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From Pokémon, to fMRI, to the relationship between masculine norms and mental health, 2016 left us with some interesting psych news to ponder.

Learn more about the science of Pokémon GO:

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Pokemon GO:


Sexism and mental health:

Hank: Every day, scientists are working toward a better understanding of the human mind. And during 2016, there were some huge news stories involving psychology.

In July, for example, Pokemon GO took the world by storm. Now you’ve probably heard way too much about it by now, you’ve probably installed and uninstalled Pokemon GO on your phone by now, but just in case you don’t know what this is: It is a smartphone game that combines augmented reality technology with GPS, so you can wander around your neighborhood and “catch” Pokemon in the real world.

With more downloads during its first week than any other iPhone app in history, it’s clear that something about Pokemon GO really spoke to us – but what? The game is too new for psychologists to have conducted any studies, but we know from past research that different parts of the game really appeal to our brains. For many young adults, this reboot of a classic game gave them lots of nostalgia, which seems like a sad emotion, but it’s actually good for you psychologically.

Nostalgia increases optimism and social connectedness by reminding you of good times, like trading Pokemon cards or battling on the playground with friends. Not to mention, this game gets you out of the house. And exercise is good for mental health, lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and releasing endorphins to improve your mood. Also, the game is super rewarding. Catching new Pokemon and leveling up are digital rewards, but they’re exciting and frequent, and keep you hooked.

No word yet on why so many of us stopped playing... maybe it’s because people start leveling up slower, or finding fewer new Pokemon, so that sense of achievement started going away. Or maybe it’s just because our batteries kept dying and we were like, ‘oh, I actually need my phone for- for other things... besides Pokemon’.

In other news, last spring, scientists announced that some brain research might be seriously affected by computer problems. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technique that uses electromagnets to measure brain activity safely, without sticking anything in there.

And it does that by measuring blood flow. When regions of the brain are active – when those neurons are firing in response to a stimulus or task – they need more oxygen, so more blood flows there. Researchers depend on computer programs to analyze fMRI data and figure out if changes in blood flow are significant or not.

For a couple years, there’s been talk in scientific communities about possible problems with these computer programs. And in May, a study reported that they might be getting it wrong more often than they should. Some scientists decided to test popular software programs for fMRI analysis on some resting-state fMRI data from almost 500 control subjects.

Normally, they’d expect to see a false positive rate of about 5%, meaning that 5% of the time, the software would say that there’s a change in brain activity when there wasn’t really a change. Instead, with some analysis methods, the scientists found higher false positive rates, sometimes even up to 70%, meaning that the software was artificially inflating the significance of the results.

This has gotten a bit overblown with lots of headlines saying “15 years of fMRI data are bunk.” Not all fMRI research uses the specific kinds of analysis that seem to have problems. Some past fMRI studies will need reevaluating, if they used these specific programs and kinds of analyses, and especially if their results weren’t strongly significant in the first place. But this is not the end of fMRI.

With this information, programmers can design better software for the future, and scientists are encouraged to share more of their data for easier double-checking with newer analysis methods. Lastly, near the end of the year, some scientists found that men who upheld masculine norms, especially ones associated with sexism, had worse mental health than those who didn’t. The meta-analysis that made these big, controversial waves was published in November, looking at 78 studies with almost 20,000 male participants.

The researchers focused on behavioral norms that could be considered traditionally masculine, like dominance, violence, and the pursuit of status. And they asked whether or not strong attachment to these kinds of norms could predict mental health conditions, or willingness to seek psychological counseling. They found that three things were especially associated with negative mental health outcomes: self-reliance, pursuit of sexual promiscuity, and power over women.

Men who strongly valued those norms, which are also closely linked to sexist attitudes, had a little bit more difficulty with social functioning and more psychological stress than men who didn’t. This kind of makes sense for a few reasons. Placing lots of value on being self-reliant can be alienating in our social and interconnected culture, and it can make it harder to ask for help if you need it.

On the other hand, sexual promiscuity, which they describe as a “playboy” reputation, and a desire to have power over women can have serious impacts on social relationships. Holding onto these attitudes can be isolating – and isolation contributes to poor mental health. Combined with traditionally masculine norms like “men don’t show emotion,” men who stick to these values might be less likely to seek mental health care.

It’s important to know, of course, that the study has its limitations, too. First, it was based on correlations between these norms and mental health, not experiments where they changed variables to analyze causes and effects. It only focused on participants from English-speaking countries, and a lot of them were white males from the U.S.

So they can’t know much about how holding these values affects other groups – like women, or individuals in non-English-speaking countries. And even though “playboy” behavior and self-reliance seem to have a negative impact, other traditionally masculine behaviors – like putting work first, and taking a lot of risks – weren’t associated with poor mental health.

Finally, because the researchers only looked at one set of masculine norms, this research doesn’t say anything about the health impacts of less masculine or more feminine norms. Even with these weaknesses, this meta-analysis highlights a need for psychologists to better understand gendered values and the roles they play in our lives.

So, 2016 was a pretty wild year for a lot of reasons, and what we learned about psychology was no exception. All of this research sets up a foundation for psychologists to learn more in the future - and we look forward to sharing more knowledge with you on our upcoming psychology channel, SciShow Psych!

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