Anyone watch Derren Brown’s recent Netflix programme, ‘The Push’? (If not, we highly recommend it!). In it, he investigates the power of social compliance, and of obedience to authority. It’s something integral to The Thrive Programme as we teach trainees how to understand and withstand social pressures by building their own social confidence, and training themselves out of the learned helplessness that can stop people from challenging the norm and forming their own opinions.

How does this relate to a news article? Because news organisations, and the stories they try to sell us, are an authority. And thinking about what we are reading is critical to having a more balanced, and less suggestible, view of what is going on in the world around us.

The worrying mental health statistics we mentioned in the title, about declining levels of female happiness, made news headlines this week but the story isn’t as straight-forward as it initially appears. The headline (‘The happiness of girls and young women in Britain has declined in the last 10 years, new research has revealed’) led on to figures which claimed that:

“25% of females aged seven to 21 said they were very

happy in 2018, compared with 41% in 2009″

Obviously at first glance this isn’t good news, but dig a little deeper and seems that the study was conducted in-house by Girlguiding. We’re guessing they surveyed their own members. So whilst the statistics are certainly interesting, coming from a single, internal organisational membership, it isn’t going to be the most conclusive… If you think about it, rather than a decline in overall female happiness, could it be that organisations such as Girlguiding and Scouts don’t actually produce the most mentally healthy young people, and that their research is an unexpected exposure of that? It’s about as possible to draw this conclusion as it is to draw the ones in this news article…

Indeed, if The Thrive Programme surveyed it’s own Consultants and ex-clients, do you think the research would indicate that there is a downturn in happiness and mental wellbeing, or that rates are suddenly shooting through the roof?! Internal organisational studies are wobbly footing to make sweeping generalisations about national trends. We’re not necessarily saying they are wrong, but is there enough evidence to show that they are right either…? (Let us know what you think on this…!)

This may seem like a small observation, but these kinds of ‘beneath the surface’ revelations aren’t new, particularly in mental health or medicine where the average reader may lack confidence in their own subject knowledge and therefore invest less effort in understanding and challenging what they read. As an example, how many drug trials are funded by huge pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in getting their new ‘wonder drug’ approved and sold to as many people as possible, at huge profit? (For those interested in this topic, ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre is a must-read).

These drug companies can control the purse strings of the trial, the way the research is published, and then hold the key to the drug store for their new product too. Their interest is to make their research appear as conclusive as possible, and they need a majority of the public to be powerless, socially obedient people who believe much of what they read, for that to happen. This kind of bias in conducting research is known as ‘cognitive bias’ – it’s looking for the evidence you want, to back the conclusion you already have or would like to prove, and without proper scrutiny (from thriving individuals, no less!) it’s dangerous.

As we have often spoken out about, the research backing anti-depressants is another example of figures that simply aren’t strong enough to back the huge prescription volumes of anti-depressants (in stark contrast to their actual success rates for patients). After all, if medical experts still can’t pinpoint exactly what chemicals constitute a ‘chemically balanced’ brain, then how can they prescribe drugs that claim to ‘fix’ brains with a ‘chemical imbalance’ of depression? Yet these questions about the research backing medical treatments aren’t always asked when we read articles about them in the media, and doctors still prescribe these drugs as a first point of call too.

A debate earlier this week on BBC Newsnight discussed the decline in rates of MMR vaccinations for children. Much of this is attributed to a report many years ago by researcher Andrew Wakefield who alleged a medical link between the vaccine and rates of autism in children, and which saw fears over vaccination dangers hugely rise, and MMR vaccine levels to sharply decrease. Yet his research was widely discredited by leading academics and scientists almost as soon as it was published and has since been proven to be wholly incorrect. Despite this, thousands of parents every year rely on the hearsay of other parents, rather than looking into the research and making an independent decision, when considering whether to vaccinate their child. Social conformity and learned helplessness in full swing.

Next time you read a shocking article or some statistics that seem particularly unusual or high, why not dig a little deeper? You may be surprised at what you uncover beneath the surface of the ‘news’…!