Tag Archives: #social

COVID-19 Peaks Reflect Time-dependent Social Activity, Not Herd Immunity (Maths)

Scientists developed a model showing that a fragile, temporary state of immunity emerged during the early epidemic but got destroyed as people changed their social behaviors over time, leading to future waves of infection.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a new mathematical model for predicting how epidemics such as COVID-19 spread. This model not only accounts for individuals’ varying biological susceptibility to infection but also their levels of social activity, which naturally change over time. Using their model, the team showed that a temporary state of collective immunity—which they termed “transient collective immunity”—emerged during the early, fast-paced stages of the epidemic. However, subsequent “waves,” or surges in the number of cases, are predicted to appear because of changing social behaviors due to pandemic fatigue or variations in imposed mitigations. Their results appeared online on April 8, 2021 in advance of publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Article continues below photos

Illinois Professor of Physics Nigel Goldenfeld
Illinois Physics and Bioengineering Professor Sergei Maslov
Illinois Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ahmed Elbanna
Brookhaven Physicist Alexei Tkachenko

The COVID-19 epidemic reached the United States in early 2020, rapidly spreading across several states by March. To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, states issued stay-at-home orders, closed schools and businesses, and put in place mask mandates. In major cities like New York City and Chicago, the first wave ended in June. In the winter, a second wave broke out in both cities; indeed subsequent waves of COVID-19 have emerged throughout the world. Epidemics frequently show this common pattern of an initial wave that ends, only to be followed unexpectedly by subsequent waves, but it has been challenging to develop a detailed and quantitative understanding of this generic phenomenon.

Mathematical models of epidemics were first developed almost 100 years ago, but necessarily cannot perfectly capture reality. One of their flaws is failing to account for the structure of person-to-person contact networks, which serve as channels for the spread of infectious diseases.  

“Classical epidemiological models tend to ignore the fact that a population is heterogenous, or different, on multiple levels, including physiologically and socially,” said lead author Alexei Tkachenko, a physicist in the Theory and Computation Group at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven Lab. “We don’t all have the same susceptibility to infection because of factors such as age, preexisting health conditions, and genetics. Similarly, we don’t have the same level of activity in our social lives. We differ in the number of close contacts we have and in how often we interact with them throughout different seasons. Population heterogeneity—these individual differences in biological and social susceptibility—is particularly important because it lowers the herd immunity threshold.” 

Herd immunity is the percentage of the population who must achieve immunity in order for an epidemic to end. “Herd immunity is a controversial topic,” said Sergei Maslov, a CFN user and professor and Bliss Faculty Scholar at UIUC, with faculty appointments in the Departments of Physics, Bioengineering, and at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. “Since early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been suggestions of reaching herd immunity quickly, thereby ending local transmission of the virus. However, our study shows that apparent collective immunity reached in this way will not last.” 

According to Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Professor of Physics at UIUC, and leader of the Biocomplexity Group at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, the concept of herd immunity doesn’t apply in practice to COVID-19.“People’s social activity waxes and wanes, especially due to lockdowns or other mitigations. So, a wave of the epidemic can seem to die away due to mitigation measures when the susceptible or more social groups collectively have been infected—something we termed transient collective immunity. But once these measures are relaxed and people’s social networks are renewed, another wave can start, as we’ve seen with states and countries opening up too soon, thinking the worst was behind them.”

Ahmed Elbanna, a Donald Biggar Willett Faculty Fellow and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UIUC, noted, transient collective immunity has profound implications for public policy. “Mitigation measures, such as mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings, should continue until the true herd immunity threshold is achieved through vaccination,” said Elbanna. “We can’t outsmart this virus by forcing our way to herd immunity through widespread infection because the number of infected people and number hospitalized who may die would be too high.”

The nuts and bolts of predictive modelling

Over the past year, the Brookhaven-UIUC team has been carrying out various projects related to a broader COVID-19 modeling effort. Previously, they modeled how the epidemic would spread through Illinois and the UIUC campus, and how mitigation efforts would impact that spread. However, they were dissatisfied with the existing mathematical frameworks that assumed heterogeneity remains constant over time. For example, if someone is not socially active today, it would be assumed that they won’t be socially active tomorrow or in the weeks and months ahead. This assumption seemed unrealistic, and their work represents a first attempt to remedy this deficiency.

“Basic epidemiological models only have one characteristic time, called the generation interval or incubation period,” said Tkachenko. “It refers to the time when you can infect another person after becoming infected yourself. For COVID-19, it’s roughly five days. But that’s only one timescale. There are other timescales over which people change their social behavior.”

In this work, the team incorporated time variations in individual social activity into existing epidemiological models. Such models work by assigning each person a probability of how likely they are to become infected if exposed to the same environment (biological susceptibility) and how likely they are to infect others (social activity). A complicated multidimensional model is needed to describe each group of people with different susceptibilities to disease. They compressed this model into only three equations, developing a single parameter to capture biological and social sources of heterogeneity. 

“We call this parameter the immunity factor, which tells you how much the reproduction number drops as susceptible individuals are removed from the population,” explained Maslov. 

The reproduction number indicates how transmissible an infectious disease is. Specifically, the quantity refers to how many people one infected person will in turn infect. In classical epidemiology, the reproduction number is proportionate to the fraction of susceptible individuals; if the pool of susceptible individuals drops by 10 percent, so will the reproduction number. The immunity factor describes a stronger reduction in the reproduction number as the pool of susceptible individuals is depleted.

To estimate the social contribution to the immunity factor, the team leveraged previous studies in which scientists actively monitored people’s social behavior. They also looked at actual epidemic dynamics, determining the immunity factor most consistent with data on COVID-19-related hospitalizations, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and daily deaths in NYC and Chicago. The team were also able to extend their calculations to all 50 U.S. states, using earlier analyses generated by scientists at Imperial College, London.

At the city and state level, the reproduction number was reduced to a larger extent in locations severely impacted by COVID-19. For example, when the susceptible number dropped by 10 percent during the early, fast-paced epidemic in NYC and Chicago, the reproduction number fell by 40 to 50 percent—corresponding to an estimated immunity factor of four to five. 

“That’s a fairly large immunity factor, but it’s not representative of lasting herd immunity,” said Tkachenko. “On a longer timescale, we estimate a much lower immunity factor of about two. The fact that a single wave stops doesn’t mean you’re safe. It can come back.” 

Epidemiological models for homogenous populations—those with little variation among individuals—predict a high value for the herd immunity threshold (HIT). For example, if the reproduction number is three, 67 percent of the population must be infected or vaccinated to reach herd immunity. With heterogeneity that remains constant over time (i.e., static levels of social activity), the HIT drops to about 42 percent. Accounting for variations in social activity over time results in an even lower threshold (~22 percent), giving the false impression that the epidemic is over when really only transient collective immunity (TCI) has been achieved. Over time, TCI wanes.

This temporary state of immunity arises because population heterogeneity is not permanent. In other words, people change their social behavior over time. For instance, individuals who self-isolated during the first wave—staying home, not having visitors over, ordering groceries online—subsequently start relaxing their behaviors. Any increase in social activity means additional exposure risk.  As shown in the figure, the outcome can be that there is a false impression that the epidemic is over, although there are more waves to come.

After calibrating the model using COVID-19 data from NYC and Chicago, the team forecast future spread in both cities based on the heterogeneity assumptions they had developed, focusing on social contributions. 

“Generally, social contributions to heterogeneity have a stronger effect than biological contributions, which depend on the specific biological details of the disease and thus aren’t as universal or robust,” explained Tkachenko. 

In follow-on work, the scientists are studying epidemic dynamics in more detail. For example, they are feeding statistics from “superspreader” events—gatherings where a single infected person causes a large outbreak among attendees—into the model. They are also applying their model to different regions across the country to explain overall epidemic dynamics from the end of lockdown to early March 2021.

“Our model can be seen as a universal patch that can be applied to conventional epidemiological models to easily account for heterogeneity,” said Tkachenko. “Predicting future waves will require additional considerations, such as geographic variabilities, seasonal effects, the emergence of new strains, and vaccination levels.” 

Featured image: Scientists modeling the spread of COVID-19 showed that a temporary state of immunity arises when many social groups collectively have been infected. This ‘transient collective immunity’ is destroyed as people modify their social behaviors over time. For example, someone who isolated in the early days of the epidemic may at some point renew their social networks, meeting with small groups or large crowds. This ‘rewiring’ of social networks can trigger new epidemic waves, whose consequences and signatures can be computed. Credit: BNL

All images credit: University of Illinois

Reference: Alexei V. Tkachenko, Sergei Maslov, Ahmed Elbanna, George N. Wong, Zachary J. Weiner, Nigel Goldenfeld, “Time-dependent heterogeneity leads to transient suppression of the COVID-19 epidemic, not herd immunity”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2021, 118 (17) e2015972118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2015972118

Provided by University of Illinois

Imagining a Face Reactivates Face-detecting Neurons in Humans (Neuroscience)

Neurons encode different faces through distinct activity patterns that reactivate during recall.

Face-sensitive neurons in humans employ distinct activity patterns to encode individual faces; those patterns reactivate when imagining the face, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

Face-selective neurons fire after seeing a face (left) and just before imagining a face (right). © Khuvis et al., JNeurosci 2021

Human social interaction hinges on faces. In fact, faces are so important that the brain contains entire regions in the ventral temporal cortex devoted to facial recognition. In humans, the fusiform facial area activates in response to faces, and monkeys have single neurons that fire when shown a face. However, experimental limitations have prevented us from knowing how the human brain responds to and processes faces at the level of the single neuron.

To close this gap, Khuvis et al. measured the electrical activity of neurons in the ventral temporal cortex of eight adults undergoing invasive epilepsy monitoring. The participants viewed images of faces and other objects and then tried to remember and describe as many as possible. Groups of face-sensitive neurons activated in unique patterns while the participants viewed faces. That same group of neurons reactivated in the same pattern when a participant envisioned one of the faces they saw. Based on the activity pattern, the researchers were able to decode which face a person was seeing — and even was thinking about.

Reference: Simon Khuvis, Erin M. Yeagle, Yitzhak Norman, Shany Grossman, Rafael Malach and Ashesh D. Mehta, “Face-selective units in human ventral temporal cortex reactivate during free recall”, Journal of Neuroscience 11 January 2021, JN-RM-2918-19; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2918-19.2020 https://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2021/01/05/JNEUROSCI.2918-19.2020

Provided by Society for Neuroscience

Why We Use Our Smartphone at Cafés (Psychology)

Why do people fiddle with their smartphones when they’re with other people? Researchers have identified three main reasons.

Maybe you’re like us. We’re the folks who are on our smartphones almost all the time, even when we’re with others. We know it annoys a lot of people, but we do it anyway. Why?

Researchers at NTNU have looked at why people in cafés pull out their phones, and how this affects café life. The three main reasons they identified are:

  • to delay or pause a conversation (interaction suspension).
  • to get out of a conversation (deliberately shielding interaction).
  • to share something with others (accessing shareables).

But what does that actually mean?

Interwoven with everything else

The smartphone is the world’s most ubiquitous personal tech gizmo. The vast majority of adults have one.

“This makes the smartphone important, both socially and sociologically,” says Ida Marie Henriksen, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of a new article.

She is affiliated with NTNU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, and wrote the newly published article with Professor Aksel Tjora and Marianne Skaar, a PhD candidate from the Department of Sociology and Political Science.

The use of smartphones is connected to so many of our activities, both ones we do alone and ones we do with others. We look for tempting cafés online, pay for the bus ticket to the café with it, invite friends to come join us, use the phone to identify the music that the café is playing, and lots of other things.

Smartphones give us even better opportunities to be social. But they also enable us to distance ourselves from others.

Smartphones in the café

The researchers visited with 52 people at cafés in Trondheim, and interviewed them in depth about their mobile phone use and how they interacted with other people.

“We focused exclusively on people who seemed to know each other from before and who met to socialize. In addition, we observed 108 other meetings at a distance, kind of like research flies on the wall,” says Skaar.

“We focused exclusively on people who seemed to know each other from before and who met to socialize.”

By design, cafés are a place where you can be especially social with others. But some people use it instead as a place to hide away with a good drink for a while and keep a suitable distance from people, or as a workplace, preferably with a laptop or tablet in addition to the ubiquitous mobile phone.

So what do the three main types of cell phone use involve?

  1. Suspending interaction

Delaying interaction is what happens when we interrupt a conversation with our café partner to check an email, a phone conversation, a picture on Snapchat or just to make sure we haven’t missed anything on social media the last few minutes.

This is also called “phubbing” (from phone + snubbing), when the phone gets your attention instead of the live person you’re with.

How this behaviour is perceived depends on how the conversation partners understand the situation. You can get annoyed about it and see it as rude. But that’s not necessarily the case.

“How this behaviour is perceived depends on how the conversation partners understand the situation.”

“On the one hand, how you suspend your interaction plays a role. If you explain to the person you’re with why you have to postpone your physical interaction, it’s perceived as more polite than if you just disappear and start “phubbing,” that is, phoning someone else and ignoring the person who’s physically present. At the same time, some people may appreciate a short break from a longer conversation, and using the phone can also be a natural, interwoven part of the social interaction that takes place in the café,” says Tjora.

  1. Deliberately shielding interaction

This is a slightly different, more subtle way of using the phone than suspending interaction exposure.

“When the person you’re with gets busy on their smartphone, the other person in the social setting can pick up their smartphone to demonstrate that they’re busy too and not being involuntarily left to themselves. Or if you’re in a group, you can pick up your phone to avoid a conversation topic by signalling that you are busy. The smartphone offers a break from face-to-face social situations,” says Henriksen.

“Smartphones offer a break from face-to-face social situations.”

Some of us take this a step further by keeping our cell phone in silent mode. Then we can pretend we’ve received an important message or conversation, and that we have to hurry to answer it, maybe even leaving the company we’re sitting with.

You can escape a lot of boring meetings this way. But it’s not exactly pleasant.

  1. Content sharing

This is the more pleasant or useful sharing side of using a phone and can sometimes be almost the opposite of taking a break from interacting.

“When you take a selfie together, or show pictures of your new girlfriend or kids, or of the house you want to bid on, or the map of where you were on holiday, you’re sharing content,” says Tjora.

“This is the more pleasant or useful sharing side of using a phone and can sometimes be almost the opposite of taking a break from interacting.”

Maybe you have an email, an SMS or a document that you want to show your café partner. That belongs in this category, too. Or when you disagree about what that actor or musician’s name was, and a quick web search can tell you which one of you was right.

Content sharing in a café setting often raises new conversation topics and can enrich the interaction. Sharing is probably also the most socially accepted use of mobile phones.

Other uses

Of course, there are overlapping and grey areas too.

“For example, a mutual understanding can allow those who are meeting to take pictures of the coffee cup at the very beginning of the conversation and perhaps share the picture on social media for uninterested acquaintances. But then they put away their phones, either until a message appears, or perhaps even until the physical meeting comes to an end. If you go to a café to be social, the person with you in real life is the focus,” says Henriksen.

Sometimes there are also situations where café partners jointly agree to check this and that on their phones for a short while, but then put them away and concentrate on each other.

Others use their phone while the café partner is ordering at the counter or going to the toilet, simply to have something to do while the other person is away. This is almost like a kind of addiction, where we constantly have to be doing something and fill in all the breaks. The phone is immediately available, willing and able to satisfy this aversion to silence.

A conclusion, sort of

The smartphone is a tool for signalling interest or distance, but it can also enrich conversations and be used to share experiences with other people than only those who are physically present.

“The smartphone is a tool for signalling interest or distance, but it can also enrich conversations and be used to share experiences.”

“The study dispels the myth that everyone is constantly staring at their screens no matter the occasion, and shows that a form of courtesy with the phone has been established, at least in situations where the social aspect is prioritized,” says Tjora.

“The study dispels the myth that everyone is constantly staring at their screens no matter the occasion.”

“Whatever the reasons, one thing seems certain: smartphones have changed how we behave socially, for better or for worse. But maybe socializing has just become different in a way we need to become conscious of.

Reference: Henriksen, I.M .; Skaar, M .; Tjora, A. The Constitutive Practices of Public Smartphone Use. Societies 2020, 10 (4), 78; https://doi.org/10.3390/soc10040078

Provided by Norwegian Science Tech

Couple Life: Dating Apps Don’t Destroy Love (Psychology)

Contrary to earlier concerns, a UNIGE study has shown that people who met their partners on dating applications have often stronger long-term relationship goals, and that these new ways of meeting people encourage socio-educational and geographical mixing.

Mobile apps have revolutionised the way people meet in Switzerland and elsewhere in recent years. Unlike traditional dating sites, these apps do not feature detailed user profiles but are largely based on rating photos using a swipe review system. As dating apps escalated in popularity, so has criticism about them encouraging casual dating only, threatening the existence of long-term commitment, and possibly damaging the quality of intimacy. There is no scientific evidence, however, to validate these claims. A study by the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, provides a wealth of information about couples who met through dating apps, drawing on data from a 2018 Swiss survey. The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, indicate that app-formed couples have stronger cohabitation intentions than couples who meet in a non-digital environment. What is more, women who found their partner through a dating app have stronger desires and intentions to have children than those who found their partner offline. Despite fears concerning a deterioration in the quality of relationships, partners who met on dating apps express the same level of satisfaction about their relationship as others. Last but not least, the study shows that these apps play an important role in modifying the composition of couples by allowing for more educationally diverse and geographically distant couples.

The meteoric rise of romantic encounters on the internet is on its way of becoming the leading place where couples are formed in Switzerland, on a par with meeting via friends. “The Internet is profoundly transforming the dynamics of how people meet,” confirms Gina Potarca, a researcher at the Institute of Demography and Socioeconomics in UNIGE’s Faculty of Social Sciences, and holder of an Ambizione research grant awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation to study the effects of digital ways of communicating on marriage formation and sorting. “It provides an unprecedented abundance of meeting opportunities, and involves minimal effort and no third-party intervention.” These new dating technologies include the smartphone apps like Tinder or Grindr, where users select partners by browsing and swiping on pictures. These apps, however, have raised fears: “Large parts of the media claim they have a negative impact on the quality of relationships since they render people incapable of investing in an exclusive or long-term relationship. Up to now, though, there has been no evidence to prove this is the case,” continues Dr Potarca.

Facilitated encounters

The Geneva-based researcher decided to investigate couples’ intentions to start a family, their relationship satisfaction and individual well-being, as well as to assess couple composition. Dr Potarca used a 2018 family survey by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. The analysis presented in this study looks at a sub-sample of 3,235 people over the age of 18 who were in a relationship and who had met their partner in the last decade.
Dr Potarca found that dating websites – the digital tools for meeting partners that preceded apps – mainly attracted people over the age of 40 and / or divorcees who are looking for romance. “By eliminating lengthy questionnaires, self-descriptions, and personality tests that users of dating websites typically need to fill in to create a profile, dating apps are much easier to use. This normalized the act of dating online, and opened up use among younger categories of the population.”

Searching for a lasting relationship

Dr Potarca sought to find out whether couples who met on dating apps had different intentions to form a family. The results show that couples that formed after meeting on an app were more motivated by the idea of cohabiting than others. “The study doesn’t say whether their final intention was to live together for the long- or short-term, but given that there’s no difference in the intention to marry, and that marriage is still a central institution in Switzerland, some of these couples likely see cohabitation as a trial period prior to marriage. It’s a pragmatic approach in a country where the divorce rate is consistently around 40%.” In addition, women in couples that formed through dating apps mentioned wanting and planning to have a child in the near future, more so than with any other way of meeting.

But what do couples who met in this way think about the quality of their relationship? The study shows that, regardless of meeting context, couples are equally satisfied with their lives and the quality of their relationship.

Couples with a diverse socio-educational profile

The study highlights a final aspect. Dating apps encourage a mixing of different levels of education, especially between high-educated women and lower educated men. Partners having more diversified socio-educational profiles “may have to do with selection methods that focus mainly on the visual,” says the researcher. Since users can easily connect with partners in their immediate region (but also in other spaces as they move around), the apps make it easier to meet people more than 30 minutes away – leading to an increase in long-distance relationships.
“Knowing that dating apps have likely become even more popular during this year’s periods of lockdown and social distancing, it is reassuring to dismiss alarming concerns about the long-term effects of using these tools,” concludes Dr Potarca.

Reference: Potarca G (2020) The demography of swiping right. An overview of couples who met through dating apps in Switzerland. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0243733. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0243733 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0243733

Provided by Universite de Geneve

How A Very “Sociable” Protein Can Hold Clues About Alzheimer’s Origin (Psychiatry)

An international team of scientists led by the ESRF, have found how the ECSIT protein dictates the behaviour of proteins linked to the energy activity in mitochondria, which is largely affected in Alzheimer’s disease. Their results are published in Angewandte Chemie.


The origin of the most prevalent form of Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 95% of cases, is still not clear despite decades of scientific studies. “Before understanding the pathology, we need to understand the biology”, explains Montse Soler López, scientist leading research on Alzheimer’s disease at the ESRF. “The only thing we are sure about is that the most common form of Alzheimer’s is linked with ageing”, she asserts.

So researchers have been focusing on parts of the body that degrade dramatically with age. Neurons, for example, are long-lived cells, meaning that they don’t renew themselves like other cells do. Neurons lodge mitochondria, which are so-called the “powerhouse of cell” because of their active role generating energy in the body. With time, mitochondria suffer oxidative stress and this leads to their malfunction. It has been recently discovered that people with Alzheimer’s may have an accumulation of amyloids inside mitochondria (previously it was thought amyloids were only outside the neurons). Montse Soler López is trying to find whether there is a link between mitochondrial dysfunction, presence of amyloids and early disease symptoms. “We believe that malfunctioning of the mitochondria can take place 20 years before the person shows symptoms of the disease”.

The team at the ESRF joined forces with scientists at the Institut de Biologie Structurale (CNRS, CEA, Université Grenoble Alpes), Grenoble Institut des Neurosciences and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) to study the proteins involved in the respiratory complex that allows mitochondria to generate energy. The way mitochondria work is the following: first, “helper” complexes create respiratory complexes, which subsequently create energy in the form of ATP. Soler López and her team focused on a protein called ECSIT, which is key in the immune system and appears to “socialise” or interact with many proteins.

Using the ESRF cryo-electron microscope and Small Angle X-ray Scattering at the ESRF’s beamline BM29, the researchers managed to decipher the role of ECSIT in mitochondrial activity. “We’ve found that ECSIT plays a major role in assembling the ‘helper’ complex, which will assemble the respiratory complex 1, the biggest complex of the respiratory chain in the mitochondria. In the ‘helper’ complex there are several proteins, and we’ve discovered that ECSIT regulates the function of the proteins so that they do the job they are required to do”, explains Soler López.

One of these proteins is ACAD9. This is a protein that can work to oxidise fatty acids or to assemble the respiratory complex. Soler López and her colleagues found that ECSIT shuts down the oxidizing function so that the protein can focus on assembling the respiratory complex. “If ECSIT didn’t take action, it would be a mess, with proteins doing several things at the same time, so ECSIT is actually crucial in the whole respiratory complex and hence, in mitochondrial activity”, she adds.

They also found that ECSIT is very sensitive to amyloids presence. “We think that when the amyloids start appearing in the mitochondria, ECSIT goes into overdrive, pushing the respiration mechanism to protect the mitochondria from the damaging invasion. If the mechanism is not well controlled it can become destructive and end up destroying the neuron. But we are still investigating this, it is the next step in our research”, concludes Soler López.

Reference: Giachin, G., et al, Angewandte Chemie, DOI: 10.1002/anie.202011548.

Provided by ESRF

How to Be Happy with What You Have (Psychology)

The evolutionary psychology of social positioning and envy.

So picture this: You go into the mailroom at work and there’s an envelope from the president of your company. Of course, you rush to your desk so to open this one at breakneck speed. Did you do something wrong? Did you do something especially right? Are you being asked to take on an important role within your organization?

© Gettyimages

You make it to your desk and open that envelope up in record time. It is a personalized letter from the president to you congratulating you on your recent accomplishments and thanking you for your dedication to the organization. It ends by indicating that you will receive, starting immediately, an on-base salary increase of $10,000 a year. Wow! You were NOT expecting this! You can hardly contain your joy at this wonderful news!

You take a photo of the letter and text it to your spouse, who also works for the same organization. She texts you back with a photo of a letter that she just received. Also today. Also from the president of the organization. She is being given an on-base salary increase of $12,000 a year for her accomplishments. In the next hour, you find out about similar letters received by several of your colleagues. And get this: In each case, the raise is larger than your own!

An hour ago, you were bursting with joy at the news of your raise and the recognition of your great work. Now, 60 brief minutes later, you are sulking and are planning to go home early so as to avoid seeing everyone else whom you work with. Your joy has turned to shame and embarrassment pretty quickly. You never want to see any of them again!

On your drive home, you call the only person in the world who might make you feel at least somewhat better in this moment: your mom. Mom, of course, congratulates you and tells you that she sees this as GREAT news! And that you should focus on your own positive outcome. Hey, you just got a $10,000 raise! That money will make your entire life so much easier for the rest of your days. Good for you!

After you hang up with Mom, you find your emotional state immediately shifting back to all-out pity-party status. You find yourself not even being able to be happy for your wife’s raise. And the money from her raise will directly benefit you and your children immensely moving forward. 

What the heck is going on?

A Thought Experiment

To best understand why so many of us would feel more negative than positive emotions in the aforementioned example, here is a thought experiment. Which of the following would you prefer to obtain?

A. You get a raise of $9,000 and everyone else gets either no raise, or a raise of $5,000


B. You get a raise of $10,000 but everyone else gets an even-bigger raise

If you’re human like the rest of us, there is a good chance that, in fact, you’d choose option A.

Of course, in an absolute sense, this is ridiculous. The more money the better, right? And it’s clear that $10,000 is more than $9,000. So in terms of your own lot, you should pick option B. But let’s face it, one’s salary is largely an index of one’s status within an organization. And with so many economic indicators in our world, salary is often less about its surface-level function (how much money you get) than it is about one’s position and value within a community (see Frank, 2005).

The Evolutionary Psychology of Social Rank

The human mind evolved in small-scale, nomadic communities across thousands of generations (see Geher, 2014). Under such conditions, being ostracized or being designated as low in value and status would have threatened one’s ability to survive. Humans evolved to depend on close others. And achieving relatively high status in one’s circle is one way to ensure that others will support you and have your back in life.

For this reason, we evolved to be very sensitive to markers of our relative positions in social circles (see Hill & Buss, 2010). Threats to our social rank famously lead to adverse emotional consequences such as anxiety, shame, and embarrassment (as in the salary-based example used in this article). When it comes to our evolved social psychology, the human mind is highly relativistic in nature.

For this reason, we often make decisions that might seem irrational on the surface. Someone might take a cut in pay to obtain a high-status position such as Director of Vice President, for instance. Someone might spend outside his or her means to live in a gorgeous house that he or she can barely afford just so as to keep up with the Joneses. And people may well prefer to get no raise at all compared to getting a smaller raise than everyone else gets.

From a rationalistic perspective, none of these decisions makes sense on the surface. But if we keep in mind how incredibly relativistic our evolved social psychology is, it all comes to light. 

The Dark Shadow of Envy in the Human Experience

While there are many downright deplorable aspects of the human experience, I’d argue that envy is right up there as one of the worst. Envy exists when you want something that someone else has. And envy totally relates to our evolved positional psychology when it comes to marking our social rank (see DelPriore, Hill, & Buss, 2012).

On the surface, envy never makes sense. Imagine that you are someone who loves to travel. And you are at a party and you find out that some close friends have just scheduled a two-week trip to Hawaii. Meanwhile, that same day, you and your spouse looked at your finances and concluded that you will have to pass on your annual two-night getaway at the Jersey shore this year. 

On the surface, the fact that your friends are going to Hawaii is just awesome and you should be happy for them. But, again, humans are humans. And many people might feel at least a splash of envy in this situation and, along the way, they might find it hard to even express happiness for their nice friends who are planning their first-ever luau with their two adorable children. 

The ability to travel is clearly a luxury and is, thus, what Robert Frank (2005) would term a positional good. It provides information about your social rank. Your friends are going to Hawaii. You’re, literally, going nowhere. The dark emotion of envy evolved to motivate people to take steps to move upwards in their social rank, regardless of the often-despicable forms that envy can often take in our worlds. 

Bottom Line

It’s not always easy to be happy with what we have. Humans evolved a social psychology that is positional in nature. We evaluate our social rank constantly and we feel threatened when our value is low within some localized community. We can understand this from an evolutionary perspective, as our ancestors, living in small, tight-knit groups, who were low in status were less likely to reap benefits from others. So we evolved the tendency to be ashamed if our value is publicly lowered and envious if someone else in our circle has some marker of higher status than ourselves. 

Understanding our evolved psychology surrounding positional status and envy can help us understand the negative emotions associated with these phenomena. And, just perhaps, a fuller understanding of these concepts can help us actually be happier with our own lot in life.

I hope so, because at the end of the day, we’re only here once. And, consistent with the emerging field of Positive Evolutionary Psychology, we should always remember life is too short to spend it on such negative aspects of life such as envy. You only get one chance. Focus on the positives, and make it count. 

References: (1) DelPriore, D.J., Hill, S.E, & Buss, D.M.(2012). Envy: Functional specificity and sex-differentiated design features. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 317-322. (2) Frank, R. (2005). Does Absolute Income Matter?”in P. L. Porta and L. Bruni, eds., Economics and Happiness, New York: Oxford University Press. (3) Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer. (4) Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press. (5) Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Risk and relative social rank: positional concerns and risky shifts in probabilistic decision-making. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 219-226. 

This article is originally written by Glenn Geher, who is professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is founding director of the campus’ Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

Autism Study Suggests Connection Between Repetitive Behaviors, Gut Problems (Psychology)

In children with autism, repetitive behaviors and gastrointestinal problems may be connected, new research has found.

The study found that increased severity of other autism symptoms was also associated with more severe constipation, stomach pain and other gut difficulties.

The research, which appears in the journal Autism, found no association between social and communication difficulties and gastrointestinal symptoms.

The study doesn’t explain the biological mechanism for the relationship between repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth and hand flapping, and gut problems. But it helps establish that gastrointestinal symptoms may exacerbate repetitive behaviors, or vice versa, a finding that could one day help lead to helpful interventions, said Payal Chakraborty, a graduate student in The Ohio State University College of Public Health who led the study.

Children with autism spectrum disorder are more likely than their typically developing peers to experience a range of gastrointestinal abnormalities, including chronic diarrhea, constipation, food sensitivities and abdominal pain. These symptoms have been associated with higher levels of irritability and aggressive behavior, but less is known about their relationship with other autism spectrum disorder symptoms.

“In the general population, there’s a fair amount of evidence about the connection between mood and mental disorders and gastrointestinal difficulties. In autism, we wonder if the gut problems children experience are a core part of the disease itself or whether they’re brought on by other symptoms that children with autism experience,” Chakraborty said.

Chakraborty began the study as a student at Duke University, where she worked at the Center for Autism and Brain Development and became interested in the potential connection between the gut and other characteristics of the developmental disability.

Using data from a study designed to test the viability of cord blood transplants as an autism treatment, Chakraborty looked at detailed clinical measures and reports provided by the families of 176 children who were two to seven years old to see if she could find any insights into the drivers of gastrointestinal problems. Almost all of the children, 93%, had at least one gastrointestinal symptom.

“GI problems are a significant issue for many people with autism and there’s evidence that these symptoms might exacerbate certain autism behaviors, which can lead to greater developmental challenges,” she said.

The specifics of the relationship are unclear, but it’s possible that repetitive behaviors in children with autism could be a coping mechanism that helps them manage their gastrointestinal discomfort, Chakraborty said, adding that the symptoms of autism often emerge at a time when children aren’t in a position to adequately communicate their physical suffering with words.

“Gastrointestinal problems are a major concern for many children with autism and we still have a lot to learn about the complicated gut/brain axis,” she said.

References: Payal Chakraborty et al. Gastrointestinal problems are associated with increased repetitive behaviors but not social communication difficulties in young children with autism spectrum disorders, Autism (2020). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1362361320959503 DOI: 10.1177/1362361320959503

Provided by Ohio State University

We All Want the Same Thing (Psychiatry)

We want to feel valued by somebody else.

We all want the same thing: simply to be valued by somebody else.  Think about every person you have ever met.  They just want to feel valued. I want to feel valued, and so do you. By someone. Right?

©Joseph Shrand et al.

I think this universal human need has very ancient roots.  Millions of years ago we were not the fastest animal, not the strongest, not the biggest animal.  We were isolated mammals scurrying around trying not to be lunch.  We were prey.

And then we formed these small social groups, and our survival potential increased so dramatically that human beings are everywhere.  But to stay protected by the group you have to contribute: you have to have value.

This survival mode explains why I get angry, anxious, or sad when I feel less valued.  The limbic part of my brain worries I may get kicked out of my protective and be lunch.  Right or wrong, just the perception of being devalued activates our ancient, irrational, emotional, and often impulsive response.  We worry we will be lunch.

Anger is often an irrational and impulsive emotion that originates in an ancient part of our brain called the limbic system.  The limbic system can make us impulsive, doing things without thinking about the consequences of our action or what will happen next.

Anger is the fight branch of fight or flight.  It is an emotion designed to change things. We get angry when we want someone to do something different.  To start doing something or stop doing something.  Anger happens when you think someone is trying to take something from you, or has more than you leaving you less than and vulnerable. Anger is an approach emotion, often designed to make somebody else activate their flight branch, the fear and anxiety that comes with feeling threatened.

When we sense that somebody else sees us with less value we worry we will be kicked out of our protective group and some predator will come and eat us. That we will be lunch. This group mentality has helped us survive.  But it can backfire.  An entire group can feel devalued by another group.  This can lead to war. 

There are millions of people in our country, in other countries, in our world, who feel that others see them as less-than.  Many are angry.  They want something to change.

Right now, at this very moment in our history, there are a lot of angry people who feel that something is being taken from them.  And they want that to change.

They want what we all want.  To feel valued.  But not just by people in their group.  They want to feel valued by people in your group.

We are one group.  It’s called humanity.

If we continue to act limbically and impulsively we are not going to be able to anticipate what will happen next.

The part of our brain responsible for rational thought, for making a plan, executing that plan, and anticipating what will happen next lives right behind our forehead and is called the pre-frontal cortex or PFC.  How many times have you done something impulsively, limbically, and slapped your forehead as if trying to jump-start your pre-frontal cortex?

Keep it Frontal.  Don’t Go Limbic.

There is nothing wrong with anger: it’s what you do with it that matters.

And when is the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?

You don’t.

Because anger is an emotion designed to change things. But being respected feels great so our brains do not activate anger.

Respect leads to value which is what everybody wants.  And what’s amazing is that at any and every moment in time you can remind someone of their value.  And whenever you remind someone of their value you increase your own value.  And everyone wants to feel valuable.

Respect leads to value and value leads to trust.  And trust is the antidote to anger and fear and sadness because when you believe that someone else sees you as valuable you can make a mistake and not worry that the person will see you as less valuable, and kick you out of your protective group.

That’s what we need to do right now.

Value each other instead of judging each other as less than.  I would rather wonder than worry about why you do what you do.  I would rather be reflective than reflexive, I would rather have the discussion, use my PFC as you use yours, and explore our differences as opportunities to learn.  I want to know why you are angry, without being afraid of your anger.

I want you to know that you are respected, valued, and that we can create a foundation of trust.  We need this now more than ever.  There is nothing wrong with anger, it’s what we do with it that will matter.  And never forget that we all want the exact same thing, no matter which group or tribe or country we come from.  We just want to feel valued by somebody else.

Keep it Frontal.  Don’t Go Limbic.

We can do this.

References: Shrand, J.,  Devine, L.  Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing our most Dangerous Emotion.  Josey Bass, 2013

This article is originally written by Joe Shrand, who is an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

A Hunger For Social Contact (Neuroscience)

Neuroscientists find that isolation provokes brain activity similar to that seen during hunger cravings.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring, many people have only seen their close friends and loved ones during video calls, if at all. A new study from MIT finds that the longings we feel during this kind of social isolation share a neural basis with the food cravings we feel when hungry.

MIT neuroscientists have found that the longings for social interaction felt during isolation are neurologically similar to the food cravings people experience when hungry. Credits: Image: Christine Daniloff, MIT

The researchers found that after one day of total isolation, the sight of people having fun together activates the same brain region that lights up when someone who hasn’t eaten all day sees a picture of a plate of cheesy pasta.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food. Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger,” says Rebecca Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

The research team collected the data for this study in 2018 and 2019, long before the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns. Their new findings, described today in Nature Neuroscience, are part of a larger research program focusing on how social stress affects people’s behavior and motivation.

Former MIT postdoc Livia Tomova, who is now a research associate at Cambridge University, is the lead author of the paper. Other authors include Kimberly Wang, a McGovern Institute research associate; Todd Thompson, a McGovern Institute scientist; Atsushi Takahashi, assistant director of the Martinos Imaging Center; Gillian Matthews, a research scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Kay Tye, a professor at the Salk Institute.

Social craving

The new study was partly inspired by a recent paper from Tye, a former member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. In that 2016 study, she and Matthews, then an MIT postdoc, identified a cluster of neurons in the brains of mice that represent feelings of loneliness and generate a drive for social interaction following isolation. Studies in humans have shown that being deprived of social contact can lead to emotional distress, but the neurological basis of these feelings is not well-known.

“We wanted to see if we could experimentally induce a certain kind of social stress, where we would have control over what the social stress was,” Saxe says. “It’s a stronger intervention of social isolation than anyone had tried before.”

To create that isolation environment, the researchers enlisted healthy volunteers, who were mainly college students, and confined them to a windowless room on MIT’s campus for 10 hours. They were not allowed to use their phones, but the room did have a computer that they could use to contact the researchers if necessary.

“There were a whole bunch of interventions we used to make sure that it would really feel strange and different and isolated,” Saxe says. “They had to let us know when they were going to the bathroom so we could make sure it was empty. We delivered food to the door and then texted them when it was there so they could go get it. They really were not allowed to see people.”

After the 10-hour isolation ended, each participant was scanned in an MRI machine. This posed additional challenges, as the researchers wanted to avoid any social contact during the scanning. Before the isolation period began, each subject was trained on how to get into the machine, so that they could do it by themselves, without any help from the researcher.

“Normally, getting somebody into an MRI machine is actually a really social process. We engage in all kinds of social interactions to make sure people understand what we’re asking them, that they feel safe, that they know we’re there,” Saxe says. “In this case, the subjects had to do it all by themselves, while the researcher, who was gowned and masked, just stood silently by and watched.”

Each of the 40 participants also underwent 10 hours of fasting, on a different day. After the 10-hour period of isolation or fasting, the participants were scanned while looking at images of food, images of people interacting, and neutral images such as flowers. The researchers focused on a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, a tiny structure located in the midbrain, which has previously been linked with hunger cravings and drug cravings. The substantia nigra is also believed to share evolutionary origins with a brain region in mice called the dorsal raphe nucleus, which is the area that Tye’s lab showed was active following social isolation in their 2016 study.

The researchers hypothesized that when socially isolated subjects saw photos of people enjoying social interactions, the “craving signal” in their substantia nigra would be similar to the signal produced when they saw pictures of food after fasting. This was indeed the case. Furthermore, the amount of activation in the substantia nigra was correlated with how strongly the patients rated their feelings of craving either food or social interaction.

Degrees of loneliness

The researchers also found that people’s responses to isolation varied depending on their normal levels of loneliness. People who reported feeling chronically isolated months before the study was done showed weaker cravings for social interaction after the 10-hour isolation period than people who reported a richer social life.

“For people who reported that their lives were really full of satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a bigger effect on their brains and on their self-reports,” Saxe says.

The researchers also looked at activation patterns in other parts of the brain, including the striatum and the cortex, and found that hunger and isolation each activated distinct areas of those regions. That suggests that those areas are more specialized to respond to different types of longings, while the substantia nigra produces a more general signal representing a variety of cravings.

Now that the researchers have established that they can observe the effects of social isolation on brain activity, Saxe says they can now try to answer many additional questions. Those questions include how social isolation affect people’s behavior, whether virtual social contacts such as video calls help to alleviate cravings for social interaction, and how isolation affects different age groups.

The researchers also hope to study whether the brain responses that they saw in this study could be used to predict how the same participants responded to being isolated during the lockdowns imposed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The research was funded by a SFARI Explorer Grant from the Simons Foundation, a MINT grant from the McGovern Institute, the National Institutes of Health, including an NIH Pioneer Award, a Max Kade Foundation Fellowship, and an Erwin Schroedinger Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund.

References: Tomova, L., Wang, K.L., Thompson, T. et al. Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger. Nat Neurosci 23, 1597–1605 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41593-020-00742-z https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-020-00742-z

Provided by MIT