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Sharing – “Tetris for Trauma” Viral Twitter Thread: A Master Class in Misleading Psych Research

Peter Simons does an excellent job of looking through the actual details of the research that has gone viral recently, to show that no, indeed, playing Tetris is not the solution to trauma.

It’s just the latest “fix” that has made headlines that isn’t really a fix, but as he explains, these stories and limited research results are very popular for an obvious reason:

“We all want to believe that there’s a magic bullet out there, that a quick game of Tetris will stop us from being traumatized after we experience something horrible. But recovering from trauma, especially repeated or childhood trauma, is not something that happens overnight. Developing a sense of safety, of connection with others, a sense of hope, and beginning to perceive the world as a nice place, not a scary place—10 minutes of Tetris can’t do that. It takes finding physical safety (like safe housing, away from abusers). It takes the empathy of others, friends, and loved ones who treat you with the respect a human being deserves. Maybe it takes psychotherapy, meditation, or something else to process what you’ve been through and figure out how to make meaning of it.

And hey—maybe playing a videogame can help you feel safe, relaxed, even happy. And if that’s the case, then do it! I know I will. Just don’t expect the moon.”

The research that he digs into reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago about how the headlines about research often promise something that isn’t really there. So, I’ll quote it again here so that we can see how even a well-done, repeatable, experiment can give results that seem a lot more impressive than they really are, and when you go by the headlines of news stories, can be a bit misleading in terms of what you can expect as one individual person:

Let me provide a completely made-up example to demonstrate this as simply as I can.

Let’s say that right now, the rate of people with super-human eyesight is 1 in 10,000.

A study was conducted to take a look at the health benefits of drinking apple juice. They took a look at 10,000 people who drank apple juice every day, and lo and behold, two of them had super-human eyesight.

Now, mathematically speaking, you could report that drinking apple juice makes you 100% more likely to have super-human eyesight. Awesome, I foresee a rush on apple juice purchases!

Again, technically speaking that is true, the rate is normally 1 in 10,000, it goes up to two in 10,000 for apple juice drinkers. That’s double the normal rate, or 100% higher.

But it’s also not the whole story.

One, we have no idea if drinking apple juice is the thing that got that one extra person to have super-human eyesight. It could just be a coincidence.

Two, and most importantly, for 9,999 people, drinking apple juice did nothing to change their lack of super-human eyesight.

That’s why it’s so very important to read past the headlines. Yes, in the mental health area we need much more research, to find effective treatments and therapies. But we need not hang our hats on media headlines that tout questionable numbers and create unreasonable expectations. For 9,999 people out of 10,000 in my fake study above, drinking apple juice will not get them where they want to go. That’s OK, drinking apple juice isn’t going to harm you and is good for you generally. But it does create disappointment when the headlines don’t match with what happens in our real-life cases.

Again, as Peter goes on to describe the issue is not that people might suddenly play some Tetris when dealing with trauma. That’s probably not going to harm them much, it’s that we, as a society, will come to expect that is the “magic pill” to help everyone deal with trauma and start dismissing it as something that’s easy to fix with some Tetris when it’s much, much more complicated than that. We shouldn’t lose sight of that fact.

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