Through their research and outreach in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Development faculty are fulfilling the College of Human Ecology's mission to advance and improve the human experience.

FEATURES


Anthony Burrow - Getting back on track in the age of COVID-19

As we determine what the new "normal" looks like during a pandemic, the uncertainties have increased stress and depression among those struggling to get their lives back on track. Anthony Burrow draws attention to the need for adequate mental health resources in response to this crisis.


Anthony Ong - Self Isolation and the potential for personal growth

Anthony Ong, professor of human development, has examined the emotional impacts of self isolation. He says while self isolation may intensify feelings of loneliness, it’s also an opportunity to connect virtually and learn from each other.


Karl Pillemer - Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on older adults

Karl PillemerKarl Pillemer addresses concerns facing older adults as a result of the spread of COVID-19 and predicts that the pandemic will radically alter the delivery of eldercare.


Valerie Reyna - Science and misinformation: Winning the battle for the gist

During the COVID-19 crisis, the public’s need for accurate scientific information is a matter of life and death.  Nevertheless, misinformation is plentiful and it competes with scientific information in what Valerie Reyna calls “a battle for the gist."


Qi Wang - Culture's role in the experience of social isolation during COVID-19

Qi Wang will lead a research team examining individual and cultural factors influencing the subjective experience of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and its relation to psychological well-being.


Discover recently added resources, including podcasts of interviews with HD faculty from HD Today e-NEWS Listen Notes playlists


Anthony Burrow

Anthony Burrow, associate professor of human development and associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Human Ecology, has been appointed Director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

A central focus of Dr. Burrow's research is the impact of purpose on one's identity and sense of self. In a recent Scientific American op-ed he co-wrote with Patrick Hill, they raise concerns about the unsettling effect COVID-19 has had on people's lives, leading to what they describe as "feelings of derailment – an individual's sense of disconnection from their past selves, life directions, and motivations." As we determine what the new "normal" looks like during a pandemic, the uncertainties have increased stress and depression among those struggling to get their lives back on track. Dr. Burrow draws attention to the need for adequate mental health resources in response to this crisis.

Drs. Burrow and Hill also propose ways to help members of retirement communities feel a sense of purpose during the pandemic. 

  • Technology is needed to maintain social connections that provide social support and sense of purpose. This is a challenge for communities given limitations of staff and accessible technology. They believe that creating schedules will allow members to plan their days around meeting friends and family.
  • Connections between members of the community need to be maintained being mindful of social distancing guidelines. Community engagement can be fostered through joint activities between members in their individual living spaces. Also, correspondence between members, written or electronic, should be encouraged.
  • It is important to encourage community members to think about how their generation overcame past challenges. Asking members to reflect on how they navigated the obstacles has the added benefit of informing people outside of their community ways to cope with the pandemic.

Journal articles referenced for this story:

Burrow, A. L., Hill, P. L., Ratner, K., & Fuller-Rowell, T. E. (2020). Derailment: Conceptualization, measurement, and adjustment correlates of perceived change in self and direction. Journal of personality and social psychology118(3), 584–601. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000209

Hill, P. L., & Burrow, A. L. (2020). Derailment as a risk factor for greater mental health issues following pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 289, 113093. https://doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113093

Hill, P. L., Lewis, N. A., & Burrow, A. L. (2020). Purpose after Retirement during COVID-19: Trying to Find Direction in Retirement Communities. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. https://doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2020.04.019

 

Karl Pillemer is Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. In this video, Dr. Pillemer addresses concerns facing older adults as a result of the pandemic. In a recent New York Times article, he predicts that the pandemic will radically alter the delivery of eldercare. Dr. Pillemer expects older adults will increasingly choose to remain in their own homes, rather than receive care in nursing homes, which currently house more than 1.5 million Americans. The alarming and disproportionate rate of mortality in nursing homes due to COVID-19 reflects the ease with which the virus spreads between carers and residents in close proximity and older adults' vulnerability to infection. Dr. Pillemer calls for a change in the design of nursing homes in the U.S. with a particular focus on private rooms. He also believes that seniors in nursing homes need to be included in discussions about restrictions on visits from family members. In addition to addressing infection risk within nursing homes, Dr. Pillemer and colleagues have written an op-ed for the Journal of the American Medicine Association, urging the inclusion of long-term care facilities in models of COVID-19 spread.

Despite this seemingly dire moment in American history, Dr. Pillemer believes we can draw strength from the wisdom of older adults who have endured equally challenging events in the past. In this podcast, he provides insight from his interviews with seniors as part of his Legacy Project that can inspire us during the COVID pandemic.

Journal article referenced in this story:

Pillemer, K., Subramanian, L., & Hupert, N. (2020). The Importance of Long-term Care Populations in Models of COVID-19. Jama. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.9540

Valerie Reyna

Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, studies the neuroscience of risky decision making and its implications for health and well-being. She says changing advice contributes to the perception that experts might not know what they are doing, which is false. Emotions and actions in reaction to a risk depend crucially on how people understand the gist of the risk.  Providing the facts is important, but it is how people interpret those facts that determine behavior. Dr. Reyna participated in a Newswire roundtable of experts (click here for the link to the video) and discussed how her research can help the public better understand the risks of COVID-19 and improve their decisions about how to respond to it. She also participated in a roundtable discussion organized by the Association for Psychological Science (click here for the link to the transcript).

During the COVID-19 crisis, the public’s need for accurate scientific information is a matter of life and death.  Nevertheless, misinformation is plentiful and it competes with scientific information in what Reyna calls “a battle for the gist” in a new PNAS publication.

In an age of evidence-based science communications for the public good, researchers face a persistent paradox. Despite their efforts to report research findings to the public, misinformation propagates across the Web and around the world. Outreach campaigns using traditional fact-based communications are not necessarily effective in correcting misconceptions. What can be done to more effectively communicate science in a way that helps the public resist misinformation?

Valerie Reyna, Lois and Melvin Tukman Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, has applied her information-processing model, Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT) to the puzzle of why people accept alternative explanations, narratives, interpretations, or conspiracy theories, and discount or distort facts. All human beings tend to distort facts.  However, it is possible to help people make decisions that draw on scientific facts and that reflect personal values.  The FTT approach offers a framework to understand and to reduce obstacles to public understanding of scientific research. Reyna has identified several key components necessary for constructing an accurate representation of the meaning of science communications.

According to the FTT model, as we process information, it is encoded simultaneously in two formats – “gist” and “verbatim.” Verbatim information includes specific facts, details, numbers, and exact quantities. The precise details, percentages, proportions, or ratios can represent facts, but typical scientific communications do not necessarily convey the relevance or substance of facts: its bottom-line meaning. Rote memory for detailed information often fades from memory, whereas memory for gist—or substance--endures.

Gist representations of information in the mind elicit emotions and social values, and are shaped by knowledge and experience. Research has shown that long after verbatim content, (e.g., specific words, numbers, or syntax), has faded from memory, gist memory remains preserved.

The discrepancy between the recall of gist information and the recall of verbatim information offers an inroad to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. The effort to provide objective unbiased facts often leads researchers to present data largely in a verbatim format, allowing recipients to judge for themselves the truth-value and justification of the data. This verbatim approach opens the door to others to offer interpretations and explanations, even when the science is uncertain.  Hence, meaningful, emotional, and values-evoking alternative gist interpretations or narratives can gain traction and spread across the internet or similar media. Individuals can unintentionally misconstrue the verbatim details of the data and share it with others.

The repetition of these messages within a community of sharers and recipients adds credibility to interpretations as the precise verbatim details are increasingly forgotten in favor of the gist content of the misinformation. Thus, Reyna explains that rather than removing all interpretation, emotion, and values, that scientists can communicate in a way that is neither meaningless facts nor persuasion.  The meaning behind the gist—the why—should be made as transparent as possible so that individuals can make their own decisions. The gist-based approach to science communications builds on a foundation of science literacy and the value of scientific research for the public, as well as reduces the acceptance and spread of misinformation.

Journal reference for this story:

Reyna, V.R. (2020). A scientific theory of gist communication and misinformation resistance, with implications for health, education, and policy, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1912441117

Qi Wang, Chair of Human Development

Qi Wang, professor and chair of human development in the College of Human Ecology, is addressing the impacts of social distancing in the current context of COVID-19. She says social isolation can cause loneliness, but people can be proactive to counter the negative ramifications by staying connected via social media and other technological means.

Dr. Wang is exploring the role culture plays in how we experience social isolation. She co-authored an op-ed piece for Scientific American, What Social Distancing Reveals about East-West Differences. which proposes that the pandemic could spur psychological changes in both the U.S. and China.

Dr. Wang was awarded a Rapid Response Fund grant from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and will lead a research team examining individual and cultural factors influencing the subjective experience of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and its relation to psychological well-being. Participants with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds will record twice a week their experiences related to social distancing for a period of time. Their personality, cultural orientation and well-being will be assessed at the beginning and end of the study, and then again in a year. Human development researcher Tong Suo and graduate students Li Guan and Yuchen Tian will join the study.

Valerie Reyna, Professor of Human Development and Director of the Human Neuroscience Institute

APS Roundtable: Psychological Science and COVID-19, What We Know and What We Can Do

On March 18, the Association for Psychological Science convened a virtual roundtable of four APS members who discussed the psychological dimensions of COVID-19 and how it is affecting both society and individuals. The online gathering produced intriguing insights on the pandemic and the research-based actions we can take to minimize its impact.

Panelists included Bethany Teachman (University of Virginia), Katie McLaughlin (Harvard University), Valerie Reyna (Cornell University), and Andreas Olsson (Karolinska Institutet).

Before we begin, let us go around the virtual table and introduce ourselves and our particular areas of expertise.

I am Bethany Teachman, and I am a professor and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and I think the primary reason I’m on the panel is that I study anxiety and emotion dysregulation and how people think differently when they’re anxious and what kinds of things we can do to try to manage that.

This is Katie McLaughlin. I’m a professor at Harvard University in the psychology department and my research focuses on how experiences of stress influence the way we think, our emotions, our ability to regulate our emotions, and our health.

I’m Valerie Reyna, a professor at Cornell University where I direct the Human Neuroscience Institute and I study risk communication and medical decision making.  My research is about how people interpret the gist of risks, so that they can bring values to bear on their choices and lead healthy lives.

And I am Andreas Olsson, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. I’m directing a lab with a research focus on fear and defensive behaviors. We are inspired by a cross-species approach with a focus on experimental work in humans, and we are particularly interested in how fear and anxiety spreads across individuals, which is termed social fear learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a “collective crisis.” Does this perspective change the way people adapt to and manage the situation?

Bethany Teachman: This is a situation that can have both positive and negative effects as a function of it being a collective crisis. On the positive side, there is a sense that we’re in it together and we see many amazing examples of people supporting one another. On the negative side, we see some people respond to this with a sense that they need to “protect their own” and it is “us versus them.”

Valerie Reyna: And many people are feeling both impulses at the same time. They’re obviously going to feel fear because of the uncertainty, the present threat, and the potential threats. And the social cues around people right now are going to raise their perception that we’re in danger. Then there’s the talk of the long-term impact to the economy too, and you have a real recipe for people to be anxious and frightened.

Andreas Olsson: The good side of this [being a collective crisis] is that sharing others’ anxieties and fears can motivate us to help each other, but the flip side is that sharing others' anxiety can cause a lot of suffering for some individuals. Today, when some people are monitoring the situation 24/7, that means they have exposure to a lot of suffering […] and this takes a big toll.

Katie McLaughlin: Psychological science has taught us quite clearly that in situations of mass trauma or mass stressors, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, there’s a very clear link between the degree of media exposure that people have and their symptoms of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. People [should be] very mindful about how they’re engaging with media accounts of the virus in the current crisis and to try to limit exposure.

With the seemingly unrelenting stressors we are dealing with, is there a psychological equivalent to a low-grade fever that people may be experiencing?

Katie McLaughlin: This is unquestionably a period where people are experiencing an enormous amount of stress, given the large demands that the situation is placing on our daily lives—the changes in our routines and structures that we typically rely on, and the uncertainty surrounding how long this is going to last and what the ultimate impact is going to be on our families, on our communities, and on our workplaces. […] So absolutely, this is a period of time when people are likely going to be noticing higher levels of anxiety and depression than they might normally experience.

Bethany Teachman: It’s reasonable to have some anxiety and sadness. At the same time, it’s important not to get stuck there. There are a number of things that we can do to maintain as much of our normal lives as possible.

The first area is relationships. Social distancing does not have to equal social isolation. Those are two very different concepts and virtual interaction can make a big difference.

The second is thoughts and feelings. It really doesn’t help us to spend 10 hours a day scrolling through newsfeeds and posts on COVID-19. So in a number of anxiety treatments, we encourage people to pick a couple of times a day when they focus on their worries and get the information that they need to problem-solve but then spend the rest of their time living their lives as normally as possible.

The third piece is standard behavioral self-care. A lot of what helps at this time is healthy eating, sleep, exercise, and perspective-taking so that you don’t get stuck in assuming the worst.

And the fourth is to live your values. So be kind to yourself and be kind to others. This is a stressful time and anxiety is normal. We have to give ourselves permission to experience the feelings that we’re having and then to try to do as much as we can to maintain normality in the face of that situation.

Andreas Olsson: In the long run, if we would continue keeping up the vigilance and being stressed over time, this will definitely lead to a number of very bad consequences for us as individuals as well as society. We know that a long-term anxiety [can worsen attention spans], memory, and immune-system responses. So there’s a number of bad consequences in keeping this chronic anxiety for a longer period of time.

Katie McLaughlin: Social relationships are an incredibly important buffer against the negative consequences of stress. We know that having strong emotional support not only prevents anxiety and depression in periods of stress but also buffers against the negative physiological consequences of stress on the immune system and physical health. One of my very favorite studies shows that stress-buffering effects that you get from receiving social support you also get when you give social support to other people. And this is something that people can control right now—the degree of support they provide to others, including members of our communities who are more vulnerable.

Valerie Reyna: Human behavior is affecting everything from the stock market to the actions people take or don’t take to reduce risk, like social distancing. Behavior will determine the actual public health risk in the end. If we’re able to understand why behaviors are risky, and therefore follow appropriate guidelines, we will have a far better outcome than if we don’t.

From your experience, what is one thing psychological science tells us that we should know?

Valerie Reyna: One of the most important fundamental findings that informs what we’re dealing with right now is that people react to the gist of the events rather than the details and the facts. It’s how people interpret reality that governs their emotions and their actions, not the actual reality itself. So we have to think about this torrent of information washing over everybody. How can we help people extract the bottom-line gist of that information so that they can take effective action?

Bethany Teachman: We are not just passive recipients of what is happening. […] We can collectively work together to respond to this situation as a challenge, as opposed to appraising it as an impossible threat that we cannot manage.

Katie McLaughlin: Giving support to other people is just as effective at helping to reduce stress responses and the negative consequences of stress for our physical and mental health as receiving support from others.

We know very clearly that exposing yourself to a lot of media coverage about the pandemic is going to increase anxiety. The more we can create positive habits and boundaries around our exposure to media, the better.

Andreas Olsson: We not only have to understand our ability in our agency, but we also have to know the limitations of our minds. We really need to spend time trying to trust the experts. We have physicians and epidemiologists who are really good at explaining the effects of the virus on society. We also have psychologists who are really good at giving advice on how to cope with isolation, fear, and anxiety. In uncertain times like now, when it is impossible to have a full understanding of the situation, we need to rely on trusted sources of information.

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