From the Research Digest

A selection from the July 2015 issue.

Why it’s a mistake to seek control of your life through solitude
In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The true story of Christopher McCandless, dramatised in the 2007 film Into the Wild, is a search for radical independence that culminates in McCandless’s solitary existence in the wilds of Alaska. It speaks to a powerful belief: to feel you control your life, stand alone. But new research suggests otherwise: to feel control, stand together.

If committing to a group feels like surrendering control, reasoned Katharine Greenaway and her collaborators, we might expect some impact on wellbeing, as humans and animals alike thrive from autonomy and are distressed when they lose it. But group membership is robustly associated with life satisfaction, and while other researchers have sought to explain this as owing to social support or boosts to self-esteem, Greenaway’s team suspected that identifying with a group actually makes people feel more in control. After all, personal control means more than not being interfered with, it includes the capacity to do what matters. Greenaway’s team predicted that merely identifying as part of a group may make people feel more capable.

To test this, they collected data shortly after the 2012 US election, asking 129 American adults who they voted for, how strongly they identified with that candidate’s party and how much control they felt they had over their own lives. After Obama’s victory, Obama voters who had a stronger bond with his Democratic party felt more in control of their lives. Little surprise perhaps: their man had won. But voters with a strong Republican identity also experienced a post-election increase in their sense of personal control. Although the Republicans had a case to feel disempowered, simply being in bed with something bigger made them feel more capable than voters with a weaker collective identity.

Another much larger study looked at how 62,000 people across 47 countries identified with their local community, national group, or as part of the human race. Whichever level the researchers looked at, feeling part of a group was associated with feeling more personal control, and this effect was associated with higher levels of wellbeing.

Finally, an experiment involving 300 American adults showed that momentary manipulations of how we feel towards a larger group influences feelings of personal control and wellbeing. Half the participants were led to connect with their national identity by asking them to assess statements about America that were either positive and reasonable (therefore easy to endorse) or negative and unreasonable. These participants went on to report significantly greater feelings of personal control and greater life satisfaction in that moment. They also reported lower depression in the past week suggesting either that the effect can time-travel, or that their view of the past was coloured by a rush of national pride.

The notion of individualism is actually a fairly recent development for humanity, an exquisitely social species that owes its success to our capacity to collaborate and coordinate actions (this may even be the reason we developed conscious awareness). This new research suggests our group identities are a continued source of our sense of agency and control. A life alone on the Alaskan tundra may offer many things, but we can find our own forms of freedom right here among the people we know. AF


Is CBT for depression losing its efficacy?  
In Psychological Bulletin

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has many advantages for treating depression. Among them, the fact that it’s easy to standardise, it’s intuitive and it can deliver results relatively quickly (think weeks, not years as some other therapies demand). For many people with depression, it’s also far more acceptable than the prospect of taking mind-altering drugs. But now the bad news: CBT’s efficacy seems to be declining.

That’s the suggestion of a new meta-analysis ( that has looked at outcome data from 70 studies published between 1977 and 2014 and involving more than 2426 people diagnosed with depression (unipolar depression, not bipolar). Across studies, 31 per cent of the participants were male; the average age of participants was 41.

To allow comparison over time, Tom Johnsen and Oddgeir Friborg chose to focus only on studies that used the Beck Depression Inventory or the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale – two popular measures that involve the patient or therapist, respectively, providing scores of the patient’s depression. Looking at the effect of CBT on adults’ depression scores using either of these scales (i.e. by comparing scores pre- vs. post-therapy), the researchers found a linear and steady reduction in the therapy’s apparent efficacy over time. Simply put, CBT doesn’t seem to be helping reduce depression symptoms as much today as it used to when it was first developed in the 1970s.

This main finding held true even when the researchers focused on certain types of study – such as analysing only those that involved a control group. The finding can’t be explained by a general change in people’s ability to recover from depression: there was no comparable decline in change scores among participants in control groups who didn’t receive CBT. Nor is it the case that recent studies, more than older studies, tended to involve depressed patients who also had other mental health problems (in fact the opposite is true).

Changes in therapist competence (e.g. their level of training) also can’t explain the declining trend in CBT efficacy. And to debunk one last potential explanation, the researchers point out that the decline in efficacy was actually steeper for trials involving manualised CBT – so it’s not the case that more modern trials have simply become sloppier in their CBT methods.

So, why is CBT apparently losing its power to help people with depression? Johnsen and Friborg can only speculate. One suggestion they have is that CBT is somehow losing its placebo effect over time:

‘In the initial phase of the cognitive era, CBT was frequently portrayed as the gold standard for the treatment of many disorders. In recent times, however, an increasing number of studies…have not found this method to be superior to other techniques. Coupled with the increasing availability of such information to the public, including the Internet, it is not inconceivable that patients’ hope and faith in the efficacy of CBT has decreased somewhat, in recent decades. Moreover, whether widespread knowledge of the present meta-analysis results might worsen the situation, remains


Metalheads from the 80s are thriving  
In Self and Identity

If you sell your soul to heavy metal do you pay for it later in life? During the 1980s, waves of adolescents found solace in this most notorious of extreme music subcultures, alarming their parents as well as authority figures including the US surgeon general and the campaigner and Second Lady Tipper Gore. But a new survey suggests that in 2015, the teenage metalheads from the 80s are doing all right.

This matters because early research seemed to back the prevailing panic: metalheads were fatalistic, cynical, manipulative, and struggled at school. It would become clear that this account failed to consider that many fans were misfits with complicated home lives before metal entered the picture, and ignored clusters of very high-functioning metalheads drawn to the music by its complexity. But even later researchers were reluctant to endorse heavy metal, optimistic only that fans will eventually ‘outgrow the subculture’.

The current research, spearheaded by Humbolt State University’s Tasha Howe, recruited metalheads active in the 1980s by using Facebook. These were 99 fans, together with about 20 musicians and a similar number of groupies. Compared to a control group of a similar age (into pop, new wave, or soft rock), the heavy metal groupies and fans (but not musicians) reported more adverse childhood experiences, fitting with the idea that people are often drawn to the difficult themes and tone of metal because of real-life discord; the groupies were particularly prone to suicidal tendencies.

Considering their early difficult circumstances, how did the heavy-metal groups fare psychologically over time? Much as their non-metal peers did. Based on the recently taken measures, no differences were found compared with controls in adult attachment, the Big Five personality traits, or hypomania. A statistical technique called Bayes factors can show how likely it is that the null hypothesis was true, meaning the lack of effect is because there really is no difference between groups rather than because of small samples. The Bayes factors confirmed that for most of these individual differences, the case for ‘no difference’ was solid.

And how do they feel? Presently, the metalheads feel as content in life as their ‘norm’ peers. Furthermore, they recalled being significantly happier in youth, with only one third expressing regrets, versus half of the control group. Furthermore, the controls were the group with the highest incidence of undertaking counselling for emotional problems. This gives credence to what many metal fans believe: that the music offers catharsis and the scene an outlet for the emotional challenges of adolescence.

On the whole, the heavy metal musicians did better than most other groups in the study (the heavy metal fans and non-metal control participants), suggesting they were a high-functioning group – able to master complex musicianship and make a career out of the thing they most loved. The big risk factor for them was unprotected sex – one third had contracted an STD, unsurprising seeing as they averaged over 300 partners each over their lifetimes.

By sampling only current Facebook users we can’t get a complete picture: whether metal increased the risk of premature death, for instance. But the research suggests that the typical fan wasn’t harmed by big hair, blast beats and guitar solos; on the contrary, for many young people, the moshpit was exactly where they needed to be. af


Why do children stick their tongues out when they’re concentrating?
In Cognition

Have you ever watched a young child perform a delicate task with their hands and noticed how they stick out their tongue at the same time? A new study is the first to systematically investigate this behaviour in four-year-olds. This isn't just a cute quirk of childhood, the findings suggest, rather the behaviour fits the theory that spoken language originally evolved from gestures.

Gillian Forrester and Alina Rodriguez videoed 14 four-year-olds (eight boys), all right-handed, as they completed a number of tasks in their own homes. The tasks were designed to involve either very fine hand control (e.g. playing with miniature dolls or opening padlocks with keys), less fine control (e.g. a game of knock and tap, in which the child does the opposite to the researcher, be that knocking or tapping the table with their right hand), or no hand control (remembering a story).

The researchers studied the videos looking for how often the children stuck out their tongues during these different games, and whether they stuck them out towards the left or right side of their mouths.

All the children stuck out their tongues during the games and tasks, which supports past research with five- to eight-year-olds that suggested this is a common behaviour. But crucially, the children stuck out their tongues more during some tasks than others, and most of all in the knock and tap game. This goes against expectations (the researchers thought the fine motor control games would provoke the most tongue protrusions), but Forrester and Rodriguez argue their surprise finding makes sense in terms of the evolutionary history of language. They explain the knock and tap game involves rapid turn-taking, hand gesturing and structure rules – what you could think of as ‘the foundational components of a communication system’ or the rudiments of language.

This fits with another result, which is that most of the kids’ tongue protrusions tended to be biased to the right, suggestive of control by the left brain hemisphere. The left side of the brain is the side that’s more dominant for language in nearly all right-handers, so again we have a suggestion that children’s gestural activities are accompanied by tongue protrusions because of the tongue and hands sharing a link with language and communication. The researchers think that adults (presumably excluding Miley Cyrus) suppress their own tongue protrusions because of the cultural connotations of sticking out your tongue.

Taken together with past research that’s shown an overlap in the brain areas involved in speech and hand control, the researchers propose their new findings support the idea that the same communication system involves both the hand and the mouth, and that ‘hand and tongue actions possess a reciprocal relationship such that when structured sequences of hand actions are performed they are accompanied by spontaneous and synchronous tongue action’. cj


Digest Digested
Full reports are available at

Chacma baboons within a troop spend more of their time with baboons that they resemble, choosing to associate with those of a similar age, status, and even personality. Alecia Carter and colleagues included measures of boldness and the propensity to either generate or exploit social information. Royal Society Open Science

Psychologists in Canada think they’ve identified an entirely new memory syndrome in healthy people characterised by a specific inability to relive their past. The three individuals currently described have no history of brain damage or illness and have experienced no known recent psychological trauma or disturbance. Take part in a survey at NeuropsychologiaPeople underestimate how much fun they’ll have partaking in entertaining activities in public alone. Journal of Consumer Research

Our jumpiness at night is not just because it is dark. Yadan Li and colleagues found that women rated scary pictures and sounds as more scary than the women tested in the daytime, regardless of whether they were tested in darkness or light. International Journal of Psychophysiology

Staking a claim during the early stages of idea development – ‘although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours’ – can be counterproductive, as it cools the enthusiasm others have for making it better. Journal of Applied Psychology


IQ Tests Have Been Unfairly Maligned
Intelligent words on intelligence from psychologist (and previous Digest guest blogger) Stuart Ritchie.

The Search For the Perfect Office (audio)
Claudia Hammond presents this documentary for BBC Radio 4.

Quiet Revolution
The quiet people are making a noise as Susan Cain launches her mission ‘to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all’.

Researchers Find Missing Link Between the Brain and Immune System
Neuroscientists herald a game-changing discovery.

How a Graduate Student Reluctantly Uncovered a Huge Scientific Fraud
Jesse Singal with an in-depth look at the LaCour research scandal.

Who Are You Now?
At this new blog from the Headway charity, brain injury survivors tell their own stories.

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