Post Of The Week – Thursday 20th February

1) Medicine Of Our Minds

In Psychology, we rely on randomised controlled trials to establish the efficacy of drugs. Some people get the drug, others get a placebo but no one knows which they are getting. All might equally believe that the pill they are taking is having some effect. If the drug is really effective, it will demonstrate that effectiveness over and above the placebo. This begs the question of how placebo works. This article explains what might lie behind it.

The Horizon programme itself is available for another week and a half.

It explores the idea of placebo through a series of studies where the hypothesis of one study grows out of the conclusion of a previous study. Interesting both for the placebo mechanism and as an example of the scientific process.

2) Evolutionary Explanations Of Human Reproductive Behaviour Part 1 – The Puzzle Of Homosexuality

Sexual selection theory assumes that our preferences are based on the idea of good genes. The features which we find attractive are those which coincide with the production of viable offspring who can pass on an individual’s genes to the next generation. Parental investment theory explains the differences between male and female reproductive behaviour in terms of gamete size. Women have large eggs which require energy to conserve and nurture while makes have much smaller sperm produced in huge numbers. Females are therefore interested in monogamous relationships where males will offer protection through the period of gestation and caring for young while males can maximise the chances of their genes reproducing by acting promiscuously and impregnating as many females as possible. Homosexuality challenges both of these theories because fundamentally it is sex which is not about reproduction.

This article explores some explanations from evolutionary biology for how homosexuality has persisted both in humans and non-humans.  It should be no surprise that this is an emerging field where little consensus has so far been reached. The article contains a quote from Joan Roughgarden whose work we have looked at elsewhere. You can listen to a podcast on this issue here:

3) ….. And Part 2 – Sexual Omnivores

In this TED talk, Christopher Ryan challenges the idea that humans have always been monogamous and that this is somehow natural. In particular, he challenges the idea inherent in parental investment theory that relationships are a deal in which the male buys the female’s reproductive resources by offering stability and protection. His argument is biologically based, drawing comparisons with non-human animals in understanding more about how we have sex and reproduce. What is striking here is that the claims are not moral. Monogamy may be a good lifestyle and a good moral choice but it is just that, a choice and not an imperative of nature. Ryan compares humans with chimps and bonobos but arrives at a view of sexuality which is enlightened and humane.

4) Test “Predicts” Teenage Depression Risk

There’s a simple story here. It is well established that diagnoses of depression are neither reliable nor valid. Cases get missed for a whole host of reasons. This is particularly true for young people, in part because depression in people under the age of 18 has only been recognised as an illness within the last 30 years or so. We need to find a way of identifying people at risk early but this is difficult because depression is a complex condition in which both biological and psychological factors play a part. Researchers at the University Of Cambridge have come up with a way of measuring cortisol and giving young people a questionnaire which is quite promising at least in boys. They found that of their high risk boys, who represented a sixth of the total of boys, half went on to develop clinical depression. So you have people designated as high risk who do not develop depression and you have people who develop depression in the low risk group. It is not perfect but it’s a start.

The interesting question here is how this story gets twisted and turned by its media presentation. Here’s the report on the BBC website.

Here’s an excerpt from the Today programme on Radio 4 where Prof. Barbara Shakian gets asked some questions about it.  You might ask yourself whether you think the way in which this story is covered explains or obscures the essential ideas of the research. I’m not sure but this blog post has a view.

See what you think.

5) Diagnosis vs Formulation

This has come up recently when looking at psychological therapies. Drug treatments require diagnosis where a medical professional spots symptoms and provides medication. Psychological therapies such as CBT are based on client and therapist coming together to formulate a problem and then work on finding a solution. Here, Peter Kinderman, whose work we have looked at before, explains this distinction and much more.

6) Self-Management: Coping With The Aftermath Of Depression

We have seen how maintenance therapy is used for some people recovering from depression: they carry on taking the tablets, sometimes indefinitely. There’s a psychological equivalent to this.

This study explores the way in which people recovering from depression manage themselves and their mood so that they do not get depressed again. The method used in this study, concept mapping, is a new one on me but is an interesting take on how to interpret qualitative data.

7) Kitty Genovese Reassessed

It is almost 50 years ago that Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York. The story of her murder became famous because, it was claimed, people heard her scream but nobody came to help. This was a time when social psychology was influential and experiments were done to illustrate and understand the bystander effect. It is not part of our course but it has been on courses in Psychology ever since. In recent years, it has emerged that the account given by the police at the time, which emphasised the apathy of bystanders, is not wholly valid.

Here’s a newspaper article exploring this idea which has also been covered by the BPS here.

8) Parent Talk And Child Language

We don’t cover the development of child language as part of our course specifically but I thought this blogpost was great.

It takes you through both how to analyse a psychological problem and how the media fail to do so adequately.

9) 10 Psychology Studies Every Lover Should Know

The title explains itself. Here’s an interesting list from Jeremy Dean, including a reference to some of Eli Finkel’s work.

10) Autism And Average

This article from Jon Brock looks at whether “autism” as a concept makes sense any more. This gets interesting for autism but takes us further in thinking about what we mean by any kind of label. Back to classification and diagnosis again.


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