Sunday, September 18, 2016

Post-natal depression - not just about mothers

Photo by Steven Van Loy @mafalou from unsplash.com
Post-natal depression in dads?
When I started writing this, I thought I was going to write about one thing: men feeling extreme and sometimes debilitating sadness, irritability and/or worthlessness after the birth of a child. I thought I was going to write about how sceptical host Mike Hosking looked in the Seven Sharp piece on television about post-natal depression in men, and I would write about how real it actually is.

On second review of that television piece, though, I was spectacularly unimpressed. I forgave Mike his scepticism for two reasons: firstly, I think he accepts that big life changes can make people feel bad – but it requires real disruption and self-examination of the kind that many working dads don’t go through because, despite a lot of social change, dads’ lives are still less disrupted than mums’ lives. Perhaps he was sceptical because he didn't face the kind of upheaval others do.

Secondly, the story implied that post-natal depression in women and men is caused by hormonal changes, which arouses my suspicions. Too often we reach for biological explanations for human suffering, and I think paternal post-natal depression is almost so self-explanatory that it defies a need for biological explanation.

A lot of fathers have a really hard time after the birth of a child and I don't think there's a need for me to attempt to prove that. However, aware that there is a lot of misinformation and rumour around, I reviewed some websites, some recent research and some news stories and found a few things I think it’s important to talk about: what is post-natal depression; how is it different in men; what factors make it more likely to happen and is there evidence that it is caused by hormone changes; and does it need to be treated? My answers are below, but first, my overall impression.

The societies I have lived in and the cultures in which I became a father are not well-equipped to deal with a problem like this. Fathers can experience powerful and difficult emotions while feeling isolated, worthless when they can’t find their place in the new relationship and responsibilities structure, and overwhelmed with responsibility when they can. They may not have anyone to talk to about it even if they can overcome the expectation that they solve it themselves. We still tend to socialise boys in a way that suppresses or denies emotion rather than acknowledging it, and I suspect this is at the heart of the condition discussed here, and it is liberation from this socialisation that is at the heart of treating it: there is almost universal acknowledgement that troubled fathers need to talk more and be heard.

I was told many times over that I needed to provide support for my wife as a new mother but seldom advised to ensure that I had the same – and I got the impression that there is competition for rare sympathetic resources that should really be unlimited: the needs of the mother deserve no less attention when we pay attention to her partner. After reading more about paternal post-natal depression, I urge readers to give more support to dads. Ask how they are and listen to the answer. Share your stories - being a parent is hard work and we need to hear more about the rough side of being a dad. In addition, I'm struck that for all my concern about the lack of information about the paternal version of post-natal depression, it's blatantly obvious that  partners of mothers who are not fathers are even more ignored. At the bottom of this piece I invite your stories, and I would encourage everyone who can relate to this as the partner of a mother to respond.

1. What is post-natal depression (PND)?
One of the striking differences about this particular phenomenon is that the trigger of the emotions is identified in the name of the condition. You don’t get ‘post-spousal death depression’ etc. and I wonder if people more readily accept a diagnosis like this when it includes a specific reference to an understandable cause. My first step was to look at formal diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association produce a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that is now in its 5th major edition, which, although eternally controversial, contains up-to-date psychiatric thinking on symptoms for a very big range of conditions. In the latest edition, for example, a bereavement exclusion was removed from the diagnosis of major depression. Previously, it was not recommended to diagnosis depression in a person suffering from grief for up to two months after the death of a loved one. Some viewed this as a move to further medicalise human experience and encourage the unnecessary prescription of medication, and others viewed it as more liberating. It was not until the previous major edition of the DSM that post-partum was introduced as a specifier, in a sense establishing it as a type of depression. Now it is possible to diagnose major depression with peripartum (i.e. around the time of giving birth, not just after) onset, and up to 4 weeks after birth. So the basic story is that depression following childbirth is not considered different in terms of symptoms, but giving birth is recognised as a specific trigger. After 4 weeks, though, it’s regular major depression. None of that seems to have any bearing on the situation in New Zealand and in the UK, though, where any number of websites alert parents to the problems of PND and PPND (the paternal version) and dispense advice and warnings. Estimates in my quick sampling of websites dealing with the topic range from 10 to 20% of women and 3 to 10% of fathers to 26% at the peak time for this condition at 3-6 months after delivery.

2. What does PPND look like?
This is clearly a tough question because most of the available information available is about mothers. Some information is rather weak – inviting any reader to panic instantly as Babycenter.com defines PPD as, well… having a baby:

a woman with PPD may be:
sleep-deprived
transitioning to motherhood and dealing with the psychological adjustment
hormonally unsteady
breastfeeding or weaning
experiencing worrisome thoughts about her baby or her ability to be a good mother

consumed with guilt and disappointment about what's supposed to be the "best time of her life."

Some of the New Zealand websites are better. The Ministry of Health offers a sometimes gender-neutral set of symptoms:

always feel tired
cry a lot
feel that you are a bad mother
have aches and pains
think bad thoughts
do not sleep well, even when your baby is asleep
feel that you can’t cope with anything, such as housework
feel anxious or uncertain all of the time
don’t care about how you or things around you look
get angry with other people around you, such as your partner, other children or your whānau.


Four sites I looked at, the Mental Health Foundation, Plunket, the Health Promotion Agency’s depression site and Kiwi Families, don’t mention that men or partners can suffer from it, and there is only passing mention at The Postnatal Distress Centre. It takes quite some time before I get to a specific explanation of what the paternal version looks like. Parents.com’s Sad Dads post mentions some specifics, including irritability, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, and engaging in risky behaviour, particularly related to alcohol and other drugs, gambling, or infidelity. And then there’s losing your sense of humour and being miserable a lot of the time. Everything is much clearer after I find an expert on the topic: Lloyd Philpott. With an already substantial body of work on PPND, he offers most of the answers I’m seeking and this guide for primary healthcare professionals is, in contrast to everything else I’ve seen, remarkably clear and focused. Two additions to the list of male symptoms worth noting here are excessive self-criticism and increased escapist behaviours, such as television watching and work. In sum, it seems like a lot of common addictive and risky behaviour tendencies are exacerbated with the arrival of a new baby and a possible deterioration in their relationship with the mother. The importance of PPND is also clarified: it is a major health risk for men, and may have long-term impact on relationships in the family, with knock-on effects for the child’s development.

Note: after writing this post, I found a champion website that somehow nailed it. Look at Well Women Franklin for good info. Not only do they recognise the male form of PND, they do their best to describe it and provide links to the limited services available.

3. What factors predict the occurrence of PPND?
Although a history of depression is frequently identified as a very important predictor, for women, being single or unemployed at the time of birth, and bottle-feeding are identified as increasing risk in an Irish study. A meta-analysis considering more than 80 studies adds self esteem, social support, infant temperament and socioeconomic status to the list along with the pregnancy being unplanned – but note that these are all predictors, not necessarily causes. Such social and psychosocial factors, along with personality, have been found to be more important than any birth complications in predicting symptoms at 8 weeks after delivery in an Australian study. Likewise, the Growing Up in New Zealand study has yielded some important results, and is one of few studies explicitly attempting to address the problem for men: the key predictors for fathers are stress and relationship troubles. If relationship troubles seem to be so important, you have to wonder to what extent it makes sense to look at post-natal depression as an individual phenomenon; perhaps it’s more sensible to look at it as a feature of the transition to parenthood (the title of a book by Jay Belsky) experienced by several people together, as seen in this more dynamic model that looks at the partnership as both a possible cause of distress and a possible target for improvement.

4. What about hormones?
The theme of hormone change is certainly quite prevalent through the various websites I’ve been looking at. At parents.com there are unreferenced claims that women’s PPD is triggered by hormonal fluctuations and unnamed ‘studies show’ that men’s hormones also shift, with testosterone and prolactin levels going down and cortisol going up. The same page also mentions that it is probably no coincidence that the typical onset of PPND at 3-6 months after birth is around the time that maternity leave typically ends and women return to work, and that the current generation of fathers might be experiencing more PPPD as they are more likely to be involved in household tasks than previously. With such a weight of evidence that psychosocial factors are the key to understanding this, is there a need to talk about hormones at all?

Another site, run by psychologist Christina Hibbert, claims that hormones are one of the causes, specifying decreasing testosterone and increasing estrogen as the culprits, with a reference to a USA Today article in which Dr William Courtenay says that men’s hormone levels change and that testosterone changes are linked to depression in men. Curiously, there is no direct link mentioned between these two ideas: Courtenay did not say that reduced testosterone has been found in PPND dads. He has referred interested readers to a study by Kim and Swain (2007) for a discussion of hormones, but those authors explicitly conjecture that there might be a relationship that needs to be tested. Their suggestion is based on a study of older men with depressed mood and low testosterone and studies that suggest testosterone levels decrease in men after the birth of a child with the effect of making them more sensitive and attached fathers. They also suggest that maybe increased estrogen has a role because more involved dads have been found to have higher levels of estrogen (even among rats), but offers no link to depression. They go on to speculate about four other possible hormonal explanations. However, I did not find any evidence of a link, even among articles that have cited it.

The California Psychologist published a piece by Daniel Singley, PhD, which cites the same references for the same purposes but explicitly states no clear link has been found. It does refer to another study mentioned by Courtenay – by Ramchandani et al. (2005), which apparently offered early evidence for a link. I tried and tried, but I can’t find any reference to hormones at all in that paper.

So the rather underwhelming conclusion I have to make is that everything I’ve read about hormones as a cause of paternal post-natal depression is simply conjecture or bad referencing. At worst, it’s an idea that’s made up. Why would a hormonal explanation for male depression be necessary? That’s a question for another time.

5. Does it need to treated? Does it go away?
By now I’m a fan of the ‘family’ approach to understanding PPD. So as I look through treatment advice, that’s on my mind. So advice like this:
Depression isn’t something a guy can simply “get over.” It’s a health condition that needs to be treated – just like a bad heart or injured knee.
just doesn’t sound right. Fair enough, without treatment, it can last for months or years. And it’s true one place to start is your GP or the Plunket nurse. But remember the Plunket website didn’t address men or partners. Lots of sites suggest you should talk to someone as soon as possible. The Father and Child Trust, featured in the Seven Sharp piece mentioned above goes a step further by running drop-in groups and offering telephone numbers without focusing on ‘treatment’. Christina Hibbert’s site is quite helpful with a number of options but the focus on men disappears in this section. Aside from this, there seems to be almost universal agreement that the interventions necessary for men are intimately bound with the likely cause. This article by Anna Whyte in the BOP Times appears to be the most informative and least judgmental and I recommend it.

Collecting stories of PPND
You don’t need to have been diagnosed or treated. Do the emotions mentioned above sound familiar to you? If so, please send an email to editor@hashtagpsychology.com with a brief version of your story if you are willing to feature anonymously in a bank of stories that will help better inform our understanding of paternal feelings after the birth of a child.


Notes

Post-natal is a more generally used term. Because it refers to birth it could be used in reference to the baby, the mother, or anyone around. Postpartum specifically refers to after giving birth and as such tends to be narrowly focused towards the mother. In practice, they are used interchangeably.

If you are seeking advice or support, please use the following contacts as supplied by the Mental Health Foundation:

  • Depression helpline. freephone 0800 111 757 
  • Healthline: 0800 611 116. (Available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone).
  • Lifeline 0800 543 35
  • Samaritans – 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 04 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)


This article was written by Alan Law for Hashtagpsychology.com

Friday, September 9, 2016

What's going on? Chiefs, Phantom patriarchy, Rape culture

A couple of days ago I was bothered by some assertions I found in a Psychology Today post and a Time post suggesting between them that there is too much liberal bias in social psychology, that it is infantalizing and inaccurate to warn women about a rape culture sustained by men, that women have taken over psychology, that many academic feminists cherrypick data and dismiss that which doesn't agree with what they think about a patriarchy that is in fact just phantom. Eek.

Today I was encouraged by the swift admission from Steve Tew that New Zealand Rugby (note capital letters) has a culture problem - swift in the face of a tide of fury as New Zealanders rejected the organization's attempt to quietly investigate some allegations of quite foul behaviour by players from one of the top teams towards a stripper. This was a public relations disaster that may have been successfully turned around because of the love so many New Zealanders have for rugby - check #loverugbyrespectwomen. I heard some callers on talkback radio who clearly think that if a woman takes her clothes off then everything she says must be a lie. Others believe her allegations but thought she deserved it because she blurred the lines - and therefore it wasn't a problem. Steve Tew has proper PR people, and that explains his quick turnaround. Watch All Blacks captain Kieran Read struggle to walk the line between 'the boys' and the indignant public and you can see how difficult it is to step out of the culture that Rachel Smalley describes as 'booze and birds' - and you can understand that all the PR in the world whispering in their ears can only tell these guys what to say after the fact - now they have to bring in specialists to help them treat women better. A final note on this story - a winner and some losers. Well played, Susan Devoy, New Zealand's former world champion squash player and now Race Relations Commissioner, who spoke so well on the radio - she clearly gets what the problem is and has an authentic reaction to it. The loser - and this is really tragic - the Minister for Women, Louise Upton, who refused to comment on the issue. Prime Minister John Key says she doesn't need to because it's basically not the government's job to have an opinion about it - this despite the Ministry's website indicating that keeping women free from violence is one of four priorities and that can be done through promoting a safe society. But John Key also says that Louise might have thought John had already said enough so, even as Minister for Women, she didn't need to find her own voice. Could have been a career moment. In addition, Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden, co-captains of the Chiefs - bad form not standing up and saying something. Don't be surprised if the public passion for justice turns its face your way soon. Probably not too late to find a voice - redemption is always possible. It does remind me of one thing: the same culture that disrespects women also imprisons men and there's a lot of work to be done with young men before they are able to recognise the harm and speak out against it.

So is redemption possible? In despair I cast an eye over other news. A Canadian judge asks a 19 year old (alleged?) rape victim why she didn't keep her legs together and tells her sex and pain often go together. He gets investigated for making inappropriate comments (result pending... check @carolyndunncbc) and now he's been through sensitivity training. He and his trainers think he has something useful to offer because of the experience. Regardless, how did that training not already happen? Like Steve Tew with his initial reaction, how much of a mess is that so much power is in the hands of people who can't recognise inappropriate behaviour towards women?

Back to the claims at the top - is it a myth that men are sustaining rape culture? When judges need re-education to find out why it's wrong to refer to victims as the accused, when rugby bosses need a Human Rights Commissioner to intervene before they can admit that maybe an in-house investigation wasn't the right way to go... it's not a myth - it's right here in front of us. We don't need to imply that men are intentionally sustaining a culture because 'all men are rapists' - I think that's how some people hear it - but we need to see that there are quite obvious elements of rape culture all around us and that men and women all need to work on changing it.

p.s.
At The Villainesse, you can read an open letter sent to the Minister for Women regarding her decision to make no comment on the Chiefs scandal. Louise Upston's response was that this was a matter entirely for the RFU (does it exist ? does she mean NZRU?) and blandly comments that when it is proven that sportspeople don't uphold high standards of behaviour, that is "obviously disappointing" - DISAPPOINTING? It's true, rape culture is disappointing. And 'frustrating' too. Poor Minister for Women is frustrated at continued violence. For goodness sake, take a freaking stand!









Note: Photo by Mpho Mojapelo 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reflecting misogyny: Academic feminism is harming women?!



A surprising story from Clay Routledge, PhD in Psychology Today: "Is modern academic feminism harming women?" - The article is number 1 on Psychology Today as I write.

My gut reaction is that it's probably not harming women as much as he's going to tell me it is, and that means I need to read on. I don't know Clay Routledge but I will look into his work later.

Here's a few quotes from the first few paragraphs.

"There are fields in which men still outnumber women, but at the same time women have pretty much taken over a number of disciplines such as psychology and veterinary medicine. Women can now freely choose whatever career path they want and are making their choices based on personal preferences and priorities."


"...many feminist scholars and some journalists are not celebrating. Instead, they continue to advance a narrative in which women are perpetually victimized by men. They tend to ignore or dismiss data that challenge their narrative."



Well, that's curious. I wasn't aware that women had pretty much taken over psychology. I know most of my colleagues are female, but have they taken it over? What would that look like? Of the last 10 American Psychological Association Presidents, 6 were female. The next is male. Of the top 5 social psychology journals (ranked by impact factor), I find four males and four females listed as editors. The APA noted in 2011 that female PhD candidates outnumbered males and wondered if it was because males were scared off by stagnant salaries. In another piece in 2014, the figure below displays a change in proportion over time, but strangely enough, males still outnumber females at the top. More recently, this piece details other problems, noting that for every practicing male psychologist, there are 2.1 female psychologists, and that the gap is even wider among minorities.

Proportion of Male and Female Faculty at each Academic Rank, 1985 and 2013
Source" http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/datapoint.aspx
So there are a lot of women in psychology, but I'd hardly say women have taken over. I'm also not a fan of free choice as an explanation of how we choose our careers. Worse than that, though, is the assertion that many feminist scholars ignore or dismiss data that challenge their narrative. Dude, didn't the data in my previous paragraph cross your mind when you wrote that sentence about women taking over psychology? At this point I don't know where your narrative is going, but it looks to me like you're dismissing several examples of males retaining power at the top of journals (alongside women) and outnumbering women at the highest levels of university in order to run with a narrative that intends to portray feminists as persisting with a fight that's already been won.  Let's see.

And then I feel quite conflicted. We are led to an article in Time by Christina Hoff Sommers that focuses on dispelling myths that some feminist scholars keep reciting. It's interesting stuff. She pushes for us to drop the myths and focus on the facts. I believe that very few people actually deal in factual information here and many will have used numbers that are inaccurate, but Hoff Sommers doesn't seem heavy on providing the real numbers here, which leaves the impression that she's saying if the numbers are wrong then the information isn't true. Which leads her to suggest that men are not sustaining a rape culture, for example. The problem is that even if she's right about the inaccuracies, I'm not sure how this approach will help - she says it will. I suspect The Factual Feminist will explain things better but I'm not going there for now. Back to Clay.

Oh. Next he's interviewing Hoff Sommers. And here things get better. Below are some key points that help me understand what Hoff Sommers is saying. There's probably something to it, but it's somewhat diluted by the paragraph-long questions that Routledge is asking.

  • Modern feminism tends towards benevolent sexism. Trigger warnings and safe spaces are infantilizing.
  • Female college students are some of the most privileged members of society but are coddled against a phantom patriarchy.
  • Too many gender scholars subscribe to a 'women-as-victims' narrative and try to 'knock down open doors'
And here's another quote from Clay Routledge:

"The concern is that since most social psychologists are liberals, when they study topics such as prejudice or intolerance they tend to focus on domains most likely to capture bias and discrimination among conservatives. If this can be a problem even in empirical fields, should we be especially concerned about this in more qualitative fields such as gender studies? Is there any debate going on in fields like gender studies about a lack of viewpoint diversity and liberal bias and how to combat these issues?"

Whose concern is that?

My own concern is that Routledge is pushing an agenda that is not supportive of genuine diversity. He therefore reasserts his opinion that women have it pretty good now and should stop feeling oppressed, using Hoff Sommers as a form of evidence. This while expressing a concern that there are too many liberals in social psychology.

So how do we best describe this piece? It has anti-feminist undertones, and appears to use the opinions of Hoff Sommers to advance the author's own concerns, which seem to be to do with combat against liberal bias. Is it actually calling for misogyny but disguising it as a less coddling version of feminism? I'm still puzzled about the title - it's not entirely clear who is harming women and how.

Read with caution.

Note: Christina Hoff Sommers is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Satisfaction in later life

The second story this week is from Psyblog ‘People are happiest at this unexpected time of life’ – unsurprisingly, it reports that people get happier with age.

Alarm bells…. What kind of happiness are we talking about? There are some important distinctions to consider...

Anxiety and depression peak in our 20s and 30s. So it’s not happiness; it’s absence of mental health problems? Yes: Professor Dilip Jeste says young adulthood has worse levels of psychological well-being than other adult time periods. It’s a study from a survey of 1546 randomly selected adults in San Diego County. Random? Really? The post says this is the first link between better mental health and getting older. Again, I very much doubt it…. And it could be that 

older people tend not to ‘sweat the small stuff’, are more wise, regulate their emotions more effectively, retain fewer negative emotions and memories, and make better social decisions.”

Well, there’s loads of research on that. Was this just imprecise writing, or was the study awful? As it happens, a link to the study itself also arrived in my inbox this week because it cited one of the few wisdom researchers out there, Igor Grossmann, and I follow his work. So do we have any questions for the original work? Of course.

1.       What’s your main conclusion and are you sure it’s the first time it’s been drawn?

The study was only published this month so I haven’t been able to access the full text yet. However the abstract is out there, and there’s a press release from Jeste’s University, so we know that the sample wasn’t randomly selected, but used random digit dialling to find participants with telephones. Minor detail? Perhaps. The conclusion is warped by the writing. It seems to be that Jeste is not claiming to have discovered a new link between aging and better mental health, because this ‘paradox’ is already quite well known (see, for example, Kunzmann, Little and Smith, 2000). Rather, the finding is that in this study, improvement in mental health showed a steady, linear trend from young adulthood. The importance of this is in the absence of a decline in mental health in mid-life. So the conclusion isn’t really about happiness in later life; it’s about fewer mental health problems than expected in mid-life. More information would be great now – the issue of whether questions to participants were about happiness or satisfaction or absence of mental health symptoms is really not trivial.

2.       Is there an explanation of the possible mechanisms for this? For example, do we actually get happier as we age, or do we just feel less?
No, and there shouldn’t be. For a start, the study is cross-sectional, meaning it’s not about trends in the lives of individuals. It could just represent differences in groups at the present time.

Take home message? When we get a closer look at the measures used, I suspect there’s a really interesting story in the data and it’s being completely overlooked in the media, with lazy reporting of the now unsurprising finding that some aspects of mental health are at their healthy peak in later life. I see no reason to think the study itself was awful – it actually looks very promising and quite measured in its claims. Is this what happens when writers don’t read the research for themselves and the researcher's voice is lost...?

Family don't really beat friends

Family vs friends?
The first story this week, from Ariana Eunjung of the Washington Post, was published as ‘Family beat out friends in study’ in the Herald on August 29, and appears to be focused on the role of social company on mortality risk factors. After unclear reference to previous studies, the article settles on describing the work of James Iveniuk and L.Philip Schumm. Their finding, presented as somewhat counterintuitive in this story, is that there is a decreased risk of mortality within 5 years for those who felt ‘extremely close’ to family members vs those who did not. And being married has positive effects too.
That’s it.
Can I find the original research?
If so, 2 questions:
1.       Is it true that family is more important than friends according to their findings?
2.       What age groups are we talking about?

First shock: this story is all over the internet. Over 1000 hits on Google immediately but it’s hard to get to the source because of all the news sites and blogs that are carrying it. Looks like it came from a press release from the American Sociological Association and has been handled awkwardly ever since. I don’t have a full paper so details may be missing, but it looks serious. To answer my questions
1.        Is it true that family is more important than friends (according to their findings)?
I think the answer is yes and no but only the author can clarify this. When you think about it, it’s a strange comparison to make, and one that I doubt the authors intended. Instead, it seems that the comparisons should be made within rather than across relationship type. So it’s not that, if you could choose, you should take family with you into old age and ditch the friends. Instead, it’s that if your relationships with family are close then you’re less likely to die than if your relationships with family are distant. The same effect isn’t seen with friends. But I’m not sure about the concept of a distant friend, so perhaps the nature of friendship is so different that it’s not worth comparing. I don’t think it’s counterintuitive at all.
2.       What age groups are we talking about?
In the first wave in 2005/6, they were 57-85 years old. Big age range. I wonder if there were differences in the effects…

Take home message? I’d rather hear the author talking about it than the media. It’s another study of many that show that social networks are important for us as we get older. And it’s interesting that close relationships with family might be really special in keeping us alive. It’s a shame that most of the reporting of this chose to make family and friends compete with each other, because that’s not the right story, and that obscures the important question of how relationships with family members keep us alive or send us to an early grave!

Are older workers more consistent day to day?





The third story, written by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers and published on the psychologytoday.com blog, is “Why Your Grandmother Is Still Working.”  They mention a few high profile, successful people who have done or are doing some kind of work in their 80s and then describe how many people are working productively beyond retirement age. There is not just an increase in the number of older people working, but also an increase in the number of those in full-time employment: up to 60% of all workers over 65. There may be a sex issue to discuss here, but the authors only mention this in passing without addressing it further:

“Conventional wisdom has it that older workers—many of them women—have a hard time focusing, are easily distracted, have short attention spans, and are, as a result, less productive than younger workers”

A study from the Max Planck Institute in Germany in 2010 is referred to (maybe by Axel Börsch-Supan - at this stage it's not really clear), showing that older workers are more focused and consistent. A “startling conclusion” is that older workers are, on balance, more productive.

This is put down to the accumulation of resources like confidence, expertise and coping. The final message is that we need to re-think our feelings about older workers and prevent these becoming self-fulfilling prophecy. The authors, it turns out, have written a book about this kind of thing.
So let’s check for Börsch-Supan and find out exactly what this conclusion was and whether it’s really startling.

1.       What exactly did the researchers conclude in this study?
Details about the study can be found on the Max Planck Institute website. Börsch-Supan wasn’t actually an author of this particular study but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is this conclusion despite having lower average levels of performance, older adults maintained stabler day-to-day levels of performance than did younger adults. In many vocational, voluntary, and leisure settings, older adults’ higher degree of consistency from day to day may be an advantageous attribute that positively contributes to their productivity” (p.7 of the study itself).

That was the first mention of productivity in the paper. So it’s not a paper about productivity, and there is no ‘startling conclusion’ – just an interesting finding that older workers are more consistent in their performance from day-to-day.

Take home message: um… the study is a good study that humbly states what happened and what it means. Börsch-Supan knows what he’s talking about, but the writers of the post seem to have taken a few liberties in their reporting of the study.

A final thought: the article hints at sex issues, and is in fact located in a section of the Psychology Today blog labelled "A woman's place" and the title of the piece is "Why your grandmother's still working" so I'm left a bit mystified. If there was interest, I'd look into it myself to highlight important issues facing older female as opposed to male workers.

Older can mean "happier" and more consistent... and the importance of family relationships...





This week three stories related to aging caught my attention and I thought it would be interesting to put them together in this first blog post on the site and see if they really tell us anything.
First, here’s a story I saw about the relative importance of family over friends if you want to stay alive. And here’s my post about it.
I felt that the research is really not reported well. Headlines around the world have taken the wrong message from the study. The major take home message is that social networks are important; close family relationships are also important.
Second, this story seemed to be about a new finding that people are happiest when they are old. I was suspicious because, certainly in terms of life satisfaction, that’s not a new finding. Again, the research is really not reported well. Headlines around the world have taken the wrong message from the study.

At least some indicators of mental health seem to increase steadily from young adulthood to old age. Sometimes researchers talk about an inverted ‘U’ shape to describe mental health over time and this study suggests that a straight line going up might be better. But hold your horses: it’s a cross-sectional study, so it doesn’t show how its participants change over time.
Third, an important discussion about how we shouldn’t write off older workers as unproductive is addressed in an otherwise rather vague and maybe misleading post by two authors of a recently published book about the topic.

Again, the research is really not reported well. There is certainly evidence that older workers are more consistent, and the explanations for why this might be are addressed in the article, but the links between the research and the conclusions are not strong. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Overall thoughts this week:
There’s a consistent tendency to take the wrong message from the research and write about an interesting or important, but not genuinely related topic. Is that good enough? I feel like I’m missing the voice of the researcher in each of these stories.
What do you think? Is there a need for more accurate reporting? Would you read a comment from the study authors or do you not care? Let me know at editor@hashtagpsychology.com!