There are a few questions I think are interesting and would like to know the answer to. Most of these questions I haven’t really bothered researching, or I’ve tried to start but got bored actually going through the research. Some of you guys are smart, so this post is just to throw out a few questions that I want to know the answer to, or at least hear some interesting takes on. Feel free to comment if you know of some interesting research on one of these questions, if you have a view that seems like I might not have thought of it, or if you have a question on something entirely different that I might be able to answer in a future post. I may actually write about some of these in future, let me know if any of them sound interesting to explore a bit further. Anyway, here we go!
1) Is creativity immutable or can you learn to be more creative? I read this interesting post by Neel Nanda that claims that creativity is a learnable trait, not just something that’s determined by your genes. Is this true? What are the best ways of measuring creativity that people have found? Are there any interventions that seem like they boost creativity? Do psychedelics actually do anything here or is the evidence for that less convincing than people make it seem?
2) What is the best way to think about the chance of something being true if you have zero good evidence that it is true? Obviously we should think that the chance of any God existing is higher than Zeus or another specific God existing, but how much higher? How should we reason about the chance of any God existing compared to the chance of Russell’s Teapot existing?
3) What is the degree of overlap between ADHD, anxiety, autism, and depression? I am diagnosed with ADHD, but sometimes when I procrastinate a lot it feels like I have some sort of intense anxiety about working rather than any problem with focusing specifically. I also have moderate social anxiety in groups of people I don’t know well, and that can feel similar to procrastination anxiety. I’ve also heard that people with autism and severe depression have some symptoms that sound like ADHD symptoms. What’s going on here?
4) Is changing the voting system actually something that is really worthwhile? Like, I get that it would definitely probably be good, but why do EAs and EA organisations suggest it as something really important? What evidence do we have that changing the electoral system might result in outcomes that are actually better? Is the main argument here that some electoral systems are better at producing outcomes that the electorate are satisfied with, and that this will lead to better outcomes? Is there an argument that electoral reform means the Democrats are more likely to win, and this is what will lead to better outcomes? How does Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter fit in here, if at all?
5) Most of the adverts I see for Oxfam or Unicef or whatever are on television, and show images of children in Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t think Givewell have adverts like these - why not? Is it that there’s some evidence that these adverts are less effective than they seem to be? Is it that they’re likely to be less effective for GiveWell specifically, but probably work for those other charities? Is GiveWell morally opposed to running those kind of adverts?
6) What is the current state of the literature on psychoanalytic psychotherapy? How does it compare to CBT and all those other types of therapy with names that are hard to remember (like dialectical behaviour therapy)? My impression is that there was a huge backlash against psychoanalytic psychotherapy because lots of Freud’s writing was a bit nuts, but I want to know about the outcomes of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
7) Is ‘lookism’ a real thing - do employers discriminate against less attractive people? Obviously lookism exists for models and pop stars and so on, but is there really discrimination against less attractive people for jobs ostensibly unrelated to looks? If there is discrimination, what is the effect on wages? Does height discrimination play into this? I once had a professor who claimed that the entirety of the ‘tall wage premium’ went away once you controlled for gender - this sounds unlikely to be true. Is it?
Let me have a go at 3) and 6).
Firstly, there are no clear distinct boundaries between one psychiatric disorder and another, with big grey areas of overlap. Psychiatric diagnoses are based on a clinician's interpretation of symptoms and the same symptoms can be present in different disorders (e.g. anxiety can be part of a depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder but can also be secondary to difficulties in communication/social interaction in the context of autism). So naturally different clinicians can interpret symptoms differently and consequently come to a different conclusion about the correct diagnosis.
Secondly, being diagnosed with one psychiatric disorder makes a person much more likely to subsequently be diagnosed with a further psychiatric disorder (generally referred to as co-morbidity) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2720421
There could be a few reasons behind this. The kinds of environmental risk factors that make a person more likely to develop depression, for example, may also put them at risk of developing a substance misuse disorder. Some disorders, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder probably share some underlying mechanisms - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29049482/
Furthermore, there is substantial shared genetic vulnerabilities between mental disorders - for an example, this paper looking at variation shared between ADHD and depression https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-86802-1#Sec11
I think it's worth saying that psychoanalysis never had the same hold over British psychiatry as it did in the states, where many head of psychiatry departments were analysts. This changed with the reemergence of biological psychiatry and massive swing towards psychopharmacology.
In terms of evidence-base, as a field psychoanalysis has historically not engaged with (or has actively resisted) trials of its effectiveness. My feeling is that psychoanalysis in general is not particularly interested in the scientific method or testing its theories. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, Peter Fonagy at UCL springs to my mind - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592654/
Additionally, compared with modalities like CBT or DBT, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is more difficult to evaluate. Therapy tends to be more open-ended, more long-term, less focussed on the reduction of symptoms, less able to be operationalised or standardised. It's also much more expensive for a person to be in therapy for years than to have say 12 sessions of CBT.
Despite not having a strong evidence base, I think most UK-based psychiatrists do see a role for psychoanalytic-based therapies, though the cost is more of a difficult one to argue in terms of the NHS, so it is reserved for a small number of patients.
7) Here's an old study that establishes the existence of lookism: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223673076_Pretty_pleases_The_effects_of_physical_attractiveness_race_and_sex_on_receiving_help
6) "Therapeutic alliance" will be a useful bit of vocabulary in your search. My understanding is that most of the time therapeutic alliance matters more than the therapy modality. I don't think this is universally true (for example, CBT for insomnia).
4) I've had these thoughts too. I want electoral reform but I know that a different system would have tradeoffs and unintended consequences. It would be nice to know in advance what those might be.