Research Spotlights: February 2023

Prosocial tendencies across adolescence may be associated with an underlying ability to tolerate social risks.

In the U.S., adolescence marks a period characterized by an increase in the prominence of peers and a heightened motivation to avoid social risks. Adolescence is also a time when there is an increase in the capacity to help peers, family, and others via prosocial behaviors, even when it may involve social risks, such as speaking out against popular opinions, norms, or authority. Understanding the relationship between social risk perceptions and prosocial tendencies during adolescence is of interest to researchers. Since adolescents are often socially risk averse, of particular interest is how this relationship changes in early-to-mid adolescence and how it varies by individual. Recently published research supported by NICHD, NIDA, NSF, and others, examined:

  1. whether adolescents showed more prosocial tendencies during years when they were more or less tolerant of social risks
  2. whether the yearly link between prosocial tendencies and social risk tolerance changed across early- to mid-adolescence
  3. whether the yearly link between prosocial tendencies and social risk tolerance varied according to individual differences in sensation seeking and empathy.

Researchers conducted a longitudinal study with 893 adolescents recruited from one school district in the rural southeastern U.S. Data were collected via self-report measures using online surveys, across three waves. Each wave was one year apart. At the baseline (Wave 1), the mean age was 12.30 years (SD = 0.64, range = 10-14 years). The sample was racially and ethnically diverse (32.81% White, 27.21% Latinx, 19.82% African American, 20.16% mixed/other race) and 69.5% of participants were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. All measures were administered at Waves 1, 2, and 3 and included social risk tolerance (social risk subscale of the adolescent version of the Domain Specific Risk-Taking questionnaire), prosocial tendencies (Prosocial Tendency measure emotional subscale), sensation seeking (Sensation Seeking for Children scale), and empathy (Interpersonal Reactivity Index Empathy subscale).

On average, across the years, adolescents who reported greater prosocial tendencies and greater empathy were more averse to social risks, and adolescents who reported more empathy also reported lower levels of sensation seeking. Additionally, there was a significant difference in levels of empathy and prosocial tendencies among girls and boys, with girls reporting greater levels of empathy and prosocial tendencies than their male peers. With respect to yearly association between social risk tolerance and prosocial tendencies, researchers found that greater social risk tolerance was associated significantly with lower prosocial tendencies at 6th grade (approximately ages 11 to 12), but marginally higher prosocial tendencies by 10th grade (approximately ages 15 to 16).

The study findings have some limitations. Although the study used well-established scales, the authors note that the internal reliability for these measures was relatively low within years in this study. Additionally, the authors highlight that the findings at 10th grade were only marginally significant and recommend future longitudinal research that follows participants beyond grade 10. Finally, the findings relied strictly upon self-reported measures and does not include peer or observer reports of prosocial tendencies.

In summary, adolescents show great inclination to help others, even when it comes at a personal cost. The results from this study indicate perceptions of social risk develop in tandem with prosocial tendencies over the course of adolescence and varies according to individual differences in empathy. This change over adolescence may reflect the emergence of prosocial risk-taking, due to brain maturation, moral reasoning skills, and ability to independently evaluate social risks.

Armstrong-Carter E, Do KT, Duell N, Kwon SJ, Lindquist KA, Prinstein MJ, Telzer EH. Adolescents' Perceptions of Social Risk and Prosocial Tendencies: Developmental Change and Individual Differences. Soc Dev. 2023 Feb;32(1):188-203. doi: 10.1111/sode.12630. Epub 2022 Sep 1. PMID: 36714807; PMCID: PMC9881455

Risk factors for poor mental health among older LGBT Asian Americans

It is well-established in the literature that sexual and gender minorities are at an elevated risk of suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, psychiatric disorders, and substance use-related challenges. These elevated risks are even more pronounced for those sexual and gender minorities who are also affiliated with cultural, linguistic, or ethnic minority groups. More specifically, prior research indicates Asian American sexual minorities suffer poor mental health outcomes at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts in the same community. In a recent study funded by NIA, NIMHD, and others, researchers sought to gain insight into the lived experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Asian American constituents through the eyes of the service providers and organizations who are most familiar with their experiences, to identify risk factors as well as protective influences that impact mental health.

To address the gap in research a purposive sample of participant were selected by searching an online directory of the LGBT Asian, Asian American, South Asian, and Pacific Islander organizations as well as organizations that serve older LGBT populations in the U.S. A total of 11 members from separate organizations agreed to participate in the study. The researchers conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews over a 7-month period. During the 60-minute telephone interviews, the following topics were explored:

  1. What are the major mental health concerns experienced by members of the Asian LGBT communities?
  2. What do you see as some of the root causes of those issues?
  3. What influence does trauma, discrimination, and minority stress have on mental health?
  4. Who do you see as the most vulnerable members of the communities you serve, and what are their unique concerns?
  5. What are your thoughts about the appropriate priorities and strategies to address the needs of the communities you serve, especially the most vulnerable among them?

Study participants were asked to respond to interview questions based on their experiences with the populations or groups that their organization serves. These interviews were conducted in English according to standardized methodology, including trained interviewers, a focused interview guide, post-session debriefings, and a careful review of verbatim transcriptions of interview audio recordings. Framework analysis was applied, to identify and report themes within the data.

Data collected from this study indicated that inadequate housing, financial insecurity, discrimination, barriers to adequate health care, and the costs associated with immigration legal processes were the drivers of chronic stress, which in turn fed poor mental health among older Asian Americans. Additional cultural drivers of chronic stress impacting middle-aged and older LGBT Asian American individuals were identified: ageism, social isolation, language barriers, internalized discrimination, and limited connections to cultural, religious, or inclusive LGBT resources. LGBT status, undocumented status, and limited English language proficiency increased the risk of older Asian Americans for poor mental health. In addition to identifying these risk factors, interviewees provided their input on practices that would aid in mitigating these risks, including increasing outreach to promote family acceptance of the LGBT individual, combating discrimination faced by the larger communities (both Asian American as well as LGBT), and increasing access to expanded social services.

Matthews AK, Li CC, Bernhardt B, Sohani S, Dong XQ. Factors influencing the well-being of Asian American LGBT individuals across the lifespan: perspectives from leaders of community-based organizations. BMC Geriatr. 2022 Nov 28;22(Suppl 1):909. doi: 10.1186/s12877-022-03590-7. PMID: 36443664; PMCID: PMC9703657

Negative communication patterns between married couples can lower immune function

Prior research has shown that married spouses’ morbidity and mortality are reliability lower than those who are unmarried. However, marriage itself is not necessarily protective with couples in distressed marriages having no better or even worse outcomes than their unmarried counterparts. Dyadic stress theories and prior research suggest that couples' negative communication patterns threaten immune and emotional health, leaving partners vulnerable to illness. Spouses' relationship perceptions can also color how they see and react to marital discussions. A recent study funded by NIA, NCI, NIDCR, NCATS, and Ohio State University, sought to identify pathways linking marriage distress to poor health by examining how self-reported typical communication patterns changed discussion-based behavioral effects on spouses' blister wound healing, emotions, and discussion evaluations.

This study revisits previous research where heterosexual married couples (n = 42 couples, 84 participants) completed two 24-hour in-person visits where they had their blood drawn to measure the baseline inflammation marker interleukin-6 (IL-6), received suction blister wounds, reported their typical communication patterns (demand/withdraw strategies, mutual discussion avoidance, mutual constructive communication), and engaged in marital discussions. Discussions were recorded and coded for positive and negative behaviors using the Rapid Marital Interaction Coding System (RMICS). Immediately after the discussions, spouses rated their emotions and evaluated the discussion tone and outcome. Wound healing was measured for 12 days. In the current study, the researchers used statistical modeling of the qualitative and biological data to determine if the couples' communication patterns influenced how the couples felt after the lab conversations, and on measures of their inflammation and immune function.

The results from this new analysis revealed that married couples who typically communicate with each other using more negative strategies, such as more demand/withdraw or mutual avoidance patterns, that both spouses had slower wound healing, greater negative emotions, lower positive emotion, and poorer discussion evaluations. This effect was greater in women, as compared to men, with women’s immune and emotional health being more affected by couples’ negative communication patterns and behaviors. In contrast, couples that had more mutually constructive communication patterns had better immune, emotional, and relational outcomes. The analysis also revealed that health consequences of these negative communication strategies were apparent prior to the beginning of the original study with the couples using more negative communication patterns having increased IL-6 levels at baseline.

In summary, this study sheds new light on how a couples' typical communication patterns-including may influence spouses' reactions to marital discussions, and increase the biological, emotional, and relational impact, thus how distressed marriages can negatively affect spouses' health. The combination of negative communication patterns and behaviors predicted slower wound healing, lower positive emotions, and more negative discussion evaluations. These findings shed light on how distressed marriages pose long-term relational and health risks, most notably in women.

Shrout MR, Renna ME, Madison AA, Malarkey WB, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Marital negativity's festering wounds: The emotional, immunological, and relational toll of couples' negative communication patterns. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2022 Nov 24;149:105989. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105989. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36529114.