1. Study suggests oxytocin is released during relationship crises

    May 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release:

    Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical,” but American and Norwegian researchers have found out that it may as well be called a “crisis hormone.”

    “When people notice that their partner is showing less interest in their relationship than they are, the level of this relationship-building hormone increases,” says Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, a research assistant in NTNU’s Department of psychology.

    The hormone oxytocin has long been associated with relationships in several different ways. Oxytocin has a great reputation, because it is thought that it can make us feel better by reducing anxiety and making us feel more generous. Our brain secretes it during orgasm. It also influences the relationship between mother and child.

    But it’s not all cuddling and love.

    Two — or more — possibilities

    “Two main theories exist. Some scientists believe that oxytocin is released primarily to enhance a relationship and make it stronger when you’re with someone you love,” says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

    But others believe that oxytocin levels increase primarily when we find ourselves in difficult or even threatening situations. In those cases, the hormone helps us seek out new social relationships.

    However it may not just be either-or.

    Hormone increases in good and bad times

    NTNU researchers joined researchers from the University of New Mexico to study the connection between oxytocin and investment in couple relationships.

    The researchers examined 75 American couples, and 148 Norwegian individuals who were one of the partners in their relationships. Newly minted Ph.D. Nicholas M. Grebe is the study’s first author and visited Professor Kennair at NTNU’s Department of Psychology. Kennair has collaborated with Grebe’s Ph.D. advisor Professor Steven W. Gangestad.

    “Participants in the study were asked to think about their partner and how they wish their partner would connect with them in the relationship,” says Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, PhD, from the Department of Psychology.

    Oxytocin levels were measured both before and during the tasks. In both studies, individuals showed elevated hormone levels when they felt strong personal investment in the bond. In this case, oxytocin’s reputation as a love hormone holds up.

    “Yes, oxytocin relates to one’s feelings of involvement — but, this association is particularly strong when one feels more involved than their partner,” says Nick Grebe.

    But the crucial finding came from simultaneously examining both partners’ involvement.

    The partners who were more invested in a relationship released more oxytocin when they thought about their relationship than the less invested partner did. Considering both members together, it was the difference in investment between partners that predicted an increase in oxytocin. Here, oxytocin may be acting more like a “crisis hormone.”

    “It’s seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they’re not, but that’s how it is,” says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

    But why would that be?

    Put more effort into the relationship

    “This may be because people in a relationship where their partner is waffling need to engage more,” Aarseth Kristoffersen says.

    “The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” says Professor Gangestad.

    For example, the partner who is most invested in the relationship might benefit from putting even more effort into making it work, so that the more sceptical party re-engages.

    “What’s implied here is a statement about what oxytocin is doing: It’s perhaps fostering attention to and motivation to “take care of” the relationship,” says Gangestad.

    Nevertheless, there is apparently — some would say fortunately — a limit. This would apply to relationships where everything seems lost and is clearly heading for a break-up. In those situations, the more invested partner does not show the same increase in oxytocin levels.

    “There’s no point in investing more in a lost cause,” says Kennair.

    There appears to be a limit to how long you should spend energy and resources on a relationship that is simply over.

    However, this is still mostly speculation for now.

    What you believe is what matters

    The researchers found no significant difference between US and Norwegian results. Responses to the study tasks were consistent across cultural conditions, which reinforces the theory that the underlying explanation is biological.

    The procedure in the two countries differed somewhat. The American couples were asked directly about how committed they were in their relationships. The Norwegian individuals were asked how invested they thought their partner was in the relationship. This made no difference for the results.

    It is enough if you think the relationship is weakening because your partner is losing interest. This will trigger your brain to release extra oxytocin.

    “I might emphasize that it isn’t necessarily “bad” or “good” for a person to release oxytocin. Yes, it might motivate attention that helps to maintain a relationship, but as the article hints, that isn’t necessarily desirable, though it could be! What is biologically “functional” and socially “desirable” are two different things,” says Nick Grebe.

    “We think that viewing oxytocin in this way can help us understand why it plays a role in other kinds of interdependent social relationships — new romances, mother-infant bonds, as two examples. The idea is that emotionally salient relationships, especially when those relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin system,” Nick Grebe concludes.


  2. Study looks at pros and cons of workday interruptions

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baylor University press release:

    Consider these scenarios.

    You’re focused on an important project at work and your phone rings. It’s your spouse.

    You’ve just finished dinner with your family and you’re cleaning up the table. Your phone buzzes. An email from your boss.

    Are these interruptions of your work and family time harmful or helpful?

    Yes and no, according to a new study from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. The study, published in the Journal of Management, analyzed daily diaries kept by 121 employees, who agreed to log their activities for 10 days as part of the research. Each participant worked at least 35 hours per week during traditional business hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and was in a committed relationship, living with a spouse or partner.

    “Our results demonstrate that the effect of interruptions in the work and home domains are twofold: On one hand, they may lead to unwelcome consequences, including obstruction of goals, negative affect, decreased satisfaction with investment in work and family and work-family conflict,” researchers wrote. “On the other, greater integration of work and family may afford workers increased positive affect, as these interruptions help them meet certain work or family goals.”

    Emily Hunter, Ph.D., associate professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, served as lead author on the study. She said technology is blurring the boundaries between work and family, and this can have daily consequences on workers.

    “When you give to one domain, you must take from the other. There are only so many hours in the day,” Hunter said. “Interruptions from family ‘take’ from work in the form of work goal obstructions, negative emotions and lower satisfaction with investment in work.”

    She said that proper planning could turn these interruptions into benefits that help employees meet work and family goals.

    The study shows that boundary violations at work were relatively common, and the researchers suggest managers and employees seek strategies to actively manage work and family boundaries.

    “For example, employees could set aside specific times in their workday when they invite and initiate communication with family, such as lunch time or a midafternoon break when their children arrive home from school,” researchers wrote. “In this way, they allow their work boundary to be permeable to family violations at certain times while setting limits on family interruptions that would otherwise interfere with workflow. Not only does this minimize work goal obstruction, but it also may generate positive outcomes for their family members.”

    When work invades family time, employees can use that to their advantage as well, Hunter said.

    “Workers who work from home in off-job hours can also benefit from managing co-worker expectations about availability after hours, setting aside time after children go to bed to accomplish work tasks with minimal obstruction to their family role and setting limits on hours of smartphone use for work purposes,” she said.

    In the study, researchers suggest workers request that coworkers or supervisors contact them after hours using communication mediums with varying levels of urgency: emergencies only by phone call or text message whereas matters that can wait until morning via email.


  3. ‘Narrative expressive writing’ might protect against harmful health effects of divorce-related stress

    May 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health press release:

    For people going through a divorce, a technique called narrative expressive writing — not just writing about their emotions, but creating a meaningful narrative of their experience — may reduce the harmful cardiovascular effects of stress related to marital separation, reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    Narrative expressive writing led to improvements in heart rate and an index of the heart’s responses to stress, according to the research by psychology doctoral student Kyle J. Bourassa and colleagues of University of Arizona, Tucson. “The results suggest that the ability to create a structured narrative — not just re-experiencing emotions but making meaning out of them — allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way, which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health,” said Kyle Bourassa.

    The study included 109 adults (70 women and 39 men) with a recent marital separation. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing exercises, performed on three occasions over several days.

    One group performed a traditional expressive writing task, with instructions to write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” In a prior study by principal investigator Dr. David Sbarra, this approach seemed to increase separation-related emotional distress, particularly among participants with high psychological rumination — the tendency to persistently think about one’s mood.

    Another group performed a narrative expressive writing task, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their separation experience — culminating in describing an end of their “divorce story.” The third group was given an emotionally neutral writing task. Indicators of the body’s cardiovascular responses to stress were compared before and after the writing tasks (up to 9 months after the writing).

    Participants assigned to narrative expressive writing had a reduction in heart rate as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV), which measures beat-to-beat variations in heart rate. Higher HRV reflects better functioning of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system reactions to stimuli, including stress.

    These effects were moderate in size — heart rate in the narrative expressive writing group was about seven beats per minute lower than the other two groups — and were consistent across some stressful and non-stressful laboratory tasks (such as doing mental math). Blood pressure was unaffected. There was no evidence that expressive writing increased physical stress responses in people with a high degree of psychological rumination.

    Dr. Sbarra noted, “From this work, we can make two specific conclusions. First, relative to the two other conditions, narrative expressive writing caused the changes we observed in the cardiovascular biomarkers. This is a pretty striking result for just 60 minutes of writing over three days. Second, the effects of narrative writing on these health-relevant biomarkers is independent of adults’ self-reported emotional responses about their separation. Creating narrative may be good for the heart, so to speak, but this does not mean there a corresponding improvement in psychological wellbeing.”

    Divorce is a common stressor linked to increased risk for poor long-term physical and mental health. Yet few studies have evaluated interventions to lessen the health impact of divorce. Since both higher heart rate and lower HRV are linked to increased health risks, narrative expressive writing might be one way to reduce the long-term health impact of divorce.

    Dr. Sbarra also suggested caution in interpreting these findings. “To be clear, this study points to causal changes in health-relevant cardiovascular responding, not health outcomes per se. Further research will be needed to clarify the links between these biomarkers and the long-term health outcomes of people after divorce.”


  4. Commuter marriage study finds surprising emphasis on interdependence

    by Ashley

    From the Lehigh University press release:

    The concept of marriage may be in flux, but a new study of commuter marriages–in which a married couple lives apart in service to their dual professional careers–appears to confirm that married people still see interdependence as a key feature of their unions.

    The study, “Going the Distance: Individualism and Interdependence in the Commuter Marriage,” draws on data from in-depth interviews with 97 people who are married but live apart from their spouses due to their individual career pursuits.

    In it, the author, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University Danielle Lindemann, explores how the seemingly conflicting cultural norms of personal autonomy and a commitment to the institution of marriage play out “on the ground” from the viewpoint of the participants. Her analysis–which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family–finds that commuter couples indeed engage in discourses about two subjects that operate in tension: independence and interdependence.

    “Although the study participants positioned themselves as highly individualistic, interdependence was a key theme in their responses as well,” says Lindemann. “Perhaps more surprisingly, a substantial minority of respondents indicated that their non-cohabitation, in fact, enhanced their interdependence.”

    Lindemann acknowledges that married couples may live apart for a number of reasons. However, her study specifically focuses on college-educated, dual-earning couples as prior research has suggested that commuter marriage is more common within this group than in other segments of the population.

    Among her findings:

    • The majority of respondents identified as highly interdependent despite the individualized structures of commuter marriages
    • Many respondents–emphasizing, in particular, the co-management of tasks–underscored how integrated their partners were in their everyday activities despite their geographic separation
    • Nearly half engaged with the theme of “apart togetherness”–thinking of themselves as connected despite the physical separation
    • More than 75% described the usefulness of communication technologies for task sharing
    • A substantial minority interpreted their cohabitation as paradoxically facilitating their interdependence–15.5% of respondents from 9 couples engaged in this narrative
    • 66% of respondents said that had felt judged negatively for their lifestyle–mostly by family members
    • Female respondents spent more time discussing both individualism and interdependence
    • The narrative about non-cohabitation facilitating interconnectedness was more common (though not exclusive) among respondents who lived geographically further apart and saw each other less frequently

    Lindemann always sought to interview both spouses in a relationship, but it was not a necessary criterion for inclusion in the study. Fifty-six of the respondents were married to other people in the sample.

    An “extreme manifestation” of major transitions

    Lindemann presents commuter marriage as particularly fertile ground to examine the cultural tension between marital interdependence and the shift to toward the “individualization” of the American marriage.

    This shift, she writes–citing the work of Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University–has been largely driven by “…the decline of the male breadwinner/female homemaker model, decreasing task specialization between the genders, the increasing democratization of marital decision-making, and the increasing ability of each partner to provide financially for himself or herself.”

    “Commuter marriages may be viewed as an extreme manifestation of major transitions in the nature of work and family that have been taking place in the U.S. since the 1970s,” says Lindemann. “The study results not only shed light on this under-studied population but also broaden our understanding of the evolving cultural meaning of marriage.”

    “Just Because You Don’t See Each Other, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Together”

    In addition to engaging in parallel narratives around individualism and interdependence, nearly one half (48.5%) of participants in the study engaged with the theme of “apart togetherness“–seeing themselves as connected, despite the distance.

    According to Lindemann, this frequently came up in response to the question, “What do you like the most about being married?”

    From the study (all names are pseudonyms): “For instance, Katie, a banking professional in her mid-30’s, replied that she enjoyed having her husband ‘there,’ adding ‘We’ve learned that just because you don’t see each other, it doesn’t mean you’re not together.'”

    Lindemann writes that eighty respondents received this question and, perhaps paradoxically for non-cohabitating couples, “enjoying each other’s company” (41.3%) and “companionship” (30.0%) were the most common themes.

    One respondent, a 60-year-old director of a company named Matthew, described both the emotional and practical aspects of the “apart togetherness” he has experienced with spouse Trudy, from whom he has been living apart due to their individual career pursuits for twelve years.

    “Emphasizing both the emotional and task-sharing aspects of marriage, Matthew gave his relationship an interdependent frame, despite the fact that he and his wife had not lived in the same household, except on weekends, for over a decade,” writes Lindemann.

    Reliance on communication technologies

    When asked a series of questions about their communication, more than three fourths of study respondents discussed the usefulness of communication technologies for managing and sharing tasks.

    In contrast to previous studies of non-cohabitating couples (largely based on research from the 1970’s and 1980’s), this study’s respondents described being in near constant contact via cell phones, texting, email, instant messaging, and video chat.

    From the study: “…respondents saw these technologies as facilitating inter-reliance. That is, [they] had the capacity to be reachable at virtually any time, so that they could rely on each other–not only emotionally, but financially and logistically as well.”

    “One of the more surprising findings is that 15.5% of respondents–a substantial minority–interpreted their non-cohabitation as paradoxically facilitating their interdependence,” says Lindemann. “Some went so far as to suggest that their communication with their spouses in fact improved when they were geographically separated.”


  5. Study suggests giving partner a massage can help relieve stress

    May 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    Giving your partner a massage can improve both their wellbeing and yours.

    That is the key finding of research by Sayuri Naruse and Dr Mark Moss from Northumbria University that is being presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

    Ms Naruse, the lead researcher, commented, “The benefits of receiving a massage from a professional are well documented, but this research shows how a similar outcome can be obtained by couples with little prior training and experience of the activity.”

    A total of 38 participants completed a three-week massage course, assessing their wellbeing via questionnaires before and after massage sessions across eight areas of physical and mental wellbeing, stress, coping and relationship satisfaction.

    The couples’ wellbeing, perceived stress and coping was positively impacted by the massage course, with none of these effects having significantly decreased at a follow up three weeks after the end of the reporting period.

    Couples also found that their physical and emotional wellbeing had significantly improved following the completion of each massage session.

    Crucially, this was equally apparent whether the participant was giving or receiving the massage.

    Of the couples who took part in the study, 91 per cent said that they would recommend mutual massage to their friends and family.

    With past research having shown that couples tend to operate as a pair when coping with stress, giving each other a massage may also help to ensure relationship stability.

    Ms Naruse added, “These findings show that massage can be a simple and effective way for couples to improve their physical and mental wellbeing whilst showing affection for one another.

    “Our data also suggests that these positive effects of a short massage course may be long lasting, as is reflected in 74 per cent of the sample continuing to use massage after the course had finished.

    “Massage is a cost effective and pleasant intervention that isn’t just for a therapeutic setting but can be easily incorporated into a healthy couple’s daily routine.”


  6. Judging moral character: A matter of principle, not good deeds

    May 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UC Berkeley press release:

    People may instinctively know right from wrong, but determining if someone has good moral character is not a black and white endeavor.

    According to new research by Berkeley-Haas Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher, people evaluate others’ moral character — being honest, principled, and virtuous — not simply by their deeds, but also by the context that determines how such decisions are made. Furthermore, the research found that what differentiates the characteristics of moral character (from positive yet nonmoral attributes) is that such qualities are non-negotiable in social relationships.

    “Judgments about moral character are ultimately judgments about whether we trust and would be willing to invest in a person,” says Critcher.

    Critcher, who studies social psychology in the Haas Marketing Group, writes about his findings in a recent book chapter, “What Do We Evaluate When We Evaluate Moral Character?” co-authored with Erik Helzer of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. The chapter will soon be published in the Atlas of Moral Psychology, from Guilford Press.

    But how do people detect whether good moral character is present? The findings suggest that people can do what is considered the wrong thing but actually be judged more moral for that decision. How?

    Imagine a social media company with access to its clients’ personal information and interactions. The government wants access to the user database for terrorist surveillance purposes, but it is up to the CEO to decide whether to violate the company’s privacy code. Is he considered a more moral person by complying with the request, or by refusing it? Critcher’s work shows that even people who think the CEO should hand over the data to the government consider the CEO to have better moral character if he does the opposite and adheres to the privacy policy.

    “For the CEO who sticks to a moral rule — even when we think a deviation could be justified — we are more confident he will behave in sensible, principled ways in the future,” says Critcher.

    In one experiment, Critcher asked 186 undergraduates to evaluate 40 positive personality traits by rating them on two dimensions: 1) how much each trait reflected moral character, and 2) whether the participants would or would not be willing to have a social relationship with someone who lacked that quality.

    “The two dimensions were correlated at .87, which means the two are almost the same thing. It is about the highest correlation I have ever seen in psychological research,” Critcher says. “What makes moral traits special is that their absence is a deal breaker, even when compared to qualities that the participants deemed just as positive.”

    But did people see these traits as essential because they were seen to be moral? The research team answered that question by leading people to construe the exact same trait as either moral or nonmoral. Research participants were shown 13 traits that the researchers deemed ambiguously moral (e.g., reasonable). Some participants were first exposed to traits that were clearly non-moral (e.g., imaginative); afterward, they found the ambiguous traits morally relevant. In contrast, other participants who first saw traits that were clearly moral (e.g., honorable) deemed the ambiguous traits as non-moral.

    Inducing people to see these 13 ambiguous qualities as more moral also caused them to deem these qualities as more essential for their social relationships. In short, participants considered good moral character to be synonymous with justifying a social investment.

    But here’s the conundrum: If people don’t want to invest in others who lack moral character, how do they ever learn whether new potential relationship partners have that requisite character? Perhaps people escape this dilemma by assuming the best about an individual’s moral character until they learn otherwise.

    “When we first meet someone, we can directly observe their attractiveness, and a short conversation can reveal a lot about their basic social graces, but typically their moral character is not on direct display. In fact, learning if someone is trustworthy often requires us to trust them first,” says Critcher.

    To that end, a third experiment revealed how optimism about an individual’s moral character helps people avoid this conundrum.

    “When people first meet someone, they tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to morality. People don’t start with the same optimism about their sense of humor, musical, or intellectual ability,” says Critcher. “It’s an adaptive optimism — one that encourages us to operate on enough faith that we can at least learn whether they are worthy of a social investment — until they prove us wrong.”

    See the paper: http://haas.org/2oVz0qS


  7. Study examines rise of bromances

    by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    A decline in homophobia is allowing young men to embrace the benefits of a non-sexual bromance with close male friends. According to Stefan Robinson of the University of Winchester in the UK, young men nowadays are socially encouraged to enjoy deep, emotional and physically intimate friendships. The so-called “bromance” allows them to achieve the kind of closeness that is deeper than in other times, adds Robinson, lead author of an article in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.

    Young straight men’s same-sex relationships are becoming more emotionally nuanced and intimate thanks to a shift in the acceptance of homosexuality. To investigate this, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 undergraduate heterosexual men studying sport-degree programs at a British university. The study aimed to thoroughly examine what the men understood bromances to be, to what extent they privileged the relationship, and how they were enacted. They were specifically asked about their involvement in and openness to secret sharing, emotional intimacy, bed sharing, nudity and kissing other men.

    Each of the 30 men had had at least one bromantic friend at some time or other. They were unanimous in describing what a bromance entailed, and how it positively impacted their lives. They agreed that deep emotional disclosure is essential in bromances. Many, for instance, noted that they could only fully discuss matters such as their health issues or sexual desires in complete confidence with their bromantic friends, and not with family or girlfriends.

    “They were clear that a bromance offers a deep sense of unburdened disclosure and emotionality based on trust and love,” says Robinson. Robinson and his coauthors, Eric Anderson and Adam White, conclude that the permissibility of bromances, and the extent to which they are intimate, is highly contingent on cultural attitudes towards homosexuality. The research highlights that the expansion of social freedoms and masculine boundaries, as illustrated through bromances, are undoubtedly productive towards fostering a more emotive, expressive and healthy masculine culture.

    Robinson however adds: “The absence of sexual attraction distinguishes these men as heterosexual to both themselves and others, and shows that the men share a progressive understanding that love can exist between two people without the need or requirement for sex with each other.”

    The results indicate that bromances have achieved a deep resonance in UK university culture and that men interpret these relationships as real, important and legitimate, and not a fantasy as is depicted in many popular television programs or films. Bromances allow them to push the cultural margins of traditional masculinity towards more intimate and expressive behaviours.

    The research team urges scholars to recognize that bromances can play an important role in the everyday lives of young men. “For those dealing with depressive symptoms or social anxieties, bromances may offer a way forward and a coping strategy,” says Robinson.


  8. Linkage between social network structure and brain activity

    May 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    When someone talks about using “your network” to find a job or answer a question, most people understand that to mean the interconnected web of your friends, family, and acquaintances. But we all have another key network that shapes our life in powerful ways: our brains.

    In the brain, impulses whiz from one brain region to another, helping you formulate all of your thoughts and decisions. As science continues to unlock the complexities of the brain, a group of researchers has found evidence that brain networks and social networks actually influence and inform one another.

    The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looked at the brain’s response to social exclusion under fMRI, particularly in the mentalizing system, which includes separate regions of the brain that help us consider the views of others.

    It found that people who show greater changes in connectivity in their mentalizing system during social exclusion compared to inclusion tend to have a less tightly knit social network — that is, their friends tend not to be friends with one another. By contrast, people with more close-knit social networks, in which many people in the network tend to know one another, showed less change in connectivity in their mentalizing regions.

    “The significance of what we found is that people who are surrounded by different types of social networks use their brains differently,” says senior author Emily Falk, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of its Communication Neuroscience Lab. “In particular, we find that those who have a less densely connected social network show more dynamic responses in the mentalizing system. This might indicate that they are thinking differently about how to navigate their social relationships under different circumstances.”

    To create the feeling of social exclusion, the researchers used a virtual ball-tossing game called Cyberball with 80 boys ages 16-17. While in the fMRI machine, each participant saw a screen with two other cartoon players — who they believed to be controlled by real people — and a hand to represent themselves. All three participants in the game take turns tossing a virtual ball to one another.

    For the first phase of the game, the virtual players include the test subject, tossing him the ball frequently. The game then shifts to exclusion mode, and the virtual players stop throwing the ball to the participant.

    “It’s surprising how strong the effect is on participants,” says lead author Ralf Schmälzle, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, who notes that adolescents are particularly sensitive to social rank. “They have to think through, ‘What is going on? Did I do something wrong?’ Although Cyberball may sound like an artificial task, it is actually quite involving for people. That makes it a good task to study the brain effects of social exclusion in a controlled but powerful way.”

    The data allowed the researchers to look at the activity among different brain regions comprising the mentalizing system. Unlike past neuroimaging studies of exclusion, they were not looking for average activity levels, but rather the relationship among their activity over time.

    “These regions are in different places in the brain, but they show a similar response during exclusion,” says Schmälzle. “They go up and down and up and down, almost as if they’re dancing together, doing the same moves over time, and this ‘coupling’ of their activity increases during social exclusion.”

    The researchers also were able to access, with permission, the test subjects’ Facebook data, giving them a snapshot of their friendship networks.

    In “dense” networks, close-knit friend groupings mean that many of a person’s friends are also friends with each other. Talk to one friend, and another is likely to hear the story. In “Sparse” networks, a person’s friends tend to be more far-flung, not knowing one another. If you talk to friend A, you would not expect friend B to know.

    The test subjects who showed the greatest brain connectivity during social exclusion were those in sparse networks.

    While the study cannot pinpoint why this is the case, the authors see possible explanations.

    “One possibility is that if not all your friends know each other, you need to more dynamically use your mentalizing system in a day-to-day context,” says Falk. “People with a greater diversity of friends may need to scroll through different interpretations of what’s going on.”

    On the other hand, Schmälzle says, it also would seem possible that people with different inclinations to think about social situations like exclusion in a particular way, might feel more confident in specific types of networks and thus tend to set up their social networks accordingly.

    “The study of brain and social network dynamics together is extremely new,” says Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., a co-author on the study and a Penn Associate Professor of Bioengineering. But, she notes, it holds great promise for understanding more accurately how the brain handles complex tasks like learning a new skill or picking up on and responding to social cues.

    “Social network analysis and thinking about social networks has been around a long time in Sociology,” says Falk, “but it’s only recently that these kind of quantitative measures of social networks have been combined with an understanding of the brain. How do your brain dynamics affect your social network and how does your social network affect your brain? We’re at the very tip of the iceberg right now.”

    “A longstanding feature of neuroscience research has been to ask participants to sit in an isolated room or scanner and make decisions about stimuli,” says co-author Jean Vettel, Ph.D., of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and visiting fellow at Penn, “but this research highlights the critical need to understand social influence and context if we truly want to understand how a person will respond and reason about the world.”


  9. Study suggests Facebook can function as safety net for the bereaved

    April 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Northeastern University press release:

     Neuroscientists have long noted that if certain brain cells are destroyed by, say, a stroke, new circuits may be laid in another location to compensate, essentially rewiring the brain. Northeastern’s William R. Hobbs, an expert in computational social science, wanted to know if social networks responded similarly after the death of a close mutual friend.

    In new research published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, Hobbs found that they did, thereby representing a paradigm of social network resilience.

    Hobbs, who led the study, collaborated with Facebook data scientist Moira Burke. The researchers found that close friends of the deceased immediately increased their interactions with one another by 30 percent, peaking in volume. The interactions faded a bit in the following months and ultimately stabilized at the same volume of interaction as before the death, even two years after the loss. This insight into how social networks adapt to significant losses could lead to new ways to help people with the grieving process, ensuring that their networks are able to recover rather than collapse during these difficult times.

    “Most people don’t have very many friends, so when we lose one, that leaves a hole in our networks as well as in our lives,” says Hobbs, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science. He wondered: Would a social network unravel with a central member gone? If it recovered, how might it heal?

    “We expected to see a spike in interactions among close friends immediately after the loss, corresponding with the acute grieving period,” says Hobbs. “What surprised us was that the stronger ties continued for years. People made up for the loss of interacting with the friend who had died by increasing interactions with one another.”

    Hobbs came to the study from a crisis of his own. After college, he lived and worked in China studying local governments. But when he entered graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, his father was dying. “So I switched to American politics, then to studying chronic illnesses, and then moving into the effect of deaths on others,” he says.

    That switch led to this first large-scale investigation of recovery and resilience after a death in social networks.

    It has the potential to reveal a great deal about ourselves, says Lazer, who is also a core faculty member in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. “Death is a tear in the fabric of the social network that binds us together,” he says. “This research provides insight into how our networks heal from this tear over time, and points to the ways that our digital traces can offer important clues into how we help each other through the grieving process.”

    Using sophisticated data counters and computer analysis, the researchers compared monthly interactions — wall posts, comments, and photo tags — of approximately 15,000 Facebook networks that had experienced the death of a friend with monthly interactions of approximately 30,000 similar Facebook networks that had not.

    The first group comprised more than 770,000 people, the latter more than 2 million. They learned about the deaths from California state vital records, and characterized “close friends” as those who had interacted with the person who died before the study began. To maintain the users’ privacy, the data was aggregated and “de-identified” — that is, all elements that associated the data with the individual were removed.

    “The response was different from what other researchers have found regarding natural disasters or other kinds of trauma,” says Hobbs. “There you see a spike in communications but that disappears quickly afterward.”

    In particular, the researchers found that networks comprising young adults, ages 18 to 24, showed the strongest recovery. They were not only more likely to recover than others, their interaction levels also stayed elevated — higher than before the loss. Networks experiencing suicides, on the other hand, showed the least amount of recovery. Further research is necessary to understand why, says Hobbs.

    “We didn’t study the subjective experience of loss, or how people feel,” cautions Hobbs. “We looked at recovery only in terms of connectivity. We also can’t say for certain whether the results translate into closer friendships offline.” What they do show is that online social networks appear to function as a safety net. “They do so quickly, and the effect persists,” he says. “There are so few studies on the effect of the death of a friend on a network. This is a big step forward.”


  10. A little support from their online friends calms test-anxious students

    April 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Reading supportive comments, “likes” and private messages from social media friends prior to taking a test may help college students who have high levels of test-anxiety significantly reduce their nervousness and improve their scores, a new study suggests.

    Undergraduate students with high levels of test anxiety who sought social support from their online friends and read the messages prior to a simulated exam reduced their anxiety levels by 21 percent, researchers at the University of Illinois found.

    These students, and peers who performed a seven-minute expressive-writing exercise, were able to perform as well on a set of computer programming exercises as students who had low levels of test anxiety, said lead author Robert Deloatch, a graduate student in computer science at the university.

    Up to 41 percent of students are estimated to suffer from test anxiety, which is a combination of physiological and emotional responses that occur while preparing for and taking tests.

    Test anxiety is associated with lower test scores and grade-point averages, as well as poorer performance on memory and problem-solving tasks. Test anxiety can be particularly acute when students face exams involving open-ended problems, such as those commonly used on computer science exams that require students to write and run code, the researchers wrote.

    When students’ test anxiety is reduced, their test scores, GPAs and task performance improve accordingly, researchers have found.

    Students with high test anxiety strongly fear negative evaluation, have lower self-esteem and tend to experience increased numbers of distracting and irrelevant thoughts in testing situations, according to the study.

    For the simulated exam in the current study, students had to solve two programming problems by writing and running code. Most of the participants were computer science majors or computer engineering students who passed a pretest that ensured they had basic programming knowledge.

    The researchers measured participants’ levels of test anxiety using the Cognitive Test Anxiety scale, which assesses the cognitive problems associated with test-taking such as task-irrelevant thinking and attention lapses.

    Participants also completed two other questionnaires that measured their levels of state anxiety — or “state-of-the-moment” unease — and their trait anxiety, which is anxiety that is considered to be a longstanding characteristic or personality trait.

    The day before the experiment, students in the social support group posted messages on their personal social media pages requesting encouragement — in the form of likes, comments or private messages — about an upcoming computer programming challenge they planned to participate in.

    For seven minutes immediately prior to taking the simulated test, students in the social support group read the responses associated with their online request, while students in the expressive-writing group wrote about their thoughts and feelings, and students in the control group crammed for the exam by reading information on computer programming data structures and answering questions about the text.

    Prior to taking the exam, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their levels of state anxiety. Students were then given 40 minutes to solve two programming problems that had many viable solutions.

    “We found that only the students who received supportive messages from their Facebook network showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an increase in their performance on our simulated exam,” Deloatch said.

    While prior researchers have found expressive writing to be helpful to some students with test anxiety, Deloatch and his co-authors were surprised to find that the expressive-writing exercise increased the pretest jitters of low test-anxious students by 61 percent, instead.

    “We hypothesized that might have occurred because focusing on their anxiety as they wrote caused their apprehensiveness to increase rather than decrease,” Deloatch said.

    Using social support to alleviate state-of-the-moment anxiety may have implications beyond education, such as helping job applicants quell their nervousness prior to interviews with potential employers, Deloatch said.

    While the students who sought social support online felt that reading the supportive messages was helpful, “all of them were uncomfortable with soliciting support from their online friends, perceiving such posts as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘out of place,'” Deloatch said. “As the majority of the participants in our study were computer science students, the competitive environment of the curriculum may have led to concerns about how others would perceive them. They may have felt that such statuses could harm their relations in group project settings.”

    The study is being published in the Proceedings of CHI 2017, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held May 6-11 in Denver.