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The heavier we become, the more likely we are to underestimate our weight

As we put on weight and our bodies become larger, it becomes increasingly harder for us — and for others — to tell visually if we’ve gained or lost weight, according to a recent study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

The study also found that we tend to significantly underestimate the weight of people who are very heavy.

This perceptual bias undermines our efforts to maintain a healthy weight, say the study’s authors.

“It is common knowledge that obesity levels in the West are rapidly rising and that people fail to recognize weight gain,” they write. “What has not been widely recognized before is that there are sound perceptual reasons for this failure.”

A two-part study

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Northumbria University and Newcastle University in the U.K., involved two experiments. In the first experiment, 29 women (staff and students at the British universities) were asked to estimate the weight of 120 women shown to them in photographs. The women in the photos had varying body sizes, and weighed from 62 to 230 pounds.

The researchers found that when the weight of the women in the photographs was below the population average for white women in the United Kingdom (about 154 pounds), the study’s participants tended to overestimate how much they weighed. The reverse was also true: When the weight of the women in the photographs was above that average, the participants tended to underestimate it — by as much as 10 percent for women at the higher end of the weight range.

In the second study, 28 different women were asked to determine if women shown in a photograph had the same or different body mass as that shown in a paired 3D computer-generated image of a female body. The researchers found that when the women in the photographs had a high body mass, the difference between it and the one in the paired computer-generated image had to be greater for the study’s participants to spot a difference.

These findings support two visual perception biases — contraction bias and Weber’s law — which have been previously ignored by people studying obesity, according to the current study’s authors.

“Contraction bias predicts that the weight of obese bodies will be underestimated and the degree of underestimation will increase as body mass index (BMI) increases,” they explain. “Weber’s law predicts that change in the body size will become progressively harder to detect as their BMI increases.”

Limitations and implications

This study had several limitations. Most notably, it involved only a small number of participants, and those participants were all women who either attended or worked at a British university. Other population groups might produce different findings.

Still, the findings offer a warning to people who are attempting to lose weight — or who simply want to maintain a healthy weight: You can’t rely just on visual cues.

“As people’s weight increases an observer will increasingly underestimate their body size,” the study’s authors write. “This may explain the discrepancy in the proportion of patients being reported as being overweight or obese relative to the proportion in the general population. This may also be a reason why parents do not seem to recognize their children are overweight and that they are getting heavier.”

If you want to maintain a healthy weight, you’ll need some objective data — and that means stepping on the bathroom scale regularly.

FMI: Unfortunately, the full study is behind a paywall, but you’ll find an abstract on the British Journal of Health Psychology website.

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Joyful events can trigger rare ‘happy heart syndrome,’ study finds

Some 25 years ago, Japanese researchers identified a rare, sudden, and temporary heart-weakening condition that can be triggered by an intensely stressful and emotionally negative event — one that engenders deep feelings of anger, fear or grief.

They called this condition takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or takotsubo syndrome (TTS), because it appears to cause the heart’s left ventricle — the organ’s main pumping chamber — to swell into a shape that resembles a takotsubo, a ceramic pot used traditionally in Japan as an octopus trap.

In the media and among the public, however, the condition is more commonly known as “broken heart syndrome,” primarily because of its association with tales of elderly people who die of a sudden heart attack within hours of learning about the death of their spouse.

That epithet may need to change. For late last week, an international team of researchers reported in the European Heart Journal that TTS may also be triggered — albeit in even rarer cases — by sudden and intense positive emotions, such as those experienced while attending a child’s wedding, becoming a grandparent or celebrating a birthday or retirement.

In other words, some TTS episodes might be better described under the moniker “happy heart syndrome.”

Study details

For the current study, researchers used the International Takotsubo Registry, which has been collecting data since 2011 on people with TTS from 25 hospitals in eight European countries and the United States. Between 2011 and 2014, the registry recorded 1,750 cases of TTS, of which 485 developed following an emotional event.

The researchers analyzed that data further and determined that while an overwhelming majority of those cases — 465, or 95.9 percent — were linked to a specific negative emotional event, a few — 20, or 4.1 percent — had been preceded by an intensively pleasant emotional event. 

Events in the study thought responsible for “happy heart syndrome” included attending a son’s wedding, meeting with friends from high school after 50 years, winning several jackpots at a casino, becoming a great grandmother, having a positive job interview, and being the focus of a joyful birthday celebration.

That link between TTS and birthday celebrations is particularly interesting, the researchers point out, because of another study that found people are 27 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke on their birthday than on any other day of the year.

Events in the study thought responsible for “broken heart syndrome” fell primarily under the headings of grief/loss, panic/fear/anxiety and interpersonal conflicts. They included the death of a spouse or other loved one, an automobile or other type of accident, a robbery or burglary, a family problem, and a house damaged by fire or flood.

Similar characteristics

The TTS symptoms of people with both “happy heart syndrome” and “broken heart syndrome” were similar, primarily chest pain and shortness of breath. In both groups, 95 percent of the people were women, mostly in their mid to late 60s, a finding that supports other research that has found TTS occurs mainly among older women.

The study did find one possible significant difference between the two trigger groups: “Happy heart” patients were more likely than “broken heart” ones to experience a ballooning of their heart’s mid-ventricle (35 percent versus 16 percent). The researchers do not know why.

TTS can lead to fatal heart arrhythmias, stroke and heart failure, but such deaths are extremely rare. Indeed, in this study only about 1 percent of the patients died — and none were among those with “happy heart syndrome.”

Limitations and implications

The current study has several limitations. To begin with, it is an observational study, which means it cannot prove that any emotional event — positive or negative — directly causes people’s hearts to suddenly weaken. Also, the number of patients who experienced TTS after a happy event was very small. For the phenomenon to be confirmed, much larger numbers of cases would need to be found.

The study’s authors, however, believe it is time to expand the colloquial definition of TTS.

“We have shown that the triggers for TTS can be more varied than previously thought,” said Dr. Jelena Ghadri, a resident cardiologist at the University Hospital Zurich and an author of the study, in a released statement. “A TTS patient is no longer the classic ‘broken hearted’ patient, and the disease can be preceded by positive emotions too. … Our findings broaden the clinical spectrum of TTS.”

Ghadri and her colleagues stress that much more research is needed to understand exactly why an intensely emotional event  — either positive or negative — can trigger a TTS episode in some people.

In the meantime, however, keep these findings in perspective, and don’t use them to cancel birthday or other joyful celebrations.

As reviewers of the study for the National Health Service in Great Britain emphasize: “These findings should not be taken as a reason to not enjoy positive emotional events. TTS is rare and usually reversible, so there is no real need for concern.”

FMI: You can download and read the study in full at the European Heart Journal website. 

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‘Tortured artist’ meme lacks good evidence, says British psychologist

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887

Vincent Van Gogh
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron once declared about poets. “Some are affected by gaity, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” 

That vision of the “tortured artist” — the belief that there is a strong link between creativity and mental illness — is deeply embedded in our culture.

And, indeed, the biographies of many well-known highly creative people — Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Wolf, James Baldwin, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams, to name just a few — appear to support that commonly held belief.

But what does the evidence — the scientific research — actually say about the connection between creativity and mental illness? 

Connection is weak

Not much, according to British psychologist and journalist Claudia Hammond. In a provocative article written last week for the BBC Future website, Hammond describes how and why research on this topic does not tell us what we may think it does.

One of the difficulties, she points out, is that there is no good way of defining creativity, so researchers have to use substitutes, such as professions. And that’s problematic, as Hammond explains:

 For example, a study from 2011 simply classifies people by occupation assuming that everyone who is an artist, a photographer, a designer or a scientist must be creative, regardless of their exact job. Using the Swedish government census the researchers did find that people with bipolar disorder were 1.35 times more likely to be in one of these creative jobs. But there was no difference when it came to anxiety, depression or schizophrenia. Because such a small range of jobs was included, this data can’t tell us whether people in creative professions are more likely than everyone else to have bipolar disorder or whether accountants are unusually unlikely to develop it.

Other studies frequently cited in support of the idea that creativity and mental illness are linked have additional methodological problems. One of these was a 1987 paper, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which compared 30 writers with an equal number of non-writers.

Writes Hammond: 

The writers were more likely to have bipolar disorder than the non-writers. It’s a small sample, with just 30 writers interviewed in 15 years and although it is cited widely, it has been criticised … because the mental health problems were diagnosed via interviews and it is not clear what criteria were used. Also the interviewer was not blinded to whether or not people were writers, which could skew the results. What’s more, the writers had chosen to visit a writing retreat, known to be a place where people sought sanctuary, so perhaps those writers were more likely to feel troubled in the first place. 

Even if the results are taken at face value they tell us little about causality. Did the supposed creative benefits of bipolar disorder make the writers more likely to choose their profession or did the symptoms mean it was harder for them to find a traditional job?  It is hard to know.

Also widely cited is a small study conducted by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of the best-selling memoir “An Unquiet Mind.”

“Again,” writes Hammond, “the research was based on interviews, this time with poets, novelists, biographers and artists. A total of 47 people took part, but there was no control group, so any comparisons can only be made with average rates in a population. She found surprising levels of mental illness. For example, half the poets had sought treatment at one time or another. This sounds like a high number, but as critics have pointed out, it is based on just nine people.”

For another widely cited study, psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Ludwig looked at the biographies of more than 1,000 famous people for references to mental health problems and found that “different professions had different patterns of problems,” says Hammond.

“The difficulty here,” she explains, “is that although the famous people were undoubtedly exceptional (Winston Churchill and Amelia Earhart, for example) they were not necessarily creative in the strictest sense of word. Although his lengthy study is often quoted as evidence in favour of a link, Ludwig himself admits in the paper that it has neither been established that mental illness is more common amongst the eminent or that it is necessary in order to achieve eminence.”

Why we believe in the link

So why do we continue to stick to the idea that creative people are more prone than the rest of us to mental illness, when the evidence in support of that idea appears to be weak at best?

Hammond offers several possible explanations. “One reason is that it seems to make intuitive sense that thinking in unusual ways or experiencing the energy and determination that mania can bring, might aid creativity,” she says.

But, of course, just because something seems intuitively true doesn’t mean it is true.

Another possible explanation has to do with the fact that we tend to remember dramatic incidents involving famous artists, writers and others with mental illnesses — Van Gogh cutting his ear off, for example, or Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse. 

“We don’t have equivalent mental pictures of artists happily getting on with their lives,” writes Hammond. “We estimate how often something is likely to happen by how easily it comes to mind, so if we are asked to consider whether genius and mental illness are linked, we are struck by the examples we can think of immediately.”

But there may be a more personal reason why we continue to embrace the “tortured artist” meme, says Hammond.

“Ultimately,” she writes, “I wonder whether the idea persists because it is comforting. Comforting if we have a mental health problem because it opens up the possibility of a positive side to it (and I interviewed many people over the years who have described positives to me) and comforting if we don’t because it makes us think that if we were a creative genius there would be a price to pay. Perhaps the link between mental illness and creativity endures simply because we want it to.”

FYI: You can read Hammond’s article on the BBC Future website.

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Speed-reading involves a tradeoff between speed and comprehension, experts say

Last July, a 63-year-old Anne Jones sat down in British bookstore and read Harper Lee’s 278-page “Go Set a Watchman” in 25 minutes and 11 seconds — an average pace of 11.1 pages per minute. 

A world speed-reading champion, Jones had previously read Dan Brown’s thriller “Inferno” (624 pages) in 41 minutes 48 seconds, and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (607 pages) in 47 minutes and one second. 

Those reading feats work out to more than 4,000 words per minute. That’s 10 to 20 times faster than the 200 to 400 words per minute considered a good reading speed for educated adults.

Jones’ speed-reading accomplishments certainly seem impressive — and appealing, at least for those of us whose work requires slogging through many long documents daily.

But is speed-reading — with comprehension — really possible?

Not according to a scientific review of the topic published recently in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. After looking at decades of research on reading and after reviewing the available evidence regarding popular speed-reading programs and apps, a team of cognitive psychologists concluded that there is no shortcut to getting around the time demands of reading.

“There’s a trade-off between speed and accuracy,” Elizabeth Schotter, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of California, San Diego, told the Boston Globe. “You can read faster, but that means you’re not going to have as precise an understanding of the text.”

What the research says

Here are some of the reasons:

  • Some speed-reading advocates argue that if you just focus on a few words within each line of text, you’ll still pick up plenty of other information from your periphery vision. But as Schotter and her colleagues point out, “contrary to the claims of speed-reading courses, readers cannot obtain information from a very large area of the visual field but rather primarily process text in the center of vision (i.e., the fovea).” So, by fixating on a limited number of words or phrases, you are missing all the other words (and information) in the text — and comprehension suffers.
  • Speed-reading advocates also urge readers to train themselves to stop making regressive eye movements — looking backward through a sentence. Between 10 percent and 25 percent of our eye movements during reading are regressive. But, the science clearly shows that “regressive eye movements actually support comprehension rather than causing a problem for reading,” write Schotter and her colleagues.
  • The latest approach to speed-reading uses apps that present text one word after another in quick succession — a process called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). Some of these apps offer reading speeds of up to 1,000 words per minute. While the evidence suggests that this approach can lead to bits of information being absorbed at a remarkable speed, comprehension still suffers. “The mental operations responsible for assembling viewed words into meaningful ideas and retaining them in memory cannot be completed if adequate time is not provided,” write Schotter and her colleagues. “Therefore, the promise that RSVP can produce faster reading without compromising understanding and memory is not supported by the research we reviewed.” 

Occasionally useful

Some people can — with intense practice — train themselves to read at great speeds, as Anne Jones has. (Practice can also help people accomplish other remarkable mind-training feats, such as memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards in 21.9 seconds or memorizing tens of thousands of digits of pi.) But for most of us, such training would be a waste of time  — and would lead to poorer, not greater, comprehension.

Speed-reading techniques do have their uses, however. 

“In some scenarios, it is tolerable and even advisable to accept a decrease in comprehension for an increase in speed,” write Schotter and her colleagues. “This may occur, for example, if you already know a lot about the material and you are skimming through it to seek a specific piece of information.”

“In many other situations, however, it will be necessary to slow down to a normal pace in order to achieve good comprehension,” they add. “Moreover, you may need to reread parts of the text to ensure a proper understanding of what was written. Bear in mind, however, that a normal pace for most readers is 200 to 400 wpm. This is faster than we normally gain information through listening, and pretty good for most purposes.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Psychological Science in the Public Interest’s website. The journal is published by the Association for Psychological Science.

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Does seasonal affective disorder even exist? Maybe not

When people become depressed during the winter months, it is not the result of reduced exposure to sunlight, according to new research published last week in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

In fact, the study found no significant correlation between depression and season, latitude or sunlight exposure.

These findings call into question the whole notion of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression whose symptoms are described as having a seasonal pattern, usually worsening in the fall and winter and then remitting in the spring and summer.

Seasonal depression has been included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1987.

“In conversations with colleagues, the belief in the association of seasonal changes with depression is more or less taken as a given and the same belief is widespread in our culture,” said Steven LoBello, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology at Auburn University at Montgomery, in a released statement. “We analyzed the data from many angles and found that the prevalence of depression is very stable across different latitudes, seasons of the year, and sunlight exposures.”

This study’s results — if true — should not be interpreted as meaning that people who experience depression during the fall and winter months are imagining their symptoms. All these findings suggest, write LoBello and his colleagues in their study, is that “merely being depressed during winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter.”

Study details

Although most people are unaware of it, studies that have examined the claim that seasonal changes are behind some recurrent episodes of major depression have had conflicting results. Part of the problem, says Lobello and his co-authors, is that researchers often ask people to recall when they were depressed, a method of gathering data that is vulnerable to inaccuracies and bias. People who have heard of SAD, for example, may tend to remember their symptoms as developing as the days became shorter, whether they did or not.

For their study, Lobello and his colleagues decided to use data that captured symptoms of current depression in a large group of people. They then analyzed that data to see if it was related to measures of sunlight exposure.

The data came from 34,294 American adults, aged 18 to 99, who participated in the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey. The survey, which is conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, included a list of questions that have been validated as a tool to measure current depression. A total of 1,754 people gave answers to those questions that met the criteria for depression.

The BRFSS data also included the date and geographic location for each of the survey’s interviews, which allowed Lobello and his colleagues to determine the latitude where the participants lived and (using U.S. Naval Observatory information) the amount of sunlight that participants were exposed to at the time of their interview.

After using several statistical models to analyze the data, the researchers found that season, latitude and sunlight exposure had no significant effect on symptoms of depression. Those findings held even after adjusting for a variety of possible confounding factors, such as age, race, gender, educational level, marital status and employment status.

“The findings cast serious doubt on major depression with seasonal variation as a legitimate psychiatric disorder,” Lobello and his colleagues write.

Limitations and implications

This study has several limitations. Most notably, participants were not diagnosed clinically — by a doctor — but only as a result of answers they gave in a phone interview. Some of the participants may not have answered those questions truthfully, particularly since admissions of depression often carry a social stigma.

It’s also possible that people with clinical depression may have not answered the phone at all.

This study is not able to prove — or disprove — that clinical depression has a seasonal variation. But, argue Lobello and his co-authors, if that variation does exist, it most likely affects only a very small subset of people.

“Depression is a recurrent illness,” they write. “Because all episodes of depression occur in some season, chance occurrence in two consecutive winters would explain some apparent seasonality. The role of chance as an explanation diminishes in cases where episodes are experienced in three or more consecutive winters. Even so, the existence of such cases would not in themselves demonstrate that changes in sunlight exposure are responsible for the depression.”

“The weight of accumulating evidence, including the evidence presented here, indicates that the burden of proof for including the seasonal variation modifier for major depression in DSM has shifted to those who would continue to do so,” they conclude.

You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Clinical Psychological Science website, but the full study is behind a paywall. The journal is published by the Association for Psychological Science.

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David Bowie, psychosis and positive nonconformity

Although many tributes have been written to singer-songwriter and actor David Bowie since his death at age 69 last Sunday from cancer, few have mentioned an important influence on his life and music — his experiences with psychosis, says British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell.

Writing in his award-winning MindHacks blog, Bell, who specializes in interventions for people experiencing a psychotic episode, notes that Bowie’s family had a history of this mental illness. 

“Two of his aunts were reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and [a] third was confined to an asylum,” he writes. “[And] one of Bowie’s most influential early role models, his half-brother Terry, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and reportedly had marked periods of psychosis.”

Bell explains how this family history is reflected in Bowie’s work:

Bowie’s brother was admitted to now defunct Cane Hill psychiatric hospital in South London and the experience heavily influenced 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World album with a drawing of the hospital appearing on the original sleeve art.

One of the songs on that album, All the Madmen, vividly describes madness and treatment in the old asylums. …

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the themes of madness pervade Bowie’s work. The title track for the Aladdin Sane album (a play on “A lad insane”) was inspired by his brother, as was the song Jump They Say. Some other references are more obvious, such as in the song I’m Deranged, while some only allude to altered states and psychological alienation, as in The Man Who Sold the World.

In addition, writes Bell, Bowie explained in a 1996 interview that his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust, was based on “the obscure rock star Vince Taylor who Bowie met several times, presumably between the periods Taylor spent in a psychiatric hospital. 

“Bowie himself was widely thought to have experienced an episode of psychosis himself, some years later, largely due to a period when he was taking very large amounts of cocaine while working on the album Station to Station,” Bell adds.

The science of nonconformity

Over at the website LiveScience, journalist Stephanie Pappas writes about what science tells us about the need to conform — and how that science may explain why Bowie’s positive expression of nonconformity has helped so many people who feel like misfits, particularly many in the LGBTQ community.

Writes Pappas:

Multiple studies have found that people gravitate toward others like them. One 2014 paper revealed that people even like those with voices and speaking styles similar to their own. Even infants choose puppets that like the foods kids like, found research by Yale University psychologist Karen Wynn. A 2013 study out of Wynn’s laboratory showed that babies prefer puppets that are nice to individuals who resemble the kids (in this case, still based on food preferences) and mean to individuals not like the children.

In light of this strong psychological predisposition for conformity, David Bowie was a ray of glamorous, sequin-studded light.

“When you read accounts of people who remember seeing David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust for the first time, they talk about this sort of awakening,” [Angela] Mazaris, [director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University in North Carolina] told LiveScience. The rocker’s bisexual alien alter ego portrayed androgyny and nonheterosexual sexuality as beautiful and worth celebrating, she said.

“I think it’s about being able to imagine possibilities for yourself and your identity,” she said. … “He really showed us there are so many ways to be a star.”

FMI: Pappas’ article can be found on the LiveScience website, and Bell’s can be found on his MindHacks blog. Bell also includes a link to a 1998 interview (below) with Bowie for VH1 documentary, in which he discusses his family’s history with mental illness.

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Volunteering time and money may be good for our health

Have you put “live a healthier lifestyle” on or near the top of your New Year’s resolutions list? If so, you may want to expand your strategies for accomplishing that goal beyond the usual “eat more healthful foods” and “exercise more.”

For a growing body of research — including two recently published studies — suggests that people who volunteer their time, or even their money, to a cause they care about tend to lead healthier lives. 

There’s a catch, though. The volunteering of time must be done for altruistic reasons — to help others, not just to improve your own health and well-being.

And being generous with money appears to have the greatest effect on the giver’s health when the money is spent on close friends and family.

Generosity and blood pressure

In an article published Saturday in the Washington Post, Ashley Whillans, a graduate student in social and health psychology at the University of British Columbia, writes about a study she and her colleagues conducted to determine if donating money has any effect on physical health.

Writes Whillans:

We gave 128 older adults (ages 65-85) $40 a week for three weeks. Half of our participants were randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves, and half were told to spend it on others. We told participants to spend their $40 payment all in one day and to save the receipts from the purchases they had made.

We measured participants’ blood pressure before, during and after they spent their study payments. We chose to examine blood pressure in this study because we can measure it reliably in the lab, and because high blood pressure is a significant health outcome — having chronically elevated blood pressure (hypertension) is responsible for 7.5 million premature deaths each year.

Among participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure, spending money on others significantly reduced their blood pressure over the course of the study. Critically, the magnitude of these effects was comparable to the benefits of interventions, such as anti-hypertensive medication and exercise.

The participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure (N=73), and who were assigned to spend money on themselves, showed no change in blood pressure during the study. As expected, for people who didn’t have high blood pressure, there was no benefit from spending money on others.

Interestingly, we found tentative evidence that how people spent their money mattered for promoting the benefits of financial generosity. People seemed to benefit most from spending money on others they felt closest to. This finding is consistent with previous research from our lab showing that people derive the most satisfaction from spending money on others when they splurge on close friends and family.

Limitations — and a warning

Of course, this study comes with several important caveats. To begin with, it involved a small number of people, a small amount of money and a short period of time.

“We don’t know a lot about how or how much people should spend on others to enjoy long-lasting health benefits,” writes Whillans. “Indeed, research suggests that the positive benefits of new circumstances can disappear quickly. Thus, to sustain the health benefits of financial generosity, it might be necessary to engage in novel acts of financial generosity, while prioritizing people that you are closest to.”

Whillans also offers this warning: “Financial generosity might not always benefit health. Drawing from research on caregiving, financial generosity might provide benefits only when it does not incur overwhelming personal costs. After reading this article, you probably should think twice before donating your entire life savings to charity, because the stress of helping so extensively could undermine any potential benefits.”

Volunteering and health decisions

In an article that appeared online last weekend in The Atlantic, Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at that publication, describes the findings from another recent study, which investigated how volunteering time to a cause affects people’s decision about their health:

[Eric Kim of Harvard University and Sara Konrath of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy] studied 7,168 Americans over age 50, only some of whom did volunteer work in their communities. After adjusting for a wide range of confounding variables, they found that over a two-year-period, volunteers were more likely to get flu shots, mammograms, Pap smears, cholesterol tests, and prostate exams. Most importantly, volunteering was associated with 38 percent fewer nights spent in the hospital.

And, yes, Kim and Konrath did realize that the explanation for their study’s finding might be that unhealthy people volunteer less than healthy people. That’s why they controlled for such a long list of possible confounding factors, including, writes Hamblin, “isolating sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, educational attainment, financial wealth, and health insurance status,” as well as “health behaviors, social integration, stress, positive psychological factors, personality factors, chronic illnesses, and health status.”

They still found that volunteering was associated with more positive decision-making about personal health.

“What this shows is that volunteers make decisions about their health that are different from non-volunteers,” Konrath told Hamblin. “One way to think about this is that when we care for ourselves, in a fundamental way, it allows us to care for others.”

‘An important wrinkle’

But, as Hamblin points out, “there is an important wrinkle in applying this information.” Prior research by Konrath has revealed, he writes, “that people who volunteered for ‘self-oriented’ motives like ‘I need to get away from my problems’ had a mortality risk that was similar to non-volunteers.”

“So, don’t volunteer for you own health,” Hamblin warns. Or if you do, volunteer for a cause you really care about.

For “even if you go into volunteering for the wrong reasons,” he writes, “it’s hard to stay self-interested once you’re immersed in a case and woven into the lives of people who need you.”

FMI: You can read Hamblin’s article on The Atlantic website. You’ll find an abstract of Kim and Konrath’s study in the Jan. 2016 issue of Social Science and Medicine. Whillans’ article can be read in on the Washington Post’s website, and her study, which is scheduled to be published in the journal Health Psychology, can be read in full online.

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The psychology of gift giving (and receiving): some last-minute advice

Still have some last-minute gifts to buy this holiday season? Are you struggling for ideas?

In a recent podcast for the British Psychological Society (BPS), psychologist and science writer Christian Jarrett interviewed several people who have researched different aspects of the psychology of gift giving. He wanted to find out if their findings could “help us navigate the somewhat tricky business of giving and receiving presents.”

What he uncovered may surprise you. Here are two highlights:

  • It can be good for a relationship to give someone a gift that says something about you rather than about them.

That finding comes from a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In one of the study’s experiments, more than 100 students were asked to choose a musical track on iTunes to give to a friend, relative or romantic partner. Half were instructed to choose a track that “reveals your knowledge of the recipient.” The rest were told to make a selection that “reveals your true self.”

Which type was the biggest hit with the recipient?

“When we contacted … those who had received the song, they reported feeling closer to the giver when getting a song that actually reflected the giver rather than themselves,” says Lara Aknin, a co-author of the study and a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, in the BPS podcast.

That finding runs counter to conventional wisdom. Why?

“Point one is that we could get it wrong when trying to give a gift that we think reflects the other person,” says Aknin. “But the flip side is that we might actually feel closer when we give gifts that reflect ourselves because essentially you can think of it as offering a piece of yourself to the recipient, kind of sharing your interests and passions. We know from past research that acts like this of self-disclosure can bring people closer together and can just, in and of itself, make the person who’s sharing things about themselves feel good.”

But, warns Aknin, don’t overdo it. Her study’s findings come with an important caveat: The experiments involved a one-time gift exchange.

“It could perhaps come to backfire in the long term if you are constantly giving gifts that reflect you,” she says. “It might show a non-interest in other people, and could just, unfortunately, signal a sense of narcissism. 

  • Consider how close you are to someone before giving that person a socially responsible gift.

The reception you get for giving a socially responsible gift, such as a donation to a charity in the recipient’s name, will depend on the closeness of your relationship to the recipient, according to research by Lisa Cavanaugh, a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California.

For a study that appeared earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Cavanaugh and her colleagues conducted three separate experiments in which socially responsible gifts were exchanged among people who knew each other at various levels of closeness.

The experiments revealed that if the recipient perceived the gift giver to be someone close to them, they were more likely to appreciate the socially responsible gift. But if that person was not a close friend — just someone they saw often — they tended to view the gift less favorably.

Bottom line: Think twice before giving a socially responsible gift.

“Definitely consider your relationship closeness,” Cavanaugh tells Jarrett in the BPS podcast. “If this is a person who you know very well and who you are very close with, there is a much greater likelihood that you are going to hit the mark and choose something that they like. But also they are probably going to be more forgiving because of that social closeness. They’ll be more likely to think, ‘Oh, they must have been thinking of me when they chose this gift.’”

“We tend to be more favorable in interpreting other’s behavior when we are close to them because we are motivated to do so,” she adds. “But when we’re distant from someone, that motivation isn’t as likely to occur and we may not be as good at taking the perspective of that gift recipient.”

You can listen to the BPS podcast for more psychology-driven insights about gift giving (and receiving).

But hurry. You have only two more shopping days left.

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happinessHealthlongevitypsychology

Good news for Scrooges: Happiness has no effect on longevity, study finds

If you have a naturally grumpy disposition, then here’s some news that’s sure to put a smile on your face (if only temporarily): A new study from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom has found that happiness is not associated with living a longer life, as previous research has frequently suggested.

That earlier research confused cause and effect, say the authors of the new study. “Our findings show that unhappiness is associated with poor health mainly because poor health causes unhappiness,” they write, “and partly because unhappiness is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking. After adjustment for these factors, no robust evidence remains that unhappiness or stress increase mortality or that being happy, relaxed, or in control reduces mortality.”

Or, as lead author Bette Liu, an epidemiologist who is now at the University of New South Wales in Australia, put it in a released statement: “Illness makes you unhappy, but unhappiness itself doesn’t make you ill.”

Study details

For the study, which was published this week in The Lancet, Liu and her colleagues analyzed data collected from more than 700,000 British women, aged 55 to 63, who had been recruited into the University of Oxford’s Million Women Study between 1996 and 2001. At the time they entered the study, none had been diagnosed with a serious health problem, such as cancer, heart disease or emphysema. 

Each of the participants filled out a questionnaire that asked them, among other things, “How often do you feel happy?” According to the responses, 39 percent of the women said they were happy “most of the time,” 44 percent stated they were “usually” happy, and 17 percent indicated they were unhappy (happy only “sometimes” or “rarely/never”).

An analysis of those answers revealed that women were more likely to report being happy if they were older, physically active, and not economically deprived, and if they did not smoke, got adequate sleep (but not too much), had a partner, and either belonged to a religious group or participated in social activities.

The women who reported being unhappy were more likely to say they were in poor health.

Key findings

All the women were followed for an average of 9.6 years, a period during which about 4 percent (30,000) of them died. Liu and her colleagues then analyzed the data to see if they could find a connection between those deaths and the women’s happiness levels. They found such a connection — but it disappeared once they adjusted for how healthy the women reported being at the time they entered the study.

About 20 percent of women had rated their health as “fair” or “poor” at the start of the study, while the other 80 percent had said their health was “excellent” or “good.” The analysis revealed that women in the fair/poor group were 67 percent more likely to die during the study period than the others. But women in both groups who said they were happy died at a similar rate as women who said they were unhappy, including from cancer and heart disease.

In other words, being happy did not protect the women from dying early.

Liu and her colleagues crunched the data further and found women who said they felt “in control, relaxed or not stressed” were also not protected against an early death. 

“Happiness and related measures of well-being do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality,” the researchers conclude.

Reverse causality

“In our view, the previous studies [which did suggest such an effect] haven’t been well done,” explained study co-author and medical statistician Richard Peto to reporter Julie Beck of The Atlantic. “All that’s going on is ill health actually was causing unhappiness and stress. There’s a pathetic old joke, where the question is ‘What’s the most dangerous place in the world to be?’ and the answer is ‘Bed, look at the number of people who die in bed.’ Well, that’s just a pathetic old joke, but that’s reverse causality.”

Of course, this new study has its limitations. Most notably, it involved only middle-aged British women. It’s not clear if the findings are also applicable to men or people of either gender living in other countries.

Still, it was a massive and well-conducted study. It would seem the Scrooges of the world can sleep a little better tonight. 

You can read the study in full on The Lancet website.

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psychologyTerrorismterrorists

Researchers offer some insight into how terrorists become radicalized — and who might best intervene

Last Wednesday, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks — and, coincidentally, on the same day as the horrific attack in San Bernardino, California — the British science journal Nature ran an article on what researchers are learning as they attempt to figure out how young Europeans become radicalized and decide to become terrorists.

“A mixture of sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and psychologists, such researchers are drawing on information generated by police, judicial inquiries, and the media, and in some cases, on interviews,” writes reporter Declan Butler. “They also study factors at play in prisons and socially-deprived areas.” 

The insights these researchers have uncovered pertain to the radicalization of young Europeans, but they may also be helpful in understanding why such radicalization occurs in the United States as well.

Here are some of those insights as summarized by Butler:

Religion is not the trigger. The rise of jihad in Europe has led to an assumption that there is a radicalization of Muslims more generally across the continent. Yet research suggests that most extremists are either people who returned suddenly to Islam or converts with no Islamic background. … [As] many as one in four French jihadists is a convert. … Violent extremism emerges first, with a religious justification tagged on after.

Resentment is the common ground. It is difficult to make generalizations about how people become radicalized in Europe. … [M]any extremists come from broken families or deprived areas, lack education and are unemployed. A smaller number are well educated, have held jobs and have middle-class lifestyles. Some are in stable relationships and have young children. The characteristics that extremists seem to share are resentment directed at society and a narcissistic need for recognition that leaves them open to a narrative of violent glory. … Social factors can contribute to such frustrations.

‘Entrepreneurs’ drive terrorism. Most of those who get involved in jihadi terrorism in Europe are “misfits and drifters” — people who joined militant networks during life crises or through friends and relatives on the inside. … [But] the key actors in terrorist activity are a much smaller number of “entrepreneurs”. These seasoned, ideologically driven activities are part of transnational terrorist webs linked both to extremist groups throughout Europe and to armed groups in conflict zones. They are the ones who bring structure and organization to the disaffected majority, through recruitment and indoctrination.

You can read Butler’s entire article on Nature’s website.

Friends as preventive ‘gatekeepers’

A U.S. study published last October in the journal Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression offers some insights into another aspect of radicalization — the all-important role that friends may be able to play in preventing it.

For the study, Michael Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, and his colleagues interviewed more than 150 law enforcement experts, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of different ages and faiths in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They asked each interviewee this question: “Who would be the first to notice, and able to intervene, with individuals considering acts of violent extremism? 

As psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett explains in his summary of the study for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, “a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.” 

Adds Jarrett (with British spelling):

A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:

“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”

Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.

The study also found, says Jarrett, “that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm.”

Although Williams and his colleagues stress that their findings must be considered preliminary, the results do suggest, they add, that empowering and supporting “gatekeepers” (the friends of the people at risk of becoming radicalized) could help.

“Help-seeking is a learned behavior,” the researchers write. “Therefore, it seems that the greatest barrier to vicarious help-seeking in [countering violent extremism] contexts is not whether associate-gatekeepers can be trained to help their associates get the help they need. Instead, it suggests that among the next steps — the next challenges — are to develop the curricula and protocols for how associate-gate- keepers should respond.” 

You can download and read the study in full at the Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression’s website. You’ll find Jarrett’s summary of the study at the Research Digest website.

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agingpsychology

How much we envy others — and what we envy — changes with age, study finds

The types of things we envy in others changes as we age, and older adults tend to be less envious than younger ones. We also tend to envy people of the same gender and age as us.

All these findings come from a fascinating study published recently in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

As the study’s co-authors, University of California, San Diego psychologist Christine Harris and graduate student Nicole Henniger, point out, envy is a powerful emotion.

“As one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition,” they write, “envy has been proposed to motivate the acts of people ranging from evil stepmothers in folk stories to Occupy Wall Street protestors in modern times. This subjectively negative emotion arises in response to the superiority of another person in some domain. However, every objectively superior person is not envied. Who do people envy and about what?”

To find that out — particularly, to find it out in people of various age groups (most previous studies on envy have been conducted with college students) — Harris and Henniger conducted two separate survey studies. One study asked more than 900 people aged 18 to 80 about any feelings of envy they may have had within the previous 12 months. The other asked a separate group of about 800 similarly aged people to recall a time when someone had envied them. This second study was done because, as the researchers point out, envy is commonly thought of as a “malicious, shameful emotion,” which means it may have been underreported by the people in the first study.

The findings from both studies were remarkably similar. “Given that we assessed envy in two different samples using two different perspectives, it seems fairly likely that such effects are real (at least for the primarily American samples examined here),” Harris and Henniger conclude.

Key findings

What were those effects?

First, the research revealed that envy is a remarkably common experience. More than three-fourths of the people in the first study (79 percent of women and 74 percent of men) reported envying someone within the previous year.

Envy was reported in both distant relationships and in relationships with close friends and relatives.

But older people reported less envy, proportionally, than younger ones. About 80 percent of people younger than 30 said they had experienced envy within the previous year, compared to 69 percent of people aged 50 and older.

That finding is consistent with other research that has found that negative emotions in general tend to decrease with age, say Harris and Henniger.

The two researchers also found that the people, regardless of age, are most likely to envy — or report being envied by — their peers: people of a similar age (within about five years) and of the same gender. That last finding surprised the researchers a bit. 

“Even in domains like financial and occupational success, where you can imagine that a woman might envy a man his better pay or status, that wasn’t usually the case,” Harris notes in a released statement.

Domains of envy

As for what people envy in others, that appears to change with age, according to this study.

Younger people were more likely to be envious about scholastic success, social success, romantic success and looks. For example, 40 percent of the participants in the first study reported envying the romantic success of someone else, compared to less than 15 percent of those older than 50. (Of course, that may have been because 63 percent of the participants in that older group were married compared to 21 percent in the younger group.)

Although envy of both monetary success and occupational success were common across all age groups, older adults were most likely to report such feelings.

In fact, envy of occupational success had “a curvilinear relationship with age,” note Harris and Henniger. Occupational envy rose from 22 percent among young adults in their 20s to 43 percent among those in their 40s. It then dropped down to 36 percent among adults aged 50 and older.

“These changes may demonstrate that, although career success is important throughout adulthood, its importance peaks at midlife and then perhaps declines as people retire or look ahead toward retirement,” say Harris and Henniger.

Or, they add, it could be that “the importance of career success may have changed across generations.”

Interestingly, occupational success was one of the few domains of envy that showed a clear difference between men and women. Men were much more likely than women to report envying others for their occupational success: 41.4 percent versus 24.5 percent. 

On the other hand, women were much more likely than men to report envying looks: 23.8 percent versus 13.5 percent, although this difference was driven mainly by women younger than age 40.

Inconsistent findings

Women also were more likely than men to report being envied by others for their romantic successes (26.4 percent versus 16.7 percent). But romantic success was actually a domain more often envied by men, not women.

Why this disconnect? “One potential explanation is that women may perceive themselves as envied in this domain more often than they actually are envied,” write Harris and Henniger.

Money was another domain with inconsistent findings. Many more people said that they envied others’ wealth (from 28 percent of people in the 20s to 39 percent of people aged 50-plus) than reported being envied for their own monetary success (from 14 percent of people in their 20s to 24 percent of people aged 50-plus). 

“This difference may reflect many people wanting money (as examined in Study 1) but a smaller number of people actually possessing enviable amounts of money (as examined in Study 2),” write Harris and Henniger. “Envy of monetary success also may be difficult to detect, or may be perceived as envy of occupational success or an overall better life.”

You can read the study in full on the Basic and Applied Social Psychology website.

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HealthMedical researchNeurosciencepsychology

Oxytocin acts as a ‘love hormone’? Nah. The science reveals a much subtler effect on human behavior

The neurotransmitter oxytocin has been given many nicknames, including the “love hormone,” the “hug hormone,” the “cuddle chemical,” and even the “moral molecule.”

For decades, scientists have been demonstrating in various animals that oxytocin is involved in social interactions. It’s been shown to cause non-mated female rats to act maternally toward other rats’ young, for example, and to encourage prairie voles to form lifelong pairs. It can even make dogs gaze longer into their owners’ eyes.

But oxytocin’s fame as a social-enhancing hormone in humans stems from a 2005 study in Nature, which reported that people who inhaled a spray of oxytocin became more trusting of each other.

Not surprisingly, the supplement industry has taken advantage of the media headlines emanating from these research findings. You can now purchase oxytocin pills, drops and sprays “for relationships, connecting, stress, depression, and anxiety.”

Of course, there’s no evidence that oxytocin supplements help with any of those things. In fact, as science writer Ed Yong points out in a recent article for The Atlantic, the latest research calls into question oxytocin’s reputation as a direct promoter of trust or other virtuous social behaviors.

“Several scientists have shown that this tower of evidence for oxytocin’s positive influence is built on weak foundations,” he writes. “Gideon Nave at the California Institute of Technology found five other papers where researchers had used similar trust games to those in the original Nature experiment. None of these found that a sniff of oxytocin could significantly boost trust. And when the team combined the results of all six studies, they couldn’t find an effect either.”

“These criticisms don’t just apply to studies on trust,” Yong adds, “but to those on altruism, cooperation, and other behaviors that oxytocin supposedly boosts. When Larry Young from Emory University analyzed a wealth of past studies using oxytocin nasal sprays, he found that they are very statistically underpowered.”

Much more complex

Once again, a long-held and widely popular belief about human biology — oxytocin is nature’s love glue! — turns out to be, well, far too simplistic.

The hormone’s effects on human behavior are much more complex — and subtle — than its many nicknames suggest. Furthermore, oxytocin has a dark side.

“As I’ve reported before,” writes Yong, “the hormone is highly contextual in its influence. It can trigger positive behavior in some settings, but negative ones like distrust, favoritism, envy, and schadenfreude in others. Biologically, this makes sense. Experimentally, it’s a pain in the ass.”

“If scientists blindly run experiments, by complete chance, they’ll find some condition in which oxytocin seems to be doing something — perhaps only in men, or in anxious people, or in anxious men,” he adds. “This is the sharpshooter fallacy, named after an imaginary Texan gunman who fires many rounds at the side of a barn and then paints a target around the biggest cluster of holes.”

Doing the hard science

“Rather than searching for cute, TED-friendly psychological effects,” writes Yong, some scientists have turned their attention to “the hard neuroscience of oxytocin, and [to] working out exactly what this hormone does in the brain.”

Yong details several of the discoveries that have evolved from this research, including the finding that oxytocin “improves the clarity of signals in the brain, by reducing the background buzz of neurons and causing those that fire to do so more sharply.” Other neuoscientists, Yong adds, have demonstrated in mice that oxytocin “tunes the brains of mother mice to the cries of their pups, by acting on regions involved in hearing.”

These and other findings “support the growing idea that oxytocin makes animals pay more attention to social information … like the call of a youngster or the smell of a stranger,” says Yong.

Such an ambiguous message does not lend itself to a snappy, entertaining title for a self-help book or a TED talk.

A yet-to-be-solved mystery

Nor will it sell many supplements — or prescriptions medicines, for that matter. Researchers have already been testing oxytocin inhalants on children with autism to see if it would make them more socially responsive. The results have been mixed. Sometimes it seems to help; other times, it doesn’t.

“These differences probably reflect the hormone’s contextual nature, which becomes incredibly important when thinking about how to use it,” writes Yong.

“This is why the neuroscience of oxytocin is so important,” he stresses. “The inaccurately named ‘moral molecule’ is still more of a mystery molecule, despite decades of work. And that mystery needs to be solved before it finds its way into the clinic.”

You can read Yong’s article on The Atlantic’s website.

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HealthMedical researchNeurosciencepsychology

Oxytocin acts as a ‘love hormone’? Nah. The science reveals a much subtler effect on human behavior

The neurotransmitter oxytocin has been given many nicknames, including the “love hormone,” the “hug hormone,” the “cuddle chemical,” and even the “moral molecule.”

For decades, scientists have been demonstrating in various animals that oxytocin is involved in social interactions. It’s been shown to cause non-mated female rats to act maternally toward other rats’ young, for example, and to encourage prairie voles to form lifelong pairs. It can even make dogs gaze longer into their owners’ eyes.

But oxytocin’s fame as a social-enhancing hormone in humans stems from a 2005 study in Nature, which reported that people who inhaled a spray of oxytocin became more trusting of each other.

Not surprisingly, the supplement industry has taken advantage of the media headlines emanating from these research findings. You can now purchase oxytocin pills, drops and sprays “for relationships, connecting, stress, depression, and anxiety.”

Of course, there’s no evidence that oxytocin supplements help with any of those things. In fact, as science writer Ed Yong points out in a recent article for The Atlantic, the latest research calls into question oxytocin’s reputation as a direct promoter of trust or other virtuous social behaviors.

“Several scientists have shown that this tower of evidence for oxytocin’s positive influence is built on weak foundations,” he writes. “Gideon Nave at the California Institute of Technology found five other papers where researchers had used similar trust games to those in the original Nature experiment. None of these found that a sniff of oxytocin could significantly boost trust. And when the team combined the results of all six studies, they couldn’t find an effect either.”

“These criticisms don’t just apply to studies on trust,” Yong adds, “but to those on altruism, cooperation, and other behaviors that oxytocin supposedly boosts. When Larry Young from Emory University analyzed a wealth of past studies using oxytocin nasal sprays, he found that they are very statistically underpowered.”

Much more complex

Once again, a long-held and widely popular belief about human biology — oxytocin is nature’s love glue! — turns out to be, well, far too simplistic.

The hormone’s effects on human behavior are much more complex — and subtle — than its many nicknames suggest. Furthermore, oxytocin has a dark side.

“As I’ve reported before,” writes Yong, “the hormone is highly contextual in its influence. It can trigger positive behavior in some settings, but negative ones like distrust, favoritism, envy, and schadenfreude in others. Biologically, this makes sense. Experimentally, it’s a pain in the ass.”

“If scientists blindly run experiments, by complete chance, they’ll find some condition in which oxytocin seems to be doing something — perhaps only in men, or in anxious people, or in anxious men,” he adds. “This is the sharpshooter fallacy, named after an imaginary Texan gunman who fires many rounds at the side of a barn and then paints a target around the biggest cluster of holes.”

Doing the hard science

“Rather than searching for cute, TED-friendly psychological effects,” writes Yong, some scientists have turned their attention to “the hard neuroscience of oxytocin, and [to] working out exactly what this hormone does in the brain.”

Yong details several of the discoveries that have evolved from this research, including the finding that oxytocin “improves the clarity of signals in the brain, by reducing the background buzz of neurons and causing those that fire to do so more sharply.” Other neuoscientists, Yong adds, have demonstrated in mice that oxytocin “tunes the brains of mother mice to the cries of their pups, by acting on regions involved in hearing.”

These and other findings “support the growing idea that oxytocin makes animals pay more attention to social information … like the call of a youngster or the smell of a stranger,” says Yong.

Such an ambiguous message does not lend itself to a snappy, entertaining title for a self-help book or a TED talk.

A yet-to-be-solved mystery

Nor will it sell many supplements — or prescriptions medicines, for that matter. Researchers have already been testing oxytocin inhalants on children with autism to see if it would make them more socially responsive. The results have been mixed. Sometimes it seems to help; other times, it doesn’t.

“These differences probably reflect the hormone’s contextual nature, which becomes incredibly important when thinking about how to use it,” writes Yong.

“This is why the neuroscience of oxytocin is so important,” he stresses. “The inaccurately named ‘moral molecule’ is still more of a mystery molecule, despite decades of work. And that mystery needs to be solved before it finds its way into the clinic.”

You can read Yong’s article on The Atlantic’s website.

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altruismchildrenNeurosciencepsychologyReligion

Secular children show more altruism than religious ones, study finds

Children raised in secular households tend to be more generous and less punitive toward others than children raised in religious ones, according to new research published this month in the journal Current Biology.

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” said Jean Decety, the study’s lead author and a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, in a released statement. “In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”

The study involved almost 1,200 children between the ages 5 and 12 living in seven cities around the world: Chicago; Toronto; Amman, Jordan; Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa; and Guangzhou, China.

The parents of these children filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs and practices — and about how empathetic their children were toward others. Most of the parents described themselves as Muslim (43 percent), Christian (24 percent) or non-religious (28 percent). Other religions (or non-religions) represented included Jewish (1.6 percent), Buddhist (0.4 percent), agnostic (0.2 percent) and “other” (0.5 percent). 

Two experiments

In a variation of the “Dictator Game,” which is often used in behavioral economics research, the children were shown 30 stickers and instructed to select their 10 favorites. They were then told that there was not enough time for all the children in their school to receive stickers, but they could give some of their 10 stickers to their classmates by putting them in a special envelope. They were also given an envelope for any stickers they wished to keep for themselves. The researchers leading the experiment then turned away from the children, telling them to let them know when they were finished filling their envelopes.

The researchers assessed the children’s altruism by the average number of stickers shared.

In a second experiment, the children were shown short animation videos in which a character pushes or bumps against another, either accidentally or purposefully. After watching the video, the children were asked to rate (on a seven-point, child-friendly scale) the “meanness” of the behavior and the amount of punishment that should be administered.

Altruism findings

In their analysis of the data from the two experiments, Decety and his colleagues focused on differences between children living in Muslim, Christian and non-religious households. Children from the other religions were not numerous enough in this study to reach a statistically significant result.

The researchers found that the altruistic impulses of Muslim and Christian children in the first experiment were not much different. Both groups gave away, on average, slightly more than three out of their 10 stickers.

But that was significantly less than the children from the non-religious households. They gave away, on average, more than four stickers.

Furthermore, as the age of the children in the religious households rose, their comparative lack of generosity became even more pronounced.

Decety and his colleagues note that the children were asked to share their stickers with classmates from their own school and who, therefore, had a similar ethnic background.

“Therefore,” write the researchers, “the result cannot be simply explained by in-group versus out-group biases that are known to change children’s cooperative behaviors from an early age, nor by the known fact that religious people tend to be more altruistic toward individuals from their in-group.”

As background information in the study points out, some past research has suggested that religious adults give more to charity than their secular peers. Those studies, however, have tended to be based on self-reports of hypothetical giving.

“In fact,” write Decety and his colleagues, “a careful meta-examination of the studies measuring actual behavior shows that there is little evidence for such a positive relation.” 

Findings from second experiment

The second experiment revealed differences along religious/non-religious lines that were similar to those in the first experiment. Children in Muslim and Christian households tended to judge the pushing and shoving they saw in the videos as being “meaner” than did their peers from non-religious households. Both the Muslim and Christian groups of children also wanted, on average, harsher punishments for the characters in the videos doing the pushing and shoving.

Those results support other research that has found that religious adults tend to have more punitive attitudes toward people who have committed crimes, no matter what the level of the crime.

“For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive and advocate harsher corrections than non-fundamentalists,” Decety and his colleagues write. “Moreover, Christians are also argued to view the moral wrongness of an action as a dichotomy and are less likely to discriminate between gradients of wrongness, yielding equal ratings for a variety of transgressions.”

A contradiction of parental views

Interestingly, the questionnaires filled out by the parents of the children in this study revealed that the religious parents were more likely than the secular ones to identify their child as being above average in terms of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others

But that view appears to be contradicted by this study’s findings. It was the secular children who were, overall, more altruistic toward others and less judgmental and punitive about perceived infractions in social behavior.

The findings, therefore, “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development,” Decety and his colleagues write.

In fact, say the researchers, their findings support “the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The study can be accessed and read in full at the Current Biology website.

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altruismchildrenNeurosciencepsychologyReligion

Secular children show more altruism than religious ones, study finds

Children raised in secular households tend to be more generous and less punitive toward others than children raised in religious ones, according to new research published this month in the journal Current Biology.

“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” said Jean Decety, the study’s lead author and a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, in a released statement. “In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous.”

The study involved almost 1,200 children between the ages 5 and 12 living in seven cities around the world: Chicago; Toronto; Amman, Jordan; Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa; and Guangzhou, China.

The parents of these children filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs and practices — and about how empathetic their children were toward others. Most of the parents described themselves as Muslim (43 percent), Christian (24 percent) or non-religious (28 percent). Other religions (or non-religions) represented included Jewish (1.6 percent), Buddhist (0.4 percent), agnostic (0.2 percent) and “other” (0.5 percent). 

Two experiments

In a variation of the “Dictator Game,” which is often used in behavioral economics research, the children were shown 30 stickers and instructed to select their 10 favorites. They were then told that there was not enough time for all the children in their school to receive stickers, but they could give some of their 10 stickers to their classmates by putting them in a special envelope. They were also given an envelope for any stickers they wished to keep for themselves. The researchers leading the experiment then turned away from the children, telling them to let them know when they were finished filling their envelopes.

The researchers assessed the children’s altruism by the average number of stickers shared.

In a second experiment, the children were shown short animation videos in which a character pushes or bumps against another, either accidentally or purposefully. After watching the video, the children were asked to rate (on a seven-point, child-friendly scale) the “meanness” of the behavior and the amount of punishment that should be administered.

Altruism findings

In their analysis of the data from the two experiments, Decety and his colleagues focused on differences between children living in Muslim, Christian and non-religious households. Children from the other religions were not numerous enough in this study to reach a statistically significant result.

The researchers found that the altruistic impulses of Muslim and Christian children in the first experiment were not much different. Both groups gave away, on average, slightly more than three out of their 10 stickers.

But that was significantly less than the children from the non-religious households. They gave away, on average, more than four stickers.

Furthermore, as the age of the children in the religious households rose, their comparative lack of generosity became even more pronounced.

Decety and his colleagues note that the children were asked to share their stickers with classmates from their own school and who, therefore, had a similar ethnic background.

“Therefore,” write the researchers, “the result cannot be simply explained by in-group versus out-group biases that are known to change children’s cooperative behaviors from an early age, nor by the known fact that religious people tend to be more altruistic toward individuals from their in-group.”

As background information in the study points out, some past research has suggested that religious adults give more to charity than their secular peers. Those studies, however, have tended to be based on self-reports of hypothetical giving.

“In fact,” write Decety and his colleagues, “a careful meta-examination of the studies measuring actual behavior shows that there is little evidence for such a positive relation.” 

Findings from second experiment

The second experiment revealed differences along religious/non-religious lines that were similar to those in the first experiment. Children in Muslim and Christian households tended to judge the pushing and shoving they saw in the videos as being “meaner” than did their peers from non-religious households. Both the Muslim and Christian groups of children also wanted, on average, harsher punishments for the characters in the videos doing the pushing and shoving.

Those results support other research that has found that religious adults tend to have more punitive attitudes toward people who have committed crimes, no matter what the level of the crime.

“For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive and advocate harsher corrections than non-fundamentalists,” Decety and his colleagues write. “Moreover, Christians are also argued to view the moral wrongness of an action as a dichotomy and are less likely to discriminate between gradients of wrongness, yielding equal ratings for a variety of transgressions.”

A contradiction of parental views

Interestingly, the questionnaires filled out by the parents of the children in this study revealed that the religious parents were more likely than the secular ones to identify their child as being above average in terms of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others

But that view appears to be contradicted by this study’s findings. It was the secular children who were, overall, more altruistic toward others and less judgmental and punitive about perceived infractions in social behavior.

The findings, therefore, “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development,” Decety and his colleagues write.

In fact, say the researchers, their findings support “the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The study can be accessed and read in full at the Current Biology website.

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