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Finalists Named in $75K Social Innovation Challenge

December 19, 2013
Contacts: 

Ted Knight 301-405-3596

Social Innovation ChallengeCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland and broadcaster Tavis Smiley have announced seven finalists for the $75,000 TS/UM Social Innovation Challenge.

Announced last summer, the TS/UM Social Innovation Challenge invited aspiring entrepreneurs to develop transformative solutions to affect positive change for individuals and communities across the nation. Entrants were asked to submit innovative ideas targeting the key impact areas of education, hunger, and sustainability. A total of 56 entries were submitted, representing 23 states across the nation, as well as the District of Columbia. The seven finalists were selected based on the executive summaries and videos the entrants created to describe their social innovations.

The TS/UM Social Innovation Challenge finalists are:

  • Kamilla Kovacs, BUILD Metro DC (Washington, DC): BUILD is a targeted four-year entrepreneurship and college readiness program for students that are socio-economically most disadvantaged and academically most disengaged.
  • Christopher Emdin, Urban Science Education Center (New York, NY): The Urban Science Eduation Center targets the challenges of teaching and learning in urban schools, and the need to reduce drop out rates of urban youth, enhance learning outcomes in science, and develop a scientifically literate populace among urban youth.
  • Derrius Quarles, Million Dollar Scholar (Chicago, IL): Million Dollar Scholar is an education technology and services solution that creates scholarships for deserving students by offering an instructive web platform that educates high school and college students on how to be successful in the scholarship and grant processes for higher education
  • Alexander Moore, DC Central Kitchen (Washington, DC): DC Central Kitchen provides 5,000 meals to DC's shelters and nonprofits each day and offers culinary training to jobless, at-risk adults. Its latest endeavor is called Healthy Corners, a response to the crises of 'food deserts' and inequitable access to healthy food of its kind in America.
  • Arthur Morgan, Gather Baltimore (Baltimore, MD): Gather Baltimore's mission is to reduce food insecurities in neighborhoods consumed by poverty by delivering 50,000 pounds of healthy food each week to neighborhood farm stands, local meal programs, and other community based food distribution groups.
  • Imani Christian Henry, 100 Men Reading (Wilmington, DE): 100 Men Reading prepares and motivates children to read by organizing events, mentoring through literacy and by delivering free new books and literacy resources to children and families who need them most.
  • Atin Mittra, MADE Microfinance (College Park, MD): MADE Microfinance's goal is to reduce the dropout rate of underrepresented populations and improve learning outcomes, and to provide Maryland residents with both the financial tools to build assets and improve their credit and the financial literacy to effectively use the financial system to their advantage.

Each of the seven finalists will have the opportunity to interview with a panel of judges before final selections are made to identify the three winning teams. The winners will be announced on the Tavis Smiley Network in January 2014. Each of the three winners will be awarded a $25,000 prize. Additionally, each winning entrant will have an opportunity to be a guest on the Tavis Smiley Network, receive an entrepreneur mentorship at the Clark School's Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech), and showcase their innovation at Platform Summit 2014, an event aimed at exploring the role of diversity in the innovation economy.

The TS/UM Social Innovation Challenge supports the Tavis Smiley Foundation's initiative to dramatically reduce poverty in America and the University of Maryland's commitment to increase the number and quality of new businesses inspired by competition to create a large and strong new generation of entrepreneurs who benefit society. For more information about the TS/UM Social Innovation Challenge, visit www.tavissmileysocialinnovator.com.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

8,400+ Terrorist Attacks in 2012, New Data Shows

December 19, 2013
Contacts: 

Jessica Rivinius 301-405-6632

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Although terrorism touched 85 countries in 2012, just three - Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan - suffered more than half of 2012's attacks (54 percent) and fatalities (58 percent), according to new data released today by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD), based at the University of Maryland. The next five most frequently targeted countries were India, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Thailand. 

START"While terrorist attacks have in large part moved away from Western Europe and North America to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, worldwide terrorism is reaching new levels of destructiveness," said Gary LaFree, START director and professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMD.

In addition to illustrating a continued shift in location of attacks, the new data -- with more than 8,400 terrorist attacks killing more than 15,400 people in 2012 -- also show an increase in attacks and fatalities over the past decade. The previous record for attacks was set in 2011 with more than 5,000 incidents; for fatalities, the previous high was 2007 with more than 12,500 deaths. A map showing concentration and intensity of 2012 attacks is available here.

It is important to note that beginning with 2012 data collection, START made several important changes to the GTD collection methodology, improving the efficiency and comprehensiveness of the process. As a result of these improvements, a direct comparison between 2011 and 2012 likely overstates the increase in total attacks and fatalities worldwide during this time period. However, analysis of the data indicate that this increase began before the shift in data collection methodology, and important developments in key conflicts around the world suggest that considerable upward trends remain even when accounting for the possibility of methodological artifacts.

In the 1970s, most attacks occurred in Western Europe. In the 1980s, Latin America saw the most terrorist acts. Beginning with the 1990s, South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East have seen steadily rising numbers of attacks, a trend that has accelerated in recent years. 

"The other striking development in recent years is the incredible growth in terrorist attacks linked to al-Qaida affiliates," LaFree said.  

Though al-Qaida central was not directly responsible for any attacks in 2012, the six deadliest terrorist groups in the world were all affiliated to some extent with the organization. These include the Taliban (more than 2,500 fatalities), Boko Haram (more than 1,200 fatalities), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (more than 960 fatalities), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (more than 950 fatalities), al-Qaida in Iraq (more than 930 fatalities) and al-Shabaab (more than 700 fatalities).

Attacks in Yemen, Nigeria and Iraq were among the deadliest in 2012.

  • On Jan. 5, unidentified Sunni perpetrators in Dhi Qar, Al Anbar and Baghdad, Iraq bombed various Shiite civilian targets, including pilgrims and laborers, in six separate attacks. Nearly 120 people were killed across all six attacks, including at least two suicide bombers.
  • In Nigeria on Jan. 20, approximately 190 people were killed in bombings targeting government, police, media, schools, utilities and private citizens, primarily in Kano. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks, indicating that they were carried out in response to Nigerian authorities detaining and killing Boko Haram members.
  • On March 4, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula attacked a series of military targets in Zinjibar, Yemen, killing a total of 195 soldiers and kidnapping 73. More than 40 perpetrators were also killed in these attacks, and the hostages were released the following month.

GTD data files and documentation are available for download from the START website for users who would like to conduct custom analysis of the data. In addition to the methodological improvements made in the collection and coding process, the GTD team has added elements to improve the experience for those using the database. 2012 is the first year of data that includes geocodes for all attacks that occurred worldwide. Efforts to geocode the historical data back to 1970 are ongoing, and with the current update the geocoding process was completed for an additional 20 countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia. This information makes it possible for analysts to explore geospatial patterns of terrorist violence and more easily identify the sub-national concentrations of attacks.

Other new variables include target subtypes, which systematically classify targets into more specific categories. For example, while previous versions of the data allowed users to explore a subset of attacks against transportation targets, now analysts can easily identify attacks that target busses (42 percent of all transportation attacks), trains (33 percent), bridges and tunnels (9 percent), stations (7 percent), roads (4 percent), subways (2 percent), or taxis (1 percent).

"This update includes a number of improvements that we have been working on for several years, in response to common requests from users," said Erin Miller, GTD program manager. "We are always happy to get feedback on what types of information would make this a more useful resource and better serve the needs of researchers and practitioners."

According to Miller, the most commonly requested feature is the ability to distinguish between international and domestic attacks. To address this need, the GTD team developed a set of indicators that classify attacks as international or domestic across several dimensions, including logistics (whether the perpetrator group crossed a border to carry out the attack) and ideology (whether the perpetrator group was attacking a target of a different nationality, regardless of where the attack took place).  The domestic/international indicators and other new variables are currently included in the downloadable data files. START plans to incorporate them into the online user interface in a future update. More information about the new variables can be found in the GTD Codebook.

With this data release, the GTD now contains information on more than 113,000 domestic and international terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 that resulted in more than 243,000 deaths and more than 324,000 injuries. These attacks are defined as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.

The GTD is funded through START by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate's Office of University Programs, the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Counterterrorism, and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate's Resilient Systems Division.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

Angelina Jolie Effect: Breast Cancer Awareness vs. Knowledge

December 19, 2013
Contacts: 

Kelly Blake 301-405-9418

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Angelina Jolie heightened awareness about breast cancer when she announced in a New York Times op-ed that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy. But a new study led by researchers in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reveals that widespread awareness of Jolie's story did not translate into increased understanding of breast cancer risk.

Angelina JolieThe survey of more than 2,500 Americans found that three out of four were aware of Jolie's story, but fewer than 10 percent of those could correctly answer questions about the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries and the typical person's risk of developing breast cancer. Though very rare, women with harmful mutations in either of two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have a risk of breast cancer that is about five times the normal risk, and a risk of ovarian cancer that is about ten to thirty times normal. The study is published today in Genetics in Medicine.

"Ms. Jolie's health story was prominently featured throughout the media and was a chance to mobilize health communicators and educators to teach about the nuanced issues around genetic testing, risk, and prophylactic surgery," explained lead author Dina Borzekowski, who is a research professor in UMD's Department of Behavior and Community Health. "It feels like it was a missed opportunity to educate the public about a complex but rare health situation." 

Among survey respondents who were aware of Jolie's story, nearly half could recall her estimated risk of breast cancer before the surgery, but fewer than 10 percent of those had the necessary information to interpret the risk of an average woman without a BRCA gene mutation relative to Jolie's risk. Additionally, exposure to Jolie's story was associated with greater confusion, rather than clarity, about the relationship between a family history of cancer and increased cancer risk. About half incorrectly thought that a lack of family history of cancer was associated with a lower than average personal risk of cancer, and among respondents who had at least one close relative affected by cancer, those who were aware of Jolie's story were less likely than those who were unaware of her story to estimate their own cancer risk as higher than average (39 vs. 59 percent).

"Since many more women without a family history develop breast cancer each year than those with, it is important that women don't feel falsely reassured by a negative family history," said Dr. Debra Roter, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Genomic Literacy and Communication at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Breast cancer cases linked to a BRCA gene mutation are extremely rare, and the average woman's risk of getting breast cancer over her lifetime if she does not have a BRCA mutation is between five and 15 percent.

Other survey findings included that more than half of the women (57 percent) who had heard the story said they would undergo similar surgery if they carried the faulty BRCA gene, and a majority (72 percent) of men and women surveyed felt Ms. Jolie did the right thing by publically announcing her situation.

The study concluded that despite the ability of celebrities to raise awareness of health issues by sharing personal stories, these messages need to be accompanied by a more purposeful communication effort to assist the public in understanding and using the complex diagnostic and treatment information that these stories convey.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

A New Look at the Development of Minority Children

December 16, 2013
Contacts: 

Halima Cherif 301-405-0476

College of EducationCOLLEGE PARK, Md.  – A new University of Maryland-led study challenges the assumption that minority and immigrant children are most often disadvantaged or at-risk. The study, led by Dr. Natasha Cabrera, an associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, also sheds light on the strengths and assets that ethnic and racial minority families bring to raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

The report encourages researchers and policymakers to pay closer attention to how minority families and communities promote children's development, so that their efforts can be better supported with informed programs and interventions.

Click here to read the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Social Policy Report, "Positive Development of Minority Children."

The study's findings reveal that minority children possess unsuspected strengths in three domains of development: social competence, language, and ethnic identity. Many low-income minority children exceed their peers in self-regulation, the ability to manage behavior, emotions, and attention, which strongly influences social skills and academic success.

Past research has commonly shown that low-income, African American children face expressive obstacles and that bilingual children struggle to acquire vocabulary and understand the meanings of words, but Dr. Cabrera's study reveals the limitations of that research. African American children, it turns out, command oral narrative skills which may uniquely help them read, and they produce narratives of higher quality and possess greater narrative comprehension than their white peers. Bilingual children have similar advantages, including better executive control in nonverbal tasks requiring conflict resolution. In later childhood and adolescence, the formation of a strong ethnic identity promotes self-esteem as well as positive peer and family relationships.

A growing number of younger minority adults are civically active, leading them to exhibit more positive and less risky behaviors and to engage in citizenship and sustaining their communities.

So what are the sources of these good outcomes in ethnic and racial minority children? Dr. Cabrera's study argues for the beneficial effects of three aspects of family life — orientation and obligation, discipline, and cultural socialization. We know that families play critical roles in giving children love, support, and care and in teaching them culturally and socially relevant values, beliefs, and expectations. Somewhat less recognized is the strong cohesion in many minority families that encourages children to self-regulate and to avoid antisocial behavior and deviance.

While a lot of attention has been paid to the negative effects of strict discipline in minority homes, the positive effects of protection and care in the context of parental warmth are now coming to light. Finally, Dr. Cabrera points out that teaching children about the family's culture and fostering their identification with its values, beliefs, and rituals offers such benefits as higher self-esteem, a greater sense of belonging, and a more positive outlook that helps protects them from discrimination and prejudice.

Significantly, Dr. Cabrera's study also identifies gaps in the existing research on minority children. It notes that the bulk of research to date has been conducted with Latino and African American children and calls for more research on the cultural aspects of family dynamics among Asian American and Native American children.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

Designing Quantitative Solutions for Energy

December 12, 2013
Contacts: 

Ted Knight 301-405-3596

TypingCOLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland's Clark School of Engineering will offer a new online course on energy problem solving supported by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for transitioning military service members and veterans. The four-credit, undergraduate level course, titled "Designing Quantitative Solutions for Energy," will offer real world design experiences for students.

Research associate professor Leigh Abts and assistant professor Ian White designed the course specifically for transitioning service members and veterans. The course is supported by the DoD's Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL) through their Broad Agency Announcement for basic and applied research. The vision of the ADL initiative is to provide access to the highest quality learning experiences that can be tailored to individual needs, harnessing the power of information technologies.

"This course has the potential to be transformational in helping transitioning active duty and veterans to develop design process skills and adopt a different approach to problem solving," said Abts. "Design is the best context for students to learn about energy and work toward addressing real world challenges."

Abts, along with colleagues in UMD's College of Education, previously partnered with the Department of Energy, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Environment and Energy Study Institute to develop an interdisciplinary "Energy 101" curriculum aimed at offering standardized energy and sustainability learning experiences for undergraduates at colleges and universities across the country.

The new "Designing Quantitative Solutions for Energy" course at the University of Maryland is consistent with efforts by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to spur science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for U.S. military veterans to help prepare them for high-tech jobs.

The course will be offered in the spring semester of 2014.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

Longer Maternity Leave Lowers Risk of Postpartum Depression

December 12, 2013
Contacts: 

Kelly Blake 301-405-9418

Dr. Rada K. DagherCOLLEGE PARK, Md. - The more leave time from work that a woman takes after giving birth - up to six months - the better protected she will be from experiencing post-partum depression, according to a study led by Dr. Rada K. Dagher, assistant professor of health services administration at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

"In the United States, most working women are back to work soon after giving birth, with the majority not taking more than three months of leave," Dr. Dagher said. "But our study showed that women who return to work sooner than six months after childbirth have an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms." The study is published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law.

Employment status (on leave/working again) and predicted values of postpartum depressive symptoms over four time periods in the first year after childbirthThe first year after childbirth presents a high risk of depression for women, with about 13 percent of all mothers experiencing postpartum depression, with debilitating symptoms similar to clinical depression. This study is the first to investigate the relationship between duration of maternity leave and a woman's postpartum depressive symptoms over the course of the entire year after childbirth.  It measured symptoms using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a widely used depression screening tool, which has been adapted and validated in many languages.

The study utilizes data from the Maternal Postpartum Health Study, collected by Dr. Patricia McGovern, professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a co-author on this study. Dr. McGovern followed a group of more than 800 women in Minnesota over the course of the first postpartum year and gathered data about depressive symptoms and mental and physical health at six weeks, twelve weeks, six months and twelve months postpartum. At the six weeks, twelve weeks and six months time frames, the women who were on maternity leave had significantly lower postpartum depression scores compared to their peers who had returned to work (See figure 1).

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the primary federal leave policy that provides support to working U.S. mothers of infants. However, the law only provides a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees working for covered employers (i.e., those with 50 or more employees). Since many women are not covered by FMLA, or cannot afford to take unpaid leave, most women are back to work much sooner than may be ideal for maternal postpartum health. In this study, about 7 percent of the mothers were back to work by 6 weeks, 46 percent by 12 weeks, and 87 percent by 6 months. The United States lags well behind all other industrialized nations in terms of generosity of parental leave policies. In fact, research spanning 181 countries in the world showed that the U.S. is one of only three countries that do not provide paid maternity leave (the others are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland).

The study concludes that "the current leave duration provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act, 12 weeks, may not be sufficient for mothers at risk for or experiencing postpartum depression" and that future leave policy debates should take into consideration the postpartum health of mothers. Moreover, "employers should consider providing more generous leaves than the 12 weeks of unpaid leave granted by the FMLA through expanding the duration of leave given or providing paid leave or both," urged Dr. Dagher.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

UMD Experts to Expand IT for Public Health in Montgomery County, Md.

December 11, 2013
Contacts: 

Greg Muraski, Smith School of Business, 301-405-5283
Kelly Blake, School of Public Health, 301-405-9418

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Improving health and reducing health care costs nationwide depends on effective coordination between the organizations that treat patients (primary care providers) and those that work to prevent disease and promote health (public health practitioners).

Experts from the University of Maryland School of Public Health (SPH) and Robert H. Smith School of Business are partnering with Montgomery County, Md., to explore how public health and clinical care programs can most effectively collaborate through information technology systems.
 
A 24-month project is underway, supported by a $200,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant awarded via the Public Health Services and Systems Research program. Professors Ritu Agarwal, the Robert H. Smith Dean's Chair of Information Systems and founding director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS), and Robert S. Gold, chair of the SPH's Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, are leading the study in collaboration with the Primary Care Coalition of Montgomery County and Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. The team will be coordinating with the Chesapeake Regional Information System for Our Patients and Maryland's State Health Improvement Process.

Researchers from CHIDS and the SPH will develop and evaluate a benchmarking tool ("maturity index") to better understand how disparate public health information technology systems being used by communities, including electronic health records, public health reporting data systems (such as surveillance systems) and ancillary systems (such as health information exchanges) may be adopted, integrated and effectively used.

"The goal is better care coordination of and insight into the diverse set of health and human needs important to wellness," said CHIDS Deputy Director Kenyon Crowley. "By putting patients' holistic care at the center with support from information management systems, we hope to foster better health outcomes in individuals, families and the population as a whole."

The project's focus will be on how this enhanced system integration can improve access to and utilization of behavioral health and human services in Montgomery County. Research findings are expected to provide valuable information for public health practitioners and policy-makers that can be used to improve quality, efficiency, and equity in public health practice with the goal of improving population health nationwide.
 
"We have the opportunity to use public health IT to connect those who have previously fallen through the cracks with the services that they need," says Dr. Gold. "The electronic care record systems in Montgomery County are already making a difference in assisting people with complex health needs, and we are looking to expand upon this success. We can pull in data from public health surveillance systems, social service agencies and health information exchanges to optimize our ability to improve behavioral and mental health."

Follow the project's blog at: http://blogs.rhsmith.umd.edu/phit/

CHIDS works in collaboration with industry and federal, state, and local government affiliates to research, analyze, and develop solutions to challenges surrounding the introduction and integration of information and decision technologies into the healthcare system. The research at CHIDS seeks to understand how digital technologies can be more effectively deployed to address outcomes such as patient safety, healthcare quality, efficiency in healthcare delivery, and a reduction in health disparities. The center offers the benefit of a world-class research staff and renowned scholars in the economic, social, behavioral, and managerial aspects of technology implementation, adoption, use, and return on investment. CHIDS serves as a focal point for thought leadership around the topic of health information and decision systems.

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

UMD Maintains Spot on Kiplinger's Top 10 Best Values

December 11, 2013
Contacts: 

Beth Cavanaugh 301-405-4625

For the sixth consecutive year, the University of Maryland has ranked in the top 10 in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance’s annual ranking of the Best Values in Public Colleges. COLLEGE PARK, Md. - For the sixth consecutive year, the University of Maryland has ranked in the top 10 in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance’s annual ranking of the Best Values in Public Colleges. UMD took the 7th spot on the list for in-state tuition and 14th for out-of-state.

Each year, Kiplinger’s collects data from hundreds of public four-year institutions and determines the top 100 by analyzing several measurable standards, such as academic quality – including SAT or ACT scores, admission and retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four- year graduation rates – financial aid, cost, and average student debt at graduation.

“The college landscape today is very different – tuition increases and student debt dominate the national conversation surrounding higher education,” said Janet Bodnar, editor of Kiplinger’s. “This year’s top 100 schools have made admirable strides to maintain academic integrity and standards while meeting the financial needs of their students.”

 

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

Evolution of the 'Third Party Punishers' Phenomenon

December 11, 2013
Contacts: 

Rebecca Copeland 301–405–6602
Heather Dewar 301–405–9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - You're shopping for holiday gifts in a department store when you spot someone pocketing a nice pair of leather gloves. What do you do?

A new study by University of Maryland researchers appearing this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B predicts that whether you alert a manager to the theft or decide to do nothing may depend on whether you're shopping in a local store where you know the owners or in a city far from home.

The study, "High strength-of-ties and low mobility enable the evolution of third-party punishment," suggests that the stronger a community's social ties and the longer most people stay within the community, the more likely it is that otherwise uninvolved third parties will step forward to punish their neighbors.

Psychology Professor Michele Gelfand, an expert in cross-cultural social organizational psychology, teamed with Computer Science and Institute for Systems Research Professor Dana Nau and two of his former Ph.D. students, Ryan Carr and Postdoctoral Researcher Patrick Roos, on the interdisciplinary project. The team began with sociological and psychological hypotheses of how behavior might evolve, then tested them with evolutionary game theoretic computer models.

Gelfand studies how culture influences conflict, negotiation, justice and revenge. In earlier research she has looked at how cultural norms, such as the concept of honor, can cause conflicts among individuals to spread to wider social groups. But some cultures have evolved a way to short-circuit that process: third-party punishment.

Third Party PunishmentThird-party punishment: A harms B, but is punished by C, an uninvolved third party.

Unlike police and courts that mete out official punishments, third-party punishment is informal, based on an individual's decision to right a perceived wrong. In some cultures, third-party punishment, when used responsibly, is a useful tool to enforce social norms. Why does it evolve in some places but not others?

Gelfand noted a recent experiment by other researchers, in which U.S. college students consistently balked at punishing their peers for perceived wrongdoings to others. She wondered whether the result was due to the highly mobile, individualistic nature of U.S. society and the loose social ties of a college campus. Her hypothesis was that in a more traditional culture with strong social ties (where people interact frequently) and low mobility (where people can't easily leave the social group) things might be different.

To test her idea, Gelfand turned to Nau, Roos and Carr, computer scientists skilled at evolutionary game theory, a powerful predictive mathematical tool. "Evolutionary game theory was developed to model the emergence of biological features," says Nau. "But more recently it has been effectively used in sociological and psychological research."

"With evolutionary game theoretic models we can study what types of behaviors are likely to become the most widespread under different conditions," says Roos. "We are trying to understand mathematically how social systems work, and we can explain behavior using these models."

The computer scientists built a mathematical model that incorporated Gelfand's hypotheses. The model results suggest that third-party punishment is much more likely to evolve in contexts of high social and structural constraint because in the long term it benefits the whole community, including the individual who metes out punishment. A lone responsible punisher—that is, someone who steps up to enforce social norms fairly—cannot induce cooperation and actually suffers compared with his or her neighbors. However, if this punisher is joined by another punisher in the neighborhood, together they can induce cooperation and gain a social benefit.

The results suggest when responsible third-party punishment evolves, it does so because the responsible punishers' actions are ultimately not altruistic. The behavior acts as a signal to others in the neighborhood that non-cooperation will not be tolerated.

The results also show that responsible third-party punishment does not evolve in populations with weak social ties or high mobility. A critical mass of responsible punishers is hard to achieve when there are weak social ties because they cannot give each other enough support. Similarly, in highly mobile societies, fellow responsible punishers move away or non-cooperative agents replace them. In both of these situations it becomes too costly for individuals to take on the burden and risk of being responsible punishers.

Game theory has been used before in social science work, but this is the first time that cross-cultural psychologists and computational game theorists have collaborated to examine the evolution of third-party punishment, says Gelfand.  "It's a good example of how psychologists and computer scientists can team up to do something that neither one could have done before."

"There are many other things that can affect this evolution in a community," Nau notes, "for example, the type of government, outside conflicts, and the amount of resources available. Because we now have a collection of intuitions about how third-party punishment works, we believe further research could contribute to a better understanding of why conflicts escalate, or why some societies become steeped in revenge."

For the latest news and happenings at the University of Maryland, follow us on Twitter at @UMDRightNow.

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