I pursue a program of research broadly investigating psychosocial influences on health, with focal work in stress influences on cardiovascular disease risk as well as sociocultural aspects of racial/ethnic health disparities, particularly Hispanic/Latino physical health. At the University of Arizona I am the Director of the Social Risk and Resilience Factors (SuRRF) lab. The SuRRF lab largely focuses on testing biobehavioral pathways with an emphasis on measurement of acute cardiovascular responses including assessment of blood pressure and autonomic determinants of cardiovascular responses. I am a firm believer in team science and regularly collaborate with colleagues within and outside the University of Arizona.
Conceptual Framework: An Interpersonal Approach to Risk and Resilience
My conceptual framework is rooted in interpersonal theory and I have relied on methods and models from this approach to develop a program of research testing how our social lives may constitute an influential risk factor for disease. My general research program is focused on how individual psychological factors motivate patterns of social behavior which moderate interpersonal experience and health-relevant biobehavioral responses. Importantly, interpersonal interactions are transactional in that the behavior of one person influences the response of others. Much of my research tests transactional dynamics and their effects on acute physiological responses. This conceptual framework is evident in 2 major lines of work described below
Social Vigilance as a Biobehavioral Risk Variable
Social vigilance refers to an evaluation process by which the person appraises potential threats in their environment. For example, let’s say that you are waiting at a bus stop with several other people. Someone smiles at you, another reads a book while a third looks at you without smiling but looks away when you peer in their direction. You are likely to keep an eye on the third person to evaluate whether they are indeed a threat or not. This excess watchful attention is social vigilance. People engage in vigilance for a several reasons. First, some social environments demand one to engage in more vigilant behavior. Examples include living in a dangerous neighborhood or hostile work environments. Second, some social roles such as caregiving or working in security careers demand vigilance for problems or threats. And third, people who perceive the world as more threatening, who feel stigmatized or discriminated against, or those who feel vulnerable for whatever reason are more likely to engage in social vigilance.
Why is vigilance an important behavior to study? To begin, people in all these circumstances and groups tend to develop stress-related diseases at a faster rate than those who have less of those characteristics or who are not in those circumstances. However, there are relatively few clues as to why those relationships occur. Contemporary psychosocial risk factor research has concentrated on specific negative events (arguments, angry episodes, etc.). However, those states may simply be the rare end results of more frequent vigilant behaviors. Although some vigilance experiences may lead to conflict, others which do not but may still be important. Research in our lab has demonstrated that vigilant behavior produces the same physiological changes hypothesized to mediate the relationship between experiences of conflict and disease. Moreover, vigilant behavior may invite greater likelihood of conflict through proactive defensive posturing which may antagonize an otherwise benign social target. We are currently running a series of survey, laboratory, ambulatory, and longitudinal investigations examining potential relationships between social vigilance and health.
Hispanic/Latino Health: Disparities and Advantages
A second major line of work in my lab is focused on understanding and improving Hispanic/Latino health. Like other underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities, Latinos experience a disproportionate burden of low SES, poor access to care, and discrimination. Latinos are often at greater risk of exposure to communicable diseases and have undiagnosed or poorly managed disease. These factors add up to significant disparities in risk which needs to be more clearly identified and intervened upon.
Surprisingly, Latinos tend to experience better health and live longer than most non-Hispanics including non-Hispanic Whites; an epidemiological phenomenon commonly referred to as the Hispanic or Latino mortality paradox. Work in our lab has helped to advance understanding of this health resilience including validating the mortality finding, demonstrating the breadth of health effects, and advancing theories regarding the nature of such resilience. In several recent papers we’ve highlighted the potential role of culture as a moderator of social integration as a key determinant of disease resilience, progression, and survival. Our current work includes studies of state and national hospital utilization trends, community studies of stress processes, and laboratory studies of acute physiological mechanisms. This is an exciting area of work with opportunities to learn and inform the study of health resilience.