Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Male and female fetuses respond differently to COVID-19 virus

Maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection elicits sexually dimorphic placental immune responses. Evan A Bordt et al. Sciece Translational Medicine, Oct 19 2021. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abi7428

Abstract: There is a persistent bias toward higher prevalence and increased severity of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in males. Underlying mechanisms accounting for this sex difference remain incompletely understood. Interferon responses have been implicated as a modulator of COVID-19 disease in adults, and play a key role in the placental antiviral response. Moreover, the interferon response has been shown to alter Fc receptor expression, and therefore may impact placental antibody transfer. Here we examined the intersection of maternal-fetal antibody transfer, viral-induced placental interferon responses, and fetal sex in pregnant women infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Placental Fc receptor abundance, interferon stimulated gene (ISG) expression, and SARS-CoV-2 antibody transfer were interrogated in 68 human pregnancies. Sexually dimorphic expression of placental Fc receptors, ISGs and proteins, and interleukin-10 was observed following maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection, with up-regulation of these features in placental tissue of pregnant individuals with male fetuses. Reduced maternal SARS-CoV-2-specific antibody titers and impaired placental antibody transfer were also observed in pregnancies with a male fetus. These results demonstrate fetal sex-specific maternal and placental adaptive and innate immune responses to SARS-CoV-2.

Popular version:


Our results demonstrate the impact of fetal sex on the maternal and placental immune response to SARS-CoV-2, and the potential consequences for neonatal antibody-mediated immunity. We show that maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection is associated with reduced maternal SARS-CoV-2-specific IgG titers in the setting of a male fetus. SARS-CoV-2-specific placental antibody transfer to the male fetus was reduced despite up-regulation of placental Fc receptors in SARS-CoV-2-exposed male placentas; males were unable to overcome the reduced maternal titers and the highly fucosylated glycan profile of the spike protein-specific antibodies. Mirroring Fc receptor expression, placental expression of interferon stimulated genes and proteins was also sexually dimorphic, with notable up-regulation noted in male placentas in the setting of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection. Collectively these findings provide evidence of maternal-placental-fetal immune crosstalk in the setting of maternal viral infection, with fetal sex playing a key role in modifying maternal humoral responses and placental innate and adaptive immune responses.
Epidemiologic data point to a persistent male bias in the development and severity of COVID-19 disease in adults, children, and infants (6898283). Male COVID-19 patients are three times as likely to require admission to intensive care units and have higher odds of death than females (84). This male-biased vulnerability to maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection mirrors the male-biased risk of mortality and morbidity across the perinatal period (13). Our findings of sexually dimorphic placental innate immune responses to infection, coupled with sex differences in transfer of maternal humoral immunity, may provide insight into increased vulnerability of male infants to morbidity and mortality.
Although the impact of fetal sex is not consistently evaluated in studies of placental function (85), sex-specific alterations in the placental transcriptome have been described in both normal and pathologic pregnancies (8689). Sex differences in the placental immune response to prenatal infections and other immune stressors have been described in human and animal models (549093), but have not been examined in SARS-CoV-2 infection. Here we report that maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection induces a sexually dimorphic placental antiviral innate immune response, with up-regulation of ISGs in male, but not female, placentas. Male-specific stimulation of placental ISGs following SARS-CoV-2 exposure is consistent with the heightened male immune responses reported in SARS-CoV-2-infected adult and pediatric cohorts (568104294). Interestingly, although we did not see evidence of maternal viremia nor placental, cord blood, or neonatal SARS-CoV-2 infection (2895), and the majority of maternal infections represent mild or moderate disease, there is still evidence of altered placental gene expression and an antiviral response in the placentas of male pregnancies. This indicates that even a mild maternal infection in the absence of placental or fetal infection has the potential to affect placental function and fetal development.
Due to their immature immune system, newborns rely on the passive transplacental transfer of maternal antibodies for initial protection against infectious pathogens (151896). Although previous reports in adults have noted sex differences in the production of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies (4297), sex-biased maternal production and transplacental transfer of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies has not been well-described. We previously reported impaired placental transfer of maternal SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies in the setting of maternal COVID-19 (2829). Although there are known sex differences in adult antibody production in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection (4294), little is known about sex differences in maternal titers or transplacental antibody transfer (9899) in the setting of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection. Our finding of decreased maternal antibody titers against all measured SARS-CoV-2-specific antigens (S, S1, S2, RBD, N) when the fetus was male versus female was a difference not observed for influenza or pertussis-specific antibodies. Reduced maternal SARS-CoV-2-specific IgG titer in male pregnancies was undoubtedly a driver of the reduced transplacental transfer noted in male fetuses (15). This finding of impaired placental transfer of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies, more pronounced in males, is consistent with the male-specific reduction of placental transfer of maternal IgG reported in a non-human primate model of maternal stress (98). Reduced maternal antibody titers in the setting of a male fetus were likely attributable to suppressed maternal pro-inflammatory responses in the setting of a male fetus, which have been described in prior studies and may function to improve tolerance of the fetal allograft (1314). The direct correlation between pro-inflammatory response and increased antibody production noted in COVID-19 infection (6667) suggests that blunted maternal inflammatory responses in the setting of a male fetus may limit maternal antibody production in the setting of acute infection. Whether the male-biased impairment in placental SARS-CoV-2-specific antibody transfer renders male infants more vulnerable to early-life SARS-CoV-2 infection remains unclear, as the amount of antibody necessary for protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection is unknown and there are few sex-disaggregated reports of neonatal (100101) or infant infection (8).
Although the up-regulation of Fc receptor expression in male placentas may represent a compensatory placental response driven by reduced maternal antibody titer and transplacental transfer of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies (22102103), this response was likely reinforced by the increased IFN signaling in males versus females. IFN-stimulated signaling may impact placental antibody transfer via alteration in Fc receptor expression and function (104106); for example, Type I IFN signaling is known to up-regulate Fcγ receptor expression on monocytes (107). Hofbauer cells, tissue-resident macrophages of the placenta, express FcγRI, II and III (23). The male-specific Hofbauer cell hyperplasia in placentas exposed to maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection could therefore also be contributing to increased placental FcγRI and FcγRIII expression in males.
Although the low maternal antibody titers in male pregnancies may have driven a compensatory up-regulation of Fc receptors in the male placenta, the up-regulation of FcγRIII and co-localization of FcγRIII with FcRn in the male placenta likely impeded placental transfer of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies, given their distinct Fc-glycan profile. Our Fc-glycan analysis demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies were highly fucosylated in both male and female pregnancies, a post-translational modification that lowers antibody affinity for FcγRIII (6971). The male-specific placental increase in FcγRIII expression and co-localization of FcγRIII with FcRn might therefore present an additional impediment to transferring the already-low maternal titers of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies to the fetus. Males instead preferentially transferred bisected (afucosylated) and agalactosylated (G0), afucosylated spike protein-specific antibodies, as afucosylated antibodies are more easily transferred by FcγRIII. Given the inflammatory nature of G0 and B antibodies (72108109), their preferential transfer might promote a more inflammatory immune response in male fetuses.
Innate immune sensing of SARS-CoV-2 involves the activation of type I and type III interferons and up-regulation of ISGs in target cells (110). Given the relative paucity of SARS-CoV-2 placental infection (28) in comparison to other pandemic infections such as Zika virus (ZIKV) (111), the increased ISG production and up-regulated IL10 expression in exposed male placentas may be a protective mechanism to prevent direct placental infection and pathology. Indeed, high IFN concentrations during pregnancy have proven protective against placental herpes simplex virus infection (112) and type III IFNs impair ZIKV transplacental transmission (113). Induction of ISGs is likely not universally protective, however. Whereas type III IFNs primarily serve a barrier defense role, type I and type II IFNs can serve a more classical immune activating or inflammatory role (3145). Animal models of viral infection in pregnancy implicate type I and type II interferons and ISGs in impaired placental development and fetal growth restriction (465051114), conditions which can have both short- and long-term impact on fetal and offspring health. We demonstrated increased expression of IFN-γ, initiator of Type II interferon signaling, in male SARS-CoV-2-exposed placentas. IFN-γ and the Type II IFN response have been implicated in placental spiral artery remodeling, and may mediate fetal growth restriction and fetal demise in malarial and Toxoplasma gondii infection in pregnancy (5051115116). A transcriptomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 response genes demonstrated that IFN-γ was an upstream regulator of host viral response in the setting of SARS-CoV-2 infection (117), with higher IFN-γ abundance associated with increased risk for SARS-CoV-2 viral entry (52) and increased mortality in moderate and severe COVID-19 illness (53). Thus, it remains unclear if the male-specific up-regulation of ISGs described here is potentially beneficial (protection from viral infection) versus harmful (increased placental inflammation, increased risk for fetal growth restriction or poor placental function). It was noteworthy that female placentas from SARS-CoV-2-negative control pregnancies generally had higher expression of interferon-stimulated genes and proteins than did male SARS-CoV-2-negative placentas. The potential for a baseline female “antiviral placental advantage” is consistent with the established increased vulnerability of the male fetus to in utero insults, including viral and bacterial infection (92118), and observed sex differences in baseline innate immunity described in non-placental cells and tissues (12119). These findings highlight the necessity of future studies assessing baseline differences in male and female placental immune responses. The long-term consequences of SARS-CoV-2-associated placental induction of Type I, II, and III IFN responses for fetal development and in utero programming of later life metabolic and neurodevelopmental outcomes remains to be determined.
A limitation of our study is the infection of participants primarily in the third trimester, because these samples were collected during the initial wave of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in Boston. Whether maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first and second trimester alters ISG and Fc receptor expression, and how such altered expression might durably impact placental immune function, is a question that remains to be answered in future studies. It remains unclear whether the reduced SARS-CoV-2-specific maternal antibody titers, highly fucosylated glycan profile of spike protein-specific antibodies, and attenuated male-specific transplacental antibody transfer are unique to SARS-CoV-2 biology, or whether these phenomena instead reflect a common response to de novo infection during pregnancy. Future studies should assess the effect of fetal sex on maternal SARS-CoV-2 antibody titers and transplacental transfer in women infected prior to pregnancy, and the effect of fetal sex on maternal antibody responses to other de novo infections during pregnancy. In addition, although we found no association between disease severity and placental gene expression or antibody transfer, such examinations were limited by the relatively small number of women with severe or critical illness. Although our results demonstrate male-specific up-regulation of Type I and II IFNs (IFN-α and IFN-γ), and interferon-stimulated genes and proteins downstream of Type I-III signaling cascades, this study did not assess protein expression of Type III IFN-λ. Finally, although our regression models did not find time from infection to delivery to be a substantial contributor to the antibody transfer ratios, we cannot entirely rule out any contribution of timing of maternal infection to the reduced antibody transfer noted in males. However, our robust sexually dimorphic gene and protein expression results, with up-regulation of both placental ISGs and Fc receptors in males, demonstrate placental factors are a stronger driver of antibody transfer than any time-from-infection effect.
In conclusion, our comprehensive evaluation of the impact of fetal sex on placental gene expression and transplacental antibody transfer in maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection provides insight into sexually dimorphic or sex-specific placental innate and adaptive immune responses to maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection. The increased impact of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on male placental and neonatal immunity highlights the importance of evaluating fetal sex in future studies of placental pathology and infant outcomes in SARS-CoV-2, as well as the critical importance of disaggregating sex data in follow-up studies of offspring neurodevelopmental and metabolic outcomes. These findings may have broader implications for understanding placental immune response, male vulnerability, and passive transfer of maternal antibody in other viral infections. Studies investigating SARS-CoV-2 vaccine safety and efficacy in pregnant women should also evaluate placental immune response and antibody-transfer effects, in addition to neonatal infection rates, and report these data in a sex-disaggregated fashion (120).

Contrary to the major current in the literature, no differences between the three weight status groups (normal, overweight, obese) were found in either detection or identification capabilities, for food as well as for non-food odours

Olfactory Capabilities Towards Food and Non-food Odours in Men and Women of Various Weight Statuses. Marine Mas, Claire Chabanet, Charlotte Sinding, Thierry Thomas-Danguin, Marie-Claude Brindisi & Stéphanie Chambaron. Chemosensory Perception, Oct 19 2021.


Introduction: Olfaction is a sense that is closely linked to food intake and food choices in humans, but its relationship with obesity remains equivocal in the scientific literature: overall olfactory capacities seem poorer in obesity compared to normal weight, but some authors observed that individuals with obesity might have a heightened sensitivity to food odours. Our objective was to evaluate olfactory capabilities for food and non-food odours.

Methods: The European Test for Olfactory Capabilities (ETOC) was used. This test measures suprathreshold olfactory detection and identification capabilities. One hundred twenty-four men and women were tested, of whom 41 individuals with normal-weight, 45 individuals with overweight, and 38 individuals with obesity.

Results: Contrary to the major current in the literature, no differences between the three weight status groups were found in either detection or identification capabilities, for food as well as for non-food odours. Age decreased detection score while being male decreased identification score. A trend for better identification of non-food odours was found for overweight and obesity vs. normal-weight.

Conclusion: We encourage further research to distinguish food and non-food odours in olfactory measurements related to weight status in order to replicate our findings on a larger set of odours.

Implication: Future research should also focus on sensitivity to food odours by estimating detection thresholds and to control for confounding variables such as hormonal status, as well as individual liking of the odours.

Sex differences in masculine/feminine behaviour: When you look at masculine behaviour alone (top), there's a lot of overlap between the sexes, ditto feminine (right); but when you look at both traits at once (scatterplot), there's much less overlap

Understanding the Magnitude of Psychological Differences Between  Women and Men Requires Seeing the Forest and the Trees. Alice H. Eagly and William Revelle. Perspectives in Psychological Science, in press. Oct 2021.

Abstract: Whether women and men are psychologically very similar or quite different is a contentious  issue in psychological science. This article clarifies this issue by demonstrating that larger and  smaller sex/gender differences can reflect differing ways of organizing the same data. For single  psychological constructs, larger differences emerge from averaging multiple indicators that differ  by sex/gender to produce scales of a construct’s overall typicality for women versus men. For example, averaging self-ratings on personality traits more typical of women or men yields much larger sex/gender differences on measures of the femininity or masculinity of personality. Sex/gender differences on such broad-gauge, thematic variables are large relative to differences on their component indicators. This increased effect magnitude for aggregated scales reflects gains in both their reliability and validity as indicators of sex/gender. In addition, in  psychological domains such as vocational interests that are composed of many variables, at least  some of which differ by sex/gender, the multivariate distance between women and men is typically larger than the differences on the component variables. These analyses encourage recognition of the interdependence of sex/gender similarity and difference in psychological data. 

Keywords: sex differences, gender differences, effect magnitude, gender similarity hypothesis,  femininity, masculinity

While we had previously found that having insurance increases the diagnosis and use of medication for diabetes, we find no effect on measures of physical health including pulse, obesity, or blood markers of chronic inflammation

The Effect of Medicaid on Care and Outcomes for Chronic Conditions: Evidence from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment. Heidi Allen & Katherine Baicker. NBER Working Paper 29373, Oct 2021. DOI 10.3386/w29373

Abstract: Health insurance may play an important role not only in immediate access to care but in the management of chronic disease, which would have implications for long-run care needs as well as health outcomes. Such causal connections are often difficult to establish, but we use Oregon’s 2008 Medicaid lottery to assess the management of diabetes and asthma, as well as several markers of physical health. This analysis complements several prior studies by introducing new data elements and by analyzing chronically ill subpopulations. While we had previously found that having insurance increases the diagnosis and use of medication for diabetes, we show here that it does not significantly increase the likelihood of diabetic patients receiving recommended care such as eye exams and regular blood sugar monitoring, nor does it improve the management of patients with asthma. We also find no effect on measures of physical health including pulse, obesity, or blood markers of chronic inflammation. Effects of Medicaid on health care utilization appear similar for those with and without pre-lottery diagnoses of chronic physical health conditions. Thus, while Medicaid is an important determinant of access to care overall, it does not appear that Medicaid alone has detectable effects on the management of several chronic physical health conditions, at least over the first two years in this setting. However, sample limitations highlight the value of additional research.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Sex Differences in Response to Deception Across Mate-Value Traits of Attractiveness, Job Status, and Altruism in Online Dating

Sex Differences in Response to Deception Across Mate-Value Traits of Attractiveness, Job Status, and Altruism in Online Dating. Jessica Desrochers, Megan MacKinnon, Benjamin Kelly, Brett Masse & Steven Arnocky. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Oct 18 2021.

Abstract: Sex differences in mate preferences are well established. It is also well understood that humans often seek to manipulate their standing on important mate-value traits. Yet, there is a paucity of work examining potential sex differences in response to deception along these important dimensions. In Study 1, a sample of 280 undergraduates (123 females) responded to a hypothetical online dating scenario asking participants to rank how upset they would be if deceived about a date’s attractiveness, occupation, or volunteerism. Women ranked occupation deception as more upsetting than men did, and men ranked attractiveness deception as more upsetting than women did. Given potential measurement differences between forced-choice and continuous response options, Study 2 randomly assigned 364 undergraduates (188 females) to one of the deceptions conditions and asked them to report their level of upset and willingness to go on the date using a continuous response scale. Women were more likely than men to cancel the date if the deception involved volunteerism or occupation. There was no significant sex difference in the attractiveness condition. Neither mate value nor sociosexuality moderated the sex difference in the levels of upset due to the deception. Together, these findings demonstrate that women and men exhibit differences in the degree to which they become upset by opposite sex deceptions in online dating, regardless of self-perceived mate value and sociosexuality, in alignment with evolved sex differences in mate preferences.

Country membership & the need for approval of others were hypothesized to moderate the direct & indirect effects of attachment insecurity on depression via social self-efficacy

Cross-cultural differences in adult attachment and depression: A culturally congruent approach. Wang, Chiachih D. C.,Jin, Ling,Han, GiBaeg,Zhu, Wenzhen,Bismar, Danna. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Oct 14 , 2021.

Abstract: This cross-cultural study investigated a conditional indirect effect model in which country membership (South Korea or United States) and the need for approval of others (AO) were hypothesized to moderate the direct and indirect effects of attachment insecurity on depression via social self-efficacy (SSE). A total of 673 Korean university students and 401 American university students completed research questionnaires. Results indicated that Korean students endorsed a significantly higher level of AO than American students. Additionally, findings revealed that the strengths of several significant direct and indirect effects varied significantly by country membership and AO. Finally, we found a significant three-way interaction (Attachment avoidance × Country membership × AO), suggesting the necessity of considering cultural differences in attachment influence. The limitations and implications of our cross-cultural findings for decolonization in Western-based psychology are discussed.

Cheating under the Circumstances in Marital Relationships

Cheating under the Circumstances in Marital Relationships: The Development and Examination of the Propensity towards Infidelity Scale. Carmen Gabriela Lișman & Andrei Corneliu Holman. Soc. Sci. 2021, 10(10), 392; October 15 2021.

Abstract: Most of the previously developed scales addressing infidelity were developed on young samples in dating relationships and with limited couple experience. The present study proposes an instrument to measure the proneness for infidelity among married people with substantial experience as a couple. Specific contexts described by the items, in which unfaithful behavior might occur, were selected from those revealed by previous research on people’s motives of past infidelity. Across two studies (N = 618) we examined the factorial structure and the psychometric characteristics of the Propensity towards Infidelity Scale (PTIS). Results revealed a one-dimensional structure of the PTIS and supported its reliability, its construct, criterion and incremental validity. PTIS emerged as negatively associated with two measures of adherence to moral standards, and positively related to past unfaithful behavior. Furthermore, the new instrument was found to bring a significant contribution in explaining these behaviors beyond two other scales of infidelity intentions.

Keywords: infidelity; propensity towards infidelity; infidelity motives; scale development; marriage

Exploiting minimum-wage variation within multi-state commuting zones, we document a negative relationship between minimum wages and firm variety; a binding minimum wage further reduces the mass of firms, exacerbating the distortion

Jha, Priyaranjan and Rodriguez-Lopez, Antonio, Minimum Wage and Firm Variety (2021). CESifo Working Paper No. 9312, SSRN:

Abstract: Exploiting minimum-wage variation within multi-state commuting zones, we document a negative relationship between minimum wages and firm variety in the U.S. restaurant and retail trade industries. To explain this finding, we construct a heterogeneous-firm model with a monopsonistic labor market and endogenous firm variety. The decentralized equilibrium underprovides the mass of firms compared to the outcome achieved by a welfare-maximizing planner. A binding minimum wage further reduces the mass of firms, exacerbating the distortion. Workers value employer variety, and thus, by reducing firm variety the minimum wage reduces workers’ welfare even if the average wage increases.

Keywords: minimum wage, number for firms, love of employer variety

JEL Classification: J380, J420

Men are more optimistic about their performance and more willing to compete than women in both verbal skills &, larger, in math; women update their beliefs and choices more negatively than men do after negative feedback

A (Dynamic) Investigation of Stereotypes, Belief-Updating, and Behavior. Katherine B. Coffman, Paola Ugalde Araya & Basit Zafar. NBER Working Paper 29382, Oct 2021. DOI 10.3386/w29382

Many decisions – such as what educational or career path to pursue – are dynamic in nature, with individuals receiving feedback at one point in time and making decisions later. Using a controlled experiment, with two sessions one week apart, we analyze the dynamic effects of feedback on beliefs about own performance and decision-making across two different domains (verbal skills and math). We find significant gender gaps in beliefs and choices before feedback: men are more optimistic about their performance and more willing to compete than women in both domains, but the gaps are significantly larger in math. Feedback significantly shifts individuals' beliefs and choices. Despite this, we see substantial persistence of gender gaps over time. This is particularly true among the set of individuals who receive negative feedback. We find that, holding fixed performance and decisions before feedback, women update their beliefs and choices more negatively than men do after bad news. Our results highlight the challenges involved in overcoming gender gaps in dynamic settings.

Compared to faces paired with non-moral vignettes, those paired with prosocial vignettes were rated significantly more attractive, confident, & friendlier; significant interaction between vignette type & face age was detected for attractiveness

He, Dexian, Clifford I. Workman, Xianyou He, and Anjan Chatterjee. 2021. “What Is Good Is Beautiful (and What Isn’t, Isn’t): How Moral Character Affects Perceived Facial Attractiveness.” PsyArXiv. October 18.

Abstract: A well-documented “beauty-is-good” stereotype is expressed in the expectation that physically attractive people have more positive characteristics. Recent evidence also finds that unattractive faces are associated with negative character inferences. Is what is good (bad) also beautiful (ugly)? Whether this conflation of aesthetic and moral values is bidirectional is not known. This study tested the hypothesis that complementary “good-is-beautiful” and “bad-is-ugly” stereotypes bias aesthetic judgments. Using highly controlled face stimuli, this pre-registered study examined whether moral character influences perceptions of attractiveness for different ages and sexes of faces. Compared to faces paired with non-moral vignettes, those paired with prosocial vignettes were rated significantly more attractive, confident, and friendlier. The opposite pattern characterized faces paired with antisocial vignettes. A significant interaction between vignette type and the age of the face was detected for attractiveness. Moral transgressions affected attractiveness more negatively for younger than older faces. Sex-related differences were not detected. These results suggest information about moral character affects our judgments about facial attractiveness. Better people are considered more attractive. These findings suggest that beliefs about moral goodness and physical beauty influence each other bidirectionally.

Belgian couples feel satisfied more via relatively higher happiness, Japanese couples more through less negative affect

Relatively Happy: The Role of the Positive-to-Negative Affect Ratio in Japanese and Belgian Couples. Alexander Kirchner-Häusler et al. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, October 11, 2021.

Abstract: Satisfied couples in European-American cultural contexts experience higher ratios of positive to negative affect during interactions than their less satisfied counterparts. The current research tests the possibility that this finding is culture-bound. It compares proportions of positive to negative affect during couple interactions in two different cultural contexts: Belgium and Japan. Whereas Belgian relationship goals (e.g., mutual affirmation and self-esteem) call for the experience of positive affect, Japanese relationship goals (e.g., harmony and self-adjustment) call for the avoidance of negative affect. We propose that these differences result in different affect ratios in close relationships. To test this idea, we tracked positive and negative feelings during couple interactions. Fifty-eight Belgian and 80 Japanese romantic couples took part in a lab interaction study, in which they discussed a topic of disagreement. Using a video-mediated recall, participants rated their positive and negative feelings during the interaction; relationship satisfaction was assessed before the interaction. As expected, Belgian couples’ positive-to-negative affect ratios were more positive than those of Japanese couples. Furthermore, in both cultures relationship satisfaction was positively associated with more positive affect ratios, but this effect was significantly stronger for Belgian than Japanese couples. Finally, mediation analyses showed that higher affect ratios were achieved in culturally different and meaningful ways: satisfied Belgian couples showed higher ratios primarily through higher levels of positive feelings, whereas satisfied Japanese couples showed higher ratios primarily through lower levels of negative feelings.

Keywords: affect, ratio, culture, couples, relationship satisfaction

The current study set out to examine the role of culture for the experience of positive and negative feelings in close relationships. Given cultural differences in close relationship goals, we expected that Belgian relationships would be characterized by a relatively greater focus on positive affect compared to Japanese relationships. We tested our assumption by inviting couples from Belgium (considered a “Western” context) and Japan (considered an “East-Asian” context) to take part in a standardized disagreement interaction, and to rate their affect during their interaction through a video-mediated recall procedure. This approach allowed us to examine affective experiences as they occurred in actual interactions and relationships in different cultures, and as reported by the key actors themselves—the couples under study. As such, we (a) “conceptually replicated” (Crandall & Sherman, 2016) previous findings about couple affect ratios using a less-represented Western context (Belgium, rather than the United States) and different affect measures (continuous self-report rather than single retrospective self-report or coded behavior) and (b) extended previous findings by highlighting the role of culture in affective experiences in close relationships.

In our analyses, we focused on positive-to-negative affect ratios as an indicator of affective balance in couples’ relationships. We were particularly interested in the link between affect ratios and partners’ relationship satisfaction. As predicted, Belgian couples showed significantly more positive average ratios than Japanese couples, suggesting that Belgian couples generally experienced more positive relative to negative affect during their disagreement interactions than Japanese couples (H1). These differences were also associated with well-functioning relationships within the cultural contexts: While couples who were more satisfied with their relationships in both cultures showed more positive affect ratios than less satisfied couples, higher affect ratios were more characteristic for more satisfied Belgian than more satisfied Japanese couples, and the difference between satisfied and less satisfied couples was more pronounced in Belgium than in Japan (H2). Finally, we found that the link between affect ratios and relationship satisfaction came about in culturally different ways: More positive affect ratios in more satisfied Belgian couples were mediated by greater proportions of positive affect, but by lower proportions of negative affect in more satisfied Japanese couples (H3).

Cultural Differences in Positive Versus Negative Affect

Overall, interactions of Belgian couples center more around positive feelings than those of Japanese couples: Belgian couples reported more positive feelings than their Japanese counterparts, and they also reported more positive feelings than they reported negative feelings. In contrast, Japanese couples reported positive and negative feelings to more similar extents. These cultural differences in couple affect during disagreement interactions parallel cultural differences in the general frequency or intensity of positive and negative feelings yielded by research comparing individuals from other Western and East-Asian contexts (Kitayama et al., 2000Mesquita & Karasawa, 2002Miyamoto & Ryff, 2011Scollon et al., 2004Suh et al., 1998Tsai & Levenson, 1997). We also found cultural differences in the association between affect ratios and relationship satisfaction: While more satisfied couples from both cultures showed relatively higher affect ratios, this was more strongly the case for satisfied Belgian than Japanese couples. Again this findings is consistent with previous research showing that positive affect is tied more strongly to wellbeing in Western than in East-Asian cultures (Kuppens et al., 2008Suh et al., 1998). This study thus expands research on cultural differences in affective valence beyond the level of the individual, and suggests that similarly meaningful differences in affect can be found at the level of couple interactions.

Affect and Relationship Goals

Previous work had suggested that well-functioning relationships of European-American couples seem to be characterized by positive affect ratios (Gottman, 1993b). The current study conceptually replicated the original studies with couples in Belgium, a less studied cultural context that we assumed is similarly characterized by individualist, Western values (Schwartz et al., 2001); the latter idea is further supported by our results which, similar to findings in the U.S., highlight the particular importance of positive affect for Belgian relationships. The emphasis on positive over negative affect in both countries may be understood from shared relationship goals of mutual affirmation, fostering each partner’s positive self-view, and being positively distinct from others (Rothbaum et al., 2000). To the extent that couples succeed in achieving these goals, they would be expected to experience relatively more positive feelings (Kim & Markus, 1999Kitayama & Markus, 2000). Our mediation models further support the idea that positive affect (not negative) was the primary driving force behind higher positive-to-negative affect ratios in satisfied Belgian couples (compared to less satisfied Belgian couples).

In Japan, couple relationships were also marked by more positive relative to negative affect, and satisfied couples showed higher affect ratios than less satisfied ones. Yet, differences between satisfied and less satisfied couples were markedly smaller than those between their Belgian counterparts, a finding that fits previous work on the lesser importance of greater positivity for individual wellbeing across a range of East-Asian countries (Suh et al., 1998). Moreover, the differences in affect ratios between high and low satisfaction couples were primarily driven by the levels of negative (not positive) feelings. One way of interpreting this finding is that satisfied Japanese couples, consistent with the central tendency of avoiding disruptions of harmony (Elliot et al., 2001Kitayama et al., 1997), are particularly motivated to avoid or quickly resolve higher levels of negative affect (even if negative affect may initially alert partners to adjust their behavior). That positive feelings do not play a bigger role in relationship satisfaction for Japanese couples is consistent with the Japanese belief that an excess of positive feelings is harmful to relationships (e.g., because it may reduce attentiveness to the needs of the partner or may disrupt harmony, Uchida & Kitayama, 2009), a belief that is shared by other East-Asian cultures (see e.g., Sims et al., 2015, for results with Chinese-origin samples).

Overall, the present work suggests that couple interactions in different cultures are marked by different affective experiences. More satisfied couples report affective patterns that appear more in line with the relationship practices in their respective cultures. This finding is consistent with previous research that has found that individuals who experience the normative emotions of their culture report higher wellbeing (De Leersnyder et al., 20142015). Couples and clinical practitioners might benefit from the insight that relationship satisfaction takes a different shape in different cultures. Depending on the culture in which you ask, the question of what feelings characterize a good and fulfilled relationships may be answered differently. Future research should explicitly test what processes and behaviors between partners might give rise to culturally beneficial patterns of affect (e.g., Schoebi et al., 2010), and test the efficacy of culturally tailored interventions with couples from varied cultural backgrounds (Ibrahim & Schroeder, 1990).

Limitations and Future Directions

There are some limitations to take into account when interpreting our results. First, our analyses focused on partners’ self-reports of their affect during the interaction, assessed by a second-by-second video-mediated recall, and cannot speak to emotional behaviors. Some of the previous research on balance theory focused on coded behaviors. While video-mediated recall of affect has been found to correspond to emotional behaviors (Gottman & Levenson, 1985Mauss et al., 2005), we cannot be sure that our results would replicate with behavioral measures.8 We would expect that a study on affect ratios in emotional behaviors may show somewhat similar patterns as found with our self-report measure, but may also face particular cross-cultural challenges, such as differences in display rules or expressivity (see e.g., Safdar et al., 2009).

A second limitation of this study is that it only focused on one particular type of interaction, that is, discussions of a disagreement in the relationship. Decades of research with European-American couples have provided strong support for the validity of conflict interactions as a way to probe affective patterns and quality of relationships (Gottman & Notarius, 2000). However, the same may not be true for other cultures. While conflict is thought to be unavoidable in relationships in Western cultures, such as Belgium or the United States, and conflict resolution an important indicator of relationship quality, this may not be true in non-Western contexts, such as Japan (Rothbaum et al., 2000). It is possible that affective patterns during conflict interactions are less relevant to relationship satisfaction in Japanese couples. Future research should aim at expanding and comparing the findings of the present study to situational contexts that are more central to relationship practices in non-Western cultures (e.g., cooperation, perspective taking).

A third limitation of our study is that it focuses on cultural differences in affect during interactions, but fails to explain the types of processes that may underlie any differences. Research on conflict interactions has shown that contextual elements are extremely important to the (emotional) course of conflict between people. Examples of such contextual elements are the behavioral strategies to manage the early emergence of disagreements (e.g., attempts to avoid conflict either physically or mentally; Hample & Hample, 2020), the different ways that conflict may start between actors (e.g., jointly or unexpectedly; Hample et al., 2019), or conflict narratives (Lewiński et al., 2018); all of these elements may differ between cultures. Future research should aim to provide a detailed picture of how disagreement may emerge and unfold in different cultures, including a cross-cultural analysis of wider contextual variables that contribute to differential unfolding.

A fourth limitation relates to the affect ratios themselves. Discussions of the early findings on affective balance in relationship have often shown a tendency to “essentialize” the ratios established, referring to 5:1 as the “magic ratio” in relationships (e.g., Stillman, 2020). Similar tendencies have been found for ratio research in other fields (e.g., in the context of teaching; Sabey et al., 2019). It is important to point out that the ratios yielded by our research differed somewhat from those in previous work: Even less-satisfied Western couples in our study showed higher proportions (8.5:1) than the stable partners in the original article (5:1). This may have been due, in part, to the different approach taken, with a higher time resolution and slightly different criteria to categorize affect as positive or negative. More generally, we would caution against treating the ratios of our highly satisfied couples (32.57:1 in Belgium, 6.52:1 in Japan) as absolute standards or goals. The main goal of the current study was not to establish new, definite ratios for relationships in different cultures, but to highlight the important role that culture plays for emotions in close relationships—a domain of research that has traditionally been dominated by research and perspectives from Western cultural contexts. We see our results as an indication that the ratios of positive over negative feelings may be different for satisfied relationships across cultures, especially between Western and East-Asian cultures.

Finally, our work examines positive and negative affect as couple and interaction-level aggregates, but does not examine how these aggregates emerge dynamically during the interaction. For example, previous work in European-American couples has examined specific sequences of positive and negative patterns (e.g., reciprocity, contagion) in couple interactions and successfully linked them to relationship satisfaction (Gottman & Levenson, 1985Margolin & Wampold, 1981). Our findings may be fruitfully followed up by analyses of the dynamic patterns that underlie different affect ratios in Belgian and Japanese couples. We expect that these patterns are not random, but will reveal some coordination between partners toward culture-specific desirable affect states (Boiger & Mesquita, 2012Boiger et al., 2020). Zooming in on cultural differences in these interpersonal affect patterns could also offer more specific insights into what affective processes contribute to well-functioning relationships in different cultures, and which behaviors may be targets for interventions to increase satisfaction with one’s relationship.