Tackle loneliness with a little help from your friends

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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

The Big 5 Episode 12: Ansel Lawson “A lot of [trans and non-binary] people said that the North East was like freedom to them.”

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In honor of LGBTQ history month, on this episode Ansel Lawson tells us about their experience as a trans student at Northumbria University and talks about their research on well-being in trans and non-binary people living in the North East, UK.

Show notes:

Trans, non-binary, or gender diverse and looking for support? Check out Gires for a wide range of resources available.

You can find a transcript of the episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 12: Dr. Amy Newman “We found that bisexual and queer people were significantly more likely to have experienced harmful sexual behaviors”

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In honor of LGBTQ history month, on this episode, Dr. Amy Newman tells us about her research on the prevalence of sexual assualt in gender and relationship diverse couples. We also discuss the need for more inclusive laws and sex education. CW: sexual assault, coercive sex, relationship violence.

Show notes:

Looking for support after a sexual assualt or ways to volunteer to support survivors of sexual assault? Check out Galop for LGBTQ+ friendly support communities and chat lines.

To follow Amy’s research, you can check out her staff profile or follow her on Twitter @ameee__

A transcript of the episode can be found here.

The Big 5 Episode 10: Lee Shepherd “Anger is appropriate and legitimate when someone has dehumanized you through sexual objectification” (Funded PhD opportunity)

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In this episode, Dr. Lee Shepherd tells us about his work on emotions and sexual objectification. He discusses how it feels to be objectified and why it’s so important to study this issue to prevent objectification from occuring and to help support victims. We also discuss a funded PhD opportunity to study the causes and consequences of online misogyny.

Show notes:

To find out more about his work, Lee’s staff profile is here.

For more information on the PhD project, you can watch this video or check out this advertisement.

You can also find all of the PhD projects offered by Northumbria Psychology department on this blog. Applications are due February 18, 2022 for a start date of October 2022.

You can find a transcript of this podcast here.

Funded PhD Opportunity: “Get offline and back in the kitchen” Understanding online misogyny’s causes and consequences

Authors: Genavee Brown, Jenny Paterson, and Lee Shepherd

Why is this research important?

In a 2021 BBC News Panorama report, Marianna Spring details the online abuse, including threats of violence, she receives daily on social media simply because she’s doing her job investigating online disinformation. She’s not the only one receiving abuse online. In fact, research shows that women are more than twice as likely as men to receive online abuse and it often targets their intersectional identities (gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation) (Sunden & Paasonen, 2018). Beyond being psychologically upsetting, online misogyny can silence women’s voices and create major barriers to women’s equal participation in public and political spheres by forcing women to leave the online sphere because of the threat posed to their emotional or physical safety. For example, in a recent poll 1/3 of women MPs said that they had considered leaving political office due to online abuse.

What is online misogyny?

Online misogyny is online media (e.g., videos, blogs, posts) that target and harm women due to the posters’ hatred of women. It can take many forms and range from insulting or belittling comments to doxing to threats of rape and death. One example, doxing, occurs when an internet user’s offline personal information is shared online. For example, some prominent activists have had their home addresses or telephone numbers shared. Experiencing online misogyny can result in feelings of emotional distress and some women even leave online platforms like Twitter to avoid receiving online abuse. Thus, online misogyny can lead to women’s voices being silenced. In some rare cases it has also led to real world violence. For example, several men who later engaged in mass shootings posted online manifestos which evoked misogynistic ideas that spurred them to real-world violence against women (Hoffman, Ware, & Shapiro, 2020).

What is the goal of the proposed PhD project?

Recent calls have been made for social psychologists to address the issue of online misogyny (Tileaga, 2019). In this PhD, we’ll be examining online misogyny through a social psychology lens. Research in social psychology shows that social media provides a unique environment in which misogyny can occur. First, the internet conveys some sense of anonymity, and this has been associated with a willingness to engage in online misogyny (Fox, Cruz, & Lee, 2015). Second, social media platforms allow users to garner large audiences which can result in feeling powerful (Brown & Merritt, 2020). Power has been associated with a wide range of anti-social behaviours because being powerful prevents taking the perspective of others. This is especially true for people who have a dominant personality (Kim & Guinote, 2021).

In this PhD project we’ll be examining the consequences for women who receive misogynistic comments online as research in this area is lacking. We’ll also examine the profiles of the men who engage in online misogyny, specifically examining their power and dominance. By determining who the most likely perpetrators are, we can try to intervene and reduce online misogyny.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

Successful candidates should have experience in psychology research including strong research methods and statistics knowledge. Independent and critical thinking and writing skills, passion for research, and self-motivation will also be necessary.

About the supervisors

Dr. Genavee Brown is a Lecturer and social psychology researcher at Northumbria University. She studies how technology intervenes in our relationships. Her previous work has focused on cultural differences in social media use, social capital online, and how mobile phones influence face-to-face relationships. Recent projects centre on the concept of online power and how this can help us understand antisocial behaviours online. She teaches Psychology of Intimacy and Quantitative Research Methods. She is also the host of The Big 5 podcast where she speaks to staff and students at Northumbria about their experience of studying psychology at Northumbria University.

Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and has published widely on the impacts of hate crimes in which perpetrators target individuals because of a hatred towards the person’s characteristic, including gender. Within this research, she has worked closely with victims of prejudice to reveal the substantial and wide-ranging impacts that such prejudice can cause both in the online and offline realms. In addition to examining the impacts of hate, Jenny has a keen interest in developing and utilising prejudice reduction strategies to identify and nullify perpetrators of prejudice.  

Dr. Lee Shepherd is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University. He undertakes research on the role of emotions on behaviour. These behaviours range from different health behaviours (e.g., health screenings) to people’s responses to discrimination.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Genavee Brown (genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Barker, K., & Jurasz, O. (2021). Text-Based (Sexual) Abuse and Online Violence Against Women: Toward Law Reform?. In The Emerald International Handbook of Technology Facilitated Violence and Abuse. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Tileagă, C. (2019). Communicating misogyny: An interdisciplinary research agenda for social psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass13(7), e12491.

Blake, K. R., O’Dean, S. M., Lian, J., & Denson, T. F. (2021). Misogynistic tweets correlate with violence against women. Psychological science32(3), 315-325.

Understanding the harms of hate crime

Author: Dr Jenny Paterson, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University; Prof MArk Walters, School of law, plitics and sociology, university of sussex

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

A mural honouring the work of Marcus Rashford was defaced with racist abuse soon after the Euro 2020 Final (BBC).

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.  

If you are interested in conducting research on hate crimes, please contact jenny.paterson@northumbria.ac.uk.

About the authors

Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, within the Social Research group in the Department of Psychology, Northumbria University. Prof. Mark Walters is a Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. Both have worked extensively with Prof. Rupert Brown at the University of Sussex on the Sussex Hate Crime Project.

Pseudoscience is taking over social media – and putting us all at risk

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AUTHOR: Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

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.

Health misinformation

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.


Read more: Hard Evidence: how does false information spread online?


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.

Conspiracy theories appear to explain what we can’t control. Ra2Photo/Shutterstock

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.”


Read more: The internet fuels conspiracy theories – but not in the way you might imagine


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.

Santosh Vijaykumar, is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology department, and our lead for public engagement. He is a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Paying with a palm print? We’re victims of our own psychology in making privacy decisions

Natasa Adzic/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Professor Pam Briggs

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?

Privacy paradox

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.

About the Author

Professor Pam Briggs is a Research Chair in Applied Psychology, and a member of the psychology departmental Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab. She is also Co-Director of the UK’s Centre for Digital Citizens

You can read more about the work of the PaCT Lab by heading over the the Evolution and Social Interaction section of the blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why we are secretly attracted to people who look like our parents

Just heard the news? Relax, it doesn’t mean you fancy your mum. Monkey Business Images
AUTHOR: Tamsin Saxton, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

Have you ever thought there was an uncanny family resemblance between your friend and her partner? Or wondered for a fleeting moment whether the pair walking down the road were husband and wife, or brother and sister? You might not be imagining things. Animals of many species “learn” what a suitable mate looks like based on the appearance of their parents, and so, it seems, do humans.

Scientists have long known that species including birds, mammals and fish pick mates that look similar to their parents. This is known as positive sexual imprinting. For example, if a goat mother looks after a sheep baby, or a sheep mother looks after a goat baby, then those babies grow up to try to mate with the species of their foster mother, instead of their own.

It seems humans also “learn” from our parents in a similar way. When you ask people to judge the similarities between heterosexual couples and their parents from photos, a fascinating picture emerges. Women tend on average to pick partners whose faces look a bit like their fathers’, while men often choose partners who slightly resemble their mothers. Resemblance doesn’t stop at faces – you can also see subtle similarities on average between partner and parent height, hair colour, eye colour, ethnicity and even the degree of body hair.

Couple or brother and sister? Teeejayy/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But what’s really going on here? We tend to look like our parents, so how do we know that people aren’t just picking a partner who resembles themselves? We know that such self-resemblance influences partner choice. But a number of studies have suggested that this can’t be the whole story. One such study of adopted women found that they tended to choose husbands who looked like their adoptive fathers.

We also know that, in general, heterosexuals are more attracted to those who resemble their opposite-sex parent than their same-sex parent. What’s more, research has shown that it’s not merely appearance that matters: it’s also about your relationship with that parent. People who report more positive childhood relationships with a parent are more likely to be attracted to partners who resemble that parent.

Aversion versus attraction

This isn’t Freud’s Oedipus complex revisited. Freud believed that children have a suppressed desire for their parents. But this branch of research doesn’t in any way show that we secretly desire our parents, just that we simply tend to be attracted to people who resemble them to some extent.

If anything, we seem to find our immediate family members unattractive. For instance, people find the very idea of sexual relationships with their siblings deeply unappealing. This aversion seems to develop automatically through two distinct processes. One process turns off attraction to those that we spend a lot of time with during childhood. The other turns off attraction to any infants that our mother looks after a lot. Sexual aversion to siblings might be nature’s way of ensuring we don’t try to reproduce with someone who is too closely related to us and reproduction with close relatives is linked to an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in any resulting offspring. This aversion to close relatives is known as negative sexual imprinting. However, genetic sexual attraction can occur between siblings that have been separated and meet first as adults.

How close we are to our parents at different ages seem to influence our choices of partner. Tom Wang

But when do we develop these preferences? Perhaps we learn that our parents looks are attractive early in life, and then tuck that learning away – only to let it reemerge when we’re ready for adult relationships. Or perhaps more recent experiences override earlier learning? To test this, I asked heterosexual adult women about their relationships with their parents at different ages during their development, and I assessed how much their current preferences matched up with the appearance of their parents.

I found that the women who reported a better relationship with their parents after puberty were more likely to be attracted to partners with similar eye colour to them. In contrast, if a woman was close to her parents earlier in life, she was actually less likely to prefer the eye colour of her parents in a partner. In science, we always like to see replications with different samples, methodologies and research groups before we generalise findings too much. So far though, the intriguing pattern of this early study suggests that there may be complex developmental patterns underlying how we construct our idea of an ideal partner. Perhaps we are seeing the actions of both positive and negative sexual imprinting at work.

But one question remains. If we’re finding preferences for parental resemblance across different populations, then what is the biological explanation for this behaviour? It turns out that coupling up with a distant family member seems to be the best bet, biologically, to produce a large number of healthy children. One possibility is that if you are attracted to people who look like your parents, then chances are you may get a crush on distant relatives. This might give you better chances of more healthy children, and so this behaviour persists.

Despite this research, if you were to tell me that your partner doesn’t look anything like your parents, then I wouldn’t be surprised. Parental resemblance probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s wish list. Like most people, you probably want a partner who is kind, intelligent and attractive. But if all else is equal, then that comfortable feeling of familiarity might be enough to get a relationship underway, or to maintain feelings of trust in a relationship.

Tamsin Saxton is an associate professor in the psychology department, and the lead for the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to talk to your doctor about information you find online

Digital health. fizkes/Shutterstock
Authors: Dr Liz Sillence and Dr Lauren Bussey

More and more people are going online to search for information about their health. Though it can be a minefield, where unverified sources abound, searching the internet can help people to understand different health problems, and give them access to emotional and social support.

For many in the UK, getting to actually see a GP remains difficult, and constraints around appointment times mean that some discussions are often cut short. But by using the internet, patients can prepare for appointments, or follow up on issues that were raised in the consulting room but left them with unanswered questions.

But not everyone is so keen on patients using the internet in this way. Some GPs and other heath professionals have doubts about the quality and usefulness of the information available. There are also suggestions that “cyberchrondria” may be fuelling a surge in unnecessary tests and appointments.

Similarly, though so many people are using online resources to fill in gaps in their knowledge, or to help them ask the right questions, they may not be comfortable bringing it up in the consulting room.

For our latest research project, we wanted to find out just why it can be so difficult to discuss online information with doctors. We found that in addition to people being embarrassed in case they have misunderstood the information, or can’t remember it accurately, they also fear a negative reaction from the GP who may think they are difficult or challenging.

How to make it work

So how can you as a patient bring up online information with your doctor? First, it sounds obvious but you need a good, open relationship with your GP. Tell them you have been looking online, but ask for their feedback on the information, and for any useful sites they know of. We found that patients with a good doctor relationship felt able to discuss information and ideas from websites and online forums in a considered and critical manner.

There’s no shame in searching for health information online. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Importantly, it is not about the patient trying to be the doctor. Ideally, patients should bring along their information, use it to help explain their key concerns, or detail the options they’ve explored, but also make clear that they still want and value their GP’s input on their findings.

Some of the patients we spoke to told us that they are acutely aware of their doctor’s negative feelings towards the internet. In these situations, people are sometimes tempted to disguise the source of their information. Rather than openly discussing their findings from the internet, they may pretend they got the information elsewhere when mentioning it to their doctor or be very careful not to reveal its origin at all.

For some people we spoke to, the process of trying to integrate the results of their web searches into their communications with the GP was frustrating to say the least. They felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, and sometimes held back key information. This made for unproductive meetings which were felt to be a waste of time.

This process can definitely be improved. As more appointments are going to be conducted over smartphone rather than face to face, and some GPs have admitted using Wikipedia to diagnose patients, the rest of the process needs to catch up with technology.

There needs to be a new and more productive way to integrate online information into doctor-patient discussions. First of all, there should be better ways for patients to collect and organise accurate information online so that they can organise their thoughts and prepare for a visit.

In the consulting room itself, GPs should use the research as an opportunity to have more productive discussions, and use it as a way to teach patients more about their own health issues. They need to question the information source, message and credibility, but GPs could also use it as an opportunity to nudge patients to think about their health options and consider what’s important to them.

Just as a GP is not solely responsible for the health of a patient, neither is the patient themselves. Internet research can no longer be dismissed. Even if inaccurate, it can help build a better relationship between patient and doctor, and give them both a better understanding of managing health in the modern world.

About the Authors

Dr Elizabeth Sillence is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department and one of our senior staff members within the Psychology and Communication Technologies (PaCT) Lab.

Dr Lauren Bussey, completed the research mentioned here as a PhD Researcher and Demonstrator in the psychology department. She now works as a Lecturer at Teessie University.

You can read more about research from our PaCT Lab in our Evolution and Social Behaviour Research Blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.