#21: The Circuitry Behind our Social World


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

Today we’re excited to share the second part of an episode recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic with UCLA social well-being expert, Dr. Ted Robles. In last week’s episode, Ted defined and discussed the importance of social well-being as a social determinant of health. Join us, as Ted and I continue our conversation, where we will be exploring how social well-being affects the biological processes behind stress, how social media can hijack our reward systems, and much more. In your research, in your lab, you talk about two sets of biological processes. And I’d love you to describe what you mean by allostatic processes and restorative.

Dr. Ted Robles  00:50

Yeah, well allostatic is a term that – I believe he was a physiologist by trade – Peter Sterling coined. I want to say in the late 1980s, and then one of the big researchers in our field who study stress, Bruce McEwen, really took that up and coined the term allostatic load. Now, what allostasis basically is – is when we are faced with challenges in life, we have to change; and we have to change physiologically in order to deal with those changes. And so this – the sort of classic thing would be any kind of physiological changes that occur because you’re being chased by a scary person or animal; or because you’re facing an impending – you have to give a lecture to your class, and you’re sort of nervous to talk in front of people. So these are all kind of changes in our environment. We have to adapt to them in some way, whether through increasing the amount of energy that our brain and our body needs to manage those challenges to prepare for threats like getting wounded, to increase the amount of blood oxygenation, because I need to use blood oxygen in order to fight or flee. So all of those changes that we go through when we face some change in the environment, those are what others and myself term allostatic processes: maintaining survival through change. But of course, usually those things end. So you know, it’s not that I’m running from a lion that’s chasing me forever. At some point, the lion goes away. And so now I’m left back to recover and restore stored energy, or start to store energy again – I should say – repair any wounds that I’ve encumbered as a result of fighting off the lion. And so restorative processes have to do with the things that are involved in repairing and bringing our systems back to before we faced whatever challenge it was. A lot of repair-related things from the level of wound healing to DNA repair would be included; mechanisms involved in energy storage, so instead of breaking down glycogen to make glucose, storing it back up again, and storing back up the, you know, energy in the form of lipids. Those are all restorative processes. And so sometimes you’re going to need to engage in allostatic processes to cope with change, and then there’s going to be a lot of other times where you’re just going to need to prepare and restore back. And that’s what the restorative processes are.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:19

So how will your body respond to a constant threat? Can you actually –

Dr. Ted Robles  03:27

That is a great question.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:28

– deal and actually trigger restorative processes if you recognize this and can like through meditation…? I don’t know what it would be, but –

Dr. Ted Robles  03:37

Yeah. And that sort of – so I think about something like noise pollution, for example. If you live in an area where, you know, you’re constantly being exposed to pretty high levels of noise, all the time, and it never remits, right? Can one truly ever have a period where, you know, your systems are at a point where you could start to reengage those processes again? And probably the answer is, to some degree, no. So when I think about how factors could disrupt these restorative processes, I usually like to think of like a home remodeling analogy and how home remodeling can go wrong. So one is that –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:13

Doesn’t it always go wrong? That’s why I’ve never done that.

Dr. Ted Robles  04:17

Right, right. So one possibility is that the materials that you use, they just don’t work as well, right? So, like you get some drywall that’s defective for some reason, or maybe some screws wear too much, or something like that. And so likewise, some of the materials that we might be using to, or the processes that we use to repair ourselves, might not go as well as we would like. So DNA repair mechanisms, for example. So you can imagine that under conditions of constant exposure to, you know, you name the problematic thing, that while we have mechanisms to repair DNA, they may not work as well, all the time. And so you may not get repair as reliable as you would like, and then you have cells running around that have some slight, you know, slight mutations in the code that they use when they’re doing their regular activities. And then, you know –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:11

And what happens then?

Dr. Ted Robles  05:13

And then later on – and then maybe at worst, you have cells that accumulate enough mutations where they develop into, say, cancer cells or something like that. That’s kind of, you know, the accumulation of multiple mutations. But certainly, all of that kind of starts with faulty DNA repair.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:29

And that’s what you hear a lot more people say, “Oh, this person was in a lot of stress, and they developed cancer.”

Dr. Ted Robles  05:36

Right, right. It’s got to be one – it has to be one, among many things that go wrong.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:40


Dr. Ted Robles  05:40

But certainly, it could be one things that go wrong. Another possibility is that the repair just takes – now this is a very common, you know, kind of home remodeling complaint, which is that the repair just takes longer than I would have wanted to. So I think that’s where a lot of the delayed wound healing becomes really – it is relevant. So in wound healing, if your innate immune system is busy cleaning up all the bacteria that have invaded your wound, and they’re not cleaning it up in a timely manner, that wound is gonna take longer to heal. And so, again, this is where this repair process is supposed to happen. Ideally, we’d like it to happen within a certain timeframe, but it takes longer. And so if you’re exposed to chronic conditions, you could imagine things being prolonged. And then the third thing is that sort of normal processes that you would use to kind of do things, like store energy, that they go awry. So my favorite example of this is disruptions to sleep and what they do to insulin resistance. So you could imagine that we evolved a mechanism where, sure, after a short night of sleep in our ancestral environment, it was really important for us to maintain high circulating levels of glucose, because maybe that was adaptive. You know, the reason I wasn’t sleeping was because, you know, some kind of problem was happening in my environment. Maybe there was an invading tribe, or something like that, and we had to move quickly to get to another place to safety. And because I’m not sure I’m safe yet, it would be helpful for me to have high levels of circulating blood glucose. Well nowadays, why don’t we get enough sleep? It’s because I stayed up late looking at my phone, and you know, doing some other things; it wasn’t because I was really concerned about my well-being, but my body doesn’t – you know, like about my survival – but my body doesn’t know that. And so my body still reacts to sleep deprivation with insulin resistance. And if you accrue that over time, it’s a normal thing, to some degree, and it has a purpose. But then you end up running into problems later. And then there’s other interesting things related to how sleep deprivation might impact your appetite. And so again, if I am in an environment where I’m sleep deprived, perhaps it’s because I’m in an uncertain environment, so I need to have energy. But in the current environment, where food is readily available, my increased appetite might actually work against me. And so those are some examples of how, again, the chronic exposure to stressful experiences can short-circuit, or maybe kind of hijack, some of these restorative processes that ultimately hurts our health.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:20

So in a circumstance, for instance, of somebody who is living in a world where there – there’s bias against them, how does that play into it?

Dr. Ted Robles  08:29

Well again, so just like feeling unsafe, you could imagine the same kind of thing where if I – so this is another important piece about social relationships and health and related to the smoking thing. You know, the reason why smoking is pernicious and problematic is because it happens every day. And so, you can imagine the same thing happening if I’m in an environment where I feel bias, both explicitly, but also where I – some of this may be internalized, where I don’t view myself favorably, because of what society has taught me. You could imagine those same experiences on a day-to-day basis where I feel under threat. I’m worried that I’m going to do something that then shows people that “yep, you know, people like me are not smart, or they are not capable,” that kind of thing. And every day of living in that manner activates my sympathetic nervous system, which then activates, you know, my immune system to be more vigilant, and that’s my daily experience, and then that might have long-term cardiometabolic costs.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:41

So if we dissect your definition of social well-being, and I want to make sure I don’t forget some of the important aspects that you shared, which I thought were so very insightful for me is the high quality relationships that allows you to be able to feel like you can depend on someone; that you can turn to them for help; that you can get advice from them; and then also that you can do the same back. Maybe not to the same person, but maybe to another person. And I always sort of equate this to, if I was on a deserted island, who would I want to end up with?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:25

Right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:26

And I’m just wondering, there’s also the definition that you have common interests or you have – so is there any data out there that talks about how to promote or reduce bias?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:42

Sure. Right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:43

And how – would that be sort of just relying on what you’ve just described as the definition is building those kinds – so what is it?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:52

I’d like to, again, if you think about – I’m using the lens of our kind of the study of social relationships and this idea of being understood, for example, and valued –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:06

Yeah. Understood. That’s so important, right?

Dr. Ted Robles  11:08

Yeah. And when you imagine that you are working together towards a common goal, you know, that brings with it some –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:15

Well common values, right?

Dr. Ted Robles  11:16

Yeah, yeah. Right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:17

If you’re working on the same thing.

Dr. Ted Robles  11:18

Exactly. So I know that this person who’s with me knows that I think “x” is important, that I think social justice is important, or the environment, or that I think education is really important; and I know that person knows that. And because we work together on these common things, I know that person values my contribution, for example. And maybe, there are times when, in the process of working on these things together, that I need help from this person from time to time, and I know that that person can be there for me when I need it. And so I think there’s definitely something to be said, for working together on common goals and objectives, and cooperating around those things. That is sort of critical to fostering connection and critical to fostering feeling like you’re, you know, included, and combating, you know, many of the sort of bias problems that we’ve been talking about. And again, if you think about it, small, we evolved in small groups of people, and where we were doing nothing, but trying to solve common problems together, like, what are we going to eat? Are we going to stay safe? You know, what is our shelter gonna look like? What How can we keep everybody is sort of, you know, alive as possible. And so we were, you know, that I’m not the one who’s made this argument, there’s been plenty of others to really talk about this. But, you know, the idea that we evolved as social species to solve problems together, I think that’s something that in our kind of attempt to be self reliant, ends up being lost, in some ways. Right, and also our attempt to include others. Again, it’s not enough to have everybody around the table, we all have to like work on something together around this table.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:10

Yeah. Well, the cultural part about being self reliant, I mean, it’s not completely adopted by everyone in the United States. I mean, we’ve got right many cultures that are much more collective.

Dr. Ted Robles  13:21

Yeah, absolutely. Right. Right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:23

Yeah. So what are you seeing the difference – what’s the differences between a collective versus individualistic?

Dr. Ted Robles  13:31

So some of it has to do with how you see yourself relative to other people. And so there are certainly some cultures where I’m not defined by standing apart from how I’m different from everybody, but I’m also defined by who I’m with, essentially, so that I am part and parcel of, you know, a bigger, other group of people. And how I function in that group – well, it’s really not about how I function in that group; it’s how we sort of function together. That’s a lot of how I think about that, is how – and that’s work from people like Hazel Marcus, for example. And so yeah, you’re right. And that idea that people are separate from others, so independent – you see that in some groups, but there are other groups, for instance – and I know she’s done work to this effect – where more blue collar, sort of lower income, people in society who are lower income, for example, they do tend to see themselves as sort of interwoven with another.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:28

I didn’t realize there was a socio-ecoomic aspect.

Dr. Ted Robles  14:29

Yeah, there’s an interesting socio-economic aspect.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:33

My observation, having taken care of predominantly Mexican-American families, is in Mexican culture a collective culture is much more dominant and very much family-focused, and not necessarily just the nuclear family either.

Dr. Ted Robles  14:53

Right. And that’s totally, absolutely true. Yeah, exactly. And then what I know less of and will be interesting to think about is, if you looked at that across the entire spectrum within that culture, in terms of socio-economic status, for example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:05

Yes. I don’t know that, yeah.

Dr. Ted Robles  15:06

But at least – I know she’s studied, at least in the States, you do see -and again, some of this is also because who tends to be more lower income in the United States because of history, and discrimination, and prejudice? That tends to be underrepresented minority groups, who also tend to have much more collectivistic beliefs, as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:28

From the cultural aspect. That’s more room for research, right? Every time you have a conversation with a researcher, you always come up with more questions, right? That’s the great thing about research, though – lots of questions, lots of answers. And so, you know, speaking of sort of the new, sort of where we’re heading. You know, the smartphone, or some people call the dumb phones. Gosh, I don’t use that word. But, you know, the not-so-smartphone. But what is it – you know, where does this land in terms of social well-being?

Dr. Ted Robles  16:02

Right, right. I mean, certainly technology – it’s certainly a tool – and just like any other technology or tool, it can be used in both the right and wrong ways. And I think one of the challenges we face – I’m thinking a lot about some writing that some of my colleagues have done. So, one of my co-authors on the American Psychologist paper where we were looking at social connections and health, he has a really nice piece coming out soon on smartphones, and technology, and relationships. And the way they describe it is kind of like – I guess a good analogy would be something like sugar. So sugar – processed, refined sugar – is a technology; it’s a tool that we use to make food. It’s certainly something that would not have developed, were it not for, you know, the industrial process, right? And it’s something that, for better or for worse, we can easily misuse. And the way we misuse it is, we hijack our existing circuitry – our neural circuitry, our physiology. Sugar hijacks that, right? It’s highly palatable, we like it, we have systems evolved to really want it, because we didn’t get it very much when we were evolving.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:15

And also masks the flavor of salt?

Dr. Ted Robles  17:17

Yeah, right. Exactly. So it has all these things that it does, that we want. And we have created a world where we are – we’re sort of hijacking and taking advantage of that in some ways. You can say that a food company, for instance, is taking advantage of that and making a high density, you know, processed food and testing out what flavors work, etc. So the reason I say sugar is because, if we think about, you know – I alluded earlier to social relationships and social well-being as involving circuitry that includes pain, and hunger, and reward. And we have circuitry that is sort of built for social rewards. I mean, there’s something highly rewarding about having a wonderful connection with somebody, and being able to have a good conversation, feel understood, valued, and cared for, etc. And what the smartphone has done is it is, kind of like sugar, it’s hijacking that circuitry in some ways. On one hand, you can hijack that circuitry for good. So if you’ve got someone who – so using sugar as analogy – like if I’ve got a child who’s really having trouble with gaining weight, and in order to be healthy, like, I can give them and ensure something, you know, that has a lot of sugar to help them get the nutrients they need. Likewise, you know, if I have someone who’s really socially isolated, like the smartphone is a really great way to kind of get them connected in some ways. But I think what people are finding is that the hijacking has much more cost right now, particularly when there’s cost to our sort of offline relationships. And if a smartphone can help us connect better with the people that we’re with, together, like offline, that’s good; but when it disrupts those offline relationships, that’s where it’s a problem. And it’s really good at doing that, because it pushes all our buttons related to social connection, right? It makes it really easy for me to see what’s happening with my friend in Pittsburgh that I haven’t seen in a long time. “And boy, look at those pictures, they’re really interesting.” Or let me watch this video of my friend jumping into a pool. And that, unfortunately, can then take me out of my offline relationship – the person I’m sitting with right now – and can make me less responsive to them. And their whole argument is that technology is a problem when you become less responsive to the people that you’re actually with physically, and that that’s the problem that we have to reckon with. It’s still good in terms of – it can be good in terms of deepening those relationships, but you have a kind of unbalance. There may be more of a problem right now than the benefits in terms of deepening. And then if you have wholesale replacement of offline relationships, that’s even worse. Right? So now my only social connections are online, and that’s problematic.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:08

And that’s what people are concerned about for college students; which it’s nice they’re keeping up with their high school friends, but they then don’t get engaged with their immediate surroundings.

Dr. Ted Robles  20:18

Right, right. And in terms of developing skills and developing new in-person relationships – that’s what our brains evolved for. And that’s, to some degree, what we probably want ultimately, as a species.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:33

Although it can be uncomfortable, to create new friendships.

Dr. Ted Robles  20:36

Exactly. Yeah. But again, we struggle through that, right, and then we benefit through that struggle.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:43

And why do we benefit through that struggle? Why do we –

Dr. Ted Robles  20:46

You learn how to become more adaptable to other people in your environment. You know, you learn how to – you can attune to people better, in some ways.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:55

Which means you learn cues?

Dr. Ted Robles  20:56

Exactly. You learn cues. You learn what works, what doesn’t work, you know, those kinds of things. But when, you know, likewise, I suppose – I’m trying to think of a good food analogy that involves sugar. But, you know, sugar can, to some degree, be a little bit of a shortcut to flavor, so to speak. I guess maybe one way to think about it would be like you’re trying to – maybe you decide not to try making the really awesome-tasting mole because it’s just too complicated, and instead, you just, you know, eat the candy bar; when maybe, over the long-term, it might be more beneficial to learn how to make the mole or something like that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:31

Like I used to make carrot cake, and then I decided I just like the frosting – I just made the frosting.

Dr. Ted Robles  21:39

Yeah, yeah. So they argue that this – they use this term called technoference – that the big problem is when the phone takes us out of our ability to be responsive to others.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:53

Where it concerns me, and I know it’s a transitional period, but I feel that that’s what’s going on with the medical record – the electronic medical record.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:02

Yeah, well, that’s interesting.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:04

As I practice with the electronic medical record, I see how people and physicians are not able to connect. And there is data out there, now that’s reporting that physician burnout since the electronic medical record has come around. There’s a huge burnout, and I think that’s probably because physicians, I mean, the hypothesis is that they’re missing that social connection.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:33

Right, right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:34

Yeah. I’m sure the patients are feeling the same way, but from a physician’s point of view it’s really tough.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:40

And being a developing physician, you know, someone who’s learning – so like a first or second year resident – you’re not developing the cues to things to attend to, the skills.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:49

That’s a tough one, especially in my field, pediatrics. Because it’s very much – you always had to tell the residents, when I was training them, to trust your instincts. You walk in, and some kid with an 104 fever is going to ride through, because it’s a virus; and the next one could be at death’s door.

Dr. Ted Robles  23:10

Right, right. But your got to –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:11

I know it, and you know it, because you get good at it.

Dr. Ted Robles  23:14

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, and the sort of depressing news about that is that, in terms of the technology piece, is that – there haven’t been as many studies of this yet, but from what I was reading, and I mean, it sort of jives with my experience, too, is – when we’re on our phones, we’re not really, or when we’re typing on the electronic medical record, we’re not really aware of how not responsive we’re being, right? Because, you know, I’m doing something really important, right? I don’t realize that I’m not being as responsive as I should be. And you see that in surveys. So, I think it’s something like a pretty low percentage of individuals describe that they are not attending to people when they’re on their phones. You know, it’s kind of the same thing – I’m trying to think of an analogy where, you know, we often don’t think we’re doing something when, in fact, you know, that’s harmful, when in fact we are. I feel like driving, or something like that would be good example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:10

Very good example. Because people think they can text at stop signs, or things like that.

Dr. Ted Robles  24:18

Right, right. Yeah, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:22

My daughter taught me way back before electronic medical records that I couldn’t be on my computer and doctor at the same time. And she still catches me sometimes when I’m on the phone with her, and she goes, “What are you doing? Are you doing something else?” She can totally pick it up. So I’m busted and I – thankfully, she’s very acutely aware of the circumstances. You know, I’d love to read that paper you just described to me. Yeah, I think this information’s cool. We’ll have to have it – we’ll have it online, too, so people can read it.

Dr. Ted Robles  24:58

Yeah, it’s freely available, too, through this service, or this site called PsyArXiv, so preprint – it’s a preprint.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:06

Fantastic. And getting to papers, you’re – one of your recent papers, you talk about the relationship between between culture and social support across different communication contacts – face-to-face and text messaging. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Ted Robles  25:22

Yeah, sure. So this is a project by a developmental psychology student who – so she had a long-standing interest in culture and communication, and what forms of communication might be more beneficial to others. So one of the really interesting findings in work on culture and social support is, you know, the idea of asking for help, depending on what culture you’re in, can be very threatening – it’s just like something you don’t do. So if you tend to be in an interdependent culture, so Asian cultures tend to be kind of the prototype here, you know, asking for help is incredibly threatening. And some really interesting work actually done by a former colleague here at UCLA, Shelly Taylor, finding that if you were – so participants who were randomly assigned to either write a letter asking for help, versus just describe the people in your social network, versus don’t do anything at all. Those folks did that – so they either wrote a letter asking for help, they either wrote a letter describing their social network, or they didn’t do anything at all. They were then asked to give a speech and do some mental arithmetic, a typical laboratory stressor.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:29

Really? Arithmetic? That relaxes me.

Dr. Ted Robles  26:33

Yeah. “So take that number 1792 and subtract 13.” So in this study, there was a group that was either Asian or Asian American, and there were also European Americans, as well. And again, they were randomly assigned to one of these three groups. And the really interesting thing was, for the Asian/Asian American group, writing a letter asking someone for help, those individuals showed physiological responses to the stressor that looked just the same as people who didn’t have to write anything at all; but the European Americans, they showed less of a physiological response to the stressor. And then for the European Americans, asking for help was related to sort of lower physiological responses; and I don’t remember what happened to the European Americans who were just thinking about their social group. So all of this, and there’s some other data to suggest that, again, for certain groups, asking for help, it’s sort of culturally inappropriate and so potentially more stressful. So what about instant messaging? Because it’s not quite the same. So part of this might be just the face-to-face thing – meaning making a request for help.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:38

Even a letter is considered face-to-face?

Dr. Ted Robles  27:40

So, I guess the letter was less face-to-face, certainly; but I think probably the letter was less superficial than the instant messaging. So that’s where the instant messaging becomes interesting, because: 1) you’re not face-to-face; and then 2), I mean, I think there’s something about kind of the act of writing the letter –  It writes more formal – exactly. That was problematic. So what she was really interested in testing was whether face-to-face versus instant messaging versus no support at all, before you do this speech and math stressor, which of these would sort of buffer psychological, and biological, or physiological responses to the stressor? And would you see more benefits for one group versus another? Now what we ended up – I think because of our recruitment – what we looked at was actually, instead, independent versus interdependent self construals, which is exactly what we’re talking about earlier with collectivism versus individualism. So if you see yourself as apart from others – versus to-the-what degree you see yourself as connected with others – and the interesting thing there was that we saw that face-to-face and instant messaging, you saw sort of similar benefits in terms of reducing anxiety, so that was sort of good to know. And then we also saw that for people who were more independent, actually – like who sort of valued seeing themselves as apart from others – that’s where the, I believe, I want to say the face-to-face support was kind of most beneficial in buffering their stress responses. And we didn’t see anything for being more interdependent, but some of that might have been related to the sample that we had. And I’m trying to remember what happened for the Asian/Asian American group, I think their face-to-face and instant messaging ended up looking somewhat similar. So all of this suggesting that, again, for some groups, some types of support might be and requesting support – some modalities may be more helpful than others, and maybe taking some of the psychological distance might be more helpful on the instant messaging sites. So there’s an example of where this tool could potentially have benefits depending on what social group that you’re in.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:59

More formal. And so moving to other forms of communication, like social media, what do you think might –

Dr. Ted Robles  29:56

Yeah, so the challenge with that – I think that’s a little bit different than sort of an instant messaging platform, right? Because now, you know, that’s more bi-directional.  Whereas social media, I think the challenge is that you have more of this – I guess what I’ll call the sugar effect – which is like, you can always come back to it, it’s something that’s persistent, and so it can kind of take you out of your immediate experience. Whereas instant messaging, like it’s still a kind of a very intentional experience.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:28

Right, kind of conversation.

Dr. Ted Robles  30:30

Yeah. And so that’s kind of one of the, I guess, for lack of a better term, kind of dependent or addictive aspects of social media. So Peter, he developed a measure of digital support. And one of the things that is different from social media compared to all other forms of support, is what we’re terming response support – so that’s “likes,” basically. And so I say, you know, I write something, I post something, and I get a bunch of likes. And I think the issue there also is that hijacks, to some degree, our kind of circuits that evolved for processing reward and social reward. There’s some data from one of our colleagues in developmental psychology showing that in areas of the brain that sort of respond to things like pictures of food, and money, and that kind of thing; you see greater responses, when you see a picture that’s got more likes on it, compared to ones that don’t. And so clearly, that phenomenon of likes – what we’re calling response support – takes advantage of the circuitry of valuing things that are highly rewarding, kind of like sugar might, for better or for worse.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:43

And so, explain about social media – how does that become addicting?

Dr. Ted Robles  31:48

I think because we – it’s so easily accessible; it’s easy to get a quick hit, so to speak, of social reward, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:59

And what’s the social reward?

Dr. Ted Robles  32:00

So I got a bunch of likes on a picture I just posted, for instance, of something I ate, or of me doing something. And so then we kind of keep coming back to that. And again, they’re sort of empty calories, in a sense. Like, I feel like people like or validate me to some degree, but it’s not the same as a one-on-one or, you know, an experience with a group of actual, physical people.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:24

Right. You might not want to have them all on your desert island.

Dr. Ted Robles  32:27

Right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:29

Or that great New Yorker cartoon that had the one person in the pews of a person’s funeral, and they they said, “Oh, he had 2,000 Facebook friends.”

Dr. Ted Robles  32:38

Yeah. Right, right, right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:40

But only one person shows up at your funeral.

Dr. Ted Robles  32:42

Yeah, exactly. And again, I think sort of viewing – you know, it’s not like they’re empty calories all the time. But when someone’s just posting things, just to get likes – I mean, I’ve seen examples of this in the movies, you know, these sort of extreme examples – you can see where it becomes empty-calorie-like, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:59

Yeah, I get it. Well, it’s been an incredible conversation, so I’d like to just wrap it up with something that I’m sure everyone would love to hear from you, which is – what would you consider to be the most important steps that people can take to improve their own social relationships?

Dr. Ted Robles  33:18

Yeah. Well, I’ll go back to what I sort of started with, which I think is always good advice, which is – and I’m sort of stealing this a little bit from some of my colleagues in psychology, because they kind of came up with this first – it’s Tom Bradbury, and Ben Carney. They study couples, and they would hold workshops for couples, people who are interested in relationships. And what I like about this advice is that it’s consistent with what we study in relationship science, and it’s very simple; which is just to find ways to communicate every day to the people that are around you, that you understand, and that you value, and that you care about them, and that you communicate that in ways that they can see. As opposed to – I mean, it’s great to help people out, kind of in ways they don’t notice; but if you kind of make yourself seen and let them know that you get them, that you care about what they do, or that they’re in the world, and that you value them as a person, that’s something that – you know, if we think about not smoking every day is important – this would be something if you can do that every day would help really foster these kinds of high quality connection.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:21

And you receive something from that by giving.

Dr. Ted Robles  34:26

Exactly. Right, right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:28

There was a really great article that – is it Steve Lopez from LA Times? He was interviewing this woman in her 90s, and she has on her business card: “too blessed to be stressed.” And having that attitude – her nickname was Happy.

Dr. Ted Robles  34:47

Yeah. Right, right. Well if you think about resilience, right? You know, part of why she can’t be stressed is because she is too blessed. She has built up this resource of people and that kind of thing, and it can help you withstand the sort of slings and arrows of everyday life.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:04

That’s right. And apparently, up until recently, she was driving other people to church because they couldn’t make it with her – they couldn’t drive anywhere but she was there pooling away at 90 years old. Yeah, anyway – you know, Ted, it’s just remarkable the work you’re doing. And I just find, each time I talk to you, more pearls of wisdom and also things I can just apply to my own daily life so really appreciate –

Dr. Ted Robles  35:34

Well, the feeling is mutual, as well. I always learn more from, and I sort of get more inspiration from interacting with you, as well, so appreciate it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:42

Oh, thank you, Ted. Thanks for everything you do here at UCLA.

Dr. Ted Robles  35:45

Well, thank you for everything you do.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:50

Thank you for tuning into LiveWell, today. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To learn more about Ted’s research, please visit our website @healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. To stay up to date with our latest podcasts, make sure to follow our Twitter and Instagram @livewell_ucla.

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