1. Information avoidance: From health to politics, people select their own reality

    March 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Carnegie Mellon University press release:

    We live in an unprecedented “age of information.” Dieters have access to nutritional information, people at risk of genetic disease can undergo cutting-edge medical tests and citizens in modern democracies have access to a wide range of news sources covering the entire political spectrum.

    However, for all the information that is out there, people make use of very little of it. Those on diets, for example, often prefer not to look at the number of calories in a tasty dessert, people at high risk for a disease avoid screening tests that could give them a definite answer, and most consumers of news choose sources that align with rather than challenge their political ideology. Indeed, people at times actively avoid useful information that is available to them.

    Drawing on research in economics, psychology, and sociology, Carnegie Mellon University’s George Loewenstein, Russell Golman and David Hagmann illustrate how people deliberately avoid information that threatens their happiness and wellbeing. Published in the Journal of Economic Literature, they show that, while a simple failure to obtain information is the most clear-cut case of “information avoidance,” people have a wide range of other information-avoidance strategies at their disposal. They are also remarkably adept at selectively directing their attention to information that affirms what they believe or that reflects favorably upon them, and at forgetting information they wish were not true.

    “The standard account of information in economics is that people should seek out information that will aid in decision making, should never actively avoid information, and should dispassionately update their views when they encounter new valid information,” said Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology who co-founded the field of behavioral economics.

    Loewenstein continued, “But people often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive. Bad teachers, for example, could benefit from feedback from students, but are much less likely to pore over teaching ratings than skilled teachers.”

    Even when people cannot outright ignore information, they often have substantial latitude in how to interpret it. Questionable evidence is often treated as credible when it confirms what someone wants to believe — as is the case of discredited research linking vaccines to autism. And, by the same token, evidence that meets the rigorous demands of science is often discounted if it goes against what people want to believe, as illustrated by widespread dismissal of scientific evidence of climate change.

    Information avoidance can harm individual wellbeing, as when people miss opportunities to treat serious diseases early on or fail to learn about better financial investments that could prepare them for retirement. It also has large societal implications. The demand for ideologically aligned information drives media bias, which fuels political polarization: When basic facts are no longer part of a shared understanding, the foundation of societal discourse disappears.

    “An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us,” said Hagmann, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences. “Bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs — the usual strategy that people employ in attempts at persuasion — is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing. If we want to reduce political polarization, we have to find ways not only to expose people to conflicting information, but to increase people’s receptivity to information that challenges what they believe and want to believe.”

    Despite its evident pitfalls and costs, information avoidance isn’t always a mistake or a reflection of a lazy mind.

    “People do it for a reason,” said Golman, assistant professor of social and decision sciences. “Those who do not take a genetic test can enjoy their life until their illness can’t be ignored, an inflated sense of our own abilities can help us to pursue big and worthwhile goals, and not looking at our financial investments when markets are down may keep us from selling in a panic.”

    Understanding when, why, and how people avoid information can help governments and firms alike to reach their audiences effectively without drowning them in unwanted messages.


  2. Frankly, we do give a damn: Study finds links between swearing and honesty

    January 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge media release:

    computer frustrationIt’s long been associated with anger and coarseness but profanity can have another, more positive connotation. Psychologists have learned that people who frequently curse are being more honest.

    Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Hong Kong report that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated with lying and deception.

    Profanity is obscene language which, in some social settings is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. It often refers to language that contains sexual references, blasphemy or other vulgar terms. It’s usually related to the expression of emotions such as anger, frustration or surprise. But profanity can also be used to entertain and win over audiences.

    There are conflicting attitudes to profanity and its social impact has changed over the decades. In 1939, Clark Gable uttering the memorable line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the film Gone with the Wind, was enough to land the producers a $5,000 fine. Nowadays our movies, TV shows and books are peppered with profane words and, for the most part, we are more tolerant of them.

    As dishonesty and profanity are both considered deviant they are often viewed as evidence of low moral standards. On the other hand, profanity can be positively associated with honesty. It is often used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity. The researchers cite the example of President-elect Donald Trump who used swear words in some of his speeches while campaigning in last year’s US election and was considered, by some, to be more genuine than his rivals.

    Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, says: “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. ”

    The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires which included interactions with social media users.

    In the first questionnaire 276 participants were asked to list their most commonly used and favourite swear words. They were also asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took part in a lie test to determine whether they were being truthful or simply responding in the way they thought was socially acceptable. Those who wrote down a higher number of curse words were less likely to be lying.

    A second survey involved collecting data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of swear words in their online social interactions. The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me.” The Facebook users were recruited from across the United States and their responses highlight the differing views to profanity that exist between different geographical areas. For example, those in the north-eastern states (such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York) were more likely to swear whereas people were less likely to in the southern states (South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi).


  3. Women as decorative accessories: Keep silent or take a stance?

    January 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer media release:

    mirror, agingHow do Italian women react once they are made aware that using bikini-clad models draped over sports cars or scantily dressed actresses on television actually degrades and objectifies the female sex into mere sexual objects?

    Most become angry and want to support protests against such female sexual objectification, says Francesca Guizzo of the University of Padova in Italy, lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Sex Roles. She believes awareness campaigns targeting women can be powerful tools to call them to action to make a stance against sexualized images and unrealistic beauty ideals that are regularly shown on television.

    “In many Western countries we are accustomed to being exposed to media images of undressed and sexy bodies often used as decorative objects or instruments to attract new consumers,” explains Guizzo, who says that women are far more likely than men to be hyper-sexualized in advertisements, magazines, films and television. Such sexual objectification by the media can degrade women, influence the way they are treated, and affect their psyche and sense of self-worth.

    To shed more light on the influence of such media portrayals in Italy, Guizzo’s team recruited 78 Italian men and 81 women. Participants watched a television clip in which women are sexually objectified (sexual objectification video clip) or the same clip with a commentary added explaining why the footage degrades women (critique video clip) or a nature documentary (control condition).

    After watching the critique video clip, female participants were more prone to recognize the disadvantaged position of women in society, and they felt angrier and guiltier about how the Italian media and society treat them. Moreover, women were more willing to support collective action (such as the signing of petitions and participation in a rally). The same effect was not noted among men.

    It was also found that people who are habitually exposed to sexually objectifying TV are generally less likely to take a collective stance against such degrading exposure. It also influenced women’s intention to do something about it. These results extend previous research showing that frequent exposure to sexualized media increases endorsement of stereotypical gender roles and the view of women as sexual objects.

    “The overall pattern of results suggests that the chronic exposure to objectifying media might lead to the dangerous assumption that such female portrayal is the norm, thus further reducing people’s likelihood to react,” says Guizzo.

    She believes that sensitizing campaigns could represent, at least for women, a powerful tool to raise awareness and to motivate individuals to engage in collective action aimed at improving media portrayals of women. “Media literacy messages in the form of critique videos may be valuable tools to promote more active and critical media consumption and media specialists, concerned citizens, and social media activists may use such messages to motivate women to collectively take action against sexual objectification,” she adds.


  4. Losing sleep over discrimination? ‘everyday discrimination’ may contribute to sleep problems

    by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins media release:

    People who perceive more discrimination in daily life have higher rates of sleep problems, based on both subjective and objective measures, reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    “Discrimination is an important factor associated with sleep measures in middle-aged adults,” according to the report by Sherry Owens, PhD, of West Virginia University, Morgantown, and colleagues. The results add to previous research suggesting that discrimination and chronic stress may lead to sleep difficulties and increased health risks.

    Discrimination Related to Both Objective and Subjective Sleep Problems

    The study included 441 adults from a nationwide study of health and well-being in middle age and beyond (the MIDUS Study). The participants’ average age was 47 years; about one-third were of non-white race/ethnicity. Complete data were available for 361 participants.

    Participants wore an activity monitor device for one week to gather data on objective sleep measures — for example, sleep efficiency, calculated as the percentage of time spent in bed that the person was asleep. They also completed subjective sleep ratings — for example, how often they had sleep problems.

    Perceived experiences of discrimination were assessed using a validated “Everyday Discrimination Scale.” For example, subjects were asked how often they were treated with less courtesy or respect than others, or how often they were insulted or harassed.

    Discrimination scores were analyzed for association with the objective and subjective sleep measures. Objective measures indicated that about one-third of participants had poor sleep efficiency. Subjectively, one-half of subjects rated themselves as having poor sleep quality.

    Participants who perceived more discrimination had increased sleep problems, after adjustment for demographic, lifestyle, and health factors. Higher discrimination scores were associated with 12 percent higher odds of poor sleep efficiency and a nine percent increase in the odds of poor sleep quality. Discrimination was also related to (objective) time spent awake after falling asleep and (subjective) overall sleep difficulties.

    Non-white subjects had nearly four times the odds of poor sleep efficiency. Otherwise, all differences in sleep measures between white and non-white subjects were related to discrimination.

    Older participants and men were more likely to have some types of sleep problems. Age, sex, and mental/physical health factors explained only a small proportion of the effects of discrimination.

    Previous studies have suggested that racial/ethnic minorities have worse sleep quality. Inadequate sleep is associated with adverse health outcomes, including increased cardiovascular risks and increased mortality. These consequences of poor sleep may account for some of racial/ethnic variation in health outcomes — possibly reflecting inadequate recovery from chronic daily stressors.

    While poor sleep has previously been linked to higher perceived discrimination, the new study is the first to look at how discrimination affects both objective and subjective sleep measures. “The findings support the model that discrimination acts as a stressor than can disrupt subjective and objective sleep,” Dr. Owens and coauthors write.

    The researchers call for further study to confirm and clarify the implications of their findings. Meanwhile, they believe the study adds a “finer resolution” to previous knowledge the relationship between discrimination and sleep — and suggests a possible “causal pathway” connecting chronic discrimination to sleep problems, and thus to increased health risks.


  5. Lack of joy from music linked to brain disconnection

    January 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the McGill University media release:

    Brain MusicHave you ever met someone who just wasn’t into music? They may have a condition called specific musical anhedonia, which affects three-to-five per cent of the population.

    Researchers at the University of Barcelona and the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University have discovered that people with this condition showed reduced functional connectivity between cortical regions responsible for processing sound and subcortical regions related to reward.

    To understand the origins of specific musical anhedonia, researchers recruited 45 healthy participants who completed a questionnaire measuring their level of sensitivity to music and divided them into three groups of sensitivity based on their responses. The test subjects then listened to music excerpts inside an fMRI machine while providing pleasure ratings in real-time. To control for their brain response to other reward types, participants also played a monetary gambling task in which they could win or lose real money.

    Using the fMRI data, the researchers found that while listening to music, specific musical anhedonics presented a reduction in the activity of the Nucleus Accumbens, a key subcortical structure of the reward network. The reduction was not related to a general improper functioning of the Nucleus Accumbens itself, since this region was activated when they won money in the gambling task.

    Specific musical anhedonics, however, did show reduced functional connectivity between cortical regions associated with auditory processing and the Nucleus Accumbens. In contrast, individuals with high sensitivity to music showed enhanced connectivity.

    The fact that subjects could be insensible to music while still responsive to another stimulus like money suggests different pathways to reward for different stimuli. This finding may pave the way for the detailed study of the neural substrates underlying other domain-specific anhedonias and, from an evolutionary perspective, help us to understand how music acquired reward value.

    Lack of brain connectivity has been shown to be responsible for other deficits in cognitive ability. Studies of children with autism spectrum disorder, for example, have shown that their inability to experience the human voice as pleasurable may be explained by a reduced coupling between the bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus and distributed nodes of the reward system, including the Nucleus Accumbens. This latest research reinforces the importance of neural connectivity in the reward response of human beings.

    “These findings not only help us to understand individual variability in the way the reward system functions, but also can be applied to the development of therapies for treatment of reward-related disorders, including apathy, depression, and addiction,” says Robert Zatorre, an MNI neuroscientist and one of the paper’s co-authors.

     


  6. Students have trouble judging the credibility of information online, researchers find

    November 23, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University media release:

    studying problemsWhen it comes to evaluating information that flows across social channels or pops up in a Google search, young and otherwise digital-savvy students can easily be duped, finds a new report from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

    The report, released this week by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), shows a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet, the authors said. Students, for example, had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from.

    Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

    The researchers began their work in January 2015, well before the most recent debates over fake news and its influence on the presidential election.

    The scholars tackled the question of “civic online reasoning” because there were few ways to assess how students evaluate online information and to identify approaches to teach the skills necessary to distinguish credible sources from unreliable ones.

    The authors worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.

    Many of the materials on web credibility were state-of-the-art in 1999. So much has changed but many schools are stuck in the past,” said Joel Breakstone, the director of SHEG, which has designed social studies curriculum that teaches students how to evaluate primary sources. That curriculum has been downloaded 3.5 million times, and is used by several school districts.

    The new report covered news literacy, as well as students’ ability to judge Facebook and Twitter feeds, comments left in readers’ forums on news sites, blog posts, photographs and other digital messages that shape public opinion.

    The assessments reflected key understandings the students should possess such as being able to find out who wrote a story and whether that source is credible. The authors drew on the expertise of teachers, university researchers, librarians and news experts to come up with 15 age-appropriate tests — five each for middle school, high school and college levels.

    In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the authors wrote.

    In middle school they tested basic skills, such as the trustworthiness of different tweets or articles.

    One assessment required middle schoolers to explain why they might not trust an article on financial planning that was written by a bank executive and sponsored by a bank. The researchers found that many students did not cite authorship or article sponsorship as key reasons for not believing the article.

    Another assessment had middle school students look at the homepage of Slate. They were asked to identify certain bits of content as either news stories or advertisements. The students were able to identify a traditional ad — one with a coupon code — from a news story pretty easily. But of the 203 students surveyed, more than 80 percent believed a native ad, identified with the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story.

    At the high school level, one assessment tested whether students were familiar with key social media conventions, including the blue checkmark that indicates an account was verified as legitimate by Twitter and Facebook.

    Students were asked to evaluate two Facebook posts announcing Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. One was from the verified Fox News account and the other was from an account that looked like Fox News. Only a quarter of the students recognized and explained the significance of the blue checkmark. And over 30 percent of students argued that the fake account was more trustworthy because of some key graphic elements that it included.

    “This finding indicates that students may focus more on the content of social media posts than on their sources,” the authors wrote. “Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.”

    The assessments at the college level focused on more complex reasoning. Researchers required students to evaluate information they received from Google searches, contending that open Internet searches turn up contradictory results that routinely mix fact with falsehood.

    For one task, students had to determine whether Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, believed in state-sponsored euthanasia. A typical Google search shows dozens of websites addressing the topic from opposite angles.

    “Making sense of search results is even more challenging with politically charged topics,” the researchers said. “A digitally literate student has the knowledge and skill to wade through mixed results to find reliable and accurate information.”

    In another assessment, college students had to evaluate website credibility. The researchers found that high production values, links to reputable news organizations and polished “About” pages had the ability to sway students into believing without very much skepticism the contents of the site.

    The assessments were administered to students across 12 states. In total, the researchers collected and analyzed 7,804 student responses. Field-testing included under-resourced schools in Los Angeles and well-resourced schools in the Minneapolis suburbs. College assessments were administered at six different universities.

    Wineburg says the next steps to this research include helping educators use these tasks to track student understanding and to adjust instruction. He also envisions developing curriculum for teachers, and the Stanford History Education Group has already begun to pilot lesson plans in local high schools. Finally, the researchers hope to produce videos showing the depth of the problem and demonstrating the link between digital literacy and informed citizenship.

    As recent headlines demonstrate, this work is more important now than ever,” Wineburg said. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing our assessments and working with educators to create materials that will help young people navigate the sea of disinformation they encounter online.”

    The research was funded by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Besides Breakstone and Wineburg, co-authors included Stanford researchers Sarah McGrew and Teresa Ortega.

    An executive summary of the report is available here.


  7. Female scientists collaborate differently from their male counterparts

    November 9, 2016 by Ashley

    From the PLOS media release:

    lab_researchSucceeding in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines can be very challenging for female faculty. Now, a Northwestern University study of the collaboration patterns of STEM faculty publishing 4 November in the open-access journal PLOS Biology has found that the playing fields in some disciplines are not as level as they first appear.

    “Our findings in molecular biology, particularly genomics, are what surprised us the most,” said Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. “There is a lot of research money in this high-profile area, and women are not represented proportionally. This raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of cultural environment has been created in the field.”

    Knowing that collaboration is critical to the scientific enterprise, Amaral and Teresa K. Woodruff, a Northwestern Medicine reproductive biologist, focused on this factor in their study of the underrepresented group of female faculty in STEM. The data analysis of the complete publication records of nearly 4,000 faculty members in six STEM disciplines at top research universities across the USA produced a number of findings.

    The researchers found that, broadly speaking, female faculty (for the six different disciplines in the study) have as many collaborators, or co-authors, as male faculty and that female faculty tend to return to the same collaborators a little less than males. Previous research by Amaral had shown that novel collaborations have a greater likelihood of producing work of higher impact.

    However, those aggregate patterns have to be interpreted with care, Amaral cautioned, because the situation can change within subdisciplines. By digging deeper, the researchers found that females are underrepresented in large teams in genomics (a subdiscipline of molecular biology). This could be an indication of a negative cultural milieu in this particular subfield, the researchers said.

    “We want to understand ways in which males and females live different experiences in STEM disciplines, so that a level playing field can be created where needed,” Woodruff said.

    “Much more progress needs to be made for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed in STEM disciplines,” Amaral said. “In fact, the degree of progress is not even uniform within a single discipline, so one needs to make sure females are not being excluded from specific subdisciplines.”

    In an accompanying Primer, “Rosalind’s Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female,” also publishing 4 November, Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study, sets this work in context. “One factor remains fairly constant: women are underrepresented in terms of authorships, including first and/or last authorships (whichever is more prestigious), coauthorships, and in the granting of scientific prizes,” she writes.

    “Overall, the more elite the scientist, the more likely they are to work at the international level; however, female collaborators are less likely to be working internationally and are more likely to collaborate locally. This means that they are also less likely to coauthor with top scholars.” Wagner notes that previous studies and the new findings from Amaral’s group serve to remind us that the legacy of Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial work on the structure of the DNA double helix over 60 years ago was notoriously underappreciated at the time, lives on.


  8. Competence matters more than gender for women running for office

    November 4, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University media release:

    menopause womanThe nomination of the first woman presidential candidate by a major party has shattered some gender barriers, while at the same time reinforced certain stereotypes and double standards that still exist for women.

    Tessa Ditonto, an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University, studies how gender and political psychology influence voter behavior. Ditonto says the 2016 election has elevated gender, sexism and the role of women in politics to the forefront of national conversation.

    “This election will test whether our expectations about presidential masculinity — strength, ‘toughness’ and military might — affect the way we evaluate the first female major party nominee,” Ditonto said. “It will also show how voters’ impressions of Hillary Clinton, a major presence in American politics for decades, were influenced by the gendered, and often blatantly sexist, media coverage and comments from her opponent’s campaign.”

    Ditonto’s new research, which examines gender and candidate competence — based on information and looks — provides some insight as to how gender influences voter behavior. The results, published in the journal Political Behavior, are encouraging and somewhat troubling, Ditonto said. She found that gender plays a significant role in how much voters care about a candidate’s perceived competence.

    The good news is women candidates, portrayed as competent in the study, did just as well as men who were viewed as competent. However, voters had different standards when judging incompetence. Ditonto says they were more forgiving of men than women who appeared incompetent.

    To test voter behavior, Ditonto created a mock election scenario. In two separate experiments, study participants were asked to participate in a simulated campaign for a presidential election, answer questions about the candidates they saw and cast a vote for their candidate of choice. The first experiment consisted of both a primary and general election. Ditonto says the combined results suggest that for women candidates who are subject to stereotypes about competence, the actual information available about them matters a great deal.

    It’s heartening that gender-based stereotypes related to competence are not insurmountable for female candidates. It seems that voters are allowing substantive information to influence their ultimate evaluations and vote choice,” Ditonto said. “Perhaps we should be more surprised that male candidates who are portrayed as politically incompetent are still so well liked and supported.”

    Of the 449 study participants in the first experiment, 58 percent were female. The majority were white and identified as Democrats.

    Voters don’t always judge a book by its cover

    Voters have access to considerably more information about candidates running for national, state and local office than ever before. Still, prior research has shown that voters judge a candidate in other ways, including looks. Ditonto’s work found the opposite to be true. A candidate’s facial features didn’t matter as much when gender and substantive information were taken into consideration, she said.

    In her second study, Ditonto used the computer program, FaceGen, to determine how voters respond to facial features. She created multiple male and female candidates, and varied aspects of physical appearance — eye spacing, jaw width and maturity — typically associated with competence. The 377 participants in this study were evenly split by gender. The majority were white and identified as Democrats. Ditonto says most seemed unaffected by whether or not the candidate looked competent or incompetent.

    Voters did their homework based on the information provided. However, if the information portrayed a woman as incompetent, they were less likely to support her campaign, even if that meant voting for the other party’s candidate. Men were not judged as harshly. Voters were willing to support their party’s candidate, even if that candidate was viewed as an incompetent man.

    The combination of a female candidate whose competence has been cast into doubt is such a potent combination of cues, that it can even trump voters’ party identification,” Ditonto said. “This was pretty unexpected, since party affiliation is almost always the strongest predictor of someone’s vote choice.”

    What does this mean for women?

    Gender stereotypes can have negative effects for female candidates, but they don’t have to, Ditonto said. Understanding that voters care about different things when evaluating women and men should underscore the need for women to focus campaigns on their competence and qualifications. However, gender stereotypes are often reinforced through media coverage, which is another challenge women must overcome, she said.

    “The fact that women are more disadvantaged by negative information than are men is problematic. Since information about political candidates is obtained in large part from the news media, this is a problem for women,” Ditonto said. “Women candidates are often ‘trivialized’ in the way the media talks about them and unbiased portrayals of women as competent politicians are not easy to come by.”


  9. Gender gaps in math persist, with teachers underrating girls’ math skills

    October 31, 2016 by Ashley

    From the New York University media release:

    math_problemBeginning in early elementary school, boys outperform girls in math — especially among the highest achievers — continuing a troubling pattern found in the late 1990s, finds a new analysis led by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

    The study, published in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, also shows that teachers give lower ratings to girls’ math skills when girls and boys have similar achievement and behavior. In addition, using two national datasets gathered more than a decade apart, this study finds that teachers’ lower ratings of girls are likely contributing to the growth in the gender gap in math.

    Despite changes in the educational landscape, our findings suggest that the gender gaps observed among children who entered kindergarten in 2010 are strikingly similar to what we saw in children who entered kindergarten in 1998,” said Joseph Robinson Cimpian, associate professor of economics and education policy at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author.

    The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study is a national, federally funded project that tracks children’s developmental and educational outcomes over time. Data from the study’s kindergarten class of 1998-1999 showed that U.S. boys and girls began kindergarten with similar math proficiency, but disparities developed by grade 3 with girls falling behind. The gap was particularly large among the highest math achievers.

    The gender gap at the top of the math achievement distribution deserves special attention, as this is where future mathematicians, computer scientists, and other STEM professionals tend to reside — professions in which women remain underrepresented,” Cimpian said.

    Research also revealed disparities in teacher perceptions of students, with teachers rating the math skills of girls lower than those of similarly behaving and performing boys. Public perceptions — particularly those of teachers — are important for students, as they can act as self-fulfilling prophecies.

    In this study, Cimpian and colleagues compared two cohorts in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: the kindergarten class of 1998-1999 and the kindergarten class of 2010-2011. More than 5,000 students (kindergarten, grades 1 and 3) were included in the analysis of the 1998-1999 cohort and more than 7,500 students (kindergarten, grades 1 and 2) were included from the 2010-2011 cohort.

    The researchers explored the early development of gender gaps in math, including when disparities first appear, where in the distribution such gaps develop, and whether the gaps have changed over the years. In addition to math achievement, they examined two potential contributors to gender gaps: students’ learning behaviors and teacher expectations.

    Overall, the researchers found remarkable consistency across both cohorts. They observed that the gender gap at the top of the distribution (among the highest achievers in math) develops before students enter kindergarten, worsens through elementary school, and has not improved over the last decade. In both the 1998-1999 and 2010-2011 datasets, girls represented less than one-third of students above the 99th percentile as early as the spring of kindergarten. As girls grew, so did the gap, with girls making up only one-fifth of those above the 99th percentile by grade 3 in the older cohort and grade 2 in the newer cohort.

    When boys and girls behaved and academically performed similarly, teachers in both cohorts underrated the math skills of girls as early as grade 1. This suggests that teachers must perceive girls as working harder than similarly achieving boys in order to rate them as equally proficient in math.

    Finally, the researchers examined gendered patterns of learning behaviors to try and explain why boys are more likely to score as high math achievers. They found that girls’ more studious approaches to learning pay off by boosting them at the bottom of the achievement distribution, but do not help the persistent gap at the top as much.

    This study was motivated in part by a curiosity of whether the gender gap might have reduced since the beginning of No Child Left Behind, given that states were required to report assessment results by gender. Despite policy changes, and despite recent evidence that gender gaps have closed on state math tests, our analyses found that math gender gaps did not close during this time of increased accountability,” Cimpian said.

    “And, while more research is needed to better understand the link between teacher expectations and gender gaps, this study replicates an earlier study of ours suggesting that the widening of the gender gap is partially due to the lower expectations that teachers hold of girls in math.”


  10. Knowingly taking placebo pills eases pain, study finds

    October 28, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center media release:

    aspirinConventional medical wisdom has long held that placebo effects depend on patients’ belief they are getting pharmacologically active medication. A paper published in the journal Pain is the first to demonstrate that patients who knowingly took a placebo in conjunction with traditional treatment for lower back pain saw more improvement than those given traditional treatment alone.

    “These findings turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head,” said joint senior author Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “This new research demonstrates that the placebo effect is not necessarily elicited by patients’ conscious expectation that they are getting an active medicine, as long thought. Taking a pill in the context of a patient-clinician relationship — even if you know it’s a placebo — is a ritual that changes symptoms and probably activates regions of the brain that modulate symptoms.”

    Kaptchuk, with colleagues at Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada (ISPA) in Lisbon, Portugal, studied 97 patients with chronic lower back pain (cLBP), which causes more disability than any other medical condition worldwide. After all participants were screened and examined by a registered nurse practitioner and board certified pain specialist, the researchers gave all patients a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect. Only then was the group randomized into one of two groups; the treatment-as-usual (TAU) group or the open-label placebo (OLP) group.

    The vast majority of participants in both groups (between 85 and 88 percent) were already taking medications — mostly non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) — for their pain. (Patients taking opioid medications were excluded from the trial.) Participants in both the TAU and OLP groups were allowed to continue taking these drugs, but were required not to change dosages or make any other major lifestyle changes, such as starting an exercise plan or new medication, which could impact their pain.

    In addition, patients in the OLP group were given a medicine bottle labeled “placebo pills” with directions to take two capsules containing only microcrystalline cellulose and no active medication twice daily.

    At the end of their three-week course of pills, the OLP group overall reported 30 percent reductions in both usual pain and maximum pain, compared to 9 percent and 16 percent reductions, respectively, for the TAU group. The group taking placebo pills also saw a 29 percent drop in pain-related disability. Those receiving treatment as usual saw almost no improvement by that measure.

    It’s the benefit of being immersed in treatment: interacting with a physician or nurse, taking pills, all the rituals and symbols of our healthcare system,” Kaptchuk said. “The body responds to that.”

    “Our findings demonstrate the placebo effect can be elicited without deception,” said lead author, Claudia Carvalho, PhD, of ISPA. “Patients were interested in what would happen and enjoyed this novel approach to their pain. They felt empowered.” Kaptchuk speculates that other conditions with symptoms and complaints that are based on self-observation (like other kinds of pain, fatigue, depression, common digestive or urinary symptoms) may also be modulated by open-label treatment.

    “You’re never going to shrink a tumor or unclog an artery with placebo intervention,” he said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it makes people feel better, for sure. Our lab is saying you can’t throw the placebo into the trash can. It has clinical meaning, it’s statically significant, and it relieves patients. It’s essential to what medicine means.”

    Taking placebo pills to relieve symptoms without a warm and empathic relationship with a health-care provider relationship probably would not work,” noted Carvalho.