Features

Features

College of Human Ecology Communications, by Tom Fleischman

Elaine Wethington

Nine Cornell faculty members have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

The association elected 417 new fellows for 2018, honoring their efforts to advance research and its applications in scientifically or socially distinguished ways. New fellows will receive a certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin at the 2019 AAAS annual meeting, Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C.

Elaine Wethington, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Wethington is recognized for distinguished contributions to medical sociology, focusing on the social aspects of physical and mental illnesses, their epidemiology and rigorous measurement, and for making her findings translatable to diverse audiences, including patients and the public.

thehindu.com, Age well: attitudes matter in a greying world, June 14, 2018, by Jim Rendon and Olumfemi Terry.

Healthy ageing has become increasingly important, but a WHO analysis found that 60% of people surveyed across 57 countries had negative views of old age.

At 85, Claude Copin, a retired French welder, may have discovered a secret to living a long, healthy life. She stays active by playing a petanque game with friends in a Paris park. And she has made friends with her teammates’ children, many of whom are teenagers. They take her to parties and movies — sometimes forgetting that she might need a rest before they do.

“I make my life beautiful,” says Ms. Copin. “I am still healthy because I have activities and I meet people.”

Ms. Copin is right. A growing body of research and global data collected and analysed by Orb Media shows a strong connection between how we view old age and how well we age. Individuals with a positive attitude towards old age are likely to live longer and in better health than those with a negative attitude. Older people in countries with low levels of respect for the elderly are at risk for worse mental and physical health and higher levels of poverty compared with others in their country. A shift in attitude, the research shows, could improve a lot.

Healthy ageing is increasingly important: countries everywhere outside Africa are rapidly growing older. If population trends continue, by 2050 nearly one out of five people in the world will be over 65, and close to half a billion will be older than 80. Smaller, young populations will have to care for large, older populations with increasingly expensive health care needs.

Surprisingly, in a world brimming with older people, negative views of old age are common. A World Health Organization analysis found that 60% of people surveyed across 57 countries had negative views of old age. Older people are often viewed as less competent and less able than younger people. They are considered a burden on society and their families, rather than being recognised for their valuable knowledge, wisdom and experience.

Orb Media compiled data from over 1,50,000 people in 101 countries to learn about their levels of respect for older people. Pakistan was among the countries that scored the highest.

Respect for older people is a long-standing tradition in Pakistan, says Faiza Mushtaq, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, Pakistan. But as more people move to cities, traditional family structures are being disrupted, making it harder to care for elders. Without a government safety net, many older people fall into severe poverty, she says.

Nonetheless, there are tangible benefits to the way elders are viewed, says Ms. Mushtaq. “This attitude towards ageing is a much healthier embrace of the ageing process, rather than having all of your notions of well-being and attractiveness and self-worth being tied so closely to youth,” she says.

Japan, with the world’s longest lifespans and low birth rates, is at the leading edge of this global demographic shift. There Orb found low levels of respect for the elderly. Kozo Ishitobi, an 82-year-old nursing home physician, says that older people were traditionally seen as a burden.

“Japanese people are starting to realise that elderly people need support,” he says. “We all go through it, so we should support each other.”

Broad implications

It turns out that one’s attitude towards ageing has broad implications. Becca Levy, a Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in the United States, has been fascinated by the power of age stereotypes for decades. She started her work in the 1990s with a hunch. If older people are respected in society, perhaps that improves their self-image.

“That may in turn actually influence their physiology and that may influence their health,” says Ms. Levy.

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Ms. Levy, the leader in the field, and the researchers that followed have found just that: those with positive views about old age live longer and age better. They are less likely to be depressed or anxious, and they show increased well-being and recover more quickly from disability. They also are less likely to develop dementia and the markers of Alzheimer’s disease. In one study, Ms. Levy found that Americans with more positive views on ageing who were tracked over decades lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative views. Studies in Germany and Australia have found similar results.

“Some of the magnitudes of the findings have been surprising,” says Ms. Levy.

Orb’s research and analysis found that these effects can also be seen across cultures. Older people in countries with high levels of respect for the elderly report better mental and physical well-being compared with other groups in their countries, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Nations and others. Those countries also report lower rates of poverty among people over 50 compared with younger people in each country. It seems too simple: How can holding a better attitude towards old age help someone live longer? Ms. Levy found that people with negative age stereotypes have higher levels of stress. And stress has been correlated with a range of health problems. Those who expect a better life in old age are also more likely to exercise, eat well and visit the doctor, says Ms. Levy.

That has been the case for 57-year-old Marta Nazare Balbine Prates who moved her family into her parents’ home in Sao Paulo, Brazil a decade ago. She had to quit her job as a nutritionist at a hospital to care for them (her father passed away at the beginning of the year). It has been hard financially and emotionally. But, she says, the experience has made her think about the kind of life she wants when she is older.

“I try to watch what I eat. I work out as much as possible,” she says, “so I can reach old age in good physical condition.”

An achievement

We should be grateful that we are even concerned about growing old, says Marilia Viana Berzins. She has worked with the elderly in Brazil for 20 years and founded the advocacy group, Observatory of Human Longevity and Aging. “Old age is actually an achievement,” she says. “It’s humanity’s biggest achievement of the last century.”

But, Ms. Berzins says, in Brazil old age has become associated with incapacity. “When we change this mindset and old age is seen like just a stage of life, we’ll move forward,” she says. “And the elderly will be treated with more respect.”

Shifting stereotypes is no simple feat. People develop their views on ageing when they are toddlers, says Corinna Loeckenhoff, an Associate Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, who has studied age stereotypes across cultures. But they also change based on experience. Unfortunately, negative beliefs are often built on inaccurate impressions.

Corinna Loeckenhoff

As people grow older, their health usually remains stable until about five years before they die, says Ms. Loeckenhoff. Only then will most people experience the mental and physical decline most associated with old age. “People keep mixing up ageing and dying,” she says.

Some research shows that increasing meaningful contact between young and older people can break down negative stereotypes. For the past five years, the Résidence des Orchidées, a nursing home in Tourcoing, France, has tried to do just that. Every week, the home brings children from a neighbouring daycare centre to visit the residents. Pierre Vieren, a 91-year-old retired business owner, loves seeing the children.

“When I went to my balcony, the children said ‘Pierre, he is here,’” he says. “They all wave at me to say hello. That is my little ray of sunshine in the morning.”

The nursing home’s director, Dorothee Poignant, says the experience normalises old age for the children. “It recreates a family spirit with joy, children laughing, older people laughing,” she says.

“We don’t only have elderly, we have children, elderly, disabled people. It’s inclusive.”

Everyone can gain from improving ideas about old age, says Ms. Loeckenhoff. “The single-most important thing to realise about ageing stereotypes is that they are the only fair ones,” she says. “You will be the victim of your own stereotype, or the beneficiary as you get older.”

(Access full report at Orbmedia.org/agewell)

CNN.com, "Loneliness peaks at three key ages, study finds -- but wisdom may help,December 19, 2018, by Susan Scutti

Rising rates of loneliness may not be news, but the three periods when it peaks may come as a surprise: More people reported feeling moderate to severe loneliness during their late 20s, their mid-50s and their late 80s than in other life periods, according to research published Tuesday in the journal International Psychogeriatrics.

The general sense of isolation was also more prevalent than the researchers expected. A full three-quarters of all study participants reported moderate to high levels of loneliness, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego.

"One thing to remember is that loneliness is subjective. Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends," said Jeste, who is also director of UC San Diego's Center for Healthy Aging. "Loneliness is defined as 'subjective distress.' " It is the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have, he said.

Within the dark clouds, Jeste also found a silver lining: An inverse relationship exists between loneliness and wisdom. "In other words, people who have high levels of wisdom didn't feel lonely, and vice versa," he said.

The friends we lack

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former US surgeon general, says the reduced lifespan linked to loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, Jeste noted in the study's introduction. Meanwhile, some research suggests that loneliness is common in old age, and others say it is typical in young age. "They are somewhat split, so that's what we wanted to find out," Jeste said.

A total 340 San Diego County residents between the ages 27 and 101 participated in the study. Jeste and his co-authors hypothesized that these community-dwelling participants, none with serious physical or psychological ailments, would report more loneliness in old age based on the "usual assumption that as people get older, they become more alone," he said. They were surprised when they discovered two peaks (during the late 20s and mid-50s) in addition to the one in the late 80s. The results do not explain the reasons why people feel lonely, but Jeste had his theories.

"So the late 20s is often a period of major decision-making, which is often stressful because you often end up feeling that your peers made better decisions than you did, and there's a lot of guilt about why you did this or did that," he explained. It's a period of stress, which increases loneliness, he said.

"The mid-50s is the midlife crisis period," Jeste said. Typically, your health begins to decline, and many people learn that they have pre-diabetes, say, or heart disease.

"You see some of your friends are dying, and really, it's the first time you realize that your lifespan is not forever," he added. "And the late 80s is, of course, a period when, if you're lucky to have survived to that age, then things start getting worse." Along with health issues, you may experience financial issues and the death of a spouse and friends, he said: "It's probably the most understandable of the three periods."

The surprising main finding of the study was the 76% prevalence of moderate to severe loneliness, Jeste said: "We thought that it would be little more than a third." Men and women felt equally lonely and to the same degree -- no sex differences were found in either prevalence or severity, he and his colleagues found.

The study also showed that loneliness is associated with declines in physical health, mental health and cognition, though this has been reported in the past.

The third main finding, the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom, was "surprising and interesting and actually positive -- an optimistic finding," according to Jeste. He and his colleagues measured the six components of wisdom in each participant: general knowledge of life; emotion management; empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness; insight; acceptance of divergent values; and decisiveness -- the ability to make quick, effective decisions when necessary.

The traits we need to develop

Anthony Ong

This inverse association between loneliness and wisdom is "suggestive of the role of personality in the development and persistence of loneliness over time," said Anthony Ong, a professor of human development at Cornell University and a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The focus on wisdom as a protective factor is "novel, but more research is needed to clarify the mechanisms underlying the reported association between wisdom and loneliness," Ong, who was not involved in the new research, wrote in an email.

A "full understanding" of the phenomenon of loneliness is far from complete, Ong said. "Questions remain about whether the associations between loneliness and health reflect the effects of loneliness." Research has found that loneliness is a known risk factor for cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, disability and depression.

Ong added that more studies "addressing the direct, indirect, and moderated effects of social isolation and loneliness on health are urgently needed."

"More research is also needed to clarify the brain mechanisms underlying the association between loneliness and cognitive decline in old age and the extent to which such decline is reversible through intervention," he said. He believes that combating loneliness "may play an important role in improving well-being and prolonging life."

Jeste agrees that more research is needed and that answering the question, "How do you reduce loneliness?" is the "main goal." With suicide, opioid abuse and now loneliness all at "epidemic" levels, Jeste believes there is "increasing stress in general society over the last few decades."

"People need to realize that [loneliness] is a common problem. It is a serious problem," said Jeste, who suggested that the six component traits of wisdom might be cultivated. "Loneliness is sad; nobody disagrees with that," he said. "But it is a little bit more under our control than some people think."

Cornell Chronicle, "Empathy project goes online," August 17, 2018, by Stephen D’Angelo

Corinna Loeckenhoff

Since its launch in September 2016, the Cornell Race and Empathy Project has recorded, archived and shared the everyday stories of Cornellians that evoke racial empathy. The physical incarnation of the project – a cozy listening booth shaped like a stylized ear – is showing wear and tear and will have to be retired.

To continue fostering the ability to identify and understand the feelings of someone of a different background, the project has evolved into an online presence.

“This online archive provides a record of the responses that we have gathered over the past one-and-a-half years and makes them available to a broader audience,” said Corinna Loeckenhoff, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Anthony Burrow

The project was funded through the Cornell Council for the Arts’ 2016 biennial and meant to remain open for three months. Because of strong resonance with the local community, the project has remained active with stopovers at Mann Library, the Human Ecology Commons, Gates Hall and off-campus venues.

François Guimbretière

Along with Loeckenhoff, the project is managed by Anthony Burrow, associate professor of Human Development, and Francois Guimbretiere,

According to research, interracial conversations can be experienced as stressful, which limits willingness to engage in them. Yet powerful stories of racial empathy exist and, when shared, can provide opportunities to celebrate one another’s joy and happiness or lament suffering and grief.

The digital archive features thoughts and ideas gathered over the years, provides a space for conversation and invites users to listen to other’s stories, write a response and share their own story.

Developmental psychologist Charles Brainerd to receive APA award

Charles Brainerd

Charles Brainerd, professor of human development and human neuroscience, will receive the American Psychological Association’s G. Stanley Hall award for distinguished contributions to developmental science at the APA’s August 2019 meeting in San Francisco.

Regarded as the highest honor in the field of developmental psychology, the award is given to an individual or research team who has made distinguished contributions to developmental psychology in research, student training and other scholarly endeavors.

Brainerd’s research has had an impact on educational, developmental and cognitive psychology, and he is credited with major breakthroughs across his theoretical and empirical work.

“Chuck has done groundbreaking work in human memory and reasoning through experimental behavioral methods, mathematical models and neuroscience techniques,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development and department chair. “He co-developed fuzzy-trace theory of memory, judgment and decision-making that has been widely applied in the law and in medicine. His work exemplifies the best integration of theory-driven experimentation and evidence-based translational research.”

According to the APA, the award is based on the scientific merit of the individual’s work, the importance of this work for opening up new empirical or theoretical areas of developmental psychology, and the importance of the individual’s work linking developmental psychology with issues confronting society or with other disciplines.

Brainerd’s current research centers on the relationship between memory and higher reasoning abilities in children and adults, also focusing on false-memory phenomena, cognitive neuroscience, aging and neurocognitive impairment.

He has published more than 300 research articles and chapters and more than 20 books. His research covers human memory and decision-making, statistics and mathematical modeling, cognitive neuroscience, learning, intelligence, cognitive development, learning disability and child abuse.

Brainerd has been elected to the National Academy of Education; is a fellow of the Division of General Psychology, the Division of Experimental Psychology, the Division of Developmental Psychology and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association; and is a fellow of the American Psychological Society.

The editor of the journal Developmental Review, Brainerd has served as associate editor for journals including Child Development and The Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Brainerd’s win of the 2019 G. Stanley Hall Award immediately follows the 2018 win of Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Department of Human Development.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications at the College of Human Ecology.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, "Staff-family communication key to assisted living success" by Stephen D'Angelo

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development.

New research by Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology, has demonstrated an effective approach to reduce staff-family conflict in assisted living facilities – an important aspect of ensuring the well-being of residents in care.

“Staff members and relatives of residents can sometimes experience communication problems and interpersonal conflict with one another leading to distress on the family side and an increase in burnout and the likelihood of leaving the job on the staff side,” said Pillemer. “In some cases, problems between families and staff can negatively affect the residents’ well-being.”

Although forging partnerships between families and staff in assisted living is desirable, said Pillemer, few programs exist that promote such positive relationships. In response to this need, Pillemer and colleagues at the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging developed the Partners in Caregiving in Assisted Living Program (PICAL).

“We designed PICAL to address these problems by enhancing communication skills, fostering empathy between families and staff, and engaging individuals in discussions about how their assisted-living community could help break down barriers between the two groups,” Pillemer said. “It is based on extensive evidence that communication training in health care settings has a positive impact on patients.”

The program was tested in assisted-living centers across eight states where facilities were assigned either to receive the program or to a control group. PICAL involves two workshop series, one for assisted-living staff and one for residents’ family members. Training, averaging three hours in length, was primarily structured around advanced listening skills, communicating clearly and respectfully, and handling blame, criticism and conflict.

Upon completion of the training, staff and family members met to discuss their concerns and to identify at least one issue for change within the facility and a plan for next steps.

A total of 576 staff members and 295 family members from the control and treatment groups provided survey data on their relationship. Data were collected from the treatment group pre- and post-training to help show its impact.

The findings confirmed that family-staff relationships are sometimes challenging in assisted living, similar to nursing homes, and that an intervention can improve these relationships. Family members and staff reported they felt the program was highly effective and led to improved communication and improved relationships. The study found the strongest effects on staff, who reported a significant reduction in conflicts with family members and lower rates of burnout over the study period. Similar patterns were found for families, although the results did not reach statistical significance.

For Pillemer and PICAL, communication between both parties involved is vital for success.

“Assisted-living communities can enhance the experiences of both families and staff by providing training in communication skills and conflict resolution, which is likely to lead to improved care for residents,” he said. “Such efforts should increase the likelihood that family and staff see themselves as partners – and not as opponents – in the care of their loved ones.”

The study, which was funded by a research grant from the American Seniors Housing Association, was published Oct. 17 in Seniors Housing & Care Journal, where it won the Outstanding Research Paper of the Year award.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communication in the College of Human Ecology.

bethany ojalehto

The Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) grants awards to faculty to develop new research or seek external funding. bethany ojalehto received funding for her project, "Cognitive Drivers of Environmental Decision Making: Mobilizing Indigenous Ecocentric Conceptual Perspectives
in Diverse Contexts." In her work with the Indigenous Ngobe communities of Panama, ojalehto has studied the unique way they think about and interact with their environment. The Ngobe peoples behave in response to an environment they perceive as a dynamic agent. In contrast, our culture acts on an inert environment and makes decisions about it from a purely human-centered position. ojalehto will explore how the Ngobe's conceptual understanding of the environment can help us improve our ecological decision making.

Reprinted from cnbc.com, "Why you'll still have a hard time saving money, even if you get a raise" by Darla Mercado.

Adam Anderson and Eve De Rosa

If you were hoping a raise would help you pad your emergency fund, prepare to be disappointed.

That's because your brain has learned to prioritize earning more money over saving it, according to a recent study from a team of neuroscientists at Cornell University.

"There's this implicit blame that people aren't working hard enough and that the lack of savings is a reflection of work ethic," said Adam K. Anderson, associate professor at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology and co-author of the report. "But the data suggest that while people work a lot and work hard, saving is a problem," he said. Indeed, roughly 55 million people have nothing saved for an emergency, according to Bankrate.com. That's no surprise considering that wage growth has been tepid. Further, workers are grappling with an array of competing priorities, including repaying their student loans and saving for retirement.

Here's how your brain is also keeping you from putting money away.

Monetary reward

The neuroscientists studied 78 men with a mean age of 21 and were told to associate one color with "earning," which would have them gain 30 cents, and another color with "saving," avoiding the loss of 30 cents. Participants were given a timing perception task, which would measure how quickly they responded to the colors and chose to either save or earn. In one experiment, nearly 90 percent of the participants earned more than they saved. Three out of four also reported that they saw the color associated with earning on the screen first, when in reality they were seeing the color that corresponded with saving. "You're performing the same job, and you're earning or saving for an equal amount of work," said Anderson of Cornell. "But at the end of that, it seemed easier to perform the task associated with earning," he said. "They responded more quickly and made more money."

Changing your mentality

The scientists surmised that the preference for earning money over saving is a learned behavior. "It's rational from the brain's perspective: You must earn before you can save," said Anderson. "It could partly be cultural," he said. "We brag about work ethic and earnings, but we don't talk about coming up with a cool savings plan." In order to change up your behavior, practice being mindful of squirreling away cash.

1. Acknowledge the problem: It's no secret that a variety of priorities and expenses are competing for your hard-earned dollars, but be aware that merely making more money won't necessarily solve your problems. That's especially the case if you're blowing your raise instead of pocketing it. "For the majority of people, if you make more money, the savings won't match it," said Anderson.

2. Make the choice to save: Having a slice of your paycheck automatically go toward an emergency savings account can help you build your cash reserves without thinking about it. But if you want to change your mentality on saving versus earning, you should also make the active choice to put away a dollar a day, said Eve De Rosa, associate professor at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, and co-author of the report. "Saving a dollar a day isn't going to accumulate into a fantastic abundance of savings, but this daily practice of attending to saving makes you mindful," said De Rosa.

3. Think ahead: We prioritize the present and attach less importance to the future, which may factor into why people prefer to earn instead of save. "It helps to think about the future us and what we can do for that person," said Anderson. "You can imagine that people default to 'I should earn more,' but the idea is that you want to save for that person in the future," he said.

Felix Thoemmes

Felix Thoemmes studies quantitative methods and design for the social sciences. In the research paper described below, he collaborated in the development of a math model to show the causal relationship between the student's age and the likelihood the student will enroll in college. Previously, Dr. Thoemmes collaborated with Dr. Philip Parker of the Australian Catholic University on a study of the effect of the college gap year on persistence in college (https://hdtoday.human.cornell.edu/tag/felix/).

Reprinted from apa.org, "Students Who Are Old for Their Grade More Likely to Enroll
in College"

Teens who are old for their grade appear to feel more confident about their academic abilities and are more likely to enroll in college than their younger peers, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

The study analyzed data from more than 10,000 Australian students who were tracked over a decade and found that the relative age of students in their grade had significant effects. The issue should be considered by government agencies, schools, teachers and parents, especially in enforcing strict regulations about school starting age for students, said lead author Philip D. Parker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Australian Catholic University.

“Being young for your grade really does lead to lower academic self-confidence, especially in math, even accounting for student’s actual performance in those subjects,” Parker said. “Further, being young for your grade appears to slightly lower a student’s chances of entering college, and the most likely reason for this is a lower level of academic self-confidence.”

The findings from the study were modest in size, with 58 percent of students who were almost a year older for their grade enrolling in college, compared with 52 percent of students who were almost a year younger for their grade. The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

In Australia, the United States and other countries, many parents start their children in school late for their grade to gain a future advantage in academics or sports. Those decisions are understandable but ultimately may hurt other students, Parker said. Parents of children who are young for their grade shouldn’t worry about it because the research findings were modest in size, but there are greater implications for school systems and policymakers to create a level playing field for all students, he said.

“It is critical that school systems have a clear and strictly enforced school starting-age policy,” Parker said. “While there may be joy or shame for students who are advanced or held back a grade, educators also need to consider the implications that those decisions will have on other students in their classes.”

The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia Youth, which included 10,370 15-year-old Australians who were surveyed over a decade. The participants, who were born between May 1987 and April 1988, were evenly divided between males and females and consisted of 78 percent native-born Australians, with smaller numbers of first-generation or second-generation immigrants. Three percent of the students identified as being of indigenous descent.

Article: “The Negative Year in School Effect: Extending Scope and Strengthening Causal Claims,” by Philip D. Parker, PhD and Herbert W. Marsh, PhD, Australian Catholic University; Nicholas Biddle, PhD, Australian National University, and Felix Thoemmes, PhD, Cornell University. Journal of Educational Psychology, published Mar. 15, 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000270.

Crossing Disciplines and the Lifespan

Qi Wang, Chair of Department of Human Development

Reprinted from APS.org, September 28, 2018.

In a new recurring feature, the Observer showcases university labs and departments that have advanced integrative science. In the inaugural installment, APS Fellow Qi Wang talks about Cornell University’s Department of Human Development, which she chairs.   

 

What is the history of the department? What was its genesis?

The Department of Human Development at Cornell University is an interdisciplinary entity that uses multiple approaches, methods, and levels of analysis to study human development across the lifespan and integrates basic and translational research to enhance development and well-being in diverse contexts and populations. The department distinguishes itself with an ecological view of development as unfolding in multiple overlapping contexts. It has consistently been ranked as one of the top human development programs in the country.

The department, founded in 1925, was one of the first departments in the United States established by a university that focused on child development within the context of the family. Over the past 90 years, the mission of the department has expanded to include the full lifespan: Adolescence and emerging adulthood were added to early childhood development during the 1960s, and adulthood and aging were added during the 1980s. The study of contextual influences has expanded outside of the family to a greater number and variety of contexts, including peer groups, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. The faculty have come to include scholars of multiple disciplines and methodologies. Currently, the department has a professorial faculty of 24. Undergraduate majors typically number between 250 and 300, with approximately 35 masters and doctoral students in residence.

How has it evolved over the years?

The department has become increasingly dynamic and integrative. It has maintained its ecological focus, exemplified by the influential work of APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Urie Bronfenbrenner, APS Past Board Member Steve Ceci, and others, and in the meantime has redefined the ecological perspective to align with the development of the general field. This is reflected in our study of an increasing number and variety of contexts and their interactions with developmental (social, cognitive, biological) processes across the lifespan. We increasingly emphasize interdisciplinary and integrative approaches that span areas of psychology (cognitive, developmental, clinical, social, cultural), along with law, neuroscience, sociology, education, and history. We recently recruited a computational political scientist who studies social networks, political communication, online social support, and health. The department also has evolved to increasingly focus on culture and diversity, examining basic developmental processes in relation to a variety of demographic factors including socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnicity, and cultural background.

Our interest in advanced methodologies is reflected in the addition of neuroscience, biological/life sciences, and data science in the department and in the importance we place on multiple levels of analysis. From the sociology and psychology of health and aging to the neuroscience of memory, emotions, and decision-making, the department mixes equally observational and correlational studies with rigorous experimental approaches and interventions within and outside the laboratory. The department has made a strong investment in neuroscience, being the only human development program in the country to house an MRI facility. The department is also unique among human development programs in housing a nonhuman animal laboratory, allowing us to lead examinations of lifespan developmental changes in the brain and behavior and how they are shaped by diverse environmental contexts, early life experiences, and genes and their expression. The recent addition of social networks research and data science further extends our interdisciplinary strengths.

The department embraces translational activities and “use-inspired research,” seeking evidence-based solutions for real-world problems. Both its pedagogy and outreach are research-based — often research conducted by the very faculty member teaching a particular course or engaging in a particular outreach activity.

How many faculty members are in the department? What departments or disciplines are represented?

The department has consistently attracted a distinguished faculty. Many mainstream psychological scientists have decided to join our faculty, with four of our newer faculty leaving tenured positions at top psychology programs. In the past year, we have recruited four assistant professors who are among the very best of their cohort. Several members of our faculty hold National Academy memberships, including the National Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine. Members of our faculty have garnered just about every prestigious award within psychological science, including the APS William James Fellow Award, the APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award, the G. Stanley Hall Award, the Society for Research in Child Development Senior Distinguished Contributions Award, and the E. L. Thorndike Award. The department has a professorial faculty of 24, from various disciplines within psychology, sociology, political and information science, and neuroscience.

The research topics of the faculty fall into three general areas: Law and Human Development (LHD), Health and Wellbeing (HW), and Cognition in Context (CC). All areas are characterized by interdisciplinary focus, lifespan perspective, cultural diversity, multiple approaches, methods, and levels of analysis, and integrative basic and translational research to study real-world problems.

The LHD area assembles a group of world-class psychologists and legal scholars to study the interplay of law, psychology, and human development. It offers a top-notch PhD–JD dual degree program. The HW area houses leading research on typical and atypical development across the lifespan in diverse populations. Faculty in this area examine the relation between mental and physical health in response to contextual factors and have produced groundbreaking and policy-shaping work. The CC area offers the most dynamic and rigorous investigations of the developing mind in interaction with a variety of biological, social, and cultural factors. Faculty conduct research using neuroimaging, EEG, cross-species modeling, field and laboratory experiments, and longitudinal designs to understand fundamental processes underlying human mind and behavior in context.

What would you describe as the most surprising or unexpected collaborations that psychological scientists have been able to join or lead within the department?

Every generation brings new scholars from diverse disciplines to our department. Their research transforms the department into new directions and in the meantime also is transformed by the interdisciplinary culture of the department. Often they collaborate across disciplinary lines. One example is an outstanding young neuroscientist we hired, who began a collaboration with a sociologist in HD who studies aging. It is the sort of collaboration that would be unlikely in a homogenous setting. There are many similar instances of cross-disciplinary collaborations to study machine learning, affective neuroscience, decision-making, and so forth, within and outside of the department. The disciplines that have been involved in HD faculty’s collaborative research include law, particle physics, mathematics, microbiology, biomedical engineering, business, behavioral economics, communication, and information science.

Here are some of the current cross-disciplinary collaborations of our faculty:

  • A cognitive developmental scientist is working with a sociologist from Cornell’s sociology department and a particle physicist at the Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illinois, to conduct a study on women in science.
  • A cognitive developmentalist is working with a law professor at the University of Michigan on children’s testimonial competence.
  • A sociologist is working with a team of physicians and health-care providers to conduct intervention research and policy analysis related to aging and health care, using evidence-based methods to develop a competent, caring, long-term care workforce.
  • An HD neuroscientist is working with an HD sociologist on Alzheimer’s disease research.
  • An HD member has had a long-term collaboration with a professor of pediatrics at another university around the evaluation of outcomes associated with the Nurse Family Partnership program.
  • A member of HD collaborates with a member of our business school faculty on cultural influences on bias.
  • A sociologist has been collaborating with both a pediatrics professor and an epidemiologist to examine the impact of poverty-related stressors on the cognitive and physical development of children in low-income families. She also works with two members of the Communications Department at Cornell to develop social-media use for health care among older adults.
  • Another member works with a pediatrician/public health scholar in another university on the projected behavioral impacts of global climate change.
  • An HD neuroscientist collaborates with a microbiologist here on the gut–brain axis and the biome.
  • Faculty from an education department, a mathematics department, and a veterinary school have also worked with our faculty members.

Has forming an interdisciplinary entity such as this made it easier or more challenging to obtain grant funding and get research published?

Our interdisciplinary focus has made us more competitive in obtaining grant funding and getting the research published. Specifically, our research often cuts across the more traditional categories of psychology and amplifies their applied nature.

On the one hand, our faculty has demonstrated “mainstream” excellence. Our publications appear in all of the top specialty psychological journals and the top general–general journals. Our faculty also frequently publish in top specialty journals in nondevelopmental core areas of psychology. In addition to the research being of the highest quality, a key reason for our success in publishing is that our research targets theoretical and empirical questions that our peers perceive as important, no matter whether they do or don’t fit into intuitive categories.

On the other hand, our faculty also excel in many integrative and interdisciplinary publishing outlets and make broad scholarly contributions beyond their core areas and beyond psychological science. Our publications also appear in nonpsychology journals such as those focused on sociology, education, anthropology, and medicine, and as a result our work has reached vastly different audiences. In addition to peer-reviewed articles in journals outside psychology, our faculty have also published a range of influential books, op-ed pieces, and Chronicle of Higher Education articles that address a wide range of audiences. Oftentimes, building a reputation for solid work in core psychological science journals opens up opportunities for important broader contributions.

Part of the “translation” and “interdisciplinary” process is collaborating with colleagues outside the disciplines in which we were trained. There are many good examples in our department as noted earlier. Pertaining to publication, for example, several faculty have collaborated with researchers in medical fields and published in major health-related journals with high impact factors, including The Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, Annals of Internal Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and the American Journal of Public Health.

What are the strategies that the department has utilized in maintaining its top-rank position in the field?

One strategy is related to our hiring priorities. We hire the best people available through open searches, without constraints based on current research areas or rank. We also actively seek opportunities to hire targeted senior faculty who are superstars in the field. We are fortunate to have a very supportive dean who lets us conduct open searches and prefill lines with strong candidates and who does not rescind lines after unsuccessful searches. In addition, our faculty overwhelmingly support hiring the best people, regardless of area.

Another strategy is to self-reflect on our current research topics and to allow the department to evolve as scholarship and policy needs change. Over the years, there have been important shifts in research emphases as fields have either changed direction or ceased to exist with faculty retirement or leave.

Another effective strategy is to establish a mentoring system for junior faculty. Each nontenured junior faculty in the department is provided with a mentoring committee as soon as he/she arrives on campus. The committee consists of three tenured faculty whose research is in a similar area as that of the junior faculty. The committee provides honest and constructive written feedback to the mentee at the end of each year, which is then discussed with the mentee in person as well as reported to the general faculty. The feedback acknowledges the mentee’s achievements in research, teaching, and service and in the meantime helps the mentee identify any issues so they can be effectively addressed early on. Because of this supportive system and because we strive to hire the best people in the first place, our junior faculty have been extremely successful in their work. Many have come to be leading researchers in their respective fields. We have four APS Rising Stars, and many junior faculty have received young investigator awards from major organizations. In the past 15 years, we have not had a single case of denied tenure.

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