The videos shown to children in Jean Decety’s altruism study showed intentional (left) and accidental harm. (Images courtesy Jean Decety)

Faculty research

A selection of recent faculty research news. 

A moral development

Major world religions teach compassion and selflessness, but children of religious parents may not display these qualities as often as their peers. University researchers measured the altruism of 1,170 children from six countries by the number of stickers each was willing to share with another, unseen child. The children then watched video clips of one character pushing another, either intentionally or accidentally, and were asked how much punishment was warranted, as an indication of their moral sensitivity.

Results, published November 5 in Current Biology, showed that children from Christian and Muslim households (the two religions analyzed in the study) shared fewer stickers and were more likely to favor harsher punishments. The findings suggest “the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness,” said lead researcher Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology and the College and director of UChicago’s Child NeuroSuite.

Poverty levels

Much of the official information about poverty in America comes from US Census Bureau data. However, this data underrepresents the total income of poor households, according to an October American Enterprise Institute working paper by Chicago Harris McCormick Foundation Professor Bruce Meyer and Nikolas Mittag, PhD’13.

The researchers compared census responses against government records of distributed benefits, showing that the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey for New York underrepresented both the number of people receiving housing assistance, food stamps, and cash assistance, and the value added to each household by these programs.

The authors conclude that public assistance programs in New York have two to three times the poverty-reducing effect that census data indicates, and that a smaller number of Americans are falling through the safety net.

MS breakthrough

Genes are widely believed to determine who is susceptible to multiple sclerosis, but a new study suggests that MS may be triggered when myelin-producing brain cells die, sparking an autoimmune reaction against myelin.

Using genetically engineered mice, researchers from UChicago and Northwestern University destroyed the brain cells that create myelin, the insulation around nerve fibers. Results, published in Nature Neuroscience on December 14, showed the mice had MS-like symptoms that affected their ability to walk until their nervous systems regenerated the myelin, but about six months later the symptoms returned.

Researchers used the same mouse model to test possible treatments, including a nanoparticle that creates tolerance to the myelin antigen. Protecting the myelin-producing cells in susceptible individuals “might help delay or prevent MS,” says study senior coauthor Brian Popko, the Jack Miller Professor of Neurological Disorders.

Ready for fatherhood

Young men with positive attitudes toward babies and parenthood have lower physiological reactions to sexually explicit material than their peers with less interest, say researchers from UChicago and Wayne State University.

They recruited 100 heterosexual young men, mostly students, to answer questions about their lifestyles and their interest in babies and then watch an erotic video. Saliva samples taken before and after the video measured spikes in testosterone as an indicator of arousal. Men with more positive feelings about children reported being more interested in family and long-term relationships and experienced smaller testosterone increases (though not lower baseline levels of testosterone). The men who said they were less family oriented had larger increases in testosterone.

“These men ‘live on the fast lane,’” says lead researcher Dario Maestripieri, UChicago professor of comparative human development. “They are attracted to and aroused by novel sexual partners.” The findings were published December 1 in Psychological Science.