Tipsy thinking

Photo by Flickr user rpeschetz. Click for sourceSeed Magazine has a great short article on misperceptions and counter-intuitive findings concerning alcohol and drinking.

The piece covers whether alcohol break-down product acetaldehyde plays as much a part in drunkenness as alcohol itself, misperceptions about the chances of women having their drink spiked to facilitate sexual assault, and mothers’ perceptions about their kids future drinking patterns.

Alcohol is so embedded in most cultures that perceptions and reality intermix in surprising ways. Last week psychologist Polly Palumbo discussed a 2008 study about mothers’ beliefs about their own kids’ drinking. You might think that if mothers were concerned about their young children becoming drinkers in high school, they might be more successful in preventing some of the kids from actually engaging in underage drinking. In fact, the study, led by Stephanie Madon and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found the opposite. Mothers who worried their children might become drinkers had kids that were significantly more likely to drink.

The researchers are careful to point out that the study is just a correlation; we can’t say that the mothers’ belief about drinking is what caused their kids to drink. But because the study was administered over several years, it’s better than many correlational studies: We know the belief preceded the drinking, so it’s pretty much impossible that the kids’ drinking behavior itself led to the belief.

Link to Seed article ‘A Sober Assessment’.

Violent video games: small causal link with aggression

A new study just published in Psychological Bulletin has reviewed studies on the effects of violent video games and concludes that they cause a small but reliable increase in aggressive behaviour and anti-social thinking.

The study, led by psychologist Craig Anderson, is a type of meta-analysis which attempts to mathematically aggregate the results of past studies to see what the overall effect is.

There have been several similar studies in recent years which have come to different conclusions, based on whether the results have been thought to have been affected by publication bias or not. In other words, while the published studies suggest there is a small reliable effect of video games on aggression some reviews have suggested this is because fewer of the studies that don’t find a link actually get published.

This new study aimed to include unpublished studies and also looked at studies from both Western cultures, like the US and Europe, and Eastern cultures, such as Japan, to see if social environment influences any potential link.

The review included both observational studies, which look at what happens in the ‘real world’ but can’t tell us whether gaming causes aggression (it could be just that more aggressive people play more violent games), and experimental studies which can determine cause, because participants are randomly assigned to groups and given either violent or non-violent games, but are a little more removed from everyday life.

The researchers examined whether violent video games led to changes in aggressive behaviour, thoughts and emotions, and for changes in empathy and helpful behaviour to others.

Overall, the analysis concluded that violent video gaming causes a small but reliable increase in aggression and possibly a reduction in helpful behaviour and empathy.

The results on empathy were the weakest, however, as only study was an experiment and the researchers lumped together research that used questionnaires and which tested bodily desensitisation (whether people bodily react less to emotional events when they re-experience them) which is not a good measure of someone’s mental state.

One interesting aspect of the analysis is that the researchers looked at a number of game characteristics to see if they had an effect; for example, whether the people were playing in first- or third-person, whether the violence was towards human or non-human characters; and found that none of this made much difference.

What this suggests is that the effect is not due to non-specific priming, a psychological effect whereby experiencing one type of concept makes closely related concepts and actions more accessible and more likely. In this case, the fictional violence is assumed to make aggressive thoughts and actions more easily triggered.

It must be said that the overall effect was quite small. For the statistically inclined, the correlation was r = .19 for all studies and r = .24 when they looked only at the most rigorous research. This means that violent video games accounted for between about 3.6% and 5.8% of the total change in aggressiveness.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Japan, for example, is more culturally adverse to aggression than Western countries, the effects seems to be equally as apparent on either side of the world.

The journal published a discussion based on the study, including a criticism by psychologists Christopher Ferguson and John Kilburn, who have published previous analyses suggesting that the violence effect is down to publication bias.

The discussion focusses on various technical issues which are well answered by the original authors, although perhaps the most significant points of disagreement focus on two areas.

The first is that this new analyses only focused on simple relations, and didn’t take into account whether other factors could be having an influence. For example, a previous study suggested that when pre-existing emotional, family and social problems are accounted for, the aggression increasing effects of video games disappears.

The second concerns how important this small effect is. On an individual level a small change may be undetectable amid the to-and-fro of everyday life, but at the level of the population it could conceivably increase the number of aggressive incidents, although these are often the hardest effects to track.

Link to PubMed entry for study.
pdf of full text.

Sex on drugs

Photo by Flickr user Gabyu. Click for sourceI just found a study which specifically investigated which drugs are preferred by clubbers for sex. The study was completed in Spain and it turns out booze is the punter’s favourite, clearly contradicting the widely-held theory that alcohol was invented to help British people have sex.

[Which drugs are preferred for sex in nightlife recreational settings?]

[Article in Spanish]

Adicciones. 2008;20(1):37-47.

Calafat A, Juan M, Becoña E, Mantecón A.

Many people associate the use of alcohol and other drugs with sexuality. It is common to find that each drug is associated with a specific effect on sexuality. Weekend recreational nightlife settings are increasingly important places for the young, and frequented by them more and more in search of sex and drug-taking opportunities. In this research we are interested in the role the young attribute to recreational drugs with regard to their sexual practices. We interviewed a sample of 100 young people from four Spanish cities, using a questionnaire with both open and closed questions. Snowball sampling was used to find those who had had sexual experience, who had taken recreational drugs and who liked going to discos, bars, etc. at the weekend. We found that these young people have a very precise idea of how each drug functions within sexuality. Considering all four parameters analysed, alcohol is by far the most popular (to initiate the sexual encounter, for more unusual or the “hottest” experiences, to increase arousal, and to prolong sex), though in the last case in particular the preferred drug was cocaine. Cannabis does not interest them because of its relaxing effects, while ecstasy is chosen more for remaining active and enjoying oneself than for its sexual effects. Women use alcohol more than men (mainly to increase arousal, when they want unusual sex or to prolong sex) and use cocaine less.

The line “Snowball sampling was used…” made me laugh out loud at the unintentional innuendo. If you’re not familiar with its various meanings, it simultaneously refers to a research method, a drug term and a [NSFW] sexual practice [Wikipedia link, but I did warn you].

Link to PubMed entry for study.

When the ship goes down

The New York Times covers a new study on the co-operative behaviour of passengers when two famous sea-faring passenger liners sunk: the Lusitania sank fast, leading to every-man-for-themself type escape behaviour, whereas the Titanic took almost three hours to sink, meaning women and children were given priority and rank and social class were respected.

It reminds me of a famous, if not somewhat disheartening, study [pdf] on the predictors of survival after air crashes that was covered by Mary Roach’s brilliant book on dead bodies, Stiff. From p87:

Here is the secret to surviving one of these crashes: Be male. In a 1970 Civil Aeromedical institute study of three crashes involving emergency evacuations, the most prominent factor influencing survival was gender (followed closely by proximity to exit). Adult males were by far the most likely to get out alive. Why? Presumably because they pushed everyone else out of the way.

Link to NYT piece on sinking study.
Link to summary of scientific study.
pdf of air crash report.

Dark clouds and their silver linings

Photo by Flickr user s~revenge. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a thought-provoking article on the possible advantages of depression, suggesting that the negative form of thinking associated with depression may encourage people to focus on their problems to help them solve the life dilemmas that have contributed to their low mood.

The piece explores the idea that rumination, the constant mental re-running of worrying thoughts and concerns, might be a form of self-imposed problem solving that has been evolutionary selected as an adaptive reaction to unfortunate situations.

This hypothesis was suggested by psychologist Paul Andrews and psychiatrist Andrew Thomson and The New York Times piece is largely based on their recently published paper which outlines how many studies have found depressed people are better at solving certain sorts of problems.

One difficulty with their proposal, however, is that while they admit that social problems are one of the most common triggers for depression, they miss out the many studies that have found depressed people and, especially depressed people who ruminate, are reliably worse at social problem solving.

It’s probably also worth saying that depression is not a single entity. Despite there currently being a single diagnosis of ‘major depression’ in reality the problem can range from a few weeks of feeling out of sorts to suicidal despair to a seemingly complete shutdown of body and mind in a state of catatonia.

Evolutionary explanations of psychiatric disorders always sit slightly uncomfortably because its not clear exactly what is being selected for because it’s not clear exactly what we’re talking about.

However, the article has clearly stimulated a great deal of interest, and the author, science writer Jonah Lehrer, tackles some of the feedback on his blog.

Link to NYT piece ‘Depression‚Äôs Upside’.

A Shorter history of psychiatric diagnosis

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article by historian of psychiatry, Edward Shorter, about the raft of new changes in the proposed revision of the DSM-V ‘psychiatric bible’ and how they reflect our changing ideas about mental illness.

For some reason the piece has been given the stupid of title of ‘Why Psychiatry Needs Therapy’, which is a mystery as it doesn’t mention anything along these lines.

Shorter is one of the most highly-respected historians of the field, well known for his critical approach, and this article has his trademark no-holds-barred criticisms of psychiatry.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when psychiatry was still under the influence of the European scientific tradition, reasonably accurate diagnoses still sat at center stage. If you felt blue, uneasy and generally jumpy, “nerves” was a common diagnosis. For the psychotherapeutically oriented psychiatrists of the day, “psychoneurosis” was the equivalent of nerves. There was no point in breaking these terms down: clinicians and patients alike understood “a case of nerves,” or a “nervous breakdown.”

Our psychopathological lingo today offers little improvement on these sturdy terms. A patient with the same symptoms today might be told he has “social anxiety disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.” The increased specificity is spurious. There is little risk of misdiagnosis, because the new disorders all respond to the same drugs, so in terms of treatment, the differentiation is meaningless and of benefit mainly to pharmaceutical companies that market drugs for these niches.

Link to WSJ article on Shorter on psychiatric diagnosis.