The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘stress’

The Gendered Situation of Decision-Making Under Stress

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 6, 2011

From Science Daily:

Stress causes men and women to respond differently to risky decision making, with men charging ahead for small rewards and women taking their time, according to a new study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, published by Oxford University Press. Under stress, men and women also have different brain activation patterns during decision making.

There might be advantages to both stress responses, especially in areas with the need to weigh short-term gain and long-term benefits, such as the stock market, health decisions or retirement planning, according to lead author on the study Nichole Lighthall, a USC doctoral student.

The experiment might also have implications for daily life and relationships, Lighthall said.

Stress caused men and women to make decisions differently, but when stress was absent their behavior and brain activation was much more similar, Lighthall said. Men and women faced with tough decisions might improve their communication by waiting until a stressful situation has passed, Lighthall said. “Men and women appear to think more similarly when they are not stressed,” Lighthall said. “You should be aware of the way you are biased in your decisions.”

After being subjected to stress, men appeared to be more motivated to act quickly while women would slow down, Lighthall said.

For men under stress, playing a risk-taking game stimulated areas in the brain that are activated when one gets a reward or satisfies an addiction. The same experiment found diminished brain activity for women in the same areas when they were stressed.

“It appears women do not feel the drive to get a reward as much under stress,” Lighthall said.

Participants were given a task of filling up a computer-simulated balloon with as much air as possible without popping the balloon.

Subjects earned from $4 to $45 based on their performance, with the men earning much more cash under stress.

Lighthall said that although men performed this task better, the more important conclusion may be that important decisions made under stress should include input from both genders.

“It might be better to have more gender diversity on important decision because men and women offer differing perspectives,” Lighthall said. “Being more cautious and taking the time to make a decision will often be the right choice.”

Mara Mather, director of the Emotion and Cognition Lab at USC and associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsige College and gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, Michiko Sakaki, Sarinnapha Vasunilashorn, Lin Nga, Sangeetha Somayajula, Eri Y. Chin and Nicole Samii, also of the USC Davis School, were co-authors of the study.

Last year Lighthall authored a study in the journal PLoS One that showed that men under stress may be more likely to take risks, correlating to such real-life behavior as gambling, smoking, unsafe sex and illegal drug use.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

 

 

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The Stressful Situation of Disease

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 26, 2010

Here is a synopsis of a recent article, titled “Do neighbourhoods matter? Neighbourhood disorder and long-term trends in serum cortisol levels (published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health), by Patrick H. Ryan (for Environmental Health News):

* * *

Children – especially African Americans – who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods have consistently low levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a study that examined children in Alabama.

Cortisol is an important stress hormone associated with good physical and mental health and well-being. The low levels of cortisol measured in the study were in children living in neighborhoods with high unemployment, poverty, female heads of households and vacant housing.

The study’s findings are significant because extended exposure to low cortisol levels may increase immune responses, leading to inflammation and the risk for some chronic childhood diseases. The results add more details to a growing number of reports that link exposure to chronic stressors – including noise, violence and poverty – to negative health effects, such as asthma.

The body’s mechanism for dealing with stress is one explanation for the links. When exposed to a stressful event, a hormonal signaling system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis – or HPA axis – causes cortisol hormone to be released into the bloodstream. However, long-term chronic exposure to stress can disrupt the normal functioning of the HPA axis and result in an opposite reaction – lower than normal levels of cortisol.

In this study, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recruited 148 African and European-America children about eight years of age. Children were seen up to five times during a period of nine years. At each study visit, cortisol was measured in the children’s blood samples. Unemployment, poverty, female-headed households with children and vacant houses were used to determine neighborhood environments. Researchers adjusted for differences, including age, weight, gender and other personal factors.

Overall, children who lived in disadvantaged neighborhoods had lower levels of cortisol. When the researchers looked closer at the role of race on the results, they found that the association between neighborhood and decreased cortisol was greatest in African-American children. The trend between disadvantaged neighborhoods and decreased cortisol was evident in European-American children, but was not as strong and could be due to chance. Gender did not appear to play a role in the levels of cortisol.

The results demonstrate that the physical environment in which children are raised plays an important role in their well-being. In addition, the measure of cortisol provides objective evidence of the body’s physiologic response to chronic stress, which has previously been shown to be associated with health effects including childhood asthma.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Depression,” “The Stressful Situation of Religious Zealotry,” “The Situational Consequences of Poverty on Brain,” The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty,” Some Situational Effects of the BP Gulf Disaster,” “The Situation of Mental Illness,”Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health,” “The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” The Toll of Discrimination on Black Women,” The Physical Pains of Discrimination,” The Depressing Effects of Racial Discrimination,” and The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions.”

A new blog and website, Upstream, provides daily posts and regular interviews with scientists about environmental causes of disease.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Life | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Performing Under Pressure

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 22, 2010

Situationist friend Sian Beilock’s highly anticipated new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, is now out.  As someone who has had both great successes and great failures under pressure, I’ve been very excited to read Choke since Sian first mentioned it to me.  What exactly happened in that 8th-grade piano recital when my mind went blank halfway through that Bach three-part invention?  Mom, I finally have an answer . . .

Here’s a description of the book:

It happens to all of us. You’ve prepared for days, weeks, even years for the big day when you will finally show your stuff—in academics, in your career, in sports—but when the big moment arrives, nothing seems to work. You hit the wrong note, drop the ball, get stumped by a simple question. In other words, you choke. It’s not fun to think about, but now there’s good news: This doesn’t have to happen.

In lively prose and accessibly rendered science, Beilock examines how attention and working memory guide human performance, how experience and practice and brain development interact to create our abilities, and how stress affects all these factors. She sheds new light on counter-intuitive realities, like why the highest performing people are most susceptible to choking under pressure, why we may learn foreign languages best when we’re not paying attention, why early childhood athletic training can backfire, and how our emotions can make us both smarter and dumber. All these fascinating findings about academic, athletic, and creative intelligence come together in Beilock’s new ideas about performance under pressure—and her secrets to never choking again. Whether you’re at the Olympics, in the boardroom, or taking the SAT, Beilock’s clear, prescriptive guidance shows how to remain cool under pressure—the key to performing well when everything’s on the line.

Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science, reveals in Choke the astonishing new science of why we all too often blunder when the stakes are high. What happens in our brain and body when we experience the dreaded performance anxiety? And what are we doing differently when everything magically “clicks” into place and the perfect golf swing, tricky test problem, or high-pressure business pitch becomes easy? In an energetic tour of the latest brain science, with surprising insights on every page, Beilock explains the inescapable links between body and mind; reveals the surprising similarities among the ways performers, students, athletes, and business people choke; and shows how to succeed brilliantly when it matters most.

Read an excerpt from Choke here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Your Group is Bad at Math,” “The Bar Exam Situation,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 21, 2010

Press release from University of Michigan:

* * *

When people are under chronic stress, they tend to smoke, drink, use drugs and overeat to help cope with stress. These behaviors trigger a biological cascade that helps prevent depression, but they also contribute to a host of physical problems that eventually contribute to early death.

That is the claim of University of Michigan social scientist James S. Jackson and colleagues in an article published in the May 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The theory helps explain a long-time epidemiological puzzle: why African Americans have worse physical health than whites but better psychiatric health.

“People engage in bad habits for functional reasons, not because of weak character or ignorance,” says Jackson, director of the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Over the life course, coping strategies that are effective in ‘preserving’ the mental health of blacks may work in concert with social, economic and environmental inequalities to produce physical health disparities in middle age and later life.”

In an analysis of survey data, obtained from the same people at two points in time, Jackson and colleagues find evidence for their theory. The relationship between stressful life events and depression varies by the level of unhealthy behaviors. But the direction of that relationship is strikingly different for blacks and whites.

Controlling for the extent of stressful life events a person has experienced, unhealthy behaviors seem to protect against depression in African Americans but lead to higher levels of depression in whites.

“Many black Americans live in chronically precarious and difficult environments,” says Jackson. “These environments produce stressful living conditions, and often the most easily accessible options for addressing stress are various unhealthy behaviors. These behaviors may alleviate stress through the same mechanisms that are believed to contribute to some mental disorders—the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortical axis and related biological systems.”

Since negative health behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, drug use and overeating (especially comfort foods) also have direct and debilitating effects on physical health, these behaviors—along with the difficult living conditions that give rise to them—contribute to the disparities in mortality and physical health problems between black and white populations.

These disparities in physical health and mortality are greatest at middle age and beyond, Jackson says. Why?

“At younger ages, blacks are able to employ a variety of strategies that, when combined with the more robust physical health of youth, effectively mask the cascade to the negative health effects,” Jackson said. “But as people get older, they tend to reduce stress more often by engaging in bad habits.”

Black women show heightened rates of obesity over the life course, he points out. In fact, by the time they are in their 40s, 60 percent of African American women are obese.

“How can it be that 60 percent of the population has a character flaw?” Jackson asks. “Overeating is an effective, early, well-learned response to chronic environmental stressors that only strengthens over the life course. In contrast, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, black American men’s coping choices are different.

“Early in life, they tend to be physically active and athletic, which produces the stress-lowering hormone dopamine. But in middle age, physical deterioration reduces the viability and effectiveness of this way of coping with stress, and black men turn in increasing numbers to unhealthy coping behaviors, showing increased rates of smoking, drinking and illicit drug use.”

Racial disparities in physical illnesses and mortality are not really a result of race at all, Jackson says. Instead, they are a result of how people live their lives, the composition of their lives. These disparities are not just a function of socioeconomic status, but of a wide range of conditions including the accretion of micro insults that people are exposed to over the years.

“You can’t really study physical health without looking at people’s mental health and really their whole lives,” he said. “The most effective way to address an important source of physical health disparities is to reduce environmentally produced stressors—both those related to race and those that are not. We need to improve living conditions, create good job opportunities, eliminate poverty and improve the quality of inner-city urban life.

“Paradoxically, the lack of attention to these conditions contributes to the use of unhealthy coping behaviors by people living in poor conditions. Although these unhealthy coping behaviors contribute to lower rates of mental disorder, over the life course they play a significant role in leading to higher rates of physical health problems and earlier mortality than is found in the general population.”

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” The Toll of Discrimination on Black Women,” The Physical Pains of Discrimination,” The Depressing Effects of Racial Discrimination,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” and “Guilt and Racial Prejudice.” For a listing of numerous Situationist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Emotions, Environment, Food and Drug Law, Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Depressing Effects of Racial Discrimination

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 23, 2009

apple nailsFrom Cornell News Service, here is a news release regarding fascinating research on the effects of racial discrimination.

* * *

Many studies have shown that experiencing chronic racial discrimination chips away at the mental health of African-Americans.

But a new Cornell study sheds light on precisely how – and to what effect – chronic racial discrimination erodes mental health.

The study found blacks may, in general, have poorer mental health as a result of two mechanisms: First, chronic exposure to racial discrimination leads to more experiences of daily discrimination and, second, it also results in an accumulation of daily negative events across various domains of life, from family and friends to health and finances. The combination of these mechanisms, reports Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, places blacks at greater risk for daily symptoms of depression, anxiety and negative moods.

“As a result, African-Americans experience high levels of chronic stress. And individuals who are exposed to more daily stress end up having fewer resources to cope with them,” said Ong.

The study, one of the first to look at the underlying mechanisms through which racial discrimination operates to affect the daily mental health of African-Americans, was conducted with Cornell graduate student Thomas Fuller-Rowell and Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of psychology at Loyola University-Chicago; it is published in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (96:6).

The researchers examined the ways that chronic discrimination exerts a direct influence on daily mental health and an indirect influence through daily stress (i.e., daily racial discrimination and negative events) by analyzing daily questionnaires from 174 African-Americans for 14 days. Participants answered questions daily about the frequency of racially stressful encounters, mental health symptoms, mood and stressors across life domains.

“What we found was that it is the daily discrimination and daily stress that are driving the psychological distress,” Ong said.

The authors noted that racial discrimination in this country “is a ubiquitous experience in the lives of African-Americans,” citing various studies that reported that between half to three-quarters of black respondents report experiencing racial discrimination. They also cite a 2003 review of 32 studies that found a positive link between perceptions of racial discrimination and mental illness in all but one of the studies.

Based on the new study, Ong emphasized that the tendency for serious stressors, such as racial discrimination, to expand and generate additional stressors – a process called stress proliferation – requires that interventions cast a wide net.

“It is not enough that interventions target one problem,” Ong noted, “even if it appears to be a serious stressor, when there might be multiple hardships and demands that are instrumental in structuring people’s daily lives. Chronic exposure to racial discrimination provides a poignant illustration of the proliferation of stress stemming from repeated discriminatory experiences.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” and “The Physical Pains of Discrimination.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 5, 2009

Poverty Generations Stress - from Shavar's photostream, Flickr From The Economist, here are some excerpts of a summary of research exploring the interior situation of how poverty is passed from one generation to the next.

* * *

That the children of the poor underachieve in later life, and thus remain poor themselves, is one of the enduring problems of society. . . . But nobody has truly understood what causes it. Until, perhaps, now.

The crucial breakthrough was made three years ago, when Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania showed that the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children. Working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in the brain for current use—the digits of a phone number, for example. It is crucial for comprehending languages, for reading and for solving problems. Entry into the working memory is also a prerequisite for something to be learnt permanently as part of declarative memory—the stuff a person knows explicitly, like the dates of famous battles, rather than what he knows implicitly, like how to ride a bicycle.

Since Dr Farah’s discovery, Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University have studied the phenomenon in more detail. As they report in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have found that the reduced capacity of the memories of the poor is almost certainly the result of stress affecting the way that childish brains develop.

* * *

For all six [measures of stress], a higher value indicates a more stressful life; and for all six, the values were higher, on average, in poor children than in those who were middle class. Moreover, because Dr Evans’s wider study had followed the participants from birth, the two researchers were able to estimate what proportion of each child’s life had been spent in poverty. . . .

The capacity of a 17-year-old’s working memory was also correlated with [stress levels]. Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4, and those whose economic and social experiences had been mixed were in the middle.

. . . Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg . . . were able [statistically] . . . to remove the effect of [stress levels] on the relationship between poverty and memory discovered originally by Dr Farah. When they did so, that relationship disappeared. In other words, the diminution of memory in the poorer members of their study was entirely explained by stress, rather than by any more general aspect of poverty.

* * *

That stress, and stress alone, is responsible for damaging the working memories of poor children thus looks like a strong hypothesis. It is also backed up by work done on both people and laboratory animals, which shows that stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. . . .

Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children.

. . . . The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one.

Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, and his intellectual successors have shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things.

So, it may not be necessary to look any further than their place in the pecking order to explain what Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg have discovered in their research into the children of the poor. . . .

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To read the entire article, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Childhood: The New Age of Anxiety?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 29, 2008

Gina Stepp of Vision has an interesting piece on recent findings that suggest children in the U.S. and other countries are increasingly struggling with anxiety and unhappiness. Below we excerpt a portion of her piece.

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In the year 2000—even before terrorism hit so close to home for Americans on September 11, 2001, and before the United States went to war with Iraq—an interesting study appeared in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In her report, social psychologist Jean Twenge observed that anxiety levels in American children had increased dramatically since the first effective scale for measuring childhood anxiety was published in 1956.

The increases were so large and linear, Twenge explained, that by the 1980s normal children scored higher on the anxiety scale than did children in the 1950s who were psychiatric patients. The culprits? According to Twenge, disconnected relationships and looming environmental threats were the underlying factors. In particular she notes that “changes in the divorce rate, the birth rate, and the crime rate are all highly correlated with children’s anxiety.” In contrast, she discovered that “surprisingly, economic indices had very little independent effect on anxiety. Apparently, children are less concerned with whether their family has enough money than whether it is threatened by violence or dissolution.”

If modern young Americans are indeed feeling the strain, they are certainly not alone in the world. According to a March 2008 article in the online Independent, Britain may actually be the “unhappiest place on earth” for children. Education editor Richard Garner notes the “welter of evidence highlighting the fragile states of mind of many of the country’s seven million primary and secondary school pupils,” while reporting that British teachers had called for an independent Royal Commission to discover the reasons behind the widespread anxiety and unhappiness among the nation’s children.

* * *

In May of 2005, two education researchers from Pennsylvania State University—David P. Baker and Gerald K. LeTendre—coauthored a book titled National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Analyzing data collected from schools across more than 41 nations, the researchers came to a conclusion that might surprise many parents and educators: more homework does not necessarily translate to higher academic achievement.

Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark were noted to have the highest academically scoring students while typically giving little or no homework. On the other hand, Baker noted that countries with very low scores in academic achievement: Thailand, Greece and Iran, typically were being assigned heavy homework loads.

“The United States is among the most homework-intensive countries in the world for seventh- and eighth-grade math classes,” commented LeTendre. “U.S. math teachers on average assigned more than two hours of mathematics homework per week in 1994-95. Contrary to our expectations, one of the lowest levels was recorded in Japan—about one hour a week. These figures challenge previous stereotypes about the lackadaisical American teenager and his diligent peer in Japan.”

LeTendre and Baker point out that it is these stereotypes, hyped by American media, that are actually responsible for prompting many U.S. schools to increase homework assignments during the 1980s. “At the same time,” say the researchers, “ironically, Japanese educators were attempting to reduce the amount of homework given to their students and allow them more leisure from the rigors of schooling. Neither the American nor the Japanese educational reform of the 1980s seems to have affected general achievement levels in either country.”

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For the rest of the piece, click here. For other Situationist posts on childhood, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Public Policy, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

 
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