Valerie Reyna and Evan Wilhelms developed a new questionnaire for predicting who is likely to engage in risky behaviors, including, unprotected sex and binge drinking. Their questionnaire significantly outperforms 14 other gold-standard measures frequently used in economics and psychology.
The research of Professor Nathan Spreng and his collaborators sheds light on the basal forebrain region, where the degeneration of neural tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease appears before cognitive and behavioral symptoms emerge.
Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. International elder abuse experts met at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem.
Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study by Professor Gary Evans. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.
STUDENTS IN THE NEWS
Camille Sims '15 says fate brought her to Cornell and the Department of Human Development. And now it has propelled her to reign as Miss New York and to finish second runner-up in September's Miss America competition.
Brian LaGrant ’17, a human development major from New Hartford, N.Y., discusses his research on factors surrounding imitation among children and adults.
David Garavito, graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program, under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Reyna, is working with communities in New York and around the country with support from an Engaged Cornell grant for student research. He is working with coaches and student athletes to study the effects of concussions on decision making about risks.
ARTICLES ON THE WEB
Alzheimer’s early tell: The language of authors who suffered from dementia has a story for the rest of us
Adrienne Day writes about how Barbara Lust, professor in Human Development, and other researchers are studying changes in language patterns in early Alzheimer’s disease.
Listen to Associate Professor Corinna Loeckenhoff discuss self-continuity, or our perceived connections with our past and future selves.
HD-Today e-News is an important portal for disseminating research and outreach from the Department of Human Development to the public. In 2016, search engine optimization (SEO) strategies were implemented to assess what information on our website attracts readers and how to increase traffic to the site. Topics that have received the most attention from visitors include the death penalty, poverty, sexual orientation, child development, brain-reward systems, the research and outreach activities of Human Development students, depression among adolescents, and women in science. SEO applications have helped direct traffic to HD-Today which has increased by over 800% and we now have visitors from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, the U.K., Germany, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, and Australia! We look forward to sharing with you the latest research and outreach news from the Department of Human Development.
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, Oct. 31, 2016
Researchers in the social sciences have been searching for a holy grail: an accurate way to predict who is likely to engage in problematic behavior, like using drugs. Over the years experts in economics, psychology and public health have designed hundreds of questionnaires in an attempt to understand who will binge drink or have unprotected sex – and why.
Ph.D. ’15, of Vassar College, have just taken a sizable step toward answering those questions.
In a new study, Reyna and Wilhelms have debuted a new questionnaire that significantly outperforms 14 other gold-standard measures frequently used in economics and psychology. The measure’s 12 simple questions ask in various ways whether one agrees with the principle “sacrifice now, enjoy later.” Their study, “Gist of Delay of Gratification: Understanding and Predicting Problem Behaviors,” appeared Aug. 10 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
“People who get drunk frequently, party with drugs, borrow money needlessly or have unprotected sex disagreed more with the concept ‘sacrifice now, enjoy later’ than people who didn’t do these things,” Reyna said. “Instead, they leaned more toward ‘have fun today and don’t worry about tomorrow.’”
Having fun is generally good, she said. “But not being able to delay gratification can interfere with education, health and financial well-being, and the impact is greater for young people,” she added.
The questionnaire is based on Reyna’s fuzzy-trace theory. It says people boil down their personal values into a simple, qualitative “gist” of an idea – such as “sacrifice now, enjoy later.” When they have to make a life decision, they retrieve that gist and apply it to their situation.
In contrast, prevailing theory, with many questionnaires based on it, says that people make specific, quantitative trade-offs known as “delay discounting.” For example, those measures ask questions like, “Would you like $10 now or $11.50 in a week?”
“People do size up the trade-off, but they don’t make their decisions on that analysis,” Reyna said. “They think, ‘sacrifice now, benefit later.’ And therefore they study for the exam rather than go out to the party. It’s not about the party per se. It’s about the life principle.”
The researchers conducted four studies to get their results, comparing the measure, the Delay-of-Gratification Gist Scale, against 14 others. The Gist Scale’s questions include, “I wait to buy what I want until I have enough money,” “I think it is better to save money for the future” and “I am worried about the amount of money I owe.” Money is used as a “stand-in” or proxy for tempting rewards.
The first study asked 211 college students to take the Gist Scale and other measures that predict poor financial outcomes. The second and third studies, with 845 and 393 college students, respectively, compared the new measure against others involving delay discounting. With 47 teens and adult participants, the fourth study compared the Gist Scale against a widely used measure of impulsivity.
The Gist Scale is not only more accurate, it’s also shorter and simpler – some other measures are more than twice as long. It is also gender and age neutral, meaning it can be taken by anyone.
Reyna points out that cultures all over the world have aphorisms that encourage the ability to delay gratification. That skill can improve with practice, she said.
“Sometimes we send young people very mixed messages about struggle. I think it’s extremely important for them to know that struggle and pain are part of life and to be expected,” she said. “Staying the course, keeping your eyes on the prize – these values make a difference. And they can be taught and they can be practiced.”
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, November 4, 2016.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder for which, despite years of research, there are no effective treatments or cures. However, recent breakthroughs in molecular genetics have shown that the disease may spread, like an infection, across closely connected areas of the brain. These findings underscore the need for research aimed at tracking its spread to the earliest points of origin in the brain, so therapies that target those areas can be developed.
An international collaboration between Nathan Spreng, Cornell assistant professor of human development and the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in the College of Human Ecology, and Taylor Schmitz of the University of Cambridge’s Cognitive Brain Sciences Unit, sheds light on the basal forebrain region, where the degeneration of neural tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease appears even before cognitive and behavioral symptoms of the disease emerge.
Their paper, “Basal forebrain degeneration precedes and predicts the cortical spread of Alzheimer’s pathology,” is published Nov. 4 in Nature Communications. Data used for their work were obtained from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative database.
The basal forebrain contains very large and densely connected neurons that are particularly vulnerable to the disease. Schmitz and Spreng show that, as Alzheimer’s progresses, degeneration of the basal forebrain predicts subsequent degeneration in temporal lobe areas of the brain involved in memory. This pattern is consistent with other research showing that Alzheimer’s indeed spreads across brain regions over time, but the study challenges a widely held belief that the disease originates in the temporal lobe.
“We’re hoping that this work pushes a bit of a reorganization of the field itself, to reappraise where the disease originates,” Spreng said. “That could open up new avenues for intervention; certainly it would for detection.”
Their report is the product of a two-year study of a large sample of age-matched older adults. Within this sample, one group was cognitively normal, according to standard tests, while others were characterized by different levels of cognitive impairment:
- Individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who did not progress to Alzheimer’s disease;
- MCI individuals who progressed to Alzheimer’s after one year; and
- Individuals classified as having Alzheimer’s throughout the duration of the study.
Through analysis of high-resolution anatomical magnetic resonance imaging of brain volumes, taken three times over the two-year study period, the researchers were able to determine that individuals with MCI or Alzheimer’s showed greater losses in gray matter volume in both the basal forebrain and temporal lobe, compared with cognitively normal controls. Intriguingly, they showed that over the two-year period, degeneration of neural tissue in the basal forebrain predicted subsequent tissue degeneration in the temporal lobe, but not the other way around.
A sampling of spinal fluid from healthy adults can detect an abnormal level of beta amyloid, indicative of Alzheimer’s, Spreng said. Test results showed that temporal lobes looked the same regardless of amyloid level, but the basal forebrain showed notable degeneration among those seemingly healthy adults with abnormal amyloid levels.
Spreng admits that being able to predict who will get the disease doesn’t mean a lot without a protocol to treat and, ultimately, cure the disease. “And it might induce more anxiety,” he said. But the more knowledge that can be gained now, he said, the better.
“Future molecular genetics work holds strong promise for developing therapeutic strategies to prevent the spread of pathology at stages of Alzheimer’s preceding cognitive decline,” Schmitz said. “Our clarification of an earlier point of Alzheimer’s propagation is therefore of utmost importance for guiding endeavors to combat this devastating disease.”
This work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Alzheimer’s Association.
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, Sept. 7, 2016
by Susan Kelly
Marcel Proust’s madeleine cakes have nothing on Instagram and Twitter. But if they did, Proust’s memories could have been even more elaborate and vivid.
A new study – the first to look at social media’s effect on memory – suggests posting personal experiences on social media makes those events much easier to recall.
“If people want to remember personal experiences, the best way is to put them online,” said Qi Wang, the lead author of the study and professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “Social media – blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and others alike – provide an important outlet for us to recall memories, in the public space, and share with other people.”
Memory researchers have long known that when people write about personal experiences, reflect on them or talk about them with others, they tend to remember those events much better. “The process of writing about one’s experiences in the public sphere, often sustained by subsequent social feedback, may allow people to reflect on the experiences and their personal relevance,” the study said.
The act of posting on social media also plays a role in the construction of the self, said Wang, an expert in personal memory.
“We create a sense of self in the process of recalling, evaluating and sharing with others memories of personal experiences in our lives,” Wang said. “That’s happening when we use social media, without us even noticing it. We just think, ‘Oh, I’m sharing my experience with my friends.’ But by shaping the way we remember our experiences, it’s also shaping who we are.”
That’s especially facilitated by the interactive functions on many social media sites. For example, Facebook periodically shows users photos and posts from previous years to remind them of those events, prompting users to revisit those experiences.
“Memory is often selective. But in this case, the selection is not done by our own mind; it’s done by an outside resource,” Wang said. “So interactive functions on social networking sites can also shape how we view our experiences, how we view ourselves.”
Wang and her co-authors, Dasom Lee ’13, and Yubo Hou of Peking University, asked 66 Cornell undergraduates to keep a daily diary for a week. The study participants briefly described the events that happened to them each day, excluding daily routines such as “had breakfast.” For each event, they recorded whether they had posted the event on social media. And they rated the event’s personal importance and emotional intensity on five-point scales. At the end of the week and a week later, the students took surprise quizzes on how many events they could recall.
The researchers found that the online status of each event significantly predicted the likelihood of it being recalled at the end of both the first and second weeks. This was true even when they controlled for the personal importance and emotional intensity of the events. In other words, events posted online were more likely than those not posted online to be remembered over time, regardless of the characteristics of the events.
The research sheds new light on memory theories and have important implications for the construction of “the autobiographical self” in the digital age, the authors said. “This work is the first step toward a better understanding of the autobiographical self in the internet era where the virtual externalization of personal memories has become commonplace,” the study said.
The research, “Externalizing the autobiographical self: sharing personal memories online facilitated memory retention,” appeared Aug. 17 in the journal Memory.
Reprinted from the Weill Cornell Medicine Newsroom, August 1, 2016
Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. A group of international elder abuse experts met in June at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem in low and middle income countries.
The meeting, organized by Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine and the Irene F. and I. Roy Psaty Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Karl Pillemer, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, brought together experts from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Argentina.
"Over the last few years, studies have found financial abuse and exploitation of older people to be extremely prevalent and extremely harmful for older people," said Dr. Pillemer, who is also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. "These studies have mostly been done in the United States, England, and other high income countries, but very little is known about how this problem plays out in low-income countries. Our goal was to bring together research internationally and comparatively to try to understand this problem."
"This issue is an interesting integration of sociology, medicine, economics and geopolitics," said Dr. Lachs, who is director of Weill Cornell Medicine's Center for Aging Research and Clinical Care and director of geriatrics for the New York-Presbyterian Health System. "There has been growing interest here in the United States on financial vulnerability of older people, but I'm unaware of an international group that is focused on this."
One consequence of older people who are being financially exploited is that they cannot meet their own health needs. There are also psychological and emotional consequences because some older people live in fear of relatives who may be exploiting them and may give away much needed pensions to spouses, adult children, and other extended family members.
According to Dr. Pillemer, based on available evidence, 5 to 10 percent of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Exploitation can take different forms. In high-income countries, like the United States, the abuse may encompass theft, misuse of power of attorney or denying access to funds. In low-income regions, financial exploitation results from abuse of local laws and cultural norms. For example, in some South American countries, the law requires that children receive the parents’ dwelling, resulting in children moving parents into nursing homes in order to obtain the house. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women may be accused of witchcraft in order to seize their property or gain access to their funds.
Government pensions in low-income countries have become a source of income for older people, which puts them at risk for financial exploitation. However, researchers need to be sensitive to local cultural norms in their conduct of research and analysis of data so governments are not hesitant to provide much needed income to older people, according to Dr. Lachs.
"In some of the countries there's a cultural expectation that if the older person has a pension it will be shared with other family members," Dr. Lachs said. "Whereas in my practice, if a patient tells me that a child is asking for some of their pension, it raises the specter of the potential for financial exploitation."
The group, Dr. Pillemer said, concluded that there's a desperate need for new scientific knowledge about the extent, causes and consequences of this problem, as well as a need to understand how the problem of financial exploitation is the same across countries, and how it differs. The group is now working on a white paper to make the case for comparative research on financial exploitation of older people.
"That's important for a very critical reason: By looking at the dynamics of financial abuse in different countries, we can understand how policies affect both how much abuse occurs and how to deal with it," Dr. Pillemer said.
In addition to Dr. Pillemer and Dr. Lachs, attendees of the meeting were:
- Bridget Penhale, Reader in Mental Health, University of East Anglia, UK;
- Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, Professor of Social Policy and International Development, University of East Anglia, UK;
- Steve Gresham, Executive Vice President, Private Client Group, Fidelity Investments, and Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs, Watson Institute, Brown University;
- David Burnes, Assistant Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto;
- Nelida Redondo, Senior Researcher, Universidad Isalud, Argentina;
- Natal Ayiga, North-West University, South Africa;
- Janey Peterson, Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology in Medicine, Integrative Medicine and Cardiothoracic Surgery, Weill Cornell Medicine; and
- Ken Conrad, Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago.
The meeting was supported by the Elbrun & Peter Kimmelman Family Foundation, Inc.