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Research Roundup 19

5 fascinating research pieces that illuminate the human condition

It’s not news that an overly narrow focus can make us lose sight of the bigger picture.

Groupthink happens in all kinds of social and work contexts. Desire for harmony, the very human need to conform to group assumptions (which may be right or wrong), fear of non-consensual thought or ideas, and therefore risking the admonishment or rejection from the group, plagues us all – even experts and scientists.1

Scientists may thin-splice reality without necessarily showing us why what they find is important or how it fits the bigger patterns of reality. And that’s fair enough if their research remit doesn’t extend to a more holistic analysis.

But science can be misused as much as any human endeavour.

When science is used as a tool to prove a political or moral point, or a weapon to beat someone with, then the spirit of science has, I think, been perverted badly.

Scientism versus science

Scientism, a belief in science as the ultimate authority, is, ironically, a subversion of science for the sake of truth.

Scientism treats science as the only means by which the truth about the world can be reached. Its findings are regarded as unquestionable dogma of almost a religious dimension. Through the lens of scientism, science becomes a stick to beat those whose opinions differ from ours, a device to promulgate what is perceived as the one and only valid point of view.

But the disinterested and unbiased pursuit of truth for its own sake, whatever it may reveal, is possible – and, I hope, alive and well.

Anyway, in this occasional but regular series I take five recent research findings and, hopefully with an open mind, suggest what they might mean about life in general and the human condition as a whole.

Of course, I might be entirely wrong in my conclusions – but perhaps my thoughts may at least get you thinking about some of these issues.

So what do we have this time?

This month’s gems

This month we’re going to take a look at:

  • The risks and benefits of ‘me time’
  • How gratitude can reduce stress and improve satisfaction within relationships
  • Evidence that testosterone promotes cuddling, not just aggression
  • The role of positive neighbourhood engagement in compensating for an insecure mother-child bond, and
  • The widespread and variable beliefs around witchcraft.

Research piece one: The risks and benefits of ‘me time’

A recent study from the University at Buffalo found that young adults who seek ‘me time’ because they fear or dislike social interactions experienced increased social anxiety on days when they had spent more time alone.2

Each day for one week, the 411 participants recorded how much time they spent alone and how they felt afterwards during social interactions.

Lead author Hope White said, “We think [the increased social anxiety occurs] because such individuals do not use their solitary time in ways that are restorative. Instead, they might spend their alone time ruminating.”

My take?

There’s a confusing melange of conflicting anecdotal evidence and opinions around ‘me time’ and its effects. Some people feel that time alone is healthy and sustaining (think Superman’s Fortress of Solitude), a time in which we can learn, reflect, and refresh our powers and energy, while others feel that alone time can make us anxious, depressed, and lonely.

As Julie Bowker, PhD, a co-author of the study, said, “Spending time alone is common across the lifespan, and yet, we still do not fully understand when, why and for whom it confers risks versus benefits.”

So what’s going on?

Of course, the truth is more nuanced.

It’s really no surprise that young adults prone to social anxiety had a worse experience when they socialized after spending more time alone.

If you are socially relaxed and confident and have a healthy and abundant social life, then some ‘me time’ on your own may be just what you need sometimes. After all, privacy is a primal human need.

But, just as lead author Hope White alluded to, if a person is prone to anxiety and low self-esteem then alone time may simply be misused to rehearse feelings of failure and social ineptitude and discomfort.

More alone time for anxious people may not be used to reflect, relax, or be constructively creative but rather to misuse the imagination, adding to feelings of depression and low self-esteem.

Moreover, it can feel like a big jolt to go from inwardly directed focus, as with rumination, to the outwardly directed focus required for social interaction. On a day with less alone time, we have less time to focus inward. This gives the socially anxious more of a chance to ‘forget themselves’ to some extent, which may make socializing feel easier – perhaps even enjoyable!

Ultimately, to avoid the dangers of loneliness3 and excessive rumination,4 people need to learn to ruminate differently or less – and of course that applies not just to young adults but to all of us.

Alone time can be used to enjoy privacy, be creative, and relax so that when we do socialize it feels all the better – like building up an appetite before you eat.

A great social/alone time mix can be something to feel grateful for. And that’s a rather forced segue into the next study!

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Research piece two: Feeling your partner is grateful may cut your stress levels and enhance satisfaction

A recent study found that greater levels of perceived gratitude from our partners can have a protective effect against common relationship stressors such as arguing and financial problems.5

The research team, led by Allen W. Barton, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, studied the impact of feeling appreciated and valued by one’s partner on the health and resilience of the relationships of 316 African-American couples. On average, married couples had been married for around 10 years and unmarried couples had been living together for just under seven years.

It was found that people who feel appreciated by their partners enjoy better relationships. Perceived gratitude (though, interestingly, not expressed gratitude) confers resilience to the relationships in the face of stressors, both in an immediate sense and over the long term.

The stress-buffering effects of feeling appreciated were profound and consistent even during periods of extreme stress.

My take?

We know that gratitude seems to have a protective effect against depression, anxiety,6 and other emotional difficulties, and may even promote better physical health.7 But this is the first study I’ve seen that examines the sense of feeling appreciated and being the focus of gratitude in intimate relationships.

It’s clear that feeling appreciated is an important human emotional need. Never or seldom feeling appreciated, or feeling taken for granted, can lead to low morale, despondency, and hopelessness as well as low self-esteem in relationships (and also in the workplace).

It’s often said that some people will take negative attention over no attention, and that’s true – just as when thirsty we may drink dirty water if that’s all we can find. But ultimately we all need to give and receive quality attention.

Expressed appreciation and gratitude is high-quality attention and can make everything better.

The moment we stop seeing the qualities, efforts, and perspectives of our partners may be the moment the relationship starts to die.

Expressed appreciation and gratitude is high-quality attention and can make everything better. The moment we stop seeing the qualities, efforts, and perspectives of our partners may be the moment the relationship starts to die. Click to Tweet

Physical affection, too, is an important contributor to relationship felicity, and thisnext study I found quite intriguing.

Research piece three: Testosterone promotes cuddling, not just aggression

Research out of Emory University has found that the ‘male’ sex hormone testosterone can foster friendly, prosocial behaviour in male rodents (which have a similar central nervous system to humans).8

The work showed how testosterone influences the function of cells that produce oxytocin – the so-called ‘love hormone’, which promotes social bonding and non-sexual affection such as cuddling and hugging.

Lead author Aubrey Kelly, assistant professor of psychology at Emory, said, “For what we believe is the first time, we’ve demonstrated that testosterone can directly promote non-sexual, prosocial behaviour, in addition to aggression, in the same individual.” He went on to suggest that its effects depend “on the social context.”

My take?

Testosterone, the so-called ‘male hormone’ – although of course it’s important for female health and wellbeing too9 – often gets a bad rap.

We hear sweeping, stereotyping terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ bandied around, often with the assumption that testosterone is somehow ‘bad’. And yet testosterone is key to good health for both men and women. Low testosterone levels may produce insomnia, obesity, depression, and low self-esteem/confidence.10

So if healthy testosterone levels not only help maintain muscle mass, self-confidence, and energy but also promote loving affection and caring, maybe it’s time we started to understand that neurobiology is more nuanced than we often assume and that nurturing, empathy, and affection are ‘typical male traits’ as well.

Let’s not apologize for masculinity or blame the ill actions of some people on the gender or race of a general category.

And talking of caring for our fellow men and women…

Research piece four: Positive neighbour involvement can compensate for an insecure mother-child bond

A new study from the University of Michigan demonstrates that neighbourhoods with trusted, encouraging, and engaged adults can help nurture vital social skills among teens with lower mother-child attachment security.11

The researchers cited previous research showing that “[s]ocial skill is a critical asset for adolescents, and early mother-child attachment is an essential contributor to their development” whereas “less secure mother-child attachment is a known risk factor for adolescent social development.”

But happily they found that in cases where that connection between mother and child isn’t secure, trust and connection with neighbours – social cohesion – can partly make up for that, helping the young adults develop good social skills.

The data, comprising 1,876 children at ages 1, 3, and 15, came from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a nationally representative study of American children born between 1998 and 2000.

Lead author Sunghyun Hong said, “Children who live in neighbourhoods with a high degree of social cohesion may have more opportunities to engage within their community and interact with other trusted adults, as well as form friendships with children.”

My take?

If we don’t meet a need in one place, we have a chance to meet it in another. If a therapy client didn’t meet a need sufficiently early in life, I’ve noticed they can often meet that need elsewhere or even later on in life and in that way catch up with aspects of their development.

I recall reading in the Mark Katz book On Playing a Poor Hand Well: Insights from the Lives of Those Who Have Overcome Childhood Risks and Adversities that adults who had it really tough as kids do much better later as adults (emotionally, socially, and even in their careers) if there was at least one encouraging, interested, and kind adult in their lives – perhaps a neighbour, teacher, or any decent peripheral adult.12

The risk of not meeting our needs in balance is that we end up trying to meet them in ways that damage us and others.

We might join a cult to unconsciously try to meet the need for a sense of family and belonging that we haven’t found elsewhere. We might behave aggressively and disruptively when the need for attention isn’t being met in healthy ways.13

But if a person can meet a need that wasn’t met previously (at least, not in a healthy way), then the emotional development that didn’t occur before, or isn’t occurring in a family context, can still happen.

We talk of a ‘father or mother figure’ to refer to someone who serves as an emotional substitute for a real father or mother. While nothing can truly take the place of a real (which is not necessarily to say biological) parent, a parent ‘figure’ can certainly fulfil many of the same needs for a child – just as an infant that can’t breastfeed can still meet its basic nutritional needs by drinking formula from a bottle.

We all have needs and, because we are flexible and adaptive, we are able to meet them in a variety of ways. As this study shows, this is especially true within communities that are strong and intra-supportive.

This is just one reason why community is so important.

But let’s move on. To quote that comedic band of comedians Monty Python, “now for something completely different!”

Research piece five: Witchcraft beliefs are widespread and highly variable

Researcher Boris Gershman of American University in Washington, D.C. recently presented an “exploratory analysis” of witchcraft beliefs around the world based on a dataset from face-to-face and telephone surveys of more than 140,000 people across 95 countries and territories between 2008 and 2017.14

Why does this even matter, you might wonder? Because these kinds of beliefs determine what communities care about and how they interact with governing agencies. By understanding the community’s beliefs, such agencies can deal with communities more sensitively and effectively.

Over 40% of participants reported believing that “certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone.” But while belief in witchcraft exists all around the world, its prevalence varies hugely between countries. For example, 9% of Swedes said they believed in witchcraft versus a whopping 90% of Tunisians.

While witchcraft beliefs can be found across all socio-demographic groups, those with higher levels of economic security and education are less likely to believe in witchcraft. Conversely, belief in witchcraft seems to be much more prevalent in countries with weak institutions, low levels of social trust, and low innovation.

Further, the results suggest that belief in witches is linked to conformist culture and in-group bias, that is, a tendency to favour those who are similar to us and denigrate outsiders.

My take?

Easy as it is to arrogantly dismiss belief in witchcraft, I suspect all or most of us hold ‘unscientific’ beliefs of one kind or another.

Many of us engage in some sort of magical thinking, be it a belief in ghosts, karma, or fate. We may be convinced that just by saying something out loud we will ‘jinx’ it. Or we may be superstitious, which for many people confers a sense of control. Even trusting sources of authority without finding out for ourselves reflects a kind of belief in a ‘higher’ power.

I was particularly struck by the finding that weak institutions, low social trust, and conformist culture and strong groupthink tendencies predicted belief in witchcraft.

Magical thinking, seeing coincidence as causation, feeling oneself to have caused something bad by ‘being bad’, assigning magical powers to someone, and so forth all seem to increase when societal conditions grow tougher.15 If institutions are weak, we may feel more exposed to the vagaries of life and therefore seek some way, any way, to feel a sense that events are explicable and able to be controlled.

Superstitious and magical thought is often a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)16 and psychotic or semi-psychotic disorders such as schizotypal disorder.17 But it can, of course, simply be cultural and not necessarily linked to any disorder.

Before we dismiss superstition as ‘primitive’, we can consider research that shows that being superstitious may confer personal advantages such as better performance.18

And who is to say all magic is bogus anyway?

After all, to paraphrase no lesser scribe than Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed in our philosophies.”

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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