Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thinking and Feeling'

UC Santa Barbara researchers studying empathy in relationships find that in the absence of caring, understanding alone doesn't cut it when stressful situations arise

Newswise, March 9, 2016 — So you had a terrible day at work. Or the bills are piling up and cash is in short supply. Impending visit from the in-laws, perhaps?

When stress sets in, many of us turn to a partner to help us manage by being a sounding board or shoulder to cry on. Your odds of actually feeling better are much improved if they're both those things.

New research by psychologists at UC Santa Barbara reveals that simply understanding your partner's suffering isn't sufficient to be helpful in a stressful situation; you've got to actually care that they're suffering in the first place.

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, provide the first evidence that cognitive and affective forms of empathy work together to facilitate responsive behavior.

"When people were empathically accurate -- when they had an accurate understanding of their partner's thoughts and feelings -- they were more responsive only when they also felt more empathic concern, more compassion and motivation to attend to their partner's needs," explained lead author Lauren Winczewski, a graduate student in UCSB's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.

"People might assume that accurate understanding is all it takes to be responsive, but understanding a partner's thoughts and feelings was helpful only when listeners were also feeling more compassionate and sympathetic toward their partner.

When listeners had accurate knowledge but did not feel compassionate, they tended to be less supportive and responsive."

Responsiveness has become an important line of study in social and health psychology because research evidence increasingly suggests that feeling understood, validated and cared for by other people is crucial to relationships and personal well-being. But exactly what enables one to be responsive to others?

In the study, Winczewski and fellow graduate researcher Jeff Bowen, working with UCSB psychology professor Nancy Collins, argued that responsiveness requires not only accurate understanding but also compassionate motivation.

Specifically, they hypothesized that understanding another person's thoughts and feelings -- a cognitive skill known as empathic accuracy -- would foster responsive behavior only when paired with benevolent motivation, or empathic concern.

They tested their theory by asking couples to discuss a previously identified personal or relationship stressor -- jealousy, say, or, as in one case, one partner's extreme fear of flying.

By videotaping the conversations,­ the researchers were able to gauge empathic accuracy and empathic concern, as well as responsiveness, both in real time and after the interaction had concluded.

And as it turned out, they were right. When a listener's concern for their partner was high, their accuracy bolstered responsiveness; but when compassion was scant, understanding did little to aid responsiveness.

According to Winczewski, the findings suggest that empathic accuracy facilitates responsive behavior only when one is motivated to use that insight for benevolent goals.

"You can know very well what your partner is thinking and feeling -- maybe you've heard this story 17 times, the fight with the boss and so on -- but if you don't care?" said Winczewski.

"Having accurate knowledge in the absence of compassionate feelings may even undermine responsiveness."

The researchers speculate that everyday support conversations, like the ones they observed in their lab, inform people's more enduring perceptions of their partners' responsiveness over time.

"People use these kinds of interactions as diagnostic of their partner's motivation and ability to respond to their needs," she continued.

"'If that's how you're responding to me now, is that how you'll respond to me again in the future?' Over time, you may build trust in your partner's responsiveness or you may start to wonder if your partner is even willing, let alone able, to respond to your needs."

Said Collins, who leads UCSB's Close Relationships Lab: "Having an accurate understanding of our partner's inner world, combined with compassionate feelings, enables us to provide the kind of support that is wanted and needed by our loved ones. But in the absence of compassionate feelings, cognitive empathy alone is not enough.

"In this way," Collins added, "our study shows that 'thinking and feeling' work together to help us be as supportive as possible to those we love."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Researchers ID Risk Factors That Predict Violence in Adults With Mental Illness

Newswise, March 3, 2016 — Researchers have identified three risk factors that make adults with mental illness more likely to engage in violent behavior.

The findings give mental health professionals and others working with adults with mental illness a suite of characteristics they can use as potential warning signs, allowing them to intervene and hopefully prevent violent behavior.

“Our earlier work found that adults with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators – and that is especially relevant to this new study,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“One of the new findings is that people with mental illness who have been victims of violence in the past six months are more likely to engage in future violent behavior themselves.”
The researchers compiled a database of 4,480 adults with mental illnesses – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression – who had answered questions about both committing violence and being victims of violence in the previous six months.

The database drew from five earlier studies that focused on issues ranging from antipsychotic medications to treatment approaches. Those studies had different research goals, but all asked identical questions related to violence and victimization.

The researchers assessed the data to determine which behaviors, events and characteristics were most predictive of violent behavior over a six-month period. Violent behavior, in this context, ranged from pushing and shoving to sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon.

The researchers found three risk factors that were predictive of violent behavior: if an individual is currently using alcohol; if an individual has engaged in violent behavior over the past six months; and if an individual has been a victim of violence within the past six months.

“We found that these risk factors were predictive even when we accounted for age, sex, race, mental illness diagnosis and other clinical characteristics,” Desmarais says.

In contrast, the researchers found that current drug use was not predictive of violent behavior, when age, sex, race, mental illness diagnosis and other clinical characteristics were considered.

“This is useful information for anyone working in a clinical setting,” Desmarais says. “But it also highlights the importance of creating policies that can help protect people with mental illness from being victimized. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it makes for safer communities.”

The paper, “Proximal Risk Factors for Short-Term Community Violence Among Adults with Mental Illnesses,” is published online in the journalPsychiatric Services. Lead author of the paper is Kiersten Johnson, a Ph.D. student at NC State. Co-authors were Kevin Grimm of the University of Arizona; Stephen Tueller and Richard Van Dorn of RTI International; and Marvin Swartz of Duke University. The work was supported by the National Institute for Mental Health under grant number R01MH093426 to Van Dorn.

Psychologist Examines the Profound Power of Loneliness

Newswise, March 3, 2016 — Loneliness is as close to universal as experiences come. Almost everyone has felt isolated, even rejected.

Profound power of lonliness
But the power of loneliness — its potential for causing depression and other serious health problems as well as its surprising role in keeping humans safe from harm — may be more profound than researchers had previously presumed, says neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Cacioppo has spent nearly three decades exploring the social nature of the human brain, working to find the mechanisms behind traits such as loneliness, empathy, synchrony and emotional contagion.

Through his research, funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and the National Institute on Aging, he’s helped turn loneliness from a curious afterthought in neuroscience to a serious area for research and explanation.

He and his collaborators have also incorporated new technology at each stage of their research, combining methods ranging from behavior studies to endocrinological testing, electrical and functional neuroimaging, and genetics. They’re using those tools to identify the neural, hormonal, cellular and genetic mechanisms underlying social structures.

Using what they’ve learned, Cacioppo’s team is evaluating therapies for loneliness, finding the most effective treatments and working to improve them.

The researchers’ collaborators include the U.S. Army, which turned to Cacioppo for help with studies that could be incorporated into training to help protect soldiers from isolation and related social problems.

During a visit to the NSF, Cacioppo took some time to talk about loneliness — what it is, where it comes from and how it affects people.

Q. How do you define loneliness, in terms of your work?
A. It's defined as perceived social isolation. People can feel like they’re on the social perimeter for a lot of different reasons. If you’re the last one chosen on a high school team, that can feel really unpleasant. It’s also clearly an evaluation of your net worth to that group. If that’s a valued group, it matters to you. If it’s not a valued group, it’s no big deal. That has effects on not just emotions but cognition. Research at Rush University has shown that older adults are more likely to develop dementia if they feel chronic loneliness.

Q. So just the perception, not whether or not someone is actually isolated, can trigger a physiological reaction?
A. Much of what goes with loneliness — behaviorally, physiologically — is so deep that we’ve got it in our genes. It’s just like if I were to provide a painful stimulus to your arm, you would withdraw and complain of being hurt. That’s not something you learn. The pain withdrawal reflex is in place due to your genetic endowment. And that mechanism is in place because it protects your body from tissue damage.

Loneliness is a mechanism that’s in place because we need, as a social species, to be able to identify when our connections with others for mutual aid and protection are being threatened or absent. If there’s no connection, there could be mortal consequences. Those are threats to our survival and reproductive success.
Q. Does that make loneliness almost like a fever — unpleasant, but there's a purpose to it?

A. That’s exactly right. You would not want to eliminate the temporary feeling of loneliness. We’ve argued there’s a benefit to that response to perceived isolation. But, like many individual variations of these kinds of states, there are pathologic extremes. I might be so sensitive to feeling connected or isolated as to be a complete wreck, or I can be so insensitive as to be a psychopath. That’s just part of the normal distribution of individual differences that, for the most part, helps to protect our social body just as pain helps to protect our physical body.

Q. How does loneliness affect our social behavior and interactions?
A. When you feel lonely, you get more defensive. You focus more on self-preservation even though this is not done intentionally. Completely unbeknownst to you, your brain is focusing more on self-preservation than the preservation of those around you. This, in turn, can make you less pleasant to be around. Over time, this can increase the likelihood of negative social interactions. Thus, the focus on self-preservation can have short-term survival benefits but — if not reversed — can have long-term costs.

Q. It seems that loneliness can serve a useful purpose but — almost like an immune system that starts attacking things that aren't actually threats — it can go out of control.
A. That’s exactly right. It’s also very much like our stress system. Our stress system emerged in a different time of human history, and now we get stressed when we’re in traffic. There’s no saber-toothed tiger attacking; there’s no person with a spear coming to get me. I'm sitting in a safe car, but there’s still that level of stress and hostility that a traffic jam can engender. Our stress response contributed to survival across human history, but in contemporary society chronic stress also contributes to morbidity and mortality.
Stress has an adaptive value, even today, although not to the extent we’re expressing it. But knowing that does not mean we can simply turn it off when we wish. It’s the same thing with loneliness. We’re trying to educate the public about this, to say that loneliness isn’t something that only certain individuals have. It’s something we all have, we can all fall into, and nearly all of us experience at some point in our lives.

Q. Does this type of research into loneliness tell us anything about humans as a species?
A. The perception of loneliness is exacerbated by the feeling that one doesn’t have anyone on whom he or she can depend or who can depend on him or her. As children, we’re dependent on adults. When we grow to be adults, we think we’re supposed to become independent — the king of the mountain. But in social mammals -- not just humans — becoming an adult means being the individual upon whom others can depend. Our Western cultural notion of human nature does not capture our actual social nature particularly well.

Q. When you were starting your research into isolation decades ago, behavioral science and brain science weren't as closely linked as they are today, correct?
A. There were a number of people trying to put them together, but we didn’t have the neuroimaging technologies we have today that have really transformed what we can ask. Today, someone can really look at the working, normal brain.
I was doing electroencephalography (EEG) 40 years ago, and we looked at very broad questions. I was doing it 20 years ago, and we looked at relatively sophisticated questions compared to 20 years prior, but not very sophisticated compared to today. I’m now asking questions about the whole brain in action rather than a single region in isolation. And genetics and genomics are also increasingly integrated into investigations of the social brain.

Q. The questions that you started asking at the very beginning of your research — have they led you on a linear path to where you are today? Or has your research taken you in unexpected directions?
A. Yes to both. The question we started with wasn’t about loneliness and continues to not be about loneliness. It’s about who we are as a species. What, fundamentally, are our brains doing? What are the factors that influence brain function? Partly, we’re showing that the brain is organized in part to deal with and to promote salutary connections to other people. The fundamental question was “what is the social nature of our brain?”

One of the things that surprised me was how important loneliness proved to be. It predicted morbidity. It predicted mortality. And that shocked me. When we experimentally manipulated loneliness, we found surprising changes in the “personalities” of people. There's a lot more power to the perception of being socially isolated than any of us had thought.— Rob Marietta, National Science Foundation