Category Archives: Psychology

Again: the power of forgetting

People who read my book or who saw a presentation probably know it already, but I’m a big fan of Ebbinghaus who described the forgetting curve in 1885. His influence on things such as spaced repetition – one of the most effective ways to remember stuff – is big. Spaced repetition already shows the power of forgetting, this announcement of a talk by Bjork, Robert A. that is, gives a good short overview:

Contextual clues play a role in what people are able to store and retrieve from their memory, says Robert A. Bjork, PhD, distinguished research professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A change in context can cause forgetting, but it can also change–and enrich–how information is encoded and retrieved, which can enhance learning. Bjork defines forgetting as “a decrease in how readily accessible some information or procedure is at a given point in time.” For example, some items may be strongly imprinted in our memories (referred to as “strong storage strength”)–such as a childhood phone number–but may be difficult to retrieve quickly due to the length of time since that information has been accessed (“weak retrieval strength”).

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Just don’t be a helicopter parent

We’ve seen before that being a tiger mom is not a good idea. But being a helicopter parent isn’t a good idea neither. A new study suggests that children with overcontrolling parents may later struggle to adjust in school and social environments.

From the press release:

“Our research showed that children with helicopter parents may be less able to deal with the challenging demands of growing up, especially with navigating the complex school environment,” said Nicole B. Perry, PhD, from the University of Minnesota, and lead author of the study. “Children who cannot regulate their emotions and behavior effectively are more likely to act out in the classroom, to have a harder time making friends and to struggle in school.”

Children rely on caregivers for guidance and understanding of their emotions. They need parents who are sensitive to their needs, who recognize when they are capable of managing a situation and who will guide them when emotional situations become too challenging. This helps children develop the ability to handle challenging situations on their own as they grow up, and leads to better mental and physical health, healthier social relationships and academic success. Managing emotions and behavior are fundamental skills that all children need to learn and overcontrolling parenting can limits those opportunities, according to Perry.

The researchers followed the same 422 children over the course of eight years and assessed them at ages 2, 5 and 10, as part of a study of social and emotional development. Children in the study were predominantly white and African-American and from economically diverse backgrounds. Data were collected from observations of parent-child interactions, teacher-reported responses and self-reports from the 10-year-olds.

During the observations, the research team asked the parents and children to play as they would at home.

“Helicopter parenting behavior we saw included parents constantly guiding their child by telling him or her what to play with, how to play with a toy, how to clean up after playtime and being too strict or demanding,” said Perry. “The kids reacted in a variety of ways. Some became defiant, others were apathetic and some showed frustration.”

Overcontrolling parenting when a child was 2 was associated with poorer emotional and behavioral regulation at age 5, the researchers found. Conversely, the greater a child’s emotional regulation at age 5, the less likely he or she was to have emotional problems and the more likely he or she was to have better social skills and be more productive in school at age 10. Similarly, by age 10, children with better impulse control were less likely to experience emotional and social problems and were more likely to do better in school.

“Children who developed the ability to effectively calm themselves during distressing situations and to conduct themselves appropriately had an easier time adjusting to the increasingly difficult demands of preadolescent school environments,” said Perry. “Our findings underscore the importance of educating often well-intentioned parents about supporting children’s autonomy with handling emotional challenges.”

Perry suggested that parents can help their children learn to control their emotions and behavior by talking with them about how to understand their feelings and by explaining what behaviors may result from feeling certain emotions, as well as the consequences of different responses. Then parents can help their children identify positive coping strategies, like deep breathing, listening to music, coloring or retreating to a quiet space.

“Parents can also set good examples for their children by using positive coping strategies to manage their own emotions and behavior when upset,” said Perry.

Abstract of the study:

We examined longitudinal associations across an 8-year time span between overcontrolling parenting during toddlerhood, self-regulation during early childhood, and social, emotional, and academic adjustment in preadolescence (N 422). Overcontrolling parenting, emotion regulation (ER), and inhibitory control (IC) were observed in the laboratory; preadolescent adjustment was teacher-reported and child self-reported. Results from path analysis indicated that overcontrolling parenting at age 2 was associated negatively with ER and IC at age 5, which, in turn, were associated with more child-reported emotional and school problems, fewer teacher-reported social skills, and less teacher-reported academic productivity at age 10. These effects held even when controlling for prior levels of adjustment at age 5, suggesting that ER and IC in early childhood may be associated with increases and decreases in social, emotional, and academic functioning from childhood to preadolescence. Finally, indirect effects from overcontrolling parenting at age 2 to preadolescent outcomes at age 10 were significant, both through IC and ER at age 5. These results support the notion that parenting during toddlerhood is associated with child adjustment into adolescence through its relation with early developing self-regulatory skills.

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What can parents do to stimulate the IQ of their children?

The saved-you-a-click answer: not that much, but do read on.

This week there was the news of the drop of the average IQ aka the reverse Flynn-effect. The big insight of this new study was that this isn’t probably due to genetics, but rather due to the environment. So, if the environment can affect this IQ – besides the obvious genetic element – what can we do as a parent? This new study tries to answer this question by looking at children that were adopted to control for genetic confounding, but the answer is sobering: parenting has a marginal and inconsistent influence on offspring IQ.

So if we combine the insights of both studies we learn:

  • the environment is important related to the Flynn-effect and
  • family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores.

Well, than we have to look further to education, media, …

Abstract of the study:

The association between family/parenting and offspring IQ remains the matter of debate because of threats related to genetic confounding. The current study is designed to shed some light on this association by examining the influence of parenting influences on adolescent and young adult IQ scores. To do so, a nationally representative sample of youth is analyzed along with a sample of adoptees. The sample of adoptees is able to more fully control for genetic confounding. The results of the study revealed that there is only a marginal and inconsistent influence of parenting on offspring IQ in adolescence and young adulthood. These weak associations were detected in both the nationally representative sample and the adoptee subsample. Sensitivity analyses that focused only on monozygotic twins also revealed no consistent associations between parenting/family measures and verbal intelligence. Taken together, the results of these statistical models indicate that family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores. The implications of this study are discussed in relation to research examining the effects of family/parenting on offspring IQ scores.

 

 

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It’s true: being watched makes people do better

Last week my band and I released a new album ‘Edward‘ – sorry for the not so subtle plug – and played a release concert for a sold-out crowd. It was our first gig with the new songs, but the audience helped us a lot. Or this was our impression. But a new study actually confirms this. Do note the small sample!

From the press release:

When people know they are being observed, parts of the brain associated with social awareness and reward invigorate a part of the brain that controls motor skills, improving their performance at skilled tasks. The findings, which could help people become more effective in the workplace and in school, are set to be published Friday in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“You might think having people watch you isn’t going to help, but it might actually make you perforbiomedical m better,” said lead author Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive.”

Chib, who has studied what happens in the brain when people choke under pressure, originally launched this project to investigate how performance suffers under social observation. But it quickly became clear that in certain situations, having an audience spurred people to do better, the same way it would if money was on the line.

Previous studies have shown that when people are observed, brain activity jumps in areas of the brain known for thinking about others, even if people aren’t doing anything that others could judge. But researchers had not tested to what degree, if any, people in front of an audience might work harder in pursuit of a reward, or what happens in the brain during this type of social situation.

Chib and his co-authors devised an experiment, held at the California Institute of Technology, in which 20 participants performed a task and were paid a small amount of money contingent on how well they did. The task was a video game similar to Wii or Xbox Kinect. The participants performed the task both in front of an audience of two and with no one watching. Their brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

When participants knew an audience was watching, a part of the prefrontal cortex associated with social cognition, particularly the thoughts and intentions of others, activated along with another part of the cortex associated with reward. Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills.

In essence, the presence of an audience, at least a small one, increased people’s incentive to perform well, Chib said, and the brain scans validated this by showing the neural mechanism for how it happens.

While people were watching, participants were an average of 5 percent better at the video game — and as much as 20 percent better. Only two participants didn’t perform better in front of others.

But if the audience was a lot bigger, and the stakes higher, the results could have gone the other way.

“Here, people with social anxiety tended to perform better,” Chib said, “but at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one’s anxiety. … We still need to figure that out.”

Abstract of the study:

Throughout our lives we must perform tasks while being observed by others. Previous studies have shown that the presence of an audience can cause increases in an individual’s performance as compared to when they are not being observed—a phenomenon called ‘social facilitation’. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this effect, in the context of skilled-task performance for monetary incentives, are not well understood. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity while healthy human participants performed a skilled-task during conditions in which they were paid based on their performance and observed and not observed by an audience. We found that during social facilitation, social signals represented in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) enhanced reward value computations in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). We also found that functional connectivity between dmPFC and ventral striatum was enhanced when participants exhibited social facilitation effects, indicative of a means by which social signals serve to modulate brain regions involved in regulating behavioral motivation. These findings illustrate how neural processing of social judgments gives rise to the enhanced motivational state that results in social facilitation of incentive-based performance.

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Men perceive themselves as smarter

This is a study that can fuel some discussions: in the college biology classroom, men perceive themselves as smarter, even when compared to women whose grades prove they are just as smart. But there is more in this study as the press release explains:

Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student in the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and lead author of the study, has talked with hundreds of students as an academic advisor and those conversations led to this project.

“I would ask students about how their classes were going and I noticed a trend,” shared Cooper. “Over and over again, women would tell me that they were afraid that other students thought that they were ‘stupid.’ I never heard this from the men in those same biology classes, so I wanted to study it.”

The ASU research team asked college students enrolled in a 250-person biology course about their intelligence. Specifically, the students were asked to estimate their own intelligence compared to everyone in the class and to the student they worked most closely with in class.

The researchers were surprised to find that women were far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than men. And, when comparing a female and a male student, both with a GPA of 3.3, the male student is likely to say he is smarter than 66 percent of the class, and the female student is likely to say she is smarter than only 54 percent of the class.

In addition, when asked whether they are smarter than the person they worked most with in class, the pattern continued. Male students are 3.2 times more likely than females to say they are smarter than the person they are working with, regardless of whether their class partners are men or women.

A previous ASU study has shown that male students in undergraduate biology classes perceive men to be smarter than women about course material, but this is the first study to examine undergraduate student perceptions about their own intelligence compared to other people in the class.

Is this a problem?

“As we transition more of our courses into active learning classes where students interact more closely with each other, we need to consider that this might influence how students feel about themselves and their academic abilities,” shared Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor in the school. “When students are working together, they are going to be comparing themselves more to each other. This study shows that women are disproportionately thinking that they are not as good as other students, so this a worrisome result of increased interactions among students.”

Brownell added that in a world where perceptions are important, female students may choose not to continue in science because they may not believe they are smart enough. These false perceptions of self-intelligence could be a negative factor in the retention of women in science.

Cooper said: “This is not an easy problem to fix. It’s a mindset that has likely been engrained in female students since they began their academic journeys. However, we can start by structuring group work in a way that ensures everyone’s voices are heard. One of our previous studies showed us that telling students it’s important to hear from everyone in the group could be enough to help them take a more equitable approach to group work.”

Abstract of the study:

Academic self-concept is one’s perception of his or her ability in an academic domain and is formed by comparing oneself to other students. As college biology classrooms transition from lecturing to active learning, students interact more with each other and are likely comparing themselves more to other students in the class. Student characteristics can impact students’ academic self-concept; however, this has been unexplored in the context of undergraduate biology. In this study, we explored whether student characteristics can affect academic self-concept in the context of an active learning college physiology course. Using a survey, students self-reported how smart they perceived themselves to be in the context of physiology relative to the whole class and relative to their groupmate, the student with whom they worked most closely in class. Using linear regression, we found that men and native English speakers had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to the whole class compared with women and nonnative English speakers. Using logistic regression, we found that men had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to their groupmate compared with women. Using constant comparison methods, we identified nine factors that students reported influenced how they determined whether they were more or less smart than their groupmate. Finally, we found that students were more likely to report participating more than their groupmate if they had a higher academic self-concept. These findings suggest that student characteristics can influence students’ academic self-concept, which in turn may influence their participation in small-group discussion and their academic achievement in active learning classes.

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Is there really a system 1 and a system 2 in our mind?

A lot of people have read the book by Kahneman Thinking fast and slow, which actually refers to the two thought-systems we as people would have one that is thinking slow, more rationally and one thinking faster, more emotionally driven.

But is this true. A new paper by Melnikoff and Bargh that I found via a tweet by Neuroskeptic collected arguments to say no. Or wait, it’s not really saying it isn’t so, the authors rather try to explain that it ain’t that simple.

I’ll share with you this part of their conclusion which makes it more clear:

We suspect that the response of many researchers when they hear ‘there are not two types of processes’ will be to dismiss the claim out of hand. ‘Of course there are two types of processes. There are unconscious automatic ones, and there are conscious deliberate ones.’ However, we are asking the reader to check their work before accepting the intuitive answer.

Consider this analogy: we say that there are two types of cars, convertibles and hard-tops. No debate there. But now we say: there are two types of cars, automatic and manual transmission. Yes, those are certainly two different types of cars. And still further: there are two types of cars, gasoline and electric motors. Or: foreign and domestic. The point is that all of these are different types of cars. But we all know that there are not just two types of cars overall: convertibles that all have manual transmission, gasoline engines, and are manufactured overseas; and hard-tops that all have automatic transmission, electric engines, and are made in our own country. All around us we see counterexamples, automobiles that are some other combination of these basic features.

So, the issue is not whether mental processes differ on various dimensions – they certainly do. The issue, we argue, is that the degree of alignment between the various dimensions has not been tested. Furthermore, as outlined above, entire swaths of psychological phenomena are characterized by misalignments of these dimensions. Perhaps more troubling, the underlying dimensions themselves lack internal consistency – a problem that, if irremediable, is absolutely fatal to the dual-process typology.

It is time that we as a field come to terms with these issues. With institutions like the World Bank and Institute of Medicine now endorsing our highly speculative and frequently misleading typology, we cannot afford to wait. Luckily, the solution is straightforward: researchers should rigorously explore each feature of a given process one by one, without making assumptions or drawing conclusions about other features that are not being studied. For too long the dual-process typology has obscured the rich diversity of the human mind. Let us embrace that diversity instead.

Abstract of the paper:

It is often said that there are two types of psychological processes: one that is intentional, controllable, conscious, and inefficient, and another that is unintentional, uncontrollable, unconscious, and efficient. Yet, there have been persistent and increasing objections to this widely influential dual-process typology. Critics point out that the ‘two types’ framework lacks empirical support, contradicts well-established findings, and is internally incoherent. Moreover, the untested and untenable assumption that psychological phenomena can be partitioned into two types, we argue, has the consequence of systematically thwarting scientific progress. It is time that we as a field come to terms with these issues. In short, the dual-process typology is a convenient and seductive myth, and we think cognitive science can do better.

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No big surprise:? Kids from wealthier families feel more control over their lives

How do you experience socio-economic status? This new study – although based on rather old but very complete data from the eighties and beginning of the nineties – examined which measures of socioeconomic status — parents’ education, family income, race and parents’ occupation — have the greatest influence over a child’s locus of control and more importantly: why.

From the press release:

Building on previous research that has shown that kids who feel more control experience better academic, health and even occupational outcomes, the findings underscore how the kids who most need this psychological resource may be the least likely to experience it.

The study by Dara Shifrer, a sociology professor in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was published online this month in the journal Society and Mental Health. It’s titled, “The Contributions of Parental, Academic, School, and Peer Factors to Differences by Socioeconomic Status in Adolescents’ Locus of Control.”

Using data from 16,450 U.S. eighth graders surveyed for the National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 and 1990, Shifrer examined which measures of socioeconomic status — parents’ education, family income, race and parents’ occupation — have the greatest influence over a child’s locus of control and why.

Locus of control describes the degree to which people feel control over their lives. People at one end of the scale, with external control, believe they are powerless and credit their successes and failures to other people, luck or fate. On the other end, people with internal control see their destiny as largely in their own hands.

Shifrer concluded that kids with higher socioeconomic status were more likely to have an internal locus of control, in large part because their parents discuss school more often with them, their homes have more books and other resources, they receive higher grades, they are more likely to attend a private school, their friends are more academically oriented, and they feel safer at school.

“We know income shapes the way people parent, shapes the peers that kids have, shapes the schools they attend,” she said. “It’s not just kids’ perception — their lives are a little bit more out of control when they’re poor.”

Shifrer said the study gives social scientists a better understanding by which family income influences child development.

Shifrer does acknowledge that there are some limitations to her study, which uses data from the early 1990s.

However, the data is one of the few large national datasets that measures adolescents’ locus of control, according to Shifrer. She said it is unlikely that its measure of locus of control is outdated, but suggests that the disparities in internal control could be even more stark today with increasing inequality and shifts in parenting norms and social media use.

Abstract of the study:

An internal locus of control may be particularly valuable for youth with low socioeconomic status (SES), yet the mechanisms that externalize their control remain unclear. This study uses data on 16,450 U.S. eighth graders surveyed for the National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 and 1990. Results indicate family income is more closely associated with adolescents’ locus of control than parents’ occupations and educational attainment and that race does not independently affect adolescents’ locus of control net of these other components of SES. Findings also indicate higher SES adolescents feel more internal locus of control in largest part because their parents discuss school more often with them, their homes have more books and other cognitive resources, they receive higher grades in middle school science and social studies, they are more likely to attend a private rather than public school, their friends are more academically oriented, and they feel safer at school.

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New study in Nature: playing a lof of violent games doesn’t make players more violent

It’s a very popular idea, dating back to the theories and studies by Bandura: seeing violence teaches people to act violently. And more recently there was an American president linking computer games to school shootings. This new study shows that this maybe unwarranted.

In this study by Kühn et al published in Nature the researchers did a randomized controlled trial with 3 groups

  • 1 group who played Grand Theft Auto intensively during 2 months
  • 1 group who played The Sims 3 intensively during 2 months
  • 1 group who didn’t play games at all.

And what did the researchers find?

Within the scope of the present study we tested the potential effects of playing the violent video game GTA V for 2 months against an active control group that played the non-violent, rather pro-social life simulation game The Sims 3 and a passive control group. Participants were tested before and after the long-term intervention and at a follow-up appointment 2 months later. Although we used a comprehensive test battery consisting of questionnaires and computerised behavioural tests assessing aggression, impulsivity-related constructs, mood, anxiety, empathy, interpersonal competencies and executive control functions, we did not find relevant negative effects in response to violent video game playing. In fact, only three tests of the 208 statistical tests performed showed a significant interaction pattern that would be in line with this hypothesis. Since at least ten significant effects would be expected purely by chance, we conclude that there were no detrimental effects of violent video gameplay.

Will this study end all discussions? No, I’m sure this won’t be the case even if this study is very relevant. It’s worth noticing that the average age of the participants was 28, on which I would suggest that a replication with younger participants would be a very good idea.

Abstract of the study:

It is a widespread concern that violent video games promote aggression, reduce pro-social behaviour, increase impulsivity and interfere with cognition as well as mood in its players. Previous experimental studies have focussed on short-term effects of violent video gameplay on aggression, yet there are reasons to believe that these effects are mostly the result of priming. In contrast, the present study is the first to investigate the effects of long-term violent video gameplay using a large battery of tests spanning questionnaires, behavioural measures of aggression, sexist attitudes, empathy and interpersonal competencies, impulsivity-related constructs (such as sensation seeking, boredom proneness, risk taking, delay discounting), mental health (depressivity, anxiety) as well as executive control functions, before and after 2 months of gameplay. Our participants played the violent video game Grand Theft Auto V, the non-violent video game The Sims 3 or no game at all for 2 months on a daily basis. No significant changes were observed, neither when comparing the group playing a violent video game to a group playing a non-violent game, nor to a passive control group. Also, no effects were observed between baseline and posttest directly after the intervention, nor between baseline and a follow-up assessment 2 months after the intervention period had ended. The present results thus provide strong evidence against the frequently debated negative effects of playing violent video games in adults and will therefore help to communicate a more realistic scientific perspective on the effects of violent video gaming.

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The benefits from an university education: students more agreeable, conscientiousness

Earlier this week I read something by an author who claimed that there weren’t any benefits to schools and education. This new recent study published in Oxford Economic Papers shows that author wrong, very wrong as it shows a robust positive relationship between university education and extraversion, and agreeableness, in addition to the expected intellectual benefits. Even better, the study also shows that the impact of education on these skills is even much more for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

From the press release:

University education coincides with the transition from adolescence into young adulthood. The nature of this maturation process is toward increasing levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability and decreasing levels of openness to experience and extraversion. University training may alter this maturation process: Theoretically, it could boost, weaken, or even reverse population trends in personality trait maturation.

University education may impact character skills development by providing students with exposure to new peer groups and extracurricular activities including sport, politics, and art. Because students from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be more affected by a change in peer groups through day-to-day interaction with academically inclined peers and academic groups, there may be a greater effect of university education on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To measure character skills researchers used five personality traits–openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism–which are widely accepted as a meaningful construct for describing differences in character skills by psychologists. Some of these character skills- extraversion or openness to new experiences – are important for employers. Other character skills- like agreeableness – are related to preferences such as reciprocity and altruism, which are significant for personal health and wellbeing.

To identify the effect of university education, researchers followed the education and character skills trajectories of 575 adolescents over eight years using nationally-representative, longitudinal data from the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey. The data provide measures of character skills before potential university entry, and follow up measures four and eight years later.

The results indicate that every additional year spent at university is associated with increases in extraversion and agreeableness for youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The results show that university education has positive effects on extraversion, reversing a downward sloping population trend in outward orientation as people age. It also accelerates an upward-sloping population trend in agreeableness for students from low socioeconomic status, boosting agreeableness scores from the lowest levels observed at baseline to the highest levels at the eight-year follow up. This finding suggests that the causal mechanism is likely to operate through actual exposure to university life, rather than through academic course content. Such interpretation is strengthened by the observation that length of exposure to university life is positively associated with character development.

As yet, no empirical evidence has existed on the matter. This study provides a robust empirical look at the role that university education plays in skills development in adolescents. Australian universities contribute to building sociability (extraversion) and the tendency to cooperate (agreeableness).

In addition, university education is associated with higher levels of agreeableness for both male and female students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who started from the lowest baseline scores in adolescence and experienced the steepest growth curve as they entered university. This implies that students from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up with their peers from more privileged backgrounds, thus reducing initial levels of inequality in agreeableness.

“We see quite clearly that students’ personalities change when they go to university, said the paper’s lead researcher,” Sonja Kassenboehmer. “Universities provide an intensive new learning and social environment for adolescents, so it is not surprising that this experience could impact on students’ personality. It is good news that universities not only seem to teach subject-specific skills, but also seem to succeed in shaping skills valued by employers and society.”

Abstract of the study:

We examine the effect of university education on students’ non-cognitive skills (NCS) using high-quality Australian longitudinal data. To isolate the skill-building effects of tertiary education, we follow the education decisions and NCS—proxied by the Big Five personality traits—of 575 adolescents over eight years. Estimating a standard skill production function, we demonstrate a robust positive relationship between university education and extraversion, and agreeableness for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The effects are likely to operate through exposure to university life rather than through degree-specific curricula or university-specific teaching quality. As extraversion and agreeableness are associated with socially beneficial behaviours, we propose that university education may have important non-market returns.

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There is something strange with most studies on the effects of meditation

Yesterday I found out about this new review study and meta-analysis on meditation via a tweet by Neuroskeptic. What did the researchers find? Well, read on…

First the good news:

Despite these high hopes, our analysis suggests that meditating is likely to have a positive, but still relatively limited effect in making individuals feel or act in a substantially more socially connected, or less aggressive and prejudiced way. Compared to doing no new emotionally engaging activity, it might make one feel moderately more compassionate or empathic…

Well, that’s not that bad, there is an effect but it’s moderate.

But there is more:

…but our findings suggest that these effects may be, at least in part, the result of methodological frailties, such as biases introduced by the meditation teacher, the type of control group used and the beliefs and expectations of participants about the power of meditation.

To make it more concrete:

…compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

The researchers aren’t saying there isn’t an effect, what they are saying is:

…the adaptation of spiritual practices into the lab suffers from methodological weaknesses and is partly immersed in theoretical mist. Before good research can be conducted on the prosocial effects of meditation, these problems need to be addressed.

Abstract of the report:

Many individuals believe that meditation has the capacity to not only alleviate mental-illness but to improve prosociality. This article systematically reviewed and meta-analysed the effects of meditation interventions on prosociality in randomized controlled trials of healthy adults. Five types of social behaviours were identified: compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice. Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality. Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one. Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area.

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