Category Archives: Health

The Extensive and Enduring Consequences of Ecological Disaster

Late last week an oil rig owned by BP exploded causing some 1,000 barrels of oil per day to spill into the Gulf Coast. Eleven crew members have been presumed dead and officials are making every effort to stop the leak and prevent the spread of crude oil to the coastline. The damage caused by such a disaster could be catastrophic, affecting the Gulf’s ecosystem and marine life, as well as any beaches, wetlands, and wildlife reserves along the coast if the oil were to reach land. This spill threatens to be even more damaging than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which was until now the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history having spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Six years after the incident researchers investigated the mental health of fishermen in Alaska impacted by the spill (Arata, Picou, Johnson, & McNally, 2005). The Conservation of Resources model effectively explained the psychological consequences of the spill. This model holds that stress is caused and exacerbated by an actual or perceived loss of resources. The study showed that depression, anxiety, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder were all associated with loss of resources and avoidant coping. This work emphasizes the extensive impact ecological disasters such as this have. Not only are wildlife, the ecosystem, rig employees, and relief workers all impacted, but even those geographically proximal to the spill can experience significant psychological effects that have enduring consequences. One can only hope that efforts to reign in the damage caused by the spill will be successful thus preventing any further loss of human and animal life and damage to the ocean and coastline, as well as preserving the physical and psychological well being of those directly and indirectly affected by this terrible incident.

Arata, Picou, Johnson, & McNally (2005)

US evacuated oil rig after Gulf of Mexico leak

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Act your age: young people will like you more!

By Erica Zaiser

We live in a world afraid of getting older. Society constantly reminds us that aging is wrong and that a young look is the key to maintaining social status.  Plastic surgery has become increasingly common, especially among the rich and famous. Although, some celebrities have defied this trend by publicly saying no to attempts to look younger than they are. But, because status is so dependent on beauty and youth, many just assume that eventually the pressure for celebrity staying power will cause them to change their minds. The only way to be accepted by new young fans is to look their age, right?

Not according to recent research. Schoemann and Branscombe (2010) have found that both men and women who try to appear younger than their ages are evaluated more negatively by young people than those who comfortably portray the age they are. The authors argue that older people posing as younger threaten the social identities of young people. So, those celebrities constantly trying to look younger than they are, may in fact be losing more fans than those who have staunchly said no to surgery and yes to aging naturally and gracefully.

Read more: Looking young for your age: Perceptions of anti-aging actions

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Hug me, Mom: Stroller or baby carrier?

A stroller or a baby carrier? The answer to this question is changing. “In 2004, there were barely any carriers,” said Bianca Fehn, an owner of Metro Minis. “You had to find these work-at-home moms who made them and go on a waiting list for weeks or even months to get a carrier.” However, in 2009 at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas, there were at least 30 companies promoting designer baby carriers, many of them created within the last five years. And between 2006 and 2008, overall sales of industry-certified carriers rose.

While most people using baby carriers extol the convenience of having their hands free, more and more people see it as an integral part of their parenting philosophy, which holds that babies should be worn on the body to foster a strong attachment to their parents. In other words, baby carriers offer more physical contacts between infants and their parents which were considered as crucial to develop secure attachment relationship according to attachment theory.

Bowlby’s attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) places central importance on close proximity between mother and infant. Attachment theory suggests that infants’ instinctive behaviors such as crying and smiling are aimed to promote the proximity to and physical contact with the caregiver. Through the exercising of these behaviors and the proximity thus achieved, infants gradually develop an attachment to their caregivers. The manner in which the caregiver responds to the infants’ seeking behaviors determines the nature of the attachment relationship formed. More specially, the mothers who respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to infants’ needs, and hold their infants for relatively long periods and are tender and affectionate during the holding are more likely to develop secure relationships with their babies. Additionally, Anisfeld et al’s (1990) study indicated a causal relation between physical contact, achieved through carrying an infant in a soft baby carrier, and security of attachment between mother and infant.

However, recent studies on infant attachment suggested the ways in which attachment patterns are formed are more complicated. For example, maternal sensitivity, which contributes to the quality of infant exploration by providing the infant with a secure base from which to explore, has already been established as an important and reliable predictor of secure attachment. Whipple, Bernier and Mageau’s (2010) further demonstrated that besides maternal sensitivity, mothers’ autonomy-support behaviors which directly aimed at encouraging and supporting the child while he or she explores also provide contribution to infants’ secure attachment.

Strollers out, mom and dad in

Elizabeth Anisfeld, Virginia Casper, Molly Nozyce, Nicholas Cunningham. (1990). Does Infant Carrying Promote Attachment? An Experimental Study of the Effects of Increased Physical Contact on the    Developmen of Attachment. Child Development, 61, 1617-1627.

Natasha Whipple, Annie Bernier, Geneviève A. Mageau. (2010). Broadening the Study of Infant Security of Attachment: Maternal Autonomy-support in the Context of Infant Exploration. Social Development, Early View.

“Junk” Science? The Psychology of the Soda Tax

Over here in the States the debate is raging about how to pay for healthcare overhaul. And, here in New York, one suggestion to generate revenue is to implement a “soda tax” on sugary beverages. New York governor (for now) David Patterson has proposed a soda tax and a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine backs him up. The study argues that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would simultaneously raise revenue and reduce consumption. They compare the tax and its projected impact to a tax on tobacco which has had such results. The beverage industry, however, counters that the two indulgences are not comparable. Both sides have their advocates and talking points, but what can psychology tell us about why soda taxes and other taxes aimed at “junk food” can be effective?

Behavioral economics (BE) is a fascinating field that blends psychology and economics to explain human consumer behavior and suggest ways of encouraging consumers to make better choices. It has gained particular prominence in understanding how individuals approach their retirement savings. Many in the field assume that individuals operate from a stance of “bounded rationality” — meaning we “make biased decisions that sometimes run counter to [our] best interests” (see this article for more information). With regard to the soda tax a basic argument from the BE standpoint would be:

  1. we humans love sugar –>
  2. sugar contributes greatly to obesity –>
  3. we have an obesity epidemic –>
  4. therefore we should reduce consumption of sugar –>
  5. we like sugar too much to make the right choice based purely on health reasons –>
  6. but if you hit us in our pockets we’ll reduce our consumption –>
  7. therefore the overall consumption of sugary drinks will decrease –>
  8. this will open the market up for other types of drinks to be more readily available –>
  9. as these drinks gain more market share our dependence on soda will decrease and we’ll “naturally” change our behavior to consume more healthy alternatives –>
  10. sugar consumption will decrease –>
  11. rates of obesity will likewise decrease –>
  12. healthcare costs associated with obesity will decrease.

You got that? At each little point of that equation there are of course many variables that can correlate, conflate, confound, and moderate the outcomes, but this is the general idea and essentially what was found with tobacco consumption. (If you want to know more about the research behind each step the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has tons of information here.) A review of relevant articles and their key points is available here. One interesting point that has been brought up that extends beyond the realm of individual behavior is the notion of “shared economic consequences” in which the mass consumption of sugary beverages contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic and we all share the burden of this through elevated healthcare costs. The field of BE and the current legislation efforts show how influencing health-related public policy is more complicated than just providing information on healthy behaviors. It also shows how simple choices (such as drinking soda vs. water) — when scaled to the level of a population — have drastic economic ramifications.

Sidenote, while researching for this article I came across an alternative method of behavioral modification…your own personal 5 lb glob of fat (“My Pet Fat”) that you can place near your junk food to deter you from eating it. Just had to share.

“Soda Tax could shake up industry” on NPR.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity section on Soda Tax

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The month of March is upon us, and chances are you’ve already fallen victim to false-hope syndrome – yet again.

According to Human Kinetics, the premier publisher for sports and fitness, almost 50% of people who made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get into shape stopped going to the gym by March 1st. MSNBC quotes an even higher statistic: Whereas health clubs are packed in January, they say, more than 75% of newbies will have called it quits by the end of March.

And yet every year, we typically make the very same resolution: to go the gym, lose weight, tone up, get healthy, and then some – even though most of us repeatedly fail by March (and that’s if we’re relatively persistent). Psychologists Polivy and Herman (2000) have coined the term “false-hope syndrome” to refer to this phenomenon best manifested by attempted and broken New Year’s resolutions. They say that individuals persist in attempting to change themselves despite repeated failure due to an overconfidence that includes feelings of control and optimism (e.g., the twin beliefs that losing weight is easy and fast), and expectations for an unrealistically high payoff from triumphant self-change (e.g., the assumption that changes in weight loss will catalyze major rewards in other, unrelated areas of life). Inevitably, when such unrealistic expectations are not met, individuals often experience disappointment, discouragement, and the perception of oneself as a failure. As these negative emotions build, a sort of Catch-22 results, such that the self-control required for eventual success falters and behavior spirals out of control.

Researchers therefore advise that, in order to create real hope (instead of false hope), we must be accurate in our initial assessments of the difficulty of self-change, commit to realistic goals and expectations, and hone a set of coping skills that build resiliency in the face of normal setbacks. So, with regards to the gym, for starters – get back in there! Understand that weight loss and getting healthy will not happen overnight and instead of shooting for a giant amount of pounds lost, set smaller, more attainable goals (i.e., eating a salad at lunch, running one mile tonight), and strive to attain a few each week. Moreover, if you miss a goal or fall short of an expectation – a minor failure should not set you completely off-track. Give yourself a little pep talk and tell yourself you won’t become a March 1st fitness statistic.

Don’t become a March 1st fitness statistic

Flipping the switch is only the first step

The False-Hope Syndrome: Unfulfilled expectations of self-change

Can we be too happy?

Happiness is the ultimate goal of life for many people. Just take a look at the hundreds of self-help books, motivational speakers, and life coaches whose primary goal is to improve subjective well-being and happiness. Even people who are already satisfied with their lives aspire to be happier. Early psychological research on happiness focused on identifying the factors that would allow people to achieve high subjective well-being. More recently, psychologists have begun to acknowledge that happiness is not just an end state that results when things go well. Instead, happiness may also be functional. For example, researchers have found that happy people did better on average than did unhappy people in the domains of work, love and health.

In light of these attempts to boost happiness, it is interesting to question whether being happier is always better. Oishi, Diener and Lucas’s (2007) study investigated the differences between moderately happy and very happy people to address questions about the optimal level of happiness. Their findings showed that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. They interpreted that the optimal level of happiness is likely to vary across individuals, depending on their value priorities. For those whose primary values center on achievement, moderately high levels of happiness may be optimal; for those individuals whose values give priority to close relationships and volunteer work, it is the highest level of happiness that appears to be optimal. In sum, their findings suggested that extremely high levels of happiness might not be a desirable goal. However, the critical question to answer is, “How much happiness is enough?”

Shigehiro Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2007). The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346 – 360.

Are You Happy?