Archive for August 6th, 2012

Behind the Scenes of Psychological Research: What Does the Future Hold?


Since starting this blog, I’ve told you about interesting and hopefully useful research findings. But today I wanted to take a step back and share with you a bit about what is going on behind the scenes of psychological research. We assume that findings we are telling you about—those which are published in peer-reviewed journals—are true, but it turns out that is not always the case. Recently, it has come to light that the way we conduct our studies may be leading us to find “significant results” more often than they truly exist. And even more extreme than problems with methodology is the harsh reality that some researchers may be simply making up their findings. So today, I wanted to share with you some of my personal experience behind the scenes of science, as well as three great suggestions I’ve heard for reforming our scientific ways.

As a child, I was constantly pestering my parents with questions. I wanted to know the meaning of life, where the universe ended, and what it meant to be happy. In college, I discovered that there was this thing called “research” which would allow me to systematically answer the questions that were constantly cropping up. And it turns out I could potentially make a living doing so. Sign me up! I eagerly started my PhD program with a bunch of other starry-eyed first years who knew they were also going to help make the world a better place through science. We took classes on interesting subjects and planned and executed research projects. And then reality started to sink in – we couldn’t just ask and answer the questions we were interested in, we had to ask the right questions (the questions that reviewers would think were important), and we had to answer them in the right way (with significant results). Disillusionment began to set – were we trying to discover the mysteries of the human condition and change the world, or were we trying to have the best looking CV? And this is the big question I have grappled with ever since. I do not believe that these two aims are mutually exclusive, but I do think that as things currently stand these two end goals produce different paths. I also believe that the system that is currently in place is evolving in a way that promotes the latter goal, rather than the former. This was not a system created through intelligent design, but a slow process that evolved and adapted over time in response to new technology, population growth, and changing social norms. But it turns out that we can have a hand in the future of our field. We don’t have to sit passively by and watch as good science goes out the window. Many good researchers are turning their attention momentarily away from questions about how to understand the human condition and instead asking questions about how to best study the human condition (see Michael’s attempt to do so with his personal p-curve analysis and just a few of the other great blog posts on it here, here, and here).
So how do we go about putting into place a system that promotes good science and true discovery as the end goal? Many good ideas have been thrown out there, and I applaud them all. Below I describe three that have really stuck out in my mind.
First, psychologist Brian Nosek made a revolutionary suggestion in a talk I attended last year – we need to do away with journals. Why? The simplest explanation comes from an Editor who recently rejected a paper I was a co-author on. In the rejection letter, we were told “Please understand that my decision was rendered with the recognition that the page limitations of the journal dictate that only a small percentage of submitted manuscripts can be accepted.  We receive more than 750 submissions per year, but only publish approximately 125 papers each year.  Papers without major flaws are often not accepted by [this journal] because the magnitude of the contribution is not sufficient to warrant publication.” That’s right, perfectly good papers that could help advance science are being rejected because of page limits. Well, if we started publishing everything online, as Nosek suggested, we would no longer have to deal with these space constraints. As long as the science is sound, a paper would be published. Online publications also mean instant access, rather than waiting for the quarterly issue to get printed and mailed out to subscribers. He also suggested that we don’t have separate online journals and instead have one site through which we submit all papers. No more trying to decide which journal is the best fit for your interdisciplinary work, and no more guessing how “good” your research is when trying to decide where to submit it, just submit to the one portal where it will be tagged and sent to the appropriate reviewers. If we need to differentiate the breadth and rigor of different papers, we can create a rating system. Other fields seem to be moving in this direction, and I think it is time we did too.

Second, just as the stars in my eyes were beginning to dim slightly in the early stages of graduate school, an older and wiser graduate student griped that our field really needed to reform our article submission process. Instead of submitting a paper in its entirety, we should just submit the introduction and methods. Reviewers would then judge the paper based on the soundness of the theory and the methods, rather than the significance of the results. This transition to a focus on methods would ensure that we conducted sound science rather than worrying about flashy results. And if we no longer need to worry about paper-based space constraints, there would be no concern about a paper with null results taking room from a paper with significant effects. This older and wiser graduate student rocked my world when she made this suggestion, but I’ve read blog posts by other researchers who make similar suggestions, so perhaps the time for this change is not so far off.

Third, social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman suggested that we recognize the importance of replication, and instead of rejecting papers that attempt to replicate, encourage and institutionalize this process. First and second year graduate students would be trained in research methods by taking on one of the biggest studies of the previous couple of years and embarking on a replication project. If students all over the world took on this task, we could meta-analyze all of the results and within a few years we would have a good sense of which results were robust and which were a function of Type I error (or something more pernicious). This approach to replication would also help put the emphasis back on strong methodology.

Each of these suggestions offers a different solution for helping tackle the problems of conducing modern day science, but they all have one thing in common – they help get rid of the pressure of producing unbelievable results (in the aforementioned paper that was rejected, one of the criticisms was that the findings were not counterintuitive enough) and in doing so create a system in which there was little incentive to cheat and a lot of incentive to do good work. One frustration I’ve had is that input does not always equal output. We work hard running good studies, but if they aren’t novel enough (likely because someone else got their work in a little more quickly), or the results don’t turn out as we’d hoped, we may find ourselves with a lot put in and little to show for it. In a system where the focus is on rigorous methods, replicable results, and there is no need to limit publications for the sake of page constraints, then our output is going to be a much better reflection of what we put in.

The devil is of course in the detail, and I’m sure that there are many potential problems with each of these suggestions, but I do think they are a step in the right direction towards something new and great. And as someone who still loves asking questions and seeking answers, I look forward to being part of it.

Article on False Positives: Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2011). False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417632

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Physical Forms of Child Discipline More Common than Acknowledged


Physical Forms of Child Discipline More Common than AcknowledgedIn one of the first real-world studies of caregiver discipline, a new study reveals that parents actually use physical forms of punishment much more than they show in laboratory experiments and acknowledge in surveys.

Michigan State University researchers found that 23 percent of youngsters received some type of “negative touch” when they failed to comply with a parental request in public places such as restaurants and parks. Negative touch included arm pulling, pinching, slapping and spanking.

“I was very surprised to see what many people consider a socially undesirable behavior done by nearly a quarter of the caregivers,” said researcher Kathy Stansbury, Ph.D. “I have also seen hundreds of kids and their parents in a lab setting and never once witnessed any of this behavior.”

Stansbury is a psychologist and associate professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. She performed the study to obtain a realistic view of how often parents use what she calls positive and negative touch in noncompliance episodes with their children.

In the study, a group of university student researchers anonymously observed 106 discipline interactions between caregivers and children ages 3-5 in public places and recorded the results.

The data were vetted, analyzed and published in the current issue of the research journal Behavior and Social Issues.

Male caregivers were found to touch children more during discipline settings than female caregivers. However, the touching was not in a negative manner, rather males used forms of positive touch included hugging, tickling and patting.

Stansbury says this positive approach contradicts the age-old stereotype of the father as the parent who lays down the law.

“When we think of Dad, we think of him being the disciplinarian, and Mom as nurturer, but that’s just not what we saw,” Stansbury said. “I do think that we are shifting as a society and fathers are becoming more involved in the daily mechanics of raising kids, and that’s a good thing for the kids and also a good thing for the dads.”

Ultimately, positive touch caused the children to comply more often, more quickly and with less fussing than negative touch, or physical punishment, Stansbury said. When negative touch was used, even when children complied, they often pouted or sulked afterward, she said.

“If your child is upset and not minding you and you want to discipline them, I would use a positive, gentle touch,” Stansbury said. “Our data found that negative touch didn’t work.”

Source: Michigan State University

Happy father and daughter photo by shutterstock.

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Regular Use of Computer Program Improves Seniors’ Memory


Regular Use of Computer Program Improves Seniors MemoryA new study by UCLA researchers finds that regular use of computerized memory and language training can help seniors.

Age-related memory decline affects approximately 40 percent of older adults. The cognitive decline is characterized by self-perception of memory loss and a decline in memory performance.

This was one of the first studies to assess the cognitive effects of a computerized memory training program. Researchers found that dedicated use of the program significantly improved memory and language skills among older adults.

In the study, researchers followed 59 participants with an average age of 84. Participants were recruited from local retirement communities.

Seniors were divided into two groups. The first group used a brain fitness program for an average of 73, 20-minute sessions, over a six-month period; the second group performed 45 20-minute sessions times during the same period.

The first group demonstrated significantly higher improvement in memory and language skills, compared to the second group.  Researchers said the study’s findings confirm that brain fitness tools may help improve language and memory.

Experts say that computer-aided training may ultimately help protect individuals from the cognitive decline associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies have shown that engaging in mental activities can help improve memory, but little research has been done to determine whether the numerous brain fitness games and memory training programs on the market are effective in improving memory.

Source: UCLA

Elderly woman on a computer photo by shutterstock.

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Virtual Simulations Help Train Psychologists, Psychiatrists


Virtual Simulations Train Psychologists, PsychiatristsFollowing on the heels of flight simulation training, medical simulation and now virtual mental health simulations train health professionals by realistically mimicking patient symptoms.

New simulators mimic the symptoms of a patient with clinical psychological disorders, according to new research presented at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention.

“As this technology continues to improve, it will have a significant impact on how clinical training is conducted in psychology and medicine,” said psychologist and virtual reality technology expert Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D.

Technological advances including artificial intelligence and expert systems allow a highly interactive interaction with simulators even allowing the simulators to carry on a conversation with real humans.

“This has set the stage for the ‘birth’ of intelligent virtual humans to be used in clinical training settings,” Rizzo said. He showed videos of clinical psychiatry trainees engaging with virtual patients called “Justin” and “Justina.”

Justin is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder who is being forced by his family to participate in therapy. Justina, the second and more advanced iteration of this technology, is a sexual assault victim who was designed to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an initial test, 15 psychiatry residents, of whom six were women, were asked to perform a 15-minute interaction with Justina.

Video of one such interaction shows a resident taking an initial history by asking a variety of questions. Programmed with speech recognition software, Justina responds to the questions and the resident is able to make a preliminary diagnosis.

Rizzo’s virtual reality laboratory is working on the next generation of virtual patients using information from this and related user tests, and will further modify the characters for military clinical training, which the U.S. Department of Defense is funding, he said.

Researchers are working to develop simulated or virtual veterans with depression and suicidal thoughts, for use in training clinicians and other military personnel how to recognize the risk for suicide or violence.

Over time, Rizzo hopes to create a comprehensive computer training module that has a diverse library of virtual patients with numerous “diagnoses” for use by psychiatric and psychology educators and trainees.

Currently, psychology and psychiatry students are trained by role-playing with other students or their supervisors to gain experience to treat patients. They then engage in supervised on-the-job training with real patients to complete their degrees.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of live standardized ‘actor’ patients who are commonly used in medical programs, so we see this technology as offering a credible option for clinical psychology training,” he said.

“What’s so useful about this technology is novice clinicians can gain exposure to the presentation of a variety of clinical conditions in a safe and effective environment before interacting with actual patients. In addition, virtual patients are more versatile and can be available anytime, anywhere. All you need is a computer.”

Source: American Psychological Association

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Appreciative Teens Are Happier, Healthier


Appreciative Teens Are Happier, HealthierTeenagers possessing traits of cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence are more likely to be happy, and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or have behavioral problems at school.

In a new study, psychologists say the cluster of positive traits, or gratitude, is critical for adolescent mental health.

“Gratitude played an important role in many areas of positive mental health of the teens in our study,” said lead author Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., psychology professor at California State University.

“Increases in gratitude over a four-year period were significantly related to improvements in life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes and hope.”

Researchers studied the development of gratefulness by asking 700 students, ages 10 to 14, to complete questionnaires in their classroom at the beginning of the study and four years later.

After four years, researchers compared the results of the least grateful 20 percent of the students with the most grateful 20 percent.

This analysis showed that teens with the most gratitude by the end of the four-year period had:

  • Gained 15 percent more of a sense of meaning in their life;
  • Become 15 percent more satisfied with their life overall (at home, at school, with their neighborhood, with their friends and with themselves);
  • Become 17 percent more happy and more hopeful about their lives;
  • Experienced a 13 percent drop in negative emotions and a 15 percent drop in depressive symptoms.

Researchers found that teens with low gratitude at the start of the study could still benefit if they developed more gratitude over the four-year period.

“They experienced many of the same improvements in well-being. Moreover, they showed slight reductions overall in delinquency, such as alcohol and drug use, cheating on exams, skipping school, detention and administrative discipline,” Bono said.

“For instance, the top 10 percent of those who developed the most gratitude showed 9 percent less delinquency than the bottom 10 percent in gratitude growth.”

For the purposes of the study, the authors defined grateful teens as having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives, Bono said.

The four-year study took place in New York with a sample that was 54 percent girls, 67 percent white, 11 percent Asian-American, 10 percent African-American, 1.4 percent Hispanic, 9 percent other and 1.6 percent no response.

“These findings suggest that gratitude may be strongly linked with life skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence and, as such, gratitude is vital resource that parents, teachers and others who work with young people should help youth build up as they grow up,” Bono said.

“More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world.”

Source: American Psychological Association

Happy teenager photo by shutterstock.

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Honesty May Be Best Policy for Mental, Physical Health


Honesty May Be Best Policy for Mental, Physical HealthA provocative new study suggests that telling the truth when tempted to lie can significantly improve a person’s mental and physical health.

University of Notre Dame researchers presented their study, called the “Science of Honesty,” at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention.

“Recent evidence indicates that Americans average about 11 lies per week. We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health,” said lead author Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D.

“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health.”

In the study, researchers evaluated 110 people over a 10 week period. Thirty-four percent of the sample were adults in the community and 66 percent were college students. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 71 years, with an average age of 31.

During the investigation, approximately half the participants were instructed to stop telling major and minor lies for the 10 weeks. The other half served as a control group that received no special instructions about lying.

Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week.

Researchers discovered that over the course of the study, the association between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group.

For example, when participants in the no-lie group told three fewer white lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced on average about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches.

In contrast, when control group members told three fewer white lies, they experienced two fewer mental-health complaints and about one less physical complaint. The pattern was similar for major lies, Kelly said.

Compared to the control group, participants in the more truthful group told significantly fewer lies across the 10-week study, and by the fifth week, they saw themselves as more honest, Kelly said.

When participants across both groups lied less in a given week, they reported their physical health and mental health to be significantly better that week. Researchers discovered that a week with less lies was also correlated with improved personal relationships and enhanced social networks.

At the end of the 10 weeks, participants in the no-lie group described their efforts to keep from lying to others in their day-to-day interactions.

Some said they realized they could simply tell the truth about their daily accomplishments rather than exaggerate, while others said they stopped making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks, Kelly said. Others said that they learned to avoid lying by responding to a troubling question with another question to distract the person, she said.

Because the findings are new they will be submitted for scientific review and publication later this year, Kelly said.

Source: American Psychological Association

Two woman talking photo by shutterstock.

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