Archive for August 13th, 2012

Ep 179: Lipstick Effect, Stereotype Threat and other Gender Matters


Do women who work in typically male dominated jobs “play down” their femininity in order to be gain more respect from their male co-workers? In this episode we’ll explore this stereotype threat as well as something you may not have heard of: the lipstick effect. How do men and women change their appearance or their behavior during times of economic depression? In this all-gender episode we look at these issues as well as why the new Volkswagen Beetle has changed its appearance. Yes, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle has become more masculine, but why?

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Gene Related to Autism Behavior ID’d in Mice Study


Gene Related to Autism Behavior ID'd in Mice StudyIn a new mouse study, University of California, Davis, researchers have found that a defective gene is responsible for brain changes that lead to the disrupted social behavior that accompanies autism.

Investigators believe the discovery could lead to the development of medications to treat the condition.

Prior research had determined that the gene is defective in children with autism, but its effect on neurons in the brain was not known.

The new studies in mice show that abnormal action of just this one gene disrupted energy use in neurons. The harmful changes were coupled with antisocial and prolonged repetitive behavior — traits found in autism.

The research is published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

“A number of genes and environmental factors have been shown to be involved in autism, but this study points to a mechanism — how one gene defect may trigger this type of neurological behavior,” said study senior author Cecilia Giulivi, Ph.D.

“Once you understand the mechanism, that opens the way for developing drugs to treat the condition,” she said.

The defective gene appears to disrupt neurons’ use of energy, Giulivi said, the critical process that relies on the cell’s molecular energy factories called mitochondria.

In the research, a gene called pten was modififed in the mice so that neurons lacked the normal amount of pten’s protein. The scientists detected malfunctioning mitochondria in the mice as early as 4 to 6 weeks after birth.

By 20 to 29 weeks, DNA damage in the mitochondria and disruption of their function had increased dramatically.

At this time, the mice began to avoid contact with their litter mates and engage in repetitive grooming behavior. Mice without the single gene change exhibited neither the mitochondria malfunctions nor the behavioral problems.

The antisocial behavior was most pronounced in the mice at an age comparable in humans to the early teenage years – a period in which schizophrenia and other behavioral disorders become most apparent, Giulivi said.

The research showed that, when defective, pten’s protein interacts with the protein of a second gene known as p53 to dampen energy production in neurons.

The interaction causes severe stress that leads to a spike in harmful mitochondrial DNA changes and abnormal levels of energy production in the cerebellum and hippocampus — brain regions critical for social behavior and cognition.

Investigators report that pten mutations previously have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease as well as a spectrum of autism disorders.

The new research shows that when pten protein was insufficient, its interaction with p53 triggered deficiencies and defects in other proteins that also have been found in patients with learning disabilities including autism.

Source: University of California – Davis Health System

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Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-Control


Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-ControlSelf-control is much easier talked about than accomplished, and that applies to improving diet, exercise and reducing stress.

Researchers point out that many of the long-term goals people strive for — like losing weight — require us to use self-control and forgo immediate gratification. But ignoring immediate desires in order to reap future benefits is often very hard to do.

In a new study, researchers Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., and Jessica Carnevale of Ohio State University propose that the way people subjectively understand, or construe, events can influence self-control.

Experts say that thinking about things abstractly and placing the items into broad categories (called high-level construal) allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the pushes and pulls of the immediate moment. This, in turn, makes us more sensitive to the big picture implications of our behavior and helps us become more consistent between our values and our behavior.

For example, a dieter choosing based on immediately apparent differences between the choices (low-level construal) might focus on taste and opt for a candy bar over an apple.

A dieter choosing on the basis of high-level construal, however, might view the choice in the broader terms of a choice between weight loss and hedonism, and opt for the apple.

Viewing the decision-making process in an abstract or construal process as a means to maximize self-control involves the integration of many scientific disciplines.

Researchers believe investigating the link between construal level and self-control may be a method to help society confront societal problems including obesity, addiction, and debt.

The research is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic ‘Switch’


Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic 'Switch' Scientists have known that stress and depression can cause the brain to retract or lose volume, a condition associated with both emotional and cognitive impairment. Now, a new study discovers why this occurs.

Yale scientists have found that the deactivation of a single genetic switch can instigate a cascading loss of brain connections in humans and depression in animal models.

Researchers say the genetic switch, known as a transcription factor, represses the expression of several genes that are necessary for the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells. The loss of connections, in turn, can contribute to loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex, say the scientists.

“We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans,” said senior author Ronald Duman, Ph.D. “We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated.”

In the study, the research team analyzed tissue of depressed and non-depressed patients donated from a brain bank and looked for different patterns of gene activation.

The brains of patients who had been depressed exhibited lower levels of expression in genes that are required for the function and structure of brain synapses.

Lead author and postdoctoral researcher H.J. Kang, Ph.D., discovered that at least five of these genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1.

When the transcription factor was activated in animal models, rodents exhibited depressive-like symptoms, suggesting GATA1 plays a role not only in the loss of connections between neurons but also in symptoms of depression.

This finding of genetic variations in GATA1 may help researchers identify people at high risk for major depression or sensitivity to stress.

“We hope that by enhancing synaptic connections, either with novel medications or behavioral therapy, we can develop more effective antidepressant therapies,” Duman said.

Source: Yale University

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Thinking About Giving Inspires People to Help Others


Thinking About Giving Inspires People to Help OthersResearchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan have found that reflecting on what we’ve given, rather than what we’ve received, may lead us to be more helpful toward others.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the study, Adam Grant and Jane Dutton wanted to understand how reflection, in the form of expressive writing, might influence prosocial behavior.

They found that the receipt of gifts or favors from another person might cause an individual to be obliged to help that person, but the motivation to help doesn’t necessarily extend to other people.

Moreover, reflecting on what we’ve received from others may even cause us to feel dependent and indebted. This finding lead the researchers to wonder whether thinking about times when we have given to others might be more effective in promoting helping.

They hypothesized that reflecting on giving could lead a person to see herself as a benefactor, strengthening identity as a caring, helpful individual and motivating one to take action to benefit others.

In their first experiment, the researchers studied fundraisers whose job was to solicit alumni donations to support various programs at a university.

The researchers randomly split the fundraisers into two groups: One group wrote journal entries about recent experiences of feeling grateful for receiving a benefit and the other group wrote journal entries about recent experiences in which they made a contribution that enabled other people to feel grateful.

Grant and Dutton then measured how many calls each fundraiser made per hour in the two weeks before and the two weeks after the week that they spent journaling. Because the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate, with no fundraising goals or incentives, the number of calls they made reflected voluntary effort to help raise funds for the university.

As the researchers hypothesized, the fundraisers who wrote about giving for just two or three days increased their hourly calls by more than 29 percent in the following two weeks. The fundraisers who wrote about receiving, however, showed no change in the number hourly calls made.

In a second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned college students to one of three groups, requiring them to list three ways they had recently given help, list three ways they had recently received help, or list three different foods they had eaten in the last week.

When the participants came to the university’s behavioral lab a few weeks later to pick up their payment for participating in the study, they were given a form describing the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On the form, the participants were asked whether they would like to donate any portion of their $5 payment to an earthquake relief fund.

Nearly 50 percent of participants who had reflected on giving donated, compared to 21 percent in the beneficiary group and 13 percent in the control cohort.

Grant and Dutton believe that the findings from these two experiments have important real-world implications.

“Helping, giving, volunteering, and other actions undertaken to benefit others play a critical role in protecting health, promoting education, fighting poverty and hunger, and providing disaster relief,” the researchers write.

Experts believe self-reflection is a powerful tool to motivate helping and volunteering behaviors that benefit individuals and communities. And, as a general rule, we should reflect on positive experiences and think about what we’ve given to others—not only what we’ve received.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Woman writing in a journal photo by shutterstock.

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How the Rich are Different from the Poor II: Empathy


In the many conversations that F. Scott Fitzgerald had with his friend Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald was believed to have said “The rich are different from the poor.” Hemingway’s alleged response: “Yes, they have more money.”

While this conversation may have never occurred, it goes without saying that the rich do indeed differ from the poor. In this second part of a four part PYM series I will be exploring precisely how the rich differ from the poor–in a psychological sense at least. In the first post, I discussed how one’s social class status–that is, the money, education, and occupation status of one’s family–influences the concept of choice. In this second post, I discuss how social class influences patterns of empathy.

Emotions are an important part of everyday life–they represent another language that we use to communicate with other individuals. This feature of emotions is what makes them so important for our everyday social lives. In particular, navigating social life depends on empathy–that is, the sharing and understanding of emotion experiences and affective states. Empathy includes a number of emotion processes. For example, empathic accuracy–the ability to accurately read others’ emotions– is a form of empathy focused on understanding others’ subjective experience. Another aspect of empathy is emotional contagion–that is, the extent individuals mimic or re-experience the emotions of others.

Reading faces is critical for social life

I believe that differences between individuals from relatively upper- and lower-class backgrounds lead to differences in empathy. This prediction is derived from the fact that the environments of lower-class individuals are relatively dependent on the social environment and on others. Disposed to reduced social and economic resources, lower-class individuals’ outcomes are more likely to hinge on outside forces. These conditions make it so that it is more costly for lower-class individuals to mis-read others’ emotions.

In contrast, abundant social and economic resources allow relatively upper-class individuals to navigate the social world without (for the most part) incurring social costs that come from not reading others’ emotions. In essence, while upper-class individuals can remain blissfully unaware of others’ emotions, their lower-class counterparts must be vigilant of the emotions of others to identify both social opportunities and potential social costs.

Research supports this prediction. For instance, in one illustrative study, University of Toronto employees from different educational backgrounds took an emotional intelligence test where they attempted to guess the emotions displayed in others’ facial expressions. Surprisingly, the high-school educated participants in the sample were more accurate at identifying emotions in these photographs than were their college-educated counterparts. In another study in this research, undergraduates engaged in a mock job interview alongside another student. After the interview, participants guessed the emotions experienced by their partner. Participants who reported that they were higher in social class rank in society (e.g., at the top of society’s social ladder) were worse at accurately guessing the emotions their partner experienced during the interview relative to lower-class rank participants (Kraus et al., 2010).

Given that lower-class individuals are more dependent on their social environments and on others than their upper-class counterparts, we might also expect that these individuals will exhibit more emotional contagion in interactions. Specifically, being constantly vigilant of others’ emotions may make an individual prone to unintentionally experiencing the emotions of others.

Blissfully unaware of others’ emotions

That is precisely what the research suggests: In one study, participants engaged in a teasing interaction with their friend where they came up with a nickname and a funny story to tell about their friend. Participants reported the income and education of their parents, and also rated their emotions before and during this teasing interaction. Interestingly, for lower-class friends, their hostile emotions (e.g., anger, contempt, and disgust) became more similar to those of their friend during the interaction. That is, if lower-class participants’ friend felt hostility prior to the interaction, lower-class individuals tended to feel more hostile over the course of the interaction. In contrast, upper-class individuals’ hostile emotions remained completely independent of their friend’s emotions (Kraus, Horberg, et al., 2011). Importantly, it wasn’t that upper-class friends did not show contagion, in fact, all friends, regardless of class experienced contagion for positive emotions. But, in terms of hostile emotions, only the lower-class friends unintentionally took on their friend’s emotions.
This concludes Part II of the How the Rich are Different from the Poor series. I hope you are beginning to learn a lot about how social class shapes everyday psychological processes. Do these examples mirror what you’ve experienced in your everyday life? Let us know in the comments!

Kraus, MW, Horberg, EJ, Goetz, J, & Keltner, D. (2011). Social class rank, threat vigilance, and hostile reactivity Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211410987
Kraus MW, Côté S, & Keltner D (2010). Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy. Psychological science, 21 (11), 1716-23 PMID: 20974714

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