SBM 2021 Is Here! (Virtually)

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Our primary professional organization, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, holds an annual meeting each year to share news, findings, and insight in the field of behavioral medicine. At this week-long virtual event, our team will be presenting findings from a variety of projects. Topics include women’s health, midlife health, physical activity, COVID-19, ecological momentary assessment methods, social comparison, chronic pain, cancer, and mental health.

See below for where you can find us!

Close-Up on Our Latest Paper: Experimental Effects of #Fitspiration Messaging on Body Satisfaction, Exercise Motivation, and Exercise Behavior among College Women and Men

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Our newest publication is now available in Translational Behavioral Medicine! You may remember from one of our previous posts that we’re interested in the #fitspiration trend on social media. This hashtag indicates content that is intended to inspire fitness behaviors and a healthy lifestyle. Posts typically use images of very fit people exercising, with an associated message. The traditional messages included with fitspiration posts focus on exercise for physical gain and emphasize toughness. For example, “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” But recently, some users have tried to shift the focus of fitspiration messages to self-compassion, communicating that exercise is self-care and self-love. For example, “You gotta do this for you. Love you. Honor you.” Recent research has investigated the potential effects of traditional versus self-compassion messages, though these studies have used small samples of only women and have included only self-reported outcomes such as body satisfaction.

Given that fitspiration is meant to inspire exercise behavior, and as we know very little about gender differences in response to traditional versus self-compassionate fitspiration messages, we set out to conduct a large study that enrolled both women and men and included an objective measure of exercise. Our new paper describes a randomized, experimental study to test the short-term effects of different types of fitspiration posts among college women and men. We used self-reported body satisfaction and exercise motivation, as well as objectively recorded visits to campus fitness centers over the following week, as our outcomes. Our hypotheses were pre-registered with the Open Science Framework.

What did we do?

This study had several stages, starting before we moved our team to Rowan University. The first stage was to develop and pre-test our fitspiration messages and images; the second was to run a small version of the study to confirm that we were on the right track (sample size = 142). When we came to Rowan, we set up the procedures again and coordinated with Campus Recreation to access students’ ID card swipes into university fitness centers (as our measure of exercise behavior). We wanted a large sample to ensure that we would be able to test our hypotheses effectively, and we ended up with a sample size of 655. Students who participated in the study completed a brief set of questionnaires and then opened a link to one of three feeds on Instagram: one with 10 fitspiration images that had traditional messages attached, one with 10 images that had self-compassion messages attached, and one with just 10 images (no message, as a control). Women were assigned to see images of women and men were assigned to see images of men, for a total of six experimental conditions. All images were the same in each gender-specific arm.

After they viewed the Instagram feeds, students completed an attention check and then answered questions about their current body satisfaction and motivation to exercise. We accessed these students’ swipes into university fitness centers over the following 7 days and counted the number of times they went to these locations. In general, we expected women to respond more positively to self-compassion messages than men, and men to respond more positively to traditional messages than women. These hypotheses were based on existing data that show gender differences in preference and response to the tone of health messages.

What did we find?

Although our pre-specified hypotheses were not supported, we did find differences in all three of our outcomes, by message type and gender. Men’s body satisfaction and exercise behavior were greatest for those who saw fitspiration images without any message, though their exercise motivation was highest for those who saw images paired with traditional messages. In contrast, women’s body satisfaction was highest for those who saw either type of message (relative to just an image), and their exercise behavior was most frequent for those who saw self-compassion messages. There were no differences in women’s exercise motivation by message type.

What does this tell us?

We concluded that self-compassion messaging may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among women, whereas images without associated text may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among men. This information could be extremely helpful for informing the use of #fitspiration (and other social media trends) to support healthy self-image and behaviors among college students, by tailoring messages that are most likely to have positive effects for women versus men.

What was it like to work on this study?

This is the second in a series of studies that was inspired by an assignment in my undergraduate research methods course. I couldn’t have imagined then that a series of studies would be conducted as a result one idea. We’ve also seen the #fitspiration trend grow into a social media industry since that time. I’m grateful to the CHASE team for continuing this project and conducting it on a larger scale, and I’m optimistic about this line of research and look forward to future studies to examine how “viral” trends influence of health behaviors across social media platforms.

– Sabrina DiBisceglie, former CHASE Lab Member (University of Scranton)

I really enjoyed being a part of this process, which began as a pilot at the University of Scranton and evolved into an experimental study at Rowan University. At the beginning of the experimental study, I was starting as a research coordinator in the CHASE Lab at Rowan, so I was able to help oversee data collection and coding, as well as contribute to conference presentations and manuscript preparation, which was a great learning experience. I am really happy that I was able to collaborate with Sabrina and Dr. Arigo on this project and see the experimental portion all the way through. Given how popular fitspiration is on different social media platforms, this work can help to encourage users to be more aware of the information that they are taking away from fitspiration posts.

-Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Member

This study was a first for our team in several ways. Although we’ve used experimental designs before, this is our first published experiment as a team, and it was our first collaboration with Rowan’s Campus Recreation department – the staff there were so supportive and helpful, which smoothed the way. And although we’ve preregistered our scoping review methods with the Open Science Framework before, this was our first time pre-registering hypotheses. Plus, it took more than a year and a half to collect the data, and COVID interrupted us right at the end. I’m so impressed with our team for bringing together so many different elements to produce this paper and we’re proud of the end result! We’re grateful to Sabrina for getting this started and for staying so closely involved throughout the process.

-Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

Next Steps

We’re continuing to work on understanding the #fitspiration trend by examining individual differences associated with positive (vs. negative) outcomes. This includes additional, exploratory analyses on our experimental dataset (described in this post) and using data from our previous cross-sectional surveys. For example, we want to understand how social comparison processes play a role in response to viewing fitspiration posts. We hope to share more information about this work very soon!

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.

Close-Up on Our Latest Paper – Social Comparison Features in Physical Activity Apps: Scoping Meta-Review

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In a few of our recent posts, we (re)introduced you to the concept of social comparison and described our efforts to understand how it influences health and health behavior. CHASE lab’s newest paper is an extension of this previous work, focused on the potential to use social comparisons in physical activity interventions. This systematic scoping review of existing review papers is now published in Journal of Medical Internet Research.

A number of research studies show that social comparison can prompt people to be physically active. For example, when we see other people like us being more active than we are, this can motivate us to keep up with or do better than them, and that motivation can lead to activity engagement. We might also be motivated to stay ahead of people who we see as less active than we are. Evidence showing that social comparison can motivate physical activity has led researchers and app developers to include features such as leaderboards and challenges (competitions). These are included to prompt users to make comparisons, as comparisons should lead to increases in activity.

But people who study the effects of social comparisons understand that comparisons are not always motivating:

  • Seeing someone doing better than we are can be discouraging – it shows us that we’re not achieving as much as we could and that we’re being outperformed by others
  • Seeing someone doing worse than we are can show us the worst-case scenario – this can activate anxiety or a sense that effort is pointless

It’s not clear whether satisfaction, anxiety, hope, frustration, or some combination of these experiences is the best immediate consequence of comparison, because any of these experiences could motivate someone to increase their physical activity. And most importantly, the “optimal” consequence of a comparison can differ between people, and within the same person over time. (For more details about these ideas, see Dr. Arigo’s 2018 post for UCL’s Digi-Hub and her 2018 publication with Dr. Jerry Suls in mHealth.) So it’s pretty likely that just giving all users the same physical activity-based social comparison opportunities isn’t going to work equally well for all of them. This means that personalizing the social comparison features of apps might work better than what we’re currently doing.

What Did We Do?

One of our overarching research goals is to determine how best to harness the power of social comparison and other social processes to promote healthy behavior. For this project, which spanned more than a year of work, CHASE Lab teamed up with Dr. Jerry Suls, a longtime colleague and expert in social comparison processes and health. 

Because social comparison is a complicated process, we wanted to understand how apps currently prompt comparison. And because researchers have already published more than 100 reviews (or overviews/summaries) of physical activity app features and related topics, we took a step back to look at what’s already been done. We summarized how other researchers have defined, classified, and attempted to personalize social comparison features of physical activity apps, and compared these to evidence of attempts to engage or personalize other processes (such as goal-setting or feedback).

To do this, we began by developing inclusion criteria. Existing publications were eligible if they:

  1. Were available in English
  2. Were published on or before May 31, 2019
  3. Conducted a systematic or narrative review, or meta-analysis
  4. Reviewed the features of commercially available smartphone apps or included formal intervention programs delivered via smartphone apps 
  5. Used increasing physical activity or reducing sedentary time as a key behavioral outcome. 

We then searched publication databases such as PubMed using specific key terms, and pulled in any publications related to using smartphone apps for physical activity. Our initial search totaled in 3,743 articles. After removing duplicates and reviewing the remaining 1,496 publications, we were left with 26 reviews that met our inclusion criteria. Co-authors Megan Brown and Kristen Pasko then went through each review and extracted specific data points, such as whether the reviews included social comparison as a category, what they used as their definition of social comparison, and which features they classified as prompting comparison processes.

What Was It Like to Work on This Project?

This was my first time being a part of a systematic review project, and this experience has made me so much more appreciative of the work and time that goes into a paper like this. At first it was intimidating knowing we would have to code so many publications, but having a team that encouraged communication and questions made the process much easier. I also found it valuable being a part of the extraction process of the final 26 reviews, where we were able to gather all of this valuable information and answer some very important questions with it. I’m looking forward to seeing how our review contributes to future research aiming to use social comparison in physical activity apps.”

— Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Research Coordinator

“I’m grateful that Dr. Arigo invited me to assist with this project. By and large, when health psychologists have studied social comparison or tested a comparison intervention, there has been little recognition or appreciation of the nuances associated with comparison. It has been treated as a concept that can just be taken off the shelf. This scoping review confirms that impression and leads the way to testing social comparison interventions with more attention to the factors influencing comparison choice and outcomes. The physical activity apps context is really an excellent one to examine these issues. A very rewarding collaboration for me!”

— Dr. Jerry Suls, Northwell Health

This has been one of my passion projects for a long time – we even presented an early version of it at a conference in 2017! It went through several iterations and updates, and it seemed that there always was more to do before we had a final product. The author team did a great job of staying committed to the work and we really benefited from having Dr. Suls’s expertise. He and I have worked together for about 10 years on understanding social comparisons among adults with chronic illness, but social comparison features of apps were new to him. It was fun to be able to introduce him to this new area. The final version is something I’m really proud of. It ties together several lines of our work and t paves the way for our upcoming projects.”

— Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

What Did We Find?

Of the dozens of reviews we found, 26 met our criteria, and 8 of those included social comparison as a process underlying various app features. Across these 8 reviews, researchers used different definitions of social comparison and classified different features as using vs. not using comparison:

  • Definitions: some authors counted only features that allowed comparisons between users, rather than comparisons to experts like fitness instructors (this was called “modeling”); others allowed comparisons with anyone
  • Features: some authors counted only direct exposures to others’ data in a ranked format (leaderboards or challenges), whereas others counted any social networking (where users could share progress in other forms, such as via message boards); some were even more restrictive and counted challenges as “gamification” rather than comparison

Social comparison was described just as often as social networking (i.e., using message boards), but less often than behavioral modeling (i.e., providing examples of behavior engagement to encourage others to engage). And although we found evidence of personalizing features such as goal-setting and feedback, we found no evidence that (the potential for) personalization had been addressed with respect to social comparison features.

What Does This Mean?

Research is inconsistent about what constitutes social comparison in physical activity apps. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the utility or benefit of social comparison processes in these apps, or how to improve these features to make apps more effective. Further, existing work shows that people respond to social comparison differently (from each other and from themselves over time), but we found no evidence that physical activity apps have taken these differences into account. Together, this means that there is a huge opportunity to better understand how social comparison processes can be used to promote physical activity and other healthy behaviors – which is what CHASE Lab will continue to work on!

Close-Up on Our Newest Paper: Accelerometer Cut Point Methods for Midlife Women with Cardiovascular Risk Markers

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Our research team takes a specific interest in women who are between the ages of 40 and 60, a period often called “midlife.” Women in this age range have elevated age-related risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), are beginning menopause, and are experiencing health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol – all of which independently increase CVD risk. Therefore, midlife women have a lot to gain from physical activity, as it can protect against CVD even when other risk factors are present. So health professionals have spent a good bit of effort on promoting physical activity in this group. A focus has been on getting women to meet U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), or activity at an intensity that gets the heart rate up.

If you’re someone who tries to follow public health recommendations for physical activity (or you do research in the area of physical activity), you may be aware that recommendations changed last year. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services changed the way it defines MVPA. For several years prior to 2019, guidelines indicated that MVPA should happen in “bouts” (or episodes) sustained for at least 10 minutes at a time, and that adults should get 150 minutes of this kind of activity per week. The most recent report has removed the requirement that MVPA happen in 10-minute bouts, indicating that all MVPA is helpful for accruing health benefits. Although this is good news, as it means that shorter bouts of MVPA now count toward the 150-minute total, it raises important questions about population-level activity engagement. For example, most U.S. adults fail to meet the old guidelines; is that true now that shorter bouts count?

To make matters even more complicated, measurement of physical activity engagement isn’t entirely consistent across research studies. There are several methods for calculating whether activity reaches the threshold to be considered MVPA, and it’s not clear whether these methods give the same answers about how much time midlife women spend in MVPA. In other populations (such as among children and pregnant women), different methods give wildly different answers about how much MVPA participants get – differences of up to 100 minutes.

In our new publication (currently in press at Menopause), we took a closer look at two questions about midlife women’s MVPA:

(1)  How different are estimates of MVPA between considering only 10-minute bouts and considering all minutes?

(2)  How different are estimates of MVPA (bouted and all minutes) between different calculation methods?

What did we do?

We looked at four popular calculation (or “cut point”) methods for MVPA: Freedson et al. (1998), Swartz et al. (2000), Matthews et al. (2008), and Troiano et al. (2008) in two separate studies. The first was an observation-only study conducted by our CHASE team at The University of Scranton (before we moved to Rowan University in 2018), and the second was part of a weight loss clinical trial conducted by our collaborators at Drexel University’s WELL Center. This two-study approach allowed us to replicate our initial findings in a separate sample and confirm that findings were consistent across contexts.

What did we find?

In both studies, we met with midlife women at our research center for brief interviews, to train them in the use of a research-grade physical activity monitor to wear during waking hours for the following 7 days. Both studies showed that (1) using non-bouted (total) minutes of MVPA resulted in significantly more minutes than using 10-minute bouts only (across calculation methods), and (2) calculation methods meaningfully differed in the number of MVPA minutes they estimated (across non-bouted and bouted MVPA). Additionally, two of the methods (Freedson et al., and Troiano et al.) showed that midlife women did not meet MVPA recommendations using either bouts or not-bouts, while the other two methods (Matthews et al., and Swartz et al.) showed that midlife women met or exceeded MVPA recommendations if non-bouted minutes were considered.

What does this tell us?

Overall, our series of studies seems to be the first of its kind to focus on differences between cut point methods for physical activity among midlife women with elevated CVD risk, and to compare MVPA bouts with total (non-bouted) minutes. Findings suggested that using different cut points provide different answers, and researchers should keep in mind respective strengths and weaknesses of each method. This work is not only timely considering recent changes in physical activity recommendations, but also necessary for understanding how to estimate MVPA toward the goal of reducing CVD risk in midlife women.

What was it like to work on this study?

“It is amazing to think about how far the lab has come with various iterations of this [observational] study. When it first started, Dr. Arigo and I were at The University of Scranton running a pilot for our WHADE project, which is now in its full form. At this time, we were just beginning to learn the ins and outs of recruiting through primary care. I still remember being excited at the thought of getting any experience in this setting. This was my first research experience recruiting outside of the college population. It was thrilling to be recruiting those out in the community, trying to meet people where they were. ”

– Kristen Pasko, CHASE Lab Member

“Collaborating with Dr. Arigo and her team at Rowan University was an incredible experience. I processed some of the accelerometers from Drexel University that were used as part of this larger study. Working on this project allowed me to see the research process through from start to finish, from assisting with analyzing the raw data to the writing of the manuscript. Before this project, I had never worked on research specifically relevant to the question of women’s health and physical activity. It was a pleasure to work with Dr. Arigo and her students to answer such an important research question that has clear clinical implications for how women are advised to engage in physical activity.”

–  Savannah Roberts, Former research coordinator at Drexel’s WELL Center (current Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh)

“This was a pretty large project that involved a number of team members, for two different studies, across three different universities (including Rowan, Drexel, and Penn State). So it took a lot of open communication and teamwork to bring the project together and communicate what we found. Our group was fantastic and stayed focused on learning what we could from the project. It’s been fun and rewarding to do this work and see it published in a journal that focuses on women’s health.”

– Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab director

Next Steps

If you follow our posts, you’ll remember that recently, we summarized our review of studies that assess social comparison using within-person methods – those that capture comparisons repeatedly for the same person over days or weeks. This review and the physical activity study described in this post was designed to help us make informed decisions about how to estimate midlife women’s physical activity in our women’s health study, which is running now. The goal of this work is to understand the circumstances that contribute to changes in midlife women’s physical activity from day to day, and ultimately, to design better activity interventions for midlife women. Stay tuned as we work toward these goals!

A Look at Our Latest Paper: Social Predictors of Change in Physical Activity among College Women

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Our new paper in Psychology of Sport and Exercise takes a look at associations between within-person change in perceptions of the social environment and physical activity in college women. This project began in 2016 at The University of Scranton and involved several undergraduate research assistants, including current CHASE Lab Ph.D. student Kristen Pasko (who went on to coordinate data collection). The final product represents a collaboration with Dr. Jacqueline Mogle of Penn State’s ReMind Lab.

Based on our previous work with college women (see here, for example), we were interested in how daily changes in these women’s appraisals of their social experiences (i.e., positive vs. negative social interactions and social comparisons) might be associated with changes in their activity (i.e., steps and moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, or MVPA). College women who were not student athletes and did not use technology to track their activity were asked to complete a baseline survey and attend an initial face-to-face training session. For the following 7 days, they wore Fitbit Flex wristbands to allow for activity monitoring and completed a survey online each night to assess their social experiences. See our infographic for description of social interactions and social comparisons:

What Was It Like to Run This Study?

“Working on this study provided me the opportunity to contribute to the evolution of a study from recruitment to dissemination, as I worked on various pieces as an undergraduate research assistant, research coordinator, and now Ph.D. student. One of the most rewarding aspects was the clinical research experience gained through interacting with participants, discussing their physical activity and setting them up with an activity monitor. This prepared me for my current work in integrated healthcare settings, which includes recruiting participants from a primary care clinic and working with them in our new studies.”

— Kristen Pasko, CHASE Lab Ph.D. student

“We’re really grateful to the women who participated. They were incredibly diligent, which means that we ended up with very little missing data! This is so helpful when it comes time to run statistical tests, and we can be much more confident in our conclusions if we aren’t missing a lot of information.

One of the things we learned through recruitment and data collection is that the college women who participated are getting a good amount of physical activity overall – during the weeks that they were in the study, at least. This is encouraging, though we need to do more to learn about college women who are less active, and how we can help them get more activity. And our findings show that even among college women who get a good bit of activity overall, there is important day-to-day fluctuation in their activity, and their social experiences may help explain why.”

— Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab director

What Did We Find?

Using multilevel modeling techniques, we found that increases in positive interactions per day (above a woman’s typical level of positive interactions) were associated with increases in steps per day. However, increases in negative interactions per day – particularly those with friends – were more strongly and consistently associated with decreases in activity (steps and MVPA). Days with health-based social comparisons, such as perceiving someone else to be healthier than they were, were days with decreases in activity, but only for women with low interest in comparisons – for those with high interest in comparisons, days with health-based comparisons were days in increases in activity. Contrary to previous research among college women with body image concerns, there was no association between appearance-based comparisons and activity.

What Does This Tell Us?

  • Days with negative interactions and health-based comparisons (for some women) are days when college women are at risk of decreasing their activity.
  • These decreases may be due to negative emotions or demotivation for activity prompted by negative social experiences.
  • Days with these experiences are opportunities for intervention, to prevent decreases in activity.

Next Steps

Dr. Arigo presenting our new preliminary findings at SBM 2019

We’re now on our second study designed to learn more about the temporal relations between social experiences and physical activity. To do this, we ask our participants to wear research-grade activity monitors and complete 5 surveys per day for 10 days. In these studies, however, we recruit adult women with elevated risk for cardiovascular disease; our goal is to identify key moments of opportunity for intervention among these women, and to design a smartphone app to deliver this intervention. We presented preliminary findings from data collected at The University of Scranton at this year’s Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) annual meeting, and we’re now collecting data at Rowan University. An important observation from this preliminary work is that we see some of the same relations between social experiences and physical activity among adult women with cardiovascular risk!

We’re still working to learn more about these relations in college women, and we hope to be able to compare their experiences to those of college men in the near future. Our current work in this area focuses on responses to #fitspiration images on Instagram.

Stay tuned for more on this and our other research!

Meet @RowanCHASELab: Interview with Megan Brown

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Megan Brown, B.S. is the Research Coordinator (RC) for the CHASE Lab. She was interviewed by Kristen Pasko, B.S., a first-year Ph.D. student in clinical psychology.MB Interview

@RowanChaseLab: Let’s start off with the basics. Would you mind telling us about your undergraduate experience at Rowan and how you were introduced to psychological research?

MB: I was actually a biology major my first semester at Rowan, and I just didn’t feel as passionate about it. I was taking essentials of psychology at the time and found it extremely interesting and decided to try out psychology. Turns out I loved it, and when I took my research methods course I became extremely interested in research and decided to find a lab to get involved in. That’s when I realized I wanted to focus on psychology but with more of an emphasis on research, and decided to switch to a B.S. in psychological science and minor in neuroscience.

@RowanChaseLabContinuing with that theme, we know you previously worked in other Rowan research labs. What was that like?

MB: It was great, and gave me a more thorough understanding of how to actually conduct research. I was in Dr. Angelone’s lab, where we focused more on attention and visual processes. With the help of another student in lab, we ended up developing a study on distracted pedestrian crosswalk behaviors, and I am currently working on a manuscript with Dr. Angelone. I was also given the chance to develop and run a study in my advanced research course with Dr. Abrams, where we evaluated social physique anxiety in college students who go to the gym.

@RowanChaseLabHow does this experience relate to your specific research interests? How have they changed since then?

MB: Well my specific research interests revolve around mental health; specifically depression and anxiety. I have always been very physically active, playing sports my whole life and going to the gym. so I knew I had an interest in mental and physical health. I just didn’t know how to combine them. So when I got to do the study on anxiety and the gym I started to realize this would be the path I would like to take. My interests have only changed a little since then, where now I am also interested in stress and social influences. I reflected on the work I did with Dr. Angelone and Dr. Abrams and realized both have social factors that influence an individual’s behavior.

@RowanChaseLabWhat initially got you excited to work in the CHASE lab as our RC?

MB: I would definitely say the research topics are what got me excited initially, along with the chance to build my research skills and gain more experience. I saw the lab focused on health behaviors and social influences which was right up my alley. I also want to go into a Ph.D. program eventually, so I knew having the job of a research coordinator would help prepare me for that experience.

@RowanChaseLabWhat do you suspect you will be spending most of your time this year? What can we expect of any independent work you might be doing?

MB: Most of my time will be divided among the various projects we have going on. My role is to oversee recruitment, participant communication, data collection, and data entry for two large projects – one with students and one with midlife women. Along with that, I will also be spending time as a mentor for our research assistants and working on developing more as a researcher. As far as independent work goes, I am in the process of working with Dr. Arigo and Dr. Greeson on a study involving stress, sleep, and anxiety in participants who went through a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. I am also working with Dr. Angelone on a manuscript for the crosswalk study we did. So a lot of exciting projects going on right now!

@RowanChaseLabAny important lessons you’ve already learned already as an RC?

MB: Oh yes! Organization and taking notes is everything. As a research coordinator I am retaining a lot of information, not just about my own schedule, but about others schedules, projects, etc. so it is crucial to write everything down and have a very organized system for keeping track.

@RowanChaseLabLastly, what is something you want to do or are excited to learn about while working in the CHASE lab?

MB: Something I would like to do while working in the CHASE lab is enhancing my clinical experience. I know I will have the chance to work with participants in person, so being able to learn the skills needed in order to convey what our study is about and build a trusting relationship is something I am very excited to learn.

Research Coordinator Position at Rowan University

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Fit5

Research Coordinator
Clinical Health And Social Experiences (CHASE) Lab
Rowan University

Application deadline: May 11, 2018

Start Date: September 1, 2018

Are you looking for an exciting opportunity to hone your skills in behavioral science research? Come work with the new Clinical Health And Social Experiences (CHASE) Lab at Rowan University! The CHASE Lab is hiring a full-time research coordinator. This position will provide opportunities to interact with research participants, collaborate with graduate and undergraduate students in clinical/health psychology, and receive mentoring to prepare for future graduate study in clinical/health psychology or a related field.

The research coordinator position will be under the direction of Danielle Arigo, Ph.D., who is joining Rowan from The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania (http://www.scranton.edu/faculty/arigod/index.shtml). Dr. Arigo’s research investigates social influences on health and health behavior, physical activity promotion, and weight control, particularly in the area of women’s health. This research emphasizes the development and optimization of digital health tools, including mobile health apps, wearable physical activity trackers, and social media platforms.

The coordinator’s primary responsibilities will be related to project management for an NIH-funded clinical trial (e.g., budget management; preparing and updating reports for NIH and IRB; managing participant recruitment, enrollment, and scheduling). Additional activities will include data management, training and supervision of research assistants, and contributing to the preparation of manuscripts and conference presentations. Previous experience with these tasks in the context of physical activity, weight control, women’s health, and/or digital health is desirable, and the coordinator will have the opportunity to improve skills in each of these areas.

Candidates should have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related area; coursework and/or work experience related to clinical research is preferred. Experience with using social media (particularly Twitter) in a professional or organizational capacity is desirable. Reliable transportation and some early morning/evening hours are required.

To apply, submit a CV and a one-page cover letter describing your preparation for this position to arigo@rowan.edu by May 11, 2018. Questions about the position can be directed to this email address.

 

Research News, April 2018

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It’s an exciting time for @UofSHealthPsych! We have several announcements to share, all related to our clinical health psychology research:

1) If you follow us, then you know that we have multiple active lines of research related to promoting healthy behavior. Our goals are to understand the psychological and social experiences that influence health behaviors in the natural environment, and use this information to improve health behavior interventions. We have multiple papers coming out in 2018 that pursue these goals: two related to Type 2 Diabetes outcomes, one on the role of calorie labeling of restaurant-type foods in grocery stores, one on recommendations for using social media in health research, and several on the role of social comparisons in behavioral weight loss treatment. Each of these topics will get some air time on this site in the coming months, so stay tuned!

2) In March 2018, our research on determinants and interventions to promote midlife women’s physical activity received a prestigious grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (National Institutes of Health). This funding will allow us to hire team members, recruit participants, work with state-of-the-art assessment technology, and develop a digital health tool tailored to the needs of midlife women. We’re off to a great start with related projects, and the whole team has been involved in activities such as coding literature and preparing abstracts for conferences. Read more about the grant here.

3) We’ll be at the Society of Behavioral Medicine annual meeting (SBM, April 11-14) and the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media conference (May 18) sharing our recent and developing findings. At SBM, you can find us at #SBM2018 and:

  • Thursday’s Behavioral Informatics and Technology SIG “Tech Madness” and Middday Business meetings – 7:00am and 10:45am, respectively
  • Thursday’s evening poster session, presenting on relations between social media use and health behaviors (Kristen Pasko) and perceptions of the #fitspiration trend on Instagram (Sabrina DiBisceglie) – 6:15pm
  • Friday’s Women’s Health SIG morning panel on science communication (Dr. Arigo) – 7:00am
  • Friday’s morning paper session on Social Media and Broadcast Messaging for Health (Dr. Arigo) – 10:45am
  • Friday’s afternoon symposium on Understanding and Harnessing Social Influences on Women’s Health Behaviors: Social Perceptions, Stigma, and Social Modeling (Dr. Arigo) – 2:00pm

4) This summer, @UofSHealthPsych is moving to Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. We’re taking our website, Twitter account, and research along for the ride, so please check for updates as we transition to our new home.

Thanks for following our progress and exciting news! We’ll be back with an SBM 2018 review post in two weeks.