Recent Psychology Research

I am happy to share with you some of the latest scientific research.  Pointers to new research are always welcome as indeed are errors.

Even one hour of moderate exercise can stave off depression. The benefits of exercise for good mental health have long been known but a recent study in Australia compared baseline data from an 11 year study of 33,000 healthy individuals and the results show that even modest exercise is proven to be beneficial.  Those not undertaking any exercise had a 44% chance of developing depression, compared to those who just exercised for 1-2 hours a week. The level of intensity of the exercise was not significant. About 20% of Australians will experience some form of depression each year.  Interestingly, no correlation was noted with respect to anxiety. Reference: Harvey, S.B. et al. (2017) Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort StudyAmerican Journal of Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223

Does how we talk to ourselves mke a difference? We all talk to ourselves.  Does it make a difference how we do it? It seems few do it as well as they might. Rather than asking “why do I always feel anxious?” asking the question using the “third person” – “Why does John feel anxious?” has been shown to be an effortless technique that helps us better regulate our emotions. Using “I” can trigger an emotional response, but slightly detaching ourselves, and conversing with ourselves using our name gives us a bit of distance from the cause of upsets, and this helps us think more clearly. Reference: Moser, J.S., et al (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Nature Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3

Not getting enough sleep can make anxiety and depression worse. It’s axiomatic that not getting enough sleep can have a number of deleterious effects. But more intense depression has now been identified as a consequence. While there are numerous symptoms of depression, including low mooed, sadness, negative perspective and lack of enjoyment, poor quality sleep has been linked to more serious depression. Being sleep-deprived actively prevents us feeling positive, and if not addressed can lead to deep depression. Interestingly, this was not linked to those with insomnia, as they may have developed coping mechanism.  Reference: Ivan Vargas, I, et al (2017). Insomnia Symptom Severity Modulates The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Attentional Biases to Emotional InformationCognitive Therapy and Research, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10608-017-9859-4

Does prolonged time online detract from good mental health?    It’s almost axiomatic that young people are spending ever more time online, and there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that many young people (and some not so young) have a compulsion to check their smartphones constantly. But there is now empirical evidence that shows a strong correlation between excessive Internet dependency (some would say ‘addiction’) and mental health issues. Although it’s uncertain whether those with mental health issues spend a great deal of time online, or spending long periods of time online has consequences for mental health, the latest research shows test subjects who spend most time online exhibited significantly increased incidence of symptoms for anxiety and depression, ADHD, poor time management, and compulsive behaviour and ADHD. Reference: van Ameringen, M. (2016). Paper presented at 29th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress. Abstract P.6.e.002. Online article:

Smoking cannabis is often assumed to reduce depression. But a recent study of twins shows that frequent, early use of cannabis is strongly associated with suicidal thoughts and major depressive episodes. The data showed that cannabis users who were one of twins, were far more likely (sometimes >100 times!) to be depressed/suicidal meet criteria than their genetically identical twin who had never used cannabis or who had used it less frequently. As is often the case, it’s not completely clear whether excessive cannabis use is a cause or a consequence. Reference: Agrawal, A., et. al. (2017). Major depressive disorder, suicidal thoughts and behaviours, and cannabis involvement in discordant twins: a retrospective cohort study. The Lancet 24 July 2017.

Your smartphone makes you less smart. Researchers found that having a smartphone nearby reduces test scores on cognitive ability. Poorest performance was evident with the phone on the desk, while those with their smartphone in another room performed significantly higher.   The more dependent we are on our devices, the more pronounced the effect. It appears that the brain remains focused on the smartphone if it’s nearby, even if it’s switched off.   Reference:  Ward, A.F. et al . (2017) Brain Drain: the Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer  Research 2(2): 140-154. DOI

Sex is good for you when you age. Traditionally, younger people often find it a bit difficult to think of sexuality in older people. But research from Coventry and Oxford Universities indicates that sexual activity in older people is positively correlated with a range of tests, including memory and recall, verbal and spatial ability. This reinforces previous findings that increased engagement in mental, social, and physical activity is linked to a lower rate of cognitive decline in older adults.Reference: Wright, H. et at. (2017) Frequent Sexual Activity Predicts Specific Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci  DOI

Hunter-Gatherers’ brain evolution. We know that exercise is good for our bodies, but understanding how our brains evolved may provide insights into our cognitive processes.  It is hypothesised that when our ancestors moved from a relatively sedentary life style and began roaming more widely across a complex landscape, hunting and gathering this engaged our minds more intensively because of the need for memory, spatial awareness, ecological patters, and risk-avoidance. The implication is that physical activity has a role in healthier brains and cognitive processes. Reference:  David A. Raichlen, A., and Alexander, G. (2017) Adaptive Capacity: An Evolutionary Neuroscience Model Linking Exercise, Cognition, and Brain Health. Trends in Neurosciences 40 (7): 408

Washing hands may helps clarify goals, suggests Canadian researcher Ping Dong.  Psychologists have been intrigued for some time about the relationship between cleansing the mind and physical cleanliness, and this study strongly indicates the hand washing can help pursue goals, at least in the short term, by ‘washing away’ old ideas. Reference: Dong, P., & Spike W. (2017) Embodiment as procedures: Physical cleansing changes goal priming effects.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 146(4): 592.

Is blood thicker than water for older people? Although it’s often assumed there is generally something special about social relations within families, a recent study of over 275,000 people in over 100 countries shows that the support provided by long-term friendships is often stronger when it comes to happiness and health. A long-established friendship that has stood the test of time is often more supportive for older people, largely due to continuing friendships being a matter of personal choice, and that family relationships can often be predictable and one-dimensional. Reference: Chopik, W.J. (2017) Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the adult lifespan. Personal Relationships 24 (2): 408-422. 

Past Regrets? Self-esteem can drop. Many factors can diminish low self-esteem, but a recent Dutch research study shows low self-esteem is often related to interpersonal difficulties, particularly in regard to regret of past sacrifices, which then affects negative mood, stress and life satisfaction.  The issue of sacrifice was highlighted, says one of the researchers: “low self-esteem individuals feel less supported by the partner after they sacrifice which helps explain why they come to regret their sacrifices….People with low self-esteem sacrifice in their relationship as much as people high in self-esteem [but] they are more likely to regret those sacrifices and this leads them to experience more negative mood, greater stress and lower life satisfaction, even over time.” The advice for partners is to acknowledge the sacrifice(s) and not just assume that the sacrifices were noted: “Perhaps, talk together (in a constructive manner!) about what you have done for him/her and what it has entailed for you.” Reference: Righetti, F. & Visserman, M. (2017) I Gave Too Much. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 16 May 2017.

We should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them is well-established advice. But recent research shows that improved understanding of our own mental state helps sharpen our perspectives on the mental state of others; the more effective our own insights into ourselves, the more that enhances awareness of the situation of others. Reference: Böckler, A. et al. (2017).  Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement 1(2): 197-209. DOI

The pursuit of happiness just too much effort?  Those of us cynics who believe that any more than 50 words on a Facebook post often seems to be just too many words for many, will find a recent pair of studies of interest: they indicate that passive pleasure is often preferred to achieving happiness if a challenge is involved. A survey of 300 people in North America suggests that even though it’s generally accepted that lasting happiness derives from activities that are perceived as challenging or even daunting, there is a distinct preference for easier, more relaxing activities such as watching TV, although the actual perceived effort involved in the former doesn’t seem to be a factor. The implication seems to be that immediacy of relaxing passively in the moment is distinctly preferable to other activities that require gearing up.  Reference: Schiffer. L.P. and Roberts, T.A. (2017) The paradox of happiness: Why are we not doing what we know makes us happy? The Journal of Positive Psychology. Online 11 Jan 2017

Worried why we can’t stop worrying? Although research is still needed as to the psychological origins of worry, current research shows worry seems to satisfy several inherent needs. These include extremely sensitive vigilance against perceived threats or danger, with benefit of the doubt siding squarely with ‘threat! So the worrier automatically jumps to worst-case scenario, rather than considering other possible factors. Interestingly, deep worriers worry less after training: relaxing and taking slow deep breaths inhibits worry.  Being a ‘bit of a perfectionist’ seems to lend itself to intense scrutiny that characterises pathological worry, as does low mood. It may seem to the worrier that they really are zooming in on potential threats in order to guard carefully against unforeseen outcomes, but the process reinforces psychological discomfort. Learning more about the emotional and cognitive aspects helps diminish protracted worry. So too do regular walks!   Davey, G.C.L. and Meeten, F. (2016).  The preservative worry bout: A review of cognitive, affective and motivational factors that contribute to worry perseveration. Biological Psychology Vol 121, Part B:  233–243.

Are you worried your Facebook friends have more friends that you do? We all like to think we are smarter, kinder, more caring and more friendly than our friends. So it’s a bit of a shock to find our friends on social media usually have more friends than we do; this is the somewhat inelegantly termed “Generalised Friendship Paradox”. Recent search shows that our friends often DO have more friends than us 90% of the time. The reason for this seems to be people tend to follow up or across the hierarchy, and rarely down. Perhaps it’s just an online continuation of always wanting to be friends with popular people. Reference:  Moment, N. & Rabbat, M (2016) Qualities and Inequalities in Online Social Networks through the Lens of the Generalized Friendship Paradox. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (2): e0143633 DOI

Crime and decreased social cohesion in urban life may elicit psychoses.  It’s often been thought that city life isn’t all that conducive to good health but it seems symptoms of psychosis are becoming increasingly more evident in urban children. In an attempt to ascertain more precisely the mechanism that contribute to psychosis in young people in an urban environment,   a joint UK/US study followed over 2,000 children from birth to age 12 and found psychotic symptoms were twice as high in urban environments compared to non-urban locations, and that the two most significant factors were less social cohesion and higher crime.  Interestingly, some of the economically poorest neighbourhoods had more social cohesion. Reference: Newbury, J. et al. (2016) Why are Children in Urban Neighbourhoods at Increased Risk for Psychotic Symptoms? Findings From a UK Longitudinal Cohort Study. Schizophrenia Bulletin, May 2016 DOI

Anxiety defence mechanisms may inhibit help. Although anxiety-related issues are some of the most prevalent issues that detract from good mental health, they can often be difficult to resolve. A new Canadian study has found that traditional approaches involving asking the sufferer to drop defensive mechanisms in order to be more receptive to the influence of therapists often does not succeed. This may be yet another reason why therapy is of limited effectiveness. Reference: Levy, H.C & Radomsky, A. (2016) It’s the who not the when: An investigation of safety behavior fading in exposure to contamination. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2016; 39: 21 DOI: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.02.006

Pilots are just as intuitive as us when it comes to assessing weather from the flight deck.    Pilots may be certified either to fly under visual flight rules (which essentially allows them only to fly in good weather with good visibility that enables them to orientate themselves visually, navigate from landmarks, and maintain safe vertical and horizontal separation from other aircraft) or they can be formally qualified to fly in bad weather using instrumentation. Research shows that the former, when faced with deteriorating weather conditions, can often adopt flawed decision-making based on a number of psychological clues, leading to them to continue into bad weather, rather than the safer option of turning back or diverting.  Reference: Walmsley, S., and Gilbey, A. (2016) Cognitive Biases in Visual Pilots’ Weather-Related Decision Making. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., doi: 10.1002/acp.3225.

Expectations and the psychology of pain tolerance.     Tolerance to pain has long been known to have a psychological component. In a University of Würzburg experiment to underpin an interdisciplinary review, mens’ pain tolerance was tested. First, they were given leaflets explaining either that mentolerate pain more because of their hunter-gatherer antecedents or, that woman can endure pain more than men because of chid birth. The men were then tested. The results supported the hypothesis that the provision of information contributed to their being more or less pain-tolerant than women. The study confirms the view that negative reinforcement in particular impacts on neurosciences, psychology and educational science. Reference: Schwarz, K.A., et al. (2016) Rethinking Explicit Expectations: Connecting Placebos, Social Cognition, and Contextual Perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.04.001

Gift giving is a persuasive incentive. It has long been known that giving something to someone increases the likelihood of getting something in return. Computer hackers always prefer exploiting the weakest part of computer security systems — people — using social engineering to persuade them to divulge passwords, rather than having to resort to “brute force” programming techniques to hack into computer security systems. A University of Luxembourg study of over 1,200 people showed that a gift of chocolate markedly increased the number of people divulging their passwords to complete strangers.  Reference: Happ, al (2016) Trick with treat – Reciprocity increases the willingness to communicate personal data. Computers in Human Behavior 61: 372 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.026

When do we get lonely?  Although the feeling of loneliness, and an increase in anxiety and depression that often follows, loneliness is usually thought to increase the older we get, and is correlated with age-related factors such as the loss of a partner, less social interaction, and ill-health. But loneliness may well occur much  earlier in life, according to a European-US study. Interestingly, higher income and a professional career seems to be prevent loneliness. Reference: Maike Luhmann, M. and Hawkley. C. (2016)  Age Differences in Loneliness From Late Adolescence to Oldest Old Age.. Developmental Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/dev0000117

Untreatable degenerative disorders now better understood. A study by researchers at the University of Adelaide has shown that previously unknown mechanisms causing the onset of a range of neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimers, Huntingdons, and Parkinsons, may be linked to our innate immune system. Various triggers are believed to cause malfunctions from prolonged activation of our immune systems, leading to the uncontrolled death of brain cells. Reference: Richards, R., et al (2016) The Enemy within: Innate Surveillance-Mediated Cell Death, the Common Mechanism of Neurodegenerative Disease. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2016.00193

Online therapy may be effective at treating depression and anxiety. University of Pittsburgh researchers have evidence from a study of over 700 patients with psychological issues that delivering online CBT with and without complementary Internet Support Groups can be more effective than traditional face-to-face sessions. Lead researcher Dr. Rollman said, “providing depressed and anxious patients with access to these emerging technologies may be an ideal method to deliver effective mental health treatment, especially to those who live in areas with limited access to care resources or who have transportation difficulties or work/home obligations that make in-person counseling difficult to obtain.” Preliminary findings announced at a meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine held in Florida (12/5/2016).

Reconciliation heals social turmoil at the cost of increased anxiety. The success of Truth and Reconciliation pioneered by Nelson Mandela to heal the rift of apartheid in South Africa has been adopted by other countries recently, notably Sierra Leone, following a decade of civil war. An assessment of its effectiveness involving over 2,000 people in 200 villages shows that reconciliation programmes at local level do promote societal healing, but this is at the expense of psychological well-being, with increases noted in anxiety and symptoms of depression. Reference: Cilliers, J. et al. (2016) Reconciling after civil conflict increases social capital but decreases individual well-being. Science 352 (6287): 787 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad9682

Gang membership leads to increase in symptoms of depression. A recent US study showed that contrary to the belied that disaffected youngsters find emotional support in gang membership, young people joining gangs are more prone to develop symptoms of depression and become suicidal, and the symptoms worsen after joining.   A researcher stated “Kids join gangs for reasons, but when we try to find the benefits — whether it’s for protection, a sense of worth, whatever — we’re finding it actually makes an already significant problem in their lives even worse.”  Reference: Watkins, A.M. & Melde. C.,(2016) Bad Medicine: The Relationship Between Gang Membership, Depression, Self-Esteem, and Suicidal Behavior. Criminal Justice and Behavior, April 13, 2016 DOI: 10.1177/0093854816631797

Victims of human trafficking suffer from mental health issues, was the unsurprising conclusion of a study, led by King’s College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, that found that of 150 people trafficked to the UK from more than 30 different countries, nearly 80 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men reported high levels of depression, anxiety or PTSD. The UK Home Office estimates some 13,000 people in the sex trade or menial labour were brought in by traffickers. The global estimate is several million.  Reference: Oram, S., et al. (2016) Human Trafficking and Health: A Survey of Male and Female Survivors in England. American Journal of Public Health, 2016; e1 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303095

Got a hunch that gut instinct is actually linked to conscious cognition? Intuition may really exist as an entity —  and it can be trained. It’s long been known that we act or make decisions intuitively, but until now no one has  been able to show empirically that unconscious, rapid emotions can actually affect our decisions. An Australian research team at UNSW conducted experiments with 100 students that showed their brains were unconsciously processing emotional information as part of rational decision making. The study not only showed that intuitive mechanisms can be detected, but also that intuition can be improved with practice, which opens up fascinating possibilities that people can be trained to rely more on emotional factors  rather than just logical, conscious information. (Didn’t advertisers know this all along? [ed.])  Reference: Lufityanto, G., et al. (2016). Measuring Intuition: Nonconscious Emotional Information Boosts Decision Accuracy and Confidence. Psychological Science May 2016 27: 622-634.   doi:10.1177/0956797616629403

The Psychology of scientists? Science has long been amenable to study as attested by the established sub-disciplines of the history, sociology, and philosophy of science. But the psychology of science is now emerging. Science is unquestioningly objective and exemplifies the essence of cognitive activity. [Indeed, the Thrive Programme is underpinned by science].  But if you examine the five basic personality types, (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism), what implications does this have for scientists? People in science are highly conscientious, being particularly  fastidiousness and cautious about observation, measurement and inference. But they are also rated lower in “openness” to experience. As creativity tends to be associated with low conscientiousness and high openness, this provides an interesting area for study. Neuroscientists have, demonstrated, for example, that people pay more attention to data that concur with their own personal theories. So the scientific study of thought and behaviour in science has considerable value. But this isn’t limited to science per se. Developmental psychologists know infants can craft beliefs about the way the world works and the stages by which small children begin to distinguish theories from evidence. While psychology has become highly fragmented into ever more isolated fields — such as developmental, abnormal, positive, cognitive, clinical, educational, forensic, and occupational — the emerging field of the psychology of science may well become much more inclusive.   Reference: Feist, G.J. (2011) Psychology of Science as a New Subdiscipline in Psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20(5): 330-334

Happiness in the bottle is a myth. There are few empirical studies of the link between alcohol and well being. a recent study shows that an inverse relationship between alcohol consumption and long-term well being. Happiness at the time alcohol is consumed is only momentary. This has implications for public policy on alcohol issues. Simple accounts of alcohol policy’s impact on wellbeing are likely to be misleading. Traditionally governments assume people adopt the economists’ axiom that people act rationally and in their best interests — even when they are drunk or addicted to alcohol.   Reference: Geiger, B. and MacKerron, G. (2016) Can alcohol make you happy? A subjective wellbeing approach.  Social Science & Medicine 156:184–191

Pets help soothe the hurt from loneliness. Thinking about pets may help minimise the pain of social isolation. It has long been known that pets have a positive emotional benefit is a well-established belief. An empirical study shows that people who are likely to “attribute entities with human like-characteristics would benefit from even the most minimal engagement with animals…Even briefly thinking about cats or dogs is an effective strategy for improving feelings of social rejection.”   Reference: Brown, C.M. et al. (2016) Thinking about Cats or Dogs Provides Relief from Social Rejection. Anthrozoös, 2016; 29

Locus of control about health just after major surgery can become more internal.  Health locus of control is a measure of an individual’s beliefs regarding factors they believe influence outcomes. This had been thought to be a relatively stable entity. However, it is not clear if this status changes in the advent of serious health challenges, such as coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Research showed that health locus of control became more external (often associated with poorer outcomes) peri-operatively, and more internal (generally associated with better health outcomes) during post-operative rehabilitation. This has implications for issue improving post-surgical care.  Reference: Rideout, A., et al. (2016) Health locus of control in patients undergoing coronary artery surgery – changes and associated outcomes: a seven-year cohort study. Eur J Cardiovasc NursMarch 8, 2016 doi: 1474515116636501

Are friends better than drugs? Social interaction can reduce stress and depression and increase tolerance to pain, according to a new study that examines aspects of neurobiology and sociality. It showed that increased pain tolerance derives from body systems that generate analgesic endorphins. Interestingly these also positively predict social network size. While social support has long been known to help reduce stress, it remains unclear whether online social networks are more influential in diminishing or aggravating stress than real-world social interactions. However, it may be that stressed individuals find less time for social engagement and thus their network decreases in size.   Reference: Johnson, K. V.-A.& Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016) Pain tolerance predicts human social network size. Sci. Rep. 6, 25267; doi: 10.1038/srep25267

Frailty and depression link. A recent study of 1260 elderly (65+) married couples in a US cardiovascular health study revealed not only a correlation between frailty (defined by three or more of low body weight, excessive tiredness, slowness and a physically inactive lifestyle) and depression, but also that spouses married to a frail or depressed partner were also likely to become frail and depressed themselves, with older husbands becoming more frail and more depressed than younger ones. Interestingly, older wives were more frail but not more depressed than younger ones. The causes were not discussed but there was a clear recommendation to design living facilities to increase physical and social engagement. Reference: J Monin et al (2016) Spousal Associations Between Frailty and Depressive Symptoms: Longitudinal Findings from the Cardiovascular Health Study. Jrnl of the American Geriatrics Society, 64 (4): 824-830

Talking therapy may help reverse memory loss in cancer treatments. Delivering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy via videoconferencing has been shown to help reduce memory impairment in post-chemotherapy interventions for treating cancer patents. A small sample showed promise that this talking therapy helped reverse memory issues that are often evident following chemotherapy.   Reference; Ferguson, RJ et al. (2016)  Randomized Trial of Videoconference-Delivered Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Breast Cancer Survivors with Self-Reported Cognitive Dysfunction. Cancer, May 2, 2016.