Mind and Matter

Kevin Lewis

November 14, 2021

The benefits of giving: Effects of prosocial behavior on recovery from stress
Lee Lazar & Naomi Eisenberger
Psychophysiology, forthcoming

Individuals regularly face stress, and the manner in which they cope with that stress is a crucial component in predicting stress recovery. While many engage in self-rewarding behaviors to feel better, these behaviors can come with a cost. The current study tested the effect of engaging in a different behavior after experiencing stress -- prosocial behavior. Given the health benefits associated with giving to others, it is plausible that engaging in prosocial behavior is more successful in reducing the psychological and physiological responses to stress. To test this, participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test and then either sent a gift card to a person of their choosing, received a gift card for themselves, or selected the more aesthetically pleasing gift card. Measures of self-reported mood, heart rate, blood pressure, salivary alpha-amylase, and cortisol were collected throughout the session. While the manipulation did not elicit differences in psychological or hormonal measures, the giving group showed a significantly greater downregulation of their heart rate, diastolic blood pressure, and mean arterial pressure while recovering from the stressor. Additionally, those in the giving group who evidenced greater prosocial sentiment showed a larger reduction in diastolic blood pressure and mean arterial pressure. A follow-up study suggested that these behaviors may be engaging different reward components, as those who gave a gift card reported greater "liking" while those who received a gift card reported greater "wanting". Overall, the findings show that engaging in prosocial behavior following a stressor can help to downregulate physiological stress responses. 

Time Use and Happiness: Evidence across Three Decades
Jeehoon Han & Caspar Kaiser
University of Oxford Working Paper, October 2021

We use diary data from representative samples of Americans to examine historical trends in happiness at both the individual activity-level and aggregate-level. At the activity-level, domestic work and social care produce more happiness today compared to 1985. Watching TV produces less happiness than it used to. At the aggregate level, we combine information on happiness and time allocation to construct a measure of 'time-weighted happiness'. Over the last 35 years, women's time-weighted happiness has improved significantly relative to men's. This observation is in stark contrast to previous work which showed a decline in women's relative wellbeing. To explain this, we compare the determinants of life satisfaction - a more global measure on which most previous work is built - with our measure of time-weighted happiness. Time-weighted happiness and life satisfaction turn out to only be weakly correlated. Moreover, although we obtain strong associations of income and employment status with life satisfaction, no such associations can be observed for time-weighted happiness. Thus, the determinants and historical patterns of momentary happiness and more global measures fail to coincide. This highlights the importance of distinguishing and striking a balance between these wellbeing measures when analysing and designing policy. 

Social Media and Mental Health
Luca Braghieri, Ro'ee Levy & Alexey Makarin
Stanford Working Paper, August 2021

The diffusion of social media coincided with a worsening of mental health conditions among adolescents and young adults in the United States, giving rise to speculation that social media might be detrimental to mental health. In this paper, we provide the first quasi-experimental estimates of the impact of social media on mental health by leveraging a unique natural experiment: the staggered introduction of Facebook across U.S. colleges. Our analysis couples data on student mental health around the years of Facebook's expansion with a generalized difference-in-differences empirical strategy. We find that the roll-out of Facebook at a college increased symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression, and led to increased utilization of mental healthcare services. We also find that, according to the students' reports, the decline in mental health translated into worse academic performance. Additional evidence on mechanisms suggests the results are due to Facebook fostering unfavorable social comparisons. 

The Effects of Retirement on Sense of Purpose in Life: Crisis or Opportunity?
Ayse Yemiscigil, Nattavudh Powdthavee & Ashley Whillans
Psychological Science, forthcoming

Does retirement lead to an existential crisis or present an opportunity to experience a renewed sense of purpose in life? Prior research has documented a negative association between retirement and sense of purpose in life, suggesting that retirement could lead people to feel aimless and lost. We revisited these findings using a quasiexperimental approach and identified the causal impact of retirement on purpose in life. In a nationally representative panel of American adults (N = 8,113), we applied an instrumental-variable analysis to assess how Social Security retirement incentives in the United States drove differences in the likelihood of retirement. Results showed a sizable increase in purpose in life as an outcome of retirement. These improvements were driven by individuals with lower socioeconomic status who retired from dissatisfying jobs. The findings suggest that retirement may provide an opportunity to experience a renewed sense of purpose, especially among socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. 

Neural Changes in Reward Processing Following Approach Avoidance Training for Depression
Jessica Bomyea et al.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, forthcoming

Altered approach motivation is hypothesized to be critical for the maintenance of depression. Computer-administered approach-avoidance training programs to increase approach action tendencies toward positive stimuli produce beneficial outcomes. However, there have been few studies examining neural changes following approach-avoidance training. Participants with Major Depressive Disorder were randomized to an Approach Avoidance Training (AAT) manipulation intended to increase approach tendencies for positive social cues (n=13) or a control procedure (n=15). We examined changes in neural activation (primary outcome) and connectivity patterns using Group Iterative Multiple Model Estimation during a social reward anticipation task (exploratory). A laboratory-based social affiliation task was also administered following the manipulation to measure affect during anticipation of real-world social activity. Individuals in the AAT group demonstrated increased activation in reward processing regions during social reward anticipation relative to the control group from pre to post-training. Following training, connectivity patterns across reward regions were observed in the full sample and connectivity between the medial PFC and caudate was associated with anticipatory positive affect before the social interaction; preliminary evidence of differential connectivity patterns between the two groups also emerged. Results support models whereby modifying approach-oriented behavioral tendencies with computerized training leads to alterations in reward circuitry. 

Warm hands, warm hearts: An investigation of physical warmth as a prepared safety stimulus
Erica Hornstein, Michael Fanselow & Naomi Eisenberger
Emotion, forthcoming

Recent work has demonstrated that social support figures seem to be particularly robust inhibitors of the Pavlovian fear response. Specifically, social support figures appear to act as prepared safety stimuli, stimuli that have played an important role in mammalian survival and are thus less easily associated with threat and more able to inhibit the fear response. Given some of the shared behavioral and neural consequences of both social support and physical warmth, as well as the importance of physical warmth for mammalian survival, we conducted a series of examinations designed to examine whether physical warmth is also a prepared safety stimulus. In two studies conducted in human adults, we examined whether a physically warm stimulus was less readily associated with threat (compared to soft or neutral stimuli; Study 1) and was able to inhibit the fear response elicited by other threatening cues (compared to neutral stimuli; Study 2). Results showed that physical warmth resisted association with threat (Study 1) and not only inhibited the fear response but also led to lasting inhibition even after the warm stimulus was removed (Study 2). Together, these studies indicate that physical warmth, like social support, meets the requirements of being a prepared safety stimulus, and they pave the way for future work to clarify the properties that enable cues in this category to naturally inhibit fear responding. 

Why do people eat the same breakfast every day? Goals and circadian rhythms of variety seeking in meals
Romain Cadario & Carey Morewedge
Appetite, forthcoming

People exhibit a circadian rhythm in the variety of foods they eat. Many people happily eat the same foods for breakfast day after day, yet seek more variety in the foods they eat for lunch and dinner. We identify psychological goals as a driver of this diurnal pattern of variety seeking, complementing other biological and cultural drivers. People are more likely to pursue hedonic goals for meals as the day progresses, which leads them to seek more variety for dinners and lunches than breakfasts. We find evidentiary support for our theory in studies with French and American participants (N = 4481) using diary data, event reconstruction methods, and experiments. Both endogenously and exogenously induced variation in hedonic goal activation modulates variety seeking in meals across days. Hedonic goal activation predicts variety seeking for meals when controlling for factors including time devoted to meal preparation and eating, the presence or absence of other people, and whether people ate a meal inside or outside their home. Goal activation also explain differences in time spent on meals, whereas increasing time spent on meals does not increase variety seeking. Finally, we observed that a similar increase in hedonic goal activation enacts a larger increase in variety seeking at breakfast than at lunch than at dinner, suggesting a diminishing marginal effect of hedonic goal activation on variety seeking. 

Simulation induces durable, extensive changes to self-knowledge
Jordan Rubin-McGregor, Zidong Zhao & Diana Tamir
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming

The sense of self is a hallmark of the human experience, but it is also unstable. Even simulating another person - thinking about their traits or experiences - can shift how one thinks about their own traits or experiences. Simulating a target shifts self-knowledge such that it becomes more similar to the target; in six studies, we explore how extensively these changes occur. In all studies, participants first rated themselves in a specific context, then simulated another individual in the same context, and finally considered themselves again. We calculated how participants' self-knowledge changed by comparing similarity to the target before vs. after simulation. In Studies 1-2, participants' episodic memories shifted to be more similar to the simulated target; this change persisted at least 48 h. Studies 3-4 show that semantic self-knowledge changes after considering semantically related traits, while Study 5 shows that this effect extends to cross-language traits. Together, these results suggest that simulation causes durable, extensive changes across both episodic and semantic self-knowledge.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.