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New IPR Research: April 2023

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This month’s new research from IPR faculty investigates academic testing and genetic factors in autism, how childhood adversity is linked with health among potential parents, and educators' beliefs about students' socioeconomic backgrounds. It also examines the metaphors of feelings and adolescent psychotherapy, ideal family size during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of father involvement on their sons' future testosterone production. 

Social Disparities and Health

Academic Testing and Genetic Factors in Autism 

What can the academic performance of the siblings of those with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tell us about the disorder’s genetic component? Research has shown that the broad autism phenotype (BAP)— personality features and language abilities that resemble ASD characteristics without its functional impairments—is found among parents of people with ASD. In the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, communication studies researcher and IPR associate Molly Losh, doctoral student Janna Guilfoyle, and their colleagues investigate whether the BAP is also found among siblings, and if so, what are its features? Using standardized test records, the researchers compared 29 non-ASD siblings of people with ASD to a control group of 88 individuals who did not have a brother or sister with ASD. Additionally, previously gathered data about 43 parents of people with ASD and 23 individuals with ASD were included to connect academic performance and clinical behavioral characteristics. The results show no differences in third-grade reading or math scores between the siblings of people with ASD and the control group. However, the siblings of those with ASD demonstrate more differences with language use and expression, which is similar to the team’s earlier findings about the parents of people with ASD when the parents were children themselves. The analysis also finds that mothers’ BAP characteristics were more strongly connected to their children’s language abilities than those of fathers. Academic achievement tests, which are widespread, may provide more insights into ASD’s genetic causes and inheritability.

How Childhood Adversity Is Linked with Health Among Potential Parents

Is childhood adversity linked with health risks during pregnancy and childbirth? In Women’s Health Issues, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski, community health scholar and IPR associate Joe Feinglass, and their colleagues examine the connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and health conditions that could increase pregnancy and birth complications. ACEs include childhood abuse, exposure to family violence, parental incarceration, and other traumatic experiences. The researchers analyzed ACEs and health histories of thousands of women and men aged 18–39, using survey data from the 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. They show that women had higher overall ACE scores than men, largely driven by reported sexual abuse. Almost one in four young women reported experiencing four or more ACEs. After accounting for demographic characteristics, young women with four or more ACEs were more likely to be obese, have high blood pressure, and develop diabetes than young women with no ACEs. They were also almost four times as likely to report a history of depression and more than twice as likely to report  fair or poor health. The findings suggest a need for a trauma-informed approach  to supportive services for mothers and mothers-to-be with ACEs, as well as the need for ‘social infrastructure’ policies that can disrupt the intergenerational transmission of childhood adversity.

Education Policy

Educators’ Beliefs About Students’ Socioeconomic Backgrounds

lecture hallHow students view their own socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds plays a role in their wellbeing and ability to achieve. In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, IPR social development psychologist Mesmin Destin and his colleagues investigate how educators’ background-specific strengths beliefs, or how their belief about what strengths students have based on their upbringing, influence the motivation and academic persistence of students from lower SES backgrounds. In the first study, 125 educators participated in a learning session emphasizing attention to the unique strengths of students from lower SES backgrounds, with some completing a survey about students before the session and others taking it after. In the second study, 256 high school and university students rated how much they believed their teachers saw their backgrounds as assets to their success, the extent to which they saw their own background as an asset, and their motivation to persist during difficult academic tasks. In the third study, 276 university students were asked to engage with a professor’s lecture, with half of the participants randomly assigned to read a lecture recognizing the unique strengths of students from marginalized backgrounds. Then, students completed measures of their school motivation and persistence. The first study showed that teachers’ beliefs about lower SES students were more positive after the session. Together, the second and third studies revealed that students’ perceptions of educators’ strengths-based beliefs about their backgrounds led students to have more positive beliefs about their own backgrounds. The results demonstrate that the educators’ beliefs about students’ backgrounds are malleable, and exposure to teachers who communicate positive beliefs about background-specific strengths affects the motivation and academic persistence of students, particularly from lower SES backgrounds.

Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies

The Metaphors of Feelings and Adolescent Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy uses metaphors to describe emotions, and some metaphors are so powerful they may shape how people understand themselves. In Transcultural Psychiatry, IPR anthropologist Rebecca Seligman examines how one metaphor commonly used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) affects Mexican American adolescents receiving mental healthcare. Over more than 18 months, she observed an urban outpatient psychiatry clinic, including staff conferences, trainings, and clinical materials. She also interviewed 37 adolescents being treated, the mothers of 21 of the teens, and 17 clinicians. Most of the teens were diagnosed with mood, anxiety, or attention deficit disorders. Seligman focused on a key metaphor used in CBT with children and adolescents: “The Feelings Thermometer.” Just as we measure changes in body temperature, patients are asked to track and measure their emotions and feelings. The metaphorical thermometer encouraged the adolescents to see their emotions as internal and fluctuating, but also as measurable and ultimately controllable. The medical authority behind the use of the thermometer strengthened its power in shaping how teens conceptualized their emotions. It had the effect of distancing them from their own feelings and creating a sense of control over their emotions. At the same time, it also imposed a particular, mechanistic understanding of emotions that sometimes conflicted with teens’ own experience and enforced a cultural value on self-control. The research suggests that the use of metaphor in psychotherapy is deeply rooted in cultural and political understandings of emotion and that therapists should be attuned both to the implications of their metaphors and the metaphors that their patients bring into the clinic with them.

Ideal Family Size During the COVID-19 Pandemic

familyThe COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every aspect of life, but how did it affect Americans’ ideal family size? In the Journal of Marriage and Family, IPR sociologist Julia Behrman examines whether the pandemic changed people’s conceptions of an ideal family. She analyzed a dataset of interviews from 1,823 adults over the age of 18 from the General Social Survey (GSS), collected by NORC at the University of Chicago. The participants were interviewed before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2016 and 2018 on their attitudes, behaviors, and demographic characteristics, including information about their ideal family size. They were re-interviewed in the first six months of the pandemic between August 24 and September 26, 2020. The results show that the pandemic had no impact on the ideal family size of the participants. Prior to the pandemic, the ideal family size was 2.5 among the participants, a number that has remained stable in the United States since the 1970s. The findings suggest that despite the shock of the pandemic, Americans’ ideal family size did not change. Future research should investigate how desired family size might have been impacted by the pandemic and how the ideal family size might have evolved among different subgroups, such as younger Americans and those with less education.

The Impact of Father Involvement on Future Testosterone Production 

Testosterone, or the male reproductive hormone, influences how men devote effort towards reproduction or caregiving. Research has shown that testosterone levels decline in new fathers, which encourages greater caregiving, but also that testosterone responses vary across cultures based upon parenting norms. In  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IPR anthropologists Christopher Kuzawa, Thomas McDade and their colleagues investigate whether having a father present during a son’s childhood affects the son’s testosterone levels as an adult and as a father. The study examined a group of 966 men in the Philippines using data from the CLHNS, an ongoing birth-cohort study begun in 1983. Fathers of each adolescent boy in the study were defined as present or not present during their children’s upbringing. The sons were also asked who they felt was most responsible for their upbringing. Later, after the adolescents became fathers themselves, their testosterone levels were measured. The sons with fathers who were not present during their development had higher testosterone levels after becoming fathers than those whose fathers were present. These results suggest that the experience of adolescent boys with their fathers has lasting impacts on the production of testosterone, which could have intergenerational effects on their own parenting behavior. Kuzawa is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Anthropology, and McDade is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology.

Photo credits: Pexels and Unsplash

Published: April 25, 2023.