Cultural Background Impacts Thoughts About Death

A new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science shows how culture can influence how people respond to mortality.

In particular, investigators found European-Americans confronted with thoughts of death are likely to try to protect their sense of self, while Asian-Americans are more likely to reach out to others. Psychologists label the topic of thinking about death as “mortality salience;” much of the research has been performed on people of European descent. In their studies, scientists have learned that “mortality salience” appears to cause people to think in dramatic ways. For example, “Men become more wary of sexy women and they like wholesome women more. People like to stereotype more. You see all these strange and bizarre occurrences when people think about the fact that they aren’t going to live forever,” said researcher Christine Ma-Kellams, a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Barbara. Researchers say another interesting observation is that people try to protect their sense of self, by putting down people who aren’t like them or distancing themselves from innocent victims. But, as a cultural psychologist, Ma wondered if this reaction might be different in other cultures. In particular, she wanted to look at people of Asian backgrounds, whose sense of self is generally more linked to people around them. Ma-Kellams recruited both European-Americans and Asian-Americans for the study. Each person was told to either write down thoughts that come to mind when thinking about their own death – or to write down their thoughts about dental pain. (Those people were the control group.) Then they were asked to decide what bail should be set for a prostitute and given a survey on their attitudes toward prostitution. As other research has found, European-American people who had thought about death were much harsher towards the prostitute than those in the control group. But Asian-Americans who thought about death were much kinder toward the prostitute – even though they started out more conservative. In a second experiment, participants were presented with a less extreme case, a story about a university employee who’d been injured in an accident through no fault of his own. The same result was found; European-Americans were more likely to blame him if they’d contemplated their own mortality, while Asian-Americans were less likely to blame him. This aligns with research that finds that European-Americans and Asian-Americans think about the self very differently. “For European-Americans, everyone wants to save themselves after thinking about death because loss of self is the worst possible consequence,” Ma-Kellams said. “Asians don’t necessarily see themselves in that individualistic kind of way. Self is very much tied up with the people around you.” In this case, that means that when they’re threatened with their own mortality, Asian-Americans apparently reach out to other people. Source: Association for Psychological Science

Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia

Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia New research finds that impairment in a brain area make it difficult for people with schizophrenia to understand the nonverbal actions of others. “Misunderstanding social situations and interactions are core deficits in schizophrenia,” said psychologist Dr. Sohee Park of Vanderbilt University. “Our findings may help explain the origins of some of the delusions involving perception and thoughts experienced by those with schizophrenia.” Researchers found that a particular brain area, the posterior superior temporal sulcus or STS, appears to be implicated in this deficit. “Using brain imaging together with perceptual testing, we found that a brain area in a neural network involved in perception of social stimuli responds abnormally in individuals with schizophrenia,” said co-author Randolph Blake, Ph.D. “We found this brain area fails to distinguish genuine biological motion from highly distorted versions of that motion.” “We have found… that people with schizophrenia tend to ‘see’ living things in randomness and this subjective experience is correlated with an increased activity in the (posterior) STS,” the authors wrote. “In the case of biological motion perception, these self-generated, false impressions of meaning can have negative social consequences, in that schizophrenia patients may misconstrue the actions or intentions of other people.” In their experiments, the researchers compared the performance of people with schizophrenia to that of healthy controls on two visual tasks. One task involved deciding whether or not an animated series of lights depicted the movements of an actor’s body. The second task entailed judging subtle differences in the actions depicted by two similar animations viewed side by side. On both tasks, people with schizophrenia performed less well than the healthy controls. Next, the researchers measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the subjects—healthy controls and schizophrenia patients—performed a version of the side-by-side task. Once again, the individuals with schizophrenia performed worse on the task. The researchers were then able to correlate those performance deficits with the brain activity in each person. Researchers do not yet understand this specific brain area in schizophrenia patients fails to differentiate normal human activity from non-human motion. They speculate that this abnormal brain activation contributes to the patients’ difficulties reading social cues in the actions of others. Their findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE. Source: Vanderbilt University

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?Although motor deficits often accompany a mood or psychiatric disorder, most researchers have not targeted motor areas as a method to improve mental health. In a new study, researchers at Indiana University suggests that postural control problems may be a core feature of bipolar disorder, not just a random symptom. The investigators believe attention to the postural problems can provide insights both into areas of the brain affected by the psychiatric disorder and new potential targets for treatment. Bipolar disorder is a severe psychiatric disorder characterized by extreme, debilitating mood swings and unusual shifts in a person’s energy and ability to function. Balance, postural control and other motor control issues are frequently experienced by people with mood and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and neurological disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. In this study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers surmised that problems with postural control — maintaining balance while holding oneself upright — are a core component of bipolar disorder. As such, the researchers believe it is possible that the motor abnormalities could appear before other symptoms, signaling an increased risk for the disorder. According, researchers wanted to know if therapies that improve motor symptoms may also help mood disorders. “For a number of psychological disorders, many different psychiatric treatments and therapies have been tried, with marginal effects over the long term. Researchers are really starting to look at new targets,” said Amanda Bolbecker, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “Our study suggests that brain areas traditionally believed to be responsible for motor behavior might represent therapeutic targets for bipolar disorder.” The link between motor and mental is not as distant as some would believe. For example, try as we might, humans cannot stand perfectly still. “Instead, we make small adjustments at our hips and ankles based on what our eyes, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and semi-circular canals tells us,” said S. Lee Hong, Ph.D., a study co-author. “The better these sensory sources are integrated, the less someone sways.” Areas of the brain that are critical for motor control, mainly the cerebellum, basal ganglia and brain stem, also aid in mood regulation and are areas where abnormalities often are found in people with bipolar disorder. Postural sway — a measure of the endless adjustments people make in an attempt to stand still — is considered a sensitive gauge of motor control that likely is affected by these abnormalities. In the study, participants who had bipolar disorder displayed more postural sway, particularly when their eyes were closed, than study participants who had no psychological disorders. The troubles, which involved the study participants’ proprioception, or ability to process non-visual sensory information related to balance, were not affected by their mood or the severity of their disorder. “It appears that people with bipolar disorder process sensory information differently and this is seen in their inability to adapt their movement patterns to different conditions, such as eyes open vs. eyes closed or feet together vs. feet apart,” said Hong, whose research focuses on how humans control motion. “The different conditions will cause people to use the information their senses provide differently, in order to allow them to maintain their balance.” Additional research is called for as investigations involving motor control, mood and psychiatric disorders are complicated by the fact that the primary treatment for these disorders is medication, which can have severe side effects including motor control problems. Source: Indiana University

Brooding, Proud Guys Score High on Sex Appeal

Brooding, Proudl Guys Score High on Sex Appeal We are all familiar with media advertisements in which sullen looking men, often accompanied by a beautiful women, project an aura of sexuality and decadence. The ‘picture’ sells the product, whatever the product may be. The perceptions created by the ads may be accurate as investigators discover women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men. University of British Columbia researchers say the findings may help explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types. The study — which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos — finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame. Authors point out that very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles. Another key contribution of this study is the unique inquiry into the attractiveness associated with displays of pride and shame. The study is published online in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion. “While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction – few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” said psychologist Dr. Jessica Tracy. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.” In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes). The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident. “It is important to remember that this study explored first impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” said Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife – we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He said previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners. Tracy and Beall said that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring. According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he said. The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms. For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers said. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall added. “Generally, the results appear to reflect some very traditional gender norms and cultural values that have emerged, developed and been reinforced through history, at least in Western cultures,” Tracy said. “These include norms and values that many would consider old-fashioned and perhaps hoped that we’ve moved beyond.” Displays of shame, Tracy said, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she said, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust. While this study focused on sexual attraction between heterosexual men and women in North America, the researchers say future studies will be required to explore the relationship between emotions and sexual attractiveness among homosexuals and non-Western cultures. Overall, the researchers found that men ranked women more attractive than women ranked men. Source: University of British Columbia

Does Computer Use Undermine Reading Skills?

Does Computer Use Undermine Reading Skills?A provocative new study suggests increased leisure use of computers by children leads to poorer reading ability. Swedish researchers said this effect is being played out in both Sweden and the United States. Monica Rosén, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg, analyzed differences between different countries over time in order to explain change in reading achievement among 9- to 10-year olds. Rosén and her colleagues have studied how pupils’ reading skills have changed since 1970 in Hungary, Italy, the U.S. and Sweden. Reading ability has improved steadily in Italy and Hungary, while it has fallen rapidly since 1991 in both the U.S. and Sweden. During this period, many factors within the school system have changed, as as society in general and the after-school activities of children in particular. The Swedish and American pupils described a large increase in the use of computers in their free time during this period, while a similar increase was not reported in Hungary or Italy. “Our study shows that the entry of computers into the home has contributed to changing children’s habits in such a manner that their reading does not develop to the same extent as previously,” Rosén said. “By comparing countries over time we can see a negative correlation between change in reading achievement and change in spare time computer habits which indicates that reading ability falls as leisure use of computers increases.” Researchers also found the frequency of leisure reading and the number of leisure books borrowed from the library have both fallen as computer use in the home has increased. Thus, it is not the computers in themselves or the activities they are used for that impair reading skills, but rather that computers have stolen time from leisure reading. According to the researchers, the new computer habits do not promote the development of reading ability in the same way as leisure reading of books does. Reading of printed media has fallen also among adults. In many homes, especially among younger adults, researchers say it is uncommon for an individual to sit down and read. “We have shown that the poorer results are principally caused by a fall in the skills of those from the center of the ability range and upwards. It is not that case that there are more less-gifted readers or that the skills of these readers have become poorer. What has happened is that there are fewer high-performing children,” Rosén said. Rosén pointed out that it is very difficult to measure and compare reading skills over time. “It is important that we do not jump to the conclusion that the complete explanation for poorer reading is deficiencies in education,” she said. “On the contrary, the way in which computers undermine reading shows very clearly that leisure time is at least as important when it comes to developing high-quality reading skills.” Source: University of Gothenburg

More Americans Praying for Health Reasons

More Americans Praying for Health ReasonsResearchers have discovered a dramatic increase among American adults in the use of prayer for health issues. Investigators analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1999, 2002 and 2007 National Health Interview Surveys and determined praying about health issues increased over the past three decades, rising 36 percent between 1999 and 2007. “The United States did have an increase in worship attendance across multiple religious faiths immediately after the 9/11 attack, but that has not stayed elevated. However, people continued to use informal and private spiritual practices such as prayer,” said lead author Amy Wachholtz, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “There is also a greater public awareness of Buddhist-based mindfulness practices that can include prayerful meditation, which individuals may also be using to address a variety of health concerns.” A change in health status, either a decline or an improvement, was linked with more reported prayer. This suggests prayer is used to cope with changing health status. While prayer about health issues increased across all groups, from 43 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2007, the data indicated that people with the highest incomes were 15 percent less likely to pray than those with the lowest incomes, and people who exercised regularly were 25 percent less likely to pray those who didn’t exercise. Women, African-Americans and the well-educated were most likely to pray about their health. “We’re seeing a wide variety of prayer use among people with good income and access to medical care,” Wachholtz said. “People are not exchanging health insurance for prayer.” A significantly greater proportion of women prayed compared to men, with 51 percent of women reporting prayer in 2002 and 56 percent in 2007, in contrast with 34 percent and 40 percent, respectively, among men. African-Americans were more likely to pray for their health than Caucasians, with 61 percent of African-Americans reporting having done so in 2002 and 67 percent in 2007, compared to 40 percent and 45 percent for Caucasians during the same periods. People who were married, educated beyond high school or had experienced a change in health for better or worse within the last 12 months were also more likely to pray about health concerns, the study found. The study, found in the APA journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, did not reveal the type of prayer people used, or which occurred first – prayer or the health issue. Source: American Psychological Association

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage Earners

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage EarnersA new study from the University of Southern California finds that among dual wage earners, the spouse who does the most housework has elevated levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. USC researchers looked at how male and female spouses recover from the burdens of work and how the couples balance their housework and leisure activity time. The report is found in the Journal of Family Psychology. In the study, researchers followed 30 double-income households. The couples were a median age of 41 and the families had at least one child between the ages of eight and ten. The results paint a pessimistic picture of marriage, said lead author Dr. Darby Saxbe, a postdoctoral fellow in the USC Dornsife College Psychology Department. “Your biological adaptation to stress looks healthier when your partner has to suffer the consequences – more housework for husbands, less leisure for wives,” Saxbe said. For both husbands and wives, doing more housework kept cortisol levels higher at the end of the day. In other words, doing chores seemed to limit a spouse’s ability to recover from a day of work. For wives, cortisol profiles were healthier if husbands spent more time doing housework. For husbands, in contrast, having more leisure time was linked with healthier cortisol level – but only if their wives also spent less time in leisure. “The result shows that the way couples spend time at home – not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well – has real implications for long-term health,” Saxbe said. Cortisol levels can affect sleep, weight gain, burnout and weakened immune resistance. One of Saxbe’s earlier studies focused on marital relationships, stress and work. Her research found that more happily married women showed healthier cortisol patterns, while women who reported marital dissatisfaction had flatter cortisol profiles, which have been associated with chronic stress. Men’s marital satisfaction ratings, on the other hand, weren’t connected to their cortisol patterns. “The quality of relationships makes a big difference in a person’s health,” Saxbe said. “Dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.” Source: University of Southern California

Breaking the Rules May Be a Power Trip

Breaking the Rules May Be a Power TripHave you ever noticed that many people with power seem to flaunt their presumed authority by being rude? A new study investigates this observation and discovers people with power seem to act the part by smiling less, interrupting others and speaking in a louder voice. Researchers determined that when people do not respect the basic rules of social behavior, they lead others to believe that they have power. According to the experts, people with power experience the world in a different way than the rest of us. The powerful have fewer rules to follow, and they live in environments of money, knowledge and support. Most of us live within the written and non-written expectations of what is right and  wrong, knowing that punishment and established limits are delineated. A research team lead by Gerben Van Kleef, Ph.D., of the University of Amsterdam studied the question: Because the powerful are freer to break the rules, does breaking the rules seem more powerful? In the study, subjects read about a visitor to an office who took a cup of employee coffee without asking or about a bookkeeper who bent accounting rules. The rule-breakers were seen as more in control, and powerful compared to people who didn’t steal the coffee, or didn’t break bookkeeping rules. Acting rudely also seems to be perceived as powerful. People who saw a video of a man at a sidewalk café put his feet on another chair, drop cigarette ashes on the ground and order a meal brusquely thought the man was more likely to “get to make decisions” and able to “get people to listen to what he says” than the people who saw a video of the same man behaving politely. Nevertheless, what happens when a “regular” person has to interact with a rule breaker? Van Kleef and colleagues had people come to the lab, and interact with a rule follower and a rule breaker. The rule follower was polite and acted normally, while the rule breaker arrived late, threw down his bag on a table and put up his feet. After the interaction, people thought the rule breaker had more power and was more likely to “get others to do what he wants.” “Norm violators are perceived as having the capacity to act as they please,” the researchers concluded. Power may be corrupting, but showing the outward signs of corruption makes people think you’re powerful. The study is found in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Source: Sage

View of Mortality Affects How We Live Our Lives

View of Mortality Influences the Way We Live Our LifeThinking about one’s own death seems to heighten our concern for others, according to a new study that looks at how our thinking about death affects how we live. In the study, led by doctoral student Laura E.R. Blackie and colleagues from the University of Essex, researchers had people either think about death in the abstract or in a specific, personal way. They found that people who thought specifically about their own death were more likely to demonstrate concern for society by donating blood. The researchers recruited 90 people in a British town center. Some were asked to respond to general questions about death — such as their thoughts and feelings about death and what they think happens to them when they die. Others were asked to imagine dying in an apartment fire and then asked four questions about how they thought they would deal with the experience and how they thought their family would react. A control group in the study thought about dental pain. Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate. Researchers discovered people who thought about death from a theoretical or abstract perspective were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. Conversely, people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed. “Death is a very powerful motivation,” Blackie said. “People seem aware that their life is limited. That can be one of the best gifts that we have in life, motivating us to embrace life and embrace goals that are important to us.” When people think about death abstractly, they may be more likely to fear it, while thinking specifically about your own death “enables people to integrate the idea of death into their lives more fully,” she said. Those who think about their mortality in a more personal and authentic manner may make them think more about what they value in life. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Source: Association for Psychological Science

Dopamine Release Fuels Anxiety in Brains of Anorexics

Dopamine Release Fuels Anxiety in Brains of AnorexicsAlthough most people find pleasure in eating and even have a difficult time refraining from foods they love, individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa often say that eating makes them feel more anxious. Instead, refusing to eat — something called food refusal – is what brings more pleasure. New research, published online in the journal International Journal of Eating Disorders, helps explain why these symptoms occur in anorexia. For the study, scientists administered a one-time dose of the drug amphetamine which releases dopamine in the brain; positron emission tomography (PET) was then used to visualize the subsequent dopamine activity. In healthy subjects without an eating disorder, the amphetamine-induced release of dopamine was associated with feelings of extreme pleasure in the brain’s “reward center.” However, in people with anorexia, amphetamine made them feel anxious and activated the part of the brain that worries about consequences. “This is the first study to demonstrate a biological reason why individuals with anorexia nervosa have a paradoxical response to food,” said Walter Kaye, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine. “It’s possible that when people with anorexia nervosa eat, the related release of the neurotransmitter dopamine makes them anxious, rather than experiencing a normal feeling of reward. It is understandable why it is so difficult to get people with anorexia to eat and gain weight, because food generates intensely uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.” Significantly, the study included individuals who had recovered from anorexia for at least a year, suggesting that the feeling provoked was possibly due to pre-existing traits, rather than a response to being extremely underweight. Currently, there are few treatments proven to reduce core symptoms in anorexia, including eating-induced anxiety. Finding ways to help anorexic individuals eat and gain weight is necessary for treatment, even when food is still accompanied by severe anxiety. The study was supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Prince Foundation. Source:  University of California
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