A certain amount of worrying is a normal part of life, especially these days with barely a moment passing without a disconcerting headline landing in your news feed. But for some people, their worrying reaches pathological levels. They just can’t stop wondering “What if …?”. It becomes distressing and feels out of control. In the formal jargon, they would likely be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but excessive worrying is also a part of other conditions like panic disorder. There are many factors that contribute to anxiety problems in general, but a new review in Biological Psychology homes in on the cognitive and emotional factors that specifically contribute to prolonged bouts of worry. Its take-home points make an interesting read for anyone who considers themselves a worrier; and for therapists, the review highlights some approaches to help anxious clients get a hold of their excessive worrying.
The review authors, Graham Davey and Frances Meeten at the University of Sussex and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, explain that what gets many pathological worriers worrying in the first place is that they seem to be highly vigilant to any sources of threat and danger, and if there’s any ambiguity about whether a situation is threatening or not, they will tend to interpret it as being dangerous. If they haven’t yet heard from their daughter today, for instance, the problem worrier will not only notice this fact, they will also contemplate that it’s because she’s in trouble, rather than simply busy.
Studies have shown the causal role that these attentional biases seem to have by testing what happens when people are trained instead to pay more attention to positive aspects of situations, or to interpret ambiguous situations more positively. Asked to spend time after the training sitting quietly, focused on their breathing, worriers who’ve had the training report fewer intrusive worries compared with control participants.
Once a worry bout kicks in, one of the things that keeps it going in problem worriers is their deep held belief that worry is actually a good thing. This doesn’t make much sense at first. How can excessive worriers think worry is good when they find it so distressing? But while they find the worrying distressing and upsetting, and it feels out of control, research shows they also believe that it can help prevent bad things from happening, that it will help them be prepared for bad outcomes, and that it aids problem solving.
Related to this, problem worriers tend to have a kind of perfectionist approach to worrying. They think they can’t stop worrying until they’ve finished, in the sense of working through every eventuality and solving every problem. Less anxious people, in contrast, will tend to follow a principle of stopping worrying once they don’t feel like it anymore. Teaching pathological worriers to change their approach, to learn to stop worrying once they had enough of it, has been shown to prevent them from getting stuck in such long worry bouts.
Another key factor is low mood. Problem worriers tend to experience more negative moods, which are known to encourage a more analytical thinking style. In turn, this lays the ground for an overly zealous, perfectionist worry style that is in a sense impossible satisfy and leads to more distress and anxiety. Pathological worriers also tend to use their ongoing negative mood as a barometer for whether their worrying has been successful. The fact that they still feel down and anxious tells them that they’ve yet to anticipate or prepare for every disconcerting eventuality. Using “mood as information” in this way creates a kind of cognitive and emotional trap that propagates yet more worry.
You should seek professional help if you feel your worrying is becoming a problem, but the review offers some simple take-aways for breaking out of occasional uncontrolled worry bouts or preventing them happening in the first place. Because of the way that negative moods contribute to the perseveration of worry bouts, for instance, simply trying to combat a generally low mood is likely to help. This may be easier said that done, but if you can lift your mood (for example through going for regular walks), the evidence suggests a knock-on benefit will be less prolonged worrying.
It sounds ridiculously simple, but also thinking about the idea of stopping worrying when you’ve had enough of it, rather than when the worrying is somehow “finished” or “complete”, could be beneficial. In fact, earlier research has shown that merely learning about the cognitive and emotional factors that feed excessive worry can help some people.
From a therapeutic perspective, the review suggests that attentional training programmes (including “cognitive bias modification“) are likely to help prevent worry bouts from starting in the first place. Therapists could also consider engaging with anxious clients’ explicit beliefs about worrying, such as that it can prevent bad things happening or that they need to continue worrying until they’ve covered all the issues. Meanwhile, acceptance- or mindfulness-based approaches could help alleviate clients’ distress about worry, which in turn would help reduce the part that negative mood plays in prolonging a worry bout. As for where our deep-seated and sometime unhelpful beliefs about worry come from in the first place, Davey and Meeten said this is something awaiting further research.
PLoS ONE includes an article: “65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys.”
One of the most annoying things you can say to a psychologist is: “Isn’t it all just common sense?”. No it’s not, as the list below demonstrates. But anyway, such a criticism of the field misses the point. Many findings in psychology can seem obvious after the fact, but we can’t know in advance which aspects of folk wisdom will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Striving for the objective truth through empirical testing – that’s what science is for, whether applied to molecules or minds.
That said, it’s always fun to share those findings that clash with received wisdom. So for your reading pleasure (and for the next time someone asks you the “common sense” question), here are 10 particularly counter-intuitive findings from the psychology archives. Please use comments to share your own favourites that we’ve missed.
1. Self-help Mantras Can Do More Harm Than Good
If you’ve got low self-esteem, you might want to avoid uttering positive mantras such as “I’m a lovable person”. A 2009 study found that people lacking in self-belief who spoke this phrase to themselves didn’t feel any better afterwards. In fact they felt worse, possibly because the repeated utterance led them to generate contradictory thoughts automatically. On a related note, there’s evidence that positive fantasies can also backfire. It’s thought that visualising your aims can cultivate a relaxed mindset that leads you to overlook the hurdles between you and your goals.
2. People Do Not Learn Better When Taught Via Their Preferred “Learning Style”
An incredibly popular idea, including among teachers, is that pupils learn better when they are taught information via their preferred modality, such as auditory, visual or by doing. In fact research has shown that people do not perform better when they are taught information via the modality that they say they prefer. A 2008 review of the learning styles concept put it like this: “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” Want more? – here’s all you need to know about the learning styles myth in 2 minutes.
3. Criminals Show Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour in Economic Games
It’s easy to demonise people who have broken the law. However, recent studies using economic games that test fairness and cooperation show that this is short-sighted. Last year, researchers observed prisoners’ performance on a famous game known as the “prisoner’s dilemma” – the convicted criminals actually displayed more cooperation during the game than undergrad students. Similarly, another study published this year found that people with a criminal record displayed just as much “prosocial motivation” (i.e. they distributed money fairly) in the “dictator game” as those without such a record.
4. Bottling Up Your Anger May Actually Be Good For You
Folk wisdom states that it’s better to relieve your anger by letting it out. In fact a tendency to lose one’s temper tends to go hand in hand with poorer health. Another study found that hitting a punch-bag while thinking about the person who made you angry actually just makes you angrier. It’s a complicated area, and expressing anger constructively may sometimes be a good thing to do, but the old rule that’s it always better to let it all it out is definitely flawed.
5. We Make Many Decisions Mindlessly
Unless we’re exhausted or intoxicated, we usually feel as though we are very much in control of our own choices and that we make them consciously and deliberately. This intuitive view is challenged by research on what’s known as “choice blindness”. In one study from 2005, participants picked out the face they found more attractive from successive pairs of photos. When researchers used sleight of hand to switch the chosen photo for the rejected photo, participants proceeded to justify their choice all the same, apparently ignorant of the switch. It was a similar story in 2010 when participants chose between different jams.
6. Opposites Don’t Attract
When it comes to human relationships, the aphorism that “opposites attract” turns out to be wide of the mark. There are of course exceptions, but mountains of evidence highlights how we are drawn to friends and romantic partners who are similar to ourselves, whether in terms of physical appearance, their personality, interests, or beliefs – known as “homophily”. To take just two examples, a study from 2010 found that people found faces more attractive when (unbeknown to them) they’d been morphed with their own; and a paper from 2011 found that people tend to choose to sit near others who look like themselves.
7. Wine Experts Don’t Know if They’re Smelling Red or White Wine
There is a vast literature on the limitations of expertise (for instance, political pundits are mostly useless at predicting electoral outcomes), but one of my favourite examples concerns people who study wine. A 2001 investigation showed that all it took to trick trainee oenologists into thinking a white wine smelt of red wine, was to dye it red. This research also challenges the intuitive belief that our senses are largely separate – in fact, perceptual experience derives from a blending of the senses, as shown for example via the McGurk Effect.
8. It Helps to Have Narcissists on Your Team
We usually think of narcissists – people with inflated views of their own skills and self-importance – as individuals to avoid. However, a study published in 2010 found that their presence can have a beneficial effect in the context of creative team work. When groups of four people were challenged to come up with new ways for a company to improve, it was the groups with two narcissists in their ranks who performed the best. The researchers think the presence of some narcissists helps generate healthy in-group competition.
9. Placebo Treatments Can Work Even When People Are Told It’s A Placebo
The amazing power of the placebo effect – the way that our beliefs about the action of an inert medicine can trigger substantial physiological effects – is itself, counter-intuitive. More surprising perhaps, is that the effect can still occur even when people know the medicine is inert. This was shown in a 2010 study involving people with IBS. “Our study suggests that openly described inert interventions when delivered with a plausible rationale can produce placebo responses,” the researchers said.
10. Sometimes a Pregnant Woman’s Depression is Advantageous For Her Baby
There is lots of evidence showing the adverse effects of a stressful pregnancy. But dig deeper into this field and you find some surprising results. For instance, a 2012 study uncovered an association between depression in pregnancy and superior functioning in the child at ages three and six months. This was found in the specific context in which the mother’s depression continued into the postnatal period. The finding is consistent with the “predictive-adaptive response model”, which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.
Please do share your own favourite counter-intuitive findings via comments!
The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.