Monthly Archives: November 2009

Guns, race and evolution.

The recent shooting of American soldiers by a Muslim American military psychiatrist at Fort Hood made many Muslim Americans fear that this single attack in Texas will undermine the progress that has been made in relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. They are worried that the outgroup homogeneity would lead people to make the false assumption that a Muslim man committing a crime is representative of other Muslims. Their worries may have a good reason.

Humans are a tribal species. The social psychological literature on intergroup relations is rich and diverse. For example, studies demonstrated that people make spontaneous ingroup-outgroup categorization and favor ingroup over outgroup members in a wide variety of situations. Furthermore, people have a specific stance with respect to outgroups and intergroup situations. When intergroup relations are salient, people readily show prejudice against members of outgroups and find it easy to morally justify  intergroup aggression and violence. The traditional explanation of these phenomena focuses on people’s ingroup psychology. That is, being a highly social and cooperative species, humans likely possess tendencies to exalt the ingroup. As a byproduct of favoring ingroups, people will show indifference toward, or worse, a dislike for outgroups. Recently, Mark Van Vugt and Justin H. Park offered another explanation that treated negativity toward outgroups as psychological tendencies –warfare and disease avoidance. More specifically, people are more likely to infrahumanize (e.g. denying outgroup member’s typical human qualities such as politeness and civility) members of outgroups, particularly when these outgroups constitute a coalitional treat. Moreover, for people within any given culture, certain outgroups may appear especially foreign with respect to disease-relevant domains, such as food preparation and hygiene practices. Because each culture has developed (via cultural evolution) its own set of practices for preventing infection, cultures with different practices – especially in the domains of food preparation and hygiene – may be perceived as posing disease threats. Thus, the perception of outgroups, particularly those that are subjectively foreign, may activate disease avoidance responses.

The evolutionary framework also makes various suggestions for interactions to improve intergroup relations, such as altering the perceptual cues that elicit threat responses toward particular outgroups,  or changing the specific cognitive and affective responses toward outgroups.

In the wake of Fort Hood: Prejudice is not the answer.

 

Mark Van Vugt & Justin H. Park. (2009). Guns, Germs, and Sex: How Evolution Shaped Our Intergroup Psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3,927-938.

Secret Sharers: When Listening Takes Its Toll

The recent events at Fort Hood, Texas — multiple killings on an army base at the hands of a soldier — have people asking many questions. How could this happen in a protected space, such as an army base? How could it happen at the hands of a soldier? And how could it happen at the hands of a soldier whose job it was to help others with their own psychological distress?

The experiences of war are traumatic for the soldiers and those living in war torn areas. The cumulative effects of combat stress can lead to such disorders as PTSD. But is there a similar cumulative effect of listening, repeatedly, to soldier’s most traumatic experiences? Researchers have found that listening to traumatic stories from clients can cause psychological distress for the clinician. This phenomenon has been termed “vicarious traumatization” and, over time, it can lead to “compassion fatigue” in the therapist.

One study has shown that personal characteristics of the therapist, such as the extent to which they “practice what they preach” in terms of working through their own stress, is directly related to burnout and compassion fatigue. But as a recent NY Times article points out, in addition to the stress of listening to soldiers’ harrowing tales of war, the military psychologists are also dealing with the prospect of their own deployment. Although there is a built in “checks and balances” system to monitor those providing care, the authors point out that for an officer at his rank, Maj. Hasan would have been expected to seek help on his own if he felt he needed it. However, this philosophy does not align with previous findings which show that therapists often feel expected to shoulder the burden of traumatic stories and that there is a sense of pride in maintaining client confidentiality and personal composure.

These findings, coupled with another study that shows the social function of “collective remembering” — in which the “social sharing” of emotions related to a traumatic event have long-term benefits in terms of post-traumatic growth and social integration — make salient the differences between sharing trauma at a collective vs. individual level. Collective sharing and processing of emotions can help a society and its citizens work through traumatic events. Therapists clearly have a role in sharing the experiences and facilitating positive coping processes, but their own experiences and stresses cannot be neglected in the process.

Does the war end when the shooting stops? The psychological toll of war. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2006

Factors affecting burnout and compassion fatigue in psychotherapists treating torture survivors: Is the therapist’s attitude to working through trauma relevant? Journal of Traumatic Stress, March 2007

Compassion fatigue: When listening Hurts. APA Monitor, September 1995

Painful stories take a toll on military therapists. NY Times, 11/7/09

Social sharing of emotion, post-traumatic growth, and emotional climate: Follow-up of Spanish citizen’s response to the collective trauma of the March 11th terrorist attacks in Madrid

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Rising waistlines, falling grades?

By Erica Zaiser

The BBC reported on a recent survey by the British Heart Foundation which found that most parents in the UK vastly overestimate the amount of exercise their children are getting. While 72% of parents believe that their children are getting enough exercise, according to the survey, only one in ten children actually get the recommended amount of exercise per day.  As more children begin to suffer the ill effects of not exercising and because obesity in children is on the rise, there is added urgency to understand how weight impacts the lives of children.

A recent study by Clark, Slate, and Viglietti (2009), found that children who were severely overweight had significantly worse marks in all subjects than students who were not obese.  The same was seen with standardized test scores and was found even when controlling for economic status or student conduct. However, the results were only found among white students; weight was not significantly correlated with grades for students in other ethnic categories. The authors caution that much more research should be done as their sample was somewhat limited and that people should be careful of studies looking at weight categories because many children go through growth-spurts at different times. Furthermore, it is important to remember that their research only showed that weight and academic performance were correlated. It is impossible to say that obesity causes low grades when it could very well be the other way around or other factors may influence both grades and weight.

Regardless, the study is interesting because it highlights that the issue of obesity may be worrisome not just because of its ill effects on physical health. Children who are overweight might suffer from low self-esteem or become victims of bullying or social exclusion, all of which could impact their physical and mental health. There are still a number of questions that social psychologists could help answer: Why does obesity negatively correlate with academic success? Do teachers treat obese children differently than non-obese children? Or, are children who are suffering academically less likely to exercise and eat a proper diet?

Read more: David Clark, D., Slate, J. R., & Vigliett, G. C. (2009). Children’s Weight and Academic Performance in Elementary School: Cause for Concern?. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. 9, 1, 185-204.

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Persuasion, Ambiguity, and the Health Care Debate

We have a long way to go before the healthcare debate is over. In a tight vote last week the Democrats in the Senate managed to avoid a Republican filibuster. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to be waging two wars: one on the floor of the Senate and the other over the airwaves. The battle to win the health care debate will all be for naught if public opinion isn’t also won in the process. Whether it be via television, radio, or the internet politicians are going all out to reach as many voters as possible. Are these attempts to persuade the public successful? Recent work by Ziegler & Diehl (2003) has shown that people are more persuaded by unambiguous strong positions relative to unambiguous weak messages. More interestingly, when messages were ambiguous participants relied on their source preferences to determine their endorsement of the message. Ultimately it appears that those who already like and support you don’t need to hear much of substance to be persuaded by you. Those against you or your position aren’t likely to be persuaded at all, but the only chance you’ve got is to state your message in unequivocal terms and hope that it gets through. In the current political climate this seems to indicate only a greater and more extreme level of polarization without much real or significant debate.

Ziegler & Diehl (2003)

After the Health Vote, Republicans Plot Attack Strategy

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Opting out of fatherhood

Some courts have been ruling against evolutionary biology. A recent story in the New York Times Magazine tells of husbands who suspected and later discovered they were not biological fathers after all.

In one case, with the help of a do-it-yourself DNA test kit, Mike found out after almost nine years of parenting a girl, L., that his wife had been keeping the secret from him. He filed for divorce, but said of his relationship with his daughter, “Just because our relationship started because of someone else’s lie doesn’t mean the bond that developed isn’t real.”

So Mike continues to see L., though she lives with her mother. Since Mike has been paying child support, it was perhaps doubly offensive when his ex-wife began seeing L.’s biological father. Even though he has filed to end his paternal rights, hoping to encourage the biological father to contribute some of the financial burden, the courts have ruled against him, maintaining that he is the legal father.

When asked about Mike, L. told the New York Times, “I want him always to be my real dad. Because if he’s not my dad, then who is he?”