and psychology researchers at one of the largest universities in Brazil, to that list can now be added: poorer decision-making. 

Studies suggest that the numbers of people with notional SA (defined by difficulty in controlling use of the smartphone, constant preoccupation with the possibility of being without it, and poor mood when it is taken away) are high – about 25 per cent of the population in the US; 10 per cent of adolescents in the UK; and a massive 43 per cent of people in Brazil, where the new research, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, was conducted. 

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How To Combat The “Illusion Of Causality” That Contributes To So Many Healthy People Taking Multivitamin Pills They Don’t Need

GettyImages-537472788.jpgBy Matthew Warren

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 does not 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 placeboand this data has to be accompanied by a scientific explanation for why the remedy is ineffective.

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Episode 15: Is Mindfulness A Panacea Or Overhyped And Potentially Problematic?

GettyImages-956814130.jpgThis is Episode 15 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.


Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but is it really as beneficial as it’s often made out to be? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears from clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Wikholm (co-author of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?); she visits the Cambridge Buddha Centre to meet people who have taken up mindfulness meditation; and she discusses some of the latest mindfulness research trials with Professor Barney Dunn, a clinical psychologist at Exeter University. Some of the evidence is indeed promising, and mindfulness meditation could offer a cost-effective way to help many people with mental health problems. However, Ginny also discovers that many trials are ongoing, mindfulness is not risk free, and it may not suit everyone.

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First Study To Explore What It’s Like To Live With Avoidant Personality Disorder: “Safe When Alone, Yet Lost In Their Aloneness”

GettyImages-472653346.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

In the first study of its kind, researchers have asked people to describe in their own words what it’s like to live with Avoidant Personality Disorder – a diagnosis defined by psychiatrists as “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation”. Like all personality disorder diagnoses, AVPD is controversial, with some critics questioning whether it is anything other than an extreme form of social phobia.

To shed new light on the issue, lead author Kristine D. Sørensena, a psychologist, twice interviewed 15 people receiving outpatient treatment for AVPD: 9 women, 6 men, with an average age of 33, and none of them in work. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the researchers said the overarching theme to emerge from the in-depth interviews was the participants’ struggle to be a person. “They felt safe when alone yet lost in their aloneness,” the researchers said. They “longed to connect with others yet feared to get close.” In the researchers’ opinion, the participants’ profound difficulties with their “core self” and in their dealings with others do indeed correspond to “a personality disorder diagnosis”.

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There Are Sex Differences In The Trajectory Of Depression Symptoms Through Adolescence, With Implications For Treatment And Prevention

GettyImages-171590184.jpgBy Matthew Warren

It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.

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In Later Life, We Become Less Aware Of Other People’s Anger And Fear, But Remain Sensitive To Their Happiness

GettyImages-529426058.jpgBy Emma Young

Most people find it easy to infer the emotional state underlying a scowl or beaming smile. But not all facial emotional signals are so obvious. Sensitivity to these less obvious emotional signals varies from one person to another and is a useful skill, improving relations with other people and benefiting psychological wellbeing. As well as varying between individuals, are there also shifts in this ability during a typical person’s life? And, if so, might these age-related changes be relevant to known high-risk periods for psychological problems and the onset of mental illness? A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some answers.

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A New Study Supports Evolutionary Psychology’s Explanation For Why Men And Women Want Different Attributes In Partners

GettyImages-876948742.jpgBy Jesse Singal

When it comes to the heated subject of differences between how men and women behave, debate in psychology has centered on mate preferences and general interests. The available research shows that when it comes to (heterosexual) mating preferences, men are relatively more interested in physical beauty, while women are relatively more interested in earning capacity. As for general interests, men are more interested in physical things, while women are more interested in people.

Even the staunchest evolutionary psychologists would acknowledge these are partially overlapping bell curves: There are plenty of men who are fascinated by other people, and plenty of women looking for physical beauty in a partner above all else. Yet the findings have been met with fierce resistance in some quarters. One of the more sophisticated rejoinders is known as social roles theory: The differences do exist, but they’re entirely or largely the result of gender roles imposed by society on individuals. However, a new study released as a preprint at PsyArXiv and involving participants from 36 countries has failed to replicate a key finding that’s previously been cited in support of social roles theory.

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Psychologists Love To Report “Marginally Significant” Results, According To A New Analysis 

 

Screenshot 2019-03-12 at 09.07.56.png
Figure 3 from Olsson-Collentine et al, 2019: “Percentage of p values (.05 < p ≤ .10) reported as marginally significant (solid lines) and percentage of articles containing at least one such p value (dashed lines) between 1985 and 2016 in different psychology disciplines”

By Matthew Warren

One of the greatest temptations for psychologists is to report “marginally significant” research results. When statistical tests spit out values that are tantalisingly close to reaching significance, many just can’t help themselves. 

Now a study in Psychological Science has shown just how widespread this practice is. Anton Olsson-Collentine and colleagues from Tilburg University analysed three decades of psychology papers and found that a whopping 40 per cent of p-values between 0.05 and 0.1 – i.e. those not significant according to conventional thresholds – were described by experimenters as “marginally significant”. 

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