Category Archives: Psychology

People with ADHD are more likely to be hoarders

The living room of a compulsive hoarder. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Living with too much stuff inside a cramped apartment sounds like a staple of modern life, but some people do take it too far. Acquiring an excessive number of items and storing them in a chaotic way has a name: hoarding. It’s even recognized as a clinical mental health disorder and is generally associated with negative outcomes in terms of quality of life. But mental health disorders rarely occur in a complete vacuum and are often associated with other disorders. So it might not be surprising to learn that people diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also more likely to be hoarders, according to a new study.

Pay attention to the clutter around you

Hoarding, a mental health condition that was formally recognized fairly recently, in 2013, when it was added to the DSM-5 (the American Psychiatric Association’s primary handbook for diagnosing mental health conditions), involves the compulsive need to keep objects, many of which can be described as mere trinkets or even trash such as old newspapers. Sometimes, the hoarding of animals is involved. In the hoarder’s mind, one question comes up again and again whenever encountering an object: What if I need it one day? But that rarely if ever happens. Instead, the hoarder’s home is turned into an unlivable warehouse, with barely enough room to move but always enough to spare for the next shiny thing.

Hoarders experience a great deal of anxiety when attempting to discard items and find it difficult to organize their possessions, which explains why some of their homes look like a claustrophobic tangled mess. This behavior can have serious deleterious effects for both the hoarder and their family members, including emotional distress, social isolation, financial problems, and even legal consequences — all depending upon the severity of the condition.

That’s because, just like many other psychiatric conditions, clinical hoarding is on a spectrum. Indeed, hoarding-like behavior is common among many healthy, well-adjusted individuals. And who here can say with a straight face they’ve never impulsively bought useless crap that is now just gathering dust somewhere in the house. We’re talking about extremes, though. At level 1, although the home is visibly cluttered, the doors, windows, and stairs are still accessible. By level 5, the most severe hoarding level, the degree of clutter is extreme, blocking virtually all living quarters. Rotting food, excessive bugs, and poor animal sanitation often infest such homes, raising serious health concerns for people and their pets.

Hoarding disorder is formerly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but researchers at Anglia Ruskin University were curious to see if there was any connection with ADHD too. In the first leg of their study, the researchers asked patients from an adult ADHD clinic in the UK to fill in a series of questionnaires designed to gauge various traits and behaviors, including hoarding. A control group of similar age, gender, and education, which involved people not diagnosed with ADHD, had to answer the same questions.

This preliminary study found that about 20% of the ADHD participants reported significant hoarding symptoms compared to just 2% in the control group, which is close to the previously reported 2.5% prevalence of hoarding disorder in the general population. The patients with the most severe hoarding symptoms were also likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

This is the first study that found an association between ADHD and hoarding disorder, so further research is warranted. This is also important from a therapy standpoint since hoarding disorder is very challenging to address, particularly because people with this condition are rarely aware they have a problem. Hoarders rarely recognize or accept that they may be suffering from a mental condition, or simply downplay it.

For instance, one significant aspect of this study is that the average age of the participants with ADHD and hoarding disorder was 30, with both genders equally represented. This challenges the popular imagery of an elderly female surrounded by a mountain of clutter and a dozen cats. Future interventions may be designed to address both ADHD and hoarding disorders in younger individuals before their effects precipitate as the patient ages.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

What is the Oedipus complex?

Sigmund Freud. Credit: Public Domain.

The Oedipus complex is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud, part of his theory of psychosexual stages of development, that describes a desire for sexual involvement with the opposite-sex parent and a sense of jealousy and rivalry with the same-sex parent. This development stage of major conflict supposedly takes place in boys between 3 and 5 years old.

The term is named after the main character of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In this ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus is abandoned by his parents as a baby. Later, in adulthood, he becomes the king of Thebes and unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother. The female analog of the psychosexual term is the Electra complex, named after another tragic mythological figure who helped kill her mother. Oedipal is the generic term for both Oedipus and Electra complexes.

Often, these theories are interpreted as the propensity of men to pick women who look like their mothers, while women pick men who resemble their fathers.

Both the Oedipus and Electra complexes proved controversial since they were first introduced to the public in the early 20th-century. Critics of Freud note that there is very little empirical evidence proving the theory’s validity. Even so, the Oedipus cornerstone is still regarded as a cornerstone of psychoanalysis to this day.

Oedipus: Freud’s shibboleth

According to Freud, personality development in childhood takes place during five psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages. In each stage, sexual energy is expressed in different ways and through different parts of the body. Each of these psychosexual stages is associated with a particular conflict that must be resolved in order to successfully and healthily advance to the next stage. The manner in which each conflict is resolved can determine a person’s personality and relationships in adulthood.

The Oedipal complex, introduced by Freud in 1899 in his work Interpretations of Dreams, occurs during the phallic stage of development (ages 3-6), a period when a child becomes aware of anatomical sex differences, setting in motion the conflict between erotic attraction, rivalry, jealousy, and resentment. The young boy unconsciously feels sexually attached to his mother. Envy and jealousy are aimed toward the father, the object of the mother’s affection and attention.

Freud believed that a little boy is condemned to follow his drives and wishes, in the same way as Sophocles’ Oedipus was condemned to do. That’s unless he abandoned his Oedipal wishes.

The hostile feelings towards the father cause castration anxiety, which is the irrational fear of both literal and figurative emasculation as punishment for desiring his mother. To cope with this anxiety, the boy starts identifying with the father, adopting attitudes, characteristics, and values that the father calls his own. In other words, the father transitions from rival to role model.

It is through this identification with the aggressor that the boy resolves the phallic stage of psychosexual development and acquires their “superego”, a set of morals and values that dominate the conscious adult mind. In the process, the child finally relinquishes sexual feelings towards the mother, transferring them to other female figures. The implication is that overcoming the Oedipus complex, and the reactions that follow, represent the most important social achievement of the human mind, Freud says.

“It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear of the neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after-effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psycho-analytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents.”

Sigmund Freud,
Footnote added to the 1914 edition of Three Essays on Sexuality (1905)

The Electra complex: the female Oedipal drive

Freud’s analogous psychosexual development for little girls involves the Electra complex, which begins the moment the girl realizes she lacks a penis. The mother is blamed for this and becomes an object of resentment for triggering penis envy. At the same time, the girl develops feelings of sexual desire towards her father. The fact that the mother receives affection from the father, while she doesn’t, causes the girl to become jealous of her mother, now seen as a rival.

Like little boys who have to overcome their Oedipus complex, little girls resolve this conflict by renouncing incestuous and rivalrous feelings, identifying with the mother, thereby developing the superego.

However, Freud was never able to form a complex conflict resolution theory for the Electra complex as he did for the Oedipus complex. In boys, the resolution of the Oedipal drive is motivated by fear of castration, but Freud was never able to find an equally potent incentive in little girls, although he reasoned she may be motivated by worries about the loss of her parents’ love.

As an interesting factoid, The Electra complex, while often attributed to Freud, was actually proposed by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung.

Failing the Oedipal complex

Freud reasoned that if the conflict arising from the Oedipal complex isn’t successfully resolved, this can cause “neuroses”, which he defined as being manifestations of anxiety-producing unconscious material that is too difficult to think about consciously but must still find a means of expression. In other words, failing to resolve this central conflict before moving on to the next stage will result in experiencing difficulties in areas of love and competition later in adulthood.

Boys may become overly competitive with other men, projecting his latent rivalry for his father, and may become mother-fixated, seeking out significant others that resemble his mother, in more than one way. Meanwhile, girls who don’t overcome their penis envy may develop a masculinity complex as an adult, making it challenging for them to become intimate with men in adulthood. Instead, she may try to rival men by becoming excessively aggressive. The men that she interacts with intimately often resemble her father. Moreover, since the girls’ identification with their mothers is weaker than boys’ with their fathers (who have castration anxiety), the female superego is weaker and, consequently, their identity as separate, independent individuals is less well developed. Psychoanalysis is supposed to solve these unresolved conflicts.

Modern criticism of the Oedipal complex

Freud exemplified his theory of the Oedipal complex using a single case study, that of the famous “Little Hans”, a five-year-old boy with a phobia for horses. At about age three, little Hans showed an interest in both his own penis and those of other males, including animals. His alarmed mother threatened to cut off his penis unless he stops playing with it. Around this time, he developed an unnatural fear of horses. Freud reasoned that the little boy responded to his mother’s threat of castration by fearing horses and their large penises. The phobia subdued when Hans would interact with horses with a black harness over their noses that had black fur around the mouth, which his father suggested symbolized his mustache. In Freud’s interpretation, Hans’s fear of horses unconsciously represented his fear of his father. Hans’s Oedipus complex was only resolved when he started fantasizing about himself with a big penis and married to his mother, allowing him to overcome his castration anxiety and identify with his father.

Although the case study of Little Hans perfectly (and very conveniently) exemplifies Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, this is a single case — not nearly enough to generalize the results to the wider population. The problems don’t stop here. Freud only met Hans once and  his information only came from Hans’s father, who was an open admirer of Freud’s work and could thus have asked leading questions in a way that would fabricate a fantasy of marriage to his mother. Even if Hans (whose real name was Herbert Graf) truly suffered from an Oedipus complex, that doesn’t mean it is universal as Freud claimed.

For instance, in 1929, Polish-British scientist Bronisław Kasper Malinowski, who is widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, conducted a now-famous ethnographic study in the Trobriand Islands in Oceania where fathers aren’t at all involved in disciplining their sons. In this society, the relationship between father and son was always good. The disciplinarian in the Trobriand populations is the uncle, which shatters the Oedipus Complex.

Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands, circa 1918. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Psychoanalytic writer Clara Thompson criticized Freud’s attitude towards women, which she believes is culturally biased. Freud’s idea that penis envy is biologically based can be explained better and with less woe-woe by the general envy girls feel towards boys because they often lack the same level of freedom at a young age and opportunities in adulthood. You may call it penis envy, as long as you use the term as a metaphor for wanting equal rights rather than what dangles between your legs.

All of that is to say that Freud’s Oedipal complex is riddled with holes and, at best, may apply to a small fraction of the general population. However, this doesn’t necessarily demean Freud’s brilliance. Both psychoanalysts and modern psychologists now agree that early experiences, even those when we were so young that we can’t remember them, have a profound influence on our adult selves — that’s just one of Freud’s legacies in developmental theory. 

Reverse friend zone: many romantic relationships start off just as friends. In fact, most people prefer it this way

Credit: Pixabay.

Most of the scientific literature exploring how people in western societies find partners for long-term committed relationships tends to focus on dating that started between two strangers. But a recent analysis of studies on ‘romance’ actually found that friends-first relationships are much more common than we’re led to believe by popular media, which seems to be obsessed with the flaws of online dating and the superficial nature of the contemporary dating scene. What’s more, the data suggest that most people would prefer to be in romantic relationships that start off as friendships.

Friends to lovers, an often overlooked pathway to romantic relationships

Canadian researchers from the University of Victoria and the University of Manitoba conducted multiple studies to uncover patterns pertaining to the initiation of romantic relationships. First, they scoured the scientific literature for previously published studies on the subject, narrowing down their search to 85 relevant studies that appeared in influential journals.

Only 18% of these papers focused on friends-first initiation, the vast majority being limited to the romance between strangers. This bias seems to be widespread, as a second investigation that analyzed textbooks on intimate relationships found only 7 out of 38 citations — which neatly represents the same 18% found earlier — concerned friends-first initiation.

“Movies, television, popular media, and most groups of friends abound with examples of strangers striking up a conversation at a social function and then falling in love during a series of romantic excursions, or slow-blooming attractions between friends that eventually reveal themselves in late-night cathartic conversations (and make-out sessions). Yet despite the cultural ubiquity of both of these pathways to romantic love, we have noticed that relationship science focuses almost exclusively on the former, which we call dating initiation. Indeed, in the 20 years that we have been studying these processes, we have encountered only a few published empirical studies in social and personality science that explore the friends-to-lovers pathway to romance, which we call friends-first initiation,” the authors wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Since friends-first initiation of romantic relationships seems to be in the background, it stands to reason that’s just because they’re secondary to the much more common relationships between two strangers. To see if that’s the case, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of seven studies involving nearly 2,000 participants between 2002 and 2020.

The results showed that the percentage of friends-first romantic couples varied from 40% to 73%. Friends-first initiation was even higher among married couples and homosexual relationships. Perhaps even more intriguing was that in a sample of 677 crowdsourced adults who were currently married or in a common-law partnership, 42% reported that they had started off as “friends-with-benefits” relationships, and this proportion was even higher among same-gender/queer couples.

Delving deeper into the nature of friends-first romantic relationships, the researchers asked 295 psychology students from campuses to indicate what was their ideal funnel for finding dates. They were given the choice between school, parties, workplace, church, family connections, bar, social media, online dating, blind dates, and friendship naturally turning romantic.

Friendships turned romantic was preferred by 47% of the participants, followed by meeting a potential partner through mutual friends (18%), and meeting at school, college, or university (18%).

Online dating was one of the least preferred mediums to find a long-term relationship. Nevertheless, this medium seems today the primary way couples first meet. Some 40% of heterosexual couples that got together in the US in 2017 met online, according to a recently released study by sociologists at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico.

Credit: Vox.

This kind of empirical evidence suggests that friendship-based intimacy can precede and even nurture passion-based intimacy. In fact, it’s a more common avenue for meeting partners for a long-term romantic relationship than meets the eye.

But isn’t it the case that in many of these friendship initiations, at least one of two secretly wants more and merely keeps up the front of platonic interest for months or even years waiting for the right moment to make their move? Again, the findings suggest otherwise, in the majority of cases.

When participants were asked about their original intentions for initiating the friendship that went on to evolve romantically, only 30% said they were sexually attracted to the partner from the very beginning. In 70% of cases, neither of the two parties in the relationship originally had feelings, with attraction blossoming at a later time.

In both popular culture and scientific research, there seems to be this assumption that men and women cannot be platonic friends because sexual attraction inevitably gets in the way. However, these findings paint a different story. That’s not to say that getting ‘friend zoned’ is a blessing — it’s just that being friends with someone first could lead to amazing things down the line if your intentions are genuine. 

People are surprisingly good at making fast, accurate, high-stakes decisions

Humans are remarkably resourceful. According to a new study, when people choose between two high-value items, not only do their decisions tend to be fast — they’re also accurate.

Researchers have long suspected that people are more sensitive to changes in value at low stakes, and less sensitive at higher stakes. For instance, you’re much more likely to tell the difference between a $5,000 car and a $10,000 car than between a $50,000 car and a $55,000 car. Similarly, if you’re trying to estimate whether someone weighs 45 kilos or 50 seems easier than between 105 and 110 — at least this was the theory.

Findings from a new study suggest the exact opposite. Not only do people tend to make high-stakes decisions quicker, but they also tend to be more accurate, Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and economics at The Ohio State University, tells ZME Science.

“Theories would both predict slower and less accurate/consistent decisions at high values. Instead, we saw the opposite. There is also work coming from researchers who have argued that high-value decisions may be fast because decision-makers are satisfied. In other words, when decision-makers think that the options are both good enough, they choose more quickly to save time and effort. If this theory was right we would expect high-value choices to be less accurate/consistent. Again, we saw the opposite.”

Previous research suggested that high-value decisions were generally faster than low-value ones, and this was indeed observed in the study. In three separate experiments, Krajbich and colleagues measured how long it took people to make decisions, and how accurate these decisions are. In the first one, they asked participants to rate their desire to eat 144 snack foods on a scale of 0 to 10. Then, at the end of this experiment, they offered the participants two food items and asked which one of them they would prefer. Sometimes, the participants were shown high-rated foods (say, an 8 and a 9), while other times, they would be shown comparable low-value options (say a 2 and a 3). The idea was to if and how people would stay true to their original ratings.

Remarkably, participants were slightly more likely to choose the higher-rated food accurately and quickly when it came to two highly-rated foods. The same pattern was noticed in the second experiment, where participants were asked to rate abstract artwork from 0 to 10.

Meanwhile, in the third experiment, participants didn’t rate anything. Instead, they were shown multi-color blocks with colors ranging from blue to pink. The blocks were then assigned values based on their color, ranging from lowest on one side of the spectrum and highest on the other (from $0.20 to $2.5). Yet again, participants were quicker and more accurate when it came to choosing between the high-value blocks.

However, there was a twist to these experiments. In half of the decisions in each experiment, the researchers alerted participants what kind of decision they would make (a choice between two high-value or two low-value items).

“The idea was that if people knew they were going to choose between two high-value options, they might be happy with either one, so they wouldn’t need to spend as much time or effort on the decision. With the low-value decisions, it might matter more that they choose the right one,” Krajbich said.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but it could be that something about being aware of the higher stakes is making people concentrate more.

“One possibility is that the presence of high-value options leads to increased arousal, which we know generally improves performance (up to a point). Another possibility is that people implicitly assume that high-value decisions are also more important to get right, which mirrors how things usually work in real life, and as a result they pay more attention to those decisions,” Krajbich told ZME Science.

“It may be that there is a factor we didn’t know about before, which is unique to value, that leads people to act differently,” Krajbich adds.

The researchers also have some advice for making day-to-day decisions. Krajbich concludes:

“Don’t discount the importance of making small decisions correctly. Your choice of which goods to purchase at the grocery store or where to go for lunch might seem small and unimportant, but those costs can add up to a lot over time!”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI10.1073/pnas.2101508119

Turns out, online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy

The ongoing pandemic has been challenging for everyone. In addition to the direct threat it posed, it put the entire world into survival mode, causing a great deal of stress for virtually everyone on the planet. Unsurprisingly, this has taken a big toll on our mental health.

Depression rates have surged during the pandemic, as have anxiety and suicidal thoughts. To make matters even worse, access to therapy and support has been hampered by restrictions — so when people needed therapy most, therapy was least available. But there’s good news on the horizon. A review of studies found that e-therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy, and in some ways, it may be even better.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be efficient in dealing with a number of problems, ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol and marital problems. It’s essentially a type of talking therapy, which led many practitioners to believe that face-to-face talking is an important part of it. But that may not be the case.

Several previous studies have suggested that delivering CBT via internet might also be a good alternative. With online communication becoming much more reliable in recent years, the advent of smartphones, and virtually ubiquitous connectivity, the prospect of online therapy has also become much more attractive.

But as it’s so often the case, drawing general conclusions from small studies is not easy. So a team of researchers led by Candice Luo of McMaster University explored 17 different studies published on the topic.

“Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a widely used treatment for depression. However, limited resource availability poses several barriers to patients seeking access to care, including lengthy wait times and geographical limitations. This has prompted health care services to introduce electronically delivered CBT (eCBT) to facilitate access,” the researchers write in the study.

According to their results, online therapy was more effective than face-to-face CBT at reducing depression symptom severity, while being less costly and easier to carry out (as you don’t need to go to the therapist’s office). However, there were large differences between individual studies, and this heterogeneity still left some questions. Overall, though, online therapy appeared to be a very promising replacement for face-to-face sessions.

“With the current reliance and accessibility of technology to increasing number of people worldwide, serious consideration in utilizing technology should be given to maximize accessibility for depression treatments. Our results found eCBT is at least as effective as face to face CBT, thus eCBT should be offered if preferred by patients and therapists.”

The findings were echoed by a separate review that analyzed 12 studies. This second review focused on the long-term effects of eCBT. It makes a lot of sense — maybe in the short term, the effects are better (or comparable), but what if they’re not as long-lasting?

According to the study, although some of the effects of e-therapy subside after two years, the overall benefits are undeniable, and produce improvements in terms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.

“While effects may be overestimated, it is likely that therapist-supported ICBT can have enduring effects. Long-term follow-up data should be collected for more conditions and new technologies like smartphone-delivered treatments,” the researchers conclude.

However, there are some caveats in this study as well — most notably, the studies were either from Sweden or from the Netherlands, and may not carry out to other populations.

Overall, while there’s still much to be said about this form of therapy, existing evidence seems to suggest that online therapy is a valuable form of therapy. Not only is it more convenient (both for the patient and for the therapist), but it can also be a more palatable option for those who see therapy as still carrying a stigma. Furthermore, being in one’s own house (as opposed to an unfamiliar environment) may make the patient more relaxed and may increase the productivity of the sessions.

The last word is likely not out on this, but at the very least, it’s an option worth considering.

At a time when everyone is under large amounts of stress, we have the means to carry out therapy from the comfort of our homes. Have you ever tried it, and if yes, how was it?

What is Stockholm syndrome?

Often and incorrectly considered a psychological diagnosis, the Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response seen in hostages or victims of abuse. It involves this person — the one held hostage or experiencing the abuse — developing feelings of sympathy or other positive emotions for their tormentor. People may also develop this response due to other types of trauma.

Image via Pixabay.

The term was first coined in the 1970s, after an attempted bank heist turned into a six-day siege in Stockholm, Sweden. In the public mind, this event cemented the link between hostage situations and the syndrome. However, it’s not just hostages that can develop sympathy towards or positive relationships with their tormentors.

What is it?

Like with anything involving human emotions, understanding the roots of Stockholm syndrome isn’t simple. It involves an unconscious interplay between the captor and the captive.

As a very simple rundown of how the syndrome works, it involves the formation of an emotional bond between the captor and the captive. Eventually, the victim’s desire to survive and their gratitude towards the captor for ‘protecting’ their life becomes greater than their resentment or urge to punish the person who created the situation in the first place (which is also the captor themselves).

In essence, victims with Stockholm syndrome come to sympathize with their captors, instead of feeling fear, terror, or disdain for them.

“First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue. They are certain they are going to die. Then they experience a type of infantilization — where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission,” explained Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg, for the US National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder, in the 1970s.

“The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”

Stockholm syndrome virtually always develops between hostages and captors that have no previous relationship; the victim’s positive feelings towards their captors develop during a threatening or abusive situation from a blank slate. If this bond has enough time (and a favorable context) to develop, it can lead to the victims becoming quite attached to their tormentors. It’s not uncommon to see hostages exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome refusing to cooperate with police or other authorities, even going so far as to help their captors. It can take as little as a few days for Stockholm syndrome to manifest in hostages.

Other elements that seem to be involved in developing the syndrome include the captors treating their victims humanely, high levels of personal or face-to-face interactions between the captors and captives, the victims feeling that law enforcement is not doing enough to save them, or that authorities aren’t protecting their interests at all.

When does it happen?

From the evidence we’ve gathered up to today, psychologists believe that the syndrome takes root when a captor threatens to kill or harm a captive, deliberates, and then chooses not to. It’s assumed that this apparently simple event transforms a captor, in the perception of the victim, from someone who harms them into someone who saves them. The initial fear of death is transformed into gratitude for the captor as, in the perception of the victim, they were the ones who removed the threat and protected them.

“Julian [the Apostate] returns the hostage son to the leader of the Chamaven, c. 350–363”, Christiaan Lodewijk van Kesteren. Image in Public Domain via

By having the opportunity to interact with them, hostages can more easily identify with their captors, see them more as individuals rather than abstract aggressor figures, and get to know them better. Eventually, this makes hostages perceive their captors less as a threat — maybe even as fellows through a dangerous period — especially in cases when the victims and the aggressors hold the same or similar values.

At the core of the syndrome lies our survival instincts. Hostage or abusive situations are very hard on the human psyche, and the normal concerns of our day-to-day lives are swept aside by the simple need to survive. A hostage’s survival is in very real terms in the hands of their captors and they live in enforced dependence on them. Against this backdrop, victims can interpret minute acts of kindness as good treatment. Since their life depends on other people’s decisions, victims become hyper-aware of the needs and demands of their captors.

In the minds of the victim, then, their happiness and wellbeing are completely linked to the happiness and wellbeing of their tormentor. This is the foundation upon which their positive relationship with the captor forms. It’s not that uncommon to see hostages taking a negative attitude to those who are trying to save them, siding with their captors in various situations. This is most commonly seen in those hostages that are not useful to their captors except as leverage.

Captors can also develop positive feelings for their victims.

Why does it happen?

It is still unclear why some victims develop Stockholm syndrome. Not every hostage, victim of abuse, or person who has experienced trauma develops this response. Although it has been argued that Stockholm syndrome is a psychological mechanism for coping with stress, its veracity as a disease is still contested. It has been argued that its symptoms overlap with other psychological phenomena, most pointedly trauma bonding and learned helplessness.

So, really, we don’t know for sure; we’re not even sure that it is an actual, self-contained psychological response. But we do have some theories as to why some victims could develop Stockholm syndrome.

This emotional response can be seen as a survival mechanism. Humans develop emotional connections with others as part of our innate survival strategy, and such a bond shared even with an abuser can raise our chances of survival. Since we tend to like people who like us, this emotional bond can marginally improve the situation for the victim and coax the captors or abusers to meet their basic needs, at the very least.

However, there is very little reliable data on the syndrome, since researchers can’t just take people hostage. So there is not a lot of agreement on what it is, its symptoms, or its purpose. What we’ve talked about here is more conjecture and deduction rather than verifiable fact.

What are the signs of Stockholm syndrome?

In broad terms, any victim or captive showing unexpected sympathy or camaraderie with their captors can be exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome. This can be expressed in both passive (i.e. behaving in a friendly manner) or active ways (i.e. providing assistance).

In particular, they:

  • perceive or describe certain acts or words from captors or abusers as showing kindness and compassion;
  • develop unexplainable, positive feelings towards them;
  • start adopting the ideology, goals, mannerisms, or worldview of their tormentors;
  • refuse to leave their captors even when presented with an opportunity to do so;
  • feel remorse for their captors or abusers if they are caught;
  • they may even help them, or attempt to thwart law enforcement and anyone else who is trying to help them escape.

Surprisingly, these responses seem to persist even after the victim is removed from the threatening situation. They may continue expressing positive feelings for their captors or abusers even after these have been apprehended and found guilty. At the same time, they may experience the regular signs of abuse survival such as depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Today, the Stockholm syndrome isn’t recognized by psychologists as a real condition. The term was even coined by a police psychiatrist to discredit a female hostage in a 1973 bank heist after she criticized the police. Despite this, hostages and abuse survivors show the effects of this syndrome often enough that it can’t be a coincidence. The main difficulty in studying this syndrome is that researchers can’t ethically obtain reliable data on the syndrome, since we can’t just take people hostage. To that end, we may never truly understand this syndrome, how it emerges, and what its symptoms are.

Women can tell which men are only interested in one night stands just by looking at their faces, study finds

The left portrait shows the average face of a man with a low perceived sociosexual score. The right pic corresponds to a high score. Credit: Evolution and Human Behavior.

Researchers found that women are really good at judging which men are only interested in short-term uncommitted relationships just by reading their faces. Apparently, men with longer faces, higher foreheads, longer noses, and larger eyes tend to be more open to casual sex, and women can pick up on this.

The team of researchers from Macquarie University in Australia embarked on this study starting from a debate about the mechanics of attraction in humans. According to evolutionary psychology, humans are attracted to healthy, fertile, and compatible potential mates. If such is the case, then humans must be able to read certain cues in our faces and bodies that reflect these desirable mating characteristics.

If humans can visually judge if someone is ‘hot’ or not, what other cues can they pick up that are evolutionarily important when selecting a mate? The Australian researchers hypothesized that being able to tell whether someone is interested in a monogamous relationship or casual sex could be the kind of information that humans may be able to extract from visual cues, such as facial traits.

With this in mind, they recruited 103 white individuals, both male and female, who had their portraits taken and had to complete a survey that assessed their level of sociosexuality (how open they are to casual, uncommitted sex). The researchers then associated the sociosexuality scores with facial shape characteristics in men, but not in women where no reliable association could be found.

In a subsequent study, these photos were shown to 65 heterosexual participants who were asked to assess the sociosexuality of the person of the opposite sex shown in the pictures. Interestingly, women’s perception of male sociosexuality matched the men’s self-reported sociosexuality scores, showing that women can predict some of men’s sexual desires and intentions from their faces. However, males were terrible at this task. Their perception of women’s sociosexuality did not match the women’s self-reported attitudes and behaviors towards casual sex.

Lastly, the researchers used the data gathered in the previous studies to make computer-generated pairs of portraits representing high- and low-sociosexuality faces. Participants correctly identified high-sociosexuality faces better than chance — yet again, just in men and not women.

It’s not clear what’s responsible for these observed effects. It may be that assessing whether a potential mate will stick around or not is much more important for women than men because sex (and pregnancy) is more costly.

The researchers suspect that the sociosexual orientation reflected in males’ faces may be due to testosterone, which leads to quite a bit more variation in facial features in men than seen in women. Men with higher testosterone tend to have more traditionally masculine faces (for example, a wider brow, a longer nose, and a wider distance between the eyes). High-testosterone men tend to be more attractive to women, but also tend to express more promiscuous tendencies.

However, this hypothesis cannot be tested because the study did not include testosterone measurements for the participants. As a caveat, the researchers caution that these findings shouldn’t be used as a license to make snap judgments about people’s personalities or intentions. Ultimately, the best test of a person’s character is getting to know them.

The findings appeared in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

This article originally appeared in July 2021.

Hip-hop hit song named after suicide hotline linked to fewer suicides in the US

Logic on the “Bobby Tarantino vs Everybody” Tour. Photo by Anton Mak (@iAmAntonMak).

In 2017, Grammy-awarded rapper and producer Logic released “1-800-273-8255”, an emotional anthem named after the suicide prevention hotline. The song, which features Alessia Cara and Khalid, starts off from the perspective of someone suffering from depression who calls the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, confessing that they “Don’t want to be alive”. But, ultimately, the song delivers a message of hope. “You don’t gotta die, I want you to be alive,” the second verse starts off, delivered from the perspective of the supportive person at the other end of the hotline.

The song proved an instant hit, reaching number three in the US Billboard charts and garnering over 430 million views for the official music video. Many listeners identified with the track’s message, some sharing their story on social media and how the song helped them keep their own thoughts of suicide at bay.

Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, an associate professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, investigated whether these anecdotal reports actually reflected a change in suicide numbers across the country.

“There have been some experimental studies which suggest that stories of recovery and help-seeking for suicidal ideation can reduce suicidal ideation in the audience. But we have not yet had a chance to investigate this effect in the population at large, because stories of hope and recovery rarely receive a large audience such as the Logic song did,” Niederkrotenthaler told ZME Science.

Niederkrotenthaler and colleagues examined the association between Logic’s song and the number of daily calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, as well as daily suicides in the US. The numbers were crunched over three particularly important timeframes: the song’s release, and live performances at the Music Awards in 2017 and the Grammy Awards in 2018. Using data from Twitter posts, in the 34 days period immediately after each there events, public attention was the strongest.

Across these periods, there were an extra 9,915 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an increase of 6.9% over the expected number. Furthermore, there was a reported reduction of 245 suicides, which represents a very significant 6.9% drop relative to the expected number.

“This indicates that the song had a strong effect on help-seeking from the Lifeline, and simultaneously, there was a noteworthy drop in suicides,” said Niederkrotenthaler, who only found out about the song in 2020, “already nearly three years after its release! So we thought we needed to be quick in compiling an analysis,” he added.

The study is observational and there was no formal attempt to establish a causal relationship, but the very significant increase in calls to the suicide hotline, as well as the drop in suicides, suggest the song had an important influence.

“From experimental studies, we know that there are a few mechanisms that might help explain the effects. Basically, individuals in crisis who identify with the song might be most encouraged to seek help just like the character in Logic’s song (the Lifeline is prominently featured in the song), and they might think about how they can, just like the protagonist in Logic’s video, overcome and cope with their crisis. This might include seeking help from the Lifeline, getting other professional help, speaking with friends, finding love, etc, all of these are featured in the video,” said Niederkrotenthaler.

The Washington Post reported that people routinely told Logic that his music saved their lives.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Man I wasn’t even trying to save anybody’s life,'” he said. “And then it hit me — the power that I have as an artist with a voice. I wasn’t even trying to save your life. Now what could happen if I actually did?”

Logic was in contact with representatives of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ahead of the song’s release. John Draper, the organization’s director, praised the song.

“By sharing these stories of recovery from individuals who have been there and have survived their own crises, we can change the conversation about suicide from one of tragedy and isolation to one of hope,” Draper said in a statement. “It’s an honor for us to be working alongside Logic to help people in despair find hope and meaning.”

Years later, there’s now evidence that Logic’s efforts truly paid off, potentially saving hundreds of lives. Further work is needed, however, in order to establish the exact psychological mechanisms of action that enable a song to lift people out of their darkest hour.

“The study highlights that it is of the highest importance to communicate about how to cope with severe adversities and crisis situations, in order to help prevent suicide—and to get help, which is available, for example, from the Lifeline!” said Niederkrotenthaler.

The findings appeared in The British Medical Journal.

How outdoor learning helps both students and teachers

Even a single hour per week of outdoor learning can have a tremendous impact on children’s learning outcomes while boosting teachers’ job satisfaction, research shows.

Credit: MaxPixel.

It is now an established fact that most people benefit from performing activities in natural outdoor environments. Being exposed to trees, wildlife, and parks can reduce stress, rejuvenate attention, increase motivation, and improve both physical and mental health by promoting exercise. The more time spent outdoors, the better. For instance, one 2014 study found that a week of camping outdoors can reset your body clock and return your natural sleep patterns. Even a single weekend can do the job, another study found, so better pack up that tent and camping chairs.

The psychological benefits of spending time outdoors, such as improved attention span and mental reinvigoration, are particularly attractive for education — and we don’t have to move schools into the woods to reap these benefits.

Swansea University researchers analyzed the learning outcomes for three primary schools in the south of Wales where classes were held in a natural environment for at least an hour a week.

“We found that the pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. We also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better, and teachers told us how it helped engage all types of learners,” Emily Marchant, a Ph.D. researcher in Medical Studies at Swansea University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Although they were initially skeptical of this pilot program, the teachers found that outdoor learning improved their job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. That’s quite important since all too often the focus of research on education is on the student, with teachers and educators receiving little attention.

“This is a really important finding given the current concerns around teacher retention rates. Overall, our findings highlight the potential of outdoor learning as a curriculum tool in improving school engagement and the health, wellbeing, and education outcomes of children,” Marchant added.

Another study, published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reached similar conclusions, finding that the “nature effect” of outdoor learning made 9-10 year-olds more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. Teachers could teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long as during a subsequent indoor lesson, the study found.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Kuo. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?” said Ming Kuo, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some teachers may be reluctant at the notion of holding some classes outdoors, at least from time to time, as they might think the environment would overexcite the children and reduce concentration. But the scientific literature actually points to the contrary.

“We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”

How to spot a liar: three cognitive techniques from science

Credit: Flickr, Tristan Schmurr.

There are many reasons why people lie. One of them is that it just works — because most people are terrible at detecting deceptive statements. Of course, there are certain techniques that can help turn the tables, which professionals in law enforcement, for instance, routinely use. However, that doesn’t mean you need to buy a polygraph or graduate special FBI training in order to become better at spotting lies.

In recent years, research has highlighted the role of the cognitive approach when it comes to lie detection, offering tools that are accessible to virtually anyone.

This ‘cognitive approach’ refers to active interviewing tactics that are designed to single out deceptive behavior. This approach builds on the idea that lying is much more cognitively demanding than telling the truth since you always have to keep tabs on your lies so you don’t get entangled in them.

A pair of psychologists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden reviewed 23 previously conducted studies on the subject — known as a meta-analysis — which together summed nearly 3,000 participants.

They found that the cognitive approach to lie detection had an average accuracy rate of only 52% in naïve observers, which is a little better than chance. However, informed observers (those who were informed about which deception cues to focus on) had an average accuracy of nearly 75%.

“The central tenet of the cognitive approach is to ask questions that make a liar’s already demanding task even more demanding. Ideally, these questions should have minimal impact on a truth teller’s ability to provide a statement. It is argued that this differential increase in difficulty for liars will increase verbal differences between true and false statements, compared to standard interviewing methods,” wrote the researchers in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The researchers go on to mention three interviewing techniques classed under the cognitive approach to deception that anyone can use.

1. Imposing cognitive load

This technique involves introducing external stimuli that make it more challenging to allocate cognitive energy required to maintain a lie.

Some of the things you can try are asking the interviewee to provide their statement in reverse order or to maintain eye contact at all times. Another nifty trick is asking the interviewee to perform a secondary task that takes up mental energy while providing a statement. Something as simple as washing the dishes while talking can be enough to put a liar on the wrong foot.

“Tasks designed to increase cognitive load will impair liars’ ability to provide a statement more so than that of truth-tellers. This is because lying is already a more demanding task,” the researchers wrote.

2. Encouraging the interviewee to say more

Inspired by memory-enhancing methods developed within eyewitness research, some studies suggest that encouraging the interviewee to do more talking can enhance deception detection. The more details a liar offers, the greater the odds of making a contradiction that can signal deception.

“It is argued that truth-tellers will be able to provide more information when encouraged to do so, since their statements will be based on real memories of an event. In contrast, liars are expected to find this task difficult, as they will be required to fabricate more detailed information on‐the‐spot,” the researchers in Sweden wrote.

3. Asking unanticipated questions

Liars are good at anticipating questions meant to check the veracity of their statements and will prepare fabricated details to support their deception. According to previous research, prepared lies are much harder to distinguish from the truth than unprepared lies.

So the idea is to catch a liar off guard by asking questions they haven’t anticipated, but which a person telling the truth will have no difficulty answering on the spot.

“It is argued that for unanticipated questions truth-tellers should provide more information and more consistent answers, in group and repeated interviewing situations, compared to liars,” the researchers wrote.

The authors of the meta-review mention that the cognitive approach seems to be effective as long as observers are trained on which cues to focus. ” Although numerous questions persist, this result suggests potentially promising paths forward for this innovative area of deception research,” they added.

Novel ‘megastudy’ approach finds the best incentive to keep people in the gym

Getting people to stick to a workout routine is a worthy goal — but it’s also a nebulous one. Despite great interest from policymakers to promote exercise as a way to boost public health, there is still relatively little reliable data regarding what makes people stick to their routines.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

A new megastudy aims to address that lack of data through the use of a massive number of participants to rigorously test and compare the efficacy of multiple incentives for keeping people committed to their workouts. The study tested 54 different behavioral interventions on a large number of participants in order to determine and compare the efficacy of each.

Keep gyming

“We found that rewarding participants with a bonus of [US$0.09] for returning to the gym after a missed workout produced an estimated 0.40 more weekly gym visits per participant (a 27% increase in exercise) compared with the placebo control,” the study reports, on the most efficient incentive recorded during the trials. “Second, offering participants larger incentives, [US$1.75] produced an estimated 0.37 more weekly gym visits per participant (a 25% increase in exercise) compared with the placebo control.”

The team worked with over 61,000 gym members, all of whom were subscribed to an American fitness chain. Over a four-week period, the various encouragement programs the authors experimented with boosted gym attendance between 9% and 27%.

Due to the scale of the study, 30 scientists from 15 different US universities participated. They worked in small, independent teams, and designed a total of 54 different intervention strategies to try and boost the participants’ rates of gym attendance. Each of these was meant to last a total of four weeks and ranged from digital experiences, text reminders, weekly emails, to rewards.

Just under half of these interventions (45%) had a significant effect on increasing the weekly gym visit numbers of participants. The single most effective intervention involved offering participants a cash reward for returning to the gym after missing a workout.

That being said, however, it was surprisingly hard to change the long-term habits of the participants; only 8% of the interventions trialed in the study led to participants maintaining a measurable change in their behavior after the four-week intervention period.

Beyond helping policymakers and other figures of authority better motivate people to stick to a workout routine, the work also helps showcase the potential of megastudies in furthering our understanding of particular topics. The authors themselves note that examining multiple interventions side-by-side gave them much better context than working with each strategy individually. Even those that did not lead to a noticeable increase in user gym attendance can yield valuable data when placed in the wider setting of the study, they explain.

“The megastudy paradigm ensures that all results, including null results, are published and that insights can still be gleaned from comparing treatments across studies, as illustrated both by this megastudy and a follow-up megastudy testing the best strategies for nudging vaccination,” they write.

Such a research framework also helps address one of the main limitations of behavioral science: the need to test interventions both in the field (in real-life settings), to account for the multitude of factors shaping each of our lives, and in a controlled research setting. When examining individual methods in distinct groups, the authors explain, it becomes difficult to compare results directly with other trials; due to this, it’s not possible to test whether the differences in results come down to the interventions themselves, or to the differences among the participants.

Beyond the immediate results, the team hopes their work will help improve the accuracy of behavioral research in the future, and give us new tools to reliably study human behavior.

The paper “Megastudies improve the impact of applied behavioural science” has been published in the journal Nature.

Each one of us falls into one of three information-seeking ‘personalities’

Knowing what people want to know, and why, can go a long way towards designing public information campaigns. However, it’s easier said than done. New research comes to shed some light on the topic, reporting on the criteria people rely on when deciding to get informed on a topic, or not.

Image via Pixabay.

According to the findings, at least in matters regarding to their health, finances, and personal traits, people, in general, rely on one of three criteria: the emotional reaction they assume they will have when presented with that information, how useful they consider said information will be to them, and whether or not it pertains to something that they think about often. The team says each person falls into one of these three “information-seeking types”, and that they don’t tend to change them over time.

Knowing, why?

“Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals. This includes everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy. We wanted to find out: how do people decide what they want to know?” says Professor Tali Sharot from the University College London (UCL) Psychology & Language Sciences, co-lead author of the study. “And why do some people actively seek out information, for example about COVID vaccines, financial inequality and climate change, and others don’t?”

“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships. By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”

The study pools together data the researchers obtained over the course of five experiments with 543 research participants.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to rate how much they would like to know about a certain topic related to their health — for example, whether they had a gene that put them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or one that strengthened their immune system. Another experiment followed the same pattern but substituted financial information (for example, what income percentile they fall into) in lieu of personal health. A third asked them to rate how much they would like to know where their family and friends rated them on personal traits such as intelligence or laziness.

Later on, they were asked how useful they thought the information would be, how they expected to feel upon receiving the info, and how often they thought about the subject matter of each experiment.

Based on their responses during these five experiments, the team explains that people tend to seek out information based predominantly on one of the three factors — expected utility, emotional impact, and relevance to their interests. They add that the three-factor model they establish could be used to more accurately predict a participant’s choices to seek or refuse information compared to a range of other models they tested.

Some of the participants also repeated this series of experiments several times, at intervals of a few months. Based on their responses over time, the team explains that people tend to routinely prioritize one of the three motives over the others, and they tend to stick to that one motive over time and across topics. This, they argue, suggests that our motivators in this regard are ‘trait-like’.

These traits do have a direct impact on our lives; the first, obviously, is that they drive us towards and away from certain topics and pieces of data. But they also have a bearing on our wellbeing. In two of the five experiments, participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire that estimated their general mental health. The team explains that participants who wanted to know more about traits they often thought about showed more signs of positive mental health when seeking out information about their own traits.

“By understanding people’s motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information. For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message,” says PhD student Christopher Kelly from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences a, co-lead author of the study.

“The research can also help policy makers decide whether information, for instance on food labels, needs to be disclosed, by describing how to fully assess the impact of information on welfare. At the moment policy-makers overlook the impact of information on people’s emotions or ability to understand the world around them, and focus only on whether information can guide decisions.”

The paper “Individual differences in information-seeking” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

The Call of the Void: why you sometimes feel like jumping from high places

This article contains several mentions of suicide. If you have been grappling with distressing thoughts, don’t despair! There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and here is a list of suicide help lines. We want to see you around.

If you’ve ever been to the top of a tall building or a cliff and looked down, the odds are you felt terrified — but you may have also felt something else. A weird, inexplicable draw to… jump. This happens more often than you think, it even has a spooky name: the call of the void (or l’appel du vide in French). There’s no actual reason for feeling like you want to jump and you don’t technically want to do it, but the call is somehow inexplicably there.

Rest assured: this doesn’t imply there’s something dark or suicidal deep inside of you. Instead, scientists believe this phenomenon is an intrusive thought that seems to often appear in people with no link to suicide ideation. However, the science is not entirely clear.

Intrusive thoughts

If you’ve ever had a random, disturbing, and fleeting thought or urge, there’s a good chance it was an intrusive thought — an unwelcome, involuntary thought. Involuntary thoughts can become an obsession or can be very distressing (in which case they are often linked to mental conditions), but they can also be entirely unrelated to anything you’ve previously thought.

It doesn’t even have to be linked with high buildings. Common examples of the call of the void include standing on a train or subway platform and thinking about jumping, thinking about jerking the steering wheel into a cliff or jumping into deep water from a boat or a bridge. Of course, most people don’t talk about this; it’s not something you can just bring up into a discussion, and the sheer idea of saying “hey I had a random thought of jumping off a bridge today” is terrifying.

However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this is actually fairly common. Although it’s not scientific evidence (as we’ll see in a moment, scientific evidence on this phenomenon is actually very scarce), the internet abounds with stories of people experiencing the call of the void from time to time. Just take Reddit, for instance — where dozens and dozens of posts have been published about the call of the void, sometimes with thousands of comments on them. Here are some comments from Reddit users from one such thread:

“This makes me feel a lot better for having these feelings; it’s a scary thought to have for seemingly no reason.”

“I have them every once in a while. My mind starts playing scenarios of ‘what would happen if I __‘. There is no way of stopping them, only accepting that they’re a part of your life.”

“I’m glad there’s a name for it. I moved into an apartment with a balcony on the 25th floor about 6 months ago. For the first few weeks, I’d often get the urge to jump off the railing and “fly over the city.” My rational brain knows that the flight would be short and end messily, but the urge would still pop up every so often.”

Again, this is not scientific information, but it seems that every time you browse this type of thread, people are always surprised that this phenomenon is so common and not connected to suicide ideation (repeated ideas or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life). So then, why do these thoughts appear?

The science of the call of the void

Well, unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer as to why this happens. April Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, is the author of the only study on the call of the void we could find. While there are a few studies on intrusive thoughts, this particular phenomenon seems far less studied. From the very title of Smith’s study, it’s apparent that the call of the void is not the same as suicide ideation: “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.”

The study was carried out on 431 undergraduate college students and only focused on one call of the void experience — the high place phenomenon, or HPP (the jumping from a high place thought). The students were asked to complete questionnaires regarding feeling this type of intrusive thought, suicidal ideation, anxiety sensitivity, depressive symptoms, and history of mood episodes.

The study found that over half of those who reported never having suicidal thoughts experienced some version of HPP. People more inclined towards anxiety symptoms (but less inclined towards suicidal thoughts) seemed more likely to experience HPP, but the results weren’t clear cut. What was clear-cut (at least based on the findings of this study) is that HPP seems to not be connected to suicide at all — but rather, the researchers speculatively link it with a will to live.

“The HPP is commonly experienced among suicide ideators and non-ideators alike. Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of HPP may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” the study concludes.

The study had significant limitations. It was a relatively small sample size, participants were undergrads (and may therefore not be representative of the entire population), and the link to anxiety or suicidal thoughts was only superficially explored. However, there is a simple mechanism that makes sense in this interpretation.

Think about it this way. Not jumping from cliffs or in front of a train is deeply embedded into you. It’s a threat to your survival so it’s something your body wants to avoid at all cost. So it presumably tries to suppress the very idea that this could happen. But if you’ve ever tried to suppress a thought, you know that it can easily backfire.

Basically, your attempt to avoid thinking about something can lead you to do the exact opposite and think about it. All it takes is a single thought that can cascade into a chain reaction leading to intrusive thoughts like the call of the void. It could also be your brain trying to send a signal to be careful and *not* do that thing.

“Instead of the high place phenomenon defending the view that everyone has a “death wish” or that “suicide is impulsive,” we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal (e.g., “back up, you might fall”),” the above mentioned study notes.

However, much of this happens below the radar of the conscious mind, so this is all pretty much speculation at this point. There are no clear studies documenting this phenomenon, and since it’s so difficult to design studies to dive below the conscious level, it’s unlikely that this phenomenon will be fully understood in the near future.

So do these thoughts mean anything?

Many people hear the call of the void from time to time, and if it happens to you, well, you’re in good company. It’s one of those bizarre and not-yet–fully-understood things our brain does sometimes.

Based on what we know so far, the call of the void doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern, unless it happens very often and becomes obsessive. However, the difference between this type of thought and suicide ideation may not be all that clear, so it can be useful to carry out a mental check or consult a therapist if these thoughts start recurring. It may also be useful to keep an eye out for any anxiety symptoms. As Smith’s study concludes:

“Although at first blush, the experience – and even the description – of the high place phenomenon calls to mind suicidal desires, clearly the experience is commonly felt by many non-suicidal individuals.”

Dissociative identity disorder.

Being multiple people: Diving into Dissociative Identity Disorder

If I could choose two personalities for myself, I’d go with Elon Musk and your friendly neighborhood SpiderMan but unfortunately, that’s not at all how Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) works.

Individuals who experience multiple personalities as a result of DID don’t have control over the kind of personalities they have to contend with. However, researchers have also noticed that some DID patients can use their different personalities as a mental shield against the traumatic memories of their past. 

A woman in makeup with two different facial expressions. Image credits: Elīna Arāja/pexels

DID stands as one of the most controversial psychological disorders, with some researchers even arguing that DID is a hoax without any scientific basis. However, a Harvard study busted this idea, along with other speculations on the legitimacy of DID as a mental illness. Although there is still a lot of debate about DID, researchers mostly don’t doubt its validity as a mental illness.

Apart from the cases documented scientifically (which are surprisingly scarce), numerous cases have been reported in different parts of the world, suggesting that the occurrence of multiple identities may be more common than once believed, and may be associated with mental health conditions. Which begs the question: what exactly is this condition?

What is dissociative identity disorder? 

When a person develops two or more identities of his own that often results in disconnected behavior involving memory gaps, he or she is said to be suffering from DID, which is also referred to as split personality or multiple-personality disorder (MPD). Unfortunately, 70% of patients who suffer from DID are prone to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. According to a relatively small study from the US, DID affects about 1.5% of the world population — which still makes it a relatively rare condition, but is much more common than some of the other syndromes reported in psychiatric literature.

Generally, each identity of a DID patient has a name, habits, liking, dislikings, age, and thought process. It is also possible that two identities of the same person may hate each other. The shift from one identity to another is called switching, and some DID patients can undergo switching multiple times in a single day. These changes may be associated with memory loss and confusion. PTSD is also not uncommon in patients.  

A DID patient has at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states but can have multiple ones. These various personalities control the person’s behavior at different times and can be associated with memory loss, depression, or delusions.

Why do people have dissociative identity disorder? 

Sometimes, a person is unable to process any more mental stress so their brain may see dissociation as the only way of coping with all the trauma that they are experiencing. As a result of this, they create different personalities (as a psychological response), in order to dissociate the original identity from the traumatic experience. The occurrence of these multiple personalities eventually leads to DID.

People who go through painful life-threatening experiences, physical violence, emotional breakdown, or sexual abuse during their childhood (according to a shocking report, about 90% of DID patients have been victims of sexual abuse when they were kids), and those who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are more likely to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Image credits: Charly Pn/Unsplash

Common symptoms of DID include episodes of disorientation and memory loss, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, emotional detachment, substance abuse, etc. It has been observed that increased levels of stress and substance abuse can make the condition of DID patients worse.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure per se for DID, but its symptoms can be limited to some extent using different treatments (such as psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and adjunctive therapy) but in most cases, the patient has no option but to learn to adapt and live with the multiple personalities that he or she experiences. The effectiveness of DID treatment also depends on a patient’s mindset, family environment, early diagnosis, and awareness. Therapy is also important for this type of treatment, and with the right treatment and therapy, many people with DID can learn to cope and live normal lives.

If a patient receives treatment soon after the traumatic experience that’s causing him to show DID symptoms, then the probability of him being able to control the disorder increases. Ironically, there is no particular test to diagnose DID and often its symptoms are either confused with other mental disorders or remain unnoticed until the patient becomes an adult. 

The behavior of parents, friends, and other people around a DID patient also affects the dissociative behavior. A good emotional support system can make the patient live happily and comfortably even with different identities, whereas a stressful environment can escalate the condition and even provoke a patient to cause self-harm. 

Some famous DID cases

Dissociative identity disorder is a rare but very unique psychological condition, and this is why many cases of DID in the past have grabbed a lot of media attention. Recently, in an interview with Economic Times, American actress AnnaLynne McCord also revealed that she has been diagnosed with DID. Here are some of the most high-profile cases of DID:

  • In his book Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, American footballer Herschel Walker admits to having an alter ego named “Warrior” whom he believes is the reason behind his great sportsmanship abilities. He also talks about his other personality “Hero”, according to Walker, Hero has helped him manage his public image. The footballer won 1982’s Heisman Trophy but he claims that due to DID, he has no memory of winning the trophy.
  • A DID patient Kim Noble is believed to have over 100 personalities. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, according to Kim, it wasn’t her but mostly Patricia (her most dominant personality), who talked to Oprah during the show. In an interview with The Guardian, her alter identity Patricia also revealed that Kim goes through three to four switches every day.  
  • Psychiatrist Richard Baer claims that he has helped his patient Karen Overhill in overcoming the episodes from her 17 different identities. In his book, Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman With 17 Personalities, Dr. Baer reveals that Karen had come to her as a patient of depression but during her treatment, he came across her different identities that resulted as a mental response to being herself abused by both her dad and grandfather during her childhood. The treatment process that involved hypnosis and various other psychological techniques ran for more than 20 years.

The bottom line

Ultimately, there is much we still don’t know about this condition. It appears to be more common than you’d expect and is often linked to trauma or other mental conditions. For some patients, DID can also be a defense mechanism through which their brain protects them from the overwhelming traumas and horrors that they had to face as a kid.   

Hopefully, as more research is coming, we can better understand and enable people suffering from it to live a normal, healthy life. At least two such trials are currently underway, and several others have been recently finished.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: could recreational drugs treat depression & PTSD?

Despite their ill reputation, psychedelics such as Psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy) may be the missing puzzle piece to treating several mental disorders. Results from contemporary clinical trials testify for the drugs’ capacity in inducing positive, long-term alterations in mental health and well-being in both patients and healthy individuals, when taken under regulation and as a complement to psychotherapy.

The question is, as more states and cities in the United States legalize it, will the public accept the new role of these recreational drugs? Let us look at what we know so far.


The belief in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has been around for decades. But now more than ever, scientists are carrying out intensive investigations to allow for their use alongside psychotherapy, and results are promising. Their use in psychiatry can be attributed to a group of pioneering psychiatrists in the 1950s that demonstrated the powerful effects of LSD as an adjunct to therapy, in treating a gamut of conditions such as alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, personality disorders, and even sexual dysfunctions.

Towards the 1970s, research on the use of hallucinogens in psychiatry has yielded over 1,000 scientific papers that contained findings from 40,000 subjects and 6 international conferences. Many of these studies weren’t reliable as the methodology conducted was flawed relative to contemporary guidelines.

Nonetheless, the preliminary findings were intriguing enough to warrant further research into the matter. Unfortunately, that would become impossible as the use of psychedelics became a point of contention when LSD hit the streets in 1963, and psychedelics became notorious as drugs of abuse that are linked to the counterculture. Eventually, research using psychedelics was halted in the late 1960s due to political and societal pressures leaving many questions unexplored.

The current situation

Nowadays, scientists are once again proving the efficacy of psychedelics in treating mental illnesses. Recently, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for individuals with severe PTSD was proven to be far more effective than present first-line pharmacological and behavioral therapies. These unprecedented results from the Phase 3 study led by Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, may be the cause for their FDA approval which is expected to come by 2023.

At Imperial College London, Centre for Psychedelic Research, researchers are conducting the most meticulous study to date on the healing effect of Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, on depression. Their published results revealed that psilocybin reduces depressive symptoms rapidly and in greater magnitude in comparison to the FDA-approved antidepressant, Escitalopram. However, researchers did acknowledge the need for a larger and longer trial to establish their potency.

Additionally, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, released fascinating results in November 2020. Their study demonstrated that 71% of the patients suffering from major depressive disorder who underwent psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy showed a greater than 50% reduction in symptoms and more than half of the participants were in remission within 4 weeks.

How psychedelics work

Like the primary class of antidepressants, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), psychedelics act on serotonin receptors and enhance the brain’s neuroplasticity. Nonetheless, psychedelics have an additional effect best described by Franz Vollenweider, a psychiatrist and neurochemist at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich, Switzerland, he states that psychedelics “activate a therapeutic, dreamlike state, intensifying sensory perception, and memories pop up like little films.”. Therefore, the drug creates a receptive mental state and allows patients to be open to fresh ideas about how to view the past and the future, and this is where psychotherapy has a big role in breaking down false thought patterns that drive mental illnesses like depression and enforces positive ones.

Public acceptance

As these long-stigmatized drugs emerge as alternatives for treating mental illnesses, and numerous states and cities in the U.S. continue their process of decriminalizing psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, it is very important to note that scientists are aware of how powerful these substances are. This is why intensive research is conducted to fully understand every facet of psychedelics to confront any side effects. Secondly, while the initial findings are promising, individuals are discouraged from self-medicating. These strong drugs are expected to be administered under the observation of trained psychotherapists and regulators. Therefore, psychedelics will be used solely for treatment purposes in a safe and well-regulated environment. If taken without supervision and dose regulation, these drugs could induce a lasting psychotic reaction.

Lastly, it is crucial for the public to comprehend the importance of these findings and their grave impact on the millions affected by these disorders. Depression is the cardinal contributor to a disability affecting more than 264 million individuals globally. Latest epidemiological studies demonstrate that the leading cause of death by suicide is clinical depression, which claims around 800,000 lives per year. And despite the rise in awareness of the detrimental effect, it has on its victims, depression largely remains an enigma. This is reflected in the unavailability of potent drugs for treating depression; even experts argue that the efficacy of antidepressants has been empirically exaggerated. As for PTSD, about 8 million people develop the disorder per year in the U.S. alone.

Similarly, PTSD has no cure and the only option available is psychotherapy for management or the use of antidepressants in an attempt to relieve the depressive symptoms. And as declared by the statistics, current antidepressants approved by the FDA are largely ineffective, in 40-60% of patients. Hence, there is no doubt that we are in dire need of a novel approach. Therefore, as scientists do their best to translate their research into reality to
help overcome these detrimental disorders, it is our duty to educate ourselves on the matter in order to view psychedelics for their new potential role, to overcome the stigma around them, and raise awareness in hopes that when the treatment is available, those needing help will seek it.

Our daily commute has a direct impact on our productivity and job satisfaction

Our daily commute can tell a lot about our productivity at work, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

New research at Dartmouth College showcases the importance our commute can have on our workday. The findings show how certain behavior and psychological patterns we exhibit during commuting can be used to accurately predict job performance and employee satisfaction levels throughout the day.

The results are based on a year-long monitoring period of commuting workers prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start of the day

“Your commute predicts your day,” said Andrew Campbell, the Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of computer science at Dartmouth, lead researcher and co-author of the study. “This research demonstrates that mobile sensing is capable of identifying how travel to and from the office affects individual workers.”

Data for the study was recorded through the smartphones and fitness trackers of 275 workers over a one-year monitoring period. The participants’ states were also recorded for 30 minutes before and after commuting. Most of these individuals (around 95%) drove to and from work, the team reports. Participants were provided with Garmin vivoSmart 3 activity tracker and a smartphone-based sensing app.

These devices were used to record a range of factors including the levels of physical activity, phone usage, heart rates, and stress levels. This body of data could be used to accurately predict workers’ productivity and satisfaction, the authors explain. The research could also help us to raise workers’ quality of life and help them be more productive.

“We were able to build machine learning models to accurately predict job performance,” said Subigya Nepal a PhD student at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper. “The key was being able to objectively assess commuting stress along with the physiological reaction to the commuting experience.”

Each worker’s day was assessed using ‘counterproductive work behavior’ and ‘organizational citizenship behavior’, two recognized criteria of job performance. The first is behavior that harms an organization’s overall efficiency, while the latter is beneficial. The baselines for each of these behaviors were set through regular, self-reported questionnaires sent in by participants.

“Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work,” said Pino Audia, a professor of Management and Organizations at the Tuck School of Business, a senior scientist on the study team, and a co-author of the study. “This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines.”

Apart from this, high-performers tended to show more psychological markers of physical fitness and stress resilience. Low-performers showed higher levels of stress before, during, and after the commutes, and tended to use their phone more during commutes.

This aligns well with previous research on the topic, the team explains. Such research found that stress, anxiety, and frustration felt by individuals during their commute can reduce their efficiency at work, increase levels of counterproductive work behavior, and lower their engagement with organizational citizenship behavior. However, the current study is the first to link commuting data directly with workplace performance.

“The insights from this proof-of-concept study demonstrate that this is an important area of research for future of work,” said Campbell, co-director of Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab.

The small percentage of participants who engaged in active commuting — such as walking to work — showcased that such forms of commuting are typically associated with increased productivity during the day. Additionally, the study also found that people tended to spend more time commuting back home than they do going to work in the morning.

In the future, the team hopes that their findings can be used as a basis for new technology aimed at detecting and lowering commuter stress. Such interventions could include an app that offers suggestions for short stops, music, or podcasts aimed at improving a commuter’s emotional state.

The paper “Predicting Job Performance Using Mobile Sensing” has been published in the journal IEEE Pervasive Computing.

Does listening to music improve running performance?

Credit: Pixabay.

For many runners, a pair of headphones is more important than the best running gear out there. Listening to your favorite tunes while working out can make training more enjoyable, but beyond the subjective experience, is there any evidence that music can actually help you run more or faster? As a matter of fact, yes.

There are quite a number of studies that support using music to get fired up before and during running. In a 2015 study led by Marcelo Bigliassi, an expert in psychophysiology and neuroscience from Florida International University, 15 well-trained male long-distance runners participated in five experiments. The effects of music on the performance during a 5-km run were assessed in four contexts: pre-run motivational music (110-150 beats per minute); running with slow music (80-100 beats per minute); running with fast music (140-160 beats per minute); post-run calming music (95-110 beats per minute). The participants also ran a 5-km trail with no music, as a control.

The researchers measured pre-run brain activity, arousal, and heart rate variability; perceived effort and completion time during the run, and post-run mood and heart rate viability.

According to the results, listening to “motivational music” before the run aroused the runners, charging them up for the 5-km trail run. During the run itself, the participants who listened to music completed the first two laps faster than those who ran without music. However, the differences in lap times between the two groups greatly decreased with each loop.

That’s consistent with other studies that showed the higher the required intensity of effort, the less effect music has on performance.

“Although some people may experience performance detriments while exercising in the presence of music, the majority of individuals tend to benefit from the use of music during sport- and exercise-related tasks,” Dr. Bigliassi told MetaFact.

In another study conducted by researchers at the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the effect of music listening on running performance and perceived exertion was assessed in a cohort of 28 undergraduate students. The students had to complete a relatively short 2.5-km run either while listening to music or without.

“The results of this study indicate that music listening has a significant effect on running performance during a maximal 1.5-mile run. However, music listening had no significant effect on the rating of perceived exertion at this distance,” the researchers found.

While these results suggest that listening to music doesn’t have an effect on perceived exertion, a recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh found that music improved training performance when you’re already mentally fatigued. Music may also help when running conditions are difficult. A 2018 study that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology had volunteers run on a treadmill in hot and humid conditions. Those who did so while listening to music ran 67% longer than the non-music control group before they felt exhausted.

“Music listening during sports and exercise is believed to capture attention, distract from fatigue and discomfort, prompt and alter mood states, enhance work output, increase arousal, relieve stress, stimulate rhythmic movement, and evoke a sense of power and produce power-related cognition and behavior,” Edith Van Dyck, an expert in musicology and psychology from Ghent University in Belgium, told MetaFact.

Van Dyck added that music in the same tempo of the exercise or slightly higher rendered the most optimal performance. But since music preference is so subjective, the best workout music is often whatever your favorite playlist happens to be. What’s more, for some, listening to music actually hampers their performance.

According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the effects of music on exercise, at Brunel University, elite athletes have the least to gain from training while listening to music. That’s because they’re, what Karageorghis calls, ‘associators’, meaning they focus inwardly when running. Amateur athletes, on the other hand, are ‘dissociators’ who are more susceptible to external stimuli and distractions, so music can help nudge them when they aren’t feeling motivated.

Perhaps a bit too hyperbolically, Karageorghis says “music is a legal drug for athletes” but “like any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.” This is why he recommends saving music for the end of your run, so it acts like a boost, he told The Guardian.

Physical exercise is a reliable and accessible way to manage anxiety disorders

Moderate and intense physical exercise can significantly dampen anxiety, even in cases where it is caused by a chronic disorder, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Exercise has been receiving a lot of attention from researchers interested in mental health. The positive effect physical exercise can have on those grappling with depression is well-known. However, the way it links with anxiety disorders is far less understood.

New research from the University of Gothenburg comes to improve our understanding of the interplay between these two factors. According to the findings, moderate and demanding physical exercise can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety even in the case of chronic disorders. These results give cause for hope for patients struggling with anxiety disorders around the world, offering an accessible (and healthy) option for them to self-manage what can quickly become a debilitating burden. It also reminds those who are not struggling with such disorders of the importance of keeping physically active not just for our bodies, but our minds as well.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely [the participants] exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” states Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and the study’s first author.

The team worked with 286 persons with anxiety syndrome who were recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and Halland County, Sweden. Their average age was 39, and 70% were women. Half of these participants had been diagnosed with anxiety syndrome for at least 10 years.

They were randomly assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks, consisting of either moderate or strenuous activity. A control group was also used, and its members received advice on physical activity adhering to public health recommendations but were not placed in any of the exercise programs.

Exercise regimes consisted of one-hour training sessions three times per week with supervision from a physical therapist. They included both cardio and strength training. Each session included a warmup followed by a 45-minute training interval and a cooldown period. Intense training was defined as the participants reaching 75% of maximum heart rate during the sessions. Light and moderate exercise was defined as the participants reaching 60% of their maximum heart rate. These were confirmed using heart rate monitors.

Following the 12 week period, their anxiety symptoms were re-assessed. This revealed that their symptoms were lessened across the board, even in cases of chronic anxiety conditions. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went down from a baseline level of “high anxiety” to a “low anxiety” level following the study. Those who followed relatively low-intensity exercise regimes were 3.6 times more likely to see an improvement in their symptoms compared to controls. Those who exercised at a higher intensity were almost 5 times more likely to see improvements compared to controls.

The findings are important as this is one of the largest studies on the topic to date. They provide reliable evidence that physical exercise can be used alongside today’s standard treatments for anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs — to help patients manage their symptoms. Some of the key advantages of this approach include it being accessible to the vast majority of patients and the lack of side effects, which are common with psychotropic drugs.

“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” says Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy and corresponding author of the study.

The paper “Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

People who sat down more during the pandemic were more likely to become depressed

Spending more time sitting is associated with more signs of depression, according to a new study.

Image credits Cheryl Holt.

With the pandemic and the lockdowns it caused, more people than ever have been working their jobs from home, while self-isolating. Due to this shift many parts of our day that used to involve physical movement, such as our commutes or hours spent in the gym, have turned into sedentary hours. While unfortunate, this gave a team of researchers at Iowa State University a unique opportunity to study the effects of widespread, sustained sedentarism on public and personal health.

According to the findings, people who maintained a higher proportion of sitting time in their daily lives between April and June 2020 were more likely to have symptoms of depression compared to those who engaged in a more dynamic lifestyle. While the study can’t establish a direct causal link between sitting and depression, it does uncover a link that’s worth a deeper examination in the future.

Sitting down, feeling down

“Sitting is a sneaky behavior. It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it,” said Jacob Meyer, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and lead author of the paper.

“In March 2020, we knew COVID was going to affect our behavior and what we could do in lots of weird, funky ways that we couldn’t predict,” he adds.

Meyer and his colleagues at the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at ISU, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin, and the University of Limerick examined how physical activity and sedentary behaviors impact mental health. They were also interested in quantifying how changes in these behaviors can influence the way our minds work, our emotional states, and our perceptions of the world around us.

For the study, they surveyed a sample of over 3,000 participants from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. As part of these surveys, the participants self-reported how much time they spent daily on certain activities including sitting, looking at screens, and exercising. They were also asked to detail how the time spent engaged with each activity and their general behavior revolving around them changed after the onset of the pandemic. Standard clinical scales were included in the surveys through which the participants could indicate changes they observed in their mental wellbeing since the onset of the pandemic.

These activities and the particular mental health markers used in this survey were chosen based on previous research regarding factors affecting mental health.

“We know when people’s physical activity and screen time changes, that’s related to their mental health in general, but we haven’t really seen large population data like this in response to an abrupt change before,” Meyer said.

According to the results, participants who met the criteria set out in the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines before the pandemic, which call for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, decreased their levels of physical activity by 32% on average after lockdown measures came into effect. These participants further reported feeling more depressed, anxious, and lonely following the change.

A follow-up study from the same team tracked how the participants’ behaviors and mental health changed over time by asking them to fill out the same survey once per week between April and June. This study uncovered that people who continued to spend a large part of their time sitting maintained a higher level of depressive symptoms on average compared to everyone else.

“In the second study, we found that on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period,” Meyer said. “People adjusted to life in the pandemic. But for people whose sitting times stayed high, their depressive symptoms, on average, didn’t recover in the same way as everyone else’s.”

Still, the authors underline that an “association” between sitting and depressive symptoms is not the same as saying that one causes the other. It’s possible that people who were more depressed simply sat down for longer periods of time, or the people who sat more became depressed from other causes. There could be other factors at play here that the surveys can’t account for, as well. But the results warrant further research into the topic, says Meyer.

Changing our habits is very difficult even when we want to do it, the team explains. However, they hope that the current papers will help bring awareness to just how important it is to move, even a little, every day. If you’re stuck at home, you can try forming a habit of taking a short walk before and after your workday, for example. This will help alleviate the negative effects of sedetarism and help impart some structure to your day, both of which will be beneficial for your mental health.

The paper “High Sitting Time Is a Behavioral Risk Factor for Blunted Improvement in Depression Across 8 Weeks of the COVID-19 Pandemic in April–May 2020” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Moral judgment condemning drug use and casual sex may be rooted in our genes

Prior research suggests that people who condemn drug use over moral grounds also tend to judge others harshly who engage in promiscuous, non-monogamous sex. A new study that involved more than 8,000 twins not only confirmed this link but also showed the association may be mediated by genes. Those who wrap their negative views regarding sexuality and drug use in a veneer of morality may, deep down, actually be looking out for their own reproductive strategy by shaming others in order to control the environment.

Public condemnation of casual sex and illicit drug use has never really gone away, despite massive cultural shifts during the 1960s counterculture movement. Although upbringing certainly has a part to play in shaping one’s views of the world and moral compass, psychologists have amassed increasing evidence that many of the instances when we righteously point our fingers may be selfish acts of self-interest.

It’s common for people who disapprove of illicit drug use to also frown upon casual sex. Each of these instances shouldn’t bother other people since it doesn’t affect them directly in any way unless they interact with people who engage in them. But past studies have shown that openness to engage in casual sex is partially explained by genes. And those who are inclined to engage in noncommittal sex are also more likely to use recreational drugs.

“People adopt behaviors and attitudes, including certain moral views, that are advantageous to their own interests. People tend to associate recreational drug use with noncommitted sex. As such, people who are heavily oriented toward high commitment in sexual relationships morally condemn recreational drugs, as they benefit from environments in which high sexual commitment is the norm,” said Annika Karinen, a researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and lead author of the new study.

Karinen and colleagues decided to investigate whether there is any genetic basis surrounding moral views on both sex and illicit drug use. They employed a dataset from a survey of 8,118 Finnish fraternal and identical twins. Identical twins share almost all their genes while fraternal twins share roughly half of their genes. As such, twin studies are the perfect natural laboratory that allows scientists to tease out genetic factors from environmental ones when assessing behaviors.

Each participant had to answer a set of questions that measured their moral views surrounding the use of drugs and openness to non-committed sex, as well as political affiliations, religiosity, and other facts.

When comparing the results of the questionnaires between fraternal and identical twin pairs, the Dutch psychologists found that moral views concerning both recreational drugs and casual sex are approximately 50% heritable, while the other 50% can be explained by the environment in which people grew up and the unique experiences not shared by the twins. Moreover, the relationship between openness to casual sex and views on drugs is about 75% attributable to genetic effects.

“These findings run counter to the idea that within-family similarities in views toward drugs and sex reflect social transmission from parents to offspring; instead, such similarities appear to reflect shared genes,” the researchers wrote in the journal Psychological Science.

Those who frown upon casual sex and drug use (which they associate with casual sex) may be looking out for a sexual strategy that revolves around committed sex into which they’ve invested a lot of resources. People who engage in casual sex are seen as a threat to the monogamous reproductive strategy because there’s the risk of losing one’s partner in an environment where casual sex is deemed acceptable. By judging other people’s sexuality and drug use from a moral high ground, people who prefer monogamous relationships have a weapon they can wield to control the sexuality of others to serve their own interests.

“Important parts of hot-button culture-war issues flow from differences in lifestyle preferences between people, and those differences in lifestyle preferences appear to partly have a genetic basis,” Karinen added.