Planning your course effectively – the sociocultural approach and health

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The sociocultural approach is increasingly used in health psychology, as it became obvious that not all disorders could be explained through a biological etiology.  For example, addiction can be caused and sustained through our position in social groups, and treated through the support of social networks. Pegg et al. (2018) conducted a survey that investigated social identity and alcohol use in teens and found that higher levels of exposure to alcohol-related content on social networking sites was associated with higher levels of alcohol use, as the online social identity was maintained through an alignment of behaviour with other members of the online social group. Many health promotion programmes are underpinned by social cognitive theory, with its focus on the interaction of behaviour, internal personal factors (biology and individual cognition) and environmental influences and the key concepts of agency, self-efficacy, vicarious reinforcement and motivation.

More examples on the way!

References

Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education & Behavior, 31(2), 143-164.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Pegg, K. J., O’Donnell, A. W., Lala, G., & Barber, B. L. (2017). The role of online social identity in the relationship between alcohol-related content on social networking sites and adolescent alcohol use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21, 50-55

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178

Wenzel, S. L., Green, H. D. Jr, Tucker, J. S., Golinelli, D., Kennedy, D. P., Ryan, G. & Zhou, A. (2009). The social context of homeless women’s alcohol and drug use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence105(1-2), 16–23.

 

Social networks are good for your health.

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One of the options in IB Diploma Psychology is Health – how to stay healthy, the relationship between biology, cognition and health, and of course, how social factors affect our health. More and more psychologists are concluding that social support is one of the main factors in maintaining good mental and physical health.

A recent longitudinal study conducted into the effect of work stress on health found that men with pre-existing diseases like heart disease, stroke or diabetes who also had stressful jobs with little control over their workload were at a much higher risk of mortality. (Interestingly, there was no similar relationship found between stress at work, heart conditions and early death in women – maybe female social networks are more protective?)

The Guardian summarised these results: “Men…who experienced job strain had a 68% greater risk of premature death than men in more manageable jobs. A greater risk remained even when the men exercised, controlled their weight and blood pressure, and did not smoke.”  It is therefore no use telling men under stress  who have a pre-existing heart condition to get out and exercise more and not smoke, unless we also provide social support, teach positive coping mechanisms, and encourage employers to provide more flexible working hours.

This would provide a good introduction to the Determinants of Health section of the Health option.  In Psychology Sorted Book 2, we summarise Haslam et al’s study into the tendency to underestimate the role of social factors in ill-health, and to also underestimate the ability of social support to keep us healthy. So, be social and stay healthy!

 

Agonists – what are they?

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Biological psychology has come to the fore over the past years.  The mapping of the human genome combined with improved brain-scanning techniques has meant that the biological correlation to psychological conditions is more easily identifiable, and it is clear that many mental disorders like major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia are explainable through a gene x environment interaction.  This usually means that an inherited genetic pre-disposition to a disorder, or a certain behaviour or addiction is triggered environmentally.

Talking of genes takes us to neurotransmitters.  How? Genes make proteins which make neurotransmitters and genes also transport neurotransmitters across the synapse. (See Caspi et al._2003 and the 5HTTR serotonin transporter gene).  Neurotransmitters are agonists –they bind with receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron and cause an action potential.  Drugs are also agonists that act in the same way, but they are not natural in our nervous system.  Neurotransmitters are known as endogenous agonists (internal agonists); drugs, or any chemicals taken into the body, to deliberately stimulate a certain neurotransmitter or group of neurotransmitters, are exogenous agonists (external agonists).

An exogenous agonist for serotonin is MDMA (Ecstasy).  It works by binding with the serotonin transporter genes and also with the receptor sites, temporarily increasing the serotonin in the synapse in the neocortex (part of the cerebral cortex), the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, affecting cognitions such as memory and perceptions, as well as mood. We party!

However, studies have suggested that there is a rebound effect, whereby damage to the serotonin transporters after several doses of MDMA over a period of a few days has resulted in an ultimate decrease of serotonin in the brain, and memory and mood impairment, leading to theories that this might be linked to a motivation to take more and eventually to possible addiction. (See McCann et al MDMA and memory).

Of course, the opposite to an agonist is…an antagonist, which will be the subject of the next blog post.

Cognitive Dissonance theory explains a lot.

cigarettes-3564364_640Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, and, for an old-ish theory is in very good health today.  Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when trying to reconcile our beliefs with our actions and cognitive dissonance theory explains how we try and reduce this.

An excellent example to illustrate this is teenage smoking.  We all have the clear evidence that smoking leads to heart disease and/or lung cancer in the majority of people who smoke.  At the very least it reduces lung function and gives you a hacking cough and some breathlessness, especially if you catch a cold or have a chest infection.  This is often when most people try their hardest to give up.  Yet 19% of UK adults smoke, and 40% of these began smoking before they were 16.  (UK Cancer Research statistics, 2017). So how do teenagers deal with the cognitive dissonance created by smoking?

Firstly, fewer teenagers smoke now than ever before.  So by not starting, they are avoiding cognitive dissonance in that their actions mirror their beliefs – they are what is called ‘consonant’.  Others try and give up, and while the dangers of ‘vaping’ remain fairly unknown, this is a viable alternative that allows them to argue that the tar, and not the nicotine addiction is the problem, and they are solving that.  Those who are already too addicted to give up have to change their beliefs, as the discomfort of knowing that you are negatively impacting your health becomes unbearable.

They do this through statements like: ‘While I’m young and doing sports, the impact will be minimal, and I’ll give up when I get older.  Therefore it won’t affect me.’  Or they rationalise that they have never had a cough in their life and can still run and play sports better than most adolescents their age.  Or they admit that they would like to give up, but it’s just too difficult at the moment, as they’re under a lot of stress, but will definitely do it later.

The point at which teenagers and young people who smoke give up is when they cannot ignore their underlying beliefs and the facts any longer.  This usually happens when someone close to them dies of a smoking-related disease or is told by their doctor to give up before they do die of it.  Sometimes, the sociocultural approach can explain smoking or non-smoking behaviour: as friendships change, the teenager may find him/herself socialising largely with a non-smoking group, and the attractions of smoking become less.  The cognitive dissonance then becomes too large to ignore as friends dismiss your arguments and rationalisations to point out the harm you are doing yourself.

Cognitive dissonance theory can explain our behaviour while (not) dieting, or when feeling a dislike for a certain person, or even when choosing a political party to support.  We show a confirmation bias, by selectively attending to information that supports our decision, and closing our ears to dissenting voices.

Coming soon – ‘Psychology Sorted’, the book!

Hi Psychology teachers from all over the world! Yes, I know that summer is beckoning but wouldn’t you like a sneaky peak at a BRAND NEW RESOURCE that is due to be out around October 1st? Written by Laura Swash and Claire Neeson, this resource will solve all those pesky teaching dilemmas such as: ‘Which studies should I use for each topic and how can I re-use them to create less bulk for the students to learn?  How can I find a streamlined, easy, cross-referenced resource that’s user-friendly (for me and my students)?  What can I use for both teaching AND revision?’ Here is a sample for you to taste, to get the ‘flavour’ of what we’re doing. Add us to your school shopping list: #1 Order ‘Psychology Sorted’ next term.  Sorted!

Sample_Section 1_Bio. updated

Bio KS1 Fisher et al_2005

Holiday Reading for all

kindle-381242_640Psychology teachers and students alike must by now either be on holiday, or be desperately looking forward to being on holiday.  Some lighter reading recommendations (with links to summaries or reviews) for those who just can’t get enough psychology are:

Alexandra Horowitz – On Looking  – 12 stories of walking through a city with different experts (one being a dog!).This is really good for TOK as well as a good discussion on schema creation.

Robert M. Sapolsky – Behave  and Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers – why we do what we do, and why zebras don’t.  Great insight and humorous asides in both.

Ethan Watters – Crazy like US – the McDonaldization of psychiatry.  Very easy, historical view of how typically Western conceptions of mental illness have been exported to the rest of the world, and the effects of this.

Lisa Genova – Still Alice – fiction, but could so easily be fact, about a 50 year old female professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Told from her perspective.  Lisa Genova has written two other fictional accounts relevant to psychology, but this is (in my opinion) far and away the best.  Heartbreaking.

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Christopher is on the autistic spectrum in his behaviour, and perceives the world entirely logically, like his favourite detective Sherlock Homes.  When a neighbour’s dog is killed, he sets out to solve the murder.

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl – This tells the story of Nick, a man who becomes the main suspect when his wife mysteriously goes missing. Though he initially seems an unlikely killer, looks can be deceiving.  Tense thriller.

Emma Donaghue – Room – This novel of a boy and his kidnapped mother in extreme isolation is a great study for child development. A sensitive telling of a horrific story.

Meg Haston – Paperweight – a newish novel (2017) that follows 17-year-old Stevie’s journey as she struggles not only with her eating disorder and her guilt over her brother’s death. Mesmerising and sensitive.

Leslie McGill – Running Scared – another novel about an eating disorder, but quite different from Paperweight.

Finally, the best-ever fiction book written about addiction, written by Beatrice Sparks many years ago, Go Ask Alice ticks all the boxes for me.

Enjoy your reading, and maybe you have some recommendations?

 

 

 

 

 

Social media ‘addiction’ – the evidence.

screen timeWhile most of us think of addiction as the physical and psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol, cigarettes or any kind of drugs, the word has also been used for psychological dependence on behaviours like shopping, eating, gambling, and now screen time – especially the time that adolescents spend on social media. But what is the evidence for this?

Well, as everyone knows, when doing research, first of all the terms have to be operationalised.  Given that screens are multi-media, and the person could be reading a book, Skyping with a grandparent, watching a TED talk for their homework, contacting a friend, or posting their latest pics on Instagram, we need to be clear that it is time on social media that is causing the moral panic.  Though it is also worth noting that every time a teenager is seen staring at a screen, the assumption is always that they are on social media. In his latest letter to social media firms, Jeremy Hunt (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) proposed a future where every child gets a state-imposed social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day.

To implement such an extreme policy, scientific evidence of damage would be needed.  And this is where the problem begins:  the evidence is controversial.  Social media use has been found to be correlated with depression and  sleep disturbance  in young adults. The popular press has many alarming stories of permanent damage done to young people.

However, longitudinal studies of social media suggest that frequent social media use is generally associated with increases in self-esteem and empathy for adolescents.  As Professor Sonia Livingstone notes in her TEDx talk on how children engage with the internet, research suggests that little has changed in terms of youth mental well-being since the pre-internet era which makes the causal connection between internet use and lower mental well-being unwarranted.  Moreover, US statistics on crimes against children showed a significant decrease in physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children between 1990-2014, with sexual abuse (the crime most often associated in the public imagination with internet use) showing the biggest decrease.

All new forms of media, especially those used predominantly by young people, tend to disturb the equilibrium of older people.  Newspapers, radio, TV, video games and now social media all receive or have received negative attention and been blamed for a perceived decrease in moral values amongst the young. Socrates blamed writing for weakening memory, and allowing the pretence of understanding, rather than true understanding.