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Research Roundup 6: Redefining Problems, the Benefits of Rising Early, and Why Social Bonding Can Lead to Violence

An uncommon look at the implications and findings of recent psychology research

“People today are in danger of drowning in information; but, because they have been taught that information is useful, they are more willing to drown than they need be. If they could handle information, they would not have to drown at all.”

– Idries Shah, from his book Reflections

I’m bombarded by blizzards of psychological research every hour. Sure, that’s partly down to my mailing list mania. I’m my own worst enemy. But, to be fair, general news outlets also love to deluge us with human behaviour research findings.

A few days ago a Canadian news outlet ran a story on how maternal prenatal emotions impact the experience of childbirth.

This week the BBC ran a story on some research which seems to show that seeing the same doctor over time reduces death rates. (I’m not sure where this leaves me, because I haven’t seen my doctor since the early 1980s!)

And The Mail ran a feature around some research which worryingly tells us why we always worry about things.

But what to make of all these snippets? Fifty shades of glass do not a stained glass window make. How do we put it all together? How is our holistic understanding of what it means to be human enriched by this relentless deluge of information? Or are we all at risk from drowning in ignorance in a sea of plentiful human knowledge?

In this occasional series I aim to build something of a modest life raft to help us navigate at least a tiny part of the boundless ocean of psychological research.

As always, I will outline five recent pieces that have caught my eye and give you my humble take on how these recent findings might fit into the overall pattern of what it means to be human, so we can be informed and not simply intrigued… or baffled! Okay, so what have I got for you this week?

Well, it’s bad news for pessimists! We look at what really makes people happier and healthier, why getting up earlier may prevent depression, how to feel better about social rejection, and, last but not least, why good people can sometimes do evil things.

Let’s get going!

Research piece one: “Prevalence induced concept change” means people redefine problems as they are reduced

I think a large part of the value of psychological knowledge, perhaps the most important part, is that we can use it to see ourselves, and other people, clearly enough to avoid the traps of mechanical thinking and blind assumption. In this way we can become more free and alive.

Disappointingly for pessimists, the world has been getting better. World poverty has greatly lessened.1 Across the globe people are living longer and disease rates are decreasing.2 Fewer people die from war3 or starvation4 than at any other time in recent history.

None of this is to say that aren’t terrible injustices in the world, as there always have been. But it is to say that the prejudice and bias that everything is inevitably getting worse doesn’t stack up to reality.

We are not always good at knowing when we have actually solved problems. What we are good at is redefining solved problems so they don’t seem to be solved at all!

In a series of new studies conducted at Harvard University, researchers have shown that as a problem lessens, humans have a natural tendency to redefine it.5 And they do so in a way that leads them to conceptualize the problem as larger than it really is… leaving them at risk of failing to realize they’ve actually already solved it!

An article from Science Daily assessing the findings of this series of studies framed the research in terms of a simple yet baffling question:

“Although it’s far from perfect by virtually any measure – whether poverty rates, violence, access to education, racism and prejudice or any number of others – the world continues to improve. Why, then, do polls consistently show that people believe otherwise?”6

One of the authors of the Harvard studies, Daniel Gilbert, noted in his research a phenomenon he calls “prevalence induced concept change”. As problems are solved or ameliorated, we have a tendency to redefine them. Or, as Gilbert puts it, “solving problems causes us to expand our definitions of them.”

When a problem is lessened in reality, we start to expand our definition of that problem in order to maintain its prevalence in our minds, or even suggest it has become worse. It’s almost as if we sometimes need to worry.

To quote Gilbert again:

“Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all. Progress, it seems, tends to mask itself.”

My take?

How many clients have a kind of existential layer to their depression, believing people are basically bad and savage and the world is a terrible and worsening place? We often have to deal with this bias in our depressed clients. And it does seem that even as the world has become safer we’ve all become more scared.

Fear ruins lives (unless it’s necessary, in which case it can save lives!). I think many of us are challenge averse because we are risk averse. Our ancestors had to fear lions and tigers even when they weren’t around just in case. I think a part of conscious human evolution would be to bring this tendency to heel.

The trouble with pessimism is that it can, like all biases, be self-fulfilling. We see what we (think we) don’t want to see.

Pessimism, like all biases, can be self-fulfillingClick To Tweet

And to enjoy our successes we need to recognize them. This doesn’t preclude striving for things to be even better, but we can only do that when we can distinguish between what really needs work and what is already improving.

On a more positive note, this next research snippet does suggest ways we can help our clients and ourselves live more secure and healthier lives.

Research piece two: Social pursuits are linked with increased life satisfaction

In a German study entitled “Successfully striving for happiness: Socially engaged pursuits predict increases in life satisfaction”, published in Psychological Science, Julia Rohrer and colleagues asked 582 participants to describe specific strategies for improving their lives.7

Just over 30% of participants mentioned approaches centred on some form of social engagement, such as to “help others”, “spend more time with family”, “spend more time with friends” and so forth. The remaining participants – almost 70% – described some form of nonsocial strategy, such as to “stop smoking”.

Rohrer and colleagues measured life satisfaction of all participants at the time they described these strategies, and again one year later. They found that life satisfaction was increased in those participants who had described social strategies, but unchanged in those who had reported nonsocial strategies.

So it appears that making connections and seeing more people is correlated with greater happiness generally.

My take?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this doesn’t surprise me. Firstly, I would say that people who devise strategies and work to enrich their lives are free, at least to some extent, of the inner psychological shackles of learned helplessness.

They take charge, or at least feel they have some influence. That’s an uplifting realization, and one that the researchers may have helped with.

Secondly, we know that relationships, friendships, even head nodding and smiling acquaintanceships make us happy – or at least happier.8

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do anything that doesn’t involve connecting with others. But it does show us that our lives need to have enough social connectivity. And also that life can feel more meaningful, as well as more healthful, when we work, play and learn alongside other people, because we humans are social creatures.9

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When helping clients it’s always valuable to help them meet their needs for the giving and receiving of attention in healthy ways. And anything we can do to help them increase their sense of being an active and appreciated member of the community will go a long way towards increasing their wellbeing.

No life is lived in a social vacuum, and the all-important sense of meaning comes in part from our relationships.

Now here’s a question that may well be a lot more important than you realize. Are you an early riser?

Research piece three: Early birds are less prone to depression

A recent study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston examined the link between chronotype (sleep-wake preference) and mood disorders among over 32,000 middle-to older-aged female nurses.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, is the biggest and most in-depth observational study ever to explore this link.

The research found that those with an early chronotype (preference for rising early in the morning) had a significantly lower risk of developing depression than those with a later chronotype, even after controlling for environmental factors such as work schedules and light exposure.10

Lead author Céline Vetter, Director of the Circadian and Sleep Epidemiology Laboratory (CASEL) at CU Boulder, suggests that this effect may be related to “the overlap in genetic pathways associated with chronotype and mood”.11

It seems sleeping before midnight and getting up early have an antidepressant effect, or at least some protective effect against the onset of depression independent of other factors.

My take?

This is a perfect example of non-holistic thinking. It’s almost as though the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant had come to life!

It seems to me that the piece of the puzzle these researchers are missing is the connection between REM sleep and depression. We know that depressed people have vastly more REM sleep whilst they are depressed,12 and that too much REM (dream) sleep is exhausting. Conversely, artificially restricting REM sleep in depressed subjects can, very quickly, lessen symptoms of depression.13

We naturally have more REM sleep in the morning (it’s during this lighter sleep that we wake up), so sleeping in when depressed tends to produce more tiredness or ‘paralysis’ in depressed people. Paradoxically, sleeping in can even seem to wear people out! The more you sleep in the mornings, the more exhausting REM sleep you will have – which is toxic for depressed people.

As long as we remain blind to the bigger patterns of human experience, small details will continue to leave us baffled.

And, talking of bafflement, sometimes we have little idea why others reject us. But one thing’s for sure: it can really hurt. So how can we make it hurt less?

Research piece four: Social rejection is painful, but there is a way to feel better about it

A new study shows that people who are more mindful – that is, better able to focus their attention and awareness on the present moment – cope better with social rejection than those with lower levels of mindfulness.14

This study, to be published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was given the kind of title that’s impossible to say once you’ve had a few bevvies: “When less is more: Mindfulness predicts adaptive affective responding to rejection via reduced prefrontal recruitment.”

In case you’ve never noticed, social rejection can be pretty painful. When we experience social rejection, the same parts of the brain are activated as those that respond to physical pain.15

Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kentucky were curious to discover if mindfulness could be a buffer against the distress and pain of social rejection.

The psychologists ran the study with 40 subjects who self-reported their general levels of mindfulness. These subjects had their brains scanned using functional MRI (fMRI) as they played a virtual game in which they believed they were being socially rejected.

When the subjects were interviewed afterwards about how distressed they felt when rejected or excluded, those with higher levels of mindfulness reported less distress.

Upon analysing the fMRI scans, the scientists also found less activation in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex among those who reported greater mindfulness. This brain component is known to assist in the ‘top-down’ inhibitory regulation of both physical and social forms of pain. This result further supports an association between mindfulness and reduced social distress.

In what the authors of the study refer to as a ‘bottom-up’ approach, it seems that being calmly aware of current thoughts and feelings mitigates the pain of social rejection before it has a chance to take root. On the other hand, those who are less mindful expend more effort trying to damp down negative feelings.

My take?

This is a very interesting interpretation of the results. But I’d conjecture that mindfulness promotes objectivity, which in turn promotes wider contextual perception.

It’s one thing to be rejected (or assume you have been). It’s another thing entirely to retreat into your imagination and create scenarios (and concomitant thoughts) such as “no one likes me”, or worse, “no one will ever like me!'”

We often use the imagination to paint simulations of the past or future. But if we are mindful, that is, focused on the present moment, then the imagination will come into play less.

By resisting the temptation to use the ‘magic lantern’ of the imagination to relate the experience of current social rejection to the past (“I’ve never been liked!”) or to the future (“I’ll always be alone!”), we cut down the pain of social rejection by two-thirds!

As Rumi said about the imagination:

“There is no cause for fear. It is imagination, blocking you as a wooden bolt holds the door. Burn that bar.”

Okay, and finally something really topical right now.

Research piece five: Social bonding is a key cause of violence among football (soccer) fans

World Cup fever is virtually inescapable. For an entire month, the world tunes in to support their team and witness incredible skill and agility. But with it inevitably come hooliganism and violence.

Over the years, multiple studies have found an association between sports-related hooliganism and dysfunctional or antisocial behaviour, including violence. But a new study has uncovered a previously unreported motivation for such hooliganism: social bonding and a desire to protect and defend other fans.16

This caught my eye not just because at the time of writing England are about to play Colombia in the World Cup, but also because it pertains, I think, not just to aggressive tribes of sports fans, but to much group violence.

The research, which was carried out at Oxford University and published in Evolution & Human Behaviour, studied 465 soccer fans who were known to be hooligans. Intriguingly, the researchers found that members of super-fan groups are not particularly dysfunctional outside of the stadium. That is, football-related violence seems to be context specific.

Lead study author Dr Martha Newson said:

“Being in a super-fan group of people who care passionately about football instantly ups the ante and is a factor in football violence. Not only because these fans tend to be more committed to their group, but because they tend to experience the most threatening environments, such as being the target of rival abuse, so are even more likely to be ‘on guard’ and battle ready.”

The researchers found that these hooligans were no more likely to be “dysfunctional”, criminal, alcoholic or violent outside of the football context. They also conjectured that social bonding, or “identity fusion”, may be a major motivator behind extremist group behaviour in general.

The researchers note that their findings suggest that fighting extreme behaviour with extreme policing, such as military force, will likely trigger more violence as fans feel forced to “defend” their fellow fans.

My take?

When you are being violent it always feels justified at the time and in the context. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s report on notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961. She was struck by “the banality of evil” – how normal, unthreatening and average the ageing Nazi seemed.

Group violence sweeps otherwise good people into its vortex. It feeds into itself as we revert to tribal instincts and ends come to (seem to) justify means.

We take on group think but also group instinct – especially when we are influenced by the power of conformity, tribal protection and strong leadership.

People in groups committing evil often feel they are doing the right thing. They can and will commit acts they would never have dreamed of committing alone.

Erich Eichmann was one of the key architects of the Holocaust, which killed millions and caused untold suffering and loss. Yet without his Nazi tribe – had that time in history never come to pass – he may have been a bank manager of a provincial town somewhere. A well-respected and even well-liked man perhaps.

The collective energy of a tribe can do amazing things. It can cajole its members into untold evil that masquerades convincingly as ‘the right thing to do’.

Your tribe might have you dehumanizing the ‘opposition’ (which really just means the outsiders). To the Nazis, the Jews became rats to be exterminated. To the Hutu, the Tutsi became cockroaches to be stamped upon (or macheted!). And to the Imperial Japanese medical physicians in the infamous and torturous Unit 731, Chinese men, women, and children came to be known simply as ‘specimens’.

As soon as we start sweepingly referring to ‘outsiders’ from a particular tribe, we have begun down a road that could ultimately lead us to do terrible things for the so-called ‘greater good’.

The biggest arrogance and mistake any of us can make is to assume we are immune to the temptation of committing tribal violence. For in truth, few psychological understandings relate just to other people.

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

And if all this psychology research has ignited your passion for learning, you can read about our online courses here, including How to Lift Depression Fast, which offers a structured approach to depression treatment.

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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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