The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

Spectator sports

We are in the age of the internet. Adele’s Hello has been viewed 1.8 billion times, yet there are five other music videos on YouTube with more hits, culminating in Gangnam Style’s 2.7 billion view parody of the western status symbols rich south Koreans aspire to. Viral memes emerge and hit millions of page views in a day or two. Websites full of recycled content and filler with clickbait titles make up news stories to profit from the advertising revenue. False news engineered for the most gullible audiences makes tens of thousands of dollars a month. False news created by vested interests including foreign governments sways election results. Trivial stories that involve popular vloggers make headline news. Swedish video game blogger Pewdiepie reached 50 million followers last week and reportedly earns $12 million per year. His empty threats to delete his channel made headlines around the world. The top ten YouTube channels each make in excess of $5 million per year in revenue. Yet many people above the age of 40 have never heard of any of them. Part of what they have in common is what image-hosting site Imgur calls step 1: “Be good looking” although, as has always been the case even prior to the internet, that rules doesn’t seem to apply if the content is funny.

This new class of creators and media is packaged into bite-size content that doesn’t require any critical thinking, often with a catchy title and thumbnail that oversell the contents. Clicking from item to item across quick videos, memes, images and articles seems to make a time-sink trap that captures internet surfers in their millions. Amongst the new population of content creators are people with various different personalities, histories and views about the world, ranging from the ordinary to the extreme. And just as in the responses to any feminist video online, there are then vloggers whose content is made up of critiques of more famous vloggers and their content.

As Katie Hopkins has worked out, being sufficiently unpleasant and controversial generates clicks. It then creates responses that drives more traffic to the original content, and perpetuates discussion. There is then meta-debate about the creator themselves, attempts to shame them, and debate about what to do about them. Even publicising her embarrassing apology and substantial payment of damages for making false racist allegations of terrorist links against a muslim family gives her more notoriety and more clicks.

So it has been with the media rubbernecking the car crash of Eugenia Cooney’s weightloss, from a slim but attractive young woman into an emaciated role model of anorexia (weighing an estimated 4-5 stone) whilst denying she has a problem. A petition to ask YouTube to block her videos until she has sought help reached 18,000 signatures before being removed as inappropriate, and this has created a media circus with numerous vlogs and articles about her weight and whether this represents anorexia or not. Some have commented on the obesity of her mother and brother, and her childlike demeanour and role.

Because she has chosen to put herself in the public eye, and to make money from her audience, she is considered fair game for discussion. Yet if she does indeed have anorexia (and from the little I know of the case that does not seem an unreasonable assumption) she is very vulnerable and likely to have very distorted thinking. In the UK, there might well be a case to section her under the mental health act for treatment if there was not an alternative explanation for her weight loss, because of the lack of insight and high morbidity characteristic of this condition. So there appears to be a dangerous incentive of clicks (and the cash from advertising that follows) for being controversial, and in this case, seemingly putting her own life at risk.

Let us not underestimate the seriousness of eating disorders. One in five people with an eating disorder will die prematurely as a consequence of the condition, making it the mental health condition with the highest level of mortality. There is an increased risk of suicide, and an average duration of eight years for anorexia or five for bulimia, with less than half of all of those diagnosed making a complete recovery to the point they no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. This is significantly more dangerous for your health than all but the most severe levels of obesity, and yet being too thin is often viewed as a positive characteristic and aspirational. The internet term “thinspiration” has nearly 4 million hits, with the top sites being pro-anorexia websites, with young women sharing tips and setting dangerously unhealthy weight loss goals.

Teenage online model Essana O’Neill bravely exposed the truth behind her instagram profile, which had half a million followers, before quitting social media to focus on real life. She later posted about her insecurity, depression and body dysmorphia. But she was far from alone. Photoshopping of images in magazines has become ubiquitous. Various surveys have shown that half to two thirds of selfies shared by adults or young people on social media have now been edited.

The fact that there are now dangerously thin vloggers denying that they have a problem and giving fashion and lifestyle tips to their followers must be considered concerning. It gives a new set of easily accessible role models that parents and clinicians may be unaware of, with very large audiences of young girls. Eugenia Cooney for example has 900,000 subscribers, who are predominantly teenage girls. There are several anecdotal examples of how this has been a trigger for eating disorders in girls trying to emulate them, and given 6.4% of the population has traits of an eating disorder, with most starting in this age range, that is highly concerning.

On the positive side, there have been growing moves to prevent overly thin models being used in catwalk shows and magazines and to indicate when images used in magazines have been photoshopped (something I would strongly support), so some progress appeared to have been made to present healthier role models to young women. There are many positive messages about health and fitness out there too (personally, I particularly like the goal of being stronger rather than thinner). However, there is a huge challenge when it comes to legislation on the internet, because of the many countries that the vlogger, hosting company and viewer can be situated in. Whilst these logistical pitfalls fail to prevent propagation of eating disordered messages (or other forms of toxic content) on the internet, there is little that we can do to prevent more and more young people normalising or idealising unhealthy role models.

Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!

 

 

How do we know what we need: differentiating evidence based treatments for the public

I am interested in making a website to help direct people at the right kind of sources of support when they are hitting a block or feeling unhappy with their lives. So I started to look at what was out there. I found lots of small silos full of professional jargon that would help people to identify a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist if they knew that was what they needed. But I also found lots of sites that point people at all kinds of snake oil that has no evidence of efficacy at all. For example, Findatherapy.org lists the following categories as “therapies”:

Abdominal-Sacral Massage
Acupressure
Acupuncture
Alexander Technique
Allergy Therapy
Aromatherapy
Arts Therapy
Autogenic Training
Ayurveda
Biofeedback
Bioresonance Therapy
Body Stress Release
Bowen Technique
Chiropody
Chiropractic Treatment
Clinical Pilates
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Colon Hydrotherapy
Colour Therapy
Counselling
Craniosacral Therapy
Crystal Therapy
EMDR
Emmett Technique
Emotional Freedom Technique
Energy Medicine
Flower Essences Therapy
Foot Health
Havening Techniques
Healing
Herbal Medicine
Homeopathy
Homotoxicology
Hydrotherapy
Hydrotherm Massage
Hypnotherapy
Indian Head Massage
Kinesiology
Life Coaching
Manual Lymphatic Drainage
Massage Therapy
Matrix Reimprinting
Maya Abdominal Therapy
Meditation
Microsuction
Mindfulness
Myofascial Release
Naturopathy
NLP
Nutritional Therapy
Osteopathy
Physiotherapy
Pilates
Psych-K
Psychotherapy
Reflexology
Regression Therapy
Reiki
Relationship Therapy
Rolfing
Sex Therapy
Shiatsu
Speech Therapy
Sports Therapy
Structural Integration
Tension and Trauma Releasing
Thai Massage
Thought Field Therapy
Yoga Therapy
Zero Balancing

That’s a list of 70 “therapies” of which at least 40 are obvious quackery, and very few could be said to have any form of persuasive evidence base for efficacy*. But the practitioners of each are persuasive, and the websites use pseudoscientific rationales that might fool those who are not as cynical or conversant with the scientific method as we are. So how do the public know what kind of help to seek out? How does someone who is feeling miserable, has a job they hate, financial difficulties and problems in their relationship know whether to get financial advice, careers advice, life coaching or therapy? And if they pick “therapy” how do they know whether to get CBT, psychoanalysis, art-therapy or non-directive counselling? And how do they know whether to get it from a therapist or a psychologist or a counsellor or a mental health specialist or any of a hundred other job titles? And within psychology, how do they know when to seek a clinical psychologist, a health psychologist, a counselling psychologist or any of the job titles that the HCPC don’t register?

I think apart from word of mouth and google, they don’t. Most people ask their GP or their friends for recommendations, and then go with something available locally within their price range. They don’t read the NICE guidance or understand the various professional bodies or regulatory systems. They trust that they’ll get a gut feeling as to whether it is going to help or not from the first session, and most of that “gut feel” is probably based on personality and charisma, and whether or not they feel listened to. The decision then rests on whether the therapist wants to work with them and has the capacity to take them on, and the price they ask for (assuming the service is in the private domain rather than the NHS).

Even the NHS itself isn’t very consistent about evidence based practise. For example, the NHS still funds some homeopathy – possibly wasting up to £5million per year on this placebo treatment that is entirely without evidence or credible rationale. Likewise I’ve seen NHS therapists who have done training in models of therapy that are implausible and without evidence (eg ‘energy therapies’ like EFT). Perhaps this is why the majority of clients doubt the efficacy of talking therapies. Yet, despite this scepticism, most would prefer to try therapy than medication yet the use of psychotropic medications has risen much more rapidly than the use of psychological therapies.

So where do we draw the line? If we only deliver fully evaluated treatments and those where we understand exactly how they work, then the amount the NHS can do when it comes to therapy will be much more limited. Lots of therapeutic interventions in practise are derived from other models or by combining aspects of various models. This allows individualisation of care. Similarly, there are many therapies which are being developed that have promising methodologies and are tightly rooted in scientific knowledge, but have not themselves been subjected to RCTs that prove efficacy yet (eg DDP). And many RCTs seem far removed from actual clinical practise where clients have a variety of overlapping conditions and clinicians deviate substantially from the treatment manuals.

The other confounding factor is that when it comes to talk therapy, it turns out that the modality or adherence to the manual matters very little compared to the relationship between the therapist and client. It seems the key ingredients are listening to the client, genuinely caring about them, giving them hope that things could be different, and giving them the confidence to try doing things slightly differently. Whether we have years of training and follow the manual diligently or whether we are newly qualified and muddling through seems to make much less difference than we think. In fact, therapist variables are much more powerful in influencing outcomes than modality, and even than the difference between treatment and placebo. That is no surprise to me as I’ve personally benefited from physiotherapy that included acupuncture – despite having read studies that show it to be no more effective than ‘sham acupuncture’ where random locations are pricked with a cocktail stick!

In the paper I’ve linked above, Scott Miller argues persuasively that we don’t need to focus on understanding how therapy works, or in using the medical model to work out what works for whom with endless RCTs. He shows evidence that experts are defined by having deep domain-specific knowledge, earned by a process of gathering feedback and focusing on improvement. So he argues that in the same way, expert therapists are those who collect and learn from client feedback. So his answer to the issue of evidence-based practise is for us each to collect our own outcome data to show whether our work is effective according to our clients (and by comparison to other options), and to see if we can improve this by using simple ratings within each session that check we are working on the right stuff and that the client feels we understand them, and that the working relationship is good.

So what does this mean for the proliferation of made up therapies? Does it mean that we should leave the public to buy a placebo treatment if they so wish? Or does it mean we need to focus on the modality and evidence base after all? The ideal would obviously be better regulation of anyone purporting to provide therapy of any form, but given the HCPC remit doesn’t even include counselling and psychotherapy, I think we are far from this being the case. To my mind it throws down a gauntlet to those of us providing what we believe are effective and evidence based treatments to collect the outcome measures that demonstrate this is the case. If we are sure that what we offer is better than someone having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary ‘inner physician’ by feeling imaginary differences in the imaginary rhythm of an imaginary fluid on our scalps then surely we ought to be able to prove that?

And what does that mean for my idea of making a website to point people at helpful places to start a self-improvement journey? To me, it shows there is a clear need for simple and accessible ways to identify what might be useful and to allow the public to differentiate between sources of support that have evidence of efficacy, professional regulation, a credible rationale for what they do, reputable professional bodies and/or personal recommendations. Maybe such a website can be one contribution to the conversation, although I’ll need both allies and funding to get it to happen.

 

 

*I’d say EMDR, physiotherapy, speech therapy, CBT and some types of psychotherapy and counselling probably reach that bar. Mindfulness is probably getting there. Art therapy probably suits some people with some issues. Yoga, sports massage, pilates, osteopathy, meditation, life coaching and (controversially) even acupuncture probably have their place even though the evidence for them as therapy modalities is limited. Most of the rest are quackery.

Why is there always a can of worms?

I’ve run http://www.clinpsy.org.uk for 9 years now, and built it up to 6900 members, 600,000 users and nearly 10 million page views per year. I’ve put enough hours into that site to add up to more than two years of full-time work, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. It is an informative, welcoming community that allows people to network and ask questions. It also levels the playing field of information and reduces the impact of personal connections within the early stages of the profession, and I hope that this will in the long-term act to increase diversity in the profession. Over those 9 years, members have written upwards of 135,000 posts on the forum, and our wiki of information and answers to frequently asked questions has been viewed millions of times, with some posts about preparing for interviews, the route to qualifying, formulation, writing a reflective journal, and transference proving particularly popular – the latter having been read over 115,000 times.

In all of that time we have had remarkably little need to intervene in the forum as moderators. We remove the occasional bit of spam, and we have sometimes anonymised posts in retrospect on the request of the author, and from time to time we have to explain to service users that this is not an appropriate place to ask for advice, but we rarely have to warn or ban forum users. I think the total to date is seven banned individuals and one banned organisation. Not bad when we’ve had 10,000+ sign-ups, and 135,000 posts! This is perhaps a reflection of our clear guidance about how we expect users to behave on the forum, and also of the large number of regulars who act as a more informal feedback loop. We also have quite a large number of qualified clinical psychologists who log into the forum regularly and often act to provide information and correct misconceptions. This is a very important function, as the pre-qualification arena can often become an anxiety-provoking echo chamber, where rumours are propagated and exaggerated without being confirmed or refuted. It also allows us to have a (hidden) peer consultation forum, which is a very good place to discuss concerns with peers in a safe environment in which every member is an HCPC registered clinical psychologist.

However,  the few times when intervention is necessary always tell an interesting story. And the strange thing is, that every single time somebody has been a persistent concern on the forum, this has opened a can of worms that makes us worried about wider ethical issues for the same individual. We had someone who was very unboundaried, and at times threatening to their colleagues and other members in the LiveChat space, and transpired to have caused concern with aggressive conduct in real life. We had a member who was somewhat grandiose and wanted to be a moderator, who attempted to delete and vandalise site content. They later had issues in their workplace, with a similar theme of acting beyond their level of competence. One poster lied to persuade successful applicants to share their applications for clinical training and plagiarised them, and when we identified them it transpired they had plagiarised site content into a publication without acknowledgement and had been unprofessional in numerous other ways. Another odd poster used the same username to post topless pictures on another website. And most recently we have had an organisation recurrently attempt to circumvent payment for advertising on the forum by signing up stooge accounts to promote their service, where it would appear that the appearance of an ethical non-profit organisation instead covers a profitable privately owned tour operator.

It has made me wonder whether ethics and professionalism are the kind of thing people have or they don’t, and that show in numerous domains of their life. Or, is the seeming anonymity of an internet forum a place where traits are exaggerated and played out. Either way, the association between inappropriate use of the forum and inappropriate professional behaviour in other domains seems too high to be a coincidence.

Yet the ethical and professional guidance for psychologists has little that applies in our context. We have had to work out our own boundaries amongst the moderating team (we now comprise ten qualified psychologists and a lay member, although many joined the team as APs or trainees). It makes me realise how much unique our position is, on the technological frontier, and how we are learning case by case. For example, we have had to interpret the balance between confidentiality and risk to apply to our unique setting. We settled on a position that is broadly consistent with what I’d do with clients in real life; we would identify and report a member if we felt they were at risk or presented a risk to others, but otherwise aim to respect the pseudo anonymity of using a posting ID, where only a minority of people choose to be identifiable as a specific professional, or in a way that could be recognised in their workplace. Likewise, we have learnt to log everything typed into our LiveChat space, so that we are able to review the usage of particular members, or read the content if a report is made of inappropriate behaviour. I’d like to think that we’ve reached a good place, and have always been transparent in how we behave. It has been an interesting process though, so I’m thinking of presenting some of the ethical dilemmas and our process at the CYPF conference later this year.