Revolutionary or stifling?
When BPS Fellow Chris Chambers and Marcus Munafo wrote to the Guardian in June calling for the introduction of study pre-registration across the life sciences, they were responding to the growing sense that something needs to be done to clean up our science.
Psychologist readers will know why. The last few years have witnessed isolated but shocking cases of research fraud; a run of failed replications of key findings in social psychology; a survey of psychologists in which an overwhelming majority admitted indulging in questionable research practices (tinyurl.com/boynfxk); and a growing awareness of the problematic file-draw effect, whereby null results never see the light of day. These issues are not restricted to psychology, but psychologists have been at the forefront of initiatives to improve the scientific method, including Brian Nosek’s launch of the Center for Open Science, which supports pre-registration.
In their letter, Chambers (Cardiff University) and Munafo (University of Bristol) argued that the widespread introduction of the option of journal publication by pre-registration – with papers judged and accepted by reviewers based on their methods prior to data-collection – would help address many of the problems currently plaguing scientific research. Their list of 80 co-signatories included some of psychology’s leading lights – Dorothy Bishop, Jon Simons, Sergio Della Sala, Daniel Simons to name but a few – giving a strong impression that the wider community backed this plan. So far the journals Cortex (where Chambers is an editor); Attention Perception and Psychophysics; and Perspectives on Psychological Science have launched Registered Reports and similar pre-registration formats.
But now the mood of consensus has dipped with an article published in the Times Higher Education Supplement in July by Sophie Scott, deputy director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. She says the call for pre-registered reports must be resisted because the format will stifle scientific freedom. Speculative analysis of findings will be more difficult, she says, and reviewers will be more tempted than ever to judge submitted research based on reputation. She adds that researchers will be tied into publication with a particular journal prior to data collection, robbing them of the chance to choose their favoured outlet on the basis of their results.
‘If we allow to pass uncontested the claim that the pre-registration model is a gold standard,’ she wrote, ‘we will permit the denigration of the vast majority of great research and allow a number of serious constraints to be placed on it.’
Scott is not alone in these fears. On her lab’s website she’s published contributions from many concerned psychologists, including such luminaries as Tim Shallice, Essi Viding, Patrick Haggard, Uta Frith, and Geraint Rees, among others. ‘In neuropsychology,’ wrote Shallice, ‘pre-registration would be disastrous… One study I was involved in took five years to collect what we then pragmatically decided were enough patients (42 frontals); does one have to publish one’s hypotheses six years in advance?’
Viding expressed a concern shared by others about the means by which this issue was being debated – in the media, rather than within the scientific community. ‘Media has unsurprisingly jumped on this,’ she wrote, ‘as it makes a juicy story to allude that if scientists do not sign up for this motion, it is likely to be because they have a bunch of dodgy methods to hide.’
Haggard acknowledged pre-registration may help address issues
of low power and poor methodology in psychology, but he said it was inappropriate in many other areas: ‘Pre-reg may help to provide rigorous answers to questions of important societal concern, like “Does intervention X work?”,’ he wrote. ‘But, as scientists, we also have to think outside the box. We need ways of working which allow interventions Y and Z, which may not yet have even been thought of, to see the light of day.’
Chambers told us the concerns raised by Scott and others were understandable, ‘even if they are based on misreading or failing to read our proposal’. He added that the first pre-registration submissions to Cortex are progressing smoothly and efficiently, and that he and others are currently negotiating with a large and well-known family of journals to launch Registered Reports. They are also in talks with funding agencies to incorporate the pre-registration process into grants. ‘After 50 years of stagnation in scientific publishing and a research culture that has relied on questionable practices to sell science, the whiff of revolution is in the air,’ Chambers said.
- Christian Jarrett (CJ)
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New takes on prisoners' dilemmas
It’s amazing really that no one has thought to do this before. More than 60 years after it was developed, researchers at the University of Hamburg have taken the Prisoner’s Dilemma – a classic test of cooperation and defection – into a prison and observed the performance of female inmates (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization: tinyurl.com/pzhnjfj).
The dilemma involves two prisoners deciding in isolation whether to confess or to accuse their partner. They are told in advance that if both confess they get one year each; if both accuse the other, they get two years each; and if one accuses and the other confesses, the accuser goes free while the confessor gets three years. The mutually optimal option is for both parties to confess.
At the penitentiary for women in Vechta, Germany, Menusch Khadjavi and Andreas Lange used a version of the dilemma involving coffee and tobacco rewards with 90 inmates and found that 56 per cent chose to confess (the cooperative option). Yet when they tested female students at Hamburg University using euros as rewards, this figure was only 37 per cent. ‘Inmates are therefore able to better solve their classical dilemma situation than students,’ the researchers said, ‘on average one can expect inmates to mutually cooperate in 30 per cent of cases, while only 13 per cent of students’ pairs fully cooperate.’
The researchers also tested a sequential version of the dilemma in which first one player makes their choice, and then the second player is told of this decision and reacts accordingly. In this version, more ‘first move’ students actually went for the cooperative option as compared with prisoners. However, both ‘second move’ prisoners and students were equally likely to respond to a cooperative partner by reciprocating in kind.
Speculatively, the researchers said their results suggest ‘criminal behaviour does not appear to be a self-selection process by which purely self-interested individuals are more likely to commit crimes than socially oriented individuals.’ The results were unaffected by controlling for a raft of socio-economic variables, with one odd exception. Coffee drinkers were more cooperative than non-coffee drinkers – Khadjavi and Lange have no idea why.
Lunar sleep patterns
For centuries myths have swirled like clouds around the possibility that the full moon affects the human psyche. According to a new small study by researchers in Switzerland, one influence is real – at or near full moon, they found that people’s sleep is affected. Their participants slept for less time (20 minutes on average) around full moon; took five minutes longer than average to fall asleep; and they experienced a 30 per cent decrease in deep sleep, as revealed by the brain’s electrical activity (Current Biology: tinyurl.com/mngf5wn).
Crucially, these influences can’t be due to increased light at full moon because the data were collected in a sealed sleep laboratory. Also, we can safely assume no influence of experimenter effects because the data were analysed retrospectively. Christian Cajochen and his colleagues admitted, ‘We just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study [and data collection] was completed.’
The results are based on two nights’ worth of sleep data collected from 17 healthy young volunteers (average age 25; nine women); and 16 healthy older volunteers (average age 65; eight women). As well as the effects on objective measures of sleep, the participants also felt they’d slept less well at or near full moon, and their melatonin levels were lower.
Cajochen and his team think their results provide tentative evidence that humans have a circalunar rhythm ‘reminiscent of other endogenous rhythms such as the circadian (daily) and circannual (seasonal) rhythms.’
Royal Society Award
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL has been honoured with the 2013 Rosalind Franklin Award by the Royal Society. The prize exists to support the promotion of women in science and the winner is expected to use a proportion of the attached grant of £30,000 implementing a project towards that end. Professor Blakemore is a former winner of the British Psychological Society’s own Doctoral Award and Spearman Medal.
APA Gold award
Professor Elizabeth Loftus, famed for her research into false memories, is the 2013 recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Gold Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology. The APA said: ‘Her imaginative and rigorous research has had a profound impact on the field of psychology, on scholars outside the field, and on the administration of justice around the world.’ Professor Loftus is based at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of The Psychologist’s International Panel of experts.
International Neuroethics Society
Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the Society Professor Barbara Sahakian has been elected President of the International Neuroethics Society (INS). The mission of the INS is ‘to promote the development and responsible application of neuroscience through interdisciplinary and international research, education, outreach and public engagement for the benefit of people of all nations, ethnicities, and cultures’. Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, will take up her post in February 2014 for
a two-year term.
Beating the bullies
The Beat Bullying charity group has launched the new MindFull charity and website to provide online advice and counselling support to 11- to 17-year-olds: www.mindfull.org. The initiative is supported by Chartered Psychologist Tanya Byron. ‘Teenagers naturally look to the internet as a source of information and advice, so that’s where we need to be in order to help the hundreds of thousands of young people who are currently getting no support,’ she said.
Dementia rates falling in the UK
With a rapidly ageing population, doom-laden predictions about the inexorable rise in dementia have become all too familiar. Refreshingly, this trend was broken in July with some rare good news. Researchers led by Fiona Matthews and representing the Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Collaboration reported that rates of dementia were lower in a cohort assessed between 2008 and 2011, compared with a similar cohort tested between 1989 and 1994 (The Lancet: tinyurl.com/kedsmkj).
Estimates from the early data, based on interviews with over 7000 people aged over 65 living in Cambridgeshire, Newcastle and Nottingham indicated that it was likely that 664,000 people had dementia in the UK at that time. Factoring in population changes it was predicted then that this number would have risen by now to 884,000. However, new interviews and assessments over the last few years with thousands more people in the same English regions led researchers to estimate that 670,000 people now have dementia in the UK – 214,000 fewer than expected based on the early data, and representing a decrease in prevalence from 8.3 per cent to 6.5 per cent.
The researchers speculated that factors such as improved education and cardiovascular disease prevention could have contributed to the apparent reduction in rates of dementia. In a commentary on the new findings (tinyurl.com/mtpn6s3), Sube Banerjee, the former joint lead of England’s Dementia Strategy, said the results were ‘unequivocally good news’ and testament to the effectiveness of prevention strategies. However, he warned that the positive trend may not pass to successive generations, especially given increased rates of obesity. He also provided some perspective – ‘Even with a small decrease in incidence and prevalence, population ageing will still double the numbers with dementia worldwide in the next generation.’
In related news, a Danish study led by Kaare Christensen compared the cognitive functioning of 1584 people aged over 95 tested in 2010 with the functioning of over two thousand 93-year-olds tested in 1998, finding that the contemporary cohort were superior performers (The Lancet: tinyurl.com/l9pppq5). This suggests ‘more people are living to older ages with better overall functioning’, the researchers said.
The RSA in London has announced the launch of a new project out of its Social Brain Centre that will be focused on spirituality. ‘We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences,’ says the Centre director Jonathan Rowson on the organisation’s website.
A series of workshops and public events are planned in due course, with a final report published in 2014.
‘We do not want to collapse our deliciously difficult existential and ethical issues into psychological and sociological concepts,’ writes Rowson in an accompanying essay in the RSA’s quarterly journal. ‘The point is rather to explore the provenance of those questions and experiences with fresh intellectual resources.’
Grappling with the placebo problem
Intervention studies in psychology are afflicted by a ‘pernicious and pervasive’ problem, namely the failure to adequately control for the placebo effect. That’s according to a team led by Walter Boot at Florida State University. Writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science they lament the way psychologists frequently claim the effectiveness of interventions without ensuring that participants’ expectations for improvement are matched across the treatment and control conditions (tinyurl.com/pe9th64). ‘The lack of masked condition assignment in psychological interventions [i.e. participants know what treatment they’re receiving] is not a minor inconvenience,’ write Boot and co., ‘it is a fundamental design flaw, and experimenters have an obligation to test for the possible consequences of these design limitations.’As a case study, Boot and his colleagues focus on claims that playing video games can give rise to a range of cognitive benefits. Typically one ‘treatment’ group will play an action video game such as Unreal Tournament while a control group will play a puzzle game like Tetris. Greater post-game improvements in attention and multitasking in the treatment group compared with the control group are frequently attributed to the effect of playing an action game.
A problem with this interpretation is that playing action games may lead to differential expectations of cognitive improvements compared with playing a puzzle game.
Boot and his colleagues tested this possibility by showing hundreds of naive and experienced participants clips from either an action or puzzle game and then teaching them about the kinds of tests used to measure cognitive performance. Participants who watched the clips from the Unreal Tournament action game said they would expect greater gains in attention and multitasking compared with participants who watched the Tetris puzzle game. In contrast, those who saw the Tetris clips were more likely to say they expected gains on a story memory task.
In other words, participants with and without video game experience held differential expectations about the likely effects of action and puzzle games. Any observed differences in the effects of playing these games could therefore be attributable to expectations rather than to the content of the games themselves. Consistent with this interpretation, the participants’ expectations matched the pattern of findings in the video-gaming literature. Psychologists should aim to eliminate or at least measure these expectancy effects, said the researchers, but ‘no published study has done so.’
Boot’s team gave other examples of fields where the placebo effect is not adequately controlled – including computerised brain training; daily expressive writing; and internet therapy. They acknowledge it can be challenging to find ways to match expectations and they highlight some methods that can help, including: using a countermand design in which participants are told to expect benefits only after a specified amount of the intervention; or using component control – different manipulations are applied together and then subtracted one at a time (this brings similarity in experience to the intervention groups and helps control expectations).
‘We are hopeful that, with better designs and better checks on placebo effects, future research will provide more compelling evidence for the effectiveness of interventions,’ the authors concluded.
In related news, researchers led by Jian Kong at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have compared with pain-relieving effects of several placebo treatments on the same participants (PLoS One: tinyurl.com/opng3ve). Each volunteer
had their pain sensitivity tested before and after taking placebo pills (described as Tylenol); receiving real and sham acupuncture; exposure to the cue word ‘high’ or ‘low’ (pain); and a no-treatment rest-based control condition. The treatments and assessments were spread out over several days.
Overall, pills, genuine acupuncture and the low-pain visual cue all had an analgesic effect. But crucially, there was no correlation in the size of the analgesic effect experienced by participants across placebo treatments. In other words, a person’s response in one condition did not predict their likelihood of responding in another. ‘It implies that placebo responses may not be dependent on stable individual traits,’ said Kong, ‘but rather are more a characteristic of the circumstances of individuals or a combination of both trait and state.’
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