Tag Archives: Social Support

Stress Increases Women’s Performance and Empathic Attunement, but not Men’s

Livia Tomova

Livia Tomova

Task performance, social interaction skills, and empathic attunement increase for women under stress, but not for men.
Women seek social support (“become prosocial”), but men turn toward themselves and away from others when they experience stress, according to University of Vienna’s Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm with Bernadette von Dawans and Markus Heinrichs of University of Freiburg, and Giorgia Silani, International School for Advanced Studies, SISSA-ISAS, Trieste

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

Tomova’s team evaluated the impact of stress on 20 women and 20 men, elicited by Clemens Kirschbaum, Karl-Martin Pirke, and Dirk Hellhammer’s (Universität) Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants delivered a speech and performed mental arithmetic in front of an audience.

Bernadette von Dawans

Bernadette von Dawans

Tomova and team measured “self-other distinctions” during three types of tasks:

  • Imitated movements  (perceptual-motor task): “Move objects on a shelf according to the instructions of a director,” requiring participants to “disentangle their own visual perspective” from that of the director,
  • Identifying  one’s  own  emotions or  other  people’s  emotions  (emotional  task),  or
  • Making a judgment from another person’s perspective (cognitive task).
Markus Heinrichs

Markus Heinrichs

As a comparison, 20 men and 20 women completed non-stressful activities like “easy counting.”

Women and men showed similar physiological reactions to stress, but stress decreased men’s performance in all tasks.
In contrast, women’s performance on all tasks improved under stress

Giorgia Silani

Giorgia Silani

Specifically, women who experienced stress demonstrated more accurate understanding of others’ perspective than non-stressed women and men.
However, men under stress showed less ability to accurately detect others’ probable thoughts and feelings.

Walter Cannon

Walter Cannon

Studies of stress were pioneered by Harvard’s Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response in1914, and popularized by Hans Selye of Université de Montréal.  

Hans Selye

Hans Selye

People can cope with stress by:

  • Seeking social support or
  • Reducing “internal cognitive load” that requires additional coping efforts.

One way to reduce “internal cognitive load” is to disconnect from others’ perspective and emotional experience through reducing empathy.
Besides this process of “mentalizing,” empathy also requires people to distinguish their representations of themselves from representations of others.

Clemens Kirschbaum

Clemens Kirschbaum

Women under stress “flexibly disambiguate” mental representations of themselves from others and increase “self-other distinction,” found Tomova’s research group.
This cognitive style enables women to more accurately perceive others’ perspective, enabling more empathic interaction with others in a “tend-and-befriend” approach.

In contrast, men under stress typically turn inward with “increased egocentricity” to conserve mental and emotional resources for “flight-or-flight” responses, leading to less adaptive social interactions.

Dirk Hellhammer

Dirk Hellhammer

These differences may be rooted in gender-specific learning experiences and biological differences including higher levels of oxytocin (a hormone that mediates social behaviors) among women who experienced stress, noted Tomova’s research team.
As a result, women may seek more frequently seek social support, may interact with others more empathically, and may be rewarded with external help in a reinforcing cycle.

Nikolas Rose

Nikolas Rose

Social support can improve performance and reduce stress, probably because the brain is “wired for sociality,” according to King’s College London’s Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached of Harvard.

Gender differences in performance under stress are associated with different styles of “sociality” and empathic insight.

-*How do you maintain task performance and “Emotional Intelligence” of empathy when experiencing stress?

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Recalling Supportive Relationships Can Reduce Dislike of Outsiders

Animosity toward perceived outsiders remains a powerful driver of political attitudes and aggressive behavior toward out-groups, even in diverse societies.

Muniba Saleem

Muniba Saleem

However, intergroup discord can be reduced by recalling times of connection to supportive others, found University of Michigan’s Muniba Saleem collaborating with Sara Prot, Ben C. P. Lam and Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State, plus Harvard’s Mina Cikara and Margareta Jelic University of Zagreb.

John Bowlby

John Bowlby

Their study is based on observations by John Bowlby of London’s Child Guidance clinic and his protégée, University of Virginia’s Mary Ainsworth, that healthy social and emotional functioning depends on healthy attachment to at least one reliably supportive person in childhood.

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth

Saleem’s team confirmed that evoking early positive memories of attachment can modify aggressive thoughts and behaviors based on fear and insecurity, particularly among those strongly identified with their in-group.

Muzafer Sherif

Muzafer Sherif

This approach proved more effective than earlier prejudice-reduction techniques requiring different groups to work together on shared goals such as in Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment with University of Oklahoma colleagues O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif.
Saleem’s intervention produced more robust attitude change because it  reduced fear that can lead to aggression.

Muzafer Sherif - Robber's Cave

Team Tasks at Robber’s Cave

In Team Saleem’s experiments, more than 275 people from University of Michigan had the opportunity to undermine counterparts from a rival school, Ohio State, with no negative personal consequences.

Sara Prot

Sara Prot

Participants completed surveys of their propensity for attachment anxiety and avoidance of close relationships.
Then, half described someone “who loves and accepts you in times of need” while the remaining volunteers described a person “who lives in your neighborhood, but you do not know well.”

Craig Anderson

Craig Anderson

Next, University of Michigan participants assigned 11 puzzles of varying difficulty to an Ohio State student, who could win a $25 gift card by completing all the puzzles within 10 minutes.
University of Michigan volunteers could reduce the likelihood of the OSU student winning the gift card by assigning more challenging puzzles.

Mina Cikara

Mina Cikara

Those who strongly identified with University of Michigan and who were primed to think about the close, loving personal relationship were significantly less likely to assign difficult puzzles.
This result suggests that the positive emotional memory reduced the impulse to undermine a rival’s positive outcome even with a strong in-group preference.

In a related study, more than 260 Americans recalled one of several situations:

  • Someone close was available, supportive, and loving,
  • Typical, uneventful workday,”
  • When you accomplished a meaningful goal.”
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

Saleem’s team tested related scenarios closer to current geo-political concerns:  Volunteers in the US reported their reactions to the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Their descriptions included “angry,” “disgusted,” and “fearful.”

Finally, participants indicated their degree of support for “militaristic and aggressive policies intended to counter terrorism,” such as “I think it is OK to bomb an entire country if it is known to harbor ISIS terrorists.”

Gordon Moskowitz

Gordon Moskowitz

Volunteers prompted to recall a secure attachment were less likely to support military and aggressive measures against ISIS members and demonstrated significantly reduced negative stereotypes and negative emotions.

This effect was not due to increase positive mood because participants who recalled the positive experience of accomplishing an important goal responded significantly more aggressively.

Irmak Olcaysoy Okten

Irmak Olcaysoy Okten

Though promising, the impact of this work may be limited to those who have the advantage of experiencing close, secure relationships.
People who have missed these experiences are more likely to express prejudice, lack of remorse for aggression toward others.
In addition, cross-school rivalry and fears of terrorists are at least partially condoned, whereas racial and cultural prejudices are socially unacceptable to many.

As a result of social disapproval, some prejudices becomes implicit or unconscious.
They can be detected only through indirect measures such as the Implicit Association Test, and more recently, by evidence of biased time perception accompanying racial prejudice.

Cynthia Gooch

Cynthia Gooch

For example, White people who were concerned about appearing racially prejudiced were asked to judge the length of time they viewed faces of White men and Black men.
These White volunteers thought that time passed 10% more slowly than measured by clock time: They reported viewing faces of Black men for longer than they actually had, found Lehigh University’s Gordon B. Moskowitz and Irmak Olcaysoy Okten with Cynthia M. Gooch of Temple University.

Perceptual bias about time is also relevant to high stakes situations including perceived duration of job interviews for candidates of a different race than the interviewer, and physicians’ perception of the length of medical encounters.

This intergroup perceptual bias also can have significant consequences when white police officers’ estimate the duration of an encounter with a suspect of another race, and when they determine lethal force should be initiated.

First Person Shooter Task

First Person Shooter Task

This research reinforces the importance of early and later supportive relationships in reducing bias, subtle undermining, and over aggression toward other groups

-*How do you reduce prejudice and aggression across work teams?

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Choice of Confidants Evolves Rapidly in New Contexts

Peter V Marsden

Peter V Marsden

Prevailing career advice reinforces maintaining a robust professional network, and well-being research emphasizes cultivating supportive social contacts.

Claude S. Fischer

Claude S. Fischer

Core discussion networks,” described by Harvard’s Peter V. Marsden, include people consulted about important matters across professional and personal realms.
Most people expect that these confidants are enduring close contacts, according to University of California, Berkeley’s Lynne McCallister and Claude Fischer.

Mario Luis Small

Mario Luis Small

However, Harvard’s Mario Luis Small, with Vontrese Deeds Pamphile of Northwestern, and University of Chicago’s Peter McMahan demonstrated that core discussion networks can change quickly with new social contexts and obligations.
In fact, Small and team found much quicker network evolutions than previously observed by Utrecht University’s Gerald Mollenhorst, Beate Volker, and Henk Flap.

Gerald Mollenhorst

Gerald Mollenhorst

Change in core discussion network often results from lack of opportunity to meet, asserted Mollenhorst and colleagues.
In addition, life transition events, such as completing education, beginning a job, entering a marriage, and birth of a child were associated with changes in personal networks in research by University of Amsterdam’s Matthijs Kalmijn.

Matthijs Kalmijn

Matthijs Kalmijn

Small and colleagues evaluated a core discussion network during transition to graduate school for 37 first-year students from three academic departments during their first 12 months, using a qualitative-quantitative complementary approach described by Sam Houston State University’s Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie and Kathleen Collins of University of Arkansas.

Network Outcomes” observed by Small’s team were characterized as:

  • Stasis,
  • Expansion,
  • Shedding,
  • Substitution.
Anthony J Onwuegbuzie

Anthony J Onwuegbuzie

Related “Network Mechanisms” of core discussion group changes included new routine activities and obligations and variance in strength of existing social relationships and were associated with rapid adaptation to new social contexts.

Previously, Small demonstrated than almost half the members of a typical core discussion network were composed of people not seen as “close,” suggesting that sources of social support are adaptable to changing contexts of life transitions, and need not be close or long-term contacts.

  • What percentage of your core discussion group confidents are “close” social contacts?
  • What processes enable developing new social support relationships? 

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Loneliness, Happiness Affect Gene Expression, Health

Loneliness not only feels bad, but it’s also bad for your health.

Steve Cole

Steve Cole

Subjective social isolation is a known social epidemiological risk factor that has been linked to heart disease, viral infections and cancer.

In addition, loneliness has physical effects on gene regulation and expression, according to DNA microarray analyses of 209 gene transcripts (the first step in synthesizing a protein) out of more than 20,000 in white blood cells of 14 volunteers.

Louise Hawkley

Louise Hawkley

UCLA’s Steve Cole, Jesusa Arevalo, and Caroline Sung collaborated with Robert Rosen of University of Texas and University of Chicago’s Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo to report that individuals who reported high loneliness on Daniel Russell’s UCLA Loneliness Scale showed different gene expression in circulating leukocytes than volunteers who did not report loneliness.

Daniel Russell

Daniel Russell

Lonely individuals were less able to ward off inflammatory responses and viruses, and less able to produce antibodies because controlling genes were under-expressed.
In contrast, lonely individuals were at risk for greater inflammatory responses and more active immune systems  because the related genes were over-expressed.

These volunteers showed “down-regulation” of genes supporting mature B lymphocyte function and type I interferon response, when researchers controlled for effects of circulating cortisol levels, demographic, psychological, health risk, medications, or social network factors.

The social experience of loneliness desensitizes glucocorticoid receptors and reduces cortisol’s immune control and anti-inflammatory effects.

Cole’s team found that loneliness was more dependent on the number of close relationships rather than the total number of acquaintances.
This suggests the importance of cultivating meaningful social relationships for both social support, reciprocity, and for enhanced health.

Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson

Cole, and Arevalo collaborated with UCLA colleague Jeffrey Ma and University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson, Karen Grewen, Kimberly Coffey, Sara Algo, and Ann Firestine to consider the impact of different types of happiness on gene expression in 80 adult volunteers.

They evaluated two types of happiness:

  • Eudaimonic well-being,“ a Socratic ideal based on leading a virtuous life, striving toward a meaningful purpose, pursuing “worthwhile” service, and more fully developing personal capabilities
  • Hedonic well-being,” focused on pleasure, consumption, and enjoyment.

Karen Grewen

Karen Grewen

Fredrickson’s team compared leukocyte basal gene expression profiles for volunteers who reported hedonic well-being in contrast to those who reported eudaimonic well-being.
The team also considered negative psychological and behavioral factors.

People with high levels of hedonic well-being showed “up-regulated” pro-inflammatory genes and decreased expression of genes involved in antibody synthesis and type I IFN response in peripheral blood mononuclear cells during stress [conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA)].

Kimberly Coffey

Kimberly Coffey

In contrast, volunteers with high levels of eudaimonic well-being showed CTRA down-regulation, suggesting less stress on body systems.

Fredrickson and team concluded that “genes can tell the difference” between a purposeful life and a more pleasure-centric life, even when self-reports do not distinguish between these two types of happiness.

Ann Firestine

Ann Firestine

These finding suggest the importance of pursuing prosocial purposes and developing meaningful, trust-based relationships with others to experience greatest health and happiness – down to your genes.

-*How have you seen social relationships and mood affect immunity to illness and stress?

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Evidence-Based Stress Management – Social Support – Part 3 of 5

George Vaillant

George Vaillant

Personal relationships and social support have been shown to buffer the negative effects of stress inside and outside the workplace, according to George Vaillant, then of Harvard, with colleagues SE MeyerKenneth Mukamal, and Stephen Soldz.

Kenneth Mukamal

Kenneth Mukamal

They evaluated data from a 50-year prospective multivariate study of 223 men and found that engaging with others during a stressful event improves mood, but withdrawing from others increases anxiety, depression, and stress.
In this sample, friends seemed more important than closeness to spouse and to children for sustained physical health.

Lawrence Fisher

Lawrence Fisher

Social  relationships that buffer stress and anxiety include family closeness and connectedness, problem-focused family coping skills, clear family organization, explicit decision making, and direct communication  according to University of California, San Francisco’s Lawrence Fisher and Karen Weihs of University of Arizona.

Stephen Soldz

Stephen Soldz

In contrast, lack of social connections can increase both stress and susceptibility to disease agents due to alterations in the neuroendocrine system, according to Vaillant and team.

Karen Weihs

Karen Weihs

Undermining relationship characteristics include hostility, criticism, and blame within the family; family perfectionism and rigidity; and psychopathology, according to Fisher and Weihs.

Stress-reducing social support can come from animal companions, according to SUNY Buffalo’s Karen AllenBarbara Shykoff, and Joseph Izzo, who demonstrated that “nonevaluative social support” from animal companions reduces blood pressure in response to mental stress.

Joseph Izzo

Joseph Izzo

Forty-eight hypertensive volunteers were assigned to random comparison groups:  One group had animal companions in addition to an anti-hypertensive medication (angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitor or ACE inhibitor) and the other group received medication only.

Before participants received medication, volunteerss in both groups had similar physical responses to stress, measured by blood pressure, heart rate, and plasma renin activity.

Allen, Shykoff, and Izzo monitored these physical indicators after experimental mental stressors (serial subtraction and speech), compared with baseline measures.
They found that although medication alone lowers resting blood pressure, social support from animal companions was associated with lower blood pressure in response to mental stress.

Mark Ellenbogen

Mark Ellenbogen

Like some other stress management recommendations, this research-based finding requires willingness, and commitment to engage with others when it may seem easier and more appealing to be alone.

Oxytocin may promote seeking social support when experiencing stress and the impulse to withdraw from others, shown in research by Concordia University’s Mark Ellenbogen and Christopher Cardoso.

Christopher Cardoso

Christopher Cardoso

They demonstrated that oxytocin can increase a person’s trust in others following social rejection.
Volunteers received oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo, then experienced experimentally-induced social rejection when confederates challenged, interrupted, and ignored the participants.

Volunteers who inhaled oxytocin before the experimental social rejection and who reported greater distress on mood and personality questionnaires also said they generally invest greater trust in other people.
In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on trust among volunteers who were not bothered by the evoked social rejection.

These findings suggest that oxytocin may help individuals experiencing stress access the benefits of social support and may become an additional stress management option.

-*How can workplaces enable social support for employees experiencing stress?

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Mindful Attention (Part 2)

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  • Vitamins and Probiotcs (Part 1)
  • Mindful Attention (Part 2)
  • Music (Part 4)
  • Physical Exercise (Part 5)

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“Greenlight Group”: No-cost, Self-managed Support to Achieve Professional, Personal Goals

Gary Burlingame

Gary Burlingame recently published a meta-analysis of 40 studies that demonstrate the efficacy of groups for a number of conditions, and Dennis Kivlighan noted that group success is associated with participants’:

  • Shared purpose
  • Common identity
  • Social support through interaction
  • Reciprocal influence of the members on one another
  • Interpersonal feedback to reduce idiosyncratic individual perspectives and attitudes.

Dennis Kivlighan

In addition, groups can benefit more people at lower cost than individual coaching.

An example of these principles at work was reported recently at a large Silicon Valley technology company.

Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson

Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson [@JHartnettHender] organized a “Greenlight Group”, based on Keith Ferrazzi’s model outlined in his book, Who’s Got Your Back?

Using a “snowball” recruitment strategy, she brought together five individuals from different internal organizations, in varied roles and job levels.

The goal was to meet six times as a team over a 90 day period, to help each other achieve their most challenging professional and personal goals by giving each other feedback, supporting each other, and holding each other accountable to progress.

She outlined the benefits of “Greenlight Groups”, and executives at the company were impressed with the value proposition when they learned about it via “word-of-mouth”:

  • Self-manage career goals with no-cost peer support
  • Achieve personal goals
  • Access confidential peer support, feedback from trusted advisors

Over the six meetings:

  • Two participants transferred to new internal roles at higher grade levels
  • Two participants achieved greater work-life balance by reducing number of weekly work hours to less than 55 per week
  • Two participants dramatically increased social media presence
  • Two participants explored internal and external career opportunities
  • Two participants explored monetizing entrepreneurial opportunities
  • Two participants initiated weight-reduction program
  • One participant initiated exercise program
  • One participant increased exercise time and performance

This example suggests the value of self-organized, mutual-assistance groups to achieve professional and personal goals over a defined time period.

-*What self-managed career development programs have been effective in your workplaces?

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