Exposure to violence in childhood is associated with higher body mass index in adolescence

A research team from Boston Children’s Hospital have recently published a paper on a link between childhood adversity and increased body mass index (BMI) in adolescence.

The project looked at 147 teenagers, 60 of whom had experienced some kind of adversity in childhood.

The results were interesting: a history of sexual or emotional abuse, or of bullying by other children, did not correlate with any increase or decrease in BMI. However, those who had experienced physical abuse or who had seen domestic violence happen in the home had higher BMIs than their peers.

In participants who were witnesses of domestic violence, the likelihood of being overweight as an adolescent was almost six times the average, even after adjusting for potential confounders. There were no significant gender differences – the correlations seemed to be equally prevalent in all genders.

Read the full study here

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Recommendations for Dealing with Cyberbullying

A few months ago, I spoke to Carole Williams, an expert in cyberbullying who speaks at schools and runs training sessions for parents about what to do if their child is being bullied online, and measures they can take to stop it from happening.

But what is cyberbullying? It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, often without explanation of what it means, and what the effects are on its victims.

Image © Michael Cordedda
Image © Michael Cordedda

A group of researchers at Stanford University have recently been looking into this, and their results bring back some good recommendations for its prevention.

The idea was that the researchers would conduct an interdisciplinary study. I’m an advocate of multidisciplinary research teams – my own is an example of one – because it allows a lot of different perspectives to come together, and you end up with analyses that you might otherwise have missed.

Aboujaoude et al searched through several medical journals as well as using open-source resources such as Google to find data about cyberbullying. They went through government legislation, community responses and books, which must have taken a huge amount of time.

Their initial discoveries were perhaps unsurprising. Cyberbullying is quite prevalent, with up to 40% of young people having been victims to it at some point. The most likely groups to be targeted are females and sexual minorities, with males being the main perpetrators. There is a well-established link to suicidal thoughts and actions, as reported in several previous studies.

The researchers conclude that the importance of taking action to combat cyberbullying cannot be underestimated, particularly in an increasingly connected world.

“Available data suggest a serious problem whose consequences are real and should not be dismissed as a “virtual” by-product of an increasingly digitalised childhood and adolescence.”

So, what can we do about it?

According to Aboujaoude et al, the best approach would be multi-faceted rather than simply relying on a single element, such as government legislation, to deal with the problem.

Recommendations included educational media campaigns; programs in schools to help young people deal with concerns about cyberbullying and learn about its effects; parental awareness and oversight; government legislation; and interventions by health professionals such as doctors and mental health workers.

It is good to see subjects like this beginning to receive the attention they need; too often the problems of the “digital native” generation are dismissed by adults as being somehow less than real, simply because they take place online. But it is important to remember that when the majority of a person’s life is lived interconnected with digital devices, traumatic events that occur via those devices are just as important to address as any that might happen offline.

You can find more details about the study via Science Direct.

Examining Subtypes of Sex Offenders

A very interesting study has recently been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, discussing the various subtypes of sexual offenders and their corresponding personalities.

A distinction was made between four groups: paedophilic offenders, non-paedophilic offenders, rapists and a control group of non-sexual offenders.

What is a non-paedophilic offender?

It might sound like an oxymoron, considering that we’re discussing people who commit sexual crimes against children, but a distinction is made in the literature between those who claim to be attracted to children (paedophilic offenders) and those who claim to be attracted predominantly to adults, but who have committed sexual crimes against children. This latter subset are defined as ‘non-paedophilic’, due to the root words from which the term ‘paedophile’ is taken meaning ‘love of children’.

The study

The study aimed to look at different personality types of offenders, with a view to enabling social services and the justice system to provide useful intervention for the people who commit these crimes.

164 male convicted offenders were assessed, of whom 50 were rapists, 20 were paedophilic child molesters, 43 were non-paedophilic child molesters, and 51 were non-sexual offenders.

Four questionnaires were given to each participant: the Adult Attachment Scale, which measures a person’s levels of security, anxiety and avoidance; the Interpersonal Behaviour Survey, which distinguishes between assertive and aggressive behaviours and provides a scale for each; the Brief Symptom Inventory, which provides a brief assessment for psychological problems; and the Socially Desirable Response Set Measure, which evaluates a person’s tendency to give what they perceive to be socially desirable responses, rather than an accurate response.

The results

The results showed distinct differences between each group of offenders.

Paedophilic offenders were more likely to present anxiety in adult relationships than non-paedophilic offenders.

Non-paedophilic offenders were less aggressive compared to rapists and non-sexual offenders, and were less assertive than rapists.

Rapists were the group that scored the highest on aggression.

Further research is required – the group of paedophilic offenders in particular was quite small in comparison to the other groups studied – but the study seems to indicate that different types of offenders have different personality profiles, and therefore any interventions ought to be conducted in different ways depending on the type of offense committed.

The full study can be found in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine via ScienceDirect.

What Effects Does Child Sexual Abuse Have On Adult Life?

15301376636_8ace6d2f1eThe title of this post is quite broad, and so is the study we’re discussing. It’s an ambitious task: to look at a broad array of adult roles and see which ones are the most likely to be affected by historic child sexual abuse, and what the effects are.

The research was conducted through a literature review of studies published since 1980. De Jong et al looked at the fulfilment of adult roles such as marriage, employment and parenting, with a focus on whether – and to what extent – a history of sexual abuse had an effect on people’s psychological and physical functioning in these roles.

Perhaps surprisingly, the results were not entirely straightforward. The attainment of the roles per se wasn’t significantly affected by the abuse suffered in childhood; however, the quality of these adult roles was affected.

I’d be interested to read the full study, as I’d like to know how the researchers are defining ‘quality’, but it’s behind a paywall so unfortunately I can’t access it. I am intrigued though, and I think it’s certainly an interesting area of study – there’s no doubt that child sexual abuse has some effect on adulthood, but it’s interesting that it tends to affect the quality of life rather than its generic categories.

Apparently the most consistent findings showed a link between child sexual abuse and physical intimate partner violence in adulthood. In other words, people who were sexually abused as children are more likely to end up with a partner who abuses them physically. This isn’t entirely surprising and tallies with my own prior research, but I’d be interested in looking a bit more closely at this link and trying to get to the reasons behind it.

The study is published in Aggression and Violent Behaviour and will be available online from the 2nd of May 2015.

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Guys, I Really Am A Ravenclaw!

Which Harry Potter house are you in? Ask anyone of a certain generation and you’ll probably receive an answer. J.K. Rowling’s series of books sparked huge international interest, and expanded into films, games, a real-world studio tour… the works.

To cope with this growing demand (or perhaps just because she wanted to), Rowling put together Pottermore, a site where fans can get together, play through challenges and unlock elements of the stories that aren’t mentioned in the books. They can also get sorted into one of the four Hogwarts houses – Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin – to find out about their personality.

But what does your Harry Potter house really say about you?

Without wanting to sound like a clickbait article title, it’s now possible to find out, or at least to measure some associated characteristics.

Crysel et al‘s new research paper in Volume 83 of Personality and Individual Differences aims to answer this question. The researchers asked fans from online Harry Potter groups to tell them which house they’d been sorted into on Pottermore, then asked them to complete a personality measure.

The results were intriguing.

Ravenclaws (my house!) are “known for wit and learning”, according to the books, and the study found that fans who had been sorted into this house on Pottermore scored highly on the ‘need for cognition’ scale.

GIF-bellatrix-lestrange-31336859-250-157Slytherins, who are “known for using any means to achieve their ends”, scored highly on Dark Triad traits. What are Dark Triad traits? Narcissim, Machavellianism, and psychopathy. Sound like Bellatrix to you?

 

Surprisingly, however, the other two houses didn’t bring back the results the researchers had expected. They saw no correlation between Gryffindor (known for bravery) and extraversion or openness, and no correlation between Hufflepuff (known for loyalty) and the need to belong.

Perhaps there’s something about Ravenclaws and Slytherins that just makes us relate even more to our houses than other personality types. But we’ll leave that for future research.

Which house are you in? Do you think your result is accurate?

Full research article available via ScienceDirect.

Stop. Talk. Listen.

A lot of the work I do touches on working with young people. Whether it’s mentoring, teaching and training, volunteering at youth groups or my other job which involves child protection cases, I often find myself in situations where I see some of the things the world throws at young people and the ways they have to try to deal with life.

The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution also recognise this problem, and they’re working to solve it through a series of initiatives that have been set up since 2011.

The Background 

In a national survey commissioned by the SCCR, it was discovered that 25% of young people thought about running away on a monthly basis. 5,000 young people each year become homeless due to issues relating to home relationships breaking down. Mediation in the past has been sketchy, with help often only available after the point of crisis.

What’s Happening? 

To address these issues, the SCCR has launched a new public national awareness campaign called Stop. Talk. Listen. The idea is to get people talking about things before they become such huge problems that they prompt a breakdown of the family unit. There are campaigns on Twitter and Instagram using the #StopTalkListen tag, in which young people share the most common sources of consternation in their homes. These can range from the more mundane (“who does the dishes” seems to be a popular choice) to things that cause a great deal of distress.

Even the smaller problems can just be the tip of a bigger iceberg, though, and this is part of the SCCR’s campaign: to get people talking about the more everyday issues before they build into something larger and more unwieldy.

There’s a new interactive website as well, where people can download resources and you can watch video clips of people whose lives have been helped by mediation in the past. There’s also a forum on the website, and a few events and training courses coming up for people who are interested in conflict resolution.

Head over to the SCCR’s website and see what you can do to help.

Why Does Burnout Happen To Students?

Researchers at a Korean university have been studying the links between perfectionism, motivation and burnout in academic students.

I found the concept interesting because I’ve always been very motivated to study. Not necessarily to acquire pieces of paper with high marks on them, but to further my own learning. As a teenager I was constantly being told by my teachers that I was “doing too much”; advice which I stubbornly ignored as I added more and more A-level subjects to my teetering pile of exam preparation papers.

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As an adult I’ve become a little more balanced, though my friends may not entirely agree. I’m still very motivated. I love learning and I enjoy efficiency, and where possible I try to learn at least one new thing every day. Sometimes this is just discovering that a city I’ve never been to before is very beautiful; sometimes it’s checking out a mathematics textbook from my local library and solving equations late into the night.

So I was interested to read the results of a study that focuses on precisely these points: if someone’s really motivated, and studying because they want to, then are they still likely to burn out?

It would seem not.

Chang et al surveyed 283 students, studying three areas: perfectionism, motivation, and academic burnout. The results were interesting (and I particularly like them because they back up my own arguments for being a bit of a workaholic).

They discovered that students who were intrinsically self-motivated – who drew their motivation from within; from a love of the subject they were studying, for example – presented as self-oriented perfectionists and had comparatively lower chances of burning out. In other words, there is a correlation between doing something because you want to, and because you love it, and it not making you ultimately burn out.

On the other hand, students who were socially-prescribed perfectionists – those who were pushed by parents, peers or similar to become “perfect versions” of themselves – were extrinsically motivated and had much higher chances of burning out.

In other words: do what you love, love what you do. That way, you can keep going even when other people might have burned out long ago.

The full study is available via ScienceDirect.

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Why We Should Talk to Terrorists

23232Last night I went along to a public lecture by Jonathan Powell at LSE. It was called Why We Should Talk to Terrorists and was discussing people’s reticence to engage in conversation with terrorists and his own experience of negotiating with various terrorist organisations, most notably the IRA.

I went partly because I’ve been thinking about starting a new piece of research about terrorism for a while, and Powell’s view seemed to back up my own thoughts about there not being very much psychological research about understanding the behaviour and ideology of terrorists.

It is, in my opinion, a fascinating area of study and one that is certainly topical. I took copious notes throughout Powell’s lecture (detailed below) and ended up impulse-buying a copy of his book, Talking to Terrorists, which is out now.

Notes

In order to negotiate with terrorist groups, you need to be willing to put yourself in their territory and demonstrate trust.

Northern Ireland was the most difficult terrorist negotiation with which he was personally involved.

There is no such thing as a single model for dialogue with terrorist groups; all conflicts have different resolutions, but there are lessons that can be learned.

Governments always say they won’t talk to terrorists, but they almost always do so in the end. We have a collective amnesia about this, but we ought to remember it.

The main arguments people use against opening a dialogue are appeasement, legitimising and rewarding bad behaviour. Powell believes all of these to be invalid.

There seems to be no real alternative to talking if the group has genuine support; you can’t “police them out”. Decapitation – i.e. removing the leader – doesn’t usually work.

“If there’s a political problem, you have to find a political solution to it, not a military one.”

It’s difficult for democratic governments to be seen to talk to terrorists. People do understand in time, though. Governments will usually use intelligence agencies for these kinds of negotiations rather than speaking to them directly; for example, the SIS was used in communications with the IRA.

You need a level of bipartisanship when negotiating for peace. For example, Tony Blair supported John Major’s efforts to negotiate with the IRA; it would have been much more difficult if he hadn’t. In places where the government’s opposition party is working against the leading party, negotiating becomes almost impossible.

It is much easier if a third party is involved, but this can be difficult for a government. They fear a loss of control. However this has improved since the end of the Cold War. Sometimes this is the UN or a non-threatening government with a non-colonial past, e.g. Norway. Sometimes NGOs can now also play a part.

Making contact with/finding armed groups can be difficult. Upon making first contact with one terrorist group, the negotiator was told “No one has tried to talk to me in thirty years.” Sometimes you can find them in jail, e.g. starting conversations with Mandela in Africa. The point of first contact is to build trust; these groups want people to listen to them. Often you have to do a lot of listening, sometimes thousands of hours. It’s not just about listening, though, but actually hearing what they’re saying; understanding the nuances.

This can be difficult: sometimes mediators get a form of Stockholm syndrome or start “going native”, sympathising too much. Often terrorists live in a (physical and) mental ghetto, only communicating with those who share their views.

At some point an academic stalemate is reached, in which both sides realise they can’t win and it becomes uncomfortable.

There is a problem with these mutually hurting stalemates if they are too comfortable. Both sides need to be feeling the pain in order for negotiations to properly get under way.

Strong leadership is important for a successful peace process, e.g. Nelson Mandela.

“It’s when a leader thinks that a problem can be solved and that he can do it that it gets solved.”

Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe the problem of the IRA could be solved. John Major believed that it could be solved but that he couldn’t solve it. Tony Blair believed that it could be solved and that he could solve it, and that is when the negotiation process stepped up.

Almost no preparations seem to be made for negotiations, and they need to be. Negotiation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

“The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there’s no tunnel.”

Your job as a negotiator is to build the tunnel: put in place a process that allows negotiations to happen.

You need ingenuity to finish a negotiation. Getting to an agreement is not the conclusion. Usually it then takes several years to implement.

Terrorism isn’t going to go away. The only tools we’ll ever have are fighting them and talking to them. We also have to deal with the communities in which they move.

An agreement/conclusion is generally built on failures. Strange thing that happens in negotiations: you end up at a place of peace which seems inevitable once you’re there but which previously seemed insoluble.

Sometimes people try to use a process to manage a situation rather than to actually solve it. You do need a process in order to get to an agreement.

There should be no limit on whom we talk to; sometimes you can’t properly negotiate, but it’s worth talking. Each time we meet a new group, we say we can’t talk to them, but eventually realise it’s the only solution.

“Their rationality tends to be found out when you sit down and talk to them.”

What could we talk to ISIS about? There are genuine concerns of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria which make ISIS’s life easier and which need to be addressed.

Q&A

1. Should there be an International Justice Court? Could this provide a platform for community groups to deal with people who are ‘above the law’, e.g. political and religious figureheads? 

There already is an international court (ICC) but it wouldn’t help. Terrorism feeds on grievances but it tends to be frustrations about people not being able to get what they want through political means.

2. Hostages – should we engage in negotiations? 

This is always a difficult question because it’s so emotionally charged. Of course if you were being held hostage you’d want your government to negotiate for your release, but hostage ransoms is one of the main ways terrorists fund their organisations, therefore by bowing to their requests you’re supporting their cause.

3. Colombian government – what measures should they take to deal with the eroding trust in the institution of government? 

The public often want difficult things, e.g. a peace agreement with no price. The ICC has changed a lot; now you can’t have amnesties and let people off because the ICC argues that without justice you can’t come to a proper agreement. Very difficult balance; Colombia will be the guinea pig for this kind of situation moving forward.

4. Is there any way to factor in the behavioural sciences (and awareness thereof) into counter terror?

Yes, definitely. Psychology and anthropology are very important. These are the skills that make a real difference. Currently the literature is scarce but it is a field that is likely to grow over the coming years.

5. What are your conclusions on what happened to Terry Waite?

He deserves credit for trying to negotiate; it’s a shame he got captured.

6. Are mutually hurting stalemates a prerequisite for negotiations? If not, whose is the prerogative to start negotiating? 

Mutually hurting stalemate is a useful tool.  You have to keep trying to negotiate; don’t wait. Most times you’ll be frustrated, but keep trying. Responsibility for this rests with the government. Governments always try military solutions first; when this doesn’t work they sometimes resort to other methods e.g. killing people, sometimes they up the ante, etc. Often this doesn’t make a difference.

7. Most of the literature on terrorists is written by psychologists who have little expertise in actual negotiations. What is your view on academic input? Is there something missing? 

There is crossover between the literature on negotiation and terrorism. It’s useful but it’s unripe. It’ll be a couple more decades before it’ll really be a proper academic field.

8. What are the personalities of terrorists and negotiators? 

A certain amount of humility is required to be a negotiator. In terms of terrorist leaders, to be successful in negotiations you need to have someone who thinks politically about an issue in order to have a political discussion.

9. What about insurgencies and disparate groups with no organisation / military response? 

The importance of a group being coherent and cohesive is crucial. Boko Haram is a good example of this: it’s not cohesive so you can’t make peace with the whole thing.

10. How to define the parties: who are the terrorists? Who are the ‘we’? 

Terrorism is not a useful term. Terror is a tactic that can be used by anyone, and often the people who we start off by calling terrorists we end up welcoming and even celebrating, e.g. Nelson Mandela. Unless you understand this you will never get anywhere.

The talk was fascinating and a real insight into the mind of a negotiator. Needless to say the views above are those of Jonathan Powell rather than my own, but it’s certainly given me some things to think about if I do decide to pitch some ideas for a study on terrorists.

LSE run public events on a regular basis, you can find out more about them here.

Who Needs to Think When You Have a Smartphone?

When was the last time you did maths in your head? Dividing up the bill at a restaurant has become much easier now that everyone has a smartphone and there’s no need for mental acrobatics. Likewise, if you’re debating a point with a friend and you reach an impasse (or even just get a bit tired of arguing), you can easily pull out your smartphone and find out who’s right.

A group of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been studying this phenomenon among smartphone users, and have published an interesting study entitled The brain in your pocket: Evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking.

Barr et al frame smartphone usage as an example of what they term the ‘extended mind’. What does this mean?

5551772922_61255e9b24Like we were saying before, it means that we no longer rely on our brains for some of the analytical types of thinking that can easily be passed on to a smartphone. Their study relies on already existing data which suggest that, given the choice, people will forego analytical thinking, which requires a significant level of effort, in lieu of quick and easy intuition.

Across three studies, it was discovered that people who are generally prone to thinking more intuitively and less analytically when given problems to test their reasoning abilities were more likely to rely on their smartphones for information in day-to-day life. However, the amount of time spent using a smartphone for entertainment or social networking had no effect, and nor did proneness to boredom.

Instead, it seems that people, and particularly those who rely on a more intuitive way of thinking generally, are using their smartphones as a sort of extension of their minds, passing on certain higher cognitive functions such as analytical and mathematical skills to their devices.

The full study can be accessed in volume 48 of Computers in Human Behaviour.

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Parental Expectations, Perfectionism and Spirituality

A fascinating study from the University of Michigan has recently revealed a correlation between perfectionism, spirituality and parental expectations.

Chang et al examined the relationships between perfectionism and spirituality in a sample of college students. They found that students who exhibited perfectionist behaviours, such as maintaining excessively high personal standards and organisational skills, also scored highly on a spirituality scale.

100_0556.JPGUpon conducting regression analyses, the team found that dimensions of perfectionism were also unique predictors of different dimensions of spirituality, and that parental expectations were a positive predictor for all three dimensions of spirituality being studied.

Interestingly, maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism, such as concern about making mistakes or parental criticism, were negatively associated with spirituality.

Personally, I would be interested in seeing an extension of this study in which the religious beliefs of the adult students were charted against those of their parents, in particular looking at those who had converted to a different religious faith upon growing up. Presumably Chang et al‘s results indicated that the level of spirituality remains the same regardless of the beliefs themselves, but I believe it would be interesting to look into conversion rates, compared with the general population, and any potential differences in fervency of belief between those who had converted to a different spiritual belief system and those who had remained with the beliefs of their parents.

The full study can be found in volume 79 of Personality and Individual Differences.

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