What’s the Latest from the World of Social and Health Psychology? Reporting from the Social Personality and Health Network Conference

What do Facebook, biological assays, virtual reality, recording devices, and civic engagement programs have in common? They’re all being used to study personality and social psychological processes related to health, as reported by some of the leading researchers in the field at last week’s Social Personality and Health Network annual conference. Here are just a few examples of the exciting areas of research happening at the intersection of social and health psychology:


  • With the proportion of people over 65 in the world growing at an unprecedented rate, studying older adults’ health may be more important than ever. Tara Gruenewald from the University of Southern California highlighted the importance of the concept of generativity—or care and concern dedicated to the well-being of others—for the health of older adults. Her team is looking at civic engagement programs that may boost older adults’ feelings of generativity, such as volunteering to mentor young children, which may simultaneously improve older adults’ health while also positively impacting the younger people receiving the mentoring.


  • Researchers can get a lot of information about people’s feelings and their health by just asking them. But sometimes, there are other methods, such as measuring people’s behavior, that can give us different and interesting insight. For example, Megan Robbins from the University of California, Riverside, and her team used a method called the Electronically Activated Recorder, which can collect snippets of sound from people as they are in their natural, daily environments. Using this method, they found that natural, spontaneous laughter in people’s daily lives was related to lower symptoms of depression, suggesting that people’s daily behavior, like laughter, can be helpful in understanding their overall health.


  • On an episode of The Office, one character discusses his experience using the virtual reality game Second Life by saying “I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then my life was so great that I literally wanted a second one.” Now, researchers are learning that Second Life may be more than just a virtual reality game to play for fun; it may be a tool for understanding psychological processes. For example, Mary-Frances O’Connor from the University of Arizona discussed how people can feel jealousy evoked by avatars in Second Life, and they can show a biological stress response in response to giving a speech in front of virtual “professors.” Indeed, virtual reality games like Second Life may be a helpful tool for eliciting and understanding some of the same psychological and biological responses we see in real life.


  • Can teenagers and parents impact each other’s biology based on their interactions? Lauren Human from McGill University discussed how teenagers’ ability to accurately detect their parents’ behavior can have consequences for the teens’ ability to regulate inflammation. Given the established links between chronic inflammation and poor health outcomes, this finding suggests that teenagers’ perceptions of their interactions with their parents may have downstream consequences for their health.