News: a new gameplan for psychological science
A new game plan for psychological science
Science is imperfect: pick any branch and you will find skeletons in the closet, including dubious ethics, the ‘file drawer’ effect or outright research fraud. In recent years, following a number of high-profile scandals, a growing number of psychological scientists have set out to put their own house in order. The profession has sought to raise research practices and publication standards to a new level of reliability, and in March the Association for Psychological Science fleshed out the details of these new initiatives for a stronger science.
Writing in the APS Observer, leading experts described efforts to promote open research practices, enhance methodology reporting and provide incentives for study replications.
Kicking off, Brian Nosek (Center for Open Science and University of Virginia) admitted that his lab has a problem: ‘We do research, time goes by, and some research materials and data get lost.’ Nosek blames disorganisation, overconfidence in memory (‘I know what var0001 and var0002 mean, so why waste time writing the meanings down?’) or the complexity of managing information in collaborations. So how can this problem be solved? Based on the psychological literature, Nosek says behaviour is more likely to change if the solutions provide immediate rewards, integrate easily with existing behaviour and are easy to do. Hence the Open Science Framework (OSF) – a free, open-source web application that helps individuals and research teams organise, archive, document and share their research materials and data. It can be used for private collaboration, but using the OSF also enables researchers to improve the reproducibility of their work. ‘With our scripts, code, and data made public, other researchers can reproduce our analyses and findings, or reanalyze our data for their own purposes’, Nosek writes. Simple ‘nudges’, some payoff for making these practices routine, are integrated into the OSF itself, including a novel citation type – forks. ‘If other researchers want to use some of my public work, they can fork my public projects into their workspace. Their new project will always link back to my original work. They can revise a measure, reanalyze the data, or extend the work in some other way. The fork count is therefore a functional citation – others are using and extending my research outputs.’
Next, Daniel Simons (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Alex Holcombe (University of Sydney) tackled reproducibility: central to science, but sorely lacking in many psychology journals because publishing incentives tend to favour novelty over reliability. The Registered Replication Report (RRR), a new type of article introduced last year by Perspectives on Psychological Science, is ‘designed to help stabilise the foundations of our science by providing more definitive estimates of the reliability of important findings in the psychology literature’. The final report comprises multiple direct replications of a single finding, all using the same vetted protocol and materials. The design is preregistered, and all results are published regardless of the outcome. ‘In effect,’ write the authors, ‘the RRR is a planned meta-analysis, but one that is free from several problems that plague conventional meta-analyses, such as publication bias, variation in measures, and differences in procedure. RRRs are designed and carried out by multiple researchers with different vested interests, to reduce the influence of experimenter bias.’
A team led by Jon Grahe, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, also focus on replication. The Collaboration Replications and Education Project aims to facilitate student research training while at the same time solidifying psychological research findings. Over the coming years, the authors say they ‘hope to facilitate the research training of psychology students by encouraging replication projects and collecting data about the success (or failures) of the individual projects for use in meta-analyses and other research. In so doing, we now invite researchers and teachers to submit research findings that they feel are of crucial importance to the field, which they can do at www.tinyurl.com/mhyu87n. We hope replications will become a habit of psychology education and research.’
Geoff Cumming, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, writes in praise of confidence intervals: ‘beautiful pictures of uncertainty’. Arguing that there is ‘life beyond .05’, Cumming calls on psychologists to ‘embrace the new statistics’ and go beyond null hypothesis significance testing. Noting that ‘almost all empirical research is guided by p values – which are in fact tricky conditional probabilities that few understand correctly’, Cumming admits ‘it’s discouraging to report that the average improvement in response time was 34 ms, 95% CI [7, 61], which means the true improvement could plausibly be anywhere between 7 ms and 61 ms. But the CI gives accurate information about uncertainty, and we need to come to terms with that – it’s way more informative than a mere claim of a statistically significant improvement.’ Applauding the ‘bold policies of [the journal] Psychological Science to improve research practices and embrace the new statistics’, Cumming ends with a note of optimism. ‘We need better textbooks, better statistics courses, much better software, and more examples of good practice. But these are coming.’
Finally, Matthias Mehl (Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona) outlines the need for ‘an observational ecological momentary assessment method’. With James Pennebaker, he has developed the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) as such an assessment tool. ‘The basic idea behind the EAR is simple,’ Mehl writes: ‘to obtain a sense of who people are and what they do by listening in on sound bites of their moment-to-moment social lives. Technically, the EAR is an audio recorder that periodically samples brief snippets of ambient sounds while participants go about their lives. Conceptually, it is an unobtrusive observation method that yields acoustic logs of people’s daily experiences as they naturally unfold.’ Now the iEar, in app form, is being used in a number of ‘large-scale, interdisciplinary collaborative projects that use the EAR method to assess everyday person–environment interactions naturalistically and objectively’; for example, in studying how couples use their daily conversations with each other to cope with cancer.
In the introduction, E. David Klonsky, director of the Personality, Emotion, and Behaviour Lab at the University of British Columbia, is quoted as saying ‘Show me five studies in our field’s top psychological science journal, and I’ll show you four with conclusions that can’t be trusted.’ With innovative methodological, statistical and publication methods being pushed ever more to the fore, we can only hope those odds turn in the discipline’s favour sooner rather than later.
- Jon Sutton (JS)
Promoting women in science
Staff at Birkbeck, University of London, are championing the role of female academics in scientific subjects as part of a five-country European project. The new initiative involves testing a blueprint designed to raise the status of women in scientific and technological organisations. There is a particular focus on encouraging women during the early stages of their careers.
The total project is worth more than €3 million and also involves institutions in Italy, France, Spain and the Czech Republic. Birkbeck will receive €400,000 from the European Union for its participation in the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) grant.
As part of the four-year applied research project, actions taken at Birkbeck will include systematic observation of potentially discriminating formal/informal behaviours and recommendations for action; promoting the inclusion of women scientists in external collaborative arrangements; and the creation of structural opportunities for the commercialisation of women’s work in research and innovation.
Young female power
Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, has appeared in the ‘Young Female Power List’ produced by The Times. The list features 30 women under the age of 45, Professor Blakemore was recognised for her research on the workings of the teenage mind, and for her TED talk, which has had more than a million viewings.
Cognitive therapy – should it be more than an add-on?
A ‘pioneering’ study on cognitive therapy as an alternative to antipsychotic drugs, published in The Lancet in February, has received a cautious welcome from experts.
The randomised control trial, led by Professor Anthony Morrison from the University of Manchester’s School of Psychological Sciences, aimed to establish whether cognitive therapy was effective in reducing psychiatric symptoms in people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders who had chosen not to take antipsychotic drugs. The researchers demonstrated that, compared to treatment as usual, cognitive therapy is associated with important treatment signals, including a reduction in psychotic experiences (such as hearing voices and paranoia) and an improvement in day-to-day social functioning.
While acknowledging that ‘a larger, definitive trial is needed’, the researchers concluded that cognitive therapy ‘seems to be a safe and acceptable alternative for people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders who have chosen not to take antipsychotic drugs. Evidence-based treatments should be available to these individuals.’
Dr Michael Bloomfield, MRC Clinical Research Fellow and Honorary Specialty Registrar in Psychiatry at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, commented: ‘We must be careful in interpreting the results of this study as it is a relatively small study and did not include a placebo treatment. This means that more research is needed into talking treatments for schizophrenia. As schizophrenia tends to be long-term illness, we also need to answer questions like “How long should therapy go on for?”.’
Professor Shitij Kapur, Professor of Schizophrenia, Imaging and Therapeutics, and Head of School at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, said: ‘This is an important trial that shows that CBT works – and works for a very difficult-to-treat population – the patients who do not take drugs. This is important as clinicians can often get nihilistic about patients who are “non-compliant”. What the paper tells us is that we can engage psychotic patients who do not take antipsychotics and deliver clinical benefits.’
The study was described as ‘pioneering’ by Professor Daniel Freeman, MRC Senior Clinical Fellow, University of Oxford. ‘Over recent years there have been great strides made in understanding the psychological causes of delusions and hallucinations; clinical trials like this one show how the knowledge is being used to develop effective treatments. The note of caution is that although patients certainly can benefit from cognitive therapy, there is plenty of room to make these treatments even better.’
Meanwhile, a new study in the journal Psychiatry Research led by psychologist Professor John Read (University of Liverpool) has suggested that thoughts of suicide, sexual difficulties and emotional numbness as a result of antidepressant use may be more widespread than previously thought. In a survey of 1829 people who had been prescribed antidepressants, the researchers found large numbers of people – over half in some cases – reporting psychological problems due to their medication. Professor Read said: ‘The medicalisation of sadness and distress has reached bizarre levels. One in ten people in some countries are now prescribed antidepressants each year. While the biological side-effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain and nausea, are well documented, the psychological and interpersonal effects have been largely ignored or denied. They appear to be alarmingly common.’ JS
Professor Janet Treasure from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London has been awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy for Eating Disorders.
Professor Treasure has worked as part of clinical and research teams at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry for over 30 years. Much of her research has focused on the causes of eating disorders and the translation of these findings into new treatments. These include the first ever self-care manual for bulimia. The manual uses CBT techniques and has now been adapted to be delivered online. Professor Treasure was also instrumental in developing psychological therapies for adults with anorexia, targeting personality traits and thinking styles.
Celebrating diversity in science and… Wikipedia
By some estimates, a mere 10 per cent of the editors on Wikipedia are female. As a consequence, much of the content on Wikipedia is created by males, which can contribute to a lower quality of articles about women. On 4 March, a Wikipedia 'Edit-a-thon' was hosted at the Royal Society in London to address this problem.
In advance of International Women's Day, which took place on 8 March, the event gathered about 40 women, armed with laptops, and taught them to use Wikipedia. Our mission was to improve the quality and quantity of articles on female scientists, by creating articles, expanding information, and adding citations.
The event begun with a talk by John Byrne, Royal Society Wikimedian-in-residence, former treasurer and trustee of Wikimedia UK, and 2012 ‘UK Wikimedian of the Year’. After a brief introduction, he explained good editing practice and showed us the basics of the text editing language used on Wikipedia. Then everyone got started, aided by roaming expert Wikipedia volunteers.
I chose to create an article on a psychologist: Dr Sarah Boysen, a primatologist at the Ohio State University. Despite being named as one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine, she was completely faceless on Wikipedia until that night. Other attendees chose their articles based on personal inspiration or general need. By the end of the night, 20 articles had been created or expanded – see tinyurl.com/ooeyjse.
During the session, we provided our Wikipedia usernames for long-term tracking of editing activities. While the edit-a-thon was primarily introductory in nature, the goal of such events is to retain these contributors, thereby improving the status of female editors on Wikipedia. Whatever people think about Wikipedia, its popularity is undeniable. Thanks to a few hours of work, we had improved the profile of women on Wikipedia and thus improved the profile of women in science.
Julie Lee (psychology student University of Bristol)
No confidence in confidence intervals
In statistics, confidence intervals (CIs) have frequently been proposed as a superior alternative to null hypothesis significance testing, and their use is strongly encouraged in the APA’s Publication Manual. But how do researchers actually interpret CIs?
In a study in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review led by Rink Hoekstra, psychology researchers and students were asked to assess the truth value of six particular statements involving different interpretations of a CI. Although all six statements were false, both researchers and students endorsed, on average, more than three statements, indicating a gross misunderstanding of CIs. Self-declared experience with statistics was not related to researchers’ performance, and, even more surprisingly, researchers hardly outperformed the students. ‘Our findings suggest that many researchers do not know the correct interpretation of a CI,’ the authors concluded. ‘The misunderstandings surrounding p-values and CIs are particularly unfortunate because they constitute the main tools by which psychologists draw conclusions from data.’ js
‘A silver tsunami’
Loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, according to a study reported by psychologist John Cacioppo (University of Chicago) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in his hometown.
On tracking more than 2000 people aged 50 and over, the researchers found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely. Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14 per cent greater risk of dying: around twice the impact seen with obesity. Cacioppo referred to a ‘silver tsunami’ as baby boomers reached retirement age. ‘People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality.’
Improving intensive care
More than half of patients leaving intensive care will suffer long-term psychological damage, according to research by University College Hospital in London. Dr David Howell told the BBC that the accumulation of sedatives designed for short-term use ‘obviously has an effect’. Chartered Psychologist Dorothy Wade said that this summer, UCH will pilot a new approach which they hope will be trialled in 24 hospitals across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wade said: ‘We’re training nurses in some simple psychological techniques which we know can reduce stress, fear, and reduce the likelihood of hallucinations coming back to the patients as flashbacks.’ The clinical environment of intensive care will also be addressed, with patients consulted.
For more, see ‘Intensive care – easin the trauma’, December 2001, via www.thepsychologist.org.uk
The Royal Society has announced the launch of Royal Society Open Science, a new open-access journal publishing original research across the entire range of science.
The journal promises objective peer review (publishing all articles that are scientifically sound, leaving any judgement of importance or potential impact to the reader). The editorial team will consist entirely of practising scientists, drawing upon the expertise of the Royal Society’s Fellowship. Articles which may usually be difficult to publish elsewhere, for example, those that include negative findings, will be welcomed.
Deborah Bowden reports from a ‘vampire symposium’
Modern vampire fiction, such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, has created a vampire frenzy, although the literary vampire first appeared in 18th-century poetry, followed by iconic novels such as Polidori’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampire fiction is largely rooted in the ‘vampire craze’ in Western Europe in the 1700s, which featured the exhumations of purported vampires Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole in Serbia. But what is the science and psychology behind the vampire myth, and how have vampires impacted Western culture?
In March, a symposium called ‘Seriously Staked’ was held at Goldsmiths College, London, to address such questions. The day was co-hosted by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) and Goldsmiths’ Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU). Subject experts and academics gave presentations to an audience of around 200 academics, fans of vampire fiction and culture, and other interested members of the public.
Professor Chris French, Head of the APRU, said in his opening remarks that he had always enjoyed vampire films, but had not until recently considered vampirism to be a topic of relevance to anomalistic psychology. However, he has come to believe that studying historical accounts of, and belief in, vampires can help us to understand the human psyche, as with the study of other kinds of anomalistic phenomena.
Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic magazine, gave an extremely entertaining talk titled ‘Myths and monsters: Vampires in history’, presenting witness testimonies describing the corpses of suspected folkloric vampires, which did not look as the populace of the time thought normal corpses should. Such suspects were usually reported as being bloated and ruddy, purplish or dark, which was often attributed to the drinking of blood. Other characteristics included growth of hair and nails, lack of odour and failure to decompose.
Science can now explain many of these attributes. Suspected vampires were often buried face down, causing blood flow to their faces, explaining their colour. A person’s skin and gums also lose fluids and contract after death, exposing the roots of hair and nails, which can give the illusion of growth. The reported lack of odour and failure to decompose is likely to have been due to top-down processing, whereby those inspecting the corpses may have observed these characteristics because they were expecting to. This is supported by conflicting witness testimonies, where some witnesses reported decayed bodies, while others did not.
Folkloric vampirism was also associated with contagion, with outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis and the bubonic plague being attributed to vampires. Using vampirism as a scapegoat for deaths from unknown illnesses may have provided people with a sense of agency, helping to allay tension and perceived helplessness. Similarly, Dr Kathryn Harkup spoke about scientific theories for the origin of vampire myths relating to illnesses. She outlined the scientific evidence concerning whether rabies and porphyria, which cause sensitivity to sunlight and other symptoms associated with vampirism, may be responsible for vampires.
Hyde’s talk featured a quiz, where audience members were awarded ‘gummy vampire teeth’ for correctly answering trivia questions such as ‘Are folklore vampires attractive?’. Unlike the Eric Northmans and Edward Cullens of modern vampire fiction, folkloric vampires were grotesque and pestilence-ridden. The transformation over the past century of the unappealing folkoric monsters into beautiful and enviable playboys was the topic of a presentation by Jessica Monteith-Chachuat.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Anna Rice novels were instrumental in the evolution of vampires into romantic, dangerously attractive aristocrats, but what is the appeal of such creatures? Twilight’s Bella Swan is so irresistibly drawn to Edward Cullen that she begs him to turn her so that they will be eternally young and beautiful together. She cannot redefine herself away from him, and does not go to university, nor gets a job, which may appeal to those desiring a Paris Hilton lifestyle. ‘Virginal’ blondes Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood’s Sookie Stackhouse, however, retain independence and girl-power in their vampire relationships, while being liberated from their purity and innocence.
The other presentations were less relevant to psychology, but interesting without exception. Scott Wood spoke of the undead of England and elsewhere, while Dr Maria Mellins discussed the influence of the media on the London vampire community. John Fraser spoke about the men who invented vampires, followed by Dr Stacey Abbot on the role of science in vampire cinema. Jonathan Ferguson described the tools of the vampire hunter, and Dr Hannah Gilbert spoke about vampires in folklore, fiction and contemporary culture.
The final talks were delivered by Skype, where Brent R. Myers discussed how vampires were only known to drink blood after the 18th century, but 700 years ago were believed to be sexually insatiable undead men that feasted sexually on women. Lastly, John Michaelson, wearing a demon mask, spoke of his personal experiences of searching for real vampires in London.
The evening presentations were followed by ‘Seriously Social’, where the audience and speakers chatted over drinks and free peanuts (no blood). All in all, the event organisers did a fantastic job in putting on a day that was both entertaining and thought-provoking, rigorously answering most of the questions they set out to.
Deborah Bowden has a PhD in psychology from Goldsmiths College, with research interests in anomalistic psychology and complementary medicine
Is trauma stress research global?
Only 12 per cent of traumatic stress studies published in 2012 were conducted in low-to-middle-income countries (LMIC), where a full 83 per cent of the world's population lives and where risk of experiencing a ‘traumatic event’ is often the greatest. That’s according to a new bibliometric analysis, led by Dr Eva Alisic (Head of the Trauma Recovery Lab at Monash University in Australia) and published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology. Less than
5 per cent of all author teams involved collaborations between high-income countries and LMIC researchers, and LMIC researchers appeared to publish empirical studies in lower-impact journals.
The Richard Benjamin Trust has funding for early career postdoctoral researchers to pursue work in occupational, organisational or social psychology. Research proposals should have a clear benefit to the public, organisations, communities or families. Ten grants are available each year up to a maximum of £10,000. The closing date for applications is 17 April 2014.
MQ: Transforming Mental Health supports research across all the sciences, from basic bench research to clinical studies, to the social sciences. The Fellows Programme is open to early career researchers from all disciplines related to mental health research. Research can be based in the laboratory, clinic or field, and may involve experimental, theoretical or social science approaches. It must be relevant to the causes, treatment or prevention of mental illness. Early career researchers must have a PhD, MD or equivalent and have recently established their own independent research career or be about to become independent. The fellowships provide up to £75,000 for three years. Full details of what the funding can be used for and eligibility are on the website. There is a two-stage application process, with a closing date for letters of intent of 24 April 2014.
The MRC has a highlight notice to support the development of validated and reliable psychometric instruments to assess the quality of life of carers of people with cognitive impairment conditions, specifically dementia, in the home environment. The psychometrics to be developed should capture the health and quality-of-life implications on a carer’s life. They also need to be appropriate for use with younger and older people and be sensitive to cultural differences. Applications are considered at Methodology Research Programme Panel meetings. Next deadline: 4pm on 3 June 2014.
The Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation Programme (EME) is inviting proposals for translational research into interventions to reduce the occurrence of self-harm or suicidal behaviours. Research should focus on people at high risk, and explore cognitive, personality and behavioural mechanisms of self-harm. The closing date for application is 1pm on 3 June 2014.
A new Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation
scheme aims to develop education interventions that are grounded in neuroscience research. Proposals should focus on raising pupil attainment in UK schools, especially that of disadvantaged pupils. Collaborative research between educational researcher, teachers, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and psychologists is encouraged. Successful proposals will build on existing evidence about teaching and learning and explain how these can be made for effective by using evidence from neuroscience. The deadline for submission of the Initial Application Form is 6 May 2014. A small number of the most promising proposals will then be taken forward to the next application stage.
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