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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...

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 difference to how we approach our work or other areas of our lives.

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The trouble with testosterone: confidence, aggression and dominance

Watching the demise of my football team’s champions league hopes, and being all too aware of not only stress levels but also how my optimism and confidence gave way to despondency as hopes began to fade, I coped by an intellectual defence. I begun to think again about sport and hormones and managed my disappointment by  trying to make sense of the contradictory role that testosterone plays,  in male lives particularly but also in females. A recent study   by  Leander van der Meij of the VU University, Amsterdam showed that testosterone levels increase when watching football matches, and the researchers suggest that this is linked to the response to threat and to dominance levels [1]. Indeed another study just published showed that males when given artificial does of testosterone stare for longer at faces which represent threat, even when these faces are out of awareness[2]. We have known for a while that sports players have higher levels when playing at home and when playing fierce rivals, and even found that male  Obama supporters had higher levels than McCain supporters on the night when the last presidential election results were announced. Such research gets right to the heart of much nature-nurture debate. While we are often saddled with our testosterone levels from pre-birth, and indeed much research suggests that prenatal testosterone levels influences a range of behaviours from sexual choice to the toys we play with, levels rise and fall in response to specific circumstances and in all likelihood particular cultural influences. Southern American men, for example, tend to respond more reactively to potential threat than their northern counterparts.

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Stop that emailing .. and watch the screen time generally

For many email is one of the curses of modern life. A new study by Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida and Armand Cardello  [1]has shown how the use of email really does ramp up our stress levels and we would be better off taking a break from it. This study used heart rate monitors  and also watched how often workers switched windows on their computers. Some used email as usual and others were taking an enforced break. A bit shockingly, those using email switched windows about twice as often as the non-users,  but more significantly in terms of stress levels, they were on a more or less constant ‘high alert’ state, with constant heart rates. As scientists such as Stephen Porges  [2]have shown us, in emotional health we tend to have more variable heart rates, and indeed heart rate variability is a classic measure of stress levels and emotional health, linked to the activity of the sophisticated branch of  our vagus nerve, which calms us down and helps us feel at ease. Less heart-trate variability normally comes with higher stress levels and release of cortisol. In this study those without email could concentrate more, got more done, suffered less interruptions and time wasted less, were less stressed and did not suffer from too much multi-tasking.

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Prejudice as a defence against feeling bad

An interesting new study in the April edition  of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by  Professors. Jessica Tracy and Ashton-James of the  University of British Columbia has cast light on how feelings of pride link with prejudicial attitudes such as racism or homophobia.  In particular they found that people manifesting a hubristic over-blown pride are much more likely to show high levels of prejudice than those having an ordinary sense of feeling good about oneself from a more self-confident place.  The latter she calls ‘authentic pride’, which might derive from hard work and a genuine sense of achievement, and is  more likely to lead to a more compassionate and empathic attitude to others. Yet the kind of pride which is based on hubris, and presumably geared to bolstering a rather fragile sense of self-esteem, one that is more arrogant and less genuinely self-confident, can derive from asserting oneself via less savoury mechanisms such as nepotism, money or domination. Such hubristic pride suggests a form of feeling good dependent on feeling superior and diminishing others. In many ways such studies simply back up traditional psychoanalytic ideas about defensive ways of managing bad feelings and the power of projective processes as a way of getting rid of such bad feelings in oneself by making others bad. Those with more authentic pride were not only more empathic but they harboured less prejudice.

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Impulsivity in children, worries, causes and later problems

A study just published has shown that impulsivity in 3 year olds predicted the likelihood of these children growing up to be adults addicted to gambling [1]. This was a huge study of over 1,000 children who were, aged 3, given a 90 minute assessment, and assigned to various categories which described how well regulated they were. Those categorised as most under controlled were over twice as likely to be addicted to gambling in adulthood, according to interviews with nearly 1000 adults between 22 and 32 years old. Interestingly neither IQ nor even socioeconomic status was anywhere near as predictive.

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Do we want to be consumers of services?

We are living in an increasingly consumerist culture. Public sector services are often being run like private companies, alongside privatisation the profit motive is more and more central to how services are being planned and delivered. For those of us working in such services one loss is that we must increasingly turn people away on cost grounds, and sometimes even cherry-pick ‘profitable’ work. In addition colleagues in nearby organisations, with whom mutual learning and the exchange of ideas was once possible,  are now competitors in a dog eat dog world, and so opportunities for helping each other in delivering the best health or other services are threatened. Another other central agenda is that of personal choice, and public servants are frequently expected to think of those we work with as customers.

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Again, good parenting changes children’s brains and predicts better health later in life

In recent years there has been a mass of research pointing to how nurturing and attuned parenting is innoculatory for later physical as well as mental health. Three studies that have come out recently again back this up with yet more evidence.

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