A bit of a bookshelf 11/09/08

New research by psychologists Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt shows that people enjoy stories more when they already know the ending.

This research actually made headlines a month ago, but it was highlighted in Steven Colbert’s “The Word” on September 6th.   While Colbert then proceeded to share the endings of movies like The Sixth Sense or the Star Wars trilogy so that those who hadn’t seen them would enjoy them more, his coverage brought even more attention to research that ABC News covered after speaking with the authors of the study.

“I was surprised by the finding,” Christenfeld said. “I’ve spent my life not looking at the end of a book.” He and Leavitt had 300 volunteers read 12 short stories, including mysteries or tales with surprise endings by the likes of Agatha Christie, John Updike and Anton Chekov, and rated them on a scale of 1 to 10. Almost without fail, and by sizeable margins, the readers rated them more highly if the researchers inserted copy near the beginning, giving away how the tales would come out.

Though their study didn’t point to explanations for the finding, Christenfeld thinks that people enjoy a good story just as much as a surprise ending.

“Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them,” Leavitt and Christenfeld said in their paper, to be published in the journal Psychological Science. “But giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end — that the condemned man’s daring escape was just a fantasy before the rope snapped taut around his neck — or solved the crime — that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is in fact the perpetrator.


Pills 2
No one wants to be sad. This can generally be agreed on. However, as it becomes more and more common for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to be prescribed, the question becomes what is a socially acceptable level of sadness for a well-functioning member of society to experience? There remains a blurry, but important line between what is considered ‘normal’ grieving and what is classified as a mental disorder or depression.  NPR’s Alix Spiegal recently explored a shift in this line due to changes in the criteria used by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose depression.

Traditionally, the manual has steered doctors away from diagnosing major depression in people who have just lost a loved one in what’s called “bereavement exclusion.” The idea was that feelings of intense pain were normal, so they shouldn’t be labeled as a mental disorder.
But the new DSM changes this. Buried in the pages is a small but potentially potent alteration that has implications not only for people like Theresa, but ultimately for the way that we think about and understand the emotion of pain.
The DSM committee removed the bereavement exclusion — a small, almost footnote at the bottom of the section that describes the symptoms of major depression — from the manual.

Dr. Kenneth Kendler, a member of the committee behind the change, explains that grief and depression share the same symptoms – lack of sleep, loss of appetite, loss of energy. The key distinction between grief and depression is the amount of time the person experiences the symptoms.

In fact, in the new manual, if symptoms like these persist for more than two weeks, the bereaved person will be considered to have a mental disorder: major depression. And treatment, either therapy or medication, is recommended.

While Kendler believes that this change will only affect a small number, and for the better, Holly Prigerson a research at Harvard University believes otherwise.

“What we found,” Prigerson says, “is that when you follow people — for example, between zero and six months post-loss — their depression symptom levels actually increase over time and peak at about six months post-loss.”
Because grief and depression look so much alike, Prigerson says, she worries that people who are suffering from normal grief will be told that they are sick when they are not, and encouraged to treat their symptoms when they don’t need to.
That is potentially a problem, Prigerson says, because we don’t know whether the pain of normal grief actually helps people to process their loss.

Other experts expand Prigerson’s argument by voicing concern that society is continuing down a path to having an over-diagnosed and over-medicated population where to be sad is to be sick.

Dr. Allen Frances, the famous psychiatrist and a former editor of the DSM, says that more and more, psychiatry is medicalizing our experiences. That is, it is turning emotions that are perfectly normal into something pathological.
“Over the course of time, we’ve become looser in applying the term ‘mental disorder’ to the expectable aches and pains and sufferings of everyday life,” Frances says. “And always, we think about a medication treatment for each and every problem.”
From Frances’ perspective, if you can’t feel intense emotional pain in the wake of the death of your child without it being categorized as a mental disorder, then when in the course of human experience are you allowed to feel intense emotional pain for more than two weeks?

The Kingdom of GodGod is really popular in the U.S., reports the Vancouver Sun:

He gets more Oscar shout-outs than Meryl Streep, is name-checked by every other American Idol contestant and is presumed to have a vested interest in who wins hockey games.

This finding is based on a study by University of Toronto sociologist Scott Schieman:

The vast majority of Americans believe God is directly concerned with their personal affairs, with most assuming a divine reason for everything from job promotions to speeding tickets.

“In American culture — much less so in Canada — there’s a really constant flow of God-talk that references these small, personal interactions. It’s almost like a self-absorbed view of divine will,” says study author Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

“The extent that it’s so visible, almost saturating the culture at times, makes me think it’s not just metaphor or symbolism; many, many people believe these processes are real.”

Eight in 10 Americans say they depend on God for decision-making guidance.  Seven in 10 believe that when good or bad things happen, the occurrences are part of God’s plan.  And six in 10 believe God has set the course of their lives.

This might have drawbacks in the realm of personal efficacy, says Schieman:

Schieman find[s] that a third of Americans agree with the rather defeatist statement: “There’s no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God’s hands….If you feel like, ‘No matter what I do, it’s all going to work out a particular way,’ what does that do for your motivation?” says Schieman, who suggests the 32 per cent of people who behave this way do so because it relieves anxiety in desperate circumstances, shifting the pressure skyward.

In contrast:

Schieman says the idea of God as “a personal friend” can lend itself to positive effects, such as fostering an increased sense of social support, well-being and purpose.

To read more about Schieman’s study, you can also check him out the New York Times.

Girl in DespairAccording to the Washington Post, recent research on social networks has shown that loneliness can be contagious.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, loneliness can spread from one person to another, according to research being released Tuesday that underscores the power of one person’s emotions to affect friends, family and neighbors.

The federally funded analysis of data collected from more than 4,000 people over 10 years found that lonely people increase the chances that someone they know will start to feel alone, and that the solitary feeling can spread one more degree of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate.


The researchers used information gathered from the participants over decades, including their friendships, identities of their neighbors, co-workers and family members, and information about their emotional state. Previous studies by Christakis and Fowler concluded that obesity, the likelihood of quitting smoking, and even happiness could spread from one person to another.

Similarly, the new analysis, involving 4,793 people who were interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001, showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 percent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed. A friend of that person was 25 percent more likely, and a friend of a friend of a friend was 15 percent more likely.

According to sociologists, these results demonstrate that even individuals’ emotions have social significance:

“No man is an island,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct the research. “Something so personal as a person’s emotions can have a collective existence and affect the vast fabric of humanity.”


The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. “It’s not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect,” Christakis said.

The findings underscore the importance of social networks, several experts said.

“For years, physicians and researchers thought about individuals as isolated creatures,” said Stanley Wasserman, who studies social networks at Indiana University. “We now know that the people you surround yourself with can have a tremendous impact on your well-being, whether it’s physical or psychological.”

The findings suggest that if you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network ,” Christakis said.

Earlier this week United Press International (UPI) ran a story about research by sociologists Sarah Burgard and James House of the University of Michigan and Jennie Brand at the University of California, Los Angeles, which revealed that “persistent job insecurity — not necessarily job loss — poses a major threat” to workers in the United States.

About the study…

[The authors] analyzed data on more than 1,700 adults collected over periods from 3-10 years. By interviewing the same people at different points in time, the researchers were able to disentangle the connection between poor health and job insecurity, and to control for the impact of actual job loss and other factors.

The first wave of the study was completed between 1986 and 1989 and the second between 1995 and 2005.

The authors note:

“It may seem surprising that chronically high job-insecurity is more strongly linked with health declines than actual job loss or unemployment,” Burgard said in a statement. “Ongoing ambiguity about the future, inability to take action unless the feared event actually happens, and the lack of institutionalized supports associated with perceived insecurity are among them.”

To measure feelings of job insecurity, study participants were asked, “How likely is that during the next couple of years you will involuntarily lose your main job?” At any given time, as many as 18 percent of those surveyed felt insecure about their jobs, the study said.

Read more.

caution tapeEarlier this week USA Today ran several articles  on the tenth anniversary of the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. They called upon several sociologists to talk about how the Columbine shootings changed the culture of American high schools.

The first featured work from sociologist Katherine Newman…

School shooters almost always tell classmates of their plans, so schools should provide “confidential avenues for reporting what they hear,” says Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, who co-authored Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. It’s tough to get teenagers to “tell,” since creating a social culture apart from adults is so important to adolescent development, Newman says. But if adults guarantee confidentiality, results can be dramatic. Examples:

•Colorado has a Safe2Tell anonymous tipline that covers any potential threat to safety. The program also includes anonymous and encrypted Web-tipping, says Susan Payne, special agent in charge of school safety and homeland security for the state. In the past 4½ years, the line has prevented 28 planned school attacks, she says. In one incident, there were 33 weapons found. About two-thirds of the calls come from kids, Payne says. “All of us have seen these unspeakable tragedies. I can’t think of one that could not have been prevented.”

•Safe School Ambassadors is a program created by the non-profit Community Matters in 2000. It has trained staff at more than 650 schools in 23 states on how to set up so-called ambassadors — influential student leaders of varied cliques who learn how to squelch minor fires of bullying and other behaviors, and to report potential rampages.

The second highlighted sociologist David Osher…

The Secret Service found that 71% of shooters they studied felt “persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others.” In several cases, they’d experienced school bullying and harassment that was “long-standing and severe.”

“These kids didn’t pick the local movie theater to blow people away, and there’s a reason they picked school,” says David Osher, a sociologist and vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

Schools that tolerate lots of bullying and look the other way from petty acts of violence are more vulnerable to escalating violence, including rampages from shooters, he says.

And where relations between teachers and kids with emotional problems are harsh or distant, violence becomes more likely.

“These are rage shootings,” he says, “kids suffering from depression largely creating public suicides in school environments where they feel alienated.”

Read more on how ‘Post-Columbine Programs Help Prevent Rampages.’

Read more on ‘Lessons from Columbine.’

IMG_2415The New Scientist reports this morning that, “Like an influenza outbreak, happiness – and misery too – spread through social networks, affecting people through three degrees of separation. For instance, a happy friend of a friend of a friend increases the chances of personal happiness by about 6% (see graphic). Compare that to research showing that a $5000 income bump ups the odds by just 2%, says James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who led the new study.”

“Even people we don’t know and have never met have bigger effect on our mood than substantial increases in income,” he says. He and colleague Nicholas Christakis, of Boston’s Harvard Medical School, made the connection by mining 53,228 social connections between 5124 people who took part in a decades-long clinical study.

This study employed similar methods to those used to study smoking and obesity as part of the Framingham Heart Study, the research subjects recorded social contacts and health status as part of the long-term clinical study. Social links between participants allowed the investigators to map the spread of happiness — one item on the psychological questionnaire included in the study.

Even more than smoking and obesity, happiness spreads best at close distances, they found. A happy next-door neighbour ups the odds of person happiness by 34%, a sibling who lives within 1 mile (1.6 kilometres) by 14%, and a friend within half a mile by a whopping 42%.

The effect falls off through the network, with friends’ happiness boosting the chances of personal happiness by an average of 15% and friends of friends by 10%. As with obesity and smoking, Fowler and Christakis detected no effect beyond three degrees of separation.

And the sociological commentary…

Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, and curator of the World Database of Happiness agrees. “Happy people are typically more involved, are nicer to their kids and their dog, and live longer,” he says.

The study, which he describes as “terribly creative”, might even help people improve their daily lives. “If you want to make people happier, you know at least how it spreads.”

Read the full story.

Science News reports this morning on an alarming new trend which suggests that middle-aged whites are a high-risk group for committing suicide.

A dark underside of middle-age has surfaced in the past decade. Although this phase of life is one psychologists have long considered a time of general stability and emotional well-being, white men and women ages 40 to 64 accounted for the bulk of a recent increase in the U.S. suicide rate, a new study finds.

Data gleaned from U.S. death certificates show that the overall suicide rate rose 0.7 percent annually between 1999 and 2005, reversing a downward trend in the rate that had begun in 1986. This increase primarily reflected a 2.7 percent annual rise in the suicide rate among middle-aged white men and a corresponding 3.9 percent annual rise among middle-aged white women, say epidemiologist Susan Baker of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and her colleagues.

A sociologist weighs in…

In 2005, evidence of a disproportionate number of annual deaths among middle-aged people in the United States raised suspicion that an escalating percentage of the deaths were suicides, remarks sociologist Robert Bossarte of the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. “The big unanswered question is why middle-aged adults killed themselves at an increased rate in the years covered by this new study,” Bossarte says.

Possible contributors to this trend include mounting numbers of military veterans reaching middle age and rising difficulties for middle-aged individuals in trying to secure medical insurance, he suggests.

Read more.

Landon Sleeping on Mommy's Tummy

MSNBC reports on the recent trend towards more mothers undergoing dramatic cosmetic surgery to alter their bodies post-birth.

The trend…

Among women in their 30s, there was a 9 percent to 12 percent rise in tummy tucks and breast surgery between 2005 and 2006. In 2007, 59 percent of American Society of Plastic Surgeons members surveyed said they saw an increase in patients seeking post-childbirth cosmetic surgery procedures in the previous three years. “Many of my patients are young moms who are doing their best to take care of themselves, but their bodies have gone through some irreversible changes that they find discouraging,” says David Stoker, M.D., of Marina Plastic Surgery Associates in Marina del Rey, Calif.

The sociologist’s commentary…

Others point out that many mothers today are not “just” mothers — they have professional and personal lives outside of the home and don’t want to look like the stereotypical mom. They want to feel better about their bodies, and that desire shouldn’t be dismissed or criticized, says sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Ph.D., author of “Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture” (Rutgers University Press). “I don’t think we should judge women for wanting to look like they did before they got pregnant,” Pitts-Taylor adds. “Social approval is empowering in our society.”

Read on…

smile Contexts contributor Robin Simon graced the pages of Newsweek recently to offer some comments on the debate as to whether or not having children contributes to or detracts from overall happiness. While Simon’s perspective has garnered some negative attention, her numerous publications on the subject of parenting have brought her significant media attention.

Newsweek’s Lorraine Ali writes,

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term “bundle of joy” may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor who’s conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not.”

Simon’s findings have not always been well-received…

Simon received plenty of hate mail in response to her research (“Obviously Professor Simon hates her kids,” read one), which isn’t surprising. Her findings shake the very foundation of what we’ve been raised to believe is true. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, 50 percent of Americans said that adding new children to the family tends to increase happiness levels. Only one in six (16 percent) said that adding new children had a negative effect on the parents’ happiness. But which parent is willing to admit that the greatest gift life has to offer has in fact made his or her life less enjoyable?

Read more.