Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts

Friday, August 11, 2023

The immaturity of America's therapeutic culture

I  recommend reading the most recent NYTimes David Brook's piece, and pass on here ChatGPT 4's response to my request to summarize the main  its 1,472 words. It produced the following  339 words which nicely cover Brook's core points.  I think I will start using ChatGPT 4 more frequently for this purpose since  I've only recently realized that MindBlog readers who do not subscribe to the NYTimes can not read articles that I point to.  Also, I simply don't have the time to generate summaries myself, because I want to be working on other things.  

Summary of the Essay on the American Therapeutic Culture and Maturity: 

The decline of the American psyche can be linked to cultural shifts that started after World War II, leading to the rise of the therapeutic culture.

Historically, self-worth was derived from one's relationship with God or success in the marketplace. In the therapeutic culture, self-worth is gauged by subjective feelings about oneself.

This culture turned many into fragile narcissists, detached from moral traditions and relying heavily on public affirmation for self-worth.

By 2010, the US faced a mental health crisis, marked by rising rates of depression and suicide. Social media became a platform for seeking validation but often resulted in rejection.

The term “trauma” began to encompass a wider range of upsetting experiences, moving from severe physical harm to milder psychological wounds. Trauma became a dominant theme in culture, with many using it as a primary source of identity.

Safetyism emerged, advocating for protections against emotional harm. This led to concepts like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “safe spaces.” 

The approach to trauma became counterproductive, with certain false ideas propagated, such as "what doesn't kill you makes you weaker" and the portrayal of traumatized individuals as passive victims.

An opposing perspective, led by figures like Jordan Peterson, argued for resilience and not viewing oneself as a perpetual victim. Yet, these figures too sometimes portrayed themselves as victims in a different context.

This societal focus on victimhood has led to a public culture that is impulsive and erratic. The loudest voices often dominate discussions, sidelining mature discourse.

The core issue is the therapeutic ethos itself, which disconnects people from a broader moral order and asks individuals to create an identity solely from within. 

True maturity is not self-centered but involves weaving an identity from commitments and relationships with others. It's about seeing situations from multiple perspectives and committing to concrete moral goals.

Maturity allows individuals to be calm and understanding in challenging situations, and this might be the answer to building a more resilient and connected culture in the future.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Proxy Failure is an Inherent Risk in Goal-Oriented Systems

I will pass on the title and abstract of another article to appear in Behavioral and Brain Science for which reviewers comments are being solicited. MindBlog readers can email me to request a PDF of the target article. 

Dead rats, dopamine, performance metrics, and peacock tails: proxy failure is an inherent risk in goal- oriented systems 

Authors: Yohan J. John, Leigh Caldwell, Dakota E. McCoy, and Oliver Braganza 

Abstract: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. For example, when standardized test scores in education become targets, teachers may start 'teaching to the test', leading to breakdown of the relationship between the measure--test performance--and the underlying goal--quality education. Similar phenomena have been named and described across a broad range of contexts, such as economics, academia, machine-learning, and ecology. Yet it remains unclear whether these phenomena bear only superficial similarities, or if they derive from some fundamental unifying mechanism. Here, we propose such a unifying mechanism, which we label proxy failure. We first review illustrative examples and their labels, such as the 'Cobra effect', 'Goodhart's law', and 'Campbell's law'. Second, we identify central prerequisites and constraints of proxy failure, noting that it is often only a partial failure or divergence. We argue that whenever incentivization or selection is based on an imperfect proxy measure of the underlying goal, a pressure arises which tends to make the proxy a worse approximation of the goal. Third, we develop this perspective for three concrete contexts, namely neuroscience, economics and ecology, highlighting similarities and differences. Fourth, we outline consequences of proxy failure, suggesting it is key to understanding the structure and evolution of goal-oriented systems. Our account draws on a broad range of disciplines, but we can only scratch the surface within each. We thus hope the present account elicits a collaborative enterprise, entailing both critical discussion as well as extensions in contexts we have missed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The psychological illusion of "The Good Old Days"

Mastroianni and Gilbert (open access) do a nice study illustrating that the the universal perception of our ongoing moral decline is a psychological illusion to which people all over the world and throughout history have been susceptible. Their abstract:
Anecdotal evidence indicates that people believe that morality is declining. In a series of studies using both archival and original data (n = 12,492,983), we show that people in at least 60 nations around the world believe that morality is declining, that they have believed this for at least 70 years and that they attribute this decline both to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and to the decreasing morality of successive generations. Next, we show that people’s reports of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion. Finally, we show how a simple mechanism based on two well-established psychological phenomena (biased exposure to information and biased memory for information) can produce an illusion of moral decline, and we report studies that confirm two of its predictions about the circumstances under which the perception of moral decline is attenuated, eliminated or reversed (that is, when respondents are asked about the morality of people they know well or people who lived before the respondent was born). Together, our studies show that the perception of moral decline is pervasive, perdurable, unfounded and easily produced. This illusion has implications for research on the misallocation of scarce resources, the underuse of social support and social influence.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Intuitive physics learning in a deep-learning A.I. model

A fascinating open source article from Piloto et al. in Nature Human Behaviour that addresses a major shortcoming of current artifician intelligence systems:
‘Intuitive physics’ enables our pragmatic engagement with the physical world and forms a key component of ‘common sense’ aspects of thought. Current artificial intelligence systems pale in their understanding of intuitive physics, in comparison to even very young children. Here we address this gap between humans and machines by drawing on the field of developmental psychology. First, we introduce and open-source a machine-learning dataset designed to evaluate conceptual understanding of intuitive physics, adopting the violation-of-expectation (VoE) paradigm from developmental psychology. Second, we build a deep-learning system that learns intuitive physics directly from visual data, inspired by studies of visual cognition in children. We demonstrate that our model can learn a diverse set of physical concepts, which depends critically on object-level representations, consistent with findings from developmental psychology. We consider the implications of these results both for AI and for research on human cognition.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Sleepless and unhelpful

Simon et al. demonstrate that sleep loss leads to the withdrawal of human helping across individuals, groups, and large-scale societies:
Humans help each other. This fundamental feature of homo sapiens has been one of the most powerful forces sculpting the advent of modern civilizations. But what determines whether humans choose to help one another? Across 3 replicating studies, here, we demonstrate that sleep loss represents one previously unrecognized factor dictating whether humans choose to help each other, observed at 3 different scales (within individuals, across individuals, and across societies). First, at an individual level, 1 night of sleep loss triggers the withdrawal of help from one individual to another. Moreover, fMRI findings revealed that the withdrawal of human helping is associated with deactivation of key nodes within the social cognition brain network that facilitates prosociality. Second, at a group level, ecological night-to-night reductions in sleep across several nights predict corresponding next-day reductions in the choice to help others during day-to-day interactions. Third, at a large-scale national level, we demonstrate that 1 h of lost sleep opportunity, inflicted by the transition to Daylight Saving Time, reduces real-world altruistic helping through the act of donation giving, established through the analysis of over 3 million charitable donations. Therefore, inadequate sleep represents a significant influential force determining whether humans choose to help one another, observable across micro- and macroscopic levels of civilized interaction. The implications of this effect may be non-trivial when considering the essentiality of human helping in the maintenance of cooperative, civil society, combined with the reported decline in sufficient sleep in many first-world nations.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Point is to Stop - a farewell to self help coaching

I want to pass on some points, paraphrase, and central clips from what is essentially a swan song offered by Mark Manson in his latest newsletter - a newsletter whose contents I have mentioned in a number of previous MindBlog posts. This Manson essay hits me between the eyes, because I'm very aware that one of my main motivations for doing this MindBlog since Feb. 2006, with it's 5,220 posts (and counting) is that it has turned out to be valuable self therapy for Deric (with this abstracting of Manson's current article being one example). 

He begins by referencing an older article noting that 

...the best way to judge the usefulness of self-help advice is by now many people eventually leave it behind.
He notes that people who seek out self help.. so with two different mindsets... the "Doctor People" ...look to a book, website or seminar to cure their emotional ails... the "Coach People"...want a mentor or coach..They want strategies, roadmaps, to know the right moves...the problem is that Doctor People see personal growth as information that is to be learned rather than a skill that must be practiced...Self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy, vulnerability are skills can take years to become somewhat good at them... Coach People are in it for the long haul.
But what the Coach People don't get is that the whole point is to eventually stop. It's to leave. Because unlike chess or basketball, there's no world championship for anger management. Nobody is going to give you a trophy for mindfulness...the skill curves are different...In basketball or chess, the better you get, the more effort is required to further personal growth, the better you get, the less effort is required to further improve...personal growth skills have positive feedback loops bakes into them.. like skiing takes a lot of effort to get some speed going, but once you're on your way, the most effective thing you can do to gain speed is nothing.
...what the Coach People miss is that the whole point of this stuff, the way to 'win,' is to one day be free of consciously having to think about it...At some point, you just have to live your damn life...Coach People who identify as the "personal growth" not only get trapped by it, but are likely to bore you at dinner parties with their stories about their ayahuasca retreats.

And, at this point in the article, Mason declares that he is going to leave behind his career as a Coach Person, move on from the self help world he started writing a blog about in 2008, the blog being his own therapy as "I tried to sort through my own shit." 

And now,

I'm no longer the guy at the top of the ski hill struggling to get going. I feel like the guy flying down, full speed continue writing about these topics feels like unnecessarily planting my poles into the snow...the standard roadmap for self-help authors when they produce a hit book is to spend the next 20-30 years regurgitating the same ideas over and over again in various formats, on various stages, cashing the checks as they go. To me that sounds about as interesting as sticking my dick in a light socket...I've spent a lot of the past few years anxious and insecure that I would "lose my audience," by stepping away from self-help content. It's taken me way too long to listen to my own advice and just not give a fuck.

Manson then describes how he plans to leave behind a repository (The Subtle Art School) of what he has worked so hard to learn the past ten years, and leave his blog as an archive for posterity. 

Monday, November 08, 2021

It’s Quitting Season

I want to pass on two articles with the similar themes of people taking stock of their lives and deciding to stop making themselves unhappy. The piece by Crouse and Ferguson is a video, by and directed towards, Millenials, with the following introductory text:
It’s been a brutal few years. But we’ve gritted through. We’ve spent time languishing. We’ve had one giant national burnout. And now, finally, we’re quitting...We are quitting our jobs. Our cities. Our marriages. Even our Twitter feeds...And as we argue in the video, we’re not quitting because we’re weak. We’re quitting because we’re smart...younger Americans like 18-year-old singer Olivia Rodrigo and the extraordinary Simone Biles are barely old enough to rent a car but they are already teaching us about boundaries. They’ve seen enough hollowed-out millennials to know what the rest of us are learning: Don’t be a martyr to grit.
I feel some personal resonance with points made about a whole career path in the piece by Arthur Brooks, To Be Happy, Hide From the Spotlight, because this clip nails a part of the reason I keep driving myself to performances (writing, lecturing, music) by rote habit:
Assuming that you aren’t a pop star or the president, fame might seem like an abstract problem. The thing is, fame is relative, and its cousin, prestige — fame among a particular group of people — is just as fervently chased in smaller communities and fields of expertise. In my own community of academia, honors and prestige can be highly esoteric but deeply desired.
I suggest you read the whole article, but here are a few further clips:
Even if a person’s motive for fame is to set a positive example, it mirrors the other, less flattering motives insofar as it depends on other people’s opinions. And therein lies the happiness problem. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century, “Happiness is in the happy. But honor is not in the honored.” ...research shows that fame ...based on what scholars call extrinsic rewards... brings less happiness than intrinsic rewards...fame has become a form of addiction. This is especially true in the era of social media, which allows almost anyone with enough motivation to achieve recognition by some number of strangers...this is not a new phenomenon. The 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said fame is like seawater: “The more we have, the thirstier we become.”
No social scientists I am aware of have created a quantitative misery index of fame. But the weight of the indirect evidence above, along with the testimonies of those who have tasted true fame in their time, should be enough to show us that it is poisonous. It is “like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen,” said Francis Bacon, “and drowns things weighty and solid.” Or take it from Lady Gaga: “Fame is prison.”
...Pay attention to when you are seeking fame, prestige, envy, or admiration—especially from strangers. Before you post on social media, for example, ask yourself what you hope to achieve with it...Say you want to share a bit of professional puffery or photos of your excellent beach body. The benefit you experience is probably the little hit of dopamine you will get as you fire it off while imagining the admiration or envy others experience as they see it. The cost is in the reality of how people will actually see your post (and you): Research shows that people will largely find your boasting to be annoying—even if you disguise it with a humblebrag—and thus admire you less, not more. As Shakespeare helpfully put it, “Who knows himself a braggart, / Let him fear this, for it will come to pass / that every braggart shall be found an ass.”
The poet Emily Dickinson called fame a “fickle food / Upon a shifting plate.” But far from a harmless meal, “Men eat of it and die.” It’s a good metaphor, because we have the urge to consume all kinds of things that appeal to some anachronistic neurochemical impulse but that nevertheless will harm us. In many cases—tobacco, drugs of abuse, and, to some extent, unhealthy foods—we as a society have recognized these tendencies and taken steps to combat them by educating others about their ill effects.
Why have we failed to do so with fame? None of us, nor our children, will ever find fulfillment through the judgment of strangers. The right rule of thumb is to treat fame like a dangerous drug: Never seek it for its own sake, teach your kids to avoid it, and shun those who offer it.

Monday, November 01, 2021

What the mind is - similarities and differences in concepts of mental life in five cultures

From Weisman et al., who do a fascinating study of cognitive structures 'from the bottom up', allowing data to give rise to ontological structures, rather than working 'from the top down' by using a theory to guide hypothesis-driven data collection. :
How do concepts of mental life vary across cultures? By asking simple questions about humans, animals and other entities – for example, ‘Do beetles get hungry? Remember things? Feel love?’ – we reconstructed concepts of mental life from the bottom up among adults (N = 711) and children (ages 6–12 years, N = 693) in the USA, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. This revealed a cross-cultural and developmental continuity: in all sites, among both adults and children, cognitive abilities travelled separately from bodily sensations, suggesting that a mind–body distinction is common across diverse cultures and present by middle childhood. Yet there were substantial cultural and developmental differences in the status of social–emotional abilities – as part of the body, part of the mind or a third category unto themselves. Such differences may have far-reaching social consequences, whereas the similarities identify aspects of human understanding that may be universal.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is self awareness a mirage?

David Brooks does a brief psychological essay - a sequel to one described in MindBlog's Sept. 10 post.
One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do...We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there...we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation.
Mary Pipher, the legendary therapist and author of “Reviving Ophelia” ...prefers “what, when, where and how” questions: When do you notice feelings of inferiority? Basically, she wants clients to become closer observers of their own behavior.....Maybe the best way to see yourself is to get out of the deceptive rumination spirals of your own self-consciousness and to think about yourself in the third person...Dan McAdams, the Northwestern scholar who specializes in how people tell their life stories...doubts that we can ever really know why we do anything, so we are compelled to fall back on narratives or what he calls “personal myths.”...some stories are better than others. Stories that are closer to “what really happened” are more reliable than ones that are distorted by self-flattery and self-affirmation... Americans, McAdams has found, tend to tell redemption stories...I was rising, I faltered, I came back better.
Lori Gottlieb, the author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” She also sees therapy as a form of story-editing. But she is much more optimistic that we can actually get down to the sources of our behavior...You have to understand the “why,” so you can recognize the behavior when it’s happening again and address what’s causing you to behave as you do.
Epley, the "Mindwise" author, stressed that we can attain true wisdom and pretty good self-awareness by looking at behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives, and highlighted the importance of humility in life... recognizing that we don’t have privileged access to our minds, toneing down our self-confidence and realizing don’t know other people as well as we think we do.”

Monday, September 20, 2021

Secure human attachment can promote support for climate change mitigation

From Misa et al.


Attachment theory focuses on the primal form of emotional bonding between humans. Attachment is conceptualized as an innate behavioral system aimed at safeguarding against potential threats by assuring proximity to caring and supportive others. When individuals feel securely attached (thus feeling less threatened in most situations), the activation of the caregiving behavioral system (concern for others) is facilitated. With this research, we show that priming attachment security influences how much people care about and accept climate change via an increased empathy for humanity. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this activation bypasses the resistance of politically conservative individuals to mitigate climate change. Overall, we show that attachment security–based stimuli can inform intervention and policymaking strategies to help fight climate change.
Attachment theory is an ethological approach to the development of durable, affective ties between humans. We propose that secure attachment is crucial for understanding climate change mitigation, because the latter is inherently a communal phenomenon resulting from joint action and requiring collective behavioral change. Here, we show that priming attachment security increases acceptance (Study 1: n = 173) and perceived responsibility toward anthropogenic climate change (Study 2: n = 209) via increased empathy for others. Next, we demonstrate that priming attachment security, compared to a standard National Geographic video about climate change, increases monetary donations to a proenvironmental group in politically moderate and conservative individuals (Study 3: n = 196). Finally, through a preregistered field study conducted in the United Arab Emirates (Study 4: n = 143,558 food transactions), we show that, compared to a message related to carbon emissions, an attachment security–based message is associated with a reduction in food waste. Taken together, our work suggests that an avenue to promote climate change mitigation could be grounded in core ethological mechanisms associated with secure attachment.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Psychology of Fake News

Pennycook and Rand do a fascinating open source article in Trends in Cognitive Science on the psychology of fake news.  Their highlights and summary: 

Recent evidence contradicts the common narrative that partisanship and politically motivated reasoning explain why people fall for 'fake news'. 
Poor truth discernment is linked to a lack of careful reasoning and relevant knowledge, as well as to the use of familiarity and source heuristics. 
There is also a large disconnect between what people believe and what they will share on social media, and this is largely driven by inattention rather than by purposeful sharing of misinformation. 
Effective interventions can nudge social media users to think about accuracy, and can leverage crowdsourced veracity ratings to improve social media ranking algorithms.
We synthesize a burgeoning literature investigating why people believe and share false or highly misleading news online. Contrary to a common narrative whereby politics drives susceptibility to fake news, people are ‘better’ at discerning truth from falsehood (despite greater overall belief) when evaluating politically concordant news. Instead, poor truth discernment is associated with lack of careful reasoning and relevant knowledge, and the use of heuristics such as familiarity. Furthermore, there is a substantial disconnect between what people believe and what they share on social media. This dissociation is largely driven by inattention, more so than by purposeful sharing of misinformation. Thus, interventions can successfully nudge social media users to focus more on accuracy. Crowdsourced veracity ratings can also be leveraged to improve social media ranking algorithms.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Passion matters but not equally everywhere.

From Li et al.:  


In three large-scale datasets representing adolescents from 59 societies across the globe, we find evidence of a systematic cultural variation in the relationship between passion and achievement. In individualistic societies, passion better predicts achievement and explains more variance in achievement outcomes. In collectivistic societies, passion still positively predicts achievement, but it is a much less powerful predictor. There, parents’ support predicts achievement as much as passion. One implication of these findings is that if admission officers, recruiters, and managers rely on only one model of motivation, a Western independent one, they may risk passing over and mismanaging talented students and employees who increasingly come from sociocultural contexts where a more interdependent model of motivation is common and effective.
How to identify the students and employees most likely to achieve is a challenge in every field. American academic and lay theories alike highlight the importance of passion for strong achievement. Based on a Western independent model of motivation, passionate individuals—those who have a strong interest, demonstrate deep enjoyment, and express confidence in what they are doing—are considered future achievers. Those with less passion are thought to have less potential and are often passed over for admission or employment. As academic institutions and corporations in the increasingly multicultural world seek to acquire talent from across the globe, can they assume that passion is an equally strong predictor of achievement across cultural contexts? We address this question with three representative samples totaling 1.2 million students in 59 societies and provide empirical evidence of a systematic, cross-cultural variation in the importance of passion in predicting achievement. In individualistic societies where independent models of motivation are prevalent, relative to collectivistic societies where interdependent models of motivation are more common, passion predicts a larger gain (0.32 vs. 0.21 SD) and explains more variance in achievement (37% vs. 16%). In contrast, in collectivistic societies, parental support predicts achievement over and above passion. These findings suggest that in addition to passion, achievement may be fueled by striving to realize connectedness and meet family expectations. Findings highlight the risk of overweighting passion in admission and employment decisions and the need to understand and develop measures for the multiple sources and forms of motivation that support achievement.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Traces of psychedelics make you feel good, but so does placebo.

From Bal√°zs Szigeti et al.:
Microdosing is the practice of regularly using low doses of psychedelic drugs. Anecdotal reports suggest that microdosing enhances well-being and cognition; however, such accounts are potentially biased by the placebo effect. This study used a ‘self-blinding’ citizen science initiative, where participants were given online instructions on how to incorporate placebo control into their microdosing routine without clinical supervision. The study was completed by 191 participants, making it the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to-date. All psychological outcomes improved significantly from baseline to after the 4 weeks long dose period for the microdose group; however, the placebo group also improved and no significant between-groups differences were observed. Acute (emotional state, drug intensity, mood, energy, and creativity) and post-acute (anxiety) scales showed small, but significant microdose vs. placebo differences; however, these results can be explained by participants breaking blind. The findings suggest that anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.
Further descriptions and discussions of this work are offered by Cameron and by O'Grady.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Changing basic personality traits with a smartphone App?

A group of Swiss researchers has taken direct aim at trying to modify, in a digital intervention experiment with ~1,500 participants, the basic OCEAN personality traits : openness,conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They developed the smartphone App PEACH (PErsonality coACH), which provides scalable communication capabilities using a digital agent that mimics a conversation with a human. The PEACH app also includes digital journaling, reminders of individual goals, video clips, opportunities for self-reflection and feedback on progress. Weekly core topics and small interventions aim to address and activate the desired changes and thus the development of personality traits. Their results challenge the commonn view that personality traits relatively stable and unchangeable. Here is the Stieger et al.abstract:
Personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as success in love and work life, well-being, health, and longevity. Given these positive relations to important outcomes, economists, policy makers, and scientists have proposed intervening to change personality traits to promote positive life outcomes. However, nonclinical interventions to change personality traits are lacking so far in large-scale naturalistic populations. This study (n = 1,523) examined the effects of a 3-mo digital personality change intervention using a randomized controlled trial and the smartphone application PEACH (PErsonality coACH). Participants who received the intervention showed greater self-reported changes compared to participants in the waitlist control group who had to wait 1 mo before receiving the intervention. Self-reported changes aligned with intended goals for change and were significant for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.52) and for those desiring to decrease on a trait (d = −0.58). Observers such as friends, family members, or intimate partners also detected significant personality changes in the desired direction for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.35). Observer-reported changes for those desiring to decrease on a trait were not significant (d = −0.22). Moreover, self- and observer-reported changes persisted until 3 mo after the end of the intervention. This work provides the strongest evidence to date that normal personality traits can be changed through intervention in nonclinical samples.
Also, from the text of the article:
....most participants wanted to decrease in neuroticism (26.7%), increase in conscientiousness (26.1%), or increase in extraversion (24.6%). Other change goals were chosen less often. Of all participants, 7.4% wanted to increase in openness, 6.4% decrease in agreeableness, 4.1% increase in agreeableness, 2.6% decrease in conscientiousness, 1.8% decrease in openness, and 0.2% decrease in extraversion
Their conclusion:
Taken together, this research shows that people can actively change their personality traits in desired directions with the help of a digital intervention. The findings provide a challenge for the common misperception that because personality traits are relatively stable, they are therefore unchangeable. Provided that policy makers acknowledge the beneficial effects of personality interventions for the individual and the society as a whole, this digital intervention approach could easily be used as a low-cost and low-threshold prevention tool for a large number of people.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19

From Giuntella et al:  


COVID-19 has affected daily life in unprecedented ways. Drawing on a longitudinal dataset of college students before and during the pandemic, we document dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep, time use, and mental health. We show that biometric and time-use data are critical for understanding the mental health impacts of COVID-19, as the pandemic has tightened the link between lifestyle behaviors and depression. Our findings also suggest a puzzle: Disruptions to physical activity and mental health are strongly associated, but restoration of physical activity through a short-term intervention does not help improve mental health. These results highlight the large impact of COVID-19 on both lifestyle and well-being and offer directions for interventions aimed at restoring mental health.
Using a longitudinal dataset linking biometric and survey data from several cohorts of young adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (N=682), we document large disruptions to physical activity, sleep, time use, and mental health. At the onset of the pandemic, average steps decline from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day, sleep increases by 25 to 30 min per night, time spent socializing declines by over half to less than 30 min, and screen time more than doubles to over 5 h per day. Over the course of the pandemic from March to July 2020 the proportion of participants at risk for clinical depression ranges from 46% to 61%, up to a 90% increase in depression rates compared to the same population just prior to the pandemic. Our analyses suggest that disruption to physical activity is a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic. However, restoration of those habits through a short-term intervention does not meaningfully improve mental well-being.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Avoiding psychological biases that trick your brain.

The monthly Austin Rainbow Forum discussion group which I help organize meets on the first Sunday afternoon of each month, and I thought I would pass on background material for a talk and discussion March 7 by Paul McNamara titled "Avoiding psychological bias." I also want to point to an excellent article on cognitive biases and faulty heuristics by Ben Yagoda that appeared several years ago in The Atlantic. Here is McNamara's summary that I just sent out to the discussion group's email list: 

"How we look at the world and make decisions about the ways we live our lives can be profoundly affected by many of the psychological biases which we're all susceptible to. We'll discuss thirteen common types of bias, all beginning with the letter “c”. This presentation has been adapted from the The Center for Action and Contemplation’s podcast series Learning How to See. For those who are interested, here’s a link to the six episodes podcast series: "

The thirteen biases are: 

1. Confirmation Bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resist information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks. 

2. Complexity Bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

3. Community bias: It is very hard to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. This is a form of social confirmation bias. 

4. Complementary bias: If peope are nice to you, you’ll be open to what they see and have to say. If they aren’t nice to you, you won’t. 

5. Contact bias: If you lack contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. 

6. Conservative/Liberal bias: Conservatives and Liberals see the world differently. Liberals see through a “nurturing parent” window, and Conservatives see through a “strict father” window. Liberals value moral arguments based on justice and compassion; conservatives also place a high value on arguments based on purity, loyalty, authority, and tradition. Our brains like to see as our party sees, and we flock with those who see as we do. 

7. Consciousness bias: A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and others impossible. Our brains see from a location.

8. Competency bias: We are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we are, so we may see less or more than we think. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. 

9. Confidence Bias: We mistake confidence for competence, and we are all vulnerable to the lies of confident people. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth. 

10. Conspiracy Bias: When we feel shame, we are vulnerable to stories that cast us as the victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy “other.” Our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim ... never the villain. 

11. Comfort/Complacency/Convenience Bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy and reject data that require us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves. 

12. Catastrophe/Normalcy Bias: Our brains notice sudden changes for the worse, but we easily miss slow and subtle changes over time. We think what is now normal always was and always will be. Our brains are wired for what feels normal. 

13. Cash Bias: It is very hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. Our brains are wired to see within the framework of our economy, and we see what helps us make money.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Timing matters when correcting fake news

 From Brashier et al.:

Countering misinformation can reduce belief in the moment, but corrective messages quickly fade from memory. We tested whether the longer-term impact of fact-checks depends on when people receive them. In two experiments (total N = 2,683), participants read true and false headlines taken from social media. In the treatment conditions, “true” and “false” tags appeared before, during, or after participants read each headline. Participants in a control condition received no information about veracity. One week later, participants in all conditions rated the same headlines’ accuracy. Providing fact-checks after headlines (debunking) improved subsequent truth discernment more than providing the same information during (labeling) or before (prebunking) exposure. This finding informs the cognitive science of belief revision and has practical implications for social media platform designers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Are you holding your breath?

Note; This is a repeat of a post that I did on Jan. 28, 2008. Its theme led me to develop a lecture titled "Are you holding your breath - Structures of arousal and calm." which is posted on my website.  The contents of the lecture are relevant to understanding the stress we are all feeling during the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

I notice - if I am maintaining awareness of my breathing - that the breathing frequently stops as I begin a skilled activity such as piano or computer keyboarding. At the same time I can begin to sense an array of unnecessary (and debilitating) pre-tensions in the muscle involved. If I just keep breathing and noticing those tensions, they begin to release. (Continuing to let awareness return to breathing when it drifts is a core technique of mindfulness meditation). Several sources note that attending to breathing can raise one's general level of restfulness relative to excitation, enhancing parasympathetic (restorative) over sympathetic (arousing) nervous system activities. These personal points make me feel like passing on some excerpts from a recent essay which basically agrees with these points: "Breathtaking New Technologies," by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft VP and Co-Founder and Director of Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group. It is a bit simplistic, but does point in a useful direction.
I believe that attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit and that we can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals...but... the way in which many of us interact with our personal technologies makes it impossible to use this extraordinary tool of attention to our advantage...the vast majority of people hold their breath especially when they first begin responding to email. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or over-breathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and carbon dioxide balance...breath holding can contribute significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen and CO2 balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.

The parasympathetic nervous system governs our sense of hunger and satiety, flow of saliva and digestive enzymes, the relaxation response, and many aspects of healthy organ function. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing enables us to down regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which then causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. Shallow breathing, breath holding and hyper-ventilating triggers the sympathetic nervous system, in a "fight or flight" response...Some breathing patterns favor our body's move toward parasympathetic functions and other breathing patterns favor a sympathetic nervous system response. Buteyko (breathing techniques developed by a Russian M.D.), Andy Weil's breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, certain yoga breathing techniques, all have the potential to soothe us, and to help our bodies differentiate when fight or flight is really necessary and when we can rest and digest.

I've changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I'm using a computer, PDA or cell phone...I've discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me when I'm hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive...I've come to believe that, within the next 5-7 years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of any fitness regime.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The psyche is not inside us but between us.

I want to pass on a few clips from an article by psychotherapist James Barnes on the work and ideas of Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), a central figure in mid-20th-century psychoanalysis, whose theory was:

...radically at odds with the Freudian model and indeed the models employed by modern psychiatry and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)...he saw the area in between self and other as the proper domain of mental life and the place where it develops. He largely circumvented the subject-object dualism inherent in the Freudian model of mind (which both the Ego-psychologists and the Kleinians subscribed to) and espoused, or at least regularly insinuated, a fundamentally unitary conception of self and other...Freud and the schools that followed him saw any apparent continuity of self and other – an experience common to the infant, ‘psychotics’ and ‘regressed patients’ alike – as a narcissistic delusion that had to be confronted. By taking the continuity of self and other seriously, Winnicott flipped this picture on its head. He thought of it, in fact, as primary.

Winnicott believed that separate minds give way to experiential units – that subjects with minds emerge out of the domain of interpersonal relations: the ‘social matrix of psyche’... Thus, far from being separate, closed-off entities that somehow manage to figure out each other externally, we are, according to Winnicott, radically open beings in immediate contact with each other.

Winnicott expressed this idea enigmatically when he said: ‘There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.’ His perspective is most relevant for understanding a baby’s experience with her parents, but it’s at the core of all experience, even though we don’t usually recognise it as such. Experience of the world and others is the primary given, and minds – rather than traversing an existing separation – are in a certain sense responsible for creating it. Effectively, this is an inversion of Freud’s dualistic model.

Winnicott’s divergence from subject-object dualism is perhaps most clearly illustrated by his firm belief that we never extricate ourselves from this transitional realm and its subject-object mix-up – nor would we want to. For Freud, and for reductive psychiatry and CBT alike, there is a fundamental assumption that objective states of affairs in an independent world are the basic truth of experience. Indeed, the models rise and fall with the veracity of this picture.

However, Winnicott had a very different vision. He wrote of culture – its artifacts and its activities – as extensions of the transitional phenomena of childhood, themselves rooted in the original mix-up with the parent. He thought that the very worlds we inhabit and take for granted are always partly of our own making. For Winnicott, it is only because the worlds we experience are coextensive with ourselves that they feel alive, alluring and psychically experienceable in the first instance, rather than like cold, mathematical structures, as scientific materialism would have us believe. In this way, Winnicott’s psychological paradox of subject and object becomes a philosophical paradox of idealism and materialism...These fundamental views now lie at the heart of what’s known in modern parlance as relational and intersubjective depth psychotherapy.

Barnes proceeds to argue that the one-person psychologies of the Freudian and cognitive behavioral therapy models have caused social damage, and that we would do well to go:

...back to Winnicott - to his vision of the psyche as intimately interpersonal and social in nature; to his centralisation of interpersonal trauma and deficit at the root of our suffering; and to his profound insights into the area in between, which come into focus when we do so.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Making Us/Them Dichotomies More Benign.

I'm reposting this item from 2016 as particularly relevant to the present.... Interesting thoughts from Robert Sapolsky:
A truly discouraging thing to me is how easily humans see the world as dichotomized between Us and Them. This comes through in all sorts of ways —social anthropology, lord of the flies, prison experiments, linguistics (all those cultures where the word for the members of that culture translates into "People," thus making a contrast with the non-people living in the next valley). 
As a neurobiologist, I'm particularly impressed with and discouraged by one finding relevant to this. There's a part of the brain called the amygdala that has lots to do with fear and anxiety and aggression. Functional brain imaging studies of humans show that the amygdala becomes metabolically active when we look at a scary face (even when the face is flashed up so quickly that we aren't consciously aware of seeing it). And some recent work—solid, done by top people, independently replicated — suggests that the amygdala can become activated when we view the face of someone from another race. The Them as scary, and the Them being someone whose skin color is real different from our own. 
Damn, that's an upsetting finding. 
But right on the heels of those studies are follow-ups showing that the picture is more complicated. The "Other skin color = scared activated amygdala = the Other" can be modified by experience. "Experience," can be how diverse of a world you grew up in. More diversity, and the amygdala is likely to become activated in that circumstance. And also, "experience," can be whether, shortly before your amygdala is put through the brain imaging paces, you are subtly biased to think about people categorically or as individuals. If you're cued towards individuating, your amygdala doesn't light up. 
Thus, it seems quite plausible to me that we are hard-wired towards making Us/Them distinctions and not being all that nice to the Them. But what is anything but hard-wired is who counts as an Us and as a Them —we are so easily manipulated into changing those categories. 
So, I'm optimistic that with the right sort of priorities and human engineering (whatever that phrase means), we can be biased towards making Us/Them dichotomies far more benign than they tend to be now. Say, by making all of us collectively feel like an Us with Them being the space aliens that may attack us some day. Or making the Them to be mean, shitty, intolerant people without compassion. 
But, I'm sure not optimistic that we'll soon be having political, religious or cultural leaders likely to move us effectively in that direction. Just to deflate that optimism.