We’re all just animals, aren’t we?

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The question of when to use non-human animal studies as evidence for human behaviour is a tricky one. Because it remains unethical to lesion the brain of a live human to look for a correlation between brain damage and behaviour (at the moment!), animal studies are used in large numbers at the biological approach. However, many people are becoming more disturbed by this than previously as over the years we have come to realise that animals also suffer pain, fear and anxiety as we do, and maybe other ways should be sought to conduct animal studies.

In Psychology Sorted, this is part of the Biological extension: the British Psychological guidelines for working with animals (2012) state that researchers should: Replace animals with other alternatives. Reduce the number of animals used. Refine procedures to minimise suffering.  But isn’t how they are used a large part of the problem?  After all, observation under natural conditions should be no problem.  Xu et al. (2015) researched naturally-occurring depression in macaque monkeys by observing monkeys living at a research base in China in environmental conditions that closely resembled what they would experience in the wild, for nearly 3 years.  The monkeys were housed in colonies, usually of two males and 16-22 females, with offspring of under six months.

Instead of unnaturally separating baby chimpanzees from their mothers, as Bowlby and others have done, causing distress,  Stanton et al. (2015) ‘picked up poo’: they investigated the effect of maternal stress on the glucocorticoid levels of infant chimpanzees by examining and measuring faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations of mothers and babies in the wild.  Much less stress for the monkeys, though maybe not for the researchers! 

Bearing in mind that we are animals too, it is time empathy stretched to our non-human cousins, and these methods seem to be a first step on the way.  See Psychology Sorted for more examples of ethical animal research.

 

Research from Psychology Sorted: Social Identity Theory

sitHow we develop our social identity is still a hot topic today, and for those of you studying the effect of technologies, especially social media, on social identity, there is a developing literature on the subject.  But we should start with the classic minimal groups paradigm from Tajfel (1971), found in our new book Psychology Sorted, as it is still so relevant today.

The predominant 1960s theory of social identity formation came from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study which led to the development of his 1966 realistic conflict theory that competition for scarce resources is the foundation for group (social) identity, and also one cause of conflict. Think of the worldwide competition for water and oil on a large scale and maybe sporting competitions on a smaller scale. Why do you think that schools have ‘houses’, ‘sporting colours’, ‘house badges’?

However, Tajfel’s research contradicted this, demonstrating that only minimal conditions were necessary for group identity to form: his experiment randomly allocated schoolboys to two groups.  The boys thought they had been allocated their group according to their preference for a painting by either Klee or Kandinsky, but this was a deception and the allocation was random. This perception of belonging to a certain group was enough for boys to show in-group favouritism when allocating virtual money via a complex matrix of rules.  The minimal groups paradigm formed the basis of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which remains a powerful explanation of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination.

The three sequential steps Tajfel & Turner (1979) deemed necessary for social identity to form are:

  • social categorisation – we understand that people (and things) can be grouped
  • social identification – we identify with a group
  • social comparison – we compare ourselves favourably with another group

Social comparison underlies stereotyping, gang fights (though these can also be seen as competition for scarce resources), between-class competitions, girl/boy competition, online identities…how many more can you think of?

Tajfel’s theory can be used extensively in the curriculum, from his lab experiments in the 1970s (research methods), to an argument for the formation of stereotypes (sociocultural approach), to an explanation of how competition and maybe even conflict is generated in human relationships, to how images are cultivated socially on Snapchat, Instagram and (amongst us oldies) Facebook for cognitive psychology.  This is an example of a classic theory that can be easily accessed through Psychology Sorted.

Psychology Sorted cognitive research: The effect of digital technology on memory and learning

There has been a lot in the news recently about the effect of social media on mental health, but less about the effect on school and university students of reading or responding to texts during lectures.  As students expect to be ‘connected’ throughout the day, gradually mobile phones have been finding their way into classrooms and lecture halls. Students often argue this makes no difference to their learning, as they can disregard texts and interruptions.  But is this true? Another study from Psychology Sorted  is explored today, with examples of how it may be used.

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Rosen et al (2011) conducted a field experiment to examine the direct impact of text message interruptions on memory in a classroom environment and found the effects to be a slight, but significant, reduction in memory.  This is an example of a study that can be used to illustrate research into the influence of technology and also to explore a common method used to research the influence of technology – the field experiment.

The researchers conducted their experiment in a classroom during a lecture.  The independent variable was the  number of texts received and sent (3 groups, no/low, medium and high), and the dependent variable was the score on a test based on the lesson content. 185 college students (148 female and 37 male) were told that they were going to view a 30-minute videotaped lecture relevant to their course and that during the session some of them would receive texts from the researchers to which they should respond as promptly as possible. They were informed that they would be tested on the material after the lecture.

The results were that the no/low texting group performed 10.6% better than the high texting group in their tests. The test score was significantly negatively correlated with the total number of words sent and received. Those participants who chose to wait more than 4-5 minutes to respond to a text message did better than those who responded immediately.  But in all cases the difference was only just significant. This led the researchers to suggest that metacognitive skills (including learning to wait before responding to disturbances that make us lose focus) should be explicitly taught and that it might be wise for teachers and lecturers to use strategies that focus on when it is appropriate to take a break and when it is important to focus without distractions.

Some schools have opted to require all mobile phones to be turned off or left in lockers, but the problem is that just because the student’s technology is ‘out of sight’ it is not ‘out of mind.’ Maybe teachers should share the results of this study with their students?

Research from Psychology Sorted: Poverty and childhood cognitive development – a biological approach.

This is the first in a series of posts using research directly from our new bookpoverty3349068_640 Psychology Sorted.  The study we’re looking at today is Luby et al. (2013) on how children’s brain development and therefore their cognitive development are affected by poverty. The researchers found that exposure to poverty in early childhood impacts cognitive development by school age. However, the effect is mediated positively by good caregiving and negatively by stressful life events.

This is highly relevant in light of reports from the UK, USA and  South-East Asia of the large, and in some cases growing, number of children living in poverty.  This research can be used as an example of both localization and neuroplasticity within the Biological Approach,  and to illustrate the influence of poverty/socio-economic status on cognitive development, for those studying the Developmental Psychology option.

This was a longitudinal study of 145 children from a sample of children already enrolled in a 10-year study of preschool depression who, prior to being scanned by MRI,  had undergone regular testing.  Once a year (for a duration of 3-6 years) the children had taken part in a series of tests aimed at measuring their cognitive, emotional and social aptitudes. The involvement of significant adults in their lives was also recorded (e.g. how close they were to their caregivers) as well as the occurrence of any negative and stressful events in their lives. Once this collection of information had been amassed, each child underwent two MRI scans – one of the whole brain and one of the hippocampus and amygdala only. This study can therefore also act as an example of the use of brain-imaging technology as a technique used to study the brain in relation to behaviour.

Both the hippocampus and the amygdala showed less white and grey matter in the MRI scans of the poorer children in this study, with a positive correlation between income/needs being met and brain volume. While both the hippocampus and amygdala showed less development in poverty-affected children the researchers found that in cases where the child experienced positive care there was less negative effect on the hippocampus. Difficult and stressful life events only affected the left hippocampus.

Of course, students and teachers need to evaluate the use of this research as well: how valid is the study as an illustration of both localization and neuroplasticity? This was a relatively small sample of pre-schoolchildren from the USA who exhibited symptoms of depression.  Moreover, attempting to measure complex variables (e.g. the nature of caregiving and behavioural responses) is beset with difficulties as these variables are not exact and may lack construct validity.  Nonetheless, there was triangulation of methods, with the background data from cognitive testing providing a rich backdrop for the results of the scans, and this research is supported by other studies, such as that by Duval et al. (2017). 

Encourage your student to find and read media and academic examples of evidence and counter-evidence, and to engage in critical thinking and evaluation. For example, some poor families often cannot afford pre-school kindergartens for their children, who may be raised to some extent in isolation as well as in poverty.  This could be a confounding variable. Are there others? The student who is thinking like this is well on the way to writing a good argumentative essay on the effects of poverty on childhood cognitive development.

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.

Online research

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Most of the studies you will want to read can be found online, but some will be behind what is called a ‘pay wall’.  This means that your school librarian should be able to help you with access, in that most school libraries will subscribe to at least one online data repository of resources.  However, that is no guarantee of availability, and you may have to do some online searching of your own.

The best place to start your search is Google Scholar, where you can type in key words, or the study title and authors, and a list of versions will come up.  If one of these is a ‘pdf’ then you are in luck.  If it is not, sometimes a site like Researchgate will have a pdf version for free. If they don’t, then they may have the abstract and, unlike other sites, if you join them (it’s free, and also spam-free) you can then request the full text direct from the author.  (This works for teachers, who can declare their interest in Psychology, but I am not sure if students would be able to join). I have put in 65 requests over the past few years, and received 12 texts, so while it’s not a sure method, it’s worth pursuing.

Finally, while most teachers will say steer clear of Wikipedia because of sometimes inaccurate information, the list of references at the end of the entry may prove very useful.  For example, it is well known that in 1986 researchers Yuille and Cutshall published research into eyewitness testimony of a crime that can act as a useful critique for Loftus and Palmer.  However, it is behind a pay wall, though may be requested through Researchgate.  But, if you go to Wikipedia and find Canadian psychologist John C. Yuille, scroll down and look at the references, you will find some that can be tracked and are freely available – such as this one on the effect of alcohol on eyewitness memory.  All of the hyperlinked articles at the bottom of Yuille’s Wikipedia page come up in PsycNET first, where they must be paid for, but by taking the article title and typing it into Google Scholar, or even into your usual search engine, the pdf can often be found.

This does take time, but once you have these items, you have them forever, which is a useful thought for teachers, or for students hoping to take their study of Psychology further. And if you don’t want all of your online searching to be tracked by Google, try using DuckDuckGo as a search engine.  Happy hunting!

What is a ‘key study’?

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Key studies are studies that are the most useful for any Psychology course, because they provide the ‘key’ to understanding a concept or theory.  For example, Maguire’s famous ‘taxi driver’ study, Loftus and Palmer’s ‘car crash’ study or Rosenhan’s research into the validity of diagnosis on admission to mental hospitals.

Teachers and students can benefit by summarising these studies according to Background, Aim, Participants, Procedure, Results, Conclusion, Evaluation.  This can be done on 1-2 sides of paper and kept to be used for essays, revision and even for HL Paper 3 practice if you are an IB Diploma teacher or student.  Below is a short example of what this could look like, from the biological approach.

KEY STUDY: Caspi et al. (2003) Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene.

 Background

Looked at the relation between inherited short alleles on the 5HTT serotonin transporter gene and incidences of stress and subsequent depression.

Links to:

  • Abnormal Psychology: Genetic explanation for inherited predisposition to depression as a response to environmental stressors.

Aim

To investigate whether a functional change in the 5HTT gene is linked to a higher or lower risk of depression in an individual.

Participants

The researchers used an opportunity sample from a cohort of participants who were part of another longitudinal study. There were 847 participants of 26 years old and they were split into three groups, depending on the length of the alleles on their 5HTT transporter gene.

Group 1 – two short alleles

Group 2 – one short and one long allele

Group 3 – two long alleles

Procedure

  1. Stressful life events occurring after the 21st birthday and before the 26th birthday were assessed using a life-history calendar.
  2. Past-year depression was assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule.
  3. A correlation was tested for between stressful life events and depression, between the length of the alleles and depression and an interaction between perceived stress and the length of the alleles.
  4. A further test was done to see if life events could predict an increase in depression over time among individuals with one or two short alleles.

Results

The participants with two short alleles in the 5HTT transporter gene reported more depression symptoms in response to stressful life events than either of the other two groups. Those participants with two long alleles reported fewer depression symptoms. Moreover, childhood maltreatment was predictive of depression in adulthood only in adults with either one or two short alleles.

Conclusion

While there is no direct relation between short alleles on the 5HTT gene and depression, there is a relationship between these and incidences of stress and subsequent depression. The long alleles seem to protect against suffering depression as a result of stress. The effects of the gene adaptation are dependent on environmental exposure to stress.

Evaluation of Caspi et al. (2003)

Strengths

  • This was a very large cohort of males and females and the age was controlled in order to isolate the variable of number of stressful life events between the ages of 21 and 26.
  • It was a natural experiment, with the naturally occurring IV being the length of the alleles. If the results are replicated this would suggest high reliability.

Limitations

  • Gene action is highly complex, and actions of other genes could not be controlled. While the stressful life events were standardised as employment, financial, housing, health and relationship, whether or not a participant experienced a certain event as stressful is highly personal.
  • The symptoms of depression were self-reported, although each participant was contacted in order to verify the symptoms; self-reporting can be unreliable.

Reference

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., … & Poulton, R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science301(5631), pp. 386-389.