Evolutionary Clinical Psychology at HBES 2012! (Part 2)

Sorry it’s taken a long time to get to Part 2! I’m moving to Boston at the end of the month, and preparations for that have kept me well crazy. (Click here to read Part 1).

Okay, so Saturday’s talk session featuring clinical psychology was entitled Mental Health and Personality, and it lumped together talks on both of those topics. I appreciate the potential for thematic overlap here, but I’m going to cover only the directly clinically relevant talks here, with sincere apologies to the other speakers.

Andreas Wilke from Clarkson University kicked things off with a talk entitled “Positive Benefits of Depression.” Wilke did not make the claim that depression is an evolved adaptation (although this hypothesis is a popular and controversial one)…he merely noted that depressed people do seem better at certain tasks than non-depressed individuals. For example, depressed people’s appraisals of situations can be more realistic than the sunny appraisals of non-depressed folk. There have also been suggestions that the ruminative aspects of depression may cause the depressed to excel at certain cognitive tasks which require…well…rumination. This notion is related to the adaptive hypothesis (advanced by Andrews and Thomson among others) of depression as a ruminative state which allows individuals to rethink social endeavors and give up those which are not worth pursuing, although one must not be committed to this theoretical framework to acknowledge the empirical finding that depressed people ARE better at certain tasks.

Past research showing this finding has used low mood induction techniques on non-depressed individuals as a proxy for actual depression, and shown that the sad people had better scores on certain analytical tasks than controls (while other research has found no effect or negative effects of sadness on performance). Of course, one could justifiably argue that sadness is much different than clinical depression. Thus, Wilke’s study was perhaps the first to use actual depressed subjects to test this hypothesis…he had three groups: controls, depressed subjects, and subjects recovering from depression. Subjects played a sequential-decision making game, in which they were asked to imagine that they were picking a secretary, and sequentially shown a number of “credentials” of candidates for the job, as if they were interviewing candidates one-by-one. They could stop searching and choose a candidate at any time. Of interest to the researchers is how many candidates each participant views before choosing one.

There IS an optimum…too few candidates, and you end up possibly settling for a sub-par person. Too many, and there are diminishing returns on your time wasted. Depressed patients, relative to the other two groups, were significantly better at “interviewing” the optimum number of candidates before choosing one. Normals and recovering depressives tended to settle too soon. Note that depressives’ ruminations were not simply getting them stuck in a rut and causing them to never choose…it is theoretically possible that they could have overshot the optimum, yet they did not. Wilke and crew, therefore, showed that actual depressed patients were better at this task than non-depressed people!

This finding is, of course, consistent with the social rumination adaptation hypothesis of depression, but also consistent with plenty of other models, and Wilke, for his part, did not leap to any conclusions. A quite interesting finding!

Next, Kateryna Maltseve from UConn examined the relationship between cultural norms and mental health; are those who internalize social norms more likely to have poor mental health if they don’t actually conform to those norms? Of course, a person with severe mental illness would likely be low on internalized mental norms as well as measures of mental health, so Maltseve used as her outcome variable a POSITIVE measure of mental health, known as flourishing. The predictor variables were 1) how much each participant internalized social norms, 2) how readily each person had access to information about their culture’s norms (as a covariate, I believe, but danged if I can remember how this was measured), and 3) how much each participant felt their lifestyle matched their social norms.

There were many fascinating findings, but the most salient were that internalizing sociocultural norms was positively associated with mental flourishing…but that people who highly internalize social norms but don’t feel that they enact them in their lives tend to have greater losses in mental flourishing. So, for example, if I were buy into the notion that showering every day was a very important thing to do, I would be expected to have better psychological flourishing than somebody who believed that monthly showers were just as good as daily; however, assuming I still believe that daily showers are crucial to being accepted into a group of friends, but I only bathe every thirty days, whether I need it or not…I might have poorer flourishing than the guy who doesn’t internalize the showering norm as much. At least, this is my take on this study. Note that the study correctly does not attribute causality in either direction, which is just fine! It was a very neat set of data, nonetheless.

My own presentation on obsessive-compulsive disorder was next, and I’ll save a detailed discussion of that one for a future, dedicated blog, if you’ll indulge me that privilege. In short, though, I argue that the disparate symptom domains that appear in OCD can provide a window into the neurocognitive structure of the mind and may offer medical evidence for particular mental modules, in the cognitive/evolutionary psychology sense of the word–specifically those involved in resource acquisition (since there are hoarding symptoms in OCD), pathogen avoidance (contamination/cleaning), harm avoidance (persistent violent worries and checking), and–mostly mysteriously–perhaps intuitive  mathematics and symmetry (order/symmetry/pattern obsessions and rituals). This has been a teaser preview.

Geoffrey Miller was initially scheduled during this block, but had to change his plans due to travel arrangements, which saddened me. Next, Aaron Lukaszewski presented a totally cool presentation on how an individual’s Social Bargaining Power (a joint measure of a person’s ability to benefit or harm others…for example, how bodily size) may be correlated with his/her personality traits, and why that might be. With apologies to Aaron, I won’t go into more detail here, but it was a neat presentation!

Finally, Nicky Fussell from the University of Bristol gave a presentation on sex differences in feelings of emotional and sexual jealousy. Although she was initially slated to speak on the relationship of testosterone levels to jealousy, she actually presented a fun qualitative study which asked men and women who had been cheated on how they felt in the situation; the intention here was to supplement the quantitative research on sexual jealousy (as we know, males are predicted to respond most strongly to sexual infidelity and females to emotional infidelity, and this finding has been supported, although not in as cleanly a dissociative way as initially predicted) with horse’s mouth descriptions of what it actually feels like to be cheated on. While this study, of course, doesn’t deal with mental illness, I mention it because sexual jealousy is a common theme in clinical and counseling settings.  I enjoyed myself so much I didn’t take notes on the conclusions, which discussed the particular themes important to each sex (e.g., men found the irreversible loss of trust to be the worst part of being cheated on, and thus pushed their mates away, while females felt the blow to emotional intimacy was the worst, and often fought to maintain the relationship after being cheated on, even rationalizing their partner’s cheating); however, the talk seems to be based on this article from the Evolutionary Psychology journal, by Fussell and Brian Stollery.

In the next installment, I’ll cover the psychopathology talk session!

Daniel Glass

About Daniel Glass

Daniel Glass is a doctoral student at Suffolk University. He is interested in evolutionary approaches to clinical psychology. Evolved This Way explores this burgeoning field, which uses evolution to understand, classify, and treat mental disorders and other clinical phenomena.
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