Ryan A. Brown, PhD

Ryan A. Brown, PhD

How sociocultural forces affect the cognitive, emotional, and biological determinants of violent and risk-taking behavior

Broadly, my research focuses on how sociocultural forces affect the cognitive, emotional, and biological determinants of violent and risk-taking behavior. While a Health and Society Scholar at UC-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley, I am pursuing two research projects to investigate the mechanisms connecting culture and social experience with destructive and self-destructive behaviors.

In the first project, I am collaborating with Margaret Kemeny and using a laboratory investigation to examine how ethnicity and social class affect emotional responses to social threat and resultant consequences for health. In this study, we combine video tapes of emotional responses to social threat with real-time biological (cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune) measurement and self reports of risky behaviors. Emotional responses to socially threatening situations in everyday life have biological and behavioral consequences with direct implications for physical disease as well as linkages to risk-taking behaviors. We hypothesize that anger may decrease pathogenic physiological reactivity in certain situations, but likely facilitates involvement in health risk behaviors.

In the second project, I am collaborating with Bonnie Halpern-Felsher to investigate whether cultural differences in cognitive and emotional style help account for two key patterns in the epidemiology of risk-taking behaviors: (1) First generation Asian and Latino immigrants often show lower engagement in many risk-taking behaviors than Whites or other ethnicities (controlling for SES), and (2) This protective effect is attenuated (or even reverses) with increasing acculturation and time spend in the U.S. This study employs a nationally representative sample of 600 emerging adults aged 18-24 (200 White, 200 Asian American, 200 Latino/a) to test competing hypotheses regarding the social and cultural determinants of racial-ethnic differences and the “acculturation gradient” in risk-taking behaviors. Specifically, this project examines whether individuals raised in more socially collective or family-centered cultural environments perceive greater social risks in behaviors that involve high immediate personal reward but potentially long-term social consequences (e.g. substance use, risky sex).

In the fall, I will begin an assistant professorship at Northwestern University at the School of Education and Social Policy. At Northwestern, I will establish mobile methods of cognitive, emotional, and psychophysiological assessment. This will allow us to take laboratory-based methods of emotion-induction and social experimentation “on the road” and into study participants’ homes. Such tools and assessment techniques provide a snapshot of the way that individuals respond to social situations in everyday life, and promise additional leverage for understanding health pathways in large longitudinal studies.

Recent awards

UC-San Francisco Health Disparities Working Group - Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [$22,348]. Race-ethnicity, acculturation, and disparities in risk-taking behavior: the role of enculturated worldview, acculturative stress, family processes, and social norms. Co-investigator: Bonnie Halpern-Felsher.

UC-Berkeley Population Health and Human Development Working Group – Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [$10,000]. Anger in social context: implications for physical disease and psychobehavioral risk. Co-investigator: Margaret Kemeny.

Recent publications

Brown RA, Adler NE, Worthman CM, Copeland WE, Costello EJ, Angold A. Cultural and community determinants of subjective social status among Cherokee and White youth. Ethnicity and Health, In press.

Weden M, Brown RA. Historical and life course timing of the male mortality disadvantage in Europe: Epidemiological transitions, evolution, and behavior. Social Biology: Biannual Journal of the Study of Social Biology, In press.


Ryan A. Brown, PhD
Northwestern University at the School of Education and Social Policy

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Ryan A. Brown, PhD