Thursday, December 31, 2020

One of the tested childhood scents, bubblegum, was considered the most familiar but also the most nostalgic, eliciting higher self-esteem, social connection, optimism, and inspiration

Psychological Implications of Nostalgic Scents of Childhood. Eirini Petratou, Nasia Paradisi, Odysseas Diamantis, Anastasios Stalikas. Psychology, Vol.11 No.12, December 2020. DOI: 10.4236/psych.2020.1112129

There is wide-ranging literature on the emotional effects of odors but, so far, little focus on scents that evoke nostalgia and their psychological functions. This study examines the effects of nostalgia-induced scents, more specifically what are the psychological implications of scents from childhood that evoke nostalgia. The test participants sampled five childhood scents, rating each scent as to the extent to which they were familiar and elicited nostalgia and positive emotions. The study found that one of the tested childhood scents, bubblegum, was considered the most familiar but also the most nostalgic, eliciting higher self-esteem, social connection, optimism, and inspiration. Our research findings on olfaction contribute to the existing small body of experimental research on olfactory nostalgia and facilitate the understanding of the psychological implications, triggers and affective response linked with nostalgia-induced scents.

Keywords: Positive Psychology, Nostalgia, Childhood Scents, Senses, Positive Emotions

5. Discussion

The results of the study provide empirical support for the fact that childhood scents can trigger nostalgia and that there are scents that evoke significantly higher nostalgia than others—bubblegum, cotton candy (see Figure 2). Also, the analysis revealed that the scent that elicited the highest nostalgia, bubblegum, (see Figure 2) triggered the highest olfactory memory (see Figure 1) showing the strong linkage between nostalgia and memory activation through olfaction (Chrea et al., 2007).

Furthermore, the study confirms the psychological functions and particularly the positive impact of scent-evoked nostalgia (Chrea et al., 2007). Specifically, the study shows strong, positive correlation between nostalgia and self-esteem, optimism, social connection and inspiration (see Table 4) (Reid, Green, Wildschut, & Sedikides, 2015).

5.1. Limitations and Future Directions

The results of this study should be considered directional since there are various factors that should be taken into consideration for future research. For example, the vast majority of the sample was women (Mage = 21).

Another important factor to consider is the category of scents that were used. It would be interesting to explore psychological functions of a broader variety of scent categories and investigate if there are differences in their psychological implications factoring in gender, age or other individual differences (i.e. personality traits).

5.2. Implications

Overall, the study could have several scientific and clinical applications. For example, mental health professionals could use childhood scents that trigger nostalgia in their interventions with clients—during the therapeutic process—to access difficult memories for trauma processing or for certain exercises of calming down (Torre, 2008).

Women were more stigmatized for being overweight when the fat came in the wrong, non-canonical, "unwomanly" shape, sometimes even more strongly stigmatizing targets with less rather than more body mass

Krems, Jaimie, and Steven L. Neuberg. 2020. “Updating Long-held Assumptions About Fat Stigma: For Women, Body Shape Plays a Critical Role.” PsyArXiv. December 30. doi:10.31234/

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: Heavier bodies—particularly female bodies—are stigmatized. Such fat stigma is pervasive, painful to experience, and may even facilitate weight gain, thereby perpetuating the obesity-stigma cycle. Leveraging research on functionally distinct forms of fat (deposited on different parts of the body), we propose that body shape plays an important but largely underappreciated role in fat stigma, above and beyond fat amount. Across three samples varying in participant ethnicity (White and Black Americans) and nation (U.S., India), patterns of fat stigma reveal that, as hypothesized, participants differently stigmatized equally-overweight or -obese female targets as a function of target shape, sometimes even more strongly stigmatizing targets with less rather than more body mass. Such findings suggest value in updating our understanding of fat stigma to include body shape and in querying a predominating, but often implicit, theoretical assumption that people simply view all fat as bad (and more fat as worse).

The prevailing orthodoxy is that single cells cannot learn; Beatrice Gelber & more recent studies suggest that such learning may be evolutionarily more widespread & fundamental to life than previously thought

Reconsidering the evidence for learning in single cells. Samuel J. Gershman et al. Dec 2020.

Abstract: The question of whether single cells can learn led to much debate in the early 20th century. The view prevailed that they were capable of non-associative learning but not of associative learning, such as Pavlovian conditioning. Experiments indicating the contrary were considered either non-reproducible or subject to more acceptable interpretations. Recent developments suggest that the time is right to reconsider this consensus. We exhume the experiments of Beatrice Gelber on Pavlovian conditioning in the ciliate Paramecium aurelia, and suggest that criticisms of her findings can now be reinterpreted. Gelber was a remarkable scientist whose absence from the historical record testifies to the prevailing orthodoxy that single cells cannot learn. Her work, and more recent studies, suggest that such learning may be evolutionarily more widespread and fundamental to life than previously thought and we discuss the implications for different aspects of biology.

Implications for the neurobiology of learning and memory

If single cells can learn, then they must be using a non-synaptic form of memory storage. The idea that intracellular molecules store memories has a long history, mainly in the study of multicellular organisms. We’ve already mentioned McConnell’s studies of planarians; similar ideas were espoused by Georges Ungar based on his studies of rodents (Ungar et al., 1968, Ungar and Irwin, 1967). These studies indicated that memories could be transferred from one organism to another by injection or ingestion of processed brain material. Clearly no synaptic information could survive such processing, so transfer could presumably only occur if the memory substrate was molecular. However, these findings were the subject of much controversy. The failure of careful attempts to replicate them led to a strong consensus against their validity and this line of research eventually died out (Byrne et al., 1966, Setlow, 1997, Smith, 1974, Travis, 1980). Nonetheless, several lines of recent work have revisited these studies (Shomrat and Levin, 2013, Smalheiser et al., 2001). For example, Bed´ ecarrats et al. (2018) showed that long-term sensitization of the siphon-withdrawal reflex ´ in Aplysia could be transferred by injection of RNA from a trained animal into an untrained animal. This study further showed that this form of transfer was mediated by increased excitability of sensory (but not motor) neurons, and depended on DNA methylation, although the study did not establish either RNA or DNA methylation as the engram storage mechanism. In another line of work, Dias and Ressler (2014) showed that fear conditioning in rodents could be transferred from parents to offspring, an effect that was associated with changes in DNA methylation. These studies not only revive the molecular memory hypothesis, but also point towards specific intracellular mechanisms. The significance of DNA methylation lies in the fact that DNA methylation state can control transcription. Thus, the set of proteins expressed in a cell can be altered by changes in DNA methylation, which are known to occur in an experience-dependent manner. For example, after fear conditioning, the methylation states of 9.2% of genes in the hippocampus of rats were found to be altered (Duke et al., 2017). As first pointed out by Crick (1984), and later elaborated by Holliday (1999), DNA methylation is a potentially stable medium for heritable memory storage, because the methylation state will persist in the face of DNA replication, thanks to the semi-conservative action of DNA methyltransferases. A related idea, put forward independently in Lisman et al. (2018), is that a stable memory could arise from the tug-of-war between enzymatic phosphorylation and dephosphorylation. In essence, the idea is to achieve stability through change: a molecular substrate maintains its activation state by means of continual enzymatic activity. Crick and Lisman suggested that this could solve the problem of molecular turnover that vexes synaptic theories of memory. Consistent with this hypothesis, inhibition of DNA methyltransferase disrupts the formation and maintenance of memory, although it remains to be seen whether methylation states themselves constitute the engram (Miller et al., 2010, Miller and Sweatt, 2007). The proposals of Crick and Lisman apply generally to enzymatic modification processes (e.g., acetylation or glycosylation) acting on macromolecules, provided 10 that the biochemical dynamics can generate the appropriate stable states (Prabakaran et al., 2012). An important distinction between the forms of dynamical information storage proposed by Crick and Lisman and the storage provided by DNA is that the latter is largely stable in the absence of enzymatic activity, under conditions of thermodynamic equilibrium. In contrast, the former typically relies on enzymatic activity and is only stable if driven away from thermodynamic equilibrium by chemical potential differences generated by core metabolic processes. In other words, the latter may accurately retain information in the absence of a cell over a substantially longer period than the former, which may lose information rapidly in the absence of supporting enzymatic activity. Another candidate medium for intracellular memory storage is histone modification. In eukaryotes, DNA is wrapped around nucleosomes, composed of histone proteins, to form chromatin. Gene transcription can be controlled by changes in the modification state (acetylation, methylation, ubiquitination, etc.) of these histones. In the cell biology literature, an influential hypothesis posits the existence of a histone “code” (Jenuwein and Allis, 2001, Turner, 2002) or “language” (Lee et al., 2010) that stores information non-genetically, although the nature of that information has been a matter of debate (Henikoff and Shilatifard, 2011, Sims and Reinberg, 2008). Early work demonstrated that learning was accompanied by increased histone acetylation in the rat hippocampus (Schmitt and Matthies, 1979), and more recent work has established that memory can be enhanced by increases in histone acetylation (Levenson et al., 2004, Stefanko et al., 2009, Vecsey et al., 2007). Bronfman et al. (2016) provide an extensive survey of the molecular correlates of learning and memory. In parallel with these findings, molecular biologists grappling with the information processing that takes place within the organism have begun to suggest that signaling networks may implement forms of learning (Csermely et al., 2020, Koseska and Bastiaens, 2017). In this respect, Koshland’s studies of habituation of signaling responses in PC12 cells, a mammalian cell line of neuroendocrine origin, are especially resonant (McFadden and Koshland, 1990). Koshland’s work was undertaken in full awareness of learning studies conducted by Kandel and Thompson in invertebrate organisms but his pioneering efforts have not been explored further. This reflects, perhaps, the intellectual distance between cognitive science and molecular biology, which the present paper seeks to bridge. The information processing demands on a single-celled organism, which must fend for itself, are presumably quite different from those confronting a single cell within a multi-cellular organism during development and homeostasis, so what role learning plays within the organism remains a tantalizing open question. 

Beatrice Gelber, though she could not have known about the specifics of DNA methylation or histone modification, was uncannily prophetic about these developments: 

This paper presents a new approach to behavioral problems which might be called molecular biopsychology... Simply stated, it is hypothesized that the memory engram must be coded in macromolecules... As the geneticist studies the inherited characteristics of an organism the psychologist studies the modification of this inherited matrix by interaction with the environment. Possibly the biochemical and cellular physiological processes which encode new responses are continuous throughout the phyla (as genetic codes are) and therefore would be reasonably similar for a protozoan and a mammal. (Gelber, 1962a, p. 166)

The idea that intracellular mechanisms of memory storage might be conserved across phyla is tantalizing yet untested. The demise of behavioral studies in Paramecia and other ciliates has meant that, despite the wealth of knowledge about ciliate biology, we still know quite little about the molecular mechanisms underlying Gelber’s findings. Nonetheless, we do know that many intracellular pathways that have been implicated in multicellular memory formation exist in ciliates (Table 1). For example, ciliates express calmodulin, MAP kinases, voltage-gated calcium channels, in addition to utilizing various epigenetic mechanisms that might be plausible memory substrates, such as DNA methylation and histone modification. In like manner, key molecular components of neurons and synapses emerged in organisms without nervous systems, including unicellular organisms (Arendt, 2020, Ryan and Grant, 2009). We believe it is an ideal time to revisit the phylogenetic origins of learning experimentally and theoretically 

White individuals have become less supportive of trade than minorities and that whites are more likely than minorities to favor trade with highly similar countries

The Racialization of International Trade. Diana Mutz  Edward D. Mansfield  Eunji Kim. Political Psychology, December 15 2020.

Abstract: Despite their less vulnerable economic status, white individuals' attitudes toward overseas trade in the United States may have become more protectionist than those of economically disadvantaged minorities. We present results from five different studies examining two different ways in which trade may have become racialized. First, we examine the extent to which a person's racial identity is associated with levels of trade support. Second, we examine whether the predominant racial identity of a potential trading‐partner country influences people's willingness to trade with that country. Using various surveys and multiple survey experiments conducted over the past 12 years, we find that white individuals have become less supportive of trade than minorities and that whites are more likely than minorities to favor trade with highly similar countries. We suggest that minority support for trade is due to four well‐documented differences in the psychological predispositions of whites and minorities in the United States. Minorities have lower levels of racial prejudice, are lower in social dominance, and express less nationalism than whites. At the same time, there is evidence of rising ingroup racial consciousness among whites. Each of these characteristics has been independently linked to trade support in a direction encouraging greater support for trade among minorities. As the United States grows ever closer to becoming a “majority minority” nation, the racialization of trade attitudes may stimulate shifts in the likely future of America's trade relationships.

Decline in Marriage Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States

Decline in Marriage Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States. Brandon G. Wagner, Kate H. Choi, Philip N. Cohen. Socius, December 29, 2020.

Abstract: In the social upheaval arising from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, we do not yet know how union formation, particularly marriage, has been affected. Using administration records—marriage certificates and applications—gathered from settings representing a variety of COVID-19 experiences in the United States, the authors compare counts of recorded marriages in 2020 against those from the same period in 2019. There is a dramatic decrease in year-to-date cumulative marriages in 2020 compared with 2019 in each case. Similar patterns are observed for the Seattle metropolitan area when analyzing the cumulative number of marriage applications, a leading indicator of marriages in the near future. Year-to-date declines in marriage are unlikely to be due solely to closure of government agencies that administer marriage certification or reporting delays. Together, these findings suggest that marriage has declined during the COVID-19 outbreak and may continue to do so, at least in the short term.

Keywords marriage, COVID-19, administrative data

The COVID-19 pandemic and policies to curb the spread of the virus have profoundly affected society. This article contributes to this emerging body of research a description of short-term marriage pattern changes following the onset of COVID-19. We find that fewer people are marrying in 2020 than in 2019. Observing this pattern in a variety of different settings, including a state with a limited governmental intervention (Florida), a geographically isolated state that took strong quarantine measures (Hawaii), and a large metropolitan area (DFW), suggests that this may be a common experience across the United States. Furthermore, we find a persistent deficit in marriage applications in a metropolitan area six months after the first outbreaks were noted. Taken together, our results indicate a steep decline in marriage formation in the United States following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline has thus far shown few signs of stopping, or even slowing, and leading indicators are consistent with continued declines relative to prepandemic levels.

The magnitude of the decline is too big to attribute solely to the temporary shock in the availability of marriage certification (i.e., closed governmental offices). Many local governments, including those included in this sample, continued to process marriage application throughout the pandemic. For example, in one large county in the Dallas MSA, Tarrant County (with a 2019 population of 2.1 million), marriage applications were processed every business day throughout the governor’s emergency declaration. Even in areas with more restrictive government mandates (e.g., shelter-in-place orders), restrictions have been limited in duration, resulting in relatively minor restrictions to access in governmental services like marriage licensing.

This gap is also not solely attributable to unprocessed marriage licenses. Lags between marriages and our data collection are sufficient to minimize this threat. For marriages in the DFW area, the delay between August 2020 marriages and our data collection is consistent with less than 2.5 percent undercounted marriages on the basis of the previous year’s processing timelines (Supplemental Figure 2). The actual undercount is likely even smaller because prior months are even more complete and administrative processing appears to be faster in 2020 than it was in 2019 (Supplemental Table 1), possibly because of reduced caseload. Counts of marriages in Florida are also unlikely to be dramatic undercounts. Comparing June 2020 marriages on the basis of provisional reports collected in September and October, only 21 (0.2 percent) additional marriages were added to the count of the latter, suggesting a stability of the count as we would expect given few unreported marriages. Finally, the decline in marriage applications we observe in Seattle suggests that the difference in marriages we observe between 2020 and 2019 is likely due, at least in part, to fewer couples’ seeking to marry.

Although marriages have declined in the aggregate, this outcome could have arisen from two distinct mechanisms that we are unable to differentiate. Many couples may have simply postponed marriages because of COVID-19-induced barriers to marriages, including inaccessible public services (such as county clerk offices), shuttered facilities (such as churches), travel restrictions, and the like. For others, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic may result in foregone marriages. Researchers have documented that social shocks can produce declines in births, only some of which are recouped after postponement (Currie and Schwandt 2014), but whether such a process occurs in the context of marriage remains an open question. The extent to which delayed marriages represent a temporary delay or foregone unions will likely depend on the strength of the relationships, the duration of the pandemic, mortality rates among young adults, and other social factors, including the size of the economic fallout from COVID-19. As an institution, marriage has important implications for the well-being and health of couples and their offspring (McLanahan and Jacobsen 2015), individual behaviors (e.g., Wagner 2019), and legal protections for partners. Therefore, understanding the impact of COVID-19 on marriage formation not only showcases how the pandemic has, even if temporarily, upended key dimensions of our social life, it also highlights a wide array of potential effects of COVID-19 on adults and children. We recommend that future research with more long-term data address the extent to which these missing marriages have been delayed rather than foregone and identify the mechanisms contributing to this effect, irrespective of its duration.

Although the tenor of the findings is unmistakable, we should be clear about their implications. First, though we document a decline in the number of marriages following COVID-19, this analysis should not be taken to mean that the pandemic has upended marriage as a social institution. Our research offers the first view of how the year-to-date cumulative number of marriage transitions has changed over a short period of time. The preference for marriage among Americans been historically robust (Cherlin 2009), so future research would be necessary to explore whether the COVID-19 pandemic may have shifted the desirability, content, or meaning of marriages for those who experience them. Second, the counts of marriages we report are indicative of marriage trends but may differ slightly from final counts of marriages in these locations. As discussed above, these data are unlikely to change substantially, but early-access administrative data are inherently provisional and subject to subsequent revisions. Third, although our data cover approximately 10.4 percent of the United States population, we should be cautious in generalizing the observed decrease in marriage, because U.S. jurisdictions have varied widely in terms of pandemic experience (CDC COVID-19 Response Team 2020) and government response (Hale et al. 2020). We are also unable to disentangle the possible causes for the observed decrease in marriage. The COVID-19 pandemic has included covarying experiences: health, policy, economic, and social. In this article, we demonstrate the decrease in marriages following the outbreak of COVID-19, but future work should seek to explain the cause for the observed declines. Finally, this article represents only a first description of the short-term impacts of COVID-19 on marriage in the United States. Future work should seek to extend this description, not only geographically but further in time as the pandemic, and its response, continues to unfold.

Nonetheless, our study offers a first glimpse at the dramatic decline in the number of marriages in a variety of different settings across the United States, with varying experiences and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also contributes insights to our understanding of the impact COVID-19 has had on social life. Although it is unclear whether this decline will represent a temporary delay in marriage timing or an exacerbation of the long-term trend in marriage decline, what is clear is that marriage, like many other dimensions of our social life, has been dramatically influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is documented that the elderly are more religious and that religiosity is associated with better health & lower mortality; contrary to wide‐held beliefs, religiosity decreases with greater expected proximity to death

Aging, Proximity to Death, and Religiosity. Marie Lechler  Uwe Sunde. Population and Development Review, August 24 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: Considerable evidence has documented that the elderly are more religious and that religiosity is associated with better health and lower mortality. Yet, little is known about the reverse role of life expectancy or proximity to death, as opposed to age, for religiosity. This paper provides evidence for the distinct role of expected remaining life years for the importance of religion in individuals’ lives. We combine individual survey response data for more than 300,000 individuals from 95 countries over the period 1994–2014 with information from period life tables. Contrary to wide‐held beliefs, religiosity decreases with greater expected proximity to death. The findings have important implications regarding the consequences of population aging for religiosity and associated outcomes.


The result of a decline in religiosity with greater proximity to death is robust to a variety of robustness checks. In particular, a potential concern for the validity and robustness of the results is multicollinearity due to the systematic correlation between remaining years of life and age. In order to explore the robustness of the results with respect to this concern, we computed variance inflation factors for the estimates for remaining years of life and age obtained on the full sample. The findings do not reveal any evidence for excessive multicollinearity.12

Second, the result is not driven by the particular measure of religiosity in terms of subjective importance of religion in life. The pattern also robustly emerges when using alternative measures of religiosity. This is illustrated by the results for alternative measures related to the subjective strength of religious beliefs, importance of God, or a composite measure of responses regarding the importance of religion, the belief in God, and the importance of God in life by ways of a principal component.13

The result is also robust to the use of alternative estimation methods. In particular, the results robustly emerge when applying interval regression methods that account for the interval censoring of responses as consequence of the coarse response scale.14

The result regarding a decline in religiosity as the expected remaining years of life decrease also robustly emerges for countries with different levels of socioeconomic development. In particular, the respective coefficient estimates from an extended specification that allows for different coefficients for each bin of remaining life years for the groups of OECD and non‐OECD countries reveal very similar patterns.15 This is reassuring in light of the different levels of religiosity in rich and less developed countries.16

The main results are also robust to the inclusion of separate controls for birth cohorts. The joint identification of age, period, and cohort effects is possible due to the estimation of flexible, semiparametric specifications for five‐year bins of age and cohort. Most importantly, the effect of remaining years of life on religiosity is identified from the variation in remaining life expectancy across country‐age‐sex cells.17 Besides a decline in religiosity for greater proximity to death and an increase in religiosity with age, the results document a decline in religiosity for later birth cohorts that is consistent with an increasing secularization among younger cohorts.18

Another method to identify cohort and period effects separately from the age pattern in religiosity is the inclusion of control variables that incorporate differences across cohorts in a nonlinear way (Heckman and Robb 1985).19 We apply this methodology building on the hypothesis that personality and beliefs are formed during the critical period of adolescence, when individuals are particularly susceptible to environmental conditions (Arnett 2000). In view of the fact that democracies typically grant freedom of religion whereas religious practices are more regulated in less‐democratic environments, we use the exposure to democracy during life as a cohort proxy variable for religiosity. This measure builds on existing work that has pointed out the role of the institutional environment for preferences for democracy (Fuchs‐Schündeln and Schündeln, 2015). The estimation results for these extended specifications confirm the decline in religiosity the lower the expected number of remaining years of life as well as the increase in religiosity with age.20

Finally, the result of a decline in religiosity with greater proximity to death consistently emerges also in other data sets. To explore the robustness of the main results, we replicated the analysis using the Gallup World Poll, which contains comparable information about the importance of religion and demographic characteristics as the World Value Survey. The results that emerge from this exercise are qualitatively and quantitatively almost identical to those obtained before.21

Religiosity, religious service attendance, and health

The analysis so far has focused on the role of proximity to death, as opposed to age, for religiosity. A potential explanation for the result of declining religiosity with greater proximity to death is a decline in the participation in religious activities, in particular in the attendance of religious services at the end of life. Indeed, the findings for alternative outcomes also reveal a similar pattern for the attendance of religious services as dependent variable.22 If health‐related limitations imply reduced attendance, as suggested by evidence for older age by Ainlay, Singleton, and Swigert (1992), and if lower attendance is associated with lower subjective religiosity, either due to lower awareness or as consequence of less frequent and intense social interactions with other individuals during religious services, this might explain the empirical results as consequence of health deterioration at the end of life.

The robustness of the main results to the inclusion of subjective health status as a control variable should already account for a health confound to some extent. In order to explore the distinct predictions of a health effect working through attendance and a genuine effect of proximity to death, we also estimated more extensive specifications that allow for an interaction effect of health and remaining years of life.

The results for attendance as dependent variable show that better health indeed increases attendance of religious activities, while closer proximity to death reduces attendance.23 A negative interaction between health and remaining years of life indeed indicates that better health partly compensates for the decline in religiosity closer to death, but the effect is too small to eliminate (or even reverse) the main result that religiosity decreases with greater expected proximity to death. When considering the importance of religion as dependent variable, health is positively related to religiosity, whereas the interaction effect turns out to be insignificant. The positive health effect is indeed consistent with the previous literature. However, the main finding of a negative effect on religiosity of greater proximity to death remains unaffected by this extension.

Another, more direct, way to explore the possibility that the results for religiosity are driven by attendance of religious services is to control for attendance when conducting the main estimates. The respective estimation results reveal indeed that respondents state a greater importance of religion in their lives when they attend religious services more often.24 The qualitative results regarding the decline of religiosity along with a decline in expected remaining years of life remain unaffected, however. Although the coefficient estimates are reduced to about half the size compared to the estimates reported in the main results, the patterns of religiosity with remaining years of life and age remain robust and significant.

Heterogeneity by sex, religious affiliation, and development

Heterogeneity by sex has been found to be a key feature of religiosity in the existing literature, with women being more religious than men.25 This pattern also emerges in the estimation results of this paper, which reveal a significantly higher level of importance of religion in life for women than for men. A question that emerges in the context of the previous results is therefore whether there is not only a sex difference in average religiousness, but also in the life cycle patterns of religiosity. To account for differences in the age pattern, we estimated extended specifications of the empirical model (2a) that allow for sex‐specific age effects. The results of these estimates reveal similar age patterns for women and men, although the age profile is slightly more pronounced for women.26 To explore whether the role of remaining life years for religiousness varies systematically by sex, we also estimated extended specifications that allow for a sex‐specific pattern of remaining lifetime. Again, the results reveal a similar pattern as for the baseline.27 If anything, the decline in religiousness is even more pronounced for women, but the sex differences are not significant.

Religions differ in many dimensions, including behavioral norms, beliefs about afterlife, and concepts of salvation. This likely maps into the motives for religious participation and the role of proximity to death or age for religiosity. In order to investigate this issue and explore possible heterogeneity in the role of expected remaining life years for religiosity, we replicated the analysis separately for individuals reporting different religious affiliations. The main result regarding a decline in religiosity in association with a smaller number of expected remaining years of life holds for respondents that report to be of Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith.28 Together, these religious denominations cover more than 60% of the sample. The pattern is not significant (and even opposite in slope) for respondents that report to be of Hindu or Jewish faith. Together, these respondents only make up less than 4% of the sample, however. The pattern is qualitatively similar as in the full sample, although somewhat tilted to the positive and not significant, for individuals reporting to be member of no religion, who make up for around 17 percent of the sample.29

Even within Christianity, the beliefs about afterlife as well as social norms differ substantially across denominations. For instance, recent work by Becker and Woessmann (2018) has pointed out that religious beliefs and social norms are a possible explanation for a higher propensity of suicide among Protestants compared to Catholics. Replicating the analysis for Catholics and Protestants indeed reveals differences in the gradient for remaining life years among the two denominations. In particular, the gradient is more pronounced for Protestants than for Catholics, which suggests a more pronounced erosion of religious beliefs.30

To further explore heterogeneity in the nexus between remaining life years and religiousness with respect to the overall level of economic development, we replicated the analysis with a linear specification of the effect of expected remaining life years while allowing for country‐specific slope parameters.31

The coefficient estimates are positive for the vast majority of countries in the sample, with smaller coefficient estimates for countries with higher levels of per capita income, as illustrated in Figure 4. In the estimation sample, religiosity and economic development exhibit a strong negative correlation across countries, but there is no significant relationship between average expected remaining years among survey respondents and economic development across countries. This implies that the pattern of heterogeneity is not due to sample composition. Instead, together with the result that religiosity is predicted to be lowest among a young population in environments with a short life expectancy, this finding implies that population aging in terms of increased life expectancy is expected to be associated with a stronger increase in religiosity in less developed countries, including many African countries. This provides important insights regarding the consequences of demographic aging for developing countries given that religiosity has been associated with faster economic development at the aggregate level and with better health and greater resilience at the individual level. In particular, the consequences of aging are expected to be stronger among less developed countries. At the same time, the results indicate that the effects of demographic change on religiosity and related outcomes might be limited among some of the more developed countries.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Comparing the effects of a mindfulness versus relaxation intervention on romantic relationship wellbeing: No significant differences

Comparing the effects of a mindfulness versus relaxation intervention on romantic relationship wellbeing. Johan C. Karremans, Gesa Kappen, Melanie Schellekens & Dominik Schoebi. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 21696 (2020). Dec 10 2020.

Abstract: There is increasing scientific interest in the potential association between mindfulness and romantic relationship wellbeing. To date, however, experimental studies using active control groups and testing dyadic effects (i.e. examining both actor and partner effects) are lacking. In the current study, romantically involved individuals engaged for 2 weeks daily in either guided mindfulness exercises, or guided relaxation exercises. Participants, and their partners, completed measures of relationship wellbeing at pre- and post-intervention, and at 1-month follow up. The mindfulness intervention significantly promoted relationship wellbeing, for both participants (i.e. actor effects) and their partners (i.e. partner effects). However, these findings did not significantly differ from changes in relationship wellbeing in the relaxation condition. Theoretical implications of these findings for understanding the association between mindfulness and romantic relationship wellbeing are discussed. Moreover, the findings are discussed in light of recent debates about the relative lack of proper control groups in mindfulness research.

General discussion

Does mindfulness promote the wellbeing of romantic relationships? The possible causal effect of mindfulness training on romantic relationships has received very little empirical attention so far. After 2 weeks of daily guided mindfulness practice, participants in the mindfulness intervention group reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, lower relationship distress, felt more connected to the partner, and were more accepting towards the partner (but not more excited about their relationship). These effects were maintained 1 month after the intervention. Their partners, who did not engage in mindfulness practice, also reported higher relationship satisfaction, less distress, and felt more accepted by their partners (but not more connected; and they reported actually less relationship excitement, a finding we further discuss below). In general, these findings may be considered as promising for the effectiveness of mindfulness intervention in promoting relationship wellbeing. A similar pattern of findings, however, was found in the active control condition. Participants who received a daily guided relaxation intervention for 2 weeks showed similar relationship benefits (in fact, they showed significantly more positive change in partner acceptance, and positive change in relationship excitement), as did their partners. Thus, while the current findings suggest that the daily practice of mindfulness generally can lead to various beneficial relationship outcomes, relaxation practice on a daily basis yielded comparable outcomes.

What is an adequate interpretation for these findings? First, these results might simply mean that any intervention, similar in structure, would positively affect self-reports of relationship wellbeing (sometimes referred to as a trial effect58). For example, the intervention may have prompted participants to reflect on their relationship, which could have promoted positive feelings and thoughts about the relationship (although in theory it might also do the opposite, of course). Also, engaging in an intervention could have led participants to report desired rather than actual outcomes. The fact that intervention participants showed similar changes in both conditions, across most relationship outcome measures, and that their partners showed similar changes (except regarding relationship excitement), makes this a possible interpretation of the current findings.

An alternative interpretation might be that the relationship benefits may be genuine, both in the mindfulness as well as relaxation intervention. In the introduction, we discussed several theoretical reasons why mindfulness may promote relationship wellbeing (for more details10), and the results in the mindfulness group may reflect such theorized effects. Similarly, the results obtained in the relaxation group may reflect true relationship benefits of daily relaxation exercises. For example, daily relaxation might reduce overall psychological and physiological stress levels, which in turn might positively affect how people behave and respond to their partners18,59. Accordingly, both mindfulness and relaxation intervention may have promoted relationship wellbeing, but possibly through different mechanisms. The obtained effects in both groups, however, also may have been caused by a similar ‘relaxation mechanism.’ While mindfulness is theoretically distinguishable from relaxation, in reality it is possible that the mindfulness exercises in our study increased feelings of relaxation to a similar extent as the relaxation exercises. As noted previously60, the historical development of (mindfulness) meditation and relaxation techniques as therapeutic strategies in the past century show substantial overlap, and indeed one of the challenges of studying the effects of mindfulness is to distinguish them from ‘mere’ relaxation effects61.

It could be theorized that longer mindfulness training is required to promote relationship wellbeing above and beyond effects of relaxation. Participants practiced mindfulness for 2-weeks, engaging in a relatively short guided mindfulness meditation each day. While such relatively short mindfulness interventions have revealed significant effects on various outcome measures42,43,44 (but rarely have been compared with active control groups), effects of mindfulness practice may occur and generalize to real life outcomes only after more extensive training, when paying non-judgmental attention becomes a more or less automatic manner of relating to one’s experiences62,63. How people cope with and respond to their experiences is the result of a lifelong process, and therefore difficult to ‘re-program’64,65. Likewise, particularly in long-term romantic relationships, interaction patterns between partners and appraisals about the relationship tend to become habitual, and are therefore difficult to change in the short run66. Thus, what the ‘dosage’ of mindfulness practice should be to potentially promote relationship wellbeing, and how much for whom, requires more research.

The results regarding relationship excitement revealed a somewhat different pattern than the other relationship outcome measures. There was no significant change in relationship excitement in the mindfulness group among intervention participants. This finding seems inconsistent with previous findings by Carson and colleagues, who found increases in relationship excitement after a mindfulness intervention35. The present results may suggest that it was not mindfulness per se leading to such changes in their study, but the fact that both partners engaged in their intervention may have explained an increase in relationship excitement. Interestingly, in the current study the partners of the mindfulness intervention participants actually reported significant declines in relationship excitement. We have previously speculated that there may be theoretical reasons to predict such declines13. For example, mindfulness may be associated with reductions in impulsivity, a potentially important source of relationship excitement67. This finding awaits future research and replication.

The results of the current study speak to the broader issue of the need for proper active control conditions in mindfulness research. A substantial percentage of research on mindfulness is lacking active control conditions, using waiting list controls, or examining changes in a variable of interest from pre- and post-mindfulness intervention68,69. Such studies can be informative to see whether mindfulness intervention is associated with any changes on variables of interest, or for example to study moderators of any effects of mindfulness intervention (e.g. for whom it does and does not ‘work’). Although the inclusion of an active control condition made the current findings perhaps more ambiguous and difficult to interpret, it highlights the importance of studying whether changes associated with mindfulness intervention can be attributed uniquely to mindfulness. In many previous articles on mindfulness research, the conclusion that mindfulness positively affects a certain outcome of interest is often unwarranted when an active control group is lacking32,40. The current findings raised a number of issues (as discussed above) that may remain unaddressed when control conditions are lacking, underscoring the need for active control groups to get a more nuanced and more comprehensive understanding of mindfulness and its effects, both for the individual and the relationship.

Similarly, the current findings have implications for couple intervention research more broadly. In the past decades, researchers have examined effects of various prevention and intervention couple programs. Some programs have obtained significant relationship benefits in the short- and longer-term70,71, others obtained negative outcomes (e.g. increased awareness that one is lacking relationship skills72, but often waiting list control groups are used to compare intervention outcomes. Relatively few studies used comparisons with active control groups, and if they did, similar effects have been found between target and control intervention groups73. Thus, there is a need for proper control interventions in order to examine relationship interventions more rigorously.

Before closing, some limitations should be noted. First, all outcome measures were self-reports, and future studies should include more objective measures of relationship functioning and wellbeing, such as observational coding of partner interactions, and/or physiological assessments of (relationship) distress. Second, as noted already, the interventions were relatively short. For example, examining the effects of longer protocolized interventions65, such as the mindfulness-based stress-reduction program on relationship outcomes, while including an active control intervention, would be a logical and important next step. Similarly, examining associations between length and frequency of mindfulness practice and relationship outcomes would be a valuable and complementary approach. Finally, a potential limitation of the current study is that the intervention in the current research targeted one member of the couple. While it is a theoretically interesting question whether the cultivation of mindfulness in one individual transfers to the relationship partner, mindfulness intervention might be more effective when both partners engage in the intervention.

The present study was the first to examine the causal impact of mindfulness training on romantic relationship outcomes using an active control group and testing both actor and partner effects, thereby extending previous research that has linked romantic relationship wellbeing mainly to self-report measures of mindfulness. The current study does not give definitive answers to the question whether or not mindfulness can causally affect relationship wellbeing, but does provide a compelling example of why research on mindfulness interventions would benefit from a wider use of active control groups, hopefully offering a springboard for future research. 

The vast majority students in a college sample believe that students can simply be bad test-takers; the majority also believe that they themselves are bad test-takers, a perspective which is maladaptive in light of relevant research

The Bad Test-Taker Identity. Jeffrey D. Holmes. Teaching of Psychology, December 29, 2020.

Abstract: There is widespread belief that test-taking ability is an influential component of academic success distinct from domain knowledge and comprehension. Most of today’s college students took many more tests over the course of their primary and secondary education than students of previous generations, and also participated in regular training to strengthen their test-taking skills. Although such training and experience should equalize students on any isolated test-taking ability, the present study reveals that the vast majority students in a college sample believe that students can simply be bad test-takers. Moreover, the majority of students believe that they themselves are bad test-takers, a perspective which is maladaptive in light of relevant research. Accordingly, the data show that students who identify in this way also tend to possess other maladaptive academic attitudes.

Keywords: test-taking beliefs, test-taking self-efficacy, bad test-taking