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This blog is to critically introduce, and contextualise, new research findings from developmental research, neuroscience, attachment theory  and other areas of psychology that are topical or are likely to whet the appetite of  anyone interested. The aim is to discuss research which will feel relevant and which might even, if lucky, make a differenc...e to how we approach our work or other areas of our lives. More

Empathy, feeling good and healing

Empathy and its effects have been known about for a long time now, but recently a new and very large study has illustrated this in a fascinating way. The study, a collaboration between Thomas Jefferson University and some Italian researchers, looked at  a huge sample of over 20,000 patients and 242 doctors [1]. They used a validated scale to measure empathy, a scale designed especially for use in medical settings (Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE)) which assesses levels of understanding of a patient's worries, pain, and suffering, as well as the extent of an intention to help.  They found that significantly more patients with doctors who showed high empathy had lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and indeed they had considerably fewer complications leading them to be hospitalized. There have been many smaller scale studies in recent years that have shown similar results. For example a study a few years ago found that, looking at  patients  with similar symptoms and backgrounds, those with more empathic doctors recovered from the common cold on average a day quicker, and had better immune responses [2].

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Power, confidence and politics

Power corrupts, as the old adage goes. An interesting set of new experiments sheds some light on this.  Deb Gruenfeld had noted in personal situations just how unthinking some powerful people could be, such as the businessman sitting next to her on the plane who turned the fan away from him and towards her for the flight so she became increasingly cold. With this to spur her on she, with colleagues undertook a range of experiments to explore such  issues[1] . For example people were asked to write an essay in which either they had lots of power or very little power. They were then asked to go into another room for a further test and the instructions were on the desk. In fact also on the desks was a powerful and annoying fan.  Interestingly 69% of those who had written about having power moved the fan, but only 42% of those who wrote about being in a low power situation. Other subjects in a 2nd experiment were again asked to write an essay in which they had high or low power. They were then asked to do a few tasks, the most interesting of which was to draw a capital E on their forehead as quickly as they could. What was fascinating was that those in the high power position were nearly three times more likely to write the E in a “self-oriented” direction, compared to those in the lower power position who were more likely to write an E facing outwards so that others could read it. These are the kind of findings we have come to expect. Other studies have shown that if people randomly sit on a high or low desk, those on the higher ones tend to be more assertive. More relevantly Paul Piff had found that those with higher social class and more money tended to be not only more assertive but also less prosocial, for example less likely to give way to others in a car and more likely to cheat [2].

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Fairness is natural but what fairness?

In an age of increasing inequality and social divide there is often a lot of speculation about what we mean by fairness and justice. A fascinating new study by Patricia Kanngiesser from the University of Bristol and Prof Felix Warneken from Harvard University has shown how fairness seems to be something of an innate human trait.[1]. This is one of a swathe of studies looking at fairness, altruism and cooperation in children in recent years. In their new study children of about  3 years old were asked to collect coins using a fishing rod alongside a puppet partner. The researchers cleverly varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. The coins could then be exchanged for rewards. Interestingly the children kept fewer stickers for themselves when they had contributed little effort than when they had contributed the most, showing that they took fairness into account.

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The good things that do not happen to children can be worse than the bad things that do

Yet another new study by a group of experienced researchers has shown just how devastating are the effects of early neglect on children’s development [1]. In this study children who had been reared in institutions where care had been minimal had their brains scanned and compared to a control group of  more average children, and also to children also reared earlier in the same institutions but who were randomly allocated to live in foster care. It was found that those reared in institutions had significantly diminished grey matter volumes in the cortex of the brain compared to those children who were never institutionalized, but also that the same low levels of grey matter were seen in those who had later been placed in foster care after institutional rearing. However interestingly those who were subsequently placed in foster care had greater levels of white matter, which was not the case for those who remained in institutions. In other words, some catch-up was possible, as seen in increased levels of white matter but not grey matter in the cortex. As Sheridan, the lead author, said, “We found that white matter, which forms the ‘information superhighway’ of the brain, shows some evidence of ‘catch-up .These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function.” In this study, children were randomly allocated to either remain in institutional care or be placed in foster care, which discounted a factor I often wonder about when working with families where a child has been adopted from abroad, the question being how come they chose that particular child and do some children have more hope and potential which elicits a wish to care for them? In this study it is clear that the differences in brain function is entirely down to early environmental conditions. This is one of several studies that have shown clearly how poor quality early institutional care can have devastating effects [2].

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Psychological damage and physical abuse linked to poverty

In the last couple of weeks we have seen new studies which have put more flesh on the bones of what we already know about the link between economic circumstances and mental health issues. One study  [1] by Judith Baer and colleagues from Rutgers University looked at 5,000 parents. Mothers who received free food or had a difficult time paying their bills were nearly 2.5 times more likely to have symptoms that would warrant a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, compared with those who were in better financial situations. Interestingly what the researchers seem to have found, using a structural equation model, is that it is the economic circumstances that were the main trigger for psychological symptoms which are quite serious. Poverty and not knowing where the next meal is coming from, not surprisingly in itself is a major contributor to anxiety levels.

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Violent video games and aggression

In the wake of another unthinkable massacre this week in Aurora Colorado most people will be wondering what motivated James Holmes. So far there are very few facts about him and his life. One thing we do know is that he did play a lot of video games.  It appears that he was particularly hooked on one called guitar heroes. The question of whether video games are harmful has been a controversial one for some time now, with researchers not agreeing. Maybe this is not surprising. Video-games are big business, and it is also true that they alone would not lead to such a shocking act, and presumably their use was as much a symptom as a cause.

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