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Here researchers of the ISS report regularly on their latest results.

April 2018

Potential benefits and risks of mothers’ employment for child development are the subject of heated scientific and public debate. By increasing family income, working mothers may foster development. However, this may come at the cost of reducing the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions that are crucial for small children. In a recent study, ISS researcher Michael Kühhirt and Markus Klein from the University of Strathclyde found that children with similar family background, develop comparable vocabulary and reasoning abilities even if their mothers’ work histories in the first 5 years after birth differ vastly. Therefore, both exaggerated hopes and fears with regard to the consequences of mothers’ employment for children may be unfounded, at least with regard to early language acquisition and cognitive ability.

These results are based on 2,200 children of the Growing Up in Scotland study, who were followed from roughly 10 months after birth until around their fifth birthday. As a measure of vocabulary at age 5, children named objects from a picture booklet. Reasoning ability at age 5 was assessed by requiring children to find common aspects between a given picture and objects displayed in a picture book. Mothers’ employment history and other important characteristics were obtained through annually repeated surveys in the five years after birth.

The study was novel in that it looked at the relation of mothers’ employment with children’s development not only at one particular time point but that it compared the effects of different employment patterns over time. This is important because any impact of maternal employment is likely to unfold only after a longer period of exposure. However, differences in the developmental outcomes at age 5, for the most part, seem to be driven by characteristics influencing maternal employment decisions in the first five years after birth, such as mothers’ education and family structure. While the benefits of a working mother may be limited for children, at least when it comes to the cognitive measures under study here, that the study also found no evidence for harmful effects, is an important implication given universal attempts to increase the share of working mothers. While this is the case at the population level, future research may look at the effect of early maternal employment histories on developmental outcomes among different subgroups. 

March 2018

Economic psychology examines psychological mechanisms that underlie the economic behavior of consumers and households. So far, numerous studies have shown that the payment mode (e.g., cash vs. credit card) influences consumer behavior – in terms of how much people spend and what they buy. Despite the proliferation of new payment technologies, little is known about the nuances of digital payment modes and their characteristics.

ISS researchers Rufina Gafeeva and Erik Hölzl with Holger Roschk of the Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt investigated in a recent study how the transformation of payment modes affects consumers. Results show that the recall accuracy of the amount spent varies according to the mode of payment: cash, prepaid card or multifunctional card.

Data were gathered at two separate time points in cafeterias at a German university - prior to as well as following the introduction of a multifunctional card which offers not only a payment function but also a public transport ticket, identification and other information functions. Shortly after paying at the cafeteria cashier, a total of 496 students were asked to recall the amount spent and the payment mode used and to answer further control questions. The recall accuracy of the amount spent was lower for both prepaid cards and multifunctional cards than for cash payments. There was no significant difference between the prepaid card and the multifunctional card; rather, the individual usage patterns played a crucial role: Those who often used the non-payment functions of such cards had a less accurate recall.

The results are relevant for the financial wellbeing of consumers because an accurate recall of past spending has an effect on the willingness to spend money in the future. Therefore, designs that separate the payment function from other functions or that visualize the act of spending money (for instance, through immediate payment information or transaction summaries) may increase consumers’ awareness for spending.

February, 2018

Often people soon know if (and how much) they are romantically or sexually attracted to another person. However, they are by no means aware of the outstanding cognitive effort required to integrate the many different characteristics of possible mates into a holistic judgment, which may also differ across different contexts of mating – such as a one night stand or a lifelong relationship. Previous studies have mainly tested the attractiveness of individual physical or personality traits, while it largely remained unexplored how such different characteristics interact in specific contexts.

ISS researchers Daniel Ehlebracht and Detlef Fetchenhauer together with Olga Stavrova from the University of Tilburg and Daniel Farrelly from the University of Worcester addressed to this question. In particular, it was investigated whether prosociality and physical attractiveness can under certain circumstances reinforce each other's effects on overall desirability. In two studies Cologne students were shown short videos of Dutch students, whose attractiveness they should either evaluate for a short-term or long-term relationship. For each of the individuals shown, the judges received randomized information on how the person behaved in an economic game in which they could prove their altruism or their trustworthiness. As expected, physical attractiveness had a greater impact on the overall evaluation in the short-term context than in the long-term context, while prosocial behavior played a greater role in the long-term context than in the short-term context. In addition, men’s preferences turned out to be more specific regarding the temporal context of mate choice than women’s preferences. In other words, the relative impact of physical attractiveness and trustworthiness on the overall evaluation differed more strongly between the two contexts with male than was the case with female judges. In addition, in both studies physical attractiveness and prosociality mutually reinforced each other in their impact on the overall judgment when they occurred together, albeit only in the long-term mate choice context. This suggests that a good character can actually increase the attractiveness as a long-term partner significantly – but especially in people who are already physically attractive anyway.

January, 2018

Sociologists have been investigating the intergenerational transmission of social inequalities (such as educational opportunities) for a long time now. Along the same lines, demographers have shown that, for example, parents’ fertility behaviors or divorce risks affect their children’s related outcomes. However, barely any research has been conducted yet investigating whether the quality of parent-child relationships in the older generation is transmitted to the younger generation in a family.

ISS researcher Karsten Hank and his colleagues Veronika Salzburger and Merril Silverstein assessed this issue in a study using data from the German Family Panel (pairfam). The authors exploited pairfam’s so called multi-actor design, which allowed them to gather information about three generations in the same family: the youngest generation of children, aged 16-18 at the time of the interview, reported about the quality of their relationship to the middle generation, whose members reported about their relationship to the oldest generation of parents. Three specific dimensions of relationship quality were considered: emotional closeness, frequency of contact, and ambivalence (that is, the simultaneous occurrence of closeness and conflicts).

The study shows that greater emotional closeness, more frequent conflicts and stronger ambivalence between parents and children in older generation tends to translate into a similar pattern of parent-child relations in the family’s younger generation. The authors interpret this finding as indication of intergenerational transmission of relationship quality within families. Further analyses suggest that this kind of transmission more strongly originates from grandfather than from grandmother ties.

Whereas these gender specific findings call for further investigation, the study overall suggests that a comprehensive understanding of parent-child relationships requires a perspective that conceptualizes families as a complex multigenerational system.

December, 2017

Against the backdrop of increasing life expectancy, understanding factors that predict the maintenance of cognitive functioning into old age has become increasingly relevant. Examples of cognitive functions include memory, reasoning, and the speed at which information can be processed. In general, physical as well as social and intellectual activities are viewed as beneficial for maintaining these functions. Furthermore, it has been speculated that the opportunities to engage in these activities are partially determined by one's residential neighborhood.

For that reason, ISS-researchers Jonathan Wörn and Lea Ellwardt– together with colleagues from Amsterdam and Oslo – examined whether the socioeconomic status and the degree of urbanity of a residential neighborhood are associated with the cognitive functioning of its older inhabitants.

To this end, the researchers used information on the average income and the density of residential and business addresses of 63 Dutch neighborhoods. This information was connected to data from the LASA Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam on 985 older inhabitants from these neighborhoods in order to analyze how different cognitive functions of 65- to 88-year-olds develop within 6 years.

The study found that older adults from neighborhoods with a higher average income performed better in two out of the four examined cognitive functions. However, the differences between neighborhoods were not caused by the neighborhoods themselves; rather, differences were explained by the higher education and higher income of individuals who lived in these neighborhoods. Both of these factors are positively associated with cognitive functioning and increase the likelihood to live in a neighborhood with an overall higher average income.

Additionally, older adults in more urbanized neighborhoods performed better on cognitive tests. The researchers explained that daily requirements in more urbanized neighborhoods (e.g. the multitude of information that has to be processed when moving in busy traffic) constitute a cognitive training on a day-to-day basis. However, this effect may reverse into poorer cognitive functioning if older adults in very highly urbanized neighborhoods feel overtaxed by the demands of their neighborhood.

Since the decline of cognitive functions in the observed period was independent of the neighborhood characteristics under consideration, the researchers concluded that the differences between older adults in more and less urbanized neighborhoods already came about earlier in life.

All in all, the observed differences between neighborhoods were rather small. Thus, the researchers recommend that measures to maintain the cognitive functioning of older adults should cater to the needs of individuals.


November, 2017

Can young people be discouraged from criminal offending by a general deterrent effect of punishment? Previous research suggests that this is the case for young people’s perceptions of sanction risks. Social scientists explain this by means of a decision process, which considers the perceived risk and intensity of punishment (as costs) and the assets of criminal offending (as benefits). When the cost outweigh the benefits, young people will decide against criminal offending. Thus, an increased perception of sanction risks has a deterrent effect on behavior. However, a reversed phenomenon implies that young people learn to make realistic assumption about sanction risks because of previous criminal behavior. Hence, personal experience leads to a decrease in the perception of sanction risks. However, which effect is dominant: a deterrence effect or an experiential effect?

ISS researcher Daniel Seddig and his colleagues Helmut Hirtenlehner (University of Linz) and Jost Reinecke (University of Bielefeld) examined this question in a study based on survey data from 1,950 adolescents in Duisburg. Results from statistical analyses indicate the dominance of an experiential effect. A systematic deterrent effect could not be verified.

Simple (criminal) behaviors are often carried out automatically and spontaneously. Therefore, expectations about the deterrent impact of threats of sanctions should not be exaggerated. However, the study could not exclude the possibility that small (sub-) groups of people respond to sanction risks. 

October, 2017

However, the approach is not entirely new. As early as the nineteenth century, Ernst Engel (1857) was able to establish a link between the level of income and the distribution of expenditures on various consumer goods: the higher the share of expenditure on food, the poorer the household. Hermann Schwabe (1868) was able to establish a similar relationship for housing expenditure. Consumption as an independent factor of social differentiation next to employment was already discussed in the early years of social stratification research. Pierre Bourdieu (1982), for example, mentions the consumption and leisure sphere as a decisive factor for the reproduction of class structures. While consumption is regularly used in lifestyle studies, the approach of using consumption expenditure as a wealth indicator has not been pursued too often, at least not for Germany. In the international context, there are several empirical studies, which use consumption expenditure to measure poverty and inequality and which explain why consumption expenditure is the more adequate wealth indicator compared to income. The fact that this topic is so little noticed in Germany is largely due to the fact that there was a long lack of meaningful and representative data bases. However, by providing the income and consumption survey, a detailed official statistics on the revenues and expenditure of over 60,000 households in Germany, the data infrastructure has improved significantly for the scientific community.

On this basis Katharina Hörstermann – together with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Andreß – investigated differences between an income- and an consumption-based analysis of poverty and inequality. The results of the DFG-funded study are broadly consistent with those from international research: based on consumption the level of poverty and inequality is below the corresponding levels based on income. Moreover, the populations of income and consumption poor only partly intersect, with the coincidence increasing over time. The consumption poor differ from the income poor, especially with regard to their assets: The percentage of home owners is high and correspondingly their debt ratio.

September, 2017

ISS researcher Sarah Carol and her colleague Nadja Milewski from the University of Rostock investigated attitudes towards abortion in Belgium, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Switzerland. The analyses are based on the EURISLAM survey conducted among more than 5,000 natives and Muslim minorities from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan.

The study shows that attitudes towards abortion vary across Western Europe (controlled for gender, age and education of the respondents). Despite similar regulations of abortion, natives in Germany are significantly more likely to oppose abortion than natives in France. The attitudes of Belgian, British and Swiss inhabitants lie in-between.

However, we see clear differences in the level of natives’ and migrants’ approval. While nearly every fifth migrant approves of abortion, every second native approves of abortion. These group and country differences can be partly explained by different levels of religiosity. Nevertheless, the gap between migrants and natives in France is the largest one. In relative terms, however, migrants and natives in France alike hold the least restrictive attitudes towards abortion. Overall, the similar country differences for migrants and natives suggest patterns of convergence.

August, 2017

Nowadays, people tend to expect a high level of emotional closeness and fair communication from their marriage, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of keeping a great deal of personal autonomy. It has been proposed that the emergence of so-called individualized marriages explains increased divorce rates. People’s expectations regarding emotional gratification from a partnership would be unrealistically high, flexible roles and frequent bargaining processes would erode relationship quality and more personal autonomy would decrease costs to dissolve a marriage.

ISS researchers Nicole Hiekel and Michael Wagner analyzed the link between marital practices grasping the degree of individualism within a marriage and dissolution risk using data of the German Family Panel (pairfam). Approximately 3,000 men and women who were married to their partner in the first year of data collection (2008) for a duration between one and twenty years had been observed during the subsequent seven years of their marriage. During that period, every eighth marriage had been dissolved.

The yet unpublished study shows that individualized marital practices are widely diffused in the analyzed sample. Married women and men in Germany report a high degree of emotional closeness (intimacy), personal freedom (autonomy) and fair discourse in conflict situations (democracy). Such individualism within marriage is partly related to separation. Spouses who report a higher level of intimacy exhibit a strongly reduced risk of separation. This association is even stronger in long term marriages. Higher levels of autonomy are not related to dissolution risk. Spouses, whose conflict discourse is characterized by higher levels of democracy, hence large absence of dominance and permissiveness have a reduced risk of marriage dissolution at later years of their marriage. These results suggest that couples with individualized marital practices have more stable marriages because they successfully practice mutual appreciation both in harmonious and conflict situations, and particularly so at later years of their marriage.

Juli, 2017

Consumption patterns, i.e., how total consumption is divided among different consumption categories, are usually regarded as an indicator of a person’s lifestyle. Each person must invest a certain part of its expenses in securing its basic needs. The rest of the disposable income can either be saved or, depending on the person’s preferences, be spent on different consumption purposes. For a long time it has been a controversial question of which factors influence a person’s consumption pattern. On the one hand, it is argued that socio-demographic characteristics, in particular income, determine how we consume. On the other hand, it is pointed out that by the dissolution of traditional ties and the general increase in the standard of living, the possibilities for individual life-styles have increased and the binding character of role-specific consumption norms increasingly dissipated. This in turn results in a decay of homogeneous, class-specific consumption styles and a destratification of consumption patterns.

In a recent German Science Foundation project, Katharina Hörstermann – together with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Andreß – analyzed consumption patterns in Germany using data from the income and consumption survey of the years 1978 and 2008. Her study shows a change in the structure of consumption: expenditures on food, drinks, tobacco, clothing and footwear as well as furniture and household items were decreasing, while expenditures on housing, health and personal care, transport and news, and leisure time were increasing. They examined whether changes in the age and income distribution as well as in average household sizes in Germany between 1978 and 2008 can explain this change.

A descriptive comparison of the consumption patterns of different birth cohorts controlling for age, income and household size showed different patterns between cohorts that could ot be explained by effects of age, income, or household size. The results of a decomposition analysis, which kept the distribution of age, income and household size constant between 1978 and 2008, confirmed this result: socio-demographic changes are not able to explain the aforementioned shifts in the expenditure shares of different consumption categories. Much more, it seems that people have more possibilities to align their spending profile more strongly according to their own preferences.