Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of the most famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are: Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.


Psychology hit the actual headlines last week, with Sharon Begley’s “The Depressing News About Antidepressants” in Newsweek. The story is that, if you look at all the evidence, not just the “successful” trials, SSRIs like Prozac and Paxil do not work better than a placebo for mild and moderate depression. Begley also tells the story as if she’s sorry to break the news and spoil the placebo effect. Here’s my version of the headlines from this story:

Pharmaceutical Companies Have Known For At Least Ten Years That SSRIs Work No Better Than Placebos: At least, anyone there who understood statistics and paid any attention to their research.

The Idea That SSRIs Are Better Than Placebos Was Propagated By Publishing Only the “Successful” Trials: This, obviously, was quite unethical.

The FDA Almost Certainly Knew That SSRIs Were No Better Than Placebos, Too: They had all of the research. Perhaps they did not read it.

People Who Read Psych Journals Knew SSRIs Were No Better Than Placebos Two Years Ago: The news caused a stir in my undergrad psych lab in 2008.

We Do Not Know What Causes Depression: The idea that depression has to do with the neurotransmitter serotonin was based largely on the (incomplete) evidence that SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) cured depression. In fact, we have pretty limited knowledge of what goes on inside a living brain. In fact, we have no ethical way to measure how much serotonin or any other neurotransmitter is where inside anyone’s living brain, so when a doctor tells you something like, “You are depressed because you have overactive serotonin re-uptake mechanisms,” they are passing on speculation, not science.

If You Recovered From Mild to Moderate Depression While On An SSRI, It Was Probably Your Own Hope That Lifted You Out: The thing about placebos is that they work pretty well. If you benefited from the placebo effect, it was your own strength, your own hope, that made the difference. You overcame that challenge. I think that’s pretty cool.

While SSRIs Do Not Treat Depression Better Than Placebos, They Do Have Side Effects: Here’s a list from wikipedia: Decreased or absent libido, Impotence or reduced vaginal lubrication, Difficulty initiating or maintaining an erection or becoming aroused, Persistent genital arousal disorder despite absence of desire, Muted, delayed or absent orgasm (anorgasmia), Reduced or no experience of pleasure during orgasm (ejaculatory anhedonia), Premature ejaculation, Weakened penile, vaginal or clitoral sensitivity, Genital anesthesia, Loss or decreased response to sexual stimuli, Reduced semen volume, Priapism (persistent erectile state of the penis or clitoris)anhedonia, apathy, nausea/vomiting, drowsiness or somnolence, headache, bruxism (involuntarily clenching or grinding the teeth), extremely vivid and strange dreams, dizziness, fatigue, mydriasis (pupil dilation), urinary retention, changes in appetite, changes in sleep, weight loss/gain (measured by a change in bodyweight of 7 pounds), may result in a double risk of bone fractures and injuries, changes in sexual behaviour,increased feelings of depression and anxiety (which may sometimes provoke panic attacks), tremors (and other symptoms of Parkinsonism in vulnerable elderly patients), autonomic dysfunction including orthostatic hypotension, increased or reduced sweating, akathisia, liver or renal impairment, suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide), photosensitivity (increased risk of sunburn), Paresthesia, Mania, hypomania, sexual dysfunction such as anorgasmia, erectile dysfunction, and diminished libido, a severe and even debilitating withdrawal syndrome, a slight increase in the risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidality in children, neonatal complications such as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and persistent pulmonary hypertension, and platelet dysfunction.

Until Your Medicated Kids Are Old, We Will Not Know What All of the Side Effects of Treatment by SSRIs Are: This is true for any new drug, and it’s worth considering. If your child is on Prozac or other new drug, they are essentially part of a massive experimental trial.

Pharmaceutical Companies Pay for Psychiatric Educations: Why would it surprise anyone that treatment equals drugs in this case?

Most Antidepressant Prescriptions Written by Health Care Providers With No Significant Psychiatric Training: GPs, OBGYNs, pediatricians, etc account for 80% of SSRI prescriptions.

This is part 3 of a series of things I learned during my Bachelor’s degree in psychology that I thought should have been headlines in the mainstream news. If you missed them, here’s part 1 and part 2. Again, if you’re interested or skeptical, leave me a comment with a specific question and I’ll give you my references.

Egaz Moniz Was Given the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949 for Developing the Prefrontal Lobotomy: This “psychosurgery” involved slicing or scrambling the front part of the brain, and tended to produce more manageable behavior in “patients.”

40,000 Human Beings Were Lobotomized in the United States Between 1936 and 1977: These were men, women, and children with “illnesses” like schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, anxiety, homosexuality, criminal behavior, and being hard to manage.

Antipsychotic Thorazine Hailed as “Chemical Lobotomy”: Yes, this was meant as a compliment.

200,000,000 Prescriptions for Antidepressants in the US in 2007: That’s quite a few prescriptions.

80% of Antidepressant Prescriptions in the US Not Written by Psychiatrists: Consider that it may be a good idea to at least see a specialist in mental illness before taking psychotropic drugs or giving them to your kids.

Some Psychopharmaceuticals as Effective as Exercise in Treating Depression: But who wants to exercise when you’re depressed?

Sleep Deprivation the Most Effective Treatment For Depression, By Far: Never heard of this one? Maybe it’ll hit the news when someone figures out how to make money from sleep deprivation.

The World Health Organization Found That Schizophrenics Recover, But Only in Countries Without Easy Access to Psychopharmaceuticals: Schizophrenics can recover? Well, yes, it looks like they can. And yes, the WHO data shows a correlation, not necessarily causation, but an interesting correlation!

Here’s part 2. (And if you missed it, here’s part 1.) Again, if you are either interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll point you to the evidence.

Statistically, Divorce is Not a Good Strategy for Getting a Better Marriage: 50 to 67% of first marriages end in divorce. 60 to 77% of second marriages end in divorce.

Your Brain Has Trouble Giving Information About Probabilities Due Weight, So Pay Attention to Base Rates: We have trouble taking the actual prevalence of events into account when making decisions. For example, people tend to be more afraid of dying in a plane crash (lifetime chance: 1 in 20,000) than dying in a car wreck (lifetime chance: 1 in 100) or even of a heart attack (lifetime chance: 1 in 5). One reason for this is that we confuse the ease with which we can think of an example to be an indication of how likely something is. Try this: What do you think is more common, words beginning with “r” or words with “r” as the third letter?

If You Test Positive For a Very Rare Disease, You Still Probably Do Not Have That Disease: This is a headline that should come from medicine, not psychology, but psychologists are better at probability than doctors, who are no better than laypeople, at least when it comes to thinking about this: Even with a very accurate test, if a disease is very rare, a positive result is still much more likely to be a false positive than an accurate positive. I’m going to explain this, but if you don’t get it, don’t worry. Just remember the headline. It’s true.

The table below shows a hypothetical situation with super-round numbers to make it easier to get. You have gotten positive results on a test that is 99% accurate for a disease that occurs only once in 10,000 people. Most people figure they are 99% likely to have the disease. They are wrong:

Test Results
Disease Present? Test Results Positive Test Results Negative Row Totals
Disease Present 99 1 100
Disease Not Present 9,999 989,901 999,900
Column Totals 10,098 989,902 1,000,000

Since your test results are positive, you are somewhere in the left-hand column. You are either one of the 99 who both have the disease and whose test results are positive, called “hits,” or one of the 9,999 who do not have the disease but whose test results are positive, called “false positives.” As you may see, even though your test results are positive, you still are 99% likely to be a false positive and not a hit, simply because the disease is so rare.

Yes, this is counter-intuitive. That’s why it’s important. And that’s why statistics are important. Again, if you don’t understand, don’t worry. If you don’t believe it, though, come up with a specific question, leave it as a comment, and I’ll answer it.

If You Need Help, Ask Someone Specific for Something Specific: Bystanders generally do not help people who are in trouble. The bigger the crowd, the less likely someone will help. It’s not because they are bad or lazy. It’s a specific kind of well-documented confusion. Kind of like in the clip below. What you need to know is, if you need help, even if it seems like it should be completely obvious to anyone around, like you’re having a heart attack, falling to the ground, gasping, whatever, point to a specific person and give them specific instructions: “You, in the red shirt. I’m having a heart attack. Call an ambulance.” Do not assume anything will happen that you did not specifically ask for. A corollary of this headline is, if you think someone might be in trouble, don’t assume they would ask you for help, and don’t assume someone else is helping them. Help them yourself. It could mean the difference between them living or dying.

Get Help For Your Marriage When the Trouble Starts (Or Before): On average, couples wait 6 years after their marriage is in trouble to get help. The average marriages last 7 years. That means that most people who come to couples counseling are deeply entrenched in problems that would have been relatively easy to resolve earlier. It is not uncommon for a couple to come in to counseling with a covert agenda to use the counselor to make their inevitable divorce easier. We can do this, but believe me we’d much rather meet you earlier and help you stay together! Also, I’m not joking about “or before.” Couples counselors are well-trained to give “tune-ups” to couples who are doing well. It’s a good idea.

Anger Is Not Destructive of Relationships, Contempt and Defensiveness Are: Everybody argues. Everybody screws up their communications. It’s the ability to repair things that is the key, and contempt and defensiveness get in the way of that.

Going though my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was often surprised about information that was well known by the field that should have hit the headlines but never made a dent. In the end it was one of my reasons for going into therapy instead of experimental psychology. At one point I asked my social psychology teacher for an example of basic social psych research that had had a real impact on mainstream society. He could not give me one. I know that basic research is done to find stuff out, not to directly help people, and I support that. I also know that psychology is a baby science, and tackling a very complex set of phenomena, and doing a pretty good job. Still, I was disappointed. It is too bad, because a lot of useful and sometimes very important stuff has been discovered by experimental psychologists, and it is mostly just ignored.

Here are a few things I came across in my classes and reading that I thought should have been mainstream headlines. If you are interested in references, leave a comment and I will get them to you.

It Is Important to Talk to Your Baby, Even in the Womb: Your baby can hear and recognize your voice in your womb, is already learning your language, and wants to hear your voice.

It Is Important to Sleep With Your Baby: Babies are not born fully self-regulating. One way this shows up is that babies do not breath out enough carbon dioxide–sleeping with parents provides them with a pool of carbon dioxide that keeps the baby breathing deeply enough. Another benefit is that their 90 minute hunger cycle (waking and nursing each 90 minutes) helps establish their 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which they are not born with, and also keeps them from getting into deep, delta wave sleep, which is dangerous for babies because they can stop breathing.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Decisions: Your brain has mechanisms to ensure that you will think you made the right decision, regardless of what you decide. This can be undermined, however, by thinking of reasons for your decision before you make it. In many cases, your coming-up-with-reasons ability can get in the way of your decision-making ability. As long as you get all the relevant information, you may have a better chance making a good decision without deliberation.

It Works to Ask People to Watch Your Stuff: People who you do not specifically ask to watch your stuff will do nothing while your stuff is stolen. People who you do ask, will go to great lengths to keep your stuff from being stolen.

The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane: The methods of this study were not well laid out, so I do not know how strong this evidence is, but it was quite clever. Normal people got admitted into mental hospitals by saying they had heard a voice say the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Other than that they behaved as usual. None were discovered to be sane by the staff, no matter how long they stayed hospitalized.

« Previous Page