California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

Exploring the relationship between emotions and water issues

Children’s emotional experiences of drinking water can influence their behavior. Photo by Clemens v. Vogelsang/Creative Commons.

Parisa Parsafar is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at UC Riverside. Her work focuses on how children's experiences and management of negative emotions relate to differences in attention, memory, and learning.

You have recently written about the links between asthma and mental health in the Salton Sea area. Can you tell us a little more about that work?

Dust from the Salton Sea gets picked up by winds and distributed throughout the region, exacerbating air pollution problems. Salton Sea dust emissions are thought to contribute to the high asthma rates in the area, and this link between emissions and physical health has received a lot of attention. However, I was surprised to find that little had been written about the potential mental health consequences of the pollution, despite well-established connections between asthma and mental health problems. I wanted to bring attention to this issue so that it can be addressed as part of a comprehensive public health program.

I got involved with Salton Sea issues because of my fellowship with the National Science Foundation WaterSENSE Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, an interdisciplinary program for future water scholars. As part of the fellowship, I helped organize and host the Shrinking Shorelines conference that brought policy makers, scientists, stakeholders, local organizations, and community members together to discuss current issues and solutions. I used the blog to highlight the often under-acknowledged linkages between environmental and mental health, using the Salton Sea as an example.

The Salton Sea, where the receding water levels cause exposed playa dust to be kicked up into the air. Photo by Matthew Dillon/Creative Commons License.

As I have advanced in my doctoral training, I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between emotions, the environment, and health-related outcomes. My advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Davis, and I are exploring working with the UC Riverside BREATHE air quality research collaborative to look at the interplay of emotions and pediatric asthma in Imperial and Riverside counties. 

Can you tell us more about your research?

My core research focuses on how basic emotion development and management processes relate to cognition. This includes things like how children pay attention to, think about, and remember different types of emotional information. For example, I am investigating how early experiences of disgust and fear influence water contamination beliefs and water consumption behaviors among children. This is important because consumers say health-related threats are one of the main reasons they avoid drinking tap water and instead choose to drink bottled water. However, worries over water contamination in the U.S. are largely unsubstantiated. And, those concerns that are valid can often be ameliorated with simple, cost-effective water treatment solutions. But, people's negative emotional reactions to the idea of recycled and treated water mean these solutions are not often implemented while bottled water sales continue to skyrocket.

Disgust and fear are powerful emotions. Both can lead people to do things like avoid water altogether to manage these emotions. A better understanding of how emotions relate to cognition would help developmental psychologists, like myself, work with children to alleviate their water-related anxieties.

Although these might seem like individual issues, fear and disgust can have far-reaching consequences. For example, avoiding consuming tap water poses environmental threats, including increased plastic waste. In addition, children's water contamination concerns could also reduce their water consumption, which poses serious public health risks like dehydration and increased sugary beverage consumption.

My research has the potential to directly inform programs designed to mitigate and alter contamination-related water anxiety. And, children might be the most effective targets for environmental education programs to ensure that people hold more accurate water quality beliefs and engage in healthy, sustainable water consumption and utilization behaviors.

You are a Ph.D. student in Developmental Psychology, but are also pursuing a Designated Emphasis in Public Policy. Can you tell us more about that?

Parisa Parsafar, UC Riverside.
Throughout my doctoral training, I have become increasingly interested in the broader implications of my research. That is why I am pursuing a designated emphasis in public policy – to bridge the gap between research and its impacts. I recognize an urgent need for psychologists to become more involved in public policy, perhaps today more than ever.

I am also playing a substantive role in creating the Science to Policy Graduate Certificate Program with UC Riverside's Grad Division and Science to Policy Cabinet. It will be offered starting in 2019. We wanted to create an alternative program for graduate students who are interested in policy but aren't able to commit to the requirements of the designated emphasis. We will invite guest speakers and offer a series of hands-on workshops for students in a more applied format so they can learn how to communicate their research more effectively, reach broader audiences, and translate their work into policy.

What most excites you about psychological research as it relates to water issues?

I think one of the greatest challenges is clarifying the underlying role that emotional responses play in our beliefs, behaviors, and decisions. For example, the first step towards overriding and transforming people's emotional responses to recycled and treated water involves understanding how they were formed in the first place.

Our emotions serve as signals that provide important information about our current experiences. But, when they are inaccurate, exaggerated, or regulated poorly, they can lead people to engage in maladaptive behaviors that carry environmental and public health consequences.

Posted on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 10:22 AM

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