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1. The importance of mentoring

Throughout my career, there have been many times when advice, support, and criticism were critical for my own professional development. Sometimes that assistance came from people who were formally tasked with providing advice; a good example is a Ph.D. advisor (in my case, John Aldrich of Duke University, who has been a fantastic advisor and mentor to a long list of very successful students). Sometimes that advice was less formal, coming from senior colleagues, other academics at conferences, and in many cases from peers. The lesson is professional advice and support — or to put it into a single term, mentoring — comes from many different sources and occurs in many different ways.

However, there is growing concern in political science that more mentoring is necessary, that there are scholars who are not getting the professional support and advice that they need to help them with career decisions, teaching, and the publication of their research. There are many good programs that have developed in recent years to help provide more mentoring in political methodology, for example the excellent “Visions in Methodology” program. And the Society for Political Methodology recently approved the foundation of a new professional award, to recognize excellent mentors. But more needs to be done to improve mentoring and mentoring opportunities in academia.

During the 2014 American Political Science Association conference, there was a very informative panel discussion, “How to Be a Good Mentee: Mentoring for Methodologists.” The discussion was chaired by Megan Shannon of the University of Colorado, and participants were Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer (Rice University), Tiffany D. Barnes (University of Kentucky), and Brett Ashley Leeds (Rice University). I had an opportunity to listen to much of this panel discussion, and found it quite helpful.

After the conference I sent Leslie, Tiffany, and Ashley some questions about mentoring by email. Their responses are informative and helpful, and should be read by anyone who is interested in mentoring.

R. Michael Alvarez: How have you benefited from being involved in mentoring relationships?

Tiffany D. Barnes: I have benefited in a number of ways from being involved in a mentoring relationship. Mentors have provided me with feedback on research at multiple different stages of the research process. They have provided me with professional advice about a number of things including applying for fellowships and grants, marketing my book manuscript to university presses, and navigating the negotiation process at my university. My mentoring relationships have broadened my network of scholars with similar research interests and/or professional goals, which in turn have resulted in a number of different opportunities (e.g. coauthors, and invitations to participate in conference panels/round tables, mini-conferences, and edited volumes/special journal issues). Equally important, my mentoring relationships have resulted in a number of valuable friendships that make working in the profession more enjoyable.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: As a mentee, I really benefited from getting guidance, feedback, and research assistance from many different formal and informal mentors over the years. As a mentor, I get to give that back which is a great opportunity.

Brett Ashley Leeds: I believe fundamentally that no one figures everything out on his or her own. I know for sure that I did not, and I have had (and continue to have) a variety of mentors throughout my career. As a mentee, what I really value is knowing that I have people who respect me enough to tell me when I am wrong and to help me improve. As a mentor, I not only learn a lot from thinking intently about my mentees’ work and articulating my opinions for them, but I also get great personal satisfaction from the relationships that evolve and from helping others to succeed. It feels good to pay forward what has been done for me.

Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.
Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: Why has the issue of mentoring become an important topic of conversation in academia, and in particular, in political science?

Tiffany D. Barnes: Although it is well established that mentoring is an important aspect of professional development, it has recently become an important topic of conversation because academics have become aware that not all scholars have the same opportunities to develop mentorship relationships nor do they derive the same benefits from mentor relationships. In particular, women and minorities may face more challenges when it comes to identifying mentors in the field and they may not reap the same benefits (e.g. opportunities to collaborate, sponsorship) from mentorship relationships as men do. In the long run, this “mentor gap” may have negative repercussions for the retention and career advancement of some otherwise talented scholars.

If a scholar feels they would benefit by mentoring, how can they seek out a mentor? What should they look for in an appropriate mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Mentoring relationships can be both informal and formal. Informal relationships often emerge when scholars ask for advice and support from colleagues in their department, subfields, or various disciplinary organizations. Formal relationships sometimes emerge organically or at the initiative of a mentee or mentor, but they also can be entered into through a number of mentoring programs in the discipline. For women, the Visions in Methodology program offers a mentoring program through which mentees can ask to be paired with a mentor. They usually ask the mentee to suggest someone they would like to be paired with and then check with the suggested mentor about interest and availability. The Midwest Women’s Caucus has a mentoring program for women in any subfield. They ask individuals interested in mentoring and being mentored to volunteer to participate and then pair them by interest. Other organizations and groups probably offer similar programs.

In seeking a mentor, either formally or informally, you should think about exactly what you want out of the relationship. Are you looking for someone to provide you with general guidance about the profession or are you seeking someone who is willing to read your work from time to time and talk through research challenges when you come across them? Are you in your first year out, feeling lost, and needing help getting back on track or are you close to tenure and looking for guidance on how to navigate the process? Do you want a mentor whose style is to give “pep talks” or “straight talk?” Knowing what you want out of the relationship will help you identify the right person for the job.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Scholars who want to find a mentor can look for a mentor by signing up for a formal mentor match or by identifying someone in the profession who shares similar research interests or professional goals.

A formal mentor match is good option for identifying someone who is interested in serving in a capacity as a mentor. Typically the mentor program will ask you questions about what you are looking for in a mentor relationship, your research interests, your rank, and your professional interests. The program will try to match you with a mentor based on this information. If you are paired with someone through a program, you can be confident that your mentor wants to help you. These relationships can be very valuable, but, as with all mentor-mentee relationships, it requires initiative on the part of the mentee. It is the mentee’s responsibility to drive the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentees should identify why they want a mentor and reach out to the mentor and ask for help in areas where they can benefit the most. One criticism of formal matching programs is that they may not always result in the best “fit.” Even if you do not think the match is the best fit, there are still a number of benefits you can derive from the relationship. Your research interests do not have to perfectly overlap for you to benefit from the relationship. Indeed, most successful scholars have a wealth of information, advice, and perspective to offer junior colleagues. It is up to the mentee to identify areas where your needs or interests intersect with the mentor’s strengths, experiences, and interests — and to capitalize on these opportunities.

A second option is to develop a more informal mentor relationship. To do this, mentees should identify someone in the field who has similar research interests or professional goals. Mentees should identify different opportunities to get to know scholars with similar interests and try to develop these relationships from there. For example, you may have the opportunity to establish relationships with scholars when you present research on the same panel, when someone shows interest in your work by offering comments or questions about your research (or vice versa), or even when you have the opportunity to bring a guest speaker to your university. By following up with people after the initial meeting and/or taking them up on their offer to read and comment on your research, you can begin to establish relationships with them. These relationships may take time to develop and they may be difficult establish if you are new to the profession or do not know many scholars in your field. Finally, when attempting to establish more informal mentor relationships, it is important to be self-aware. Some people will show interest in you and be eager to get to know and help you, others will not, and no one is obligated to do so. Respect people’s rights to not be interested in you and try not to take it personal.

Brett Ashley Leeds: My view is that it is less important to find one person that can be identified as “a mentor” and instead to focus on finding mentoring, even if it comes from a variety of people. I encourage scholars to identify people who have skills, abilities, and/or information that they think would be useful to them– basically people they would like to emulate in particular areas of their work. Approach these folks politely in person or by email (for instance, asking to have coffee at a conference) and ask questions. Some will not be responsive, but many will be responsive and helpful. Follow up with those who are helpful. In some cases a relationship will develop.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the most important “dos” and “don’ts” for a scholar who is in a mentoring relationship?

Brett Ashley Leeds: Since below I cover some tips for mentors, here are some tips for mentees: (1) Figure out what it is you want to know/learn. Think of both specific and general questions so you are prepared to ask when the opportunity arises. (2) Recognize the time and costs of what you ask and make things as easy as possible for your mentor by reminding him/her of past interactions and explaining the specific feedback you are looking for. (3) Understand that ultimately you are responsible for your own decisions. Ask your mentor to explain why he/she believes a particular action/approach is best, and for major decisions, seek advice from multiple people. (4) Let your mentors know about the outcomes. For example, if a mentor helps you with a paper, send a note when the paper is accepted for publication.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: For mentees, be assertive and discuss with your mentor when your relationship begins just what you each want from the relationship and are willing to commit to it. If you need something from your mentor, don’t wait for him/her to reach out to you. Email, call, or arrange to meet with your mentor at a conference. Since the mentee is the one who needs the mentoring relationship the most, the mentee needs to take the initiative to ask for help or guidance from the mentor.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Establish clear expectations and boundaries. Tell your mentor what you are hoping to get out of a mentoring relationship, and don’t be afraid to ask your mentor for help in areas where you could benefit the most. That said, it is important to acknowledge that your mentor may not always be willing or able to help you in the ways you want. Respect these boundaries and do not take them personal.

When establishing boundaries, it is important to respect your mentor’s time and to be cognizant and courteous with the time you ask of your mentor. For example, if your mentor agrees to meet with you for half an hour, pay attention to the time and wrap up your meeting in a timely manner. Your mentor will likely appreciate not having to cut you short, and, if they know you respect their time, it may make them more likely to make time for you in the future.

Don’t expect any single mentor to fulfill all of your mentoring needs. Different people, depending on their experience and expertise, have different things to offer. Try to identify the areas where your mentor is most likely to be of help to you and build on these strengths. Along these same lines, although your mentor likely gives great advice, you cannot expect them to have the answer to all of your questions. It is important to weight their point of view carefully and to seek out a number of different perspectives.

Seek to develop a number of mentoring relationships. It can be useful to have mentors within your own department, in your university (but outside your department), and in the discipline more broadly. Moreover, it is often just as useful to develop relationships with senior mentors, as it is to develop relationships with peer mentors.

Student With Teacher In Class.  © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.
Student With Teacher In Class. © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the responsibilities of a mentor?

Brett Ashley Leeds (1) Create an environment in which you can provide effective constructive criticism. This tends to require first establishing an environment of mutual respect. (2) Know what you know and what you don’t, and know that your experience is not universal. (3) Always explain why you are giving the advice you are giving and be willing to consider alternatives. (4) Recognize that in the end, your mentee should make his/her own decisions and may not always take all of your advice. (5) Recognize how important your opinion may be to your mentee; wield this power responsibly.

Tiffany D. Barnes: A mentor should establish clear boundaries with their mentee. Be honest and upfront the role you are and are not willing to play as a mentor. Be clear about your time constraints and the amount of time you are willing to commit to your mentee.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: If it is a formal mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentee establish ground rules at the beginning about what each of you wants from the relationship and are willing to give to it. Don’t commit to something you aren’t willing to follow through with and be sure to follow through with whatever you commit to do for your mentee. If you can only commit to an hour of time twice a semester, that is fine, but make sure your mentee knows that and agrees that it is sufficient for him/her. If you are willing to provide general guidance but don’t want to read/comment on your mentee’s work, that is fine. But, again, make sure your mentee knows that from the beginning. Keep in mind that your mentee may place very high value on your advice and guidance so give it carefully.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the personal and professional benefits of being a mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Too numerous to list in a short response!

Brett Ashley Leeds: It has often been said that one only really knows something when she can teach it to others. Mentoring gives me an opportunity to clarify and articulate my views on professional issues and research in a way that I otherwise might not. I frequently learn in the act of mentoring. The main benefits, however, are personal, and come from the satisfaction of helping others to achieve their goals and the feeling of paying forward what has been done in the past for me.

R. Michael Alvarez: How can professional organizations (like the Society for Political Methodology) facilitate professional mentoring?

Brett Ashley Leeds: The most important thing that professional organizations can do is provide opportunities that encourage interaction among scholars who don’t already know one another, and particularly between junior and senior scholars. Small conferences, dinners, and receptions help a lot with this. Poster sessions in which junior scholars are matched with senior discussants also help.

Tiffany D. Barnes: In my experience professional organizations play both, an important formal and informal role in facilitating professional mentoring.

Professional organization can formally facilitate mentoring relationship by matching mentors with mentees. I have two different successful mentoring relationships that were products of mentoring matches. This is a great way to help young scholars identify someone in the profession who is willing to serve as a mentor.

Professional organizations can also facilitate mentoring by simply providing both professional and social opportunities for junior scholars to meet likeminded senior (and junior!) colleagues. By becoming involved in professional organizations that align with your professional interests you will establish relationships with colleagues in your field. Most of these relationships will emerge naturally and develop slowly over time. Although you may not formally call the individuals you meet here “mentors,” they will become an important part of your mentoring community.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: One of many ways is a formal mentoring program. The Visions in Methodology mentoring program is a fantastic example, but it is only for women. This is a very positive feature of the program because women in a field with a small representation of women face different and sometimes more challenging sets of obstacles than men. However, plenty of men in the field would also benefit immensely from mentoring and so offering a similar program for men or a program that is open to both women and men, if it does not already exist, would help to facilitate formal professional mentoring in the methods subfield.

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2. Anxiety in non-human primates

Anxiety disorders adversely affect millions of people and account for substantial morbidity in the United States. Anxiety disrupts an individual’s ability to effectively engage and interact in social and non-social situations. The onset of anxiety disorders may begin at an early age or occur in response to life events. Thus, the effects of anxiety are broad ranging, affecting both family and work dynamics, and may limit an individual’s quality of life.

While there has been a great deal of research focused on anxious behavior and anxiety disorders in the past few decades, there is still much we do not know. In order to better understand anxiety disorders, and to develop novel options for those who are nonresponsive to current treatments, scientists need to investigate the biobehavioral mechanisms that underlie the expression of anxiety related behavior. Research with humans subjects is one strategy used to gain insight on how to effectively treat anxiety disorders. However, there are inherent difficulties with such studies, including complex life histories and differences in access to resources (such as health care), as well as ethical issues. Common physiology between humans and other animals allow for the development of animal models that allow scientists to examine the neurobiological underpinnings of anxiety disorders. The non-human primate (NHP) has been used in the study of anxiety due to the physiological, behavioral and neural commonalities we share.

One type of anxiety assessment in non-human primates relies on direct behavioral observations, either in the animal’s ‘home environment’ or in a situation in which the animal is mildly challenged to induce an anxious state. In these procedures, observers typically look for the presence of behaviors indicative of anxiety, including fear and displacement behaviors (normal behaviors that may occur at seemingly inappropriate times). For example, in certain stressful situations, macaques may pick at their hair, a behavior similar to hair twirling in humans. Importantly anxiolytic drugs that reduce the occurrence of these behaviors in humans have been shown to reduce these behaviors in non-human primates, suggesting a common biological mechanism.

One commonly used procedure to assess anxiety in non-human primates is the “Human Intruder Test” (HIT). This procedure was designed to evaluate an animal’s response to the “uncertainty” of the presence of an unfamiliar human. The species appropriate response when presented with this mild challenge is to remain still and vigilant; however, there is a range of responses, with some animals showing little response and others excessive freezing behavior. Variations of this procedure have used similar stimuli, including unfamiliar conspecifics and predatory threats (e.g., stuffed predator) to measure anxiety-related responses. Animals that exhibit heightened anxiety responses in the Human Intruder Test also show alterations in the same neurobiological systems affected in humans with anxiety disorders.

Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.
Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.

Another class of anxiety tests in non-human primates relies on measuring physiological response following the presentation of an unexpected auditory or motor stimulus. For example, anxious people are more likely than others to react to a brief, unexpected sound with an exaggerated heart rate. Researchers have adopted similar methodology to assess startle response for nonhuman primates using a wide range of stimuli and physiological parameters.

Other research has focused on the cognitive processes involved in the regulation of anxiety responses. These tests of “cognitive bias” are based on the idea that an individual’s tendency to attend to potentially noxious stimuli tell us something about how the individual processes or weighs the experience. Therefore, an individual’s “anxious” state can be by assessed from his or her judgment about or attention to stimuli with different potentials to evoke anxiety. Cognitive bias procedures have been adapted and successfully employed in humans and other animals with similar response strategies across species, making these tests valuable comparative tools in our understanding of anxious behavior behavior.

Our review presents non-human primate models used by scientists in an effort to understand the biobehavioral mechanisms that mediate anxiety. The cross-species approach of modeling human psychopathology aims to discover targets for treatment toward the goal of reducing human suffering caused by anxiety disorders. Additionally, the knowledge gained from our investigation of anxiety-like behavior inform captive care of non-human primates. The studies reviewed have refined our understanding of factors that may result in anxiety-like behavior and provide information on how to manage them. Modeling psychopathology in non-human primates is necessary and critical to our understanding and treatment of these disorders in humans and nonhuman primates.

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3. World Philosophy Day reading list

World Philosophy Day was created by UNESCO in 2005 in order to “win recognition for and give strong impetus to philosophy and, in particular, to the teaching of philosophy in the world”. To celebrate World Philosophy Day, we have compiled a list of what we consider to be the most essential philosophy titles. We are also providing free access to several key journal articles and online products in philosophy so that you can explore this discipline in more depth. Happy reading!


Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will by Alfred R. Mele
9780199371624
Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren’t free, we’re off the hook.

Philosophy Bites Again by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This is really a conversation, and conversations are the best way to see philosophy in action. It offers engaging and thought-provoking conversations with leading philosophers on a selection of major philosophical issues that affect our lives. Their subjects include pleasure, pain, and humor; consciousness and the self; free will, responsibility, and punishment; the meaning of life and the afterlife.

Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn
Here at last is a coherent, unintimidating introduction to the challenging and fascinating landscape of Western philosophy. Written expressly for “anyone who believes there are big questions out there, but does not know how to approach them.”

What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
In this cogent and accessible introduction to philosophy, the distinguished author of Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere brings the central problems of philosophical inquiry to life, demonstrating why they have continued to fascinate and baffle thinkers across the centuries.

Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider
Two leading philosophers explore the most fundamental questions there are, about what is, what is not, what must be, and what might be. It has an informal style that brings metaphysical questions to life and shows how stimulating it can be to think about them.
9780199603572

Killing in War by Jeff McMahan
This is a highly controversial challenge to the consensus about responsibility in war. Jeff McMahan argues compellingly that if the leaders are in the wrong, then the soldiers are in the wrong.

Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson
In this book, philosopher Dale Jamieson explains what climate change is, why we have failed to stop it, and why it still matters what we do. Centered in philosophy, the volume also treats the scientific, historical, economic, and political dimensions of climate change.

Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers
Collects thirteen new essays that analyze how human agency relates to poverty and human rights respectively as well as how agency mediates issues concerning poverty and social and economic human rights. No other collection of philosophical papers focuses on the diverse ways poverty impacts the agency of the poor.
9780199338870
Aha! The Moments of Insight That Shape Our World by William B. Irvine
This book incorporates psychology, neurology, and evolutionary psychology to take apart what we can learn from a variety of significant “aha” moments that have had lasting effects. Unlike other books on intellectual breakthroughs that focus on specific areas such as the arts, Irvine’s addresses aha moments in a variety of areas including science and religion.

On What Matters: Volume One by Derek Parfit
Considered one of the most important works in the field since the 19th century, it is written in the uniquely lucid and compelling style for which Parfit is famous. This is an ambitious treatment of the main theories of ethics.

The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation by David Wallace
Quantum physics is the most successful scientific theory we have. But no one knows how to make sense of it. We need to bite the bullet – it’s common sense that must give way. The universe is much stranger than we can think.

The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters by Thomas Hurka
An engaging, accessible survey of the different things that can make life worth living: pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue, love, and more. A book that considers what really matters in one’s life, and making decisions around those values.

9780192854216 What should I do?: Plato’s Crito’ in Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
Plato, born around 427 BC, is not the first important philosopher, with Vedas of India, the Buddha, and Confucius all pre-dating him. However, he is the first philosopher to have left us with a substantial body of complete works that are available to us today, which all take the form of dialogues. This chapter focuses on the dialogue called Crito in which Socrates asks ‘What should I do?’

A biography of John Locke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
A philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke was born on 29th August 1632 in Somerset, England. In the late 1650s he became interested in medicine, which led easily to natural philosophy after being introduced to these new ideas of mechanical philosophy by Robert Boyle. Discover what happened next in Locke’s life with this biography

‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ from Mind, published in 1950.14602113
In this seminal paper, celebrated mathematician and pioneer Alan Turing attempts to answer the question, ‘Can machines think?’, and thus introduces his theory of ‘the imitation game’(now known as the Turing test) to the world. Turing skilfully debunks theological and ethical arguments against computational intelligence: he acknowledges the limitations of a machine’s intellect, while boldly exposing those of man, ultimately laying the groundwork for the study of artificial intelligence – and the philosophy behind it.

‘Phenomenology as a Resource for Patients’ from The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, published in 2012
Patient support tools have drawn on a variety of disciplines, including psychotherapy, social psychology, and social care. One discipline that has not so far been used to support patients is philosophy. This paper proposes that a particular philosophical approach, phenomenology, could prove useful for patients, giving them tools to reflect on and expand their understanding of their illness.

Do you have any philosophy books that you think should be added to this reading list? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Rays at Burning Man by foxgrrl. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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4. Does workplace stress play a role in retirement drinking?

Alcohol misuse among the retired population is a phenomenon that has been long recognized by scholars and practitioners. The retirement process is complex, and researchers posit that the pre-retirement workplace can either protect against—or contribute to—alcohol misuse among retirees.

The prevalence of alcohol misuse among older workers is staggering. In the United States, the rate of heavy drinking (i.e., more than seven drinks per week or two drinks on any one occasion) among those aged 65 and older is calculated to be at 10% for men and 2.5% for women, with some studies estimating the frequency of alcohol misuse among older (i.e., age 50 and older) as 16% or higher. Yet another study makes the case that 10% of all alcoholics are over 60. As a point of reference, the incidence of frequent heavy drinking in the workforce (US) is 9.2% and rate of alcohol abuse is 5.4%.

Estimates of future problem drinking and predictions of how prevalence rates may rise may be underestimated, not only because of the aging of the population, but also because of shifting societal and cultural norms. There is evidence that individuals follow relative stable drinking patterns as they age. If this is the case, the Baby Boomer generation may show a higher prevalence of alcohol problems as they enter later life than their parents and grandparents. Moreover, some research suggests that the frequency and severity of alcohol misuse may increase in aging populations, especially among individuals with a history of drinking problems.

Recent research has suggested that retirement drinking may be influenced by workplace factors.

Richman, Zlatoper, Zackula, Ehmke, and Rospenda (2006) investigated the role of aversive workplace conditions that could influence drinking behavior among retirees: sexual harassment, generalized workplace abuse, and psychological workload. The analysis of a longitudinal study of employees at a Midwestern university shows that retirees who had experienced high levels of stress drank more than their counterparts who were still employed (and who were still experiencing a stressful workplace). This pattern held even in relation to a comparison between stressed and non-stressed workers. The study suggests that for those still employed, workplace norms and regulations may inhibit the use of alcohol as a means of self-medication in response to highly stressful experiences, retirement removes the social controls that curtailed drinking while the individual was in the workforce.

retirementpostpic
Retirement of Porter Ted Humphreys, 1968. Public domain via LSE Library.

Bacharach, Bamberger, Biron, & Horowitz-Rozen (2008) examined the role that positive work conditions might have on the retirement-drinking relationship, positing that pre-retirement job satisfaction might interact with retirement agency to affect retirees’ drinking behavior. Using data from a NIH-funded ten-year study of retirement-eligible and retired workers, the research team found a positive association between “push” perceptions and both the quantity and frequency of drinking (though not drinking problems), and an inverse association between “pull” perceptions and both drinking frequency and drinking problems (though not quantity). The study also found that greater job satisfaction amplified the positive association between “push” perceptions and alcohol consumption, and attenuated the inverse association between “pull” perceptions and unhealthy or problematic drinking. This moderating effect of pre-retirement job valence suggests that people who are most satisfied with their jobs are likely to fare worst in response to the stress of a retirement that is unplanned or undesired. Even when retirement is the result of personal volition, it may still be associated with a sense of loss and negative emotions for which alcohol may serve as a coping mechanism.

Bacharach, Bamberger, Doveh and Cohen (2007) examined how the social availability of alcohol in and around the workplace prior to retirement may have divergent effects on older adult drinking behavior. Bacharach et al. found that problem drinkers—after retiring from a workplace with permissive drinking norms—drank less over the first two years of retirement. This population not only left the workplace, but they also dropped their regular association with coworkers who supported and encouraged drinking behavior. The findings suggest that for those with a history of problem drinking, retirement may be linked to a net decline in the severity of drinking problems.

To assess the degree to which this decline in problem drinking may be attributed to separating from a permissive workplace drinking culture, the team examined shifts in the extent of the problem-drinking cohort’s social support networks during the study period. Findings suggest that the decline in problem drinking severity was apparent among those whose social networks became smaller in retirement. Conversely, for the small number whose social networks expanded in retirement, problem drinking severity increased. The nature of the retirement-problem drinking relationship, at least for baseline problem drinkers, may be contingent upon the social availability of alcohol in the work environment from which they disengage.

While there is a lack of research demonstrating the role of strain as a mediator linking these stressors to shifts in older adults’ drinking behavior, a substantial body of evidence examining the role of stress in the origin and intensification of alcohol use and misuse suggests that strain is likely to serve as the intermediary mechanism. To the extent that strain plays such a mediating role, the same network factors are likely to also operate as vulnerability or protective moderating factors in this second stage of the mediation. As suggested by Bacharach et al. (2007), the impact of disengagement-related strain on older adults’ drinking behavior is likely to vary depending upon whether they exit into a non-work social network with more or less permissive drinking norms than those associated with their workplace or occupation.

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5. Vaping and the data on e-cigarettes

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on the growth of electronic cigarettes and the vaping phenomenon.

Vaping is the term for using an electronic cigarette (e-cigarette). Since e-cigarettes involve inhaling vapour rather than smoke, it is distinct from smoking. The vapour looks a somewhat like cigarette smoke but dissipates much more quickly and has very little odour since it mostly consist of water droplets.

E-cigarettes started to become popular around 2010 and it is estimated they are currently being used by more than 2 million people in the United Kingdom and more than 5 million in the United States. Their sale is banned in many countries, including Australia and Canada, although surveys show that use in these is widespread since they can easily be obtained via the Internet.

E-cigarettes are devices in which a battery-powered heating element vaporises an ‘e-liquid’ usually containing propylene glycol or glycerol, nicotine, and flavourings. They are designed to provide much of the experience of smoking but with much lower risk, less annoyance to bystanders, and usually much more cheaply. Because they do not involve burning of tobacco, the concentrations of toxins in the vapour are typically a tiny fraction of those in cigarette smoke. The precise risk from using them is not known, but based on the vapour constituents it would be expected to be between 1% and 5% that of smoking.

Data on e-cigarette use are not available for most countries. By far the most complete data come from England where the ‘Smoking Toolkit Study’ (STS) collects data on usage from nationally representative samples of adults every month enabling this to be tracked closely over time. This study was established to track ‘key performance indicators’ relating to smoking and smoking cessation and has been going since 2007. Action on Smoking and Health also conduct large national surveys of adults and young people each year. Large scale surveys are also being conducted in the United States and some other countries. The data show that most people use e-cigarettes in an effort to protect their health either by stopping smoking altogether or cutting down. Despite misleading claims by some anti- e-cigarette advocates, use by never-smokers and long-term ex-smokers is extremely rare in the UK and US at present, and in England its prevalence in never-smokers and long-term ex-smokers is similar to the use of ‘licensed nicotine products’ (LNPs) such as nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges.

E-cigarettes come in many different forms. In England, the most commonly used ones at present are known as ‘cigalikes’ because they look something like a cigarette and often have a tip that glows when the user takes a puff. Becoming more popular are devices that involve a refillable ‘tank’. There are also more sophisticated ‘mod’ systems which are highly customised. These are often the choice of aficionados.

Most e-cigarette users probably obtain less nicotine from these devices than people typically do from cigarettes, but experienced vapers using tank systems or mods can obtain at least as much nicotine from their devices as do smokers.

When used in a quit attempt, on average e-cigarettes seem to improve the chances of successful quitting by about 50%, similar to licensed nicotine products when used as directed. The main difference appears to be that these devices are much more popular, and they seem to be effective when people use them without any support from a health professional. Currently the evidence still indicates that use of the drug varenicline or a licensed nicotine product with specialist behavioural support provides the best chance of quitting for those smokers who are willing to use this support and where such support is available.

Electronic Cigarettes by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.
Electronic Cigarettes by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.

When used for cutting down, daily (but not non-daily) use of e-cigarettes seems to be associated with a modest reduction in cigarette consumption on average. Use of licensed nicotine products for cutting down has been found to be associated with an increased likelihood of later smoking cessation. This has not yet been demonstrated for e-cigarettes, although smokers who use e-cigarettes daily do try to quit smoking more often than those who are not ‘dual users’.

Despite claims from some anti- e-cigarette advocates, in England and the United States, e-cigarettes are currently not acting as a ‘gateway’ to smoking in adolescents or ‘renormalising’ smoking. Youth and adult smoking have continued to decline steadily as e-cigarette use has grown and in England adult smoking cessation rates are somewhat higher than they were before e-cigarettes started to become popular. E-cigarette use in indoor public areas has not led to any increase in smoking in these areas in the UK and compliance with smoke-free legislation remains extremely high.

Some e-cigarette advertising seeks to glamorise vaping and in some countries appears to blur the boundaries between smoking and vaping. This has led to concern that it might make vaping attractive to non-smokers and countries such as the UK have regulated to prevent this.

There is some controversy over vaping. A number of high-profile public health advocates have engaged in what appears to be a propaganda campaign against them, creating an impression in the public consciousness that they are more dangerous than they are and that they are undermining tobacco control efforts when the evidence does not support this. It is reasonable to be concerned about what may happen in the future with tobacco companies dominating the e-cigarette market and being incentivised to maximise tobacco sales, but much of the anti- e-cigarette propaganda appears to be motivated more by a puritanical ethic than a dispassionate assessment of the evidence. Maximising the public heath opportunity presented by e-cigarettes, while minimising the potential threat, requires collecting good data, using this information to construct an appropriate regulatory strategy, and monitoring the situation closely to adjust the strategy as required. England appears to be leading the way in this approach designed to encourage smokers to use e-cigarettes to stop smoking, while not undermining use of potentially more effective quitting methods, and preventing e-cigarettes becoming a gateway into smoking. The Smoking Toolkit Study, the ASH surveys, and other research will continue to provide essential information needed to inform this strategy.

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6. A reading list for European Antibiotics Awareness Day

Held every 18 November, European Antibiotics Awareness Day (EAAD) is a European public health initiative that promotes responsible use of antibiotics. The day raises awareness of the threat to public health of antibiotic resistance and encourages prudent antibiotic use.

The number of patients infected by resistant bacteria is growing, which means that antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at an increasing rate. The problem is caused by the inappropriate use and prescribing of antibiotics and is a major threat to patients’ safety and public health. Using antibiotics responsibly can help us to ensure that antibiotics are effective for the use of future generations.

To raise awareness of this vital topic, we’ve put together a reading list of free articles from the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, selected by the Editor-in-Chief, Alan Johnson.

Trends in antibiotic prescribing in primary care for clinical syndromes subject to national recommendations to reduce antibiotic resistance, UK 1995–2011: analysis of a large database of primary care consultations by Hawker JI, Smith S, Smith GE et al.

This paper investigates trends in prescribing antibiotics in relation to nationally recommended best practice in the UK. It reports on the mixed success of implementing national guidelines, with prescribing antibiotics for coughs and colds now being greater than before recommendations were made to reduce it.

Good practice recommendations for paediatric outpatient parenteral antibiotic therapy (p-OPAT) in the UK: a consensus statement by Patel S, Abrahamson E, Goldring S et al.

BSAC and the British Paediatric Allergy, Immunity and Infection Group have written recommendations to highlight good clinical practice and governance for managing children on intravenous antimicrobial therapy in secondary or tertiary care settings. Managing children on intravenous antimicrobial therapy at home can improve parent and patient satisfaction and reduce health-care associated infections.

Longitudinal trends and cross-sectional analysis of English national hospital antibacterial use over 5 years (2008–13): working towards hospital prescribing quality measures by Cooke J, Stephens P, Ashiru-Oredope D. et al.

This study examines the variation in antimicrobial use in individual hospitals in the UK. It uncovers a wide variation in usage between individual hospitals and recommends the urgent development of quality measures of optimal hospital antimicrobial prescribing.

pills-384846_1280
Pills by stevepb. CC0 via Pixabay.

Evaluation of antifungal use in a tertiary care institution: antifungal stewardship urgently needed by Valerio M, Rodriguez-Gonzalez CG, Muñoz P et al.

This article explores the quality of antifungal use and reports on antifungals being prescribed unnecessarily in 16% of cases. It considers the potential savings that could be made by optimising antifungal therapy.

Effect of antibiotic stewardship programmes on Clostridium difficile incidence: a systematic review and meta-analysis by Feazel LM, Malhotra A, Perencevich EN et al.

Despite vigorous infection control measures, Clostridium difficile continues to cause significant disease burden. This paper demonstrates that restrictive antibiotic stewardship programmes can be used to reduce the risk of Clostridium difficile infections.

A window into the lives of junior doctors: narrative interviews exploring antimicrobial prescribing experiences by Mattick K, Kelly N, Rees C et al.

Prescribing medications is an important challenge in the transition to junior doctor practice. This study explores the antimicrobial prescribing experiences of foundation year doctors in two UK hospitals and offers some practical solutions to the challenges they face.

Impact of implementation of a novel antimicrobial stewardship tool on antibiotic use in nursing homes: a prospective cluster randomized control pilot study by Fleet E, Rao GG, Patel B et al.

This paper evaluates the impact of ‘Resident Antimicrobial Management Plan’, a novel antimicrobial stewardship tool on systemic antibiotic use for treatment of infection in nursing homes. This pilot study demonstrated that the use of this tool was associated with a significant increase in total antibiotic consumption.

Antibiotic use in Dutch primary care: relation between diagnosis, consultation and treatment by van den Broek d’Obrenan J, Verheij TJ, Numans ME et al.

The aim of this study was to describe the antibiotic management of infectious diseases in the clinical context in the Netherlands. It examines trends in prescribing antibiotics for different types of infection and concludes that complete data on infectious disease management, with respect to patient and physician behaviour, are crucial for understanding changes in antibiotic use, and in defining strategies to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use.

Effect of antibiotic streamlining on patient outcome in pneumococcal bacteraemia by Cremers AJH, Sprong T, Schouten JA et al.

This study investigated whether streamlining in bacteraemic pneumococcal infections is associated with mortality. This practice can reduce the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics but is poorly undertaken due to lack of clarity related to patient safety.

The efficacy of non-carbapenem antibiotics for the treatment of community-onset acute pyelonephritis due to extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing by Park SH, Choi SM, Chang YK et al.

Extended-spectrum β-lactamase (ESBL)-producing Escherichia coli has become an important cause of community-onset urinary tract infections. This study aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of non-carbapenem antibiotics for acute pyelonephritis (APN) due to ESBL-producing E. coli.

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7. Back to the future with the ASC’s new Division of Policing

On 31 December 1941, August Vollmer hosted the first meeting of the National Association of College Police Training Officials at his home. The organization initially focused on developing standardized curricula for university-based policing programs, but soon expanded its scope to include the more general field of criminology. In 1958, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) name was officially adopted.

Vollmer, first police chief of Berkeley, CA and founder of the first school of criminology at the University of California Berkeley, is generally regarded as the father of modern policing.

O.W. Wilson, himself a prominent figure in modern policing, perhaps summed up Vollmer’s influence best in a 1953 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology: “August Vollmer, police administrator and consultant, student, educator, author, and criminologist, will be recorded in American police history as the man who contributed most to police professionalization by promoting the application of scientific principles to police service.”

While Vollmer’s focus on science was largely on forensic and physical sciences, in part because of a lack of social science research on the police at the time, he was one of the first to recognize that the police could partner with scientists and other outsiders to increase their effectiveness and efficiency. He embodied the idea of infusing policing with research and scientific knowledge that is the hallmark of efforts to make policing more evidence-based today.

We can only speculate on how Vollmer would run a police department today. But based on his strong belief that officers should be well-educated and exposed to the latest research findings through extensive training throughout their careers, we might assume he would embrace close collaboration between police and social scientists and the use of findings from rigorous studies to guide police practice. Today, our evidence base outside of the hard sciences is far larger. The Evidence-Based Policing Matrix, for example, includes nearly 130 methodologically rigorous studies of the crime control effectiveness of policing strategies.

As O.W. Wilson’s quote suggested, Vollmer not only incorporated research into policing, but he also was one of the first to straddle the line between science and practice through his work as a police chief and university professor. Vollmer’s interest in the link between universities and policing inspired that New Year’s Eve meeting in 1941, which eventually led to the formation of the ASC, now the largest professional organization devoted to criminology in the world.

August Vollmer, "father of modern law enforcement," 6 September 1929, photo by Underwood & Underwood. Public domain via Library of Congress.
August Vollmer, “father of modern law enforcement,” 6 September 1929, photo by Underwood & Underwood. Public domain via Library of Congress.

The initial close link between the ASC and police education quickly dissipated, however. Many of the police practitioners and professors initially involved in the creation of the ASC began to feel as though the organization had become too sociological and concerned with questions of crime causation and uninterested in police practice. As Willard Oliver describes in his History of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), the International Association of Police Professionals was established by former ASC members in 1963 to focus more on police education. The organization eventually expanded its focus to the entire criminal justice system and took on its current name of ACJS. Thus, while Vollmer was instrumental in the creation of the ASC, his followers soon abandoned the organization in favor of ACJS. As a result, police practitioners have traditionally been more involved in the Annual Meetings of the ACJS, which has had a section on policing for more than 20 years.

Recently, a group of scholars and practitioners brought together by Cynthia Lum of George Mason University have begun the critical work of highlighting policing as an important part of criminology and the ASC. In May of this year, the ASC approved a new Division of Policing, with membership open to any ASC member. We encourage members to consider joining the Division when renewing (or beginning) their ASC membership for 2015.

As Anthony Braga, Cynthia Lum, and Edward Davis described in a recent article in The Police Chief, a major goal of the Division is to build strong partnerships between police and researchers that will ideally increase the number of completed research studies and improve translation of research findings into police practice. The Division thus marks a return to the roots of the ASC and Vollmer’s vision of a policing profession consistently using the best science and research to guide policy and practice.

Even without a formal Division in place, policing presentations have become a major component of the ASC conference. A guide to policing sessions of interest at the Annual Meeting next week includes more than 120 panels with policing presentations. This number should only increase in future years with the Division’s efforts, and ideally the number of police practitioners presenting at ASC will increase exponentially.

We invite everyone attending the 70th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology to join us at the inaugural event for the Division of Policing to be held 20 November 2014 from 4:00-5:30pm.

The event will include opening remarks from San Francisco District Attorney and former Police Chief George Gascón. Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University will then provide a brief history of police research and introduce a distinguished group of police researchers and practitioners who will each speak briefly about their vision for the future of policing research.

It seems especially appropriate that this kick-off event for the Division will take place at the Marriott Marquis San Francisco, less than 15 miles away from 923 Euclid Avenue in Berkeley, Vollmer’s former home and the birthplace of the ASC.

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8. Global solidarity and Cuba’s response to the Ebola outbreak

How did the international community get the response to the Ebola outbreak so wrong? We closed borders. We created panic. We left the moribund without access to health care. When governments in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria called out to the world for help, the global response went to mostly protect the citizens of wealthy nations before strengthening health systems on the ground. In general, resources have gone to guarding borders rather than protecting patients in the hot zone from the virus. Yet, Cuba broke this trend by sending in hundreds of its own health workers into the source of the epidemic. Considering the broader global response to Ebola, why did Cuba get it so right?

Ebola impacted countries, and the World Health Organization (WHO), called out for greater human resources for health. While material supplies arrived, many countries tightened travel restrictions, closed their doors and kept their medical personnel at home. At a time when there has never been greater knowledge, more money, and ample resources for global health, the world responded to an infectious pathogen with some material supplies, but also with securitization, experimental vaccines, and forced quarantines – all of which oppose accepted public health ethics. The result is that without human resources for health on the ground, the supplies stay idle, the vaccines remain questionable, and the securitization instills fear.

The Global North evacuated their infected citizens. These evacuations spawned donations to the WHO and then led to travel bans. The United Kingdom provided £230 million in material aid to West Africa. The United States committed $175 million to combat the virus by transporting supplies and personnel, with an estimated 3,000 soldiers to be involved in the response. Canada’s government provided some $35 million to Ebola, including a mobile testing lab, sanitary equipment and 1,000 vials of experimental vaccines that have yet to arrive in West Africa or even be tested on humans. Canada then followed the example of Australia, North Korea, and other nervous nations, in imposing a visa ban on persons traveling from Ebola affected countries. Even Rwanda imposed screening on Americans because of confirmed cases in the United States.

Hotel_Nacional_y_Malecon_de_La_Habana
View of Havana skyline from Hotel Nacional by Hmaglione10. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this global trend, Cuba — a small and economically hobbled nation — chose to make a world of difference for those suffering from Ebola by sending in 465 health workers, expanding hospital beds, and training local health workers on how to treat and prevent the virus. Cuba is the only nation to respond to the call to stop the Ebola epidemic by actually scaling up health care capacity in the very places where it is needed the most. Even with a Gross Domestic Product per capita to that of Montenegro, Cuba has proven itself as a global health power during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Many scholars and pundits have been left wondering not only how a low-income country, with its own social and economic challenges, could send impressive medical resources to West Africa, but also why they would dive into the hot zone in the first place — especially when nobody else dares to do so.

Cuba is globally recognized as an outstanding health-care power in providing affordable and accessible health services to its own citizens and to the citizens of 76 countries around the world, including those impacted by Ebola. Cuba’s health outreach is grounded in the epistemology of solidarity — a normative approach to global health that offers a unique ability of strengthening the core of health systems through long-term commitments to health promotion, disease prevention and primary care. Solidarity is a cooperative relationship between two parties that is mutually transformative by maximizing health-care provision, eroding power structures that promote inequity, and by seeking out mutual social and economic benefit. The reason for the general amazement and wonder over Cuba’s Ebola-response stems from a lack of depth in understanding the normative values of solidarity, as it is not a driving force in the global health outreach by most wealthy nations. The ethic of solidarity can even be seen on the ground in West Africa with Cuban doctors like Ronald Hernandéz Torres posting photos of his Ebola team wearing the protective gear, while giving the thumbs and peace sign — an incredible snapshot of humanity that contrasts the typically frightening images of Ebola health workers.

Solidarity is not charity. Charity is governed by the will of the donor and cannot be broad enough to overcome health calamities at a systems level. Solidarity is also not pure altruism. Selfless giving is based on exceptional, and often short-term, acts for no expectation of reward or reciprocity. For Cuba, solidarity in global health comes with the expectation of cooperation, meaning that the recipient nation should offer some level of support to Cuba, be it financial or political. Solidarity also means that there is a long-term relationship to improve the strength of a health system. Cuba’s current commitment to Ebola could last months, if not years.

Cuba’s global health outreach can be approached through the lens of solidarity. This example implies engaging global health calamities with cooperation over charity, with human resources in addition to material resources, and ultimately with compassion over fear. This approach could well be at the heart of wiping out Ebola — along with every other global health calamity that continues to get the best of us because we have not yet figured out how to truly take care of each other.

Heading image: Ebola treatment unit by CDC Global. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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9. Academics as activists: an interview with Jeffrey W. Pickron

This week, we bring you an interview with activist and historian Jeffrey W. Pickron. He and three other scholars spoke about their experiences as academics and activists on a riveting panel at the recent Oral History Association Annual Meeting. In this podcast, Pickron talks to managing editor Troy Reeves about his introduction to both oral history and activism, and the risks and rewards of speaking out.

Heading image: Boeing employees protest meeting in Seattles City Hall Park, 1943 by Seattle Municipal Archives. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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10. Celebrating Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematician and computer scientist, remembered for his revolutionary Automatic Computing Engine, on which the first personal computer was based, and his crucial role in breaking the ENIGMA code during the Second World War. He continues to be regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

We live in an age that Turing both predicted and defined. His life and achievements are starting to be celebrated in popular culture, largely with the help of the newly released film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke. We’re proud to publish some of Turing’s own work in mathematics, computing, and artificial intelligence, as well as numerous explorations of his life and work. Use our interactive Enigma Machine below to learn more about Turing’s extraordinary achievements.

 

Image credits: (1) Bletchley Park Bombe by Antoine Taveneaux. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Alan Turing Aged 16, Unknown Artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Good question by Garrett Coakley. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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11. Bioethics and the hidden curriculum

The inherent significance of bioethics and social science in medicine is now widely accepted… at least on the surface. Despite an assortment of practical problems—limited curricular time compounded by increased concern for “whitespace”—few today deny outright that ethical practice and humanistic patient engagement are important and need to be taught. But public acknowledgements all too often are undercut by a different reality, a form of hidden curriculum that overpowers institutional rhetoric and the best-laid syllabi. Most medical schools now make an effort to acknowledge that ethics and humanities training is part of their mission and we have seen growing inclusion of bioethics and medical humanities in medical curricula. However, more curricular time, in and of itself, is not enough.

Even with increases in contact hours, the value of medical ethics and humanities can be undercut by problems of frequency and duration. Many schools have dedicated significant time to bioethics when measured in contact hours, but in the form of intensive seminars that are effectively quarantined from the rest of the curriculum. While this is a challenge for modular curricula in general, it can be harder for students to integrate ethics and humanities content into biomedical contexts. Irrespective of the number of contact hours, placing bioethics in a curricular ghetto risks sending a message that it is simply is a hoop to jump through, something to eventually be set aside as one returns to the real curriculum.

While partitioning ethics and humanities content presents problems, the integration of ethics into systems-based curricula poses different challenges. While, case-based formats make integration easier, they limit the extent to which one can teach core concepts themselves. For organ systems curricula, where ethics lectures often are “sprinkled in,” the linkages with the biomedical components of the course are underspecified or inherently weak. Medical ethics and humanities are diffused in actual practice such that attempts at thematic alignment with organ systems curricula often are noticeably artificial. In turn, there is an unintentional but palpable message that ethics is an interruption to medical learning. Anyone who has delivered an ethics lecture, sandwiched between two pathology lectures in a GI course knows this feeling only too well.

Finally, there is a misalignment of goals and assessment in bioethics that remains a significant challenge. Certainly, one goal of ethics and humanities education in medical curricula is to provide concrete information about legal directives and consensus opinions. Most of us, however, want to go beyond a purely instrumental approach to ethics and promote the ability to empathize with patients and think critically about ethical and humanistic features of patient care. These issues are much more important than an instrumental approach. While there are a variety of ways to assess these higher-order capacities within a course, board exams loom large in the medical student consciousness (and rightfully so). On a multiple choice exam, being reflexive about one’s ethical framework and exploring the large supply of contingencies surrounding a particular case is a recipe for disaster. In turn, I often find myself encouraging students to pursue interesting and creative lines of thought or to challenge consensus statements from professional bodies, only to end the discussion by warning that they should abandon all such efforts on board exams. Most would agree that ethics is a dialogical activity, yet the examinations with the highest stakes send hidden messages that it is formulaic and instrumental. When “assessment drives learning,” it is difficult for students to set aside concerns about gateway exams and engage the genuine complexity of ethics.

Doctor writing. © webphotographeer  via iStock.
Doctor writing. © webphotographeer via iStock.

While these challenges are curricular, pedagogical, and even cultural, I think there are practical ways that medical schools, and even individual instructors, can destabilize the messages of this hidden curriculum. First, with regard to assessment, we can teach both complex and instrumental ethical methodologies. While this may appear a rather dismal prospect, it can be made respectable by explicating the conditions under which each way of thinking is useful (e.g. the former in real life, the latter on exams). Students then learn not only to turn on and off particular test taking strategies, but this also bolsters their ability to be critical and reflexive—in this case about a instrumental processes of ethical decision-making that are problematic, but nonetheless widespread, even in practice.

Second, we need to move beyond simply including more bioethics education and toward addressing its rhythms within our curricula. I have been fortunate enough to recently join a new medical school unencumbered by a historical (read: petrified) curriculum. In addition to an institutional culture genuinely amenable to ethics and humanities, our curriculum utilizes longitudinal courses that run in parallel to the biomedical systems courses. Instructors therefore have the ability to build the sort of conceptual complexity that truly attends ethics and students have the spaced practice that is key to their development. This structure therefore avoids the problems both of quarantining and random inclusion.

Finally, bioethics curricula need to develop less emphasis on information and a greater utilization of “threshold concepts”. No medical curriculum affords enough time to exhaust the terrain of bioethics and medical humanities. Certainly we need to accept the reality that we typically are not training ethics and humanities scholars, but, at a minimum, physicians with those competencies and even more ideal, physicians who embody those values. However, where the idea of delivering ethics at an appropriate level for physicians often serves as a call for simplicity, I believe it supplies a warrant for focus on our most complex concepts, which also are the most generative and useful. When training practitioners, epistemological concepts—for example, integrative and differentiating ways of thinking—often are eschewed in favor of simpler kinds of information that promote instrumental applications to situations, and a limited ability engage the messy nuances of real world situations. Richer, more complex threshold concepts—like the sociological imagination (the ability to see the interweaving of macro and micro level phenomena)—are broadly relevant and transposable to any number of complex situations.

In the contemporary landscape, few deny outright the significance of ethics and humanities in medicine. But the explicit messaging about their importance remains outmatched by implicit messages hidden in curricula. Having just returned from the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, I cannot help but feel that we are spending too much time fighting old battles by repetitiously announcing the relevance of bioethics and too little time confronting the more insidious, hidden messages nestled deeper in the trenches of curriculum and pedagogy. This is a critical challenge.

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12. Evidence-based interventions in pediatric psychology

The field of pediatric psychology has been changing rapidly over the last decade with both researchers and practitioners working to keep up with the latest innovations. To address the latest evidence-based interventions and methodological improvements, the editors of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology and Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology decided to join efforts and publish special issues on evidence-based interventions in pediatric psychology. We sat down with guest editors Tonya M. Palermo, Ph.D. (Journal of Pediatric Psychology) and Bryan D. Carter, Ph.D. (Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology) to discuss the latest issue in the field and what was learned in this collaborative review of the field.

Why did you want to do a tandem issue on evidence-based interventions in pediatric psychology?

Tonya Palermo: I was interested in putting together the special issue for Journal of Pediatric Psychology (JPP) because the last comprehensive reviews of evidence-based interventions in pediatric psychology were published in JPP in 1999. In the past 15 years, so much movement has occurred in the field around development and evaluation of interventions that an updated review of the state of the science was long overdue. My goal in conducting the special issue was also to increase the quality of the reviews by using rigorous systematic review methods. In this way, the special issue best represents the state of the science of interventions that comprise the professional practice of pediatric psychology.

Bryan Carter: I wanted to see how this special issue topic could be used to provide examples of “real world” applications of evidence-based interventions. The editors of JPP and Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology (CPPP) had the wisdom to recognize that linking the topics in both journals could provide the perfect opportunity to showcase practitioner-level applications of those representative interventions chosen for the JPP special issue. My goal was to make the end product as useful as possible for the reader to have access to those proven efficacious psychological interventions representing the best science our profession has to offer, while also being able to learn from the applied clinical experiences of practitioners as to the challenges and barriers to employing evidence-based interventions with unique clinical conditions, patients, and populations.

Were there any major lessons learned that would inform future methodological improvements in research on pediatric psychological interventions?

Tonya Palermo: One of the lessons learned from the JPP special issue is that the quality of the intervention research (randomized controlled trials) needs to be improved upon in virtually all areas of pediatric psychology interventions. We need to design trials that test a priori hypotheses about intervention effects using well-validated outcomes. We need to use appropriate control conditions and rigorous methods of data collection including blinding where possible to mitigate against bias. We also need to follow established standards for trial reporting so that readers can have a full and transparent reporting of our results. By improving the quality of our intervention research we will enhance the ability to draw firm conclusions about pediatric psychology interventions and to impact decisions made about delivery of these interventions in health systems.

Bryan Carter: Pediatric psychology has grown over the decades to encompass an increasingly bigger tent. Pediatric psychologists can learn important lessons concerning intervention implementation from reports of the application of science-based empirical interventions in day-to-day clinical work. The rich detail that can be addressed from these formats will hopefully lead to replication and stimulate larger scale intervention studies that impact the practice of pediatric psychology, as well as the policies of organizations and governments responsible for optimizing health care for children and families.

Young woman lying on therapists couch. © 4774344sean via iStock.
Young woman lying on therapist’s couch. © 4774344sean via iStock.

What do you believe are the overall take-home findings from the tandem special issues?

Tonya Palermo: From my perspective I see the glass as half full. In many areas of pediatric psychology within cross-cutting areas such as health promotion, adherence, and pain interventions, the evidence base has grown tremendously. There is evidence for psychological interventions to have robust effects for behavior change and symptom reduction in pediatric populations. This type of evidence is needed to establish pediatric psychology interventions as firstline treatments for children and families in hospital and community settings. Researchers can build from the evidence base to address specific knowledge gaps and to design stronger research to better understand which children and families receive the most benefit from which specific interventions. Clinicians can use these systematic reviews as a starting point for guiding practice in the absence of current consensus statements and clinical practice guidelines in pediatric psychology.

Bryan Carter: Despite the breadth of topics covered in the tandem issues, they represent only a sampling of the wide range of areas in which pediatric psychological interventions have been developed. In most pediatric medical conditions (e.g. late neurocognitive effects of pediatric cancer treatment, acute and chronic pain) and clinical settings (e.g. integrated primary care, in-hospital, school-based, home intervention), pediatric psychologists have implemented interventions. Many of the evidence-based interventions that have proven effective for certain pediatric conditions have relevance to the study of other pediatric health problems, and other areas of investigation, e.g. adherence studies, stress management, family interventions. Researchers and clinicians can draw from the representative systematic analyses and clinical “real world” application reports represented in the tandem JPP and CPPP special issues to inform their own investigations and practice.

Are there implications and recommendations for training psychology students in evidence-based interventions in pediatric psychology?

Tonya Palermo: Core competencies for training in pediatric psychology have been recently published in JPP. The tandem special issues highlight the areas of evidence-based practice that are particularly relevant for pediatric psychology training both in terms of clinical applications as well as scientific training. The next generation of pediatric psychologists can effect major changes in the delivery of pediatric psychology services by building on the evidence base through the conduct of rigorous clinical trials that address cost effectiveness and cost offset of these interventions; advocating for evidence-based interventions for their patients; and teaching other health care professionals, hospital systems, and insurers about the value of evidence-based pediatric psychological interventions.

Bryan Carter: Pediatric psychologists have many challenges ahead in solidifying their role in a rapidly evolving health care system that places a high premium on efficiency, expediency, and technology. For pediatric psychological services to be truly integrated into developing health care models, we must continue to demonstrate how we contribute to better health and quality of life outcomes. The tandem special issue of CPPP demonstrates areas of evidence-based practice critical to students learning to intervene with these populations. It is our hope that this will serve to encourage others to submit their data-based studies, commentaries, reviews, clinical case reports/series, outcome studies, examples of program development, etc., as these serve a valuable role in informing the process of designing theory-based clinical trials that are responsive to the realities of everyday clinical settings and diverse populations.

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13. A new benchmark model for estimating expected stock returns

For investors and asset managers, expected stock returns are the rates of return over a period of time in the future that they require to earn in exchange for holding the stocks today. Expected returns are a central input in their decision process of allocating wealth across stocks, and are essential in determining their welfare. For corporate managers, expected returns on the stocks of their companies, or the costs of equity, are the rates of returns over a period of time in the future that their shareholders require to earn in exchange for injecting equity to their companies today. The costs of equity play a key role in the decision process of corporate managers when deciding which investment projects to take and how to finance the investment. Despite the paramount importance, no consensus exists on how to best estimate expected stock returns. In fact, one of the most important challenges in academic finance is to explain anomalies, empirical patterns of expected stock returns that seem to evade traditional theories.

A manager should optimally keep investing until the investment costs today equal the value of future investment benefits discounted to today’s dollar terms, using her firm’s expected stock return as the discount rate. This economic logic implies that all else equal, stocks of firms with high investment should have lower discount rates than stocks with low investment. Intuitively, low discount rates lead to high discounted values of new projects and high investment. In addition, stocks with high profitability (investment benefits) relative to low investment should have higher discount rates than stocks with low profitability. Intuitively, the high discount rates are necessary to offset the high profitability to induce low discounted values for new projects and low investment.

Forex stock exchanges, by Allan Ajifo. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Forex stock exchanges, by Allan Ajifo. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To implement this idea, we use a standard technique in academic finance that “explains” a stock’s return with the contemporaneous returns on a number of factors. In a highly influential study, Fama and French (1993) specify three factors: the return spread between the overall stock market and the one-month Treasury bill, the return spread between small market cap and big market cap stocks, and the return spread between stocks with high accounting relative to market value of equity and stocks with low accounting relative to market value of equity. Carhart (1997) forms a four-factor model by augmenting the Fama-French model with the return spread between stocks with high prior six to twelve month returns and stocks with low prior six to twelve month returns.

We propose a new four-factor model, dubbed the q-factor model, which includes the market factor, a size factor, an investment factor, and a profitability factor. The market and size (market cap) factors are basically the same as before. The investment factor is the return spread between stocks with low investment and stocks with high investment. The profitability factor is the return spread between stocks with high profitability and stocks with low profitability. The q-factor model captures most of the anomalies that prove challenging for the Fama-French and Carhart models in the data.

Specifically, during the period from January 1972 to December 2012, the investment factor earns an average return of 0.45% per month, and the profitability factor earns 0.58%. The Fama-French and Carhart models cannot capture our factor returns, but the q-factor model can capture the returns on the Fama-French and Carhart factors. More important, the q-factor model outperforms the Fama-French and Carhart models in “explaining” a comprehensive set of 35 significant anomalies in the US stock returns. The average magnitude of the unexplained returns is on average 0.20% per month in the q-factor model, which is lower than 0.55% in the Fama-French model and 0.33% in the Carhart model. The number of unexplained anomalies is 5 in the q-factor model, which is lower than 27 in the Fama-French model and 19 in the Carhart model. The q-factor model’s performance, combined with its economic intuition, suggests that it can serve as a new benchmark for estimating expected stock returns.

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14. Making leaders

Dwight D. Eisenhower described leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Eisenhower was a successful wartime general and president. What made him successful? It was not a full head of hair and a fit physique, two of the physical traits of a CEO. What made him an unsuccessful university president? Was it luck or skill, or his social interactions with those he led?

There are many theories on what makes a leader effective, where effective leaders go, and whether leaders are born or created, but little empirical work. We cannot run a field experiment to study leadership of an organization in a high-stakes setting. Empirical tests of leadership theories have to come from quantitative studies of leaders and organizations, but large, longitudinal datasets on CEOs and companies are rare. A unique longitudinal data set on Union Army soldiers augmented with information on the regiment level provides a testing ground for leadership theories. This sample (available at uadata.org), created from men’s army records and linked to their census records, is the most comprehensive longitudinal database in economic history. It has been used to study the economics of aging (Costa 1998) and the role that social capital plays in people’s decisions (Costa and Kahn 2008). The data contain information on men’s promotions and demotions, their jobs during the war, their socioeconomic and demographic information at enlistment, and their jobs and locations after the war.

Who became a leader and what made leaders effective? The more able, i.e. the literate and men who were in higher status occupations, were more likely to become officers. So were the tall and the native-born. There were benefits to being an officer – higher pay and lower odds of death, both on and off the battlefield. Game theoretic models of leader effectiveness have emphasized that one way to elicit effort from followers is to lead by example. Although on average commissioned officers did not imperil themselves in battle, when they did, it was an effective strategy in creating a cohesive fighting unit. Company desertion rates were lower for companies in which the regimental battlefield mortality of commissioned officers relative to enlisted men was higher.

After the war leaders moved to where their talent would have the highest pay-off, as predicted by economic models of sorting. The former sergeants and commissioned officers were more likely than privates to move to larger cities which provided higher wages and greater diversity in the dominant economic activity of the time, manufacturing. Even men who started in low status occupations in cities were able to climb the occupational ladder.

Are leaders created or born? The Army, and a large management literature, stresses that leaders have character, presence, and intellectual capacity. In contrast, economic theory emphasizes the management skills that can be learned. Union Army soldiers who missed being promoted because casualty rates were relatively low in their companies were likely to be in a large city after the war compared to men who were promoted, suggesting that in the long-run leaders are created. One of the skills learned in the army may have been to be a generalist. Sergeants and commissioned officers with more than strict military tasks while in the army were more likely to be in large cities.

A Civil War context for testing theories of personnel economics may be unusual. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has focused more on historical research and re-enactments. But if a stress test of theories is their explanatory ability in very different contexts, academic personnel economics does very well.

Headline image credit: Field Band of 2nd R.I. Infantry. Photo by Mathew Brady. War Department. Office of the Chief Signal Officer. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery. US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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15. Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth of Nations member states since the end of the First World War to remember those who have died in the line of duty. It is observed by a two-minute silence on the ’11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month’, in accordance with the armistice signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente on 11 November, 1918. The First World War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. In the UK, Remembrance Sunday occurs on the Sunday closest to the 11th November, and is marked by ceremonies at local war memorials in most villages, towns, and cities. The red poppy has become a symbol for Remembrance Day due to the poem In Flanders Fields, by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

You can discover more about the history behind the First World War by exploring the free resources included in the interactive image above.

Feature image credit: Poppy Field, by Martin LaBar. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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16. Innovation and safety in high-risk organizations

The construction or recertification of a nuclear power plant often draws considerable attention from activists concerned about safety. However, nuclear powered US Navy (USN) ships routinely dock in the most heavily populated areas without creating any controversy at all. How has the USN managed to maintain such an impressive safety record?

The USN is not alone, many organizations, such as nuclear public utilities, confront the need to maintain perfect reliability or face catastrophe. However, this compelling need to be reliable does not insulate them from the need to innovate and change.  Given the high stakes and the risks that changes in one part of an organization’s system will have consequences for others, how can such organizations make better decisions regarding innovation? The experience of the USN is apt here as well.

Given that they have at their core a nuclear reactor, navy submarines are clearly high-risk organizations that need to innovate yet must maintain 100% reliability.  Shaped by the disastrous loss of the USS Thresher in 1963 the U.S. Navy (USN) adopted a very cautious approach dominated by safety considerations. In contrast, the Soviet Navy, mindful of its inferior naval position relative to the United States and her allies, adopted a much more aggressive approach focused on pushing the limits of what its submarines could do.

Decision-making in both organizations was complex and very different. It was a complex interaction among individuals confronting a central problem (their opponents’ capabilities) with a wide range of solutions. In addition, the solution was arrived at through a negotiated political process in response to another party that was, ironically, never directly addressed, i.e. the submarines never fought the opponent.

Perhaps ironically, given its government’s reputation for rigidity, it was the Soviet Navy that was far more entrepreneurial and innovative. The Soviets often decided to develop multiple types of different attack submarines – submarines armed with scores of guided missiles to attack U.S. carrier battle groups, referred to as SSGNs, and smaller submarines designed to attack other submarines. In contrast the USN adopted a much more conservative approach, choosing to modify its designs slightly such as by adding vertical launch tubes to its Los Angeles class submarines. It helped the USN that it needed its submarines to mostly do one thing – attack enemy submarines – while the Soviets needed their submarines to both attack submarines and USN carrier groups.

The Hunt for Red October, Soviet Submarine, by Kevin Labianco. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
The Hunt for Red October, Soviet Submarine – 1970s, by Kevin Labianco. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

As a result of their innovation, aided by utilizing design bureaus, something that does not exist in the U.S. military-industry complex, the Soviets made great strides in closing the performance gaps with the USN. Their Alfa class submarines were very fast and deep diving. Their final class of submarine before the disintegration of the Soviet Union – the Akula class – was largely a match for the Los Angeles class boats of the USN. However, they did so at a high price.

Soviet submarines suffered from many accidents, including ones involving their nuclear reactor. Both their SSGNs, designed to attack USN carrier groups, as well as their attack submarines, had many problems. After 1963 the Soviets had at least 15 major accidents that resulted in a total loss of the boat or major damage to its nuclear reactor. One submarine, the K429 actually sunk twice. The innovative Alfas, immortalized in The Hunt for Red October, were so trouble-prone that they were all decommissioned in 1990 save for one that had its innovative reactor replaced with a conventional one. In contrast, the USN had no accidents, though one submarine, the USS Scorpion, was lost in 1968 to unknown causes.

Why were the USN submarines so much more reliable? There were four basic reasons. First, the U.S. system allowed for much more open communication among the relevant actors. This allowed for easier mutual adjustment between the complex yet tightly integrated systems. Second, the U.S. system diffused power much more than in the Soviet political system. As a result, the U.S. pursued less radical innovations. Third, in the U.S. system decision makers often worked with more than one group – for example a U.S. admiral not only worked within the Navy, but also interacted with the shipyards and with Congress. Finally, Admiral Rickover was a strong safety advocate who instilled a strong safety culture that has endured to this day.

In short, share information, share power, make sure you know what you are doing and have someone powerful who is an advocate for safety. Like so much in management it sounds like common sense if you explain it well, but in reality it is very hard to do, as the Soviets discovered.

Feature image credit: Submarine, by subadei. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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17. Replication, data access, and transparency in social science

Improving the transparency of the research published in Political Analysis has been an important priority for Jonathan Katz and I as co-editors of the journal. We spent a great deal of time over the past two years developing and implementing policies and procedures to insure that all studies published in Political Analysis have replication data available through the journal’s Dataverse. At this point in time, we have over 220 studies available in the journal’s Dataverse archive, and those studies have had more than 14,400 downloads. We see this as a major accomplishment for Political Analysis.

We are also optimistic that soon many political science journals will join us in implementing similar replication standards. An increasing number of journals developing and implementing replication standards will improve the quality of research in political science, aid in the distribution of materials that can be used in our classrooms, and make the publication process more straightforward for authors.

In late September, Jonathan and I had the opportunity to participate in a two-day “Workshop on Data Access and Research Transparency” at the University of Michigan. The workshop is part of an initiative sponsored by the American Political Science Association (APSA) to develop a discipline-wide discussion of how to improve research transparency in political science. The primary goal was to bring the editors of the primary journals in political science into this conversation. While there is no doubt that there was widespread agreement among the journal editors present that making research more transparent and making data more accessible are important goals, there are still open questions about how such goals can be implemented.

One of the major products of this workshop was a statement of principles for political science journals. While the statement has not yet been released, it contains a short set of principles, the most important of which are that the signing journals will require authors to make replication materials accessible, and that the signing journals will take steps to make the research published in their journal more transparent. Political Analysis is one of the signatories of this statement: we will continue to work to improve the accessibility of data and other research materials for the papers we publish in Political Analysis, as well as assist other journals as they work to develop their own replication and research transparency standards.

As part of this initiative, we have revised our author and reviewer instructions. Our new instructions include:

  1. Updated and clarified standards for how authors should present empirical results in their submissions, in particular tables and figures.
  2. More detailed instructions on our replication requirement.
  3. Encouragement and guidance for authors who wish to pre-register their research studies.

We hope that other journals will follow our lead, and that they will quickly develop strong standards for replication and research transparency. The APSA initiative is laudable, and it is helping to position political science as a leader in these areas, certainly in the social sciences but also throughout the sciences and humanities. We welcome the APSA DART initiative, and will continue to work to position Political Analysis as a leader in developing and implementing data access and research transparency standards.

Headline image credit: Circuit board. CC0 via Pixabay.

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18. Forgiveness makes late-life sweeter

“Forgiveness,” does the word still exist in the vocabulary of modern-day individuals? Does this moral virtue guide people’s intentions, beliefs, and behaviors? Or has forgiveness died a silent death between the brick walls of centuries-old convents and monasteries? The word is steeped in religious traditions and is indeed central in several world religions and spiritual traditions. But is forgiveness relevant today, how so, and for whom?

Forgiveness is probably most commonly associated with religiousness and spirituality and has also been a common theme in therapeutic settings for some time, but recently forgiveness has become a hot topic in psychological and social science. Like any scientific line of investigation it all starts with understanding what forgiveness is. Although researchers are still discussing the formal definition of forgiveness, most now agree that it consists of letting go one’s right to retribution and offering mercy to the offender. Having come to some consensus on the understanding of forgiveness, the next critical question for scientists is, what is it good for? Based on clinical insights and therapeutic experiences, psychologists had the idea that forgiveness might be an important process in mental and physical health and functioning of individuals. This line of reasoning coincides with the ideas of pastoral counsellors and theologians who have long espoused with favor the healing balm of forgiveness. But to test this claim scientifically, psychological and social scientists turned to the scientific method employing epidemiological surveys, laboratory experiments, and intervention studies.

What we’ve learned about the benefits of forgiveness through many scientific studies has surprised even the most ardent investigators of the forgiveness-health connection. In brief, dozens of studies utilizing different methodologies and different populations have shown that forgiveness is generally connected with better mental and physical health. Moreover, some forms of forgiveness can even promote longer life. Interestingly, some of the earliest research connecting forgiveness with mental and physical health showed, in a nationally representative sample of United States adults, that older individuals appeared to reap the benefits of forgiveness more completely than younger folks. This begs the question of why. Why would forgiveness offer more benefits to older as compared to younger individuals? Several different theories have been offered to address this question, but what we would like to consider is if forgiveness offers a smoother path forward as individuals attempt to gain clarity on life and consider their contributions, shortcomings, and fulfillment in life. Confronted with the inevitable finality of human life and death, an elderly individual often reviews life. Looking back on life lived can be quite a challenge. Unresolved fights with one’s children, tensions with one’s friends, and unspoken feelings of regret or jealousy can elicit feelings of despair which can easily turn into depression. Conversely, having lived life and gained wisdom from one’s experience can bring about a sense of integrity. This is a key psychosocial challenge of late life according to Erik Erikson and is known as the integrity versus despair stage. Our research was an attempt to integrate forgiveness with the seminal developmental theorizing of Erik Erikson.

Courtesy of authors.
Courtesy of authors.

The outcome of the integrity-despair psychosocial stage of development has implications for the mental health of older persons and it is here that we hypothesized that forgiveness could facilitate integrity and inhibit the development of despair, thereby, positively influencing the mental health of older individuals (see figure). With the collaboration of Flemish nursing homes, elderly care centers, organizations for elderly individuals, and the assistance and unending support of nine graduate students on our research team, we tried to address this hypothesis. A total of 320 elderly individuals were questioned on their tendency to forgive, their feelings of ego-integrity and despair and, the presence of depressive symptoms (a global proxy measure of mental health). It is important to understand how integrity-despair are related to depressive symptoms and how forgiveness might be involved because depressive symptoms and depression have reached alarming levels in the oldest old, both in the community and residential settings. For instance, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older and it is closely related with impairment, morbidity and mortality in this age group.

With respect to our hypothesis, our findings were very clear. As predicted, forgiveness was related to better resolution of the integrity-despair stage of psychosocial development. That is, more forgiving individuals showed a greater sense of integrity and a lesser degree of despair than less forgiving individuals. More importantly the benefits of forgiveness for integrity-despair resolution translated into improved mental health as indicated by lower levels of depression. What this might mean is that forgiveness could promote a more productive resolution of the late life psychosocial issues faced by older individuals and movement of individuals more successfully through this stage may result in improved mental health. With alarmingly high levels of mental health problems in the elderly population and rapid increases in this segment of the population, innovative and effective approaches to promoting health and reducing health care costs and burden should be carefully considered and implemented to enhance population health and well-being in late life.

Headline image credit: Forgiveness. CC0 via Pixabay.

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19. Race relations in America and the case of Ferguson

The fatal shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri during a police altercation in Augusts 2014, resulted in massive civil unrest and protests that received considerable attention from the United States and abroad. To gain further perspective on the situation in Ferguson and its implications of race relations in America, I spoke with Wayne A. Santoro and Lisa Broidy, authors of the article “Gendered Rioting: A General Strain Theoretical Approach” published in Social Forces. This articles is freely available for a limited time.

Why do you think there has been so much media attention on the situation in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting?

Police shootings and mistreatment of black citizens is not, unfortunately, an uncommon experience in the United States. Protests like street marches have become so routinized that at best they get covered in the back pages of the local newspaper. But what no one can ignore are protests that turn violent. Whether we call them riots or rebellions, they are front page news. They are dramatic and unpredictable, threaten life and property, and capture the media’s attention. Policymakers cannot ignore them. After all, it is not every day that a state governor calls out the National Guard to maintain law and order. And whether the public views the protestors in a sympathetic or unsympathetic manner, we are mesmerized by the ongoing drama. How long will the rioting last? How will law enforcement respond? What will be the cost in lives lost and property destroyed?

Why do you think that the shooting of Michael Brown sparked protest by citizens? What was unique about the circumstances in Ferguson, or the Michael Brown case?

Four factors stand out, some unique to the incident and to Ferguson while others are more typical. First, the single best predictor of black riots is police shootings or abuse of blacks by police. Indeed, in our research we find that a particularly strong predictor of joining a riot is having experienced police mistreatment personally. Police harassment is the spark that ignites protests that turn violent. This was a central conclusion of the famous 1968 Kenner Commission that studied black rioting in the late sixties.

Second, blacks in Ferguson have long complained about police harassment. Numerous blacks in Ferguson have recited to the media past experiences with police mistreatment. One resident recalled how he was roughed up by the police during a minor traffic stop. Another spoke of how she called the police for assistance only to have the police arrest her upon arrival. There was an incident in 2009 where a black man accused officers of beating him and then found out that he was subsequently charged with damaging government property by getting his blood on their police uniforms. Some of this mistreatment is suggested by data in Ferguson on race, traffic stops, and arrests.

Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_44
Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Blacks comprise 67% of Ferguson’s population (in 2010) but account for 86% of all traffic stops by the police and 93% of all arrests resulting from these stops. Blacks are also twice as likely as white drivers to have the police search their car despite the fact that whites are more likely to have contraband found in their car. These data point to racially biased police practices. This is not unique to Ferguson, and in fact national survey data tell us that it is common knowledge among blacks that the police often act as agents of repression. For instance, in a New York Times/CBS News national survey conducted 10 days after the shooting, 45% of blacks report that they had personally experienced police discrimination because of their race (7% of whites report this experience). Similarly, 71% of blacks believe that local police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person (only 31% of whites agreed). Thus, it is a racially charged shooting of a black man within the context of widespread experiences of police racial abuse that fuel motivations for protest and the belief that the use of violence against the state is legitimate.

Third, the circumstances of the shooting matter. Was the shooting a legitimate or excessive use of police force? It is relevant that so many local blacks think that not only was Michael Brown unarmed (which is undisputed) but that he had his hands raised and was surrendering at the time of the shooting. What matters is not so much whether the “hands raised and surrendering” scenario is accurate (this likely will remain in dispute) but that so many local residents found it believable that a white police officer would shoot six times an unarmed black man trying to surrender. People believe narratives that resonate with their personal experiences and this again tells us something about what these personal experiences with the police have been.

Fourth, blacks in Ferguson have been excluded almost completely from positions of power. People protest when their voices are not being heard, and in Ferguson it appears that those who make policy decisions and influence police behavior are particularly deaf to the concerns of the black community. Referring to an incident where Ferguson officials were unresponsive to a relatively minor request, one black resident remarked “You get tired. You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done.” One arena where this exclusion is evident is in the police department. In the Ferguson police department only 3 (some report 4) of 53 commissioned officers — about 6% — are black. Recall that Ferguson is 67% black. Police departments are seldom responsive to minority communities when policy and street-level enforcement decisions are made solely by whites. Moreover, minority distrust of the police is likely when few police officers are minority. The racial power disparity is evident in elected positions as well. As Jeff Smith (2014) wrote in the New York Times, “Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member.” Access to political positions and direct influence into policymaking tend to channel discontent into institutional arenas. Protest is a marker that a population is politically marginalized. Protest is inherently a response to blocked access and influence over the political system.

To what degree is Ferguson unique as opposed to being emblematic of race relations in America?

Ferguson is more typical than atypical. There remains in the United States deep and enduring racial disparities in socioeconomic status, wealth, and well-being. No other population in the United States has experienced the degree of residential segregation from whites as have blacks. We imprison black men at a staggering rate. What the Kerner Commission stated nearly 50 years ago remains true today: we are a “nation of two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” This inequality has been noted repeatedly by black residents in Ferguson who see the local governing regime as unresponsive, the police force as hostile, and the school system as abysmal. Ferguson also is typical in that it reveals how views of racial progress and incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown are racially polarized. In the New York Times/CBS News survey noted above, 49% of blacks thought that the protests in Ferguson were about right or did not go far enough — only 19% of whites held such views.

In two ways, however, Ferguson seems atypical. First, in Ferguson the growth in the black population relative to whites is a recent occurrence. In 1990, blacks comprised 25% of the city’s population but that percentage grew to 52% in 2000 and 67% in 2010. This demographic transition was not followed by a corresponding transition in black access to political positions, the police force, union representation, and the like. Sociologists speak of the “backlash hypothesis,” meaning that when whites feel threatened such as by increases in the minority population they respond with greater hostility to the “threatening” population. The recency of the demographic transition likely has altered the social and political dynamics of the city in ways that do not characterize other contemporary major cities in the United States especially those that are majority black like Detroit or Atlanta.

Ferguson,_Day_4,_Photo_26
Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, Ferguson is unusual in the degree that the city uses the municipal court system and the revenue it generates as a way to raise city funds. Court fines make up the second highest source of revenue for the city. This created a financial incentive to issue tickets and then impose excessive fees on people who did not pay. Data bear this out. Ferguson issued more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people in 2013 and this rate exceeds all other Missouri cities with a population larger than 10,000 people. To put this another way, Ferguson has a population of just over 21,000 people but issued more than 24,000 warrants which add up to three warrants per Ferguson household. Writes Frances Robles (2014) in the New York Times: “Young black men in Ferguson and surrounding cities routinely find themselves passed from jail to jail as they are picked up on warrants for unpaid fines.” Thus, in Ferguson the primary interaction between many black residents and the police take place because of these warrants. Recent work on social movements has argued that such daily insults and humiliations can play a strong role in motivating people to protest, and certainly serve to undermine trust in the local police and city policymakers.

What will be the likely short- and longer-term consequences of the Ferguson protests?

Understanding how policymakers and others respond to a protest — especially one that turns violent — is complex. There is no typical response and historically one could cite examples of elites either trying to ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to the protest or responding in a more punitive manner. Nonetheless, in the short term there are reasons to think that policymakers will respond in ways favorable to the local black community by addressing some of their grievances. As political scientist James Button has written, policymakers tend to respond more favorably to riots when riots are large enough to garner public and media attention but not so severe and widespread to cause major societal disruption. This describes the Ferguson riots, unlike, for instance, the riots during the late 1960s in the United States. Moreover, policymakers who are sympathetic to minorities tend to respond in ways more favorable to minorities than less receptive policymakers. Social movement scholars refer to this as a favorable “political opportunity structure.” In the United States, the former tend to come from the ranks of the Democratic Party while the latter from the ranks of the Republican Party. Thus the fact that the Ferguson protests occurred during the Obama administration suggests a more ameliorative than punitive response, at least at the national level. It is not surprising that three times more blacks, 60% to 20%, report being satisfied rather than unsatisfied with how President Obama has responded to the situation in Ferguson.

There is some evidence that policymakers are indeed responding in ways favorable to the local black community and their grievances. For instance, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced an independent investigation of the shooting and traveled to Ferguson to meet with investigators. Moreover, his office has started a civil rights investigation into whether the police have repeatedly violated the civil rights of residents. At the local level, some changes also are evident. The Ferguson City Council on 8 September agreed to establish a citizen review board to monitor the local police department. The city also has pledged that it would revamp its policy of using court fines to fund such a large share of its city budget. For instance, the city council has eliminated a $50 warrant recall fee and a $15 notification fee.

It is more of a leap of faith, however, to expect major long-term changes in Ferguson because of the insurgency. There remains, for instance, an on-going debate by scholars of the modern civil-rights movement (circa 1955-1968) as to whether the more than decade-long movement produced meaningful change in the lives of most blacks. If a decade of protests produced less than satisfactory change in the opinion of some, what chance do the Ferguson protests have? In particular, there is little reason to think that levels of black poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and educational disparities will improve noticeably in Ferguson unless other social forces are brought into play. These more substantive changes are more likely to be produced by years of community organizing, securing elected positions, joining governing political coalitions with sympathetic allies, and favorable economic conditions like the growth of blue-collar employment opportunities.

Ferguson Day 6 Picture 53 by By Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Ferguson Day 6 Picture 53 by By Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Have white police shootings of minorities (or African-Americans) become more or less common in recent years?

This is an empirical question and the relevant data are limited. There are no national data on police shootings that do not result in death.  National data on police shootings that result in death come from three sources: the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  However, data from each of these sources are limited. The FBI collects data on “justifiable homicide” by police as a voluntary component of the Supplemental Homicide Report data collected from police departments nationwide. Unfortunately few departments (less than 5%) voluntarily provide these data, leaving obvious questions about their representativeness and utility.  Moreover, even if they were complete, these data would tell us little beyond the demographics of those killed. Particularly, we cannot discern the degree to which these incidents represent excessive use of force by police. BJS collects similar data on deaths that occur during an arrest. These data are collected at the state level and then reported to BJS. Compliance is better, with 48 states reporting. But it is not clear how complete or comparable the data from each state are.

Despite these short-comings, there is one inescapable conclusion: blacks are disproportionately killed in police shootings. For instance, blacks comprise 13% of the US population but represent 32% of those killed by police between 2003 and 2009The CDC compiles data from all death certificates nationwide, which includes data on “deaths by legal intervention.” Using the online query system for firearm deaths by legal intervention from 1999-2011, the average rate at which blacks are killed is more than double that of whites (0.2/100,000 compared to 0.1/100,000).

Is there anything else you think we can learn about race relations or racially motivated social movements in the United States from the case of Ferguson?

A few lessons. First, we often talk about the civil rights movement in the past tense. We think of it as something that happened; we might even debate why it “ended” and what it accomplished. But Ferguson reminds us that the struggle for racial justice continues. It is not always so newsworthy, but everyday many blacks and black advocacy organizations struggle to overcome racial barriers. Second, it underscores the deep racial divide in the United States. White and black views, especially concerning racial matters, are often polar opposite. Where whites see progress, blacks see setbacks. Where whites see black advancement, blacks see persistent racial disparities. Especially polarized are views on the criminal justice system and police. Third, there are costs to a society when a population is politically and economically marginalized. These costs may not always be apparent to outsiders nor make national headlines. But the price we pay for racial disparities is that violent protests will continue to be an enduring feature of the US landscape. The national memory of the Ferguson riots will fade only to be replaced by the next Ferguson-style protest. The question becomes what are we as individuals and as a collective willing to do to eradicate the racial inequality that motivates such protest?

Heading image: Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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20. Timbuktu and a future no one wants to see

What is jihad? What do fundamentalists want? How will moderate Islamists react? These are questions that should be discussed. We may not have easy answers, but if we don’t start a dialogue, we may miss an opportunity to curtail horror.

The film Timbuktu from African director Abderrahmane Sassako about his native country serves as a needed point of departure for discussion — in government, in schools, in boardrooms, and in families.

Jihadism and terrorism are the 21st century’s “-isms,” following the horrors of fascism and communism. In hindsight, we wonder if we could have prevented the horrors of the 20th century. The devastating results have taught us that people do not want war; they want to live and work in peace. Should we not learn from history’s mistakes and prevent future genocides?

In the name of jihad, innocent victims are beheaded, kidnapped, raped, tortured, terrorized, left without families, and without homes. Extremist Muslims wage war against Christians and Jews, and against other Muslims (Sunnis vs. Shiites). Havoc is occurring in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, West Bank, Mali, Sudan, etc. It may soon take hold of our cities where jihadists threaten to set up terrorist cells.

Powerful and courageous, Timbuktu mesmerizes us with its blend of colors and music amidst a gentle background of sand dunes. Yet, juxtaposed to the serene beauty of Mali’s nature is the ferocious narrative of men turned into animals, forcing their machine guns on the quiet people of Timbuktu. We bear witness to the atrocious acts of barbarism.

Based on a true story when jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012, Sassako gives us a mosaic of characters who represent multi-cultural Africa. The camera takes us directly into their tragedies using a cause and effect structure:

  • We see a fisherwoman who refuses to wear a veil and gloves, for how would she be able to see or pick up the fish she must sell? Her rebellion, despite her mother’s pleas and the jihadist threats, is frightening.
  • Timbuktu
    Timbuktu, un film de Abderrahmane Sassako
  • Several friends play the guitar and sing together in the quiet of their home. The result? They are arrested and stoned to death.
  • A boy has a soccer ball, and accidentally the ball rolls down steps and through sand dunes to fall in front of several jihadists. The punishment? 40 lashes.
  • A caring man defends his young shepherd when their cow is killed. The outcome? A fight and the destruction of a family.
  • The leader of the community, the imam, tells several jihadists to leave the mosque with their guns and boots. People are praying. He warns them that Allah does not want destruction or terror. We fear the imam’s end.

These characters are not abstract; they are real victims. We follow their story, care for them, empathize with their pride, and suffer with their courage.

The contrast between good and evil, beauty and terror, are presented in alternating scenes and play havoc with our emotions. Sometimes we want to close our eyes as the evil becomes unbearable; we fear what horror will follow.

Sassako is a master storyteller and painter of landscape. His color palette holds our eyes as our hearts cringe at the story. Beautiful moments linger amidst savage reality. We see ballet in the scene when a dozen young men play soccer without a soccer ball. How graceful is their athletic movements and how deep their pleasure. We are mesmerized, and at the same time, we are panicked to think what the next scene will bring. The film’s power comes from its majestic beauty – a beauty that we fear cannot exist with the evil we are watching.

Sassako parallels the opening scene with the final scene. The film begins showing an elegant deer running through the soft dunes. It ends with the same scene, but the animal is replaced by the twelve-year-old heroine who runs desperately through the same dunes as she tries to escape her tragic reality. Sassako’s circle is a vicious cycle with no end to crimes against humanity.

Timbuktu is a difficult film to watch because it depicts a possible future that no one wants to see: genocide. All the more reason to see this film now.

Images courtesy of Les Films du WORSO

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21. Food insecurity and the Great Recession

While food insecurity in America is by no means a new problem, it has been made worse by the Great Recession. And, despite the end of the Great Recession, food insecurity rates remain high. Currently, about 49 million people in the U.S. are living in food insecure households. In a recently-released article in Applied Economics Policy and Perspectives my co-authors, Elaine Waxman and Emily Engelhard, and I provide an overview of Map the Meal Gap, a tool that is used to establish food insecurity rates at the local level for Feeding America (the umbrella organization for food banks in the United States).

For 35 years, Feeding America has responded to the hunger crisis in America by providing food to people in need through a nationwide network of food banks. Today, Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization—a powerful and efficient network of 200 food banks across the country. You can learn more about food insecurity rates in America by listening to the below podcast:

 

What are the state-level determinants of food insecurity? What is the distribution of food insecurity across counties in the United States? How do the county-level food insecurity estimates generated in Map the Meal Gap compare with other sources? Along with reviewing Map the Meal Gap and finding out the answers to these questions, we discuss ways that policies can and are being used to reduce food insecurity in the United States.

Headline image credit: Supermarket trolleys, by Rd. Vortex. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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22. Stress before birth

Stress seems to be everywhere we turn. Much of the daily news is stressful, whether it pertains to the recent Ebola outbreak in western Africa (and its subsequent entry into the United States), beheadings by the radical Islamic group called ISIS, or the economic doldrums that continue to plague much of the developed world. Moreover, we all experience frequent stress in our daily lives. Stress can come from your job, your family, a romantic relationship, personal attacks by way of social media, or, if you’re a student, your school performance. Counselors, psychotherapists, even self-help books and other materials may help us cope with stress, but these sources don’t usually give us very much information about what is actually happening to our brain and our body when we’re stressed.

If we think about it for a moment, it becomes clear that stress is not a recent phenomenon brought about by the features of contemporary western societies. Our hominid ancestors who evolved on the African savanna were surely stressed in the course of meeting their basic biological needs of finding food and water, acquiring shelter, and keeping safe from predators. Moreover, the principal brain and endocrine (i.e. hormonal) systems that underlie the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological responses to stress are found throughout the animal kingdom, indicating that these systems arose much earlier in evolutionary history than the appearance of the first hominids. So just what are these systems and how do they work?

Insert drawing of adrenal gland here with the following caption: Structure of the adrenal gland, showing the outer cortex and the inner medulla along with the hormones they secrete. Reproduced from Psychopharmacology. Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, second edition, by Jerrold S. Meyer and Linda F. Quenzer. © Sinauer Associates.
Insert drawing of adrenal gland here with the following caption: Structure of the adrenal gland, showing the outer cortex and the inner medulla along with the hormones they secrete. Reproduced from Psychopharmacology. Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, second edition, by Jerrold S. Meyer and Linda F. Quenzer. © Sinauer Associates.

A lot of research has focused on the hormonal systems that are turned on during stress. These responses are easier to access than brain responses, since researchers usually need only to obtain samples of the person’s blood, saliva, or urine to determine whether her endocrine system is showing a normal stress response or perhaps is functioning abnormally due to the effects of previous stress exposure. There are two parts to the endocrine stress response, both involving the adrenal glands. The inner part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla, rapidly secretes the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (also called adrenalin and noradrenalin) in response to a stressor. These hormones help prepare the person for rapid physical action by elevating heart rate and blood pressure, mobilizing sugar from the liver for instant energy, and increasing blood flow to the skeletal muscles. The outer part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal cortex, is also activated by stressors but a bit more slowly. This part of the gland secretes glucocorticoids such as cortisol, which not only works in conjunction with epinephrine and norepinephrine but also affects inflammation, immune function, and brain activity.

For many years, researchers focused on how stress, especially chronic stress, can damage the adult brain and body. More recently, however, it has become clear that stress may be particularly destructive during development. We now know, for example, that repeated childhood maltreatment and abuse increase the child’s vulnerability to a later onset of clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. But stress can exert deleterious effects even earlier in development, namely during the prenatal period. Although the fetal adrenal glands begin to function before birth, it seems likely that stress is transmitted to the fetus mainly through maternal hormones such as cortisol. The placenta breaks down much of the mother’s cortisol before it reaches the fetus, but some of the hormone manages to get through. One example that shows how prenatal stress can adversely affect offspring development stems from a terrible ice storm that hit Québec Province in Canada in January of 1998. Three million people lost electrical power for up to 40 days, resulting in significant privation. David Laplante and colleagues at Douglas Hospital of McGill University later studied 89 five-and-a-half-year-old children whose mothers had been pregnant with them during the power outage. Children whose mothers endured the greatest hardship as a result of the storm scored noticeably lower in verbal IQ scores and in a vocabulary test than children whose mother experienced low or moderate hardship.

Insert drawing of human fetus here with the following caption: Late pregnancy human fetus. Illustration by Bruce Blaus. Source: Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Late pregnancy human fetus. Illustration by Bruce Blaus. Source: Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While natural disasters like the Québec ice storm afford researchers the opportunity to investigate some of the deleterious effects of prenatal stress exposure, there are many limitations of such studies because the stress cannot be controlled experimentally and there are additional confounding variables such as differing postnatal experiences among the participants. To overcome some of these limitations and additionally permit a more detailed examination of behavioral, endocrine, and brain function than normally available with human participants, models of stress (including prenatal stress) have been developed for studying nonhuman primates such as rhesus monkeys. Offspring of rhesus monkeys exposed during mid-to-late pregnancy either to repeated mild stress or to pharmacological stimulation of cortisol release show behavioral and brain abnormalities that are still present at least several years later.

Young rhesus monkey, courtesy of author
Young rhesus monkey, courtesy of author

The implication of both the human and primate research is clear. We must pay closer attention to the well-being of pregnant women in order to minimize whatever life stresses can be controlled. By so doing, we can help newborn children begin life with better prospects for their future mental and physical health.

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23. Oxytocin and emotion recognition

Imagine you are in class and your friend has just made a fool of the teacher. How do you feel? Although this will depend on the personalities of those involved, you might well find yourself laughing along with your classmates at the teacher’s expense. The experience of sharing an emotion with your friends (in this case the fun of getting one over on the teacher) will probably strengthen your friendship further. But in a class of one hundred students, there are likely to be one or two who have trouble understanding the joke.

The ability to infer and understand other peoples’ emotions and beliefs plays an important role in human social relationships. However, for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a developmental disorder that affects approximately 1% of the population and for which there is no established treatment — this can be challenging. While high-functioning individuals with ASD may be able to compensate for difficulties in inferring others’ beliefs, they often continue to have trouble understanding others’ emotions, and this leads to impaired social functioning.

Increasing evidence suggests that oxytocin — a neuropeptide that promotes social behavior and bonding in humans and in animals — can improve emotion recognition in ‘typically developing’ individuals, i.e. those without ASD. Notably, oxytocin improves the ability to infer others’ emotions more than the ability to identify their beliefs. Oxytocin has also been shown to improve social behavior in individuals with autism and to partially reverse patterns of brain dysfunction thought to be responsible for the deficits. This has led to the suggestion that oxytocin could be used to develop medications for currently untreatable psychiatric conditions characterized by social impairments.

However, studies to date have only investigated the ability of oxytocin to improve recognition of basic emotions such as fear or happiness. These differ from “social” emotions such as embarrassment and shame, which require us to represent the mental state of another. Moreover, most existing studies have provided participants with so-called “direct cues” as to others’ emotions, such as their facial expressions or tone of voice. However, these cues are not always available in real life and the ability to identify others’ emotions using only indirect cues is itself important for social functioning. We therefore decided to investigate whether oxytocin would also improve the ability of individuals with ASD to recognise social emotions, even in the absence of direct cues.

MRI of brain by bykst. Public Domain via Pixabay.
MRI of brain by bykst. Public Domain via Pixabay.

To do so, we modified a cartoon-based task called the “Sally-Anne task,” which is commonly used to test for understanding of other peoples’ false beliefs, and used MRI scans to measure brain activity in subjects with and without ASD as they performed the task. In the standard version, participants are shown a cartoon in which one protagonist (Sally) places a ball in a box and then leaves the room. In her absence, another protagonist (Anne) moves the ball to a second box to the right of the first, and Sally then returns. At the end of the story, participants are asked the following questions: “Is the ball in the left-hand box?” to test comprehension of the story, and “Does Sally look for her ball in the left-hand box?” to test for understanding of Sally’s false belief about the location of the ball. To examine participants’ ability to infer others’ emotions, we introduced a third question: “How does Anne feel when Sally opens the left-hand box?”. Given that Ann’s gain effectively depends on Sally’s loss, the emotions involved will be complex social emotions: Ann, for example, might gloat upon realizing that she has fooled Sally by moving the ball.

We discovered that individuals with ASD are less accurate than IQ-matched controls in inferring social emotions in the absence of direct cues such as facial expressions. Moreover, individuals with ASD showed lower activity than controls in two brain regions that contribute to this ability, namely the right anterior insula and superior temporal sulcus. Individuals with ASD who had a normal IQ were not significantly impaired in inferring others’ beliefs; however, they did show lower brain activity than controls in a region implicated in this process, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

In order to determine whether oxytocin could improve the ability of individuals with ASD to identify others’ social emotions, we conducted a double-blind trial. We administered a single dose of either oxytocin or placebo in the form of an intranasal spray to subjects with ASD and to matched controls. As predicted, oxytocin increased the accuracy with which individuals with ASD were able to identify others’ social emotions in the absence of direct cues, and also enhanced their originally-diminished brain activity in the right anterior insula. This increase in activity was not observed in other brain regions or during attempts to understand others’ beliefs, suggesting that oxytocin acts specifically on the ability to infer social emotions.

Ultimately therefore, the results of our behavioral experiments and brain activity studies lend support to the idea that intranasal oxytocin could potentially form the basis of a treatment for at least some of the social impairments in ASD.

Heading image: Oxytocin-neurophysin by Edgar181. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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24. Sharecropper’s Troubadour: songs and stories from the 2014 OHA Annual Meeting

OHA2014 Header The 2014 Oral History Association Annual Meeting featured an exciting musical plenary session led by Michael Honey and Pat Krueger. They presented the songs and stories of John Handcox, the “poet laureate” of the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union, linking generations of struggle in the South through African American song and oral poetry traditions. The presentation built on Dr. Honey’s article in Oral History Review 41.2, “’Sharecroppers’ Troubadour': Can We Use Songs and Oral Poetry as Oral History?,” as well as his recent book.

The audio below was graciously recorded and provided by the faculty of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Image credits: Oral History Association Annual Meeting flyer courtesy of the Oral History Association. Michael Honey headshot courtesy of Michael Honey.

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25. What do rumors, diseases, and memes have in common?

Are you worried about catching the flu, or perhaps even Ebola? Just how worried should you be? Well, that depends on how fast a disease will spread over social and transportation networks, so it’s obviously important to obtain good estimates of the speed of disease transmission and to figure out good containment strategies to combat disease spread.

Diseases, rumors, memes, and other information all spread over networks. A lot of research has explored the effects of network structure on such spreading. Unfortunately, most of this research has a major issue: it considers networks that are not realistic enough, and this can lead to incorrect predictions of transmission speeds, which people are most important in a network, and so on. So how does one address this problem?

Traditionally, most studies of propagation on networks assume a very simple network structure that is static and only includes one type of connection between people. By contrast, real networks change in time  one contacts different people during weekdays and on weekends, one (hopefully) stays home when one is sick, new University students arrive from all parts of the world every autumn to settle into new cities. They also include multiple types of social ties (Facebook, Twitter, and – gasp – even face-to-face friendships), multiple modes of transportation, and so on. That is, we consume and communicate information through all sorts of channels. To consider a network with only one type of social tie ignores these facts and can potentially lead to incorrect predictions of which memes go viral and how fast information spreads. It also fails to allow differentiation between people who are important in one medium from people who are important in a different medium (or across multiple media). In fact, most real networks include a far richer “multilayer” structure. Collapsing such structures to obtain and then study a simpler network representation can yield incorrect answers for how fast diseases or ideas spread, the robustness level of infrastructures, how long it takes for interaction oscillators to synchronize, and more.

mobile-phone-426559_640
Image credit: Mobile Phone, by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recently, an increasingly large number of researchers are studying mathematical objects called “multilayer networks”. These generalize ordinary networks and allow one to incorporate time-dependence, multiple modes of connection, and other complexities. Work on multilayer networks dates back many decades in fields like sociology and engineering, and of course it is well-known that networks don’t exist in isolation but rather are coupled to other networks. The last few years have seen a rapid explosion of new theoretical tools to study multilayer networks.

And what types of things do researchers need to figure out? For one thing, it is known that multilayer structures induce correlations that are invisible if one collapses multilayer networks into simpler representations, so it is essential to figure out when and by how much such correlations increase or decrease the propagation of diseases and information, how they change the ability of oscillators to synchronize, and so on. From the standpoint of theory, it is necessary to develop better methods to measure multilayer structures, as a large majority of the tools that have been used thus far to study multilayer networks are mostly just more complicated versions of existing diagnostic and models. We need to do better. It is also necessary to systematically examine the effects of multilayer structures, such as correlations between different layers (e.g., perhaps a person who is important for the social network that is encapsulated in one layer also tends to be important in other layers?), on different types of dynamical processes. In these efforts, it is crucial to consider not only simplistic (“toy”) models — as in most of the work on multilayer networks thus far — but to move the field towards the examination of ever more realistic and diverse models and to estimate the parameters of these models from empirical data. As our review article illustrates, multilayer networks are both exciting and important to study, but the increasingly large community that is studying them still has a long way to go. We hope that our article will help steer these efforts, which promise to be very fruitful.

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