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News: Depression, Faith and Crime

The latest research on genes and depression, faith in our states and white collar crime.

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Pass It Along

Genes alone do not explain depression in families.

Depression often runs in families, but it's not clear how it is transmitted. Genetic predisposition and direct behavioral influence have been implicated. But a recent study suggests that there are subtle ways negative parental experience can give rise to depression among offspring.

Researchers at New York's Mount Sinai Medical School exposed normal male mice to larger, more aggressive mice, inducing a state of social defeat marked by depression. Offspring of the newly depressed mice were more likely to show signs of depression. The finding suggests the effects of stressful events were somehow passed on, even though the fathers never spent a second with their pups.

Had bullying changed the behavior of the dads' genes, perhaps by influencing chemicals that turn genes on or off—a phenomenon known as epigenetics? Neuroscientist Eric Nestler designed another study to take paternal behavior out of the equation. This time, mice were impregnated via in-vitro fertilization with the sperm of bullied fathers. Unlike their brethren born the old-fashioned way, the test-tube pups were not depression-prone.

Perhaps, in the first experiment, "the mother detects that she's been impregnated by a tainted father, and so treats her pups differently," says Nestler. Or maybe IVF doesn't transmit epigenetic changes in sperm the same way intercourse does.

Nestler concludes that stress and trauma in a father's life can be long-lasting, sometimes stretching across generations via epigenetic changes, maternal behavior, or—most likely—a bit of both. And although depression is more complex in humans than in mice, figuring out how mood disorders move through families is a key to stopping the cycle. —Tarah Knaresboro

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A Better Place

Under God—or over God? Faith varies by state.

Does God exist? It depends where you live. Researchers assessed the well-being of more than 300,000 Americans and then examined why some states embrace religion and others dismiss it. People who live in an economically depressed area—where food, safety, and education are limited—are more likely to have faith in a higher power and derive happiness from religion, researchers report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Here's how three states stack up:

Vermont: Least Religious

In a state like Vermont, where income and education are high and crime is low, residents are least likely to dangle rosaries from their rearviews or nail mezuzahs to their door frames. "When people can find social support, meaning, or purpose in life elsewhere," religion is less important, says Louis Tay, a psychologist at the University of Illinois.

Michigan: Moderately Religious

Michigan represents the country's median rate of religiosity. Spirituality is social: People are more likely to find faith when they live in states where a higher percentage of people are believers. In a middling state like Michigan, other factors—family, locality, personal circumstances—determine individual devotion.

Mississippi: Most Religious

When earthly conditions are bad, heaven looks especially appealing. Mississippi—which ranks near the bottom in income, health, and education—has the highest percentage of residents who say religion is important to their daily lives. Those worst off have the most to gain from religion, and prayer is most likely to bring happiness in places where it might otherwise be elusive. —Becca Weinstein

In Cold Blood

Four dirty truths about white-collar criminals.

MISCONCEPTION White-collar crimes are nonviolent.

TRUTH White-collar criminals do not hesitate to resort to violence to cover up their crimes. They tend to show a sense of entitlement, a need for control, and a lack of empathy—markers of narcissism and psychopathy that increase the risk of violence. "When you start to interfere with the goal of a criminal, it's going to be ugly," says attorney Frank Perri, who reviewed research on white-collar criminals in the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling.

MISCONCEPTION White-collar criminals are highly paid.

TRUTH Most white-collar plots would not succeed with only the head honcho dodging rules—they require a gaggle of lower-paid underlings, too, finds research from the University of Alabama School of Law. Followers tend to be seduced by the leader's charisma or by their own high hopes of increased status.

MISCONCEPTION White-collar criminals are otherwise upstanding citizens.

TRUTH Almost 40 percent of white-collar criminals have a previous criminal record, a 1992 study found. And some even have more checkered pasts than street offenders. Individuals convicted of mail fraud, for example, average more previous arrests than those convicted on narcotics charges.

MISCONCEPTION It's all about cash.

TRUTH For rich executives, the monetary benefit of, say, insider trading is minimal. Martha Stewart, whose net worth was $650 million, saved a paltry $45,673 in stock losses. Utpal Bhattacharya of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business suggests that peer pressure, company culture, and pure hubris spark insider trading far more than greed. —Mary Diduch