1. Study suggests similar neural responses predict friendships

    February 18, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Dartmouth College press release:

    You may perceive the world the way your friends do, according to a Dartmouth study finding that friends have similar neural responses to real-world stimuli and these similarities can be used to predict who your friends are.

    The researchers found that you can predict who people are friends with just by looking at how their brains respond to video clips. Friends had the most similar neural activity patterns, followed by friends-of-friends who, in turn, had more similar neural activity than people three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends).

    Published in Nature Communications, the study is the first of its kind to examine the connections between the neural activity of people within a real-world social network, as they responded to real-world stimuli, which in this case was watching the same set of videos.

    Neural responses to dynamic, naturalistic stimuli, like videos, can give us a window into people’s unconstrained, spontaneous thought processes as they unfold. Our results suggest that friends process the world around them in exceptionally similar ways,” says lead author Carolyn Parkinson, who was a postdoctoral fellow in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth at the time of the study and is currently an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Computational Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    The study analyzed the friendships or social ties within a cohort of nearly 280 graduate students. The researchers estimated the social distance between pairs of individuals based on mutually reported social ties. Forty-two of the students were asked to watch a range of videos while their neural activity was recorded in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The videos spanned a range of topics and genres, including politics, science, comedy and music videos, for which a range of responses was expected. Each participant watched the same videos in the same order, with the same instructions. The researchers then compared the neural responses pairwise across the set of students to determine if pairs of students who were friends had more similar brain activity than pairs further removed from each other in their social network.

    The findings revealed that neural response similarity was strongest among friends, and this pattern appeared to manifest across brain regions involved in emotional responding, directing one’s attention and high-level reasoning. Even when the researchers controlled for variables, including left-handed- or right-handedness, age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality, the similarity in neural activity among friends was still evident. The team also found that fMRI response similarities could be used to predict not only if a pair were friends but also the social distance between the two.

    “We are a social species and live our lives connected to everybody else. If we want to understand how the human brain works, then we need to understand how brains work in combination — how minds shape each other,” explains senior author Thalia Wheatley, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and principal investigator of the Dartmouth Social Systems Laboratory.

    For the study, the researchers were building on their earlier work, which found that as soon as you see someone you know, your brain immediately tells you how important or influential they are and the position they hold in your social network.

    The research team plans to explore if we naturally gravitate toward people who see the world the same way we do, if we become more similar once we share experiences or if both dynamics reinforce each other.


  2. Study suggests wealth may drive preference for short-term relationships

    January 28, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Swansea University press release:

    In a new study titled ‘Mating strategy flexibility in the laboratory: Preferences for long- and short-term mating change in response to evolutionarily relevant variables’, the research team captured the relationship preferences of 151 heterosexual male and female volunteers (75 men and 76 women) by asking them to look at pictures of 50 potential partners, and to indicate whether they would prefer a long or short-term relationship with each. Then, the researchers showed the participants a series of images of luxury items related to wealth, including fast cars, jewellery, mansions, and money.

    Finally, the participants revisited the images of their potential partners, and sorted them by their preferred relationship type again. After viewing the wealth images, both male and female participants selected more partners for a short-term relationship compared to the original result — an increase of about 16%.

    Dr Andrew G. Thomas who led the research explains: “Not all people prefer long-term committed relationships. Evolutionary psychologists believe that whether someone prefers a short-term relationship over a long-term one depends partly on their circumstances, such as how difficult it might be to raise children as a single parent.

    “Importantly, when those circumstances change, we expect people to change their preferences accordingly. What we have done with our research is demonstrate this change in behaviour, for the first time, within an experimental setting. After participants were given cues that the environment had lots of resources, they became more likely to select individuals for a short-term relationship.

    “We think this happened because humans have evolved the capacity to read the environment and adjust the types of relationships they prefer accordingly. For example, in environments which have lots of resources, it would have been easier for ancestral mothers to raise children without the father’s help. This made short-term mating a viable option for both sexes during times of resource abundance. We believe modern humans also make these decisions.”

    The researchers also found that participants changed their relationship preferences after being shown a slideshow of dangerous animals, and videos of people interacting with infants.

    “We also found that other types of cues had an effect. When the participants were given cues that the environment contained young children, they were more likely to select individuals for a long-term relationship. Dangerous environments seemed to cause both men and women to choose more long-term partners, though some women chose more short-term partners instead.”


  3. Study suggests correlation between competitiveness and passion in romantic relationships

    January 27, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Hokkaido University press release:

    Americans are more passionate toward their romantic partners than Japanese people are because Americans live in social environments in which people have greater freedom to choose and replace their partners, a team of Japanese researchers suggest.

    Previous research comparing passion in romantic relationships on an international scale found that people in North America are more passionate than East Asians, such as the Japanese and Chinese. But this phenomenon is apparently inconsistent with the conventional theory that East Asians are characterized by collectivism and interdependence and that North Americans are more individualistic and independent.

    Although monogamy is common in contemporary society, long-term romantic relationships are faced with a commitment problem — the conflict between maintaining a relationship with a certain partner and looking for an attractive alternative.

    The Japanese research team led by Ph.D. student Junko Yamada and Professor Masaki Yuki of Hokkaido University hypothesized that Americans living in a society with high relational mobility (in which people have greater freedom to choose and replace their partners) are constantly exposed to the risk and anxiety of being cheated on or losing their partner to a rival. It also assumed that passion will induce strategic behavior to lavish attention and affection on their partner, while proactively ignoring potential partners to reassure their current partner. On the other hand, in Japan, where relationships tend to be more stable and hard to change (low relational mobility), people have less risk and anxiety of being cheated on or being rejected, making passionate behavior less relevant, according to the hypothesis.

    The researchers surveyed 154 heterosexual Americans (78 men and 76 women) and 103 heterosexual Japanese people (65 men and 38 women) recruited through online crowdsourcing marketplaces. They responded to a questionnaire designed to measure their perceptions of the level of romantic relational mobility of people around them and the intensity of passion they felt toward their current partner. All participants were asked how likely they would be to adopt various commitment behaviors when forming a relationship with a specific mate.

    The results statistically showed Americans are more passionate toward their partners than the Japanese are, which can be explained by the relational mobility of the society they live in. The study also found that the more passionate a person was, the more likely they were to approach a partner and lavish affection on nobody but the partner while voluntarily abandoning relationships with other members of the opposite sex. Thus the study demonstrated the difference between the two groups from the viewpoint of adaptive behavior.

    The findings are highly relevant to research on the evolutionary science of interpersonal human emotions. “For humans, it is imperative to win and keep a good mating partner, which is a basic adaptive issue. Our study showed the importance of considering socio-ecological factors when studying human mating behavior. Also, it suggested you should be more passionate and give your partner special attention when they have more freedom to choose,” says Masaki Yuki. “However, further studies involving other nationalities and cultural backgrounds should be conducted before generalizing our results,” he added.

    This study was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) KAKENHI (JP15H03445).


  4. Study suggests scent of romantic partner can help lower stress levels

    January 16, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia press release:

    The scent of a romantic partner can help lower stress levels, new psychology research from the University of British Columbia has found.

    The study, published yesterday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found women feel calmer after being exposed to their male partner’s scent. Conversely, being exposed to a stranger’s scent had the opposite effect and raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

    “Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviours,” said Marlise Hofer, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in the UBC department of psychology. “Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent alone, even without their physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress.”

    For the study, the researchers recruited 96 opposite-sex couples. Men were given a clean T-shirt to wear for 24 hours, and were told to refrain from using deodorant and scented body products, smoking and eating certain foods that could affect their scent. The T-shirts were then frozen to preserve the scent.

    The women were randomly assigned to smell a T-shirt that was either unworn, or had been worn by their partner or a stranger. They were not told which one they had been given. The women underwent a stress test that involved a mock job interview and a mental math task, and also answered questions about their stress levels and provided saliva samples used to measure their cortisol levels.

    The researchers asked women to act as the “smellers” because they tend to have a better sense of smell than men.

    They found that women who had smelled their partner’s shirt felt less stressed both before and after the stress test. Those who both smelled their partner’s shirt and also correctly identified the scent also had lower levels of cortisol, suggesting that the stress-reducing benefits of a partner’s scent are strongest when women know what they’re smelling.

    Meanwhile, women who had smelled a stranger’s scent had higher cortisol levels throughout the stress test.

    The authors speculate that evolutionary factors could influence why the stranger’s scent affected cortisol levels.

    “From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol,” said Hofer. “This could happen without us being fully aware of it.”

    Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the UBC department of psychology, said the findings could have practical implications to help people cope with stressful situations when they’re away from loved ones.

    “With globalization, people are increasingly traveling for work and moving to new cities,” said Chen. “Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you’re far from home.”


  5. Study suggests how much people earn is associated with how they experience happiness

    December 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Psychological Association press release:

    People who earn more money tend to experience more positive emotions focused on themselves, while people who earn less take greater pleasure in their relationships and ability to connect with others, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

    “Higher income has many benefits, including improved health and life satisfaction, but is it associated with greater happiness?” asked lead author Paul Piff, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine. “After all, most people think of money as some kind of unmitigated good. But some recent research suggests that this may not actually be the case. In many ways, money does not necessarily buy you happiness.”

    The research was published in the journal Emotion.

    The researchers used a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,519 people. Participants were asked about their household income and answered a series of questions designed to measure their tendency to experience seven distinct emotions that are considered to make up the core of happiness: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride. For example, to measure compassion, participants rated their agreement with various statements, including, “Nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside.”

    Participants at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum reported a greater tendency to experience emotions that focused on themselves, specifically, contentment and pride (as well as amusement). Individuals at the lower end of the income scale were more likely to experience emotions that focus on other people, namely compassion and love. Poorer individuals also reported experiencing more awe and beauty in the world around them. There was no apparent difference for enthusiasm, according to the researchers.

    “These findings indicate that wealth is not unequivocally associated with happiness,” said Piff. “What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness. While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others.”

    Piff believes these differences may stem from higher-income individuals’ desire for independence and self-sufficiency, while the other-oriented emotions help lower-income individuals to form more interdependent bonds with others to help cope with their more threatening environments.

    Much psychological research over the last few decades has focused on the negative effects of poverty, according to Piff. “Poverty heightens people’s risks for a slew of negative life outcomes, including worsened health,” he said. “Wealth doesn’t guarantee you happiness, but it may predispose you to experiencing different forms of it — for example, whether you delight in yourself versus in your friends and relationships. These findings suggest that lower-income individuals have devised ways to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances.”


  6. Study suggests discrimination harms not just victim but victim’s partner as well

    December 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Discrimination not only harms the health and well-being of the victim, but the victim’s romantic partner as well, indicates new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

    The work, which analyzed a nationally representative sample of nearly 2,000 couples, is the first study to consider how the discrimination experiences of both people in a relationship are associated with their health. The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

    “We found that when an individual experiences discrimination, they report worse health and depression. However, that’s not the full story — this stress spills over and affects the health of their partner as well,” said William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology who conducted the study with current and former MSU students.

    The researchers studied the survey data of 1,949 couples ranging in age from 50 to 94. Survey participants reported on incidents of discrimination, as well as on their health, depression and relationship strain and closeness.

    Chopik said the study found that it didn’t matter where the discrimination came from (e.g., because of race, age, gender or other factors). “What matters is that they felt that they were unfairly treated. That’s what had the biggest impact on the person’s health.”

    And that discrimination had a spillover affect on the person’s spouse or partner. Because people are embedded in relationships, what happens in those relationships affects our health and well-being, Chopik said.

    “We found that a lot of the harmful effects of discrimination on health occurs because it’s so damaging to our relationships,” he said. “When one partner experiences discrimination, they bring that stress home with them and it strains the relationship. So this stress not only negatively affects their own health, but their partner’s as well.”


  7. Study suggests night owls have larger social networks than early birds

    December 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Aalto University press release:

    Using anonymous mobile phone data, Aalto University doctoral researcher Talayeh Aledavood has tapped into patterns in people’s behaviour. She has found out that our ‘chronotypes‘ — our inherent periods of sleep during a 24-hour-period — correlate with the size of our social networks and how much we are in contact with others and also the kind of chronotypes with whom we interact.

    Night owls — people who go to sleep late — tend to have wider social networks than morning persons. Night owls are also more central in their own networks and — distinctively more than early birds — stick to their kind and interact with others who stay up late.

    “The digital breadcrumbs our daily phone use leaves behind can be used to monitor our behaviour. They provide a picture of our activities, movements, and communication,” says Aledavood.

    In her dissertation, Aledavood has used such digital traces to investigate people’s patterns of behaviour. Times of sleep can be inferred from periods of no smartphone use. The timing of calls made to friends and the size of our social networks, based on calls, texts, or emails, reveal our social habits. It’s a lot harder to get accurate information like this from, for example, surveys, and it’s possible to widen the scope of the study up to entire countries.

    How to use mobile data in mental health care

    While providing interesting knowledge of our sleep patterns’ correlations with social interactions and networks, Aledavood’s research has wider implications. Her findings may very well open a way to understand and treat mental health issues.

    Data collected and linked together from mobile devices, active social media use and other digital platforms could work as indicators for different mental disorders. Aledavood has outlined a method to collect data for this purpose.

    “There are no clear-cut biomarkers for detecting mental disorders as there are for diabetes or tumours, so you have to find new ways to seek them out. Disruptions in sleep rhythms can indicate several mental disorders, and my plan is to infer these disturbances from data collected from people’s use of digital devices,” Aledavood explains.

    Aledavood’s ultimate goal is to develop automated systems that can help patients to seek professional help before their condition turns severe. Making visualisations, for example, from the data collected could assist health care professionals to get an in-depth view of their patient’s condition.

    Privacy has to be built in

    Aledavood stresses that the privacy and information security of all study participants and particularly patients are crucial.

    “The data collection method we have developed has been designed to secure people’s privacy from the get-go. Privacy matters of course in all walks of our digital lives, and unlike the multitude of openly available mobile phone apps that are not scientifically validated or ethically approved, future research and clinical use of our methods will go through strict ethical evaluation. We have to be sure that a data collecting method or app is actually beneficial for a patient’s well-being and treatment,” Aledavood reminds.


  8. Study suggests experiencing violence as a teen may lead to earlier romantic relationships

    by Ashley

    From the American Sociological Association (ASA) press release:

    A new study has found that experiencing violence as an adolescent leads to early romantic relationships and cohabitating. On average, they found that victimized youth entered romantic relationships nine months earlier than non-victimized youth.

    “Overall, we find that victims begin dating sooner and progress more quickly from dating to first unions than do non-victims,” the researchers report in their article.

    “We theorize that these relationships could be a feasible coping mechanism because dating is more normative during adolescence,” said David Warner, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He explained that relationships can provide “a source of social support, a resource for instilling and improving self-esteem… particularly for these older adolescent victims who are also on the precipice of a number of developmental changes as they enter into high school.”

    The impact, however, depended on what age the violence episodes occurred. Those victimized in early adolescence are more likely to withdraw from dating and union formation whereas late adolescent victims appear to “overinvest in relationships—at least temporarily—displaying accelerated entry into dating and rapid progression to first unions.”

    To assess victimization, the researchers used data from adolescents who reported direct experience with four types of trauma including being “jumped,” shot, stabbed, or threatened by a knife or gun.

    However, Warner cautions, that while entering into relationships may seem healthy, entering them on average nine months earlier may be problematic. Nine months he says is “a whole different story for someone twelve or thirteen than for someone in their thirties.”

    In addition to dating, the study showed that victims of violence also began cohabiting more quickly than their peers – again, nine months early.

    “They start forming unions about nine months earlier too so, you’re really talking sort of 18 months ahead of schedule,” noted Tara Warner, the study’s lead author, also of the University of Nebraska.

    The differences they found varied by age but not gender, which surprised the researchers.

    “We speculate that may be due to just the overwhelming effect of violent victimization,” said Tara Warner.

    The researchers, along with Danielle C. Kuhl of Bowling Green State University, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The results of their study, “Cut to the Quick: The Consequences of Youth Violent Victimization for the Timing of Dating Debut and First Union Formation,” were published in the December American Sociological Review.

    Past research shows that early cohabitation is fraught with risks including an increased risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, communication problems, and other negative outcomes.

    Tara Warner warns that both withdrawal and increased social activity could be symptomatic. For adolescents who are accelerating through relationships, she suggests the best advice is to “slow down.”

    “If [young people] can slow down a little bit, the literature would suggest that would be the most positive outcome.”


  9. Study suggests a fear of getting dumped kills romance and commitment

    December 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Can the fear of a relationship ending actually lessen love and cause a break-up? If yes, how does it happen? These were the questions that Simona Sciara and Giuseppe Pantaleo of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Italy set out to answer in an article published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion. Their research complements what is already known about how obstacles to a romantic relationship affect attraction and commitment towards a partner.

    Study participants provided basic information about themselves and the state and dynamics of their relationship. The researchers then manipulated the participants’ perception that their relationship could end. Manipulation techniques included providing statistics about the failure of relationships to one group, and giving false feedback to some participants about the chances of their romantic affiliations ending. Participants were then asked how committed they were to their relationship, and how they felt towards their partner.

    Sciara and Pantaleo found that participants’ romantic feelings and levels of commitment towards their partners were more intense when no mention was made about the possibility that their relationships could end. Romance and commitment diminished when they heard that there could be either a high or low risk of a break-up. When participants were told that there was only a moderate chance the relationship would end, commitment was stronger. The researchers also established that the influence of such manipulated risk on romantic commitment was fully mediated by feelings of romantic affect.

    “This shows that, when faced with a ‘too high’ risk of ending the relationship, participants clearly reduced the intensity of their positive feelings towards the romantic partner,” explains Sciara.

    Pantaleo believes it is important for psychologists, clinicians and counsellors to understand the causal role that perceived risk plays in the outcomes of their clients’ romantic relationships.

    “Reduced relationship commitment, for instance, leads to dissolution considerations and, thereby, to actual relationship breakup. Relationship breakup, in turn, plays a critical role in the onset of depression, psychological distress, and reduced life satisfaction,” he adds.


  10. Study suggests marriage may help stave off dementia

    by Ashley

    From the BMJ press release:

    Marriage may lower the risk of developing dementia, concludes a synthesis of the available evidence published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

    Lifelong singletons and widowers are at heightened risk of developing the disease, the findings indicate, although single status may no longer be quite the health hazard it once seemed to be, the researchers acknowledge.

    They base their findings on data from 15 relevant studies published up to the end of 2016. These looked at the potential role of marital status on dementia risk, and involved more than 800,000 participants from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

    Married people accounted for between 28 and 80 per cent of people in the included studies; the widowed made up between around 8 and 48 per cent; the divorced between 0 and 16 per cent; and lifelong singletons between 0 and 32.5 per cent.

    Pooled analysis of the data showed that compared with those who were married, lifelong singletons were 42 per cent more likely to develop dementia, after taking account of age and sex.

    Part of this risk might be explained by poorer physical health among lifelong single people, suggest the researchers.

    However, the most recent studies, which included people born after 1927, indicated a risk of 24 per cent, which suggests that this may have lessened over time, although it is not clear why, say the researchers.

    The widowed were 20 per cent more likely to develop dementia than married people, although the strength of this association was somewhat weakened when educational attainment was factored in.

    But bereavement is likely to boost stress levels, which have been associated with impaired nerve signalling and cognitive abilities, the researchers note.

    No such associations were found for those who had divorced their partners, although this may partly be down to the smaller numbers of people of this status included in the studies, the researchers point out.

    But the lower risk among married people persisted even after further more detailed analysis, which, the researchers suggest, reflects “the robustness of the findings.”

    These findings are based on observational studies so no firm conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn, and the researchers point to several caveats, including the design of some of the included studies, and the lack of information on the duration of widowhood or divorce.

    Nevertheless, they proffer several explanations for the associations they found. Marriage may help both partners to have healthier lifestyles, including exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and smoking and drinking less, all of which have been associated with lower risk of dementia.

    Couples may also have more opportunities for social engagement than single people — a factor that has been linked to better health and lower dementia risk, they suggest.

    In a linked editorial, Christopher Chen and Vincent Mok, of, respectively, the National University of Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, suggest that should marital status be added to the list of modifiable risk factors for dementia, “the challenge remains as to how these observations can be translated into effective means of dementia prevention.”

    The discovery of potentially modifiable risk factors doesn’t mean that dementia can easily be prevented, they emphasise.

    “Therefore, ways of destigmatising dementia and producing dementia-friendly communities more accepting and embracing of the kinds of disruptions that dementia can produce should progress alongside biomedical and public health programmes,” they conclude.