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Research Roundup 5: Depressed Language, 5-Year Olds’ Reputations and Do You Phub People?

Revelations from recent psychology research

It amazes me that the biggest organ in the human body could have existed undiscovered until 2018!1

The interconnective ‘interstitium’, a vast network of fluid-filled vessels which protect other organs, among a myriad of functions, has only just been seen.

It was discovered, it seems, because two different types of scientists worked together, using different tools and perspectives. Each on their own could not see what was – literally – just beneath the skin.2 But both of them together could build a picture of this new organ, and all the new understandings of disease and treatment it may entail.

If you don’t know what an elephant is, groping in the dark feeling different parts of it may leave you assuming that the leg or the ear is the whole animal.3 But if you compare notes with others feeling the same animal, a different picture would emerge. Together you could build up a picture of the whole reality of this yet-to-be-understood elephant.

We live in times of flood. There is a deluge of available facts. We risk drowning in (seemingly) unrelated drops of curious information, but may miss seeing what is all about us. The bigger patterns of meaning. Perhaps the ocean itself.

In this occasional series I take a brief look at some recent psychological research. What might it mean in the bigger picture? How can we fit pieces together to make a comprehensible pattern?

I’ll summarize the research and then give my own take on it.  But I may miss large parts of the elephant. So if you see something I don’t or feel you have seen more of the truth than I have, please share your take on these pieces of research.

So what have I got for you this week?

Picking up pieces of the human puzzle

In this piece I’ll be looking briefly at the kind of language depressed people use, the reputation of five year olds, the toxic relationship damage of ‘phubbing’ (do you do that?), why you should not quit exercise cold turkey (or even at all), and why the pursuit of happiness can make you unhappy.

So without further ado…

Research piece one: Depressed people use language differently

Recent research found that absolutist words are indicative of depression.4 And people experiencing suicidal ideation were found to use even more absolutist words than non-suicidal depressed people.

It’s been known for a while, and it’s hardly surprising, that the more depressed someone is the more they use negative words and ruminate to toxic levels.5

It’s also not news that depressed people’s language, both verbal and written,  becomes more self-referential during depression, and the more suicidal they feel the more first-person pronouns they tend to use – pronouns such as ‘my’, ‘myself’, ‘I’, and ‘mine’.6 They also use considerably fewer second and third-person pronouns, such as ‘they’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘them’.7

It’s not clear whether this increase in self-referential language (and decrease in language relating to others) is indicative of a causal mindset of depression or a result of depression. I suspect it’s a bit of both.

But this new research has found a linguistic style even more predictive of depression than self-referential terms.

In this 2018 study, the researchers carried out three studies analysing 63 internet forums with over 6,400 members. They used “Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count” software to measure levels of linguistic absolutism.

Because all-or-nothing thinking has so often been observed in depressed clients in clinical practice, they predicted that anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation forums would contain more absolutist words than control forums – and that’s exactly what they found. They also found that suicidal ideation forums contained the most absolutist words of all, even more than anxiety and depression forums.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that even people on forums for those recovered from depression used more absolutist, black-or-white, all-or-nothing language compared with the control group. This is suggestive that absolutist thinking may be a risk factor for depression.

My take?

It’s long been observed that strong emotional states seem to produce all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking. Or, as the researchers put it, ‘absolute’ thinking and language. A kind of negative extremism.

Strong emotional states can produce all-or-nothing thinkingClick To Tweet

We frequently hear depressed (and anxious and angry) clients use absolutist terms such as ‘absolutely’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘completely’, ‘entire’, ‘everything’, ‘nothing’, and so forth. Hearing someone you know use language like this may set off alarm bells.

Ditching the extremism

When we practitioners help reframe a limiting negative perception, more often than not we are helping the client see not just differently or positively, but wider.

Absolutist language is used in political dictatorships and by people who want to whip others up emotionally. So where might this absolutism come from?

The fight-or-flight response is pretty much an all-or-nothing state. And when we’re in this heightened state of arousal, the more emotional we become, the more our thinking will reflect that physiological all-or-nothing stress state.

There is also perhaps a danger that absolutist thinking and language can spread. We live in times of polarity, in which shades of grey and nuanced, flexible takes on reality are minimized in favour of big, emotion-fuelling headlines.

What we find is that when clients relax more in their lives and meet more of their needs, their thinking becomes less extremist naturally. And their language follows suit.

But we can also help them modify their thoughts directly. Not by arguing with them (never, to use an absolutist word, try to out-argue an extremist!), but by connecting with them, and subtly and sometimes incrementally helping them see bigger, wider and more flexible perspectives.

We often find as our clients improve and become happier and calmer they use more moderate words like ‘sometimes’, ‘partly’ and so forth.

Sometimes we need to be absolutist, but not always!

And now for something completely different.

Research piece two: We start caring about our reputations as early as kindergarten

According to new research, by the time kids are at primary school, they already care what others think.8 Recent research shows that as early as age five, children already have a sense of their social status.

Reputation matters. At least to most of us, what others think of us (or what we think they think) is important. Research has recently found that many adults are even prepared to pay to improve their social media image.9 We like to be liked or respected. We love to be loved.

But of course reputation and status concerns didn’t originate with the advent of social media. No, really! Status is and has always been an important drive, but uncontrolled and misdirected it can lead us to some terrible places.

Research by psychologists Ike Silver and Alex Shaw showed that our focus on social status and how others view us starts around the age of five. It’s around this time that young children begin to cultivate their image to build a positive reputation.

The researchers found that children will vary their behaviour in order to seem moral or socially good in the eyes of people they care about.

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It was previously believed that ‘reputational strategies’ emerged around the age of nine. This research is therefore very significant: We now know that we actually start to monitor our own reputation at a much younger age.

My take?

Frankly I’m surprised psychologists are surprised by this. We are social creatures and need to develop a sense of how we are perceived so we can gain social skills, a sense of empathy and also a sense of status. If we flip this over, we can also see that conscious attempts to rip apart other people’s reputations and therefore threaten them with social exclusion can happen early in the social world of children.

Bullying happens when the perpetrator intentionally tries to destroy, or block the completion of, one or more of another’s basic primal emotional (or even physical) needs. Reputation shredding, telling tales about other people, spreading rumours and public shaming are features of bullying from quite early on I suspect.

But more generally, these new findings about children’s concern with reputation present a developmental challenge. The challenge is: Can young children learn not to care too much what others think? Can they develop so as not to build their whole sense of self-respect on what they imagine others think of them?

Understanding your reputation is one thing. Being enslaved to it is another.

Oh, and talking of social exclusion…

Research piece three: ‘Phubbing’ can threaten our basic human needs

Ever stolen a moment while in a social setting to check your Facebook likes or what’s new on Instagram? Perhaps these new findings will make you reconsider next time you reach for your phone.

Researchers have shown that snubbing the person you’re with to focus on your phone – ‘phubbing’, as they call it – can threaten our basic human need to belong and potentially cause serious damage to the relationship.10

Ever been phubbed? I have. I may have even done it myself, though I hope not without good reason. I know, that’s what everyone thinks!

Researchers Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Professor Karen Douglas of Kent’s School of Psychology found that phubbing had a significant negative impact on the way the person being phubbed perceived the interaction, and made them feel less connected to the phubber and less positive about themselves and the relationship.

The researchers concluded that unlike other, more well-studied forms of social exclusion, phubbing can happen anywhere, any time. Phones are so ubiquitous that the conversation partner can be ignored at just about any moment.

My take?

This seems obvious, but I think it’s important.

How many parents of young children miss moments of being actually present with their children to focus on some other absent person? How many people have looked forward to a real live interaction with a friend or lover only to be locked out in favour of some other digital connection?

The need for attention is primary, and when that need is thwarted we suffer. The fair and decent exchange of human attention is one of the most precious commodities we have as a society.

And if the health of a relationship isn’t enough motivation to limit phone use when with others, maybe this is:

Another piece of research has shown that people who use their smartphones while out for dinner with friends or family enjoy themselves less than those who don’t.11

We have all had to adapt to the new technology very suddenly, and in a sea of perceived benefits we are only more recently starting to see some of the more damaging effects of the ‘new normal’. The great irony of our time might be that increased opportunities for electronic connection are making some of us less truly connected.

I think we need to be very careful about this.

And also about this…

Research piece four: Stopping exercise can increase symptoms of depression

New research shows that stopping your exercise regime can increase depressive symptoms.12

Julie Morgan, a PhD student working in the University of Adelaide’s Psychiatry department, conducted a literature review to examine the effects of stopping exercise in 152 active adults. They had each exercised for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, for three months.

“In some cases, ceasing this amount of exercise induced significant increases in depressive symptoms after just three days,” says Professor Bernhard Baune, Head of Psychiatry at the University of Adelaide and senior author on the paper. “Other studies showed that people’s depressive symptoms increased after the first one or two weeks, which is still quite soon after stopping their exercise.”

My take?

There has long been evidence that regular exercise is a boon for mental health – an effective natural antidepressant whose side effects include better weight management, improved sleep and mood and better self-esteem.13

But this is the first time I’ve seen evidence proving that same association but in the opposite direction – evidence of the deleterious effects of discontinuing exercise. Of course, it chimes with common sense.

We are meant to move, and without activity and exercise we will instinctively feel diminished and unhappier than we could be.

Get moving, often, and keep doing it!

And finally…

Research piece five: The happier you try to be, the less happy you become

It seems paradoxical, but new research shows that the pursuit of happiness can lead people to feel as if they don’t have enough time in the day, which in turn can make them feel unhappy.14

Oh, the irony! The pressure to attain happiness, that coveted state of mind and body, as an end of itself makes people more unhappy.

Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University in the US and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada conducted four studies investigating how the state of happiness and the pursuit of happiness affected the way people perceived time. Their key finding was that pursuing happiness caused the participants to think of time as scarce.

My take?

I see happiness as a side effect of meeting our needs in balance, not as some nebulous aim in and of itself.

In fact, I think the search for happiness should be scrubbed and replaced with a search for meaning. Squeeze out the meaning of your life and the juice may well be happiness.

The problem here, I think, is that there can be a kind of starry-eyed, amorphous fantasy around the idea of happiness. As though it’s some nirvanic state that once reached will persist forever in some golden realm where there are no problems or fluctuating moods.

We can ask ourselves: What happens when I unwrap the word ‘happiness’? Does it mean beaming ear to ear 24/7 despite the terrible setbacks that might beset my neighbour? Does it mean I have greater levels of engagement and fun in life? Does it mean I’m contented more often? Or does it mean all or none of these things?

So many people who tell me they “(just!) want to be happy!” have never stopped to think about the reality of what that word would actually mean in their life. Only when you ask the right questions will they give you something practical to help you and them form real goals through which a state of heightened wellbeing will be achieved as a byproduct of doing things differently.

I think the time element in this research is interesting. Feeling that you should be getting happiness can cause you to feel that time is running out and that other people are happy but you are still hanging around in the starting gates.

Interestingly, the researchers found that for people who felt they had already attained some happiness (perhaps after keeping a gratitude journal), time perception seemed to normalize and they didn’t feel like they were missing out or running out of time.

The researchers found that feeling pressed for time (because you are consciously pursuing happiness) leads people to be less likely to volunteer or help other people in other ways. But we know that focusing away from pure self-interest and helping others has the effect of increasing happiness.15

And, to come full circle, I wonder whether these people pursuing personal happiness as a goal in itself also tend to use more absolutist words (see research piece one above). Maybe thinking in absolutes, even in a positive sense, can cause unhappiness in the form of disappointment. Just an idea.

Pursuing happiness as an end in itself without understanding your real needs may be akin to chasing your shadow and wondering why you never actually catch up with it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my ideas on these recent research pieces and I’d love to hear any ideas you have.

Helping a UPTV client move on

This client can’t stop thinking about the fact her husband walked out on her and her daughter five years before. This was, tragically, two years after her son was killed in a road accident. She resentfully and obsessively ruminates about her ex-husband and every night, over two or three large glasses of wine, “stalks” him on social media.

She feels she can’t move on. He seems blithely unaware and fine with it all, although he makes continual attempts to bridge the difficulties in his relationship with the daughter. She feels he is fundamentally a good man but is insensitive, and she’s resentful and struggling financially. She wants help moving on, focusing on him less and more on building up her own life. Sign up here to be notified when UPTV is open to new members.

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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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