Expect more babies, more marriages and more divorces in New York City in the year following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, predict two psychologists who study how couples react to disasters.
That's because life-threatening events seem to motivate "people to take significant actions in their close relationships," professors Catherine L. Cohan of Penn State University and Steve W. Cole of UCLA write in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
At least that's what happened after Hurricane Hugo slammed into South Carolina in 1989, temporarily reversing a decade-long drop in the marriage rate there and sending the number of births and divorces shooting upward, Cohan and Cole report.
The evidence for their claim is limited but intriguing. Cole and Cohan analyzed South Carolina vital statistics data from 1975 to 1997 to track birth, marriage and death rates before, during and after Hurricane Hugo hit. In particular, they compared the statistics in the 24 counties declared disaster areas with the rates in the state's other 22 counties.
Lots of researchers have studied how disasters have affected mental health. But no one has studied how disasters affect couples and their decisions to marry, divorce or have children, Cohan claims.
What Cohan and Cole found seems to be at odds with each of the two leading theories about the effects of such disasters. One theory suggests that higher levels of economic and psychological stress lead to more divorces, as well as fewer marriages and births. But advocates of "attachment theory" cite evidence showing that people seek "proximity" during times of high stress, which suggests that marriage and birth rates might rise and the divorce rate might fall.
In fact, neither theory had it exactly right in the case of Hugo: The birth, marriage and divorce rates all spiked upward, Cohan and Cole found.
Before Hurricane Hugo, the marriage rate in South Carolina had been in decline, falling at an annual rate of 26 per 100,000 between 1975 and 1989. That downward drift came to a halt with the killer storm. The marriage rate statewide increased to about 44 marriages per 100,000 population in 1990, then fell again to pre-storm levels in 1991. (The overall marriage rate in South Carolina was about 2,200 per 100,000 in 1991.)
Births also increased. The birth rate in the years before Hugo had been flat. But in the year after the storm, the birth rate increased by about 41 births per 100,000 across the state. It fell back to pre-storm levels the following year.
But Hurricane Hugo also wreaked havoc on existing marriages. In the 12 months following the storm, the divorce rate rose by about 30 per 100,000 South Carolina residents before returning to pre-hurricane levels.
The research also suggests that the more immediate the danger, the greater the post-disaster effects. The birth, marriage and divorce spikes were significantly higher in the disaster-declared counties than in the other counties. And the rates were higher still in the seven counties that were first declared disaster areas.
Cohan and Cole say they don't know precisely why the rates went up. "The data tell us what people did, not why they did it," Cohan said.
But the spike in all three indexes is an important clue, according to Cohan. "What that said to us is that, in a life-threatening situation, people are motivated to reevaluate their lives, their goals, their futures and their priorities," she said. "There may be a feeling that life is too short and they are motivated to change whatever situation they are in, whether it is getting into a marriage or getting out of a bad relationship or having a child."
Even though Hugo was a natural disaster and Sept. 11 was the work of terrorists, Cohan said she's looking for a New York boomlet in births, marriages and divorces. "Given the fact that both were life-threatening, given the fact that both had long-standing negative economic consequences, I would expect that we'll see similar patterns." (She doesn't expect a similar effect in the Washington area, however. While tragic, the impact of the attack on the Pentagon was more limited, she said.)
There's already some anecdotal evidence of a Hugo effect in New York: Cohan noted that stories in the New York newspapers have reported changes in dating patterns that appear similar to those she and Cole found in South Carolina.
"There have been a number of reports in the aftermath of Sept. 11 about people either dumping girlfriends or boyfriends or jump-starting a new relationship or one that was not that intense," she said.
Candy's Dandy Your Unconventional Wiz wonders at times why he doesn't get better service at restaurants. After all, hardly a month passes that the Wiz doesn't report the findings of a study by an actual PhD-credentialed researcher suggesting how waiters and waitresses can increase their tips.
And yet the Wiz's fries continue to arrive cold and some delectables occasionally never arrive at all. Still, he perseveres. His latest piece of advice to America's servers: Try candy.
At least that's what professor David Strohmetz of Monmouth University and his research team found when they tested the power of sweets to boost tips at a restaurant in New Jersey, where the college is located.
The study went like this: A waitress, who was working with Strohmetz's team, would offer each customer one piece of chocolate, or two pieces or none at all when she brought the bill to the table. Then researchers tracked how much each group tipped. A total of 80 dining parties and 293 customers were included in the study.
They found that diners who received no candy tipped about 19 percent while those who received two pieces left, on average, a 22 percent gratuity, Strohmetz reported in the latest Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
But diners were most generous when the waitress first offered one piece of chocolate and then, before she left the table, offered a second piece. Those diners tipped 23 percent, on average, suggesting that it's "the amount of candy given to the customers as well as the manner in which it was offered" that determined the level of generosity, Strohmetz reported.