Personality to prevent teen drinking

A study that successfully used personality-tailored training to reduce teen drinking is shortly to appear in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. It’s interesting because it’s one of a few studies that have found that the psychology of personality is useful for solving clinical problems.

Your average person on the street probably thinks that clinical psychologists spend a lot of time trying to ‘work out’ people’s personalities as a necessary part of treating them.

Of course, this is something that happens as the psychologist meets and talks to the patient, but considering that a great deal of research in psychology is focused on understanding personality, the findings and techniques barely make a scratch on clinical work.

This is largely because using psychological measures to find out whether someone is introverted, extroverted, conscientious, or any other of the so-called ‘big five‘ personality traits, have been found to be of little use in helping treat or prevent mental disorders or behavioural problems.

Compared to reliably assessing someone’s mood, anxiety, risk of self-harm, cognitive abilities or reasoning style, personality is rarely essential for clinical decision-making.

However, one related aspect of personality, similar to the ‘Openness to Experience’ in the ‘big five’ model, has been found to relate to substance misuse.

It’s called ‘sensation seeking’ and it’s been linked to risky behaviour, including binge-drinking and risky sexual encounters.

In this study, led by psychologist Dr Patricia Conrod, the research team assessed the personality of over 350 teenagers and specifically tailored a programme to focus on common differences between high and low sensation-seekers.

The programme had an educational component, a motivational part and a section that taught the kids skills how to solve problems, manage their thoughts and moods, and pick out common cognitive errors when reasoning about drinking.

It turned out that it was particularly effective in reducing binge-drinking in the high-sensation seekers, the most risky group.

As well as developing a useful way of reducing problem alcohol use in teenagers, it’s also interesting to see that a personality measure can be genuinely useful in the prevention of problems.

Clinical psychology is traditionally focused on trying to help with problems after they’ve happened, rather than before, which is perhaps why personality is not so useful. It’s just too subtle when something serious like mental illness affects the mind and brain.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that personality will be key in preventive programmes, where this more subtle approach has much more of an effect when the person is not trying to manage a mental crisis.

Link to abstract of study.

It’s not denial, it’s filtered acceptance

The New York Times has a brief but interesting article on the psychology of denial, which according to the piece has got a bad rap. It’s actually a useful and necessary process in many types of relationship.

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.

In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.

The article also discusses a number of experiments where participants ‘cheat’ on certain aspects, but which demonstrate that we seem to manage not only how much we admit to others about the deception, but we also our own awareness of what we’re doing (mostly unconsciously it seems).

Link to NYT article ‘Denial Makes the World Go Round’.

BBC AIl in the Mind on Tasers, film and Anthony Clare

BBC Radio 4 has just kicked off a new series of All in the Mind with a programme on tasers and their use on people with mental illness, the psychoanalytic film festival and a tribute to the late great Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare.

Not to be confused with the Australian radio show of the same name, All in the Mind takes a look at whether police are properly trained to detect mental illness in light of preliminary evidence that they may be using Tasers on people with psychiatric disorders more than other people.

The show also talks to some of the participants in the recent European Psychoanalytic Film Festival and traces the intertwined history of film and psychoanalysis.

Finally, the show broadcasts a tribute to Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare, who, as we reported recently, passed away at the end of October. Among many other things, he was famous as a past presenter of the programme.

Link to first of the BBC All in the Mind new series.

Psychopharmacologist’s song

Well, it doesn’t get much stranger than this. OmniBrain has discovered an animation created by Prof Stephen Stahl, researcher and author of numerous academic papers and books on the neuroscience of psychoactive drugs, where he sings about his love of psychopharmacology.

If that’s not weird enough for you, it’s to the tune of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta song and he’s dressed as a 19th century Naval officer.

I would describe more of it, but you really need to see it to fully appreciate it in all its glory.

I’m sure no-one needs to remind a professor of psychopharmacology of the maxim “don’t get high on your own supply”, so I repeat it here purely for our collective reflection.

Link to embedded video of the Psychopharmacologist’s Song.

The ethical psychiatrist

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone had a fascinating discussion recently on the ethics of psychiatry, tackling some of the challenges of this unique medical speciality.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of psychiatry which distinguishes it from other medical specialities is that it more commonly involves treating people against their will.

The laws on involuntary treatment vary, but most include the principle that someone who is judged to have their lost their insight into their own condition because of mental illness, is at risk to themselves or others, and who refuses voluntary treatment can be treated against their will.

Of course, this relies on a huge amount of other assumptions, such as the ability to distinguish between normal and abnormal mental states, and an idea of what constitutes insight.

It also relies on a presumption that psychiatrists can distinguish between potentially foolish but reasoned refusal of treatment, and a refusal driven by pathological thinking.

The programme tackles many of these issues and discusses how these decisions are affected by cultural norms and political influence, as well as how they fit in with the wider ethical approach of medicine.

Link to the Philosopher’s Zone on the ethics of psychiatry.

Cerebral blood sweets

It looks like a pipette full of cerebral blood, but actually it’s a fun and harmless candy product for children. Bless!

But if you’re concerned that this might be a bit too disturbing for your sweet-toothed young ones, another product by the same company will do nothing to dispell your worries.

Because they also makes a plastic brain from which you can squeeze the liquified neural mush straight into your mouth.

After which, the gummy brains and chocolate brains just seem a bit passé really.

Link to disturbing brain candy.

Reflections on the brain of an idiot

I’ve just discovered that the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology have all their past issues freely available online all the way back to 1867. I came across a curious article entitled ‘Description of the Brain of an Idiot’ in the 1871 issue and it made me think about how names for brain disorders have been rejected and changed throughout history.

Back in 1871, the term ‘idiot’ was a proper medical term. It referred to someone we would now describe as having learning disabilities or intellectual impairment.

As the word became used as an everyday form of abuse, it left the realms of medicine because it was deemed inappropriate, and has been replaced by seemingly more appropriate terms. There is a long history of this process and it continues to this day.

For example, wildly abnormal or problematic sexual behaviours used to be called sexual deviancy. ‘Sexual deviancy’ described something beyond the presumed normal range, but it was thought to be inappropriate because it branded people as outsiders.

Now we use the term ‘paraphillia’ which means, well, exactly the same – someone who has desires outside the norm – but because it’s Greek, everyone is much happier.

It’s also interesting when the terminology differs between countries. In America, ‘mentally retarded’ is a common description in medicine, but in Europe it’s considered an outdated insult – similar to the previously official words imbecile and idiot.

However, it’s always struck me as a little curious why our words for intellectual disabilities have changed so much throughout history, but the word for epilepsy (despite there being many commonly used nicknames) has been maintained since the time of Ancient Greece.

Presumably, there’s something about the Greek language which just makes us feel better about our difficulties.

Link to 1871 article ‘Description of the Brain of an Idiot’.