Tag Research

Religiousness and Altruism in Kids

microphoneLast week media outlets around the country reported on a study out of the University of Chicago on the relationship between religiosity and altruism in kids. The study can be found here. These are some of the headlines from last week: “Nonreligious children are more generous.” “Religion doesn’t make kids more generous or altruistic, study finds.” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish, Say Scientists.” How this research was portrayed constitutes a case example of what can go wrong when social science research is presented to the public.

The participants of this study were “…1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa).” The key determiner of altruism was how many stickers kids were willing to share with peers. Kids in the non-religious group were willing to share, on average, 4.1 stickers (out of 10) while kids in the Christian group were willing to share 3.3 stickers and kids in the Muslim group were willing to share 3.2 stickers. The researchers also determined that the correlation between the kids’ religiousity and altruism was -.173 (negative correlations mean that when one variable goes up, the other one goes down).

question mark over brainTo better understand the confusion in the reporting I need to explain the term “statistically significant.” Research is always done with samples that hopefully represent the population under study. So, let’s say I’m a researcher that believes that 10 year old boys who eat apples for a year will end up taller than 10 year old boys who eat onions for a year. I then put together a sample of 800 10 year-old boys, half of whom eat the apples and half of whom eat the onions for one year. A test for statistical significance tells me, at the end of my study, whether my sample of 10 year-old boys represents all ten year old boys (the population). Lets say at the end of the year my test of statistical significance says that my results are statistically significant. All that means is that my sample likely represents the entire population (the standard cutoff is 95% likely or higher). However, statistical significance tells me nothing about the meaningfulness of the difference. So, lets say in my study the boys who ate the apples were .84 inches taller than the boys who ate the onions. I can tell the media that there is a significant difference between my two groups, and that would be true. But the media, and the public equate “significant difference” with “meaningful difference” and that would be troubling, especially to onion farmers.

An example of a statistic that speaks to meaning is effect size; .20 is a small effect size, .50 is a moderate effect size and .80 is a large effect size. Moreover, to consider the meaningfulness of correlations, .10 is considered small, .30 moderate and .50 is large.

So, let’s return to the study in question. The effect size on the main analysis (which they didn’t report but which I calculated) is .348, closer to the small category than the moderate category (e.g., there was a .8 sticker difference between the non-religious kids and the Christian kids). Moreover, the negative correlation of -.173 correlation is small.

But, we need to return to my apple-onion study to consider another methodological issue. Researchers commonly collect data on other related variables that might moderate the results. Do the apples and onion diets have differing effects on boys who start out shorter than boys who start out taller? Do boys who are obese have a different outcome than those who are not? Are the results different for boys who exercise than those who don’t? Including measures like these helps researchers to further interpret the meaning and relevance of the results. In well-constructed studies such analyses are common.

In the study in question there were numerous potential moderators that were not investigated. These included the presence of mental health problems among the kids, the level of intelligence of the kids, and the number of siblings in each participant’s household, psychology disciplineto name a few. Moreover, a key potential moderator variable, socio-economic status, was assessed merely by determining the mother’s level of education. So, even though the results are statistically significant, the effect sizes are small and there are many unanswered questions regarding potential moderators of the findings.

Is this study interesting? Yes. Does it make a useful contribution to the literature? Yes. Does it suggest that parents should alter their religious practices based on its findings? Absolutely not. Moreover, there is a great deal of scientific evidence indicating that numerous physical and psychological advantages are associated with religiosity in children. In next week’s blog I will review some of that science.

Bullying: Research Review

bullyingThe flagship journal of the American Psychological Association is The American Psychologist. The May-June 2015 edition focuses on school bullying and victimization. The first article, written by Drs. Shelley Hymel and Susan Swearer, reviews four decades of research on this topic. Key elements of bullying are stated to include “…intentionality, repetition, and an imbalance of power, with abuse of power being a primary distinction between bullying and other forms of aggression.” Other key findings indicated by these authors:

  • 10 to 33% of students report being a victim of bullying.
  • 5 to 15% of students report bullying other students.
  • Rates of bullying appear to be on a slight decline.
  • When the source of information are teachers and peers, victimization by bullying is more stable (i.e., the same kids being bullied over time) than when kids self-report.
  • Being the victim of bullying is less stable among younger (i.e., elementary age) than older kids (i.e., middle school age).
  • Boys tend to experience more physical bullying while girls tend to experience more relational bullying.
  • There are subtypes of bullies. Some are estranged and on the social fringes while others are socially engaged and socially intelligent, perhaps using bullying behaviors to maintain their social status.

In the same edition of this journal Drs. Patricia McDougall and Tracy Vaillancourt reviewed the research on the impact of peer victimization. These are some of the key outcomes that have been associated with being the victim of sustained bullying:

  • Lower levels of academic achievement, more negative attitudes and bullying4expectations about school and lower rates of going to college.
  • More physical symptoms, including headaches.
  • Biological processes associated with poor stress coping and traumatic experiences.
  • Being less socially competent and successful.
  • Viewing oneself as to blame for the bullying
  • A variety of what are called “internalizing symptoms” (e.g., feeling lonely, anxious and depressed).
  • Several kinds of what are called “externalizing symptoms” (e.g., being aggressive, breaking rules).
  • Increased risk for suicidal thinking and attempts.
  • Numerous negative adult outcomes.stop2

Clearly, the research indicates that bullying is a prevalent problem that causes significant negative outcomes. In next week’s entry I’ll review some strategies for minimizing the occurrence and impact of bullying.

Defiance in a Young Child Needn’t Be Tolerated (usually)

defiant boyAn important study was published a couple of months ago in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry titled “Psychosocial treatment efficacy for disruptive behavior problems in very young children: A Meta-analytic study.” The first author is Boston University professor Dr. Jonathan Comer. This study of studies examined 36 studies investigating 3,042 children. The high points from this study support the headline for this entry.

Backdrop for the study

The authors first reviewed some key findings in the research literature:

• About 10% of preschoolers meet criteria for a disruptive behavior disorder. These conditions exist across cultures and are associated with debilitating outcomes (e.g., profound family disruption, continued psychopathology).

• The rates of psychotropic medication treatments for preschoolers has experienced between a two and five fold increase despite the fact that “…controlled evaluations of the efficacy of antipsychotic treatment for early child disruptive behavior problems have not been conducted…(and) potential adverse effects of antipsychotic treatment in youth, including metabolic, endocrine, and cerebrovascular risks, have been well documented.”

• While only a minority of children with disruptive behavior problems have ever tantruming girlgotten evidence-based treatment, there is evidence of a decreasing trend of kids getting needed mental health care.

Results

When considering if interventions work, researchers calculate an effect size. A “0” score means no effect; .2 means a small benefit; .5 is a moderate benefit and .8 represents a large benefit (what one well known statistician described as “whopping”).

The average effect size was .8! Remember, this is across 36 studies and more than 3K kids.

• The largest effect sizes were found for treatments that took a behavioral approach (see the commentary section below).

bipolar child• There is evidence that many treatments offered to youth with disruptive behavior problems are not the ones with the most evidence supporting their use; moreover, when these treatments are compared to evidence-based behavioral treatments there is a large difference in favor of the behavioral treatments. As the authors note “…widely used approaches rarely show support.”

• “Treatment effects were consistent across samples of varying compositions of racial/ethnic minorities.”

• “These findings provide robust quantitative support for consensus guidelines suggesting that psychosocial treatments alone should constitute first line treatment for early disruptive behavior problems. Against a backdrop of reduced reliance on psychosocial treatments in this age range, and increased reliance on pharmacological treatments in the absence of controlled safety and efficacy evaluations, the present findings also underscore the urgency of improving dissemination efforts for supported psychosocial treatment options, and removing systematic barriers to psychosocial care for affected youth.”

• “Roughly 50% of U.S. counties have no psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker.”

Comment

Readers of this blog will note how much this study is consistent with a primary ball and chain runningpoint I’ve been trying to make (and quoting from my own previous entry):

“Psychological problems are akin to medical problems in so many ways: they are nearly universal by the time a kid reaches adulthood (about 90%), most of the time they are treatable in a short period of time, they are easier to treat the earlier they are caught and, if they are left unchecked, can cause very stressful and costly consequences. However, unlike medical problems, only about 20% of youth who need evidence-based mental health care get it.”

This is profound social injustice and it needs to stop!

character holding checkmark-bulletWhat can you do to help?

• Ask your pediatrician if s/he screens all children for mental health problems in her/his practice on well visits. If not, ask him or her to reconsider. If s/he says that s/he doesn’t screen because s/he would have no one to refer such children to, make a counterpoint and a suggestion. The counterpoint: parents deserve to know if their child could benefit from a mental health evaluation. So, even if no help can be found, the problem has been upgraded. The suggestion: contact your state’s psychological association and ask if they can help to identify a provider to whom your pediatrician may refer; it is highly likely that that they will be passionate in their efforts to assist. Should you convince your pediatrician to grow in this way, a quickly administered pediatric mental health screening tool is available in the public domain (i.e., it’s free): Pediatric Symptom Checklist.

• If your child’s defiant or disruptive behavior is causing anyone distress, get him or her help for it today. Besides tapping your state’s psychological association, you may also try here .

• Ask the mental health professional you interview at least two questions:

√ “In what types of problems do you specialize?” (This is a better question than question mark over brain“do you specialize in working with children?”) If you hear kids listed, that’s good. If not, ask if s/he knows of someone who does. Of course you may live in a community where this person is your only choice. So, you can ask if s/he has had success treating this problem.

√ Once you identify a viable clinician, ask “You obviously can’t know if my child has Oppositional Defiant Disorder at this point, but what is your treatment approach when you have diagnosed a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder(ODD) and that’s the only problem?” There are synonymous terms for a good answer: “behavior modification,” “parent training,” (an unfortunate term in my view but it’s used), “behaviorally oriented family therapy,” and “behavioral treatment.” The clinician might also name some specific treatment manuals/approaches such as “Parent-Child Interaction Therapy,” “Incredible Years,” “Helping the Noncompliant Child,” “The Triple P-Positive Parenting Program,” and “The Defiant Child Program.” I would be very concerned if the first line of approach were a different one, including the use of medication treatment.

key in lockJust to give you an idea of what you might be in for, when I have a child who has ODD, and that’s the only problem, the treatment phase of the work (i.e., not including the evaluation phase), takes 8 sessions. In my own practice this cures the problem over 90% of the time. And, the two most common reasons I’ve found it doesn’t work are (1) the parent(s) don’t apply the techniques, usually because of personal pain and limitations or (2) there was another or different problem interacting with the ODD (e.g, the child really was suffering from an emerging case of bipolar disorder, the child was privately sniffing glue on a regular basis, a parent was substance dependent but tried to hide that). If a child truly has just ODD, and the parent does the techniques, it works.

The truth I/m reviewing here still seems to be too much of a secret, at least from most parents, teachers and pediatricians I’ve known. This leaves kids, parents and families suffering needlessly. As Jerry Garcia once noted: :Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”

In closing let me share that you can also find multiple behavioral strategies in my parenting book as well as suggestions for identifying, and affording, quality mental health care.

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