What’s New in Psychology? |

5 min read

As with most academic disciplines, when new research gets published, it is often in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals. While these are credible sources, they are not regularly read by non-academic audiences. As such, I wanted to offer a brief overview of some of the most recent/exciting findings within our field.

Psychedelics Show Promise in Therapy

This is a finding that has reached national news, being featured in such mainstream publications as The New York Times. There is a growing body of research suggesting that with proper supervision and care, using psychedelics like psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) can help ease symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental disorders. For instance, as reported in The New York Times:

In altering the normal activity of the brain, psilocybin has the power to distort perceptions, transform senses and bend emotions. Researchers see the possibility of bestowing the brain with new elasticity, allowing people a chance to escape mental ruts. Studies have suggested that breakthroughs may be possible for people with challenging mental health conditions, including PTSD, substance addiction and treatment-resistant depression, without the habit-forming properties of some other drugs. (Baker, 2023, para. 10)

States have continued a trend of decriminalizing many substances that used to be banned, opening the way for more opportunities to study the potential therapeutic elements of these substances.

Lack of Clear and Stable Sense of Self Undermines Empathy

A study published last year in Emotion links a lack of self-concept clarity (SCC) with less empathic concern (Krol & Bartz, 2022). SCC is a construct that looks at how clearly defined, stable, and coherent a person’s sense of self or identity is. The authors in this study demonstrate that SCC is related to the construct of empathy, which is the extent to which we are able to understand someone else’s point of view or perspective. There is often an emotional component to empathy, where it being triggered allows us to connect with others and experience the world as they do. The authors of this study trace that in order for people to be able to connect with others in such a way, they have to have a strong sense of self. In other words, an empathic response—which also often predicts the likelihood of helping others—is more likely to be demonstrated by those who have a greater SCC. This has important implications regarding how effective interventions at increasing empathy in others are. For instance, the authors point out that without also boosting individuals’ SCC, programs that rely exclusively on cultivating empathy may not be particularly useful.

Harvard Partners With Social Media Influencers

Another development in academia that has been publicized far and wide, it was reported this month in many mainstream publications that Harvard has been partnering for the past 18 months with prominent social media influencers who have millions of followers to help them present more scientifically accurate content when they post about mental health. Given the outsize role that social media influencers are now playing in transmitting information that traditionally individuals would seek experts for—such as their doctors or other credentialed individuals—a group of Harvard researchers developed a program and invited prominent social media influencers to participate. The purpose was to see if these influencers could be encouraged to share more evidence-based interventions when posting content relating to mental health and well-being. In addition to the details of this intervention being published recently in The New York Times, Harvard published an article as well. Find more details here.

Age Differences in Emotion Globalizing

Life is stressful, especially in the 21st century. Perhaps one of the best ways to practically apply findings from our field for the improvement of others’ lives is in investigating effective ways to manage stress. In what may be the first study in the field that explicitly investigated responses to stress through the integration of a lifespan development perspective, Barlow et al. (2023) identify age differences regarding the tendency toward emotion globalizing. Emotion globalizing is the extent to which individuals interpret the feelings they have in the moment to larger perspectives regarding their life satisfaction. In other words, a person having a bad day who then thinks “my life sucks” or “nothing ever goes my way” would be engaging in negative emotion globalizing. Not surprisingly, such a tendency is associated with a maladaptive psychological profile, given that our emotions can shift from day to day or even moment to moment. While positive globalizing may be less damaging for us, generally speaking, if we attach our sense of well-being to external factors—whether positive or negative—this raises the risk of emotional volatility, undermining our emotional stability. In this specific study, the researchers identified that older individuals were less prone to engage in negative globalizing, suggesting variations in this tendency based on how old an individual is. Moreover, such a finding is consistent with research that identifies that often as people get older, they have better-cultivated tools and resiliency regarding stress management.

There is always a lot of new and exciting research being reported in our field. While this in no way reflects an exhaustive list of what is happening within the discipline, hopefully it gives readers a taste of the scope and scale of work that researchers are engaging in within the discipline of psychology. Stay tuned for more recent discoveries that I will share, as the work of social scientists is never finished.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2023.

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