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New IPR Research: February 2021

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Girl with a cold

This month's new research from IPR faculty covers how good relationships with parents during childhood can be a buffer to the common cold later in life, how experiences earlier in life, such as breastfeeding, can lead to better health in adulthood, and whether people are more worried about diseases from Africa than other regions. Additionally, the research examines whether people choose romantic partners based on their preferred traits and behaviors, how transgender and gender diverse people would prefer to be asked about their gender in academic studies, and the cost of participating in democracy while poor and Black. 

Social Disparities and Health

Good Relationships With Parents During Childhood as a Buffer to the Common Cold

Children raised in families of low socioeconomic status (SES) are at higher risk of infectious and cardiovascular diseases throughout their lives, but better parent-child relationships may protect against these health disparities. In a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, IPR health psychologist Greg Miller and his colleagues test the hypothesis that a positive relationship with parents during childhood acts as a buffer against the increased susceptibility to infectious illness during adulthood, such as the common cold. The researchers examined 176 healthy adults ages 18­–55 who reported their childhood SES and the quality of their childhood relationships with their parents by rating parental care, love and support, lack of conflict, and family cohesiveness. Participants were exposed to an upper respiratory virus and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of the common cold. Individuals raised in low-SES families were more likely to develop a cold. But this finding was only apparent for individuals who had poor quality relationships. In other words, having positive relationship with one’s parents acted as a “buffer” against the cold risks associated with lower childhood SES. Along with other studies from Miller’s group, these results suggest that positive family relationships can mitigate some of the health disparities associated with low childhood SES.

Early Origins of Socioeconomic Inequalities in Chronic Inflammation

mother with babyThe United States is characterized by persistent and widening social inequities in many adult health outcomes, and researchers have begun to ask how these outcomes trace back to childhood. In Social Science & Medicine, IPR anthropologist Thomas McDade and IPR postdoctoral fellow Stephanie Koning consider the extent to which socioeconomic inequalities in adult health may be influenced by experiences earlier in life. Utilizing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health of 7,610 young adults aged 24­–32 years, the researchers documented a strong relationship between  lower socioeconomic status (SES) and higher levels of chronic inflammation in adulthood, as measured by C-reactive protein. They also examined the participants’ birth weight and duration of breastfeeding in infancy, and investigated whether they could account for the SES gradient in chronic inflammation.  They find that increasing the time a mother breastfeeds to three or more months reduces the SES gradient in inflammation  by more than 80%. The results indicate that environments early in infancy are important determinants of chronic inflammation in adulthood, and that breastfeeding three months or longer could reduce SES-based inequalities in cardiometabolic disease, which result in part from higher levels of chronic inflammation. The researchers suggest that social policies addressing structural barriers to extended breastfeeding, such as paid family leave, could have the greatest impact in reducing inequalities in breastfeeding.

Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy

Racial Bias in Perceptions of Disease and Policy 

Narratives about Africa as dark, depraved, and diseased justified the exploitation of African land and people, and may still influence people’s fears about disease. In an IPR working paper, James Druckman and his collogues investigate whether people are more worried about diseases from Africa than elsewhere and what are the consequences for their policy preferences. In three separate experiments, they questioned 1,803 participants about a fictitious disease in several countries including one in Africa. The results show that people report greater worry about a pandemic originating in Africa compared to other regions and greater support for a travel ban and loosening abortion restrictions for a pandemic that supposedly affected pregnant women and their fetuses. In an examination of 1,475 articles from 9 U.S. newspapers about the 2015–16 Zika pandemic, they find that articles that mentioned Africa were more negative in tone. After the outbreak of COVID-19, they conducted a survey similar to their 3 earlier experiments of 1,200 people to evaluate their worry about the pandemic. Respondents were more worried about COVID-19 and more supportive of a travel ban after reading about COVID-19’s impact on an African country versus one in Europe. These data suggest that reactions to pandemics are not reasoned but racially biased. The researchers argue that worries about pandemics are legitimate, but policies should not be guided by racist narratives.

Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies

Negligible Evidence That People Desire Partners Who Uniquely Fit Their Ideals

Although people often express strong preferences for traits and behaviors they desire in their romantic couple holding handspartners, do people choose romantic partners based on these preferences? In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, social psychologists and IPR associates Eli Finkel, Daniel Molden, and their colleagues conducted two studies to answer this question. For each study, participants first listed their top three ideal qualities in a partner. In study 1, they then went on a blind date with someone they had never met and in study 2, they then brought to mind five people they already knew, including a current romantic partner if they had one. In both studies, participants next rated the partners they met or brought to mind against their chosen ideals, and also against a set of ideals chosen by another participant in the study. Finally, in both studies, everyone reported on their romantic interest in their partners. If people’s ideal qualities in a partner do predict their romantic interests, the partners they were most interested in romantically would match their own unique ideals more closely than the unique ideal qualities generated by someone else. However, in both studies, the researchers found that although participants were more romantically interested in partners if they believed these individuals possessed the ideal qualities rated, this was true whether judging their own chosen qualities or someone else’s. The unique ideals people said they desired did not uniquely predict the romantic interest they expressed.  The researchers conclude that real-life evaluation of romantic partners is complex and that what people say they look for in a partner and what they actually like may differ.

Performance Measurement & Rewards

Perspectives From Transgender and Gender Diverse People on Asking About Gender

Research has increasingly focused on the inclusive measurement of transgender and gender diverse (TGD) people's gender identities, yet gaps still exist in understanding how these individuals prefer to be asked their gender in academic studies. In a study published in LGBT Health, professor of medical social sciences and IPR associate Brian Mustanski and his colleagues examine how TGD people desire their gender to be asked about and represented in research. In an online survey conducted between 2015 and 2017, the researchers asked 695 TGD people to provide written suggestions for how to ask about gender, and 314 gave suggestions. The participants were primarily White (75.7%) and between 16–73 years old. Three broad categories of responses emerged, including specific identities to include in response options, specific questions to ask about gender, and qualifiers or nuanced considerations, such as the option to check multiple boxes or offer a fill-in-the-blank question. Some participants also suggested a two-step method for asking about gender, such as asking the sex assigned at birth and then current gender, while others suggested there should be a question about gender followed by a specific question about whether participants were TGD. The researchers write that improving questions about gender is an important step to increasing accurate representation of TGD people in research, and future research is needed to continue evaluating these suggestions.

Urban Policy and Community Development 

The Cost of Participating in Democracy While Poor and Black

chalkboardHow do poor Black populations participate in democracy? In Perspectives on Politics, IPR social policy expert Sally Nuamah investigates how Black populations respond to the threat of mass public school closure, and how they understand its political impacts. In 2013, Chicago and Philadelphia had the largest number of school closings in their history, and over 80% of the students attending the schools were Black and low-income. Between 2012–2015, she conducted interviews in both cities with parents and community residents who attended community meetings about the school closings, analyzed transcripts from community meetings, and spoke to community and school district leaders. In 2016–2017, she re-interviewed nearly one-third of the original participants. The interviews revealed some parents were able to develop their civic skills through organizing groups, planning meetings, and making presentations throughout the closure process. But several parents expressed disinterest in continuing to participate between 2016–2017 when their efforts were unsuccessful or schools that stayed open lost resources, making them unable to benefit from their success. Nuamah calls this combination of deepened mistrust, fatigue, and disillusionment with the policy process “collective participatory debt.” She notes that despite the collective action of these groups, real policy change was not achieved, which leaves poor Black citizens less trusting of government and weary of participating in democracy. These findings demonstrate that  poor Black citizens  often participate at high levels with little return for their investment, and eventually they disinvest as “democracy’s good credit runs out."

Photo credits: Pexels, iStock

Published: February 24, 2021.