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Anticipating critical transitions in psychological systems using early warning signals: Theoretical and practical considerations.
Psychological Methods  (IF10.929),  Pub Date : 2022-01-06, DOI: 10.1037/met0000450
Fabian Dablander, Anton Pichler, Arta Cika, Andrea Bacilieri

Many real-world systems can exhibit tipping points and multiple stable states, creating the potential for sudden and difficult to reverse transitions into a less desirable regime. The theory of dynamical systems points to the existence of generic early warning signals that may precede these so-called critical transitions. Recently, psychologists have begun to conceptualize mental disorders such as depression as an alternative stable state, and suggested that early warning signals based on the phenomenon of critical slowing down might be useful for predicting transitions into depression and other psychiatric disorders. Harnessing the potential of early warning signals requires us to understand their limitations as well as the factors influencing their performance in practice. In this article, we (a) review limitations of early warning signals based on critical slowing down to better understand when they can and cannot occur, and (b) study the conditions under which early warning signals may anticipate critical transitions in online-monitoring settings by simulating from a bistable dynamical system, varying crucial features such as sampling frequency, noise intensity, and speed of approaching the tipping point. We find that, in sharp contrast to their reputation of being generic or model-agnostic, whether early warning signals occur or not strongly depends on the specifics of the system. We also find that they are very sensitive to noise, potentially limiting their utility in practical applications. We discuss the implications of our findings and provide suggestions and recommendations for future research.