Tuesday, December 1, 2009

DON’T BE HAPPY, BE WORRIED: SPORTS FANS NEED DOSE OF NEGATIVE

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Researchers studied fans of two college football teams as they watched the teams’ annual rivalry game on television.

They found that fans of the winning team who, at some point during the game, were almost certain their team would lose, ended up thinking the game was the most thrilling and suspenseful.

“You don’t want to be in a great mood during the whole game if you really want to enjoy it,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“We found that negative emotions play a key role in how much we enjoy sports.”

The study will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Communication.

Researchers studied 113 college students as they watched the 2006 football game between the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines. While the game has always been a bitter rivalry, the stakes were particularly high that year: Ohio State was ranked number one in the country and Michigan was ranked number two, with the winner going to the national championship game.

Ohio State ended up winning the game 42-39, in a dramatic finish.

“Ohio State was winning easily in the first half, but the good thing for our study was that Michigan really tightened the game in the second half. It turned out to be a great game,” said Prabu David, study co-author and associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

Students from Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University participated in the study. Before the game, they completed questionnaires about which team they were rooting for, and how committed they were to their favorite team.

They then watched the game on television from wherever they wanted, and logged onto a website during the 24 commercial breaks to answer questions about the likelihood that their favorite team would win, how suspenseful they thought the game was, and how positively or negatively they were feeling at the moment.

The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game.

“When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn’t always mean positive emotions,” David said.

“Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion.”

Results showed that positive feelings during the game had the greatest effect on suspense, but negative feelings also played a substantial role.

In the past, researchers have thought of positive and negative emotions experienced in entertainment as cancelling each other out, David said. But this research suggests that both positive and negative emotions act independently and together to contribute to entertainment and enjoyment.

“You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state.”

That’s why the fans of the winning team – in this case, Ohio State – who felt the most sense of enjoyable suspense were also those who at some point were most convinced their team would lose, she said.

As expected, the study found that participants who said they were fans of one of the teams also found the game more suspenseful than those who had no strong allegiance.

However, the intensity of fan commitment did not matter in terms of how much suspense viewers felt during the game. In other words, viewers who considered themselves “super fans” because of how committed they were to their team and how long they supported their team, did not find the game any more suspenseful than did less committed fans of the team.

There was no difference between Ohio State and Michigan supporters in terms of how suspenseful they thought the game was, which was expected given the closeness of the game.

David said the results of this study closely followed those of a previous study he did with colleagues that examined fan reaction during the 2006 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks.

The results of that study also showed the importance of negative feelings in contributing to how much fans enjoyed the game.

“Obviously, winning helps people enjoy a game. But we’re finding that it doesn’t help to have a game where you have positive feelings the whole game – negative feelings are an important part of enjoying a game,” he said.

While some people may question the purpose of studying fan reactions to a football game, the researchers say the study has important implications.

For one, sports provides a unique opportunity to study how emotions operate in people.

“Researchers want to study the impact of emotions, but it is very difficult to create powerful emotional reactions in a laboratory setting,” David said.

“This is a study that was done in the real world, and we can get a snapshot into a person’s emotional state while they are actually experiencing the emotion. Sports creates emotions that are very powerful, and which matter to people.”

In addition, regardless of what people think about it, sports and entertainment is a big business in America and around the world.

“We need to better understand how people use entertainment in their lives, and what value they are getting from it,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “This study is just one step in that process.”

(Photo: OSU)

Ohio State University

ANCIENT HIGH-ALTITUDE TREES GROW FASTER AS TEMPERATURES RISE

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Increasing temperatures at high altitudes are fueling the post-1950 growth spurt seen in bristlecone pines, the world's oldest trees, according to new research.

Pines close to treeline have wider annual growth rings for the period from 1951 to 2000 than for the previous 3,700 years, reports a University of Arizona-led research team. Regional temperatures have increased, particularly at high elevations, during the same 50-year time period.

Treeline is the zone, at high altitude or high latitude, beyond which no trees grow.

"We're showing this increased growth rate at treeline in a number of locations," said Matthew W. Salzer, a research associate at UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. "It's unique in several millennia, and it's related specifically to treeline."

Bristlecone pines live for thousands of years on dry, windswept, high-elevation mountain slopes in the western U.S. The scientists collected and analyzed tree rings from Great Basin bristlecone pines located in three mountain ranges in eastern California and Nevada that are separated by hundreds of miles.

Only trees growing within about 500 feet (150 meters) of treeline showed the surge in growth. In general, those trees were at or above about 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) in elevation.

"You can come downslope less than 200 vertical meters and sample the same species of tree, and it won't show the same wide band of growth," Salzer said.

Growth at the pines' upper elevational range is limited by cold temperatures. At the lower elevations, growth of the trees is limited by moisture more than temperature, Salzer said.

Co-author Malcolm K. Hughes said, "Something very unusual is happening at high elevations, and this is one more piece of evidence for that." One other example, he said, was the accelerated melting of small glaciers at high altitudes.

"There is increasingly rapid warming in western North America," said Hughes, a UA Regents' Professor of dendrochronology. "The higher you go, the faster it's warming. We think our finding may be part of that whole phenomenon."

Individual Great Basin bristlecone pines, Pinus longaeva, are the longest-living organisms known. The trees live at an elevation range of approximately 8,200 to 11,400 feet (about 2,500 to 3,500 meters). The oldest known living bristlecone, almost 5,000 years old, is in California's White Mountains.

The trees' longevity coupled with the excellent preservation of trunks from even older dead trees has allowed some scientists to reconstruct regional climate 8,000 years into the past using tree-ring records from bristlecone pines.

The recent rapid growth of three species of pines at elevations close to treeline had been noticed more than 25 years ago by previous researchers from UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. The sudden growth surge was puzzling in trees hundreds to thousands of years old, well past adolescence.

"It means there has been some environmental change that affected the trees' ability to make wood," Salzer said. "The place they were living wasn't as limiting to their growth anymore."

Salzer and his colleagues wanted to study trees whose growth was strongly affected by temperature.

"Where do you go to look for trees where ring width is related to temperature? You look for trees in high mountain ranges, where the mountain continues up and the trees don't follow," Salzer said. "As you go up, the main thing that's changing in these places is temperature."

Salzer and his colleagues chose to extend the previous research efforts. The scientists used the previous researchers' data and also took new bristlecone pine cores to increase the number of samples available for analysis.

The team analyzed the average and median width of tree rings for 50-year blocks of time, starting with the latter half of the 20th century, the years 1951 to 2000, and going backward in time to 2650 B.C. The analysis spans more than 4,600 years.

To see how the annual growth rings changed with temperature, the team used a new method of mapping climate data called PRISM that was unavailable to researchers 25 years ago.

PRISM combines weather records and knowledge of how topography affects weather and climate to provide state-of-the-art climate information going back 100 years for specific locations. PRISM stands for Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model.

The tree-ring researchers found that the chronological timing of the wider tree rings correlates with increasing temperatures from the PRISM climate map.

Hughes said that increasing temperatures high in the mountains could have significant effects elsewhere. In many areas of the western U.S., mountains are a key source of water for farms and urban areas at lower elevations.

"If the snow melts earlier, the mountains won't be able to hold onto water for as long," Hughes said. "They won't be as effective as water towers for us."

The same pattern of high-elevation growth increases has also been observed in Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines, including those found in Arizona's San Francisco Peaks, Salzer said. He plans to expand the research to investigate high-altitude trees at additional locations.

(Photo: Copyright 2002 Malcolm K. Hughes)

University of Arizona

SOME OF US MAY BE BORN MORE EMPATHETIC, NEW STUDY SUGGESTS

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Could it be that the generous Mother Teresa and the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” were influenced by their genes? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found compelling evidence that people who are more empathetic possess a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene.

All humans inherit a variation of this gene or "allele" from each parent. The UC Berkeley study looked at the three combinations of gene variations of the oxytocin receptor. The most empathetic – able to get an accurate read on others' emotions – had two copies of the "G allele." In contrast, members of the AA and AG allele groups were found to be less capable of putting themselves in the shoes of others and more likely to get stressed out in difficult situations.

“This is the first study to suggest that a tendency to be more empathetic and stress reactive than others may be influenced by a single gene,” said Sarina Rodrigues, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University and co-author of the study along with UC Berkeley psychology graduate student Laura Saslow.

Published in the November 16 online issue of the journal Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings support other research showing that oxytocin plays a major role in countering stress. Previous studies have also linked this genetic variation with autism and parenting styles, Rodrigues said.

Informally known as the "cuddle" or “love” hormone, oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, bonding and romantic love, among other functions. It is also key to procreation, activating uterine contractions during childbirth and lactation for breastfeeding.

But while nature might have given some of us the DNA to be more empathetic, those who are not in the GG group should not despair, Rodrigues said. “There are plenty of people in the AA or AG gene pool who are empathetic, caring individuals,” said Rodrigues, who is not a double G but counts herself as caring and empathetic.

If you know you’re not in the GG group, you might just have to work harder at making social connections, she said.

In the study of some 200 young men and women of diverse ethnicities, participants, who provided DNA samples, filled out questionnaires that gauged their levels of empathy and their ability to read emotions displayed in eye expressions. Those with the GG variation were better at reading eye expressions than their AA and AG counterparts.

Participants were also were given stress reactivity tests, including one that measured their heart rate as they awaited loud blasts of noise. While female participants were found overall to be more sensitive to stress, both men and women in the GG group maintained a lower heart rate in the face of the sound blasts.

While the findings might inspire science fiction musings about genetic screening for caring professions or even for sociopaths, they point to positive applications, Rodrigues said,

“Not everyone is going to be a touchy-feely person,” Rodrigues said. “We should reach out to people who aren’t because research shows it’s better for everyone to be socially connected.”

UC Berkeley

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