…and now an app to treat spider phobias…

phobiafreeIn my last post, I discussed the use of ‘gamification’ in mental health treatment.  Now we see another app, this time using game strategies to treat phobias.  In this app, ‘Dr Freeman’ leads the user through a series of increasingly challenging scenarios involving an animated spider called ‘Itsy’.  The app uses systematic desensitisation techniques that are the standard behavioural treatment for phobias.

The app has been endorsed by ‘Anxiety UK’.  Read more here: Phobia Free app provides fun way to tackle spider phobia.

Also, in the Times:

How do you cure your fear of spiders? Get a web app–by Alex Spence

Published at 12:01AM, May 5 2014

Thousands of people who suffer from arachnophobia but are too embarrassed to seek help could now cure their fear of spiders with a few swipes on their smartphone.

Russell Green, an NHS psychiatrist turned technology entrepreneur, has harnessed his own fear of spiders to create a smartphone app that aims to cure users of the phobia by exposing them to increasingly realistic animated images.

It is one of a new generation of interactive apps that psychiatrists believe could help people to deal with “simple phobias” by helping them to unlearn conditioned responses to everyday situations.

Phobia Free, which costs £2.99, tries to help sufferers to overcome the fear of spiders by using a technique known as “systematic desensitisation”. Users are given coping strategies, such as calm breathing, muscle relaxation and self-hypnosis, for situations that make them anxious. They are then required to complete tasks on the app involving spiders, such as helping a spider caught in a bath to escape, and lifting up objects in a garden shed to find a tarantula, right.

Dr Green told the BBC: “The process is exactly the sames as if you went to see a psychologist and asked them to treat a phobia.

“I don’t think we’ve claimed that the app will suddenly make you buy five tarantulas, but to reach a point where you can tolerate them being in the room, you could maybe move them, and not pass on that fear to your children.”

Dr Green said he used to be so afraid of spiders that “I couldn’t even watch them on television. If a programme came on with spiders on it, I had to turn over.”

Peter Byrne, a psychiatrist at Homerton University Hospital, in east London, said that apps could help to address simple phobias. “They’re learning and challenging their beliefs,” he said. “The game [Phobia Free] is giving them a hierarchy: you introduce the object of the phobia in stronger and stronger doses until the person can overcome the phobia.”

However, he doubted that the app would be suitable for more serious panic disorders.

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Mental Health–via an app?

According to a report on NPR…’Gamification — the use of video game techniques to do more than just entertain — is a big buzzword these days. It’s being used in management, education and advertising.’  In this case, researchers from Hunter College and the City University of New York say they’ve developed an app that can reduce anxiety. Read more below:

Therapists’ Apps Aim To Help With Mental Health Issues

March 26, 2014 2:20 PM
The ReliefLink app is a mood-tracking tool intended to help people who are contemplating suicide.












Games like Flappy Bird and Candy Crush have helped many of us de-stress during long waits at the doctor’s office and crowded Metro rides. But what if an app could actually help with mental health? Researchers from Hunter College and the City University of New York say they’ve developed an app that can reduce anxiety. In the game, called PersonalZen, players encounter two animated characters in a field of grass. One of them looks calm and friendly, while the other looks angry. Soothing music plays in the background. When one creature burrows into the grass, players must follow the rustling leaves and trace its path. It’s not quite as exciting Flappy Bird, but the researchers found that it helped anxious people. We tried it out, and found that focusing on keeping track of those sprites was more challenging than we initially expected.

“What this game is doing is trying to train your attention toward the positive,” says Tracy Dennis, a professor of psychology at Hunter and the lead researcher behind the game. It’s modeled after a cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training, Dennis tells Shots. The idea is that if people can learn to ignore threatening stimuli and focus on the good, they’ll feel less anxious in stressful situations. The researchers tested the game on 75 people who scored high on an anxiety survey. Participants who played the game for either 25 or 45 minutes were less nervous when they then delivered a speech than those in the placebo group. The results were published last week in Clinical Psychological Science. The researchers don’t know if the game also works for more severe clinically diagnosed anxiety. And Dennis and her colleagues are now looking into whether shorter stints of play will have an effect. Dennis says her app could be useful by itself or in conjunction with therapy. “You can think of it as a vitamin, or you can think of it as a pain killer,” she says. People with mild anxiety might use it as a way to build resilience, whereas people with more severe symptoms might use it in between appointments with a therapist.

Gamification — the use of video game techniques to do more than just entertain — is a big buzzword these days. It’s being used in management, education and advertising. There are hundreds of mental health apps already on the market, and many incorporate elements of gamification. But few are based on scientific research. “When it comes to mobile technology, it’s sort of the Wild West right now,” Dennis says. A study in JAMA Psychiatry, published Wednesday, found that an app designed to help recovering alcoholics stay on track helped users avoid risky drinking. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared about 170 patients receiving counseling for alcoholism with 170 who were using the A-CHESS app. (The app can bedownloaded for Android phones.) The app includes relaxation tutorials, as well as a panic button that connects users to their families or counselors. It also alerts users if they are approaching a high-risk environment (like a bar they used to frequent) and helps them keep track of their progress. Those who used the app reported fewer days of excessive drinking, and they were more likely to be completely abstinent.

“I think that the use of technology in mental health treatment is relatively new,” Kaslow tells Shots. But idea of using games to help those with mental health problems build resilience isn’t novel, Kaslow says. Researchers have more often focused on using these techniques with children. But now that it’s common for adults to play games on their phones, that might start to change, she says. And even an app by itself might be better than nothing. “There’s a lot of stigma associated with mental health problems,” Kaslow says. “A lot of people are willing to download an app but not see a therapist.”

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Was Stanley Milgram right about obedience to authority?

Stanley Milgram’s work on obedience has been applauded, scrutinised, villified and now dismissed.  In a recent book published by Australian psychologist Gina Perry, she claims that Milgram knew what he wanted to show and manipulated the results.  She suggests the ‘variations’ of the experiment where participants were in a run-down office building or given instructions over the phone for example showed that less participants actually obeyed than Milgram claimed.  However, that was Milgram’s point. 

I recently came across this column by Daniel Finklestein in ‘The Times’ that explains it well…he says:

I’m afraid we’re just as sadistic as we feared–by Daniel Finklestein–9 October 2013


Pioneers of social psychology clearly proved our dark side, but now experiments need to be more robust:

I have a recommendation for all of you who are feeling a bit old. Just listen to When I’m Sixty-Four by the Beatles and at the end of the song you will feel younger. Really, it will take more than a year off your age. This is proper science.

The finding arises from experimental work conducted by the distinguished psychologist Joseph Simmons, of the University of Pennsylvania, and has been published in Psychological Science, a leading peer-reviewed journal. It is also, I’m afraid, a load of old nonsense. And I want you to keep that in mind while I tell you about Stanley Milgram.

In 1962, while still in his twenties, Milgram conducted what was to become one of the most famous series of experiments in the history of social psychology. In a laboratory in New Haven he gathered together ordinary people who were to help him to establish the impact of pain upon learning. Under supervision, they would administer electric shocks to subjects every time they made a mistake in a test. Would the subject get better at learning?

Except that this wasn’t what Milgram was really testing. What he actually wanted to know was whether, when instructed, people would be willing to inflict serious pain, even a fatal shock. It was a test of obedience of the participants. The “subjects” weren’t the subjects, they were really actors and the shock machine a fake.

What Milgram found was that 65 per cent of participants just kept on shocking. Under prompting from an instructor, they flicked the switch marked “intense shock”, then the one marked “extreme intensity shock” and on to the one labelled “Danger: Severe Shock”. And finally they flicked the last two marked just “450 Volts XXX”. They did this even though through the window of the lab they could see the “subject” screaming and eventually playing dead.

The result was shattering, certainly for Milgram himself. He wrote that he had once believed that it would be impossible in whole of the United States to find enough “moral imbeciles” to man the death camps of Nazi Germany. “I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be found in New Haven.”

Milgram’s methods and his results were immediately famous. And they were also immediately controversial. Many psychologists worried about the impact on the participants. The latest attack, however, is of a different nature. It questions whether Milgram’s work was proper science.

For a new book, reported upon yesterday in The Times , the Australian psychologist Gina Perry reviewed Milgram’s recordings and interviewed some participants. She argues that Milgram knew what he wanted to show and manipulated the results. She points out that while the famous outcome is that 65 per cent of people went all the way up the shock scale, Milgram in fact carried out the experiment 24 times. “Overall, over half disobeyed,” refusing to administer the more dangerous shocks.

I can’t accept this criticism, I’m afraid. Milgram was clear about what he did, which is why there is an archive and tapes. And the more you know of the experiment, the more fascinating and disturbing it seems. Yes, Milgram’s confederates bullied participants to obey, but that was the point. There were indeed 23 other variants apart from the famous one, but each teaches something.

There was one, for instance, where only 30 per cent were willing to obey the instructor. This was when they were required to hold the hand of the “subject” to the plate personally while the actor screamed. A full 30 per cent complied, even then. I find that more, not less, terrifying. And then there was another when nobody was willing to obey. This was when two instructors were present and disagreed with each other. These results make Milgram a greater figure and his results richer.

It is, however, impossible to be completely comfortable about Milgram’s experiment. Ms Perry’s criticisms seem far from the mark, but some questions do arise as you think about the points she has made.

The most important are these: how much faith, really, can one put in a finding that is a study of only 40 participants? Sixty five per cent compliance means just 26 people. And how certain can we be of the main results when the other trials show that outcomes are changed dramatically by small changes in condition?

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if there were not also questions over the methods used in other famous pieces of social psychology research. Take the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 a prison was created in the basement of Stanford University Psychology Department, and a group of 24 individuals were divided at random between guards and prisoners. Soon the guards became sadistic, humiliating their charges. Zimbardo’s girlfriend told him that things had gone too far. The experiment was meant to last two weeks, but Zimbardo called a halt after six days.

The work is a classic, but consider its failings. The sample is tiny and the selection of individuals may have introduced sample bias (there is a suggestion the advert attracted people of a certain type). The professor was involved both as a participant in the prison, and in interpreting the results. And, of course, the trial was abandoned less than half way through.

Then there is Milgram’s other famous piece of work — the one that produced the idea of six degrees of separation. In 1967 he gave people in, for instance, Nebraska, a name and address of, say, a Massachusetts banker and asked them to send it to someone more likely than them to know the recipient. On average the parcel arrived in five hops. Everyone in the US is only six degrees of separation away from everyone else.

Yet this study was helped along partly by the small sample size, partly by discarding information when packages didn’t arrive at all, and partly by selecting participants likely to be well connected.

Milgram and Zimbardo were pioneers. They are brilliant men who helped to open minds. It is understandable that their imaginative studies, the first of their kind, were flawed. What is worrying is that behavioural science has never completely overcome these flaws.

Social psychology has become one of the leading social sciences, with huge reach and great weight. Its insights are helping to reshape economics and illuminate politics. Yet too much is based on small samples, faulty experiments and the tendency to publish only negative results.

Remember Joseph Simmons? He set out deliberately to show that if you use a tiny number of subjects (20 in this case), pick your variable carefully and stop the experiment the moment the data gives you a positive result, you can prove almost anything. Even that When I’m Sixty-Four makes you feel a year younger.

That may have been good enough for a new science, but social psychology is growing up now. It will have to do better.

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More questions about Facebook

Considering whether social networking sites such as Facebook have positive or negative effects, proposed changes in privacy rules proposed for teenagers by Facebook have prompted MPs raise concerns about potential cyberbullying. Read below:

19 Oct 2013
The Times
by Murad Ahmed Technology Reporter

Facebook will be called before MPs to justify its plans to allow millions of teenage users to open up their profiles to strangers.

The social network announced this week that children aged from 13 to 17 will be able to post status updates, pictures and videos that can be seen by anyone. Until now, they have been visible only to a limited group of “friends” or “friends of friends”. The company said this would give teenagers more choice, but parliamentarians and charities including Kidscape and Beatbullying have expressed concern.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said he would call on Facebook executives to come before MPs within weeks to explain the changes. He said: “If the charities who are trying to protect children from cyber-bullying are expressing concern, that is something we want Facebook to consider and respond to.”

Helen Goodman, the Shadow Media Minister, said Facebook was “totally lacking in concern for young people” and called on the Government to force web groups to ensure that all postings by those under 18 were kept private.

Facebook said: “We think it is better that teens can choose to share publicly on Facebook than spend time elsewhere on the web where safety tools and resources are limited.”

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Peer Review…does it really work?

cancer_research_376935kWe know in Psychology that there are significant issues with the process of peer review. We rely on the peer review process to weed out research that isn’t worth publishing. But does the process actually work? We’d like to think so, but this article in the Sunday Times suggests we perhaps should be concerned…..read on….


by James Gillespie Published: 13 October 2013

AN AMERICAN scientist has fooled more than 150 scientific journals into publishing bogus cancer research.

John Bohannon, a biologist and science journalist, sent details of fictitious research into the effect of lichen on cancer to 304 magazines that all claimed to subject contributions to rigorous “peer review”.

A total of 158, including 10 from Britain, accepted the hoax paper for publication.

“Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s shortcomings immediately,” Bohannon said.

In the world of science, the system of “peer review”, which involves fellow scientists examining papers for flaws, is vital for credibility.

Bohannon, who has a PhD from Oxford in microbiology and works at Harvard and for Science magazine, where the results of his investigation were published, created a fake paper reporting a series of nonexistent experiments that “proved” a molecule from lichen inhibited the growth of some cancer cells.

He submitted it only to “fee-charging open-access” journals — those that do not charge people to read content but levy a fee on the authors for publication, varying from about £150 to £2,000.

Bohannon found the names of his fictitious authors by “randomly permuting African first and last names harvested from online databases, and then randomly adding middle initials”.

For the bogus institutions he combined Swahili words and African names with generic institutional words and African capital cities. The system created, for example, an author called Ocorrafoo Cobange from the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara.

“I was shocked really early on by the number of acceptances,” Bohannon said. “But it wore off later as there were so many. The rate of acceptances never fell below 50%.”

The hoax paper was rejected by 98 publications. Of the remaining 48, 29 appeared to have abandoned their websites while the other 19 said the paper was still under review.

Some of the hoaxed journals are produced by international groups such as Sage, which publishes more than 700 journals including the Journal of International Medical Research, which said that, subject to further editorial queries being answered, that it would publish the paper.

David Ross, executive publisher for open access at Sage Publications, said he was confident it would not have passed that stage of vetting but added: “We are concerned that a paper with fundamental errors got through the initial stage, and are taking steps to ensure that it cannot occur again.”

Only one other British publication responded to requests for comment.

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Does watching TV make children violent?


A recent article in the Telegraph re-opens the debate on anti-social influences of watching violent television programmes.  Read below:

Parents warned to keep an eye on what their children are watching, as research finds people who watch violent television, films or video games are more likely to be aggressive.

People who watch violent television, films or video games are more likely to be aggressive, as they interpret the mildest of slights as provocation, researchers have found.

The International Society for Research on Aggression (IRSA) concluded that that evidence shows that media violence consumption can act as a trigger for aggressive thoughts or feelings already stored.

They have now warned parents to keep an eye on what their children are watching, telling them to use a “you are what you eat” approach.

In their report, based on a review of pre-existing research literature, the commission concluded that aside from being sources of imitation, violent images such as scenes in movies, games or even pictures in comic books act as triggers for activating aggressive thoughts and feelings already stored in memory.

If these aggressive thoughts and feelings are activated over and over again because of repeated exposure to media violence, they become chronically accessible, and therefore more likely to influence behaviour.

The commission concluded: “One may also become more vigilant for hostility and aggression in the world, and therefore, begin to feel some ambiguous actions by others, such as being bumped in a crowded room, are deliberate acts of provocation.”

The researchers wrote: “Parents can also set limits on screen use, and should discuss media content with their children to promote critical thinking when viewing. Schools may help parents by teaching students from an early age to be critical consumers of the media and that, just like food, the ‘you are what you eat’ principle applies to healthy media consumption.”

While most public policy has focused on restricting children’s access to violent media, the commission found that approach to have significant political and legal challenges in many countries.

For that reason, it recommends putting efforts into improving media ratings, classifications, and public education about the effects of media on children.

The report is published in journal Aggressive Behaviour.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013

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Irregular bedtimes can have negative effects on IQ, but is there good news for night owls?

Irregular bedtimes seem to have a negative effect on children’s IQ scores–roughly 7-8 points according to new research from the University College London.  Part of the Millenium Cohort Study, psychologists have been collecting data on 11,000 children since the year 2000.  This latest survey looks at the children at the age of 11 years.  However, the good news is that children who simply went to bed later did not seem to be affected, just those with irregular bedtimes.  Read more here:



Irregular bedtimes ‘can hold back children’s IQ’

Chris Smyth Health Correspondent Published at 12:01AM, July 9 2013

There can be few parents who have not endured the hair-tearing frustration of trying to put to sleep a child who just will not accept that it is bedtime. But buckling in the face of the tantrums could come at a cost: children with the most irregular bedtimes scored seven or eight points lower on IQ tests than those with the most regular, a study has found.

There is, however, an upside: scientists say that going to bed later does not harm children’s IQ, as long as it is part of a settled routine. They believe that a well-set body clock is crucial in making sure that children’s brains are prepared to digest what they are learning.

Researchers at University College London looked at data on 11,000 children enrolled in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been following them since they were born around 2000. Parents were questioned in detail about family habits, including bedtimes, when children were aged 3, 5 and 7. At 7, the children were given reading, maths and spatial intelligence tests.

“Contrary to what we initially expected, it wasn’t the children with the late bedtimes, it was the children with the irregular bedtimes who had the poorer outcomes,” said Professor Amanda Sacker, who led the research. “If the children had irregular bedtimes at 3, 5 or 7, then we’re talking roughly 7-8 IQ points. It’s noticeable. A difference of that size is non-trivial.”

By the age of 7, most children were going to bed regularly between 7.30pm and 8.30pm, with about eight per cent waiting until after 9pm and similar numbers not having a regular bedtime, she reports in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Although these children were more likely to be from poorer and less educated households, Professor Sacker said that her team adjusted the results as thoroughly as possible for class, wealth and other factors. “The seven to eight point difference is between the children with the very best routines and the very worst. If they were somewhere in between, the difference is about two or three points instead,” she said.

Later bedtimes were not linked to lower IQ scores, nor were markers of interrupted sleep, such as having a TV in the bedroom or sharing with siblings. “I think there’s possibly something about irregularity that’s added something over and above quality of sleep,” Professor Sacker said.

“The mechanism could be to do with circadian rhythms or body clock. Having a regular bedtime means your body clock will be set and able to deal with absorbing everything from the day before and setting you up ready to absorb new information the next day.”

She said the study might offer good news for those parents whose children simply refused to accept their bedtimes. “The research shows that later bedtimes are not particularly detrimental. So maybe if people are having trouble establishing a routine, it could be because they are trying a too-early bedtime. It’s OK to have a later bedtime but a better routine — that’s better than no routine at all.”

Robert Scott-Jupp of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “In my opinion, for school children to perform their best, they should all, whatever their background, get a good night’s sleep.”


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