On #CleanYourVirtualDesktopDay, Dr. Nick Neave tells us about his research on Digital Hoarding. We learn more about how humans anthropomorphise their possessions and why we have such a hard time throwing things away.
The 18th October is World Menopause Day. Researchers in the psychology department are working to futher our understanding of menopause, how it impacts women and how we can alleviate some of the negative symptoms of menopause. In this post, Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay explains the basics of menopause and tell us about her teams current research projects, from research in to sleep disturbances, dietary changes and menopause in the workplace.
Menopause is a normal, natural life event experienced by most women, and some men. Menopause results in lower levels of oestrogen and other hormones and is defined as the permanent loss of menstrual periods, usually confirmed when a period is missed for 12 consecutive months. This typically occurs between ages 40 and 58, with the average age being 51.
Perimenopause is the stage from the beginning of menopausal symptoms to the postmenopause and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. During the perimenopause, hormone levels change and the ovaries start to produce fewer eggs. Although over half of the world will experience menopause and the potential for debilitating symptoms associated with it, this important life event receives very little attention and is often not discussed.
Hot, sweaty and sweary
There are a number of common physical symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, including:
Changes to your menstrual cycle
Incontinence and bladder problems
Joint and muscle pain
Common psychological symptoms include:
Problems with memory and concentration – “brain fog”
Loss of interest in sex
However, experience of the menopause is different for everyone and a lack of awareness of the full array of symptoms both from the point of view of the individual and often within the medical profession can lead to menopause not being diagnosed. Psychological symptoms are particularly likely to be missed and often anti-depressants are prescribed without identification of menopause as the underlying cause.
Managing menopause symptoms through diet
Alternatives to anti-depressants include dietary supplements and herbal extracts and there are a range of these supplements that are marketed with claims to improve symptoms related to menopause. Unfortunately, research examining the effects of these supplements is limited and there is a lack of good evidence to support the claims made. However, research has indicated that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes is associated with delayed onset of natural menopause whereas refined pasta and rice was associated with earlier menopause. A higher intake of vitamin B6 and zinc was also associated with later age at menopause.
A limited number of studies have also assessed the role of diet in reducing or exacerbating menopausal symptoms. A recent systematic review indicated that lower intensity of symptoms was associated with a diet comprising of more vegetables, whole grain and unprocessed food. However, the majority of studies in this area have focused on specific aspects of menopause symptoms or on specific aspects of the diet, with a lack of studies conducted in the UK.
Overall, evidence on the relationship between dietary intake and menopausal symptoms is inconsistent and inconclusive. Within the Psychology department at Northumbria we are currently conducting research exploring the relationship between menopause symptoms, mental wellbeing, and diet in a UK population.
Menopausal sleep disturbance
Sleep disturbances are extremely common during menopause, where specific problems include difficulties with falling asleep, frequent awakenings, awakening too early, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Therefore, interventions which improve or prevent menopause-related sleep disturbances are extremely important and are likely to aid physical and psychological health. To date, there are no systematic reviews of nutritional interventions to treat menopause-related sleep disturbances. Researchers within the department are currently completing a systematic review of the literature exploring nutritional interventions for menopause-related sleep disturbances.
The findings from both of the current projects relating to diet will inform the development of subsequent nutritional intervention trials examining the impact on menopausal symptoms and specifically on sleep disturbances in menopause.
Menopause in the workplace
As menopause is rarely discussed this can lead to a lack of support and issues in the workplace. Almost one million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. As the issue mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women eligible for senior management roles leaving work at the peak of their career. This also leads to knock-on effects to workplace productivity, the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.
In July it was announced that an inquiry was being launched by the Commons cross-party women and equalities committee examining “An invisible cohort: why are workplaces failing women going through the menopause?”. This inquiry will scrutinise existing legislation and workplace practices and will draw up recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality. As stated by the Chair of this committee:
“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of the menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society and our place on the world stage.”
Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP
Whilst this issue is gaining some attention there is still a lack of awareness of individual’s experiences of menopause in the workplace and particularly the types of support that may lead to improvements in psychological symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause.
The projects described above are all being conducted in collaboration with paid student interns or placement students (Abi Glancey, Maddy Lane, Dominik Polasek) as well as staff members in Psychology: Greg Elder, Vicki Elsey, Nayantara Santhi and Michael Smith.
After the England men’s football team reached their first major final in 55 years, the national headlines should have been celebrating their exceptional achievement. Instead, the focus quickly turned to the vile racist abuse targeted at three Black players: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. These young men were subjected to widespread racist hatred and threats on social media platforms. The magnitude and ferocity of such incidents of hate is, regrettably, just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of hate crimes are reported across England and Wales every week, with the total number of cases officially recorded by the police doubling over the past ten years to over 100,000 incidents per year
Hate: a special category of crime
In England and Wales, hate crimes, such as those directed at the football players, are defined as any crime (e.g., threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, assault) that is perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards five legally protected characteristics: an individual’s (i) race, (ii) religion, (iii) sexual orientation, (iv) transgender identity, or (v) disability. Importantly, when a crime is shown to demonstrate or be motivated by these prejudices, the courts ‘must’ apply a ‘sentence uplift’, meaning perpetrators receive an increased punishment for their crime. Thus, the distinction of hate crime has real, tangible effects for perpetrators. But why are hate crimes considered to be a ‘special’ category of offending?
The impacts of hate
Critics of hate crime legislation have argued that such laws are prosecuting thoughts rather than actions, and that crimes, regardless of their underlying motivations, should be prosecuted in the same way. However, not only does this argument misinterpret the true nature and dynamics of hate crime, but it also fails to recognise that criminal responsibility must reflect both an offender’s level of culpability for committing an offence and the level of harm it is likely to cause. There is now considerable research that shows hate crimes are unique because the motivations underpinning such offences have additional traumatic effects both on individual victims and entire communities of people
On the individual level, research shows that hate crime victims report feeling more anxious, fearful, and vulnerable than victims of comparable non-hate crimes. Hate crime victims are also more likely to suffer more violent attacks, resulting in substantial physical injuries and in turn extensive psychological trauma. Furthermore, as hate crimes specifically target individual’s core identities and beliefs, victims are more likely to feel ostracised and marginalised, forcing them to question their place and worth in society.
The impacts do not stop there. Hate crimes act as messages of intolerance to entire communities. By targeting one member, these crimes reverberate throughout communities who share the victim’s identity characteristic causing ‘waves of harm’, in which all members are shown (or reminded) that they are vulnerable to targeted violence because of who they are.
In our research which involved 20 separate studies with over 7000 individuals in England and Wales, we have consistently found that hate crimes have a significant impact on targeted community members’ perceptions of threat (against their physical safety and rights as equal citizens), which in turn has significant negative effects on their emotional wellbeing, and their behaviours. For example, when LGBT+ participants personally knew of, or read about, other LGBT+ individuals’ experiences of hate crimes, they reported feeling vulnerable, anxious, angry, and even ashamed. While many community members sought solace with fellow LGBT+ people and were more determined to fight injustice, many also chose to avert potential prejudice-based abuse by avoiding certain locations and people, restricting public displays of affections to their partners and were less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to others.
These ‘social harms’ have significant implications for society in general, making it less open, less equal, and less diverse. In other words, hate crimes don’t just hurt those groups who are targeted, they hurt everyone who wants to live in a diverse and open society. In this sense, hate crime laws reflect the greater seriousness of such offences, not only acknowledging the enhanced harms they cause to those targeted, but they also recognise that they are a direct attack against liberal democracy’s commitment to fundamental principles including freedom and equality. Here we are reminded of the indelible words of Martin Luther King Jr who stated, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
Informing policy and practice
A central aim of our interdisciplinary research is to help combat and address the impacts of hate crimes. In doing so, we have worked with thousands of victims, multiple criminal justice agencies, and numerous charities, including Stonewall, Galop, Tell MAMA, and the Muslim Council of Britain, to ensure the research can be used to raise awareness of hate crimes and provide support to those who are affected.
Yet it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent hate crimes and address the harms they cause. To this end, hate crime law reform consultations have been taking place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, Judge Desmond Marrinan recently published an extensive review in hate crime legislation, while the Law Commission for England and Wales have published a 516 page consultation paper on hate crime laws and will publish their final report later this year. Both reviews are examining the use of restorative justice as an alternative intervention to address the rise in hate crime.
In its simplest terms, restorative justice helps victims and perpetrators to communicate with one another about the causes and harms of hate incidents in an effort to repair these harms and to prevent further offences. Central to the process is that those who are harmed are given a role in resolving their case, which can involve them explaining directly to the perpetrator how they have been affected and what needs to be done to assist their recover. Those who have harmed are asked to take responsibility by undertaking some form of reparation (such as financial compensation, written apologies, community or charitable work).
Although there has been initial policy resistance to its use for hate crime, our contributions to both reviews showed that restorative justice can be highly effective at reducing the emotional traumas caused by hate crime, while simultaneously preventing incidents from recurring. Perhaps almost as important is our newest research which showed that the use of restorative justice for hate crimes is supported by targeted communities and, thus, may not be seen as the “soft touch” commonly assumed by policy makers. The Northern Ireland review has in turn recommended the development of a new statutory scheme for adult restorative justice for hate crime. We hope that both Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK lead the way in instituting restorative justice practices as a means of addressing hate crime.
Another important proposal by both the Northern Ireland review and the Law Commission consultation is to broaden the scope of the current laws to include other protected characteristics, including gender and sex – a topic that has been receiving increasing support and media attention following the recent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, pre-empting the work of the Commission and its final report the Prime Minister has stated that misogyny should not be made a hate crime. This is despite a wealth of research showing its existence as a social problem and its impact on women. It is clear that further research and, importantly, engagement with policymakers is needed to emphasise how hate-motivated attacks target individuals, threaten vast groups of people and, ultimately, undermine society. It is only by engaging with policymakers and practitioners that our research can truly help all those affected by these crimes.
Hate Crime Awareness Week
This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and impact of hate crimes, and to provide support for all those who are affected. Please click on the following links if you would like to know more about hate crime, how to report it, and how to get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.
Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.
Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.
Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).
The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis
This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”
Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.
Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!
1. Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.
2. Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.
To mark World Mental Health Day, I’m writing a blog that covers two separate, but related, things. Both things relate to a question a patient asked me back in about 2014 and which I have thought a lot about since then
“Why aren’t researchers churning out new treatments for mental health problems the way new treatments for cancer get churned out?”
The first thing I wanted to write about is something that I think is implicit in that patient’s question, but doesn’t exactly answer it. It’s about how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to other types of health problems.
How effective are treatments for mental health problems?
A relatively widely held belief is that interventions for mental health problems aren’t very effective. However, at least some of the data we have suggests that treatments in psychiatry (such as medications for things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and panic disorder) work, on average, about as well as treatments for other types of health problems (such as medications for heart failure, asthma, and COPD).
A number of caveats need to be added here, as the authors of the study – Leucht and colleagues – noted. For example, it is difficult to compare how well treatments for different illnesses or health problems work because the outcomes researchers in different fields look at are so different. That is, if a psychological/psychiatric treatment doubles the likelihood that a patient recovers from depression, is that treatment as effective as one which halves the risk of someone dying from a heart attack? That’s a hard judgement to make. We also need to take into account things like the side effects of treatments, too. All of this means, in short, that it’s very difficult to say how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to treatments for other types of health problems. But looking at the data from Leucht and colleagues’ analysis, treatments for mental health problems seem reasonably effective.
When research can’t be replicated, this means that when other researchers try to repeat a study someone else has performed, they fail to find the same results. The results of the original study, therefore, may be untrustworthy. Over the past decade, many scientific fields have re-examined what proportion of the findings they generate are replicable, and in several areas of psychology it has been estimated that only 30-50% of findings are replicable. Mental health researchers have, however, not really examined how replicable (or trustworthy) findings in our field are. But I see no reason to expect that our field will be different to other areas of psychology. This means that it is quite likely that much of the evidence we have about what factors might cause mental health problems will be wrong. And this is important because our understanding of what causes mental health problems tends to shape the treatments we develop to treat mental health problems. So, if we aren’t doing replicable research into what causes mental health problems, then we have little chance of developing novel, more effective treatments for those mental health problems.
Happily, there are many reasonably straightforward solutions to these problems. We know, for example, that running studies that (a) use larger samples than we have typically achieved in the past, that (b) pay more attention to how well variables are being measured, and that (c) involve fully open reporting of how the study will be run and how its data will be analysed generates findings that are more replicable and trustworthy.
How is the Psychology Department at Northumbria addressing this issue?
As I said earlier, some the solutions to the problem of research findings that can’t be replicated and so seem untrustworthy are quite straightforward, but they are often time-consuming and costly. This has meant that the take-up of these solutions has been quite slow. But, at least to me, it does feel like mental health research is beginning to move in the right direction. And the quicker that can happen, the sooner we should be able to start developing novel, more effective treatments to help people struggling with their mental health.
Interested in hearing about our research in to mental health?
Dreams are patterns of sensory information that occur when the brain is in a resting state – as in asleep. It is generally assumed that dreams only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – this is when the brain appears to be in an active state but the individual is asleep and in a state of paralysis. But studies have shown that they can also happen outside of REM.
Research from sleep studies, for example, shows that REM-related dreams tend to be more fantastical, more colourful and vivid whereas non-REM dreams are more concrete and usually characterised in black and white. Recent studieson dreaming show that during a dream (and in particular a REM-related dream) the emotional centre of the brain is highly active whereas the logical rational centre of the brain is slowed. This can help explain why these dreams are more emotive and surreal.
Evolutionary theory suggests the purpose of dreams is to learn, in a safe way, how to deal with challenging or threatening situations. Whereas the “memory consolidation” theory suggests that dreams are a byproduct of reorganising memory in response to what has been learned throughout the day.
Both theories have at least one thing in common – during times of stress and anxiety we either dream more or remember our dreams more often, as a way of coping with challenging circumstances and new information. This is also in line with another theory of dreaming – the mood regulatory function of dreams theory, where the function of dreams is to problem-solve emotional issues.
Anxiety and stress dreams
While there is no evidence that we dream more when we are stressed, research shows we are more likely to remember our dreams because our sleep is poorer and we tend to wake in the night more frequently.
Studies show the dreams of people with insomnia (a disorder largely characterised by stress) contain more negative emotion and are more focused on the self, in a negative light. Also, the dreams of people with insomnia tend to focus on current life stressors, anxieties and can leave an individual with a low mood the following day.
Outside of insomnia, research has found that people who are depressed, while going through a divorce, appear to dream differently compared to those who are not depressed. They rate their dreams as more unpleasant. Interestingly though the study found that those depressed volunteers who dreamt of their ex-spouse were more likely to have recovered from their depression a year later compared to those that did not dream of the ex-spouse. Participants whose dreams changed over time, to become less angry and more pragmatic, also showed the greatest improvements. The question is why?
Although our senses are dampened during sleep (with vision being completely absent), strong sensory information, such as an alarm, will be registered and in some cases incorporated into the dream itself. We also know that during times of stress we are more vigilant to threat (on cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels), so it stands to reason that we are more likely to incorporate internal and external signals into our dreams, as a way to manage them. And this may account for these changes in our dreams, when we are anxious, depressed or sleeping badly.
How to sleep better
The current thinking is stress reduction before bed and good sleep management – such as keeping a consistent sleep routine, using the bedroom only for sleep, making sure the bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and free from anything arousing – will reduce awakenings at night and so the frequency of stress-related negative dreams.
That said, using a technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), mainly used for treating nightmares in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, it appears stress and anxiety associated with nightmares and bad dreams as well as the frequency of bad dreams can be reduced. This is achieved by re-imagining the ending of the dream or the context of the dream, making it less threatening.
There is also evidence that IRT is effective for reducing nightmares in children. Although IRT is thought to be successful by giving the dreamer a sense of control over the dream, this hasn’t been well studied in people who are stressed or anxious.
That said, a recent study showed that teaching people with insomnia to be aware while they were dreaming and to control the dream, as it occurs – known as lucid dreaming training – not only reduced their insomnia symptoms but also reduced their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Perhaps then the key is to manage the dreams as opposed to trying to manage the stress – especially in uncertain times.
On this episode, on Child Health Day, Chantelle tells us about her experience on the MSc Conversion course which led her to a PhD on pupil well-being. We discuss some of her work on children’s, teachers’, and parents’ views on schooling during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
To find out more about the MSc Conversion course you can look here.
If you’d like to get in touch with Chantelle, you can email her at email@example.com or find her on LinkedIn.
If you’d like to learn more about Northumbria Psychology, please visit our blog or follow us on Twitter @northumbriapsy
If you’d like to stay updated on the podcast you can follow me on Twitter @BrownGenavee or if you would like to be a guest, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It took a while to be officially recognised, but smell loss eventually became known to be one of the defining features of COVID-19. It’s now widely acknowledged that COVID-19 has a unique effect on smell receptors, and about 10% of those who lose their smell are still reporting problems with smell and taste six months later.
The effects of this can be profound. So we wanted to document what it was like to live with long-term smell and taste problems, and we did this by working with the smell-loss charity AbScent, which has an online support group for people with post-COVID smell problems.
By speaking to people in this group, we were able to build a picture of the wider impacts of disrupted smell following COVID-19. At the time of conducting our research, over 9,000 people had joined the group. Every day we were seeing new accounts of the devastating effect of sensory change.
We started posting questions to get a better sense of what was going on, and the response was overwhelming. People really wanted their experiences to be heard. With the consent of participants, we began to analyse their responses. We ran every theme we detected past the group and got them to comment on our research paper before we finalised it. We wanted to be sure we were telling their stories correctly. Here’s what we found out.
The end of food satisfaction
It’s been hard for people even close to me to understand the severity of the loss and how it’s affected my life.
Before we go further, let’s define a few key terms. Anosmia is total loss of smell. Parosmia is where normal smells are distorted, usually unpleasantly. Taste is what is picked up by the receptors on the tongue. Flavour is the total sensory experience of food, to which smell is the major contributor, but the other senses are also involved. This means that even if your taste (tongue) is fine, loss of smell will seriously affect flavour.
The first thing that struck us was how unpredictable and disorientating the sensory loss experience could be. For some, the effects were absolute:
It was like a light switch: from 100% to 0% in a couple of hours… No distorted smells, no whiffs, nothing. It’s like my nose switched off.
For others, things were more fluid. Anosmia could mutate into parosmia. Food that was fine one day could become disgusting the next. This “chaos narrative” – as sociologists call it – meant that smell loss was very difficult to live with, let alone manage. A condition over which there was no control.
The effect on appetite was also unpredictable. As might be expected, people had trouble eating – particularly when normal smells were distorted. Some were really struggling, reporting malnutrition and severe weight loss.
Less obviously, some people reported weight gain. These were usually people with anosmia, who were “chasing flavour” after losing their sense of smell. You can understand this if you realise the distinction between wanting and liking in what psychologists call the pleasure cycle.
Wanting is where you are chasing the thing you are going to consume. Liking is when you have got it and you are savouring it. In anosmia, that savouring part is no longer there, but this doesn’t stop the wanting:
Food satisfaction is lacking and I see myself eating more to try to get that satisfied feeling… I am gaining weight due to a constant urge to satisfy what can never be satisfied.
Intimacy is a scent
But it wasn’t all about food. Until you lose it, you don’t realise how essential eating is to everyday joys, especially social pleasures:
I am grieving for my lost senses. No more wine and cheese tasting nights or gin cocktails with my “girls”.
Even more heartbreaking was the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships. There were a lot of posts where people described the loneliness of no longer being able to smell their partner or their children. Again, until it is gone, you don’t realise how important smell is to intimacy and connection. Even worse was the effect of parosmia:
His natural odour used to make me want him; now it makes me vomit.
How do you tell your lover that?
Some people’s relationships with themselves and the world had also changed. Some with no sense of smell reported feeling detached from themselves and the world. With parosmia, it could be more disturbing yet, with disgusting smells being triggered by everyday scents, making the world feel like a dangerous and confusing place.
For some these sensory changes were, fortunately, temporary. However, months down the line, many are stuck with profound sensory changes, with all the distress that brings. While there is evidence that smell training helps sensory recovery in other conditions, we are still at the early stages of understanding and developing treatments for what amounts to a pandemic of altered sensing.
Search for “climate change” on YouTube and before long you’ll likely find a video that denies it exists. In fact, when it comes to shaping the online conversation around climate change, a new study suggests that deniers and conspiracy theorists might hold an edge over those believing in science. Researchers found evidence that most YouTube videos relating to climate change oppose the scientific consensus that it’s primarily caused by human activities.
The study highlights the key role of social media use in the spread of scientific misinformation. And it suggests scientists and those who support them need to be more active in developing creative and compelling ways to communicate their findings. But more importantly, we need to be worried about the effects that maliciously manipulated scientific information can have on our behaviour, individually and as a society.
The recent study by Joachim Allgaier of RWTH Aachen University in Germany analysed the content of a randomised sample of 200 YouTube videos related to climate change. He found that a majority (107) of the videos either denied that climate change was caused by humans or claimed that climate change was a conspiracy.
The videos peddling the conspiracy theories received the highest number of views. And those spreading these conspiracy theories used terms like “geoengineering” to make it seem like their claims had a scientific basis when, in fact, they did not.
Climate change is far from the only area where we see a trend for online misinformation about science triumphing over scientifically valid facts. Take an issue like infectious diseases, and perhaps the most well-known example of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Despite large amounts of online information about the vaccine’s safety, false claims that it has harmful effects have spread widely and resulted in plummeting levels of vaccination in many countries around the world.
But it’s not just well-known conspiracy theories that are causing a problem. In May 2018, one troublemaker came into his own at the height of the Nipah virus outbreak that eventually claimed 17 lives in the southern Indian state of Kerala. He duplicated the letterhead of the District Medical Officer and spread a message claiming that Nipah was spreading through chicken meat.
In reality, the scientifically established view is that the fruit bat is the host for the virus. As the unfounded rumour went viral on WhatsApp in Kerala and neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, consumers became wary of consuming chicken, which sent the incomes of local chicken traders into a tailspin.
The effects of misinformation surrounding the MMR vaccine and Nipah virus on human behaviour should not be surprising given we know that our memory is malleable. Our recollection of original facts can be replaced with new, false ones. We also know conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal as they can help people make sense of events or issues they feel they have no control over.
This problem is complicated further by the personalisation algorithms underlying social media. These tend to feed us content consistent with our beliefs and clicking patterns, helping to strengthen the acceptance of misinformation. Someone who is sceptical about climate change might be given an increasing stream of content denying it is caused by humans, making them less likely to take personal action or vote to tackle the issue.
Further rapid advances in digital technologies will also ensure that misinformation arrives in unexpected formats and with varying levels of sophistication. Duplicating an official’s letterhead or strategically using key words to manipulate online search engines is the tip of the iceberg. The emergence of artificial intelligence-related developments such as DeepFakes – highly realistic doctored videos – is likely to make it a lot harder to spot misinformation.
So how do we tackle this problem? The challenge is made greater by the fact that simply providing corrective scientific information can reinforce people’s awareness of the falsehoods. We also have to overcome resistance from people’s ideological beliefs and biases.
Social media companies are trying to developing institutional mechanisms to contain the spread of misinformation. Responding to the new research, a YouTube spokesperson said: “Since this study was conducted in 2018, we’ve made hundreds of changes to our platform and the results of this study do not accurately reflect the way that YouTube works today … These changes have already reduced views from recommendations of this type of content by 50% in the US.”
Other companies have recruited fact checkers in large numbers, awarded research grants to study misinformation to academics (including myself), and search terms for topics where misinformation could have harmful health effects have been blocked.
But the continuing prominence of scientific misinformation on social media suggests these measures are not enough. As a result, governments around the world are taking action, ranging from passing legislation to internet shutdowns, much to the ire of freedom-of-speech activists.
Scientists need to get involved
Another possible solution may be to hone people’s ability to think critically so they can tell the difference between actual scientific information and conspiracy theories. For example, a district in Kerala has launched a data literacy initiative across nearly 150 public schools trying to empower children with the skills to differentiate between authentic and fake information. It’s early days but there is already anecdotal evidence that this can make a difference.
Scientists also need to get more involved in the fight to make sure their work isn’t dismissed or misused, as in the case of terms like “geoengineering” being hijacked by YouTube climate deniers. Conspiracy theories ride on the appeal of certainties – however fake – whereas uncertainty is inherent to the scientific process. But in the case of the scientific consensus on climate change, which sees up to 99% of climate scientists agreeing that humans are responsible, we have something as close to certainty as science comes.
Scientists need to leverage this agreement to its maximum and communicate to the public using innovative and persuasive strategies. This includes creating social media content of their own to not only shift beliefs but also influence behaviours. Otherwise, their voices, however highly trusted, will continue to be drowned out by the frequency and ferocity of content produced by those with no concrete evidence.
The online retail giant Amazon has moved from our screens to our streets, with the introduction of Amazon grocery and book stores. With this expansion came the introduction of Amazon One – a service that lets customers use their handprint to pay, rather than tapping or swiping a card. According to recent reports, Amazon is now offering promotional credit to users who enroll.
In the UK we’re quickly becoming used to biometric-based identification. Many of us use a thumbprint or facial recognition to access our smartphones, authorise payments or cross international borders.
Using a biometric (part of your body) rather than a credit card (something you own) to make a purchase might offer a lot more convenience for what feels like very little cost. But there are several complex issues involved in giving up your biometric data to another party, which is why we should be wary of companies such as Amazon incentivising us to use biometrics for everyday transactions.
Amazon’s handprint incentive adds to an ongoing academic and policy debate about when and where to use biometrics to “authenticate” yourself to a system (to prove that you are who you say you are).
On the benefits side, you’re never without your biometric identifier -– your face, hand or finger travel with you. Biometrics are pretty hard to steal (modern fingerprint systems typically include a “liveness” test so that no attacker would be tempted to chop a finger off or make latex copies). They’re also easy to use -– gone are the problems of remembering multiple passwords to access different systems and services.
What about the costs? You don’t have many hands –- and you can’t get a new one –- so one biometric will have to serve as an entry point to multiple systems. That becomes a real problem if a biometric is hacked.
Biometrics can also be discriminatory. Many facial recognition systems fail ethnic minorities (because the systems have been trained with predominantly white faces. Fingerprint systems may fail older adults, who have thinner skin and less marked whorls, and all systems would fail those with certain disabilities – arthritis, for example, could make it difficult to yield a palm print.
Who should we trust?
A key issue for biometrics “identity providers” is that they can be trusted. This means that they will keep the data secure and will be “proportional” in their use of biometrics as a means of identification. In other words, they will use biometrics when it is necessary – say, for security purposes – but not simply because it seems convenient.
The UK government is currently consulting on a new digital identity and attributes trust framework where firms can be certified to offer biometric and other forms of identity management services.
As the number of daily digital transactions we make grows, so does the need for simple, seamless authentication, so it is not surprising that Amazon might want to become a major player in this space. Offering to pay for you to use a biometric sign-in is a quick means of getting you to choose Amazon as your trusted identity provider … but are you sure you want to do that?
Unfortunately we’re victims of our own psychology in this process. We will often say we value our privacy and want to protect our data, but then, with the promise of a quick reward, we will simply click on that link, accept those cookies, login via Facebook, offer up that fingerprint and buy into that shiny new thing.
Researchers have a name for this: the privacy paradox. In survey after survey, people will argue that they care deeply about privacy, data protection and digital security, but these attitudes are not supported in their behaviour. Several explanations exist for this, with some researchers arguing that people employ a privacy calculus to assess the costs and benefits of disclosing particular information.
The problem, as always, is that certain types of cognitive or social bias begin to creep into this calculus. We know, for example, that people will underestimate the risks associated with things they like and overestimate the risks associated with things they dislike (something known as the “affect heuristic”).
As a consequence, people tend to share more personal data than they should, and the amount of such data in circulation grows exponentially. The same is true for biometrics. People will say that only trusted organisations should hold biometric data, but then go on to give their biometrics up with a small incentive. In my own research, I’ve linked this behavioural paradox to the fact that security and privacy are things we need to do, but they don’t give us any joy, so our motivation to act is low.
Any warnings about the longer-term risks of taking the Amazon shilling might be futile, but I leave you with this: your biometrics don’t just confirm your identity, they are more revealing than that. They say something very clearly about ethnicity and age, but may also unknowingly reveal information about disability or even mood (in the example of, say, a voice biometric).
Biometric analysis can be done without permission (state regulations permitting) and, in some cases, at scale. China leads the way in the use of face recognition to identify individuals in a crowd, even when wearing masks. Exchanging a palm print for the equivalent of a free book may seem like a vastly different thing, but it is the thin end of the biometric wedge.