A behavioral economics approach to studying stress and mental health

Hey everyone! My name is Simon Wang, and I’m a junior from Wyomissing, PA. I am currently pursuing a BS in economics and psychology with a core interest in behavioral economics. One fun fact about me is that I worked for a funeral home during my gap year before starting college (please ask … I’m dying to talk about it)

After completing a Brackenridge Fellowship over the summer, I’m excited to continue my work in the Learning Imaging and Family Experience (LIFE) Lab this fall under the mentorship of Dr. Jamie Hanson. A neuroscientist by training, Dr. Hanson has spent much of his career looking at the effects of stress and adversity on the brain. On the other hand, I consider myself a behavioral economist and am interested in understanding cycles of economic inequality by studying human decision-making. Despite our differences, Dr. Hanson and I have found a fruitful area of collaboration in examining questions about poverty and economic circumstances.

Over the summer, we wrote a paper finding that socioeconomic status early in life has persistent negative effects on a decision-making concept known as “discounting”. Put simply, discounting is the tendency to devalue future rewards in favor of more short-term gratification. Greater rates of discounting correspond to a higher preference for immediacy which has been associated with academic achievement, social skill development, and multiple forms of psychopathology. This fall, I’ll continue to study discounting on a project aimed at understanding whether childhood stress relates to discounting and if this is related to poorer mental health, specifically major depression.

Throughout the semester, I will be extracting relevant data from the National Institutes of Mental Health’s archive, cleaning and organizing this data into a format suitable for statistical analysis, and modeling discounting rates using a novel statistical tool called Hierarchical Bayesian Analysis. I’ll then write up a manuscript and submit it for publication. Overall, my work contributes to our understanding of how poverty–and stressful environments more broadly–affect human flourishing which has important implications for economic and social policy. Given the continued prevalence of poverty here in the US and globally, these efforts are crucial to the creation and implementation of public policies that successfully move society toward the alleviation and eventual elimination of deleterious economic circumstances.

Moving forward, I plan to continue my work on economic inequality by pursuing a Ph.D. in behavioral economics. Obviously, one key element of preparing for graduate school is demonstrating the potential to perform quality research as an undergraduate, and the CURF has supported my continued work in this area. I look forward to using this time as an opportunity to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship, become a BPhil candidate, and complete another manuscript, moving me a step closer to my goal of becoming a leading behavioral economist and influential figure in economic and social policy.

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