Monthly Archives: September 2016

Suffering from Depression is Pointless


By David Palmiter, PhD (Psychology Professor, Marywood University)

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us and sometimes they win.

Stephen King

October 6th is National Depression Screening Day. This day affords the opportunity to receive a free, anonymous and confidential screen for a mood disorder. Some statistics to keep in mind:

  • About 15.7 million American adults suffered from depression in 2014.
  • Suicide is the 3rdleading cause of death among young people ages 10-24.
  • Depression has a higher mortality rate than cardiac disease.
  • Depression causes more days off from work than any other medical disease.
  • The large majority of people suffering from depression do not get effective care, even though evidence-based treatments yield impressive results.

What would we conclude about our culture if the same statistics were true regarding our dental health? It’s sort of hard to imagine, isn’t it: dental health problems are common, destructive and usually treatable but only a small percentage of people receive said healing treatment. Images of us walking around with our knuckles dragging on the ground would come to mind. Yet, this is the reality regarding our collective mental health. Let’s vow to combat this state of affairs. Let’s agree that such a reality is stupid and beneath us. October 6th affords an opportunity to walk the talk that our mental health matters and that we deserve to live lives filled with joy and meaning.

Those attending a screening event can typically count on being greeted by a gracious person and asked to complete a form. No identifying information is requested and no fee is charged. Participants fill out the form, wait a little (so the form can be reviewed), and then meet with a mental health professional in a confidential space. The primary goal is to figure out whether further evaluation might be worthwhile but there is usually time to discuss other matters as well. Screening sites also typically provide referral information and education materials.

Referring back to the Stephen King quote, depression is a lying, liar that lives within its victim’s mind. It sings dirges such as,

“Everything is terrible. It’s all your fault and none of it can be changed.”

“You’ll never feel better again.”

“You suck and have no purpose.”

Depression’s end game is the death of its victim. But, on 10/6/16, an army of lean-mean-healing-machines will be available to help all those who may be so afflicted to begin the process of understanding and healing.

Please do yourself a favor if you are struggling with your mood, and take the brave and wise step to get screened. And, if you have a friend or a loved one who might benefit, ask that person to keep you company as you get screened. Such an act of kindness portends to open a door to transformative change. To find a screening site in your location, click here. For additional resources on fighting depression, visit the APA Help Center.


Dr. David Palmiter is a psychology professor at Marywood University and a private practitioner. He is a fellow of APA, The American Academy of Clinical Psychology and the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (PPA). He is also a past president of PPA, a frequent consultant to the media and a blogger. An author of multiple scholarly papers, his two books are Working parents, thriving families: 10 Strategies that make a difference and Practicing cognitive behavioral therapy with children and adolescents: A Guide for students and early career professionals. His website is at; his blog can be found at and his Twitter moniker is @HelpingParents.

Image source: Graţiela Dumitrică via Flickr Creative Commons

Filed under: Health and Wellness Tagged: depression, depression prevention, depression screening, mental health, National Depression Screening Day, screening, suicide prevention

9 Ways to Talk to Your Kids about the 15th Anniversary of September 11


By Robin Gurwitch, PhD

The assassination of John F. Kennedy. The explosion of the Challenger. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There are few events in our nation’s history that have made an impact on all of us. Like most adults (and even older children and teens), I remember where I was when I first learned about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember the discussion with my daughter, then 11, when she came home from school that day. We spent time discussing what happened, correcting misunderstandings, and talking through her worries and concerns. Much time was spent reassuring her of her safety and mine.

Children and teens have grown up in a world changed forever by these attacks. They have little or no memory of the United States not involved in the wars which followed the attacks. Media coverage of large-scale tragedies, including coverage of anniversaries of such events, can lead to emotional stress for some children and teens. The intensive 15th anniversary coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11 may produce such distress.

Teenagers may have new questions about these events, particularly in light of recent terrorist attacks around the world. Young children may have questions for the first time as they watch or hear about this important anniversary. As the attacks have resulted in a war that is ongoing, more questions, worries, and new concerns may be raised. Finally, although the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, has been killed, new conversations about ISIS and other terrorist organizations have taken his place in discussions about terrorism. Children may strive to understand how these events impact the future.

Parents and other caregivers provide a source of stability, comfort, and love in difficult times. As we reflect, remember, and commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, here are some tips to help your children as you watch coverage and talk to each other about the 9/11 15th anniversary.


1. Talk about it

Children may have many questions about what they are seeing and hearing related to the events of September 11 and the aftermath. For young children, they may not know what happened, except in large brushstrokes. For teenagers, they have grown up with 9/11 being a central part of their history.

  • Start the conversation—ask your children what they are thinking and about any concerns or questions they may have about the anniversary and resulting events.
  • If you make the first move in this conversation, your children and teens know you are comfortable talking about difficult topics. Even if they say they are not interested in talking, the fact that you are willing is what’s important. Continue to check in with your children. Believe it or not, taking the first step may lead to other talks about difficult events in your children’s lives now and in the future.
  • Check in to see what is being discussed at school and with friends. Be aware of how your child(ren)’s school will commemorate the 15th Knowing in advance can help led the conversation and help you to be more sensitive to your child(ren)’s worries and concerns as well as their desires to help to make a difference.

Many young children at the time of the attacks are now young adults. Parents should reach out to them as well. Just because they may no longer live at home does not mean they would not benefit from your support and an opportunity to talk about this event and what it means to them.

As you talk about this anniversary, also discuss where we are as a nation. Discuss how we can commemorate and continue to move forward, together. Our nation continues to change. As we reflect on this 15th anniversary, consider what beliefs and values about how we treat others you wish to share with your children and teens. Consider how hatred was the impetus for the terrorist attacks and discuss how you would like to see this change in today’s world.


2. Reassure

As you talk about the events of 9/11, remembering and commemorating this anniversary, assure children of all ages about what is being done to keep our country safe from future attacks. Take this opportunity to talk about your family’s emergency plans (or to make a plan), assuring them that in a crisis, your primary concern will be their safety and protection.


3. Be observant

Although it has been 15 years, the events of 9/11 changed our nation and the world. With the intensive coverage and discussion of the September 11th events and the anniversary, some children, may have increased distress.


  • Be mindful of any behavior changes you notice in your children. Reactions to stressful events include mood swings, increased irritability, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, and problems with attention and concentration.
  • Young children may be more demanding, regress in their behaviors, and act younger than their age; teens may be more withdrawn as well as impulsive. As routine returns, these behavior and emotional changes will likely subside within a short time, however, if prolonged, it’s important that you to seek professional support and counseling.
  • Even if children were not directly impacted by the attacks, coverage of this event may bring up losses that children may have experienced in their lives, “triggering” emotional distress.
  • Military children may have experienced parental deployment(s) in the last 15 years. Coverage of the anniversary is likely to include discussion of the wars resulting from the terrorist attacks. For these children, stressors associated with deployment(s) may arise. If concerned, parents should consult their pediatrician or mental health professional, not just for the child, but also for the entire family.

4. Be patient

Stress, as we think back to the events 15 years ago, not only affects our children, but it affects adults, too. We need to be a little more patient with ourselves and with our children. Children are masters at reading our moods and our distress. It is ok to share with them, at a level they can understand, our memories, and our progress for ourselves and for our country. A little extra attention, particularly when they do something well (e.g., chores, homework, get along with siblings) will also go a long way.


5. Connect

When I reflect on 9/11, I remember reaching out to my family and friends, both near and far. I know this was true for most of us. Children and teens feel most secure and are most resilient when they have connections with others. One of the best connections is a strong bond with you.


  • Take time to engage in activities with your child. This can be anything from reading a bedtime story with your child to reviewing the day with your tween or teen or even cooking together. Help your child maintain other important connections such as time with friends, extracurricular activities, and involvement in school activities.
  • This is also a time to consider connections with the larger community. Consider how you and your family want to mark this anniversary. It may be with an act of kindness toward others, including first responders who help on a daily basis or toward members of our military and veteran community who support our country’s freedoms. At anniversaries, communities and faith-based organizations often sponsor events; check these out! Discuss with your children how they may want to commemorate and make a difference on this anniversary and in the future. Validate your children’s ideas and see if you can incorporate them into your activities.
  • Reach out again. Reach out to family and friends. Reaffirm or restore connections.


6. Limit TV time

The deluge of images that will be replayed as the media marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks can easily overwhelm children and teens, especially younger children.


  • Be sure to let the youngest children know that the footage on the news and the internet is being replayed, and the disaster is not happening over and over again.
  • In fact, for young children, exposure to coverage is recommended to be extremely limited.
  • For older children and teens, it is best to watch coverage together and talk about concerns and answer any questions. This is a way to begin the conversation, to discuss the history of the attacks and how it has shaped our world. Review how far you have come.
  • Remember, tweens and teens may gather much information from social media sites. Talk to them about what they are “hearing” from peers. As you talk, gently correct any misinformation and misperceptions.


7. Show compassion, tolerance, and respect

Use the events depicted on the news as a platform from which to teach the importance of compassion and charity.


  • Help children to develop tolerance and respect for others. This can result in a decrease in bullying behaviors in schools and an increase for respecting diversity in general.
  • In the face of recent events in our country and around the world, hatred and intolerance, and fear seem to be on the rise. But, this does not have to be the case.
    • For Muslim families, children may face hatred and intolerance more so than other children, particularly now. Unfortunately, Islamophobia seems to be on the rise. The 9/11 anniversary may exacerbate this. Families can address this directly with their children and teens. Check-in to see how this unfounded fear is impacting them at school, in activities, and with friends. Discuss and even practice what children and teens can say should someone bully or belittle them or their religion. Most importantly, they need to know that they do not have to face this alone. You are there for support—You have their backs. As parents, you also do not have to address this alone. Talk to school administrators, your faith-based leaders, and reach out to community leadership about how these issues are being addressed. Just because it exists, does not mean it should continue or that there is nothing to be done to change it.
  • In the aftermath of all events, we see acts of kindness, heroic and selfless actions, and support for each other. Share these stories from 9/11, too.
  • Again, this anniversary presents an opportunity to share your beliefs, values, and hopes for how we treat each other and our vision of the future.
  • Your children will also have ideas of how to promote these ideals. Listen and support these—you may be surprised at what they have to offer!


8. Maintain routine 

No matter what else is happening in the world, routine is important to children of any age. They need the opportunity to play and to interact with other children. Friendships in the teen years are extremely important to their development; incorporating opportunities to spend time with friends into weekly routines can build important connections. Routine is important in the classroom and at home. Routine helps to provide a sense of stability for children, a feeling important after a crisis occurs or as they watch news about a crisis event.


9. Volunteer together


All children gain a sense of control, security, and empathy when they help others, and in the midst of crisis, they really can emerge as active agents of positive change. Encourage them to help support local charities and crisis relief efforts as you remember, reflect, and commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11. Or better yet, join them in doing so! Communities, faith-based organizations, and national charities often sponsor activities for families to become a part of the giving. Be a role model. Discuss together how these activities can make a difference.


Special Consideration:


In the aftermath of September 11, thousands of children lost a parent. In the years since, more parents have died who may have helped in some way on that fateful day and in the weeks afterward. These children have grown up “in the shadow” of 9/11. Their traumatic loss was a national loss. Their grief, a shared grief. Yet, they also needed to grieve their loved ones, out of the public eye. They needed to cope and to adjust to life without a parent. There are no “rules” of how to do this. Goals, choices, and world views may have been significantly shaped by 9/11. Take time to discuss these. Guilt about actions taken or not taken are common in the aftermath of traumatic deaths. Hopefully, children directly impacted by the attacks have had support to cope with any reactions, their grief, and guilt.

Many children had parents who were also changed forever by their involvement in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. For all of these children and adolescents, 9/11 has also shaped who they have become and goals they may set for their future. As the anniversary is covered, and stories and images repeated, these adolescents and young adults may experience stress reactions as before, but this time, hopefully, with support from loved ones, it will not be as difficult.

I think about my friend, an EMS responder in NYC. She gave her all at Ground Zero, and continued to do so. She also worked to help her two young children cope with the aftermath of these events. Like others, health concerns have developed. Like others, anniversaries bring memories. Like others, she also takes time to hug her children a bit more and to reflect on changes and progress over the years. She shares her story. She is one of thousands whose lives changed on 9/11. I thank her for what she did and I commend her for where she is now.


After a traumatic event, many, particularly those impacted, strive to make meaning of the tragedy. Following 9/11, thousands of children had a parent killed or injured. More have experienced life changes due to the terrorist attacks. Over two million children have experienced parental deployment(s). Consider with your children, teens, and young adults how they have made meaning of what happened. How has their “life narrative” changed? For example, a son of a first responder killed in 9/11, pursued a career like his father and is now a first responder. Meaning making is unique for each person, but it can be an important part of the healing process.


For those directly impacted by the terrorist attacks, know that services remain available for families. Never be afraid or embarrassed to reach out—they can make an important difference (even 15 years later). For families who received services, know that this anniversary may bring up thoughts and feelings that seemed to have been resolved. This is common. It is ok to reach out again for support. This anniversary may also give rise to renewed commitments, strengths, hopes, and dreams for a brighter future ahead.


As I write, I have many emotions and thoughts that rise to the surface. These attacks changed me and I acknowledge these changes. I became part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and reaffirmed my involvement in the American Red Cross and the American Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network. I shifted much of my professional work to focus on how to improve family relationships in our military families coping with deployments and renewed my resolve to support our understanding of how disasters, including the impact of terrorism on children. I made new friendships that have lasted for 15 years. Finally, on this 15th Anniversary, I will FaceTime with my daughter. I will reach out to family and friends near and far. I will reach out to say, “I love you” and “I’m glad to have you as a part of my life.” Together, we will reflect on where we were and where we have come. And, we will talk about what we hope for our future.

Related Resources:



Dr. Robin Gurwitch has been involved in understanding the impact of terrorism and disasters on children since the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, providing direct service, training, and conducting research. She is a member of the APA Disaster Resource Network, American Red Cross, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Dr. Gurwitch was recently appointed to the HHS National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters.


Image source: Flickr user Josh Liba via Creative Commons

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: 9/11 anniversary, children and media, children's mental health, media, parenting, September 11, trauma

“I’m Not Just Black!”: Exploring Intersections of Identity

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By Faye Z. Belgrave, PhD (Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University) and Sarah J. Javier, MS (Doctoral Candidate, Virginia Commonwealth University)

Through a very complete body of research, the field of psychology has established that a person’s identity is composed of several different parts. However, psychological research projects often only focus on one or two aspects of identity. As we move towards a more complete picture of human behavior, we must remember to keep in mind that the intersections of identity are a vital piece of that picture.

“Intersectionality” is a term that is coming to the forefront in psychological research. It encompasses race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and other intersecting, categorical dimensions that describe groups of people. For example, think about different parts of your identity. You may describe yourself as a single, older, African American female who makes a modest income. Or perhaps you are a young, White male who identifies as gay. These different parts of our identities make us who we are, and professionals interested in intersectionality have come to understand that these different components of identity are integral to why individuals do the things they do.

Intersectionality in National Data Sets

Data collection on the intersections of identity and how they affect health is of utmost importance. By examining combinations of identities (e.g. Gender X Race, Race X Sexual Orientation, etc.), researchers can more completely understand why some groups do better on certain health outcomes than others.

For instance, research on the intersecting identities of Race X Gender yields findings that there are different outcomes among African American males compared to, not only White males, but also African American females, including lower levels of academic achievement and higher levels of incarceration. These data can then be used to create culturally and identity-appropriate programs to decrease disparities and promote wellness among African American males.

But data aren’t perfect. And often, these identities get lost, even in well-known national data sets. For example, because it is politically charged, sexual orientation may be omitted completely from national data sets, based on the idea that children and adolescents should be protected from this information. However, research indicates that sexual orientation may develop anywhere between middle childhood and early adolescence, and being a sexual minority is associated with a host of worsened physical and mental health disparities (e.g., higher levels of suicidality, depression, substance use, risk for sexually transmitted infections, etc.). What’s more, not asking these questions limits the amount of research that can be done in exploring how sexual orientation intersects with other identities.

Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey

On August 11, 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sexual minority youth data from the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey (YRBSS). The YRBSS is a survey collected from millions of 9th through 12th grade students in the continental U.S. bi-annually. The survey asks questions about a diverse array of health behaviors, including violence, sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections including HIV infection, alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, and physical activity.

One key feature of the YRBSS is its inclusion of identities in asking these questions. For instance, the survey asks items on race, gender, grade, and includes the following items on sexual orientation:

  1. “During your life with whom have you had sexual contact?” with response items being I have not had sexual contact, females, males, or females and males; and
  2. “Which of the following describes you?” with response items being heterosexual (straight), gay or lesbian, bisexual, or not sure.

The 2015 report yielded startling findings, including that more than 40% of LGB students seriously considered suicide, while 30% attempted suicide in the past year. According to the 2015 report, LGB students were more than five times more likely than individuals identifying as heterosexual to report using multiple illegal drugs.

Research that can come from this report includes how the intersection of sexual orientation and other identities (i.e., race/ethnicity) affect these outcomes, if at all. Individuals at intersections of identity in adolescence are especially at high risk for mental and physical consequences, and intersecting identities may be a vital component to risk for these consequences. Thus, the YRBSS is setting a precedent as one can now explore different aspects of identity and their relation to health outcomes in an adolescent population.

Data from the YRBSS may also help us understand whether certain intersections of identity act as protective factors that will help to combat negative health outcomes. Potential data analyses may in fact find that being at the intersection of a marginalized group may be correlated with being less likely to engage in certain negative health behaviors. For instance, African American adult females on the whole have been shown to smoke cigarettes at lower rates compared with both African men and White women. With the YRBSS, researchers can determine if this is true at a younger age, and whether this varies by grade, gender, sexual orientation, or any combination of these identities. 

What We Can Do

  • Acknowledge different parts of individuals’ identities. Too often, we make assumptions about individuals based on surface-level interactions. It is important to acknowledge that new individuals you may meet may have different parts of their identity that can’t just be seen on the surface.
  • Use existing resources from APA. APA recently released a Resolution on Data about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity that speaks to the importance of collecting data from diverse groups in national surveys. Behavioral health professionals can use these tools, as well as others, to make the case for conducting research on underserved populations.
  • Fill in the gaps. One major limitation of the YRBSS is that it does not ask questions on gender identity. Researchers should examine these kinds of gaps in data collection so that yet another aspect of identity can be used in studies to improve the outcomes of people of different gender identities.
  • Be an advocate. Parents of underserved children, teachers, and allies of the LGBT community can help to advocate for these individuals and push their members of Congress to pass legislation that helps to improve the lives of the LGBT population.



American Psychological Association, Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents. (2008). Resilience in African American children and adolescents: A vision for optimal development. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities.(2012). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology’s contributions to understanding and reducing disparities. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-risk behaviors among students in grades 9–12 — youth risk behavior surveillance, selected sites, United States, 2001–2009. MMWR, 60. Retrieved from

Cole, E. R. (2009). Intersectionality and research in psychology. American Psychologist, 64(3), 170-180. Retrieved from:

Jamal, A., Homa, D. M., O’Connor, E., Babb, S. D., Caraballo, R. S., …, & King, B. A. (2015). Current cigarette smoking among young adults – United States, 2005-2014. MMWR, 64(44), 1233-1240. Retrieved from:

Kann, L., Olsen, E. O., McManus, T., et al. (2016). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-related behaviors among students in grades 9–12 — United States and selected sites, 2015. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 65(No. SS-9):1–202. DOI:

Neal, D., & Rick, A. (2014). The prison boom and the lack of Black progress after Smith and Welch. National Bureau of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper No. 20283. Retrieved from



Faye Belgrave, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work is focused on cultural factors (gender, ethnicity, age) that affect the health and wellbeing of African American youth and young adults.

Sarah Javier is a doctoral candidate in Health Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests include developing culturally tailored prevention programs for underserved populations.

 Image source:


Filed under: Culture, Ethnicity and Race, Health Disparities, LGBT Issues Tagged: data collection, gender, health disparities, identity, intersectionality, race, research, sexual orientation, YRBS

What Macaque Monkeys Might Tell Us About Our Friendships as We Age

Vector pattern with monkeys and hearts

By Geoffrey W. Lane, PhD, ABPP (Geropsychologist)

I’d like to spend this blog post talking about a rather decent-sized bombshell that has rocked the world of lifespan developmental theory and research. Specifically, it is a rather elegant and well-designed study on the social behavior of Barbary macaques in captivity, one that I believe has, at least a little bit, changed the field of lifespan development theory from now on.

For a bit of background – researchers have noticed a tendency through experimental and anecdotal observation for quite a while now – a contrast between older people vs. younger people. It goes like this – older people have a so-called positivity bias in the way they select their friends and conduct themselves.

What do I mean by this?

This idea of the positivity bias is borne largely from the work of Professor Lisa Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Dr. Carstensen conducted a series of lab studies where they asked adults and older adults to take part in somewhat arcane tasks, e.g., attending to pictures of happy and sad faces as they’re flashed on a computer screen, and then measuring how long subjects paid attention to the faces. Through this and other related research on social cognition, Dr. Carstensen developed something called the theory of socioemotional selectivity, or SST.

Basically, when we’re young (say, in our teens and twenties), it’s normal to have lots of friends and acquaintances, some emotionally satisfying and close, some perhaps not so much. In addition, younger adulthood tends to be characterized by a yen towards gathering information rather than maximizing positive affect (e.g., ‘happiness’). In other words, younger adults are more geared towards making social contacts and learning about the world around them, even if their activities don’t result in any immediate sense of satisfaction or positivity.

Older adults tend to behave differently. As opposed to having lots of acquaintances and friends, they are much more comfortable with a small group of close friends and family, often a group they’ve cultivated for a number of years. Not only that, they seem less motivated by information-seeking for its own sake, and seem to gear their behavior towards pruning away the people and situations that just don’t add to their level of happiness and satisfaction with their lives.

SST has had a good deal of research to support it over time, and I think for the most part, it’s a very solid theory and tends to comport well with other theories. For example, Paul Baltes’ selective optimization with compensation theory looks at the behaviors of older adults as being focused on being selective in one’s behavior in the service of preserving one’s energy and resources. SST also does a good job of replacing other incorrect and ageist theories of development such as the disengagement theory, which suggested that aging was about gradual withdrawal from the world rather than a more selective deployment of resources.

The thing that’s interesting about SST as a theory is that its proponents (at least up until now), constructed the theory to accommodate the idea of time perspective as being a critical feature. (From the Psychology Wiki):

“…the theory contends that it is not age that is causing the goal shifts but age-associated changes in time perspective. Even younger adults have been shown to pursue present-oriented goals when their time perspective is limited by a fatal illness or life changes such as a college graduation and even older adults favor future-oriented goals when they are asked to imagine an extended future for themselves.”

So it’s not just age, but it’s the fact that human beings have an explicit and cognitive appreciation of their age and their relatively lengthened or shortened time perspectives (as is the case for younger or older adults, respectively). This idea makes sense in the context of SST.

When you’re young, you’re all about gathering information, making as many social connections as possible, because, well, you’re trying to establish yourself and learn your way about the world, I suppose – and you know you have your life ahead of you. Conversely, as an older adult, you’re acutely aware of the fact that you’ve lived more than half of your life (or more). You are settled with the prospect of making sure your remaining days are as happy and pleasant as possible, and you have no more time for friends or situations that cause you more stress or heartache than necessary.

Sounds plausible, right?

Let’s get back to macaque monkeys. In the July issue of Current Biology, Laura Almeling and her colleagues decided to see if SST applied in the case of nonhuman primates, specifically looking at a large colony of 166 monkeys housed in a naturalistic environment in Rocamadour, France. This kind of research is very much weighted towards careful, systematic observation. Ms. Almeling and her colleagues were required to basically sit with these monkeys in their enclosures (which, personally, seems somewhat brave of them) and then present older and younger macaque monkeys with pictures and sounds of pre-identified members of their clans, both close friends, as well as more peripheral ‘acquaintances.’

What they found was just as much of a robust effect in these macaque monkeys supporting the broad outlines of SST as there was in humans. From the Discussion:

“We found a sharp loss of monkeys’ interest in the nonsocial environment in young adulthood…”

These Barbary macaque monkeys basically behaved like humans do when they aged – they remained interested in social relationships, but were far more selective about them. They were less interested in nonsocial stimuli in general, they maintained a smaller, tighter social group. Fellow monkeys (young and old), continued to pay attention to them (as evidenced by grooming behavior). This suggests that the decreased range of social behavior noted in these older monkeys was not explained by the behavior of other monkeys.

Here’s the bombshell, from the Conclusion (emphasis added):

“The finding that nonhuman primates experience marked and differential motivational shifts with age, particularly an increasing focus on social over nonsocial stimuli and shrinking circle of social partners, suggests that some of the motivational changes observed during the human lifespan may be grounded much more deeply in evolution than previously assumed and may not be necessarily tied to an awareness of limited lifetime.”

Indeed. Unless I’m missing something here, it seems that in order to have these findings be consistent with SST theory as it’s commonly understood – as really, a socio-cognitive theory of motivational behavior across the lifespan – we must posit that older Barbary macaque monkeys have an appreciation of their own mortality and relatively limited lifespan compared to their younger social partners (which is something that requires proof!).

In short, it looks like Professor Lisa Carstensen’s SST theory may require some retooling. Clearly, the proverbial baby does *not* need to be thrown out with the bathwater here. On the plus-side for SST theory, the ‘positivity bias’ is a real thing. So much so that it’s not only consistently observable in humans, but observable (as of here) in nonhuman primates as well.

However, on the negative side, the implication of this research is that because (we assume) monkeys cannot understand the fact they will die at some point, the ‘positivity bias’ cannot be explained by awareness of mortality. It must be something else, something more hard-wired. What this mechanism is has yet to be explained. That – or perhaps it’s possible monkeys understand more about death and dying than we can appreciate.

Either way, clearly, whether it’s from older adult monkeys or humans – there is more to discover.



Almeling, L., Hammerschmidt, K., Sennhenn-Reulen, H., Freund, A. M., & Fischer, J. (2016). Motivational shifts in aging monkeys and the origins of social selectivity. Current Biology, 26(13), 1744-1749.

Carstensen, L. L. (1992). Social and emotional patterns in adulthood: support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Psychology and aging, 7(3), 331.



Geoffrey W. Lane, PhD, ABPP is a board-certified Geropsychologist (ABGERO), who practices with the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System at the Livermore Division, within the Community Living Center (CLC; e.g., nursing home). He has been the staff Geropsychologist at the CLC since 2007. Dr. Lane has clinical and research interests that are varied and include dementia care and behavior management, social robotics, and technological innovations in caregiving and long-term care. When not at the CLC or doing private consulting, Dr. Lane can be found blogging about geriatrics and gerontology, or is selling stuff on the internet, playing with his kids, or binge-watching drama shows on Netflix.

Image source:



Filed under: Aging Tagged: aging, evolution, friendships, friendships in old age, healthy aging, macaque monkeys, older adults, social relationships, socioemotional selectivity theory, SST