Best and Worst of Psychology & Psychiatry – February 2015

A flurry of research on the power of belief, and how we approach risky and subconscious decisions and behaviors, makes for some intriguing and life altering insights in this month’s best and worst findings from the rapidly evolving fields of psychology and psychiatry.

We would also like to celebrate the February birthdates of two psychology researchers, one from our research past, Ruth Mack Brunswick, the other from our research future, Linda Papadopoulos. Ruth Mack Brunswick was a close confidante of Freud and is responsible for much of the development of Freudian theory. Linda Papadopoulos is one of the most well-known and respected psychologists in the UK and US, and is a master disseminator of psychology research and practices. Here’s to two world-changing psychologists!

The Best

The power of belief could help treat addiction

The power of belief alone either erased or enhanced the effects of nicotine in participants who smoked identical cigarettes depending on whether they believed they were nicotine-free or not, respectively. This groundbreaking development means that in the future we may be able to reverse-engineer addiction by hijacking the belief system. Professor Read Montague, lead author, said:

“Our research group has begun to show that beliefs are as powerful a physical influence on the brain as neuroactive drugs.”

The word “God” inspires risky non-moral choices

A series of eight studies reveal that reminders of God can increase nonmoral risk taking and reduce moral risk taking. For example, simply including a reference to God in an online advert made for a higher click through rate skydiving adverts (non-moral risk) and lower click through rates for adverts for learning how to bribe (moral risk). Graduate student and lead author, Daniella Kupor, said:

“We were surprised to find that even a simple colloquial expression – “God knows what you’re missing” – influences whether people click on a real online ad that is promoting a risky behavior.

Car accident deaths could be prevented by movement-enhanced road signs

Due to the fact that stopping an extra foot away can make the difference between life and death, researchers have found a way to make drivers react significantly faster to warning signs. Signs that evoke more perceived movement increased the observer’s perception of risk, resulting in grabbing their attention earlier and most importantly, promoted earlier stopping. Co-author, Professor Ryan Elder, said:

“If the figures look like they’re walking, then your brain doesn’t worry about them shooting out into the road. But if they’re running, then you can imagine them being in front of your car in a hurry.”

New research into therapy co-targeting PTSD and substance misuse

A $412,000 NIH grant has been awarded to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School to compare a brand new therapy, Treatment of Integrated Post-traumatic Stress and Substance Use (TIPSS), to standard cognitive behavioral therapies for the combined treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorder. Assistant Professor Vujanovic said:

“Treatment for PTSD has historically been done separately from treatment for substance use disorders. We are testing an evidence-based integrated treatment designed to target both in the same therapy with the goal of improving outcomes.”

Lessening dangerous drinking behaviour in college students

The research indicates that there are at least six distinct subgroups of college students based on how they respond to brief motivational interventions. The largest group (77% of sample) tend to be lighter, inexperienced drinkers, and while they reduced heavy drinking after intervention, this was followed by a decay of intervention effects. In contrast, analysis of the second largest group (11%), revealed that 1 in 10 college students are intervention-resistant. Professor James Henson, lead author, said:

“This research will help other colleges and universities better understand who is least and best served by standard student alcohol interventions. Brief prevention efforts can be effective but may require colleges to implement intervention boosters to maintain these effects.”

The Worst

We endanger lives texting while driving because other people do it

Findings suggest that people are socialized into increasingly common texting and mobile multiplexing (i.e., communication using two or more media on the mobile) simply through observing others using a mobile recklessly while driving. It’s a case of monkey see, monkey do and the research paper suggests that:

“… texting while driving has become a cultural artifact in the United States… The findings could inform future awareness campaigns and technology developers to help establish a safer driving environment within the multitasking culture.”

Sad movies make you eat more

Moviegoers ate 28 percent more popcorn when watching Love Story than when watching a romantic comedy like Sweet Home Alabama, and 55% more popcorn watching the tearjerker Solaris over My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Researchers suggest you turn this bad news on its head, and instead, use this knowledge to trick yourself into eating healthier foods. Professor Brian Wansink, lead author, said:

“Sad movies also lead people to eat more of any healthy food that’s in front of them. It’s a quick and mindless way of getting more fruit or veggies into your diet.”

Risky autism “treatments” proven to fail persist in popularity

The research highlights that facilitated communication (FC) and related “techniques” continue to be widely used despite being convincingly debunked by research. They suggest that FC has survived by adopting new names and that the inherent difficulties in treating autism may make it a fad magnet, with an understandable desire for quick fixes. Professor Scott Lilienfeld, lead author, said:

“The emotional appeal of FC is very powerful and understandable, and no doubt the overwhelming majority of people who use FC are sincere and well-meaning. The problem is, it doesn’t work.”

Anxious people more apt to make bad decisions amid uncertainty

Highly anxious people have a tougher time reading the environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome. For example, an all too common lover’s quarrels may be catastrophized in the mind of people prone to anxiety as a doomed relationship, as they struggle to pick up on clues as to whether they are in a stable or changing situation. Assistant Professor Sonia Bishop, lead author, said:

“Our results show that anxiety may be linked to difficulty in using information about whether the situations we face daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not, and deciding how to react…It’s a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, trying to work out if the same rules apply or if everything is different and if so, what choices you should make.”

Antipsychotic prescriber’s risky behavior in treating Medicaid-insured children

The bad news is that antipsychotics may be used on children too early in the treatment plan for things like oppositional behavior, when non-drug treatments like behavioral therapy that could be tried first. But the good news is that around 92% of doctors prescribed the drugs under the proper behavioral circumstances. Assistant Professor David Rettew, lead author, said:

“I’m not anti-antipsychotics; I just want to make sure they’re used very carefully. These findings could help us design a game plan for measures to improve best-practice prescribing.”


Browning M, Behrens TE, Jocham G, O’Reilly JX, & Bishop SJ (2015). Anxious individuals have difficulty learning the causal statistics of aversive environments. Nature neuroscience PMID: 25730669

Cian, L., Krishna, A., & Elder, R. (2015). A Sign of Things to Come: Behavioral Change through Dynamic Iconography Journal of Consumer Research DOI: 10.1086/680673

Gu X, Lohrenz T, Salas R, Baldwin PR, Soltani A, Kirk U, Cinciripini PM, & Montague PR (2015). Belief about nicotine selectively modulates value and reward prediction error signals in smokers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112 (8), 2539-44 PMID: 25605923

Henson JM, Pearson MR, & Carey KB (2015). Defining and Characterizing Differences in College Alcohol Intervention Efficacy: A Growth Mixture Modeling Application. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology PMID: 25730522

Kupor DM, Laurin K, & Levav J (2015). Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking. Psychological science PMID: 25717040

Lilienfeld, S., Marshall, J., Todd, J., & Shane, H. (2015). The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 1-40 DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2014.976332

Rettew, D., Greenblatt, J., Kamon, J., Neal, D., Harder, V., Wasserman, R., Berry, P., MacLean, C., Hogue, N., & McMains, W. (2015). Antipsychotic Medication Prescribing in Children Enrolled in Medicaid PEDIATRICS DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-2260

Seiler SJ (2015). Hand on the wheel, mind on the mobile: an analysis of social factors contributing to texting while driving. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 18 (2), 72-8 PMID: 25684607

Image via life_in_a_pixel / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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