CHASE Lab Annual Report for 2020

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It’s been a busy and difficult year, so it’s especially important that we recognize and celebrate our hard work and accomplishments. Here is a summary of our group’s activities for the year:

In addition, members passed important milestones in their training:

  • Cole Ainsworth (Postdoctoral Fellow) took over as lab manager and taught his first online courses.
  • Kristen Pasko (3rd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully defended her Master’s thesis and received her M.A. degree. She also submitted her findings as an abstract to the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s virtual annual meeting (SBM) a submitted a separate, first-authored manuscript for publication.
  • Laura Travers (2nd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully proposed her Master’s thesis and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
  • Megan Brown (1st-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) transitioned from research coordinator/lab manager to graduate student. She also received approval for her first-year research project and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
  • Emily Vendetta (1st-Year School Psychology Master’s Student) transitioned from undergraduate to graduate research assistant and used her CHASE Lab experience to design a strong research proposal for a class.
  • Bernard Kwiatek (Senior Undergraduate Research Assistant) determined his desired career path and started planning for graduate training in mental health counseling.
  • Heather Mulvenna and Sam Hart (Senior Undergraduate Work Study Students) became invaluable assets to the CHASE Lab and started planning for their next steps.

Finally, Dr. Dani Arigo (Lab Director) received a Short-Term Research Travel Grant from the Humboldt Centre of International Excellence to conduct a collaborative project with a host at the University of Bayreuth in Germany (Dr. Laura König). Public safety conditions permitting, she will travel to Bayreuth to work on this project in Summer 2021.

Happy New Year from the CHASE Lab!

An Insider’s Look at Our Newest Paper: Social Predictors of Daily Relations between College Women’s Physical Activity Intentions and Behavior

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Note: This post features a discussion about the association between social comparison and physical activity.  If you are new to this topic or would like an in-depth overview, please read our previous posts on social comparison and its influences on health behaviors. Briefly, when we compare something about ourselves to that of another person, we’re making a social comparison. Take exercise, for example. We might make a comparison based on minutes of exercise between us and them. Further, we could compare ourselves to someone doing better (upward) or worse (downward) with exercise minutes. Past research has shown social comparison to be important for understanding changes in physical activity. However, more research is needed to understand how we can use social comparison to guide a person toward greater physical activity behavior–a key focus of this post and our paper.

One challenge to being physically active is that even when we set intentions to exercise, it’s difficult to follow through. This is called the “intention-behavior gap.” Though existing studies have shown that some people are better at the follow-through than others, and have smaller (or no) gaps between their exercise intentions and behavior. It’s possible that learning more about the people who don’t follow through could help us design and adapt exercise interventions to be more effective for them. For our most recent paper, our now in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to know whether a person’s social comparison tendencies or their perceptions of social support affect the link between their physical activity intentions and actual behaviors. For example, it’s possible that people who make comparisons more often or generally feel more supported by close others and have more confidence in their ability to follow through on their intentions, relative to people who are lower in these characteristics. This may be especially true for college women, as social experiences are more strongly connected to their health behaviors than in other groups.

We selected this topic because:

  • Women are generally less active than men, especially in college, and may face additional challenges in meeting their physical activity intentions.
  • Both social comparison and social support have been linked to health behaviors like physical activity, but their influences on the intention-behavior gap have rarely been studied.

What Were Our Research Questions and Expected Outcomes?

Question #1
First, we wanted to know more about college women’s exercise intentions (e.g., how often they were set) and behaviors (i.e., minutes in moderate + vigorous intensity activity). We selected women who were not already meeting exercise guidelines for health, to understand whether the intention-behavior gap was common for them. Based on existing evidence, we expected poor or moderate follow-through with exercise intentions.

Question #2
Second, we wanted to know whether college women’s perceptions of their social comparisons or social support is related to their  intention-behavior gap. We expected that greater social comparison and support would reduce the gap.

What Did We Do?

We conducted a 7-day observational study among 80 women students at a university in northeastern Pennsylvania (USA). Essentially, this design means that participants are asked to go about their normal activities while wearing monitors and responding to questions about their recent experiences; they didn’t participate in an intervention program or receive an experimental manipulation. Women interested in participation completed an initial online survey about demographics, social comparison, and social support. We reviewed responses and invited women to the study based on our eligibility criteria:

  •      No experience with wrist-worn/smartphone-based physical activity monitors
  •      <100 minutes/week moderate-to-vigorous physical activity
  •      2nd-year student or above (to avoid effects from the transition to college)

After attending a face-to-face orientation, we asked each participant to use an electronic diary to report daily exercise  intentions and wear a Fitbit to monitor their exercise behavior for 7 days. 

What Did We Find?

  • Exercise intentions were set on 36% of days – an average of 2-3 days a week, per person.
  • On days with set intentions, the average intention was 41 minutes of moderate + vigorous activity.
  • Based on Fitbit records, 26 minutes a day were spent in exercise, on average.
    • Minutes of exercise varied in participants from day to day.
  • Participants got about 12 more minutes of exercise on days with set intentions, versus those without; this difference was not statistically significant.
  • Social support did not affect the intention-behavior gap, but overall social comparison tendency did (i.e., greater interest in social comparison reduced the gap between intention and behavior).
    • The tendency to make downward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as worse-off) also reduced the gap, but the tendency to make upward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as better-off) had no effect.

What Does This Tell Us?

Unsurprisingly, low-active college women often do not set intentions to exercise. When they do set intentions, their increase in exercise is typically small and does not fulfill their intentions. This suggests a noticeable gap between college women’s exercise intentions and behavior. Social support was not linked to improvements in the intention-behavior gap, but social comparison was. Specifically, downward comparisons appear to help reduce the gap. In the future, targeting social comparison processes may improve the intention-behavior gap and reduce physical activity differences between women and men. This could help to improve women’s health during college and across the lifespan.

What Was it Like to Work on This Study?

“Dr. Arigo gave me the opportunity to learn about the research process from start to finish in the Clinical Health Psychology Lab at the University of Scranton. Through project CHASE, I had the ability to assist with participant recruitment, enrollment, technology troubleshooting, data collection, and finally manuscript writing. This broad skill set has strengthened my current research in medical school. Although writing a manuscript was intimidating, I learned how to write academically with the assistance of Leah Schumacher, Dr. Arigo, and Cole Ainsworth. It was great seeing the scientific process from start to finish, culminating in great results. I’m so proud to be a member of this team of researchers!”

Coco Thomas, Medical Student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

”I joined this project after the study had finished, as our team was preparing to write the paper. This topic was new to me, so it was a challenge at times to understand the ‘big picture’ of our results–how they fit into the existing literature and what value they provide. However, having a fresh perspective helped ensure that we didn’t gloss over any details needed for readers to fully grasp what this study was about. As a whole, this project is yet another example of the CHASE Lab’s dedication to improving women’s health, and it has been a pleasure working as part of that team.”

Dr. Cole Ainsworth, Postdoctoral Fellow with the CHASE Lab, Rowan University

“This project was a lot of fun to work on and was a true collaborative effort. The project team spanned institutions, experience levels, and disciplines. Over the course of working on the paper, I think that every single one of us also transitioned into a new professional role: Dr. Ainsworth and I started postdoctoral fellowships, Coco began medical school, and Dr. Arigo moved to a new institution. While this meant that progress was a bit slower at times and that the four of us never met together in a physical room, it was a real pleasure to work with such a fantastic group of people and to work so effectively as a team to get this project across the finish line. I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to work on this project and hope to work on many more projects together in the future!”

Dr. Leah Schumacher, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Alpert Medical School, Brown University

I’ve been interested in the physical activity intention-behavior gap for a while, and always wanted an opportunity to study whether social comparison or social support were associated with this phenomenon. That wasn’t one of the original intentions of data collection, but that’s what’s great about secondary analyses – you already have the data and you can ask new questions. Like the rest of our team, I had a great experience working on this paper and I’m so impressed with everyone’s commitment to seeing it come together.

Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

What Comes Next?

We’re pleased to be working with a team from UNC Greensboro to dig deeper into the physical activity intention-behavior gap. This time, we’re looking at it among women in midlife (ages 40-60) using smaller time blocks – chunks of 2-3 hours, rather than full days. Stay tuned!

Social Comparison Might Not Be As Bad As We’re Told

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By Kristen Pasko, Cole Ainsworth, And Dr. Dani Arigo

“Don’t compare yourself to others” is frequently offered as advice for preventing spikes in anxiety and other negative emotions. This advice can be found on popular websites like Psychology Today, Healthline, and Medium. At face value, it seems like good advice – who wants to feel bad about themselves? But the perspective that “social comparisons are bad, don’t make them” is incomplete, and does not reflect the entire picture of social comparison as a basic human process. Forcing ourselves to avoid making comparisons is nearly impossible and might actually be harmful. Comparisons can also be positive, and some can be useful, even if they don’t make us happy in the moment. In this post, we want to offer another perspective on social comparison, with a special focus on how comparisons can be used to encourage health behaviors. 

What Do We Know about Social Comparison?

Social comparison has been of interest to psychologists for decades. Leon Festinger developed the first formal theory of social comparison in 1954. He proposed that we have a built-in drive to evaluate ourselves, and when objective standards (i.e., hierarchy of positions in a company)  aren’t available, we default to using social standards (other people). Later work showed that social comparison isn’t just a substitute for unavailable objective standards – even when these are available, people often prefer social standards!

Social comparison describes the process of a person noticing and evaluating something about themselves in relation to another person. This could be in domains such as work status, wealth, beliefs, health, or appearance. A person can see themselves as better off than, worse off than, or about the same as another individual in any of these domains. From Festinger’s work and others succeeding him, we know that comparison is one of our fundamental cognitive processes (how we make sense of, store, and apply information about other people and social situations). Making comparisons can help to increase cognitive accessibility of certain information. In other words, it reduces the time it takes to mentally sort and select information when thinking and talking about important topics. 

Key Terms

DIRECTION OF COMPARISON

Upward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing better than we are in a given domain

  • Example: She is so much more attractive than I am. I really wish I had hair like hers.

Downward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing worse than we are in a given domain

  • Example: I’m definitely healthier than he is, with all of his health symptoms. 

Lateral social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing about the same as we are in a given domain

  • Example: We’re performing about the same at work. 

COMPARISON TARGET: person that an individual compares themselves to; often similar to the individual making the comparison

Moderate target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “not too far off” from us

  • Example: This person is somewhat similar to me, even if they’re doing a little better/worse.

Extreme target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “pretty far off” from us 

  • Example: That person is nothing like me – they’re doing so much better/worse.

 Of these, upward comparisons have the worst reputation. These are the ones that websites tell us to avoid. But research suggests that upward comparisons (as well as downward and lateral comparisons) can have benefits. 

How Can Each Type of Social Comparison Be Beneficial? 

Let’s examine some examples from scientific literature. Upward comparisons can be useful for self-improvement related to job uncertainty (a stressor that could hinder achieving one’s career goals), as they might promote greater goal engagement. In other words, individuals who made upward comparisons more frequently were more likely to move towards their goals. Downward comparisons can be useful in romantic relationships, as individuals who engaged in more frequent downward comparisons about their relationships (compared to individuals who make lateral comparisons) later reported greater relationship satisfaction. Comparisons are even useful for a variety of populations. For example, they may work differently within the context of chronic illness, though still provide benefit. Specifically, individuals from the general population without chronic illness often prefer to see/hear about others that are doing worse than them (downward social comparison) to feel better about themselves. However, individuals with chronic illness tend to prefer contact with those who are doing about the same of better than them (lateral or upward comparison), as it provides reassurance about their current health or serves a picture of how they might look in the future (i.e., in better health). For example, adolescents with chronic illnesses who made lateral comparisons to other ill peers (vs. upward comparisons to well peers) reported greater feelings of social acceptance, happiness with their physical appearance, and global self-worth (personal value).

How are Social Comparisons and Health Behaviors Related?

Social comparisons may also have benefits for promoting healthy behavior. In general, social connections are increasingly recognized as useful in health behavior interventions. This might look like an intervention delivered on a social media platform to increase healthy eating or physical activity, where people are connected with a buddy or team and they can see each other’s progress (e.g., a leaderboard showing how many steps they took during the week vs. how many steps others took). Out of 3 top social strategies that are used to promote better health behavior (competition, comparison, cooperation), social comparison has been shown as the most effective. According to the authors of this study, the main strengths of social comparison include promotion of “subtle and empowering peer pressure.” Social media platforms have also induced social comparison by connecting people to one another to motivate medication management, allowing the sharing of calorie and nutrient consumption to promote a healthy diet, or ranking group members’ physical activity (i.e., steps) on a leaderboard.

A recent three-part study also showed that, regardless of direction (upward, downward, lateral), people who compared with moderate targets had greater physical activity motivation compared to those who compared with extreme targets (see definitions above). Therefore, if targets were moderate (close in activity engagement to the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation increased, as physical activity appeared more achievable. Conversely, targets that were extreme (farther away in activity engagement from the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation was decreased, as the same outcome appeared less achievable. This study suggests that the direction of comparison may not matter as much as whether our own performance is close to or far away from the performance of our targets.  

Food for Thought

Comparisons are quite natural and occur more often than some people would like to admit. Often they are automatic. Therefore, putting pressure on yourself to avoid making comparisons might be an unrealistic goal. Making comparisons is NOT something individuals need to be ashamed of! So, what are potential ways we can manage comparisons?

Try to be flexible about the way you are thinking about comparisons. Comparisons might provide us with examples of how other people are doing/viewing something, to save up our time and energy for future situations. In other words, they might be protective. You might ask yourself, “how can I use this person as a role model?” or “can I find a better (e.g., more realistic) role model?”. While comparing ourselves to these role models might make us feel a little bad at times, that little bit of negative emotion might motivate us to make some change!*

CHASE Lab’s Recent Work on Social Comparison

  • Methods to Assess Social Comparison Processes within Persons in Daily Life: A Scoping Review
    • What we learned: most available research on social comparison that assessed the same people multiple times were assessing: 1) women, 2) college students, and 3) social comparisons of appearance rather than other domains (i.e., wealth, health). Most studies signaled participants to report on their recent comparisons instead of asking participants to record them as they were happening. There was a lot of variability in the way the comparisons were assessed (i.e., how many times they were prompted per day, how “social comparison” was defined).
    • Future implications: we need to examine social comparisons using repeated assessment in a wider range of individuals, to better understand how the process affects us in daily life. See this article    See our blog post summary
  • Social Comparison Features in Physical Activity Apps: Scoping Meta-review
    • What we learned: social comparison processes were present in 31% of published articles that described behavior change techniques in mobile apps to promote physical activity. Though very few described what aspect of physical activity was compared (steps vs. active minutes). No studies identified social comparison features that were tailored to fit user preferences.
    • Future Implications: articles that describe social comparison features in apps should be more specific (i.e., about what is being compared or how comparison is being induced) and should consider individual differences in preferences and responses to social comparison. See this article   See our blog post summary
  • Daily Relations between Social Perceptions and Physical Activity among College Women
    • What we learned: college women engaged in less physical activity on the days that they reported making (vs. not making) comparisons – except comparisons in the health domain, which were on days with more physical activity (for a subset of women).
    • Future implications: days on which individuals report making comparisons (with exception of health comparisons) might be good days to intervene to prevent reductions in physical activity.  See this article    See our blog post summary

What We Have In the Works

  • Project WHADE – Read about our methods
  • Fitspiration Exposure Study – experimental manipulation of messaging that accompanies fitspiration posts, and its effects on body satisfaction, exercise motivation, and exercise behavior (more on this soon!)

*A little bit of negative emotion can signal to us that we want to make some changes, to avoid feeling this way in the future. But as many articles have pointed out by recommending that we avoid comparisons, we shouldn’t have to feel bad all the time, or even most of the time. If your comparisons are contributing to problems, please don’t hesitate to seek support. Visit https://www.7cups.com/ for free resources.

Keeping Busy During a Pandemic: CHASE Lab’s Current Activities

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It’s been a while since we posted, and we wanted to share some of the research activities we’ve been working on and what we’ve been learning about this fall. See here for more about our team and visit the linked pages below to read interviews with specific team members. (No link for a particular person? Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with them!)

So what have we been up to this fall?

Remote meetings continue! Here we are at our Halloween celebration – some of us got into the holiday spirit.

COLE (Postdoctoral Fellow/Lab Manager): I’ve been preparing research materials for a new project on midlife adults’ responses to physical activity messages. I’ve also monitored the completion of an online survey about perceptions of social media among adults with type 1 diabetes, and I’ve been developing a blog post and infographic for our soon-to-be published study on the physical activity intentions of college women. These recent activities contribute to my goal of strengthening my skills related to project management and science communication. 

HEATHER (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching and compiling research articles using online databases, which has allowed me practice techniques I learned in a previous research methods course (e.g., keyword combination). Developing this skill has allowed me to better contribute to the CHASE Lab’s projects and will help me with my own future research. It has also exposed me to a variety of study designs and helped me learn about different approaches to answering research questions. I have also become more familiar with the style of academic writing, which will be useful when writing my own papers during graduate school and beyond.

LAURA (2nd-Year Ph.D. Student): I am working on my thesis project, which examines relations between PTSD and pain among older adults. I am also in the very beginning stages of an additional project about the connection between pain and social comparison. Hopefully, there is more to come as the year progresses, but I’ve been learning strategies that have helped with my scientific writing (such as outlining for structure, task prioritization, and how to consolidate feedback from multiple people).

BERNARD (Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching for and reading articles about text messaging and physical activity, to help direct a related study we’re preparing for. I’ve also spent time brainstorming new messages that can be used in an app or website to motivate others to be more physically active.

KRISTEN (3rd-Year Ph.D. Student): I recently revisited a project that examines associations between social media platform use and health behaviors of college students, and we just submitted the manuscript for publication. I’ve also been preparing for a related project that is a candidate for my dissertation, focused on developing a self report measure of social media use for clinical settings.

SAM (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have learned so much working with the CHASE Lab this semester, such as how to navigate different online databases like Google Scholar and ProQuest to find relevant research papers and extract information from them. I have also learned ways to use that information to develop materials for studies we are planning in the lab. Being able to meet and talk with people at different stages of their careers has given me a better understanding of how to prepare for graduate school.

MEGAN (1st-Year Ph.D. Student): I’ve been working on my thesis proposal, which I will present during my first year as a Ph.D. student. The study will examine the relation between social physique anxiety (or anxiety about having one’s body evaluated by others) and physical activity among women at risk for cardiovascular disease. I will also explore other factors that influence this relation. Throughout my time developing and writing this proposal, I have learned new skills which have helped strengthen my scientific writing.  

EMILY (1st-Year Masters Student): Lately I’ve been brainstorming content for a tool that will support physical activity engagement for inactive midlife adults. I also have been reviewing research on text message interventions to help promote physical activity. My time in the lab reviewing and learning more about research has helped prepare me for my Masters program. I feel confident in my classes this Fall knowing how to find quality, well-written research articles for my papers.