Language evolves. The fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived but 25 generations ago, would struggle to communicate with us. Word meanings change. Yesterday’s evangelicals who led the abolition of Britain’s slave trade would wince at a particular subset of today’s American evangelicals—Trump acolytes who are infrequent worshippers, and for whom “evangelical” has become more of a cultural than a religious identity. In political discourse, a “socialist” becomes not just a person who favors public-owned industries, but someone who advocates reduced inequality and a stronger social safety net. And “critical race theory,” a once obscure idea in law journals that has been nonexistent in social psychology’s prejudice chapters and books, has been distorted and inflated as a way to malign efforts to ameliorate racism and teach real history. Similar concept creep has happened in the mental health world, observes University of Melbourne psychologist Nick Haslam. Concepts with a precise meaning have expanded to capture other or less extreme phenomena. Examples: “Addiction” (compulsive substance use) has expanded to include money-depleting gambling, sexual fixations, time-draining gaming, and even excessive shopping and social media use, as in: “I’m addicted to my phone.” Thus, between 1970 and 2020, the proportion of academic psychology abstracts mentioning “addiction” has increased sixfold. “Abuse” still refers to intentional physical harm or inappropriate sexual contact, but in everyday use may now include neglectful omissions and painful mistreatments: hurtful teasing, distressing affronts, or overwrought parents screaming at their children. Accompanying this semantic inflation, the proportion of post-1970 psychology abstracts mentioning “abuse” has multiplied seven times over. “Trauma” initially referred to physical injury (as in traumatic brain injury), then expanded to encompass horrific emotional traumas (rape, natural disaster, wartime combat, torture), and now has been inflated to include stressful life experiences within the range of normal human experience—to job loss, serious illness, and relationship breakups, and even, reports Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, to wisdom tooth extraction, enduring obnoxious jokes, and the normal birthing of a healthy child. So, no surprise, over the past half century the proportion of psychology abstracts mentioning “trauma” has increased tenfold. Haslam offers other concept-creep examples, such as broadening the “prejudice” of yesterday’s bigotry to include today’s subtler but persistent “implicit biases” and “micro aggressions.” And we could extend his list. ADD, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and the DSM-5’s new “prolonged grief disorder” all refer to genuine pathologies that have been broadened to include many more people. At least some of yesterday’s normally rambunctious boys, easily distracted adults, socially awkward people, and understandably bereaved parents or spouses are now assigned a psychiatric label and offered mental health or drug therapies. This psychologization or psychiatrization of human problems serves to expand the mental health and pharmacology industries, entailing both benefits and costs. Concept creep does have benefits. It represents an expansion of our circle of moral concern. As vicious violence, appalling adversity, and blatant bigotry have subsided in Western cultures, albeit with horrendous exceptions, we have become more sensitive to lesser but real harms—to upsetting maltreatment, dysfunctional compulsions, and toxic systemic biases. Progressive and empathic people, being sensitive to harm-doing, mostly welcome the expanded concepts of harm and victimization But concept creep, Haslam argues, also risks casting more and more people as vulnerable and fragile—as, for example, helpless trauma victims, rather than as potentially resilient creatures. “I am beginning to think that our world is in a constant state of trauma,” writes one psychotherapist/columnist. “Living with trauma, PTSD, unregulated depression and anxiety is almost the norm these days.” As is common in many professions, mental health workers may sometimes overreach to broaden their reach and client base: “Your hurt was an abuse, and you need me to help you heal.” Concept creep also risks trivializing big harms, Haslam notes, by conflating them with lesser harms: “If everyday sadness becomes ‘depression’ and everyday stressors become ‘traumas’ then those ideas lose their semantic punch.” If more and more pet-loving people seek to travel with their “emotional support” companions, the end result may be restricted access for those for whom companion animals serve a vital function. “Many traumas do indeed have severe and lasting effects that must not be minimized,” Haslam and co-author Melanie McGrath emphasize. “However, as the concept of trauma stretches to encompass fewer extreme experiences, the tendency to interpret marginal or ambiguous events as traumas is apt to promote hopelessness, submission, and passivity in response to challenges that might be overcome better if placed in a different interpretive frame.” The bottom line: Addiction, abuse, and trauma are genuine sources of human suffering. But where should we draw the line in defining and treating them? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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With 45,000+ annual U.S. firearm deaths (123 per day, from homicide, suicide, and accidents), America has a gun problem, of which the recent Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park mass killings are horrific examples. In response, we often hear that the problem is not America’s 400 million guns but its people. “We have a serious problem involving families, involving drugs, involving mental health in this country,” asserted Colorado congressional representative Ken Buck. “We have become a less safe society generally. Blaming the gun for what’s happening in America is small-minded.” To protect against mass killings by 18-year-olds, as in Buffalo and Uvalde, we are told that we don’t need to match the minimum age for assault rifle purchase, still 18 after the new gun safety act, with the age for beer purchase, 21. We don’t need to train and license gun owners as we do drivers. We don’t need safe-storage laws or restrictions on large-capacity magazines. Instead, we need to fix the problem perceived by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre: evil people. To solve the gun violence problem, we need better people, enabled by commendable social changes: more married fathers, less pornography, fewer violent video games. And most importantly, we’re told, we need to deal with mass killers’ mental sickness. “People with mental illness are getting guns and committing these mass shootings,” observed former U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. While president, Donald Trump agreed: “When you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution.” Mass killers, he later added, are “mentally ill monsters.” However, reality intrudes. As I documented in an earlier essay, most mentally ill people are nonviolent, most violent criminals and mass shooters have not been diagnosed as mentally ill, and rare events such as mass shootings are almost impossible to predict. As much as we psychologists might appreciate the ostensible high regard, today’s psychological science lacks the presumed powers of discernment. If mental-health assessments cannot predict individual would-be killers, three other factors (in addition to short-term anger and alcohol effects) do offer some predictive power: Demographics. As the recent massacres illustrate, most violent acts are committed by young males. The late psychologist David Lykken made the point memorably: “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.” Past behavior. It’s one of psychology’s maxims: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The best predictor of future GPA is past GPA. The best predictor of future employee success is past employee success. The best predictor of future class attendance or smoking or exercise is, yes, the recent past. Likewise, recent violent acts are a predictor of violent acts. Guns. Compared to Canada, the United States has 3.5 times the number of guns per person and 8.2 times the gun homicide rate. Compared to England, the U.S. has 26 times as many guns per person—and 103 times the gun homicide rate. To check U.S. state variations, I plotted each state’s gun-in-home rate with its gun homicide rate. As you can see, the correlation is strongly positive, ranging from (in the lower left) Massachusetts, where 15 percent of homes have a gun, to Alaska, where 65 percent of homes have a gun—and where the homicide rate is 7 times greater. Of these three predictor variables, gun policy is one that, without constraining hunters’ rights, society can manage with some success: When nations restrict gun access, the result has been fewer guns in civilian hands, which enables fewer impulsive gun uses and fewer planned mass shootings. Many people nevertheless believe that, as Senator Ted Cruz surmised after the Uvalde shooting, “What stops arms bad guys is armed good guys.” Never mind that in one analysis of 433 active shooter attacks on multiple people—armed lay citizens took out active shooters in only 12 instances. Many more—a fourth of such attacks—ended in a shooter suicide. Moreover, if the answer to bad guys with guns is to equip more good guys with guns, then why are states with more armed good guys more homicidal? What explains the state-by-state guns/homicide correlation? Are the more murderous Alaskans (and Alabamians and Louisianans) really more “evil” or “mentally ill”? Or is human nature essentially the same across the states, with the pertinent difference being the weapons? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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If you live in one of 30 U.S. states with recently legalized sports betting, you’ve surely noticed: Your online media and television have been awash with sports betting ads from DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars Sportsbook, and more. For this, we can thank the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the sports betting ban, which also led the NFL in 2021 to allow sports betting ads even during its broadcasts and live-streams. With the deluge of ads, which sometimes offer new customers free money to lure initial bets, the gaming industry hopes to hook new betters and expand its customer base from the current 50 million or so Americans who gamble on sports. For most, the few dollars wagered may be nothing more than a bit of exciting fun. But for some—those who develop a gambling disorder—the betting becomes compulsive and debilitating, as gamblers crave the excitement, seek to redeem their losses, and lie to hide their behavior. Family finances suffer. Bankruptcies happen. Divorces result. And with the sports betting floodgates now opened, problem gambling is increasing. “The National Problem Gambling helpline is receiving an average of more than 22,500 calls a month this year,” reports the Wall Street Journal, “up from a monthly average of about 14,800 last year.” Pgiam/E+/Getty Images It’s no secret that, over time, the house wins and gamblers nearly always lose. So how does the gambling industry manage to suck nearly a quarter-trillion dollars annually from U.S. pockets? Are state lotteries, like Britain’s National Lottery, merely (as one of my sons mused) “a tax on the statistically ignorant”? (My state’s lottery pays out as winnings only 61 cents of each dollar bet.) To remind folks of the power of psychological dynamics, and to prepare them to think critically about the allure of gambling inducements, we can ask: What psychological principles does the gambling industry exploit? Consider these: Partially (intermittently) reinforced behavior becomes resistant to extinction. Pigeons that have been reinforced unpredictably—on a “variable ratio” schedule—may continue pecking thousands more times without further reward. Like fly fishing, slot machines and sports gambling reward people occasionally and unpredictably. So hope springs eternal. The judgment-altering power of the availability heuristic. As Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, people tend to estimate the commonality of various events based on their mental availability—how readily instances come to mind. Casinos have the idea. They broadcast infrequent wins with flashing lights, while keeping the far more common losses invisible. Likewise, gamblers, like stock day-traders, may live to remember and tell of their memorable wins, while forgetting their more mundane losses. Illusory correlations feed an illusion of control. People too readily believe that they can predict or control chance events. When choosing their own lottery number (rather than being assigned one), people demand much more money when invited to sell their ticket. If assigned to throw the dice or spin the wheel themselves, their confidence increases. Dice players also tend to throw hard if wanting high numbers, and soft for low numbers. When winning, they attribute outcomes to their skill, while losses become “near misses.” Losing sports gamblers may rationalize that their bet was actually right, except for a referee’s bad call or a freakish ball bounce. Difficulty delaying gratification. Those who from childhood onward have learned to delay gratification—who choose two marshmallows later over one now (as in the famous “marshmallow test” experiment)—become more academically successful and ultimately productive. They are also less likely to smoke, to commit delinquent acts, and to gamble—each of which offer immediate reward, even if at the cost of diminished long-term health and well-being. The gaming industry seeks present-minded rather than future-minded folks. They aim to hook those who will elect that figurative single marshmallow satisfaction of today’s desire over the likelihood of a greater deferred reward. Credible, attractive communicators exploit “peripheral route persuasion.” Endorsements by beautiful, famous, or trusted people can add to the allure. As former gaming industry marketing executive Jack O’Donnell notes, the sports gambling industry harnesses sports celebrity power when paying former all-star receiver Jerry Rice to dump Gatorade on a winning DraftKings bettor, when trusted sportscaster Brent Musburger encourages placing a bet, and when legendary quarterback and former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees admonishes people to live your “Bet Life.” Each of these psychological dynamics has its own power. When combined, they help us understand the gaming industry’s lure, and, for some, its tragic addictive force. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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The Coming Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction
A recent YouGov U.S. survey produced a startling result. Of folks fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 54 percent nevertheless remain “very” or “somewhat” fearful of catching the virus—as do only 29 percent of those who “refuse to get vaccinated.” Asked about their comfort levels with various activities, 51 percent of vaccine refusers believe it’s safe to travel, as do only 29 percent of those vaccinated.
You read that right: Most protected folks still feel unprotected. And most of those unprotected by choice feel safe.
Fear Conditioning and the Pandemic
It’s no secret that the two groups differ in many ways, including politics. In Dalton County, Georgia, 9 in 10 people voted for Trump and, as of early May 2021, 4 percent were vaccinated. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 voted for Trump and 2 in 3 are vaccinated (and the COVID case rate is approaching zero).
As much as the vaccinated and vaccine-refusers differ, they seemingly share one thing in common: In their gut, neither fully trusts the vaccine efficacy science.
“No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a24198 by Julia Suits
Some vaccine refusers discount the pandemic as overblown. As one said, “The coronavirus is a wildly overrated threat.” (Never mind its causing more U.S. deaths than the sum of all its wars except the Civil War.) But many also discount or suspect the vaccine science: They distrust the government, doubt the need, worry about side effects, perceive a conspiracy, assert their liberty, or question the benefit. Therefore, they agree with Senator Ron Johnson: “Why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”
Ironically, they are joined by fully vaccinated people who still fear a devastating COVID-19 infection and so continue to wear a mask when walking outdoors, to eschew socializing with other vaccinated friends, or to travel on planes with virus-filtered air. Never mind that among the 74,000 people in clinical trials receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Astra-Zeneca, or Novavax vaccines, the total who died of COVID during the trial period was zero. And the number hospitalized with COVID was also zero. The vaccines are amazingly protective.
Fear Extinction after the Pandemic
Yes, a very few vaccinated people have contracted the virus (nearly all without becoming seriously sick). And among the millions now vaccinated, many will die—because even with no COVID-19, some 8,000 Americans and 800 Canadians die each day. Thus, there will be alarming stories of vaccination + death for media reporting. And the ready availability of those stories will, for many people, override the statistics of risk.
Thanks to their automatic use of the availability heuristic (judging the frequency of things by their availability in memory), most folks display probability neglect: They fear the wrong things. They fret about massively publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. So it is that most folks fear commercial flying more than driving (which, per mile, is 500 times more dangerous). So it is that many parents who don’t bother strapping their child into a car seat fear letting their child walk alone to school. And so it is that vaccinated people, after habitually living with pandemic fear for more than a year, have difficulty embracing the good news of vaccine efficacy. After 14 months, habitual fear is slow to subside.
But the good news: Subside it will. As exposure therapy has demonstrated, people who repeatedly face fear-arousing situations—starting with minimally anxiety-arousing settings—gradually become desensitized. Over time, their fear response extinguishes. Life will return to normal.
Meanwhile, for us educators, there remains an ongoing challenge: to help people think smart—to think critically, enlightened by evidence (and, yes, statistics). Between fearlessness and paralysis lies wisdom. Between cynicism and panic lies courage. Between recklessness and reticence lies informed prudence.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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On most days, one great pleasure of my job (reading and reporting on psychological science) is learning something new. As Michelangelo said at age 85, “I am still learning.” A recent example is social psychologist Jean Twenge’s remarkable reports (here and here) of teens’ resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing national teen surveys from 2018 and 2020, she found that “Teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic.” In fact, “the percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020.” Does this surprise you, as it did me? After all, for the past seven months, reports of pandemic-related mental stress have proliferated. “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.,” headlined The Washington Post. Indeed, as the pandemic struck, Gallup surveys found U.S. adults’ quality of life evaluations plummeting, and their worry sharply rising. The Census Bureau reported that a third of Americans were experiencing clinical anxiety or depression. And The Lancet described a similar mental health decline in the U.K. Moreover, multiple surveys found that those most afflicted were young adults. Mental distress, loneliness, and suicidal ideation rose most sharply among 18- to 29-year-olds. For those who have come to view depression and other disorders as biologically influenced—as syndromes that occur even in happy-seeming environments—the pandemic’s “massive mental health impact” is a reminder of the power of the situation. Significant stresses, and a thwarting of the human need to belong, can be emotionally toxic. The toll on young adults also reminds us of the importance of face-to-face relationships, especially for younger adults with their many friendships. As Nathan DeWall and I report in Psychology, 13th Edition, older adults “tend to have a smaller social network, with fewer friendships.” So what gives? Why might teens—pulled from school, separated from friends, so close in age to those struggling young adults—exhibit not only stable, but improved mental health during these trying times? One factor is more sleep. We know that a full night’s sleep contributes to health and well-being, and that high school teens are commonly sleep-deprived. In the 2018 survey, only 55 percent of American teens reported sleeping 7+ hours per night. In 2020, while homebound during the pandemic—and without needing to rise so early to go to school—84 percent of teens reported getting 7+ nightly hours. A second seeming factor is family. During the pandemic, 56 percent of teens reported “spending more time talking with their parents,” 54 percent “said their family now ate dinner together more often,” and 68 percent “said their families had become closer during the pandemic.” So, while the pandemic has taken a huge toll on our lives and livelihoods, the news from teen-world offers a reminder: Sleep and close relationships are vital components of a flourishing life. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)
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Since 1991, through its school-based surveys of 4.9 million high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has monitored the health and well-being of America’s youth. Its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System monitors trends in adolescent risky behaviors, sexuality, mental health, drug and alcohol use, exercise, and diet. The 2019 survey, released in late August of 2020, includes these findings of possible interest to teachers, counselors, parents, and others who support or nurture America’s youth: Sexual identity. Two percent of boys and 3 percent of girls report being gay or lesbian. But more report being bisexual or unsure. This is especially so for girls: Nearly 20 percent identify as neither straight nor gay, which accords with other studies that find women’s sexual identity less fixed than men’s. Sexual identity and victimization. It’s often presumed that gay and lesbian teens are vulnerable to becoming victims of antisocial acts, and the CDC survey confirms that presumption. Gay and lesbian youth are twice as likely as straight youth to report feeling unsafe, being bullied, and experiencing violence directed against them. They also are 3.6 times more likely to report experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 4.5 times more likely to have “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the past 12 months. Sexual activity. The long-term decline in teen sexual intercourse has continued. Psychologist Jean Twenge, also following this trend, has attributed it to the smartphone generation’s diminishing face-to-face relationships. Of those sexually active, 23 percent reported using oral contraceptives and 54 percent reported using condoms during their last sexual intercourse, with 9 percent using both (or some other accompanying birth control device). Suicidal thoughts and attempts. High school students’ contemplating or attempting suicide has increased since 2009. Moreover, both depression and suicide attempts are twice as likely among teen girls compared with teen boys. The rising depression rates coincide with another government national youth survey that reported a marked increase in teen rates of major depressive disorder since 2010. In this 2018 survey, too, the percent of teens feeling “sad or hopeless” had increased from 26 to 37 percent since 2009. Might the concurrent rise of smartphones and social media be contributing to these increasing rates? For my quick synopsis of the pertinent evidence see here. Drug and alcohol use. Since 2009, teens’ marijuana use has been stable—though with an uptick from 20 to 22 percent since 2017, coincident with widespread legalization in the United States. Daily cigarette smoking has dramatically declined, to the point of becoming gauche: But vaping has replaced cigarette use, with one-third reporting having vaped at least once in the past month, and 1 in 10 doing so most days. (In a separate survey of college age people, both nicotine and marijuana vaping increased from 2017 to 2019.) However, a brand new government report indicates that, thanks to health warnings, youth vaping dropped by 30 percent in 2020. Other tidbits from the CDC survey: TV. In the age of internet and social media, teen TV watching has plummeted—from the 43 percent who watched three or more hours per day in 1999 to 20 percent in 2019. Video games and computer use. Flip-flopping with TV watching was the corresponding increase in 3+ daily hours of video game playing and other computer use, from 22 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2019. Obesity. Youth having obesity (defined by body mass index) increased from 11 percent in 1999 to 16 percent in 2019. School safety. The percent of students carrying a weapon (gun, knife, or club) to school decreased from 12 percent in 1993 to 3 percent in 2019. Those reporting being in a physical fight in the last year also decreased—from 43 percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 2019. To view and capture simple graphs on these and other health indicators—and perhaps to create a quiz that challenges your students to guess the answers—visit here. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)
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