Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Psychology of Covid-19

Image by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris
Is there a “Psychology of Covid-19” yet?

Of course there is. Here’s a podcast about Coronavirus Anxiety, already a little dated, perhaps tragically so. Worldwide, it seems that anxiety is having more impact than disease symptoms, and lots of articles have attempted to explain why. Too much information from unreliable sources leads to ambiguity, and this has fuelled anxiety this time round, and at least in the early stages, is thought to have led to increases in racist behaviour, according to Ashley Abramson. Another article in Forbes agrees that uncertainty is key to the impact of this pandemic, and is responsible for the unusual panic we’ve seen all round the world. Panic-buying seems to be the thing this time round, and there’s some good discussions on it (and other aspects) on the BPS the Psychologist website – for example, go and look at a discussion of panic-buying as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: once the media report panic-buying, people go and panic-buy. 

There is an evolutionary explanation for this, though, and this National Geographic post describes the amygdala as the emotional centre of the brain, arguing that it kicks in and takes over when a threat appears and a clear solution is not easily available. Buying that seems hasty and irrational is really a normal attempt to reassert control over the situation, one that we are more likely to resort to under conditions of uncertainty, or after prolonged exposure to stress. 

In fact, this article argues, the rush to buy toilet paper after the media report is best understood not even as panic at all, but rather a reflection of an increased sense of shared identity: an increased sense of bonding to our neighbourhood, coupled with our awareness that supplies of antiseptic wipes, toilet paper, and dried pasta are running low in the supermarket means that we’re following the norm, not panicking. There’s a longer BBC article about the psychology of panic-buying here, if you want to understand it in more detail.

Looking after ourselves and preventing social isolation

We’ve been reminded to look after ourselves, and there are plenty of suggestions on how and why to do this. There’s even a behavioural insights unit currently working with the UK government on ways to influence people in desired ways and we’ll know more about that soon. Of primary concern seems to be the potential for social isolation, which was not really the goal of social distancing: we’re supposed to be distancing ourselves physically, but that doesn’t need to mean exposing ourselves to the dangers of loneliness. 

A review of over 3000 studies into the psychological effects of quarantine suggests the most common are post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. This review also identified key problematic features of the quarantine situation as financial loss, frustration and boredom, fear of infection and of infecting others, and inadequate supplies or information. 

For those in the self-isolation now, New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation suggests limiting exposure to news, seeking contact with others, noticing more of what is around you, and spending more time in nature. Similar advice is available from Mind UK, with a note that, as much as handwashing is important, those prone to anxiety might need to limit how much time they spend doing it. A detailed explanation of why encouraging people to sing songs while washing, for example, is a problem for some OCD sufferers, is available here. If you’re wondering why you should limit your exposure to news, this article from the Psychologist explains some reasons, such as our tendency to go foggy when faced with too many details and instead pay attention to our emotional reaction – to how it feels instead of what it says. There’s more on this kind of bias at Psychology Today and about probability neglect here. The American Psychological Association is briefer in their advice, but reminds us that communicating with children is an important responsibility, and plenty of advice is around about how to do it.

Lots of people – kids, students, employees – have been sent home, and the decision-makers behind this have a responsibility to make the welfare of those people top priority. Matt East, CEO and Founder of GTS Alive Group, even suggests managers should aim to increase opportunities for soft, peer to peer contact when sending workers home. Schools and universities sending students home need to remember that online courses are more effective with opportunities for good quality interpersonal interactions, and all of us need to remember that the absence of social interactions is harmful at any point in the lifespan (see some work to remedy this with older people), leading to lack of engagement with online courses and in general, among adolescents, an increased risk of depression and even suicide. Home is not always an easy place to be, and not all homes are safe, well stocked for meals, or wifi-enabled. And we must care for educators at home too: this article encourages self-care for educators, with a reminder, for example, not to compare too closely with colleagues or others on the internet who are acing this home-working lark.

So is there a theme to what psychology says about Covid-19?

It seems the two strands so far are these:
  • Widespread anxiety is causing people to behave in ways that can be understood and explained
  • We must look after ourselves so that we don’t suffer the damaging psychological effects of social isolation in our attempts to achieve social distance.

Running additions:
March 30th: Russ Harris, psychotherapist and ACT guru, has produced this practical guide covering steps you can take to "FACE Covid"

Alan Law, PhD

Monday, March 2, 2020

Some personal reflections on grief and support

Te aroha
Te whakapono
Me te Rangimarie
Tātou tātou e

The song Te aroha has a simple beauty to it. My mother loved it. She was particularly impressed when my son came home from kindergarten and sang it for her with accompanying hand gestures. He was 4 then, and he was still 4 when my mother died.

It seemed appropriate to ask him if he wanted to sing Te aroha at a small family event after she died. He did. A small kid singing a song he learned at kindy as part of a farewell to his grandma is a very beautiful thing, and I still shed a tear when I hear the song. For me, Te aroha is a bridge between my son, who is very present, and my mum, who is a fading memory. Te aroha brings her back, and she usually brings waves of sadness with her.

I was happy that the kindergarten was bringing Māori language and culture into my children’s lives. They have a karakia kai before their lunch, and they sing ka kite at the end of the day, and I heard that my daughter was chosen to do a pepeha today at kindergarten, at the same time as I was doing one in my class on Cultural Competence (for Assessment and Diagnosis) at university. When I was a kid, I remember we had just weekly exposure to te reo and I’m pleased that they have so much more. It’s a normal part of their day.

The reasons why te reo is not a normal part of my day are many and varied. For others, like teachers and health professionals, I see those reasons are outweighed by the pressing need for decolonisation. I get it, and I have a queue of readings to help me understand this issue rationally, including Rachel Selby’s Still being punished and Hirini Moko Mead’s Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori values.

But I haven’t read them yet, and even when I do, it will feed what I fear is a hand-wringing, woke part of my consciousness. I fear I won’t feel it. I worry that any progress I make will be fraudulent, tokenistic, and superficial.

I liked of the idea expressed today in class that one’s tīpuna can join and support you when you stand to speak in public – the speaker told us how they can give you mirimiri (like a supportive shoulder massage). But that idea is not for me, right? As Pākehā, my emotions are my mine alone, not influenced by dead relatives. I did my pepeha with anxiety. I stuttered a little and even briefly missed a line. It was fine, but I was alone when I did it. If my pronunciation is ok, and I corrected myself well, this was down to my own mahi.

We carried on, and it wasn’t very long until somehow the class was singing Te aroha. As soon as I heard it, I thought of my son, and then my mum was in the room, one of those quick, sad flushes that stopped me paying attention to everything else. Dead relatives can influence my emotions. Rationally and emotionally, this idea of tīpuna providing mirimiri rushed back to me with great force.

For the first time since my mother died, I entertained the idea that I could welcome my mother’s visit. With more time, I can make better sense of this, but for now I know that this wave of emotion does not need to be about sadness at her absence but can be comfort in her presence. If she comes, she is here to support me, not to hurt me.

When she was alive, I would wince if she put her hands, warped, weak, and painful from rheumatoid arthritis, near my shoulders. Te aroha brings her back, and there is power in her hands now, which are the simple beauty I hear in the song. Next time I will appreciate the offer of mirimiri. Te aroha is a bridge not just from my son to my mother, but far beyond.

Te aroha
Te whakapono
Me te Rangimarie
Tātou tātou e

(And peace)
(Be amongst us all)


Image above by gandhitw from Pixabay
All posts are copyright © All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

All I want for Christmas is more emotional stability

Photo via Good Free Photos
It’s that time of year again, when the approach of Christmas becomes undeniable. Stores transform themselves to remind us, and advertising everywhere instils a sense of urgency about gift shopping.

Not everyone responds to this in the same way. Are you the kind of person who starts haemorrhaging money in the run-up to Christmas? Do you have interesting new ideas when you’re thinking of gifts for others, or do you purchase whatever’s popular? What drives individual differences in holiday spending patterns?

This last question has received little attention in psychological literature and is at the core of new research from Sara J. Weston and colleagues at Northwestern University and Joe Gladstone at University College London, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Their focus is on associations between the Big Five personality traits (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and Christmas spending.

Christmas shopping, the authors note, has several features that distinguish it from other consumer activities, and increase the possibility that some personality traits might be associated with more spending. Do you make lists of family members and friends months beforehand, and carefully think of presents in advance? The authors suggest that Christmas shopping favours those who like to make a plan and stick to it, which may require higher levels of conscientiousness. The researchers also expected people with bigger social networks to show a substantial increase in spending at Christmas relative to their own spending and that of others, and therefore predicted that extroversion would be of particular interest in their analysis.

Over 2000 participants using a money management app in the United Kingdom completed a survey and allowed researchers access to transaction information. A baseline spending pattern was established for each participant from months before the holiday season, so that spending after November 1 could be distinguished as Christmas spending. Income, age and gender were controlled for, and a short, 10-item personality measure was used.

After researchers controlled for these demographic variables, only two of the Big Five characteristics were meaningfully associated with high Christmas spending – not high levels of extroversion, as they had expected, but low levels of neuroticism and openness to experience. The authors speculate that those who are more open to experience are less likely to follow social rules, making them less inclined to give gifts, and those who are more relaxed are ‘untethered’ in their spending.

Some limitations of the study include a lack of nuance in the measures used: spending was not broken down sufficiently to allow a detailed understanding of what was really gift-related Christmas shopping. Consider, for example, that November and December are colder months, and there may be any number of additional influences on spending at this time of year. How personality interacts with any of these influences could be of interest, so more differentiated information about spending would be useful in future research. Similarly, the short measure of personality used only contained two items per trait, and traits had mixed levels of reliability.

While it is clear that more detailed information is needed to make firm conclusions, in the meantime, it is might be helpful for those who feel that they lack imagination to talk more to their anxious and more creative friends if they’re at all concerned about spending too much – and retailers now have an evidence-based inkling of what personality types are most likely to open their wallets. Perhaps it's not surprising that in the busy months it's the calm folk who go out spending?

For the SPSP press release, click here.
For the original article, click here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Men can't multitask? Again with this story?

Today I read a post by Susan Taylor at delightfully sharing the news that it has been proved that men can't multitask - therefore fathers can't multitask. I've looked at some of her other posts and they seem ok - it's just this one that seems... well, rude, I guess, with irresponsible reporting of scientific findings.

The claims that
a) women can multitask and
b) men can't multitask
always bother me. It feels a bit like a damning accusation and I admit it makes me feel defensive - even though I consider myself pretty poor at dividing my attention, if I'm honest. I just dispute that it's because I'm a man, that any woman who can do better is that way because of her sex, and I question whether there is any scientific basis for such a claim. If there's evidence for either claim, then I'm ok with it, and I'd like to find out. I object to the rumour of scientific evidence being used in household battles, though. Unlike Susan's post, mine is going to try and stick with a reasoned interpretation of the evidence.

Let's start with the claims she makes:

1. From the outset, this is an article about what men can't do - the heading tells us men can't look after the kids AND do housework. I struggle, I admit, but I don't think it's because I'm a man. But then, I've always been more comfortable with housework than the stereotype, so perhaps it's not really about me. Let's see.

there’s actually a scientific reason for it – men really can’t multitask. Most mothers are pros at multitasking – really because we have to be. We’re like Hindu deities with multiple arms, because running a household when you have small children requires a massive effort. And some of us even have other jobs or work to do as well!Study proves it – men suck at multitasking Turns out, men really can’t do more than one thing at a time (or at least are terrible at it compared to women)Us gals have of course pretty much known this for a while, but a recent study has actually now proven it’s a scientific fact – our brains work differently.All the other women however, were able to maintain their physical movements while working out the verbal task. They were completely unfazed – way to go chicks!

No need to take each of these statements separately. Susan seems pretty convinced about the idea that most women are better at multitasking than men, so it looks like good news for her that it's now a scientific fact that men are terrible at doing more than one thing at a time. The thing is, it's unlikely that this study has proven anything - that's not how science works. So leaping from a study to the dramatic conclusion that men 'suck' is probably not a well-reasoned, logical step to take - nor the headline claim that men can't do housework AND look after the kids. It's an emotional claim that is probably not helpful. But let's see what the study says. Perhaps it is about sex differences in household multitasking.

Apparently language function and right arm swing are thought to be controlled primarily by the brain’s left hemisphere. This new study found that the complicated brain teaser overwhelmed the left brain of all the men and older women, which then affected their arm movement – something which scientists are saying gives more evidence to the theory that men aren’t actually capable of multitasking.

Ok, so Susan says that men and older women found it more difficult to move their right arm and do a brain teaser than younger women. And some 'scientists' are saying this gives more evidence to the theory than men aren't actually capable of multitasking. There's that big jump again. I wonder who those other scientists are. Presumably not the ones from this study?

What the study says:
Right arm swing is affected by a Stroop task (requiring participants to say the colour in which a word is written, which becomes difficult when that word is blue, for example) in adults 40-59, with older adults showing even more effect, and women under 60 showing less. That effect was in terms of symmetry of arm swing: there was more of a change towards asymmetry among men than women under 60. The same pattern of results applies for females and males, but, importantly, the increase in asymmetry for females under 60 was not significant. This means the changes were bigger for males and older females. Technically it does mean that, in this study, there was no change in asymmetry, for those women under 60 and the conclusion that this represents resistance to the effect rather than complete absence of the effect is an important one.
Figure 2.
source: Killeen, T., Easthope, C. S., Filli, L., Lőrincz, L., Schrafl-Altermatt, M., Brugger, P., ... & Bolliger, M. (2017). Increasing cognitive load attenuates right arm swing in healthy human walking. Royal Society open science4(1), 160993.

So, in other words, everyone managed to do both tasks, swinging their arms and saying the words, but the more difficult the Stroop task was, the more likely people's arms were to swing asymmetrically. The figure above is taken directly from the study. It's not easy to follow. I'd just like to draw your attention to the incongruent part of the females graph on the top right. It shows you the frequency of errors made by different age groups of women when the task was hard. The lightest line shows how often each age group made greater than 5 errors. So that little, light-grey triangle shows that older women had the highest frequency of errors. The medium-grey and black lines shows how often some errors were made (1-5) and no errors, and there's not much difference in those for the younger age groups. That would be about 40-50% of the time, women made errors in the cognitive task. Then look at the bottom graph: it shows that men had the highest asymmetry when making 5 or more errors in the Stroop task. Women had the highest asymmetry when making some errors, higher than men, even.

But wait - Susan Taylor told us 'All the other women however, were able to maintain their physical movements while working out the verbal task. They were completely unfazed – way to go chicks!' 

Well, Susan Taylor, that exclamation seems to be an exaggeration. It's not what the researchers said, and it's not what their findings show. More disturbingly, I'm not sure these are even your own words. See the links below for numerous other versions of this story, at least one other using the word 'unfazed'...

Susan Taylor, these researchers didn't say anything about multitasking. And the conclusion they made was to do with hormones in the brain - hardly a new scientific fact that oestrogen might be responsible for some sex differences. There was optimism in their claim that oestrogen therapy might help patients with gait instability and elderly fallers. There is no optimism in your claim that the study showed that men suck at multitasking. Why would you misrepresent the work of these researchers in this way? One of the other stories about this study quotes one of the researchers when asked if the study proves that women are better multi-taskers: 

“Ha ha! I think this shows that younger women may be able to resist interference of these two fairly specific behaviours,” she said.
i.e. no, it doesn't mean that women are better multitaskers

So how did you reach that conclusion, Susan Taylor? Is it because you didn't read their work? Don't be shy - it's common in blog posts these days - after all, readers don't want truth, right? Your readers (the 'we' you use) are supposed to be women, and presumably mothers who live with men they consider incapable of doing housework (who is best served by the myth that men are biologically disinclined towards housework?). You didn't write for an academic audience and you don't expect your readers to have the gumption to follow your link and read science for themselves.

How about this question - did you do your own research? I did a google search for switzerland royal society open multitasking and guess what! Below are 10 articles saying the same thing. Tiresome.
The real culprit may be the press release, which includes the word 'multitask', lighting a fire that hasn't gone out yet.

On the basis that Susan Taylor probably read the research no less than the writers of these other posts, I suppose she shouldn't be judged too harshly. Each has crafted a story that is a mixture of the press-release and their own prejudices.

Does Susan Taylor offer more than this? Yes. Some advice.
a) Get a system going ... Get one going for him as well so all their chores become second nature.
b) Be specific – men are hopeless mind readers, they have very little intuition
c) Let it go – so what if the house is a mess when you get back from getting your hair done? 
And a 'did my writing confirm your prejudices' check...
Are you better at multitasking than your male partner?
Overall, yeah, I find this hard to digest. It's mostly a rant about men not doing chores, borrowing some badly reported scientific findings to make the rant seem scientific. It's really not. To be fair, the final advice, even if it is a bit infantilising of male partners, sounds quite good, and maybe that's what should have been written about? I mean, I appreciate it when instructions given to me are specific - whether I'm a hopeless mind reader or not.

Before I close this, I wanted to do a quick Google Scholar search for academic work on multitasking. I want to have an idea of the scientific status of the concept and a quick check for gender differences. 

Multiple sub-goal scheduling, anyone? This article doesn't mention gender.

This one from Chinese researchers is a really interesting read. They link multitasking to the Hunter-Gatherer hypothesis, noting that it's interesting that even though there's hardly any empirical support for the folk knowledge that men are not as good at multi-tasking, there exists a theoretical explanation for that folk knowledge. That's putting the cart before the horse. Actually these researchers do find a difference, and they are quite balanced, I think, in their argument for what it means. Looks like there are some frontal lobe differences to do with the coordination of planned activity. Still not well connected to men doing housework and looking after the kids yet.

But regardless of the lack of evidence, what if it is found that men's brains do not perform as well at multiple cognitively demanding activities? How would it change things for you? If you're already harassing your male partner for not doing enough housework, will this make things better or worse?

I despair at this kind of thing because I think it's a useless search for evidence of differences between men and women with the aim of pushing us apart, alienating us from each other. In the climate we have now, one that is not that progressive, one that trains males and females to perform in different ways, a finding of difference is not useful. Compare this one with work on whether girls can throw as well as boys. Our time is better spent teaching all of our children to behave responsibly, to do chores and understand why, to spend more time teaching them that they can acquire skill in whatever they would like to do, and to respect others who don't have the same skills as them. Perpetuating sex difference myths is a cause of sex differences, and doing so with 'scientific' claims that are simply misinterpretations is some of the worst trickery. It undermines human potential - I would say that even when we find differences, our aim should be to explore how to overcome them, not how to package them into insults.