Research Roundup

Psychology graduate students are involved in a host of innovative research projects addressing many aspects of the human brain, body and behavior. Here are some brief profiles of student researchers-how they got started and where their research is going.


Memory and decision-making

Human emotions about the past and future are more fluid than most people expect, says John Petrocelli, a first-year student in social psychology at Indiana University Bloomington who previously completed three years in counseling psychology at the University of Georgia. Petrocelli has been studying how people evaluate past experiences. In his research, participants asked to remember more childhood events were more likely to rate their childhood as negative, especially if they believed an unpleasant childhood is more difficult to remember than a pleasant one. They seemed to partially base their evaluations on the difficulty of remembering childhood events.

"When people are asked to recall several childhood events," Petrocelli explains, "they tend to infer something from the difficulty associated with the recall experience that goes above and beyond the content of the instances that are recalled."

In the future, Petrocelli plans to examine mental shortcuts to decision-making and how they affect people's judgments of past, present and future well-being. A person's memory of falling out of an apple tree might not seem like it has earth-shattering consequences, but Petrocelli believes judgments and expectations are key to happiness-promoting behaviors.


Detecting depression vulnerability

Eva-Maria Gortner's language research at The University of Texas at Austin may one day help psychologists detect vulnerability to depression or post-traumatic stress. Gortner, a third-year student in counseling psychology, has found language-use differences among people who have depression, those who are susceptible to it and those who have not, at that point, been depressed.

Word choices, she says, seem to reflect (and maybe even foreshadow) mental health problems. Participants in Gortner's project write essays about themselves, which she runs through a computerized text-analysis program. People suffering from depression, she says, use more negative than positive emotion words, many body-related words, and "I," "me" or "my" more often than those without depression.

While conducting research on language and traumatic events after the bonfire accident at Texas A&M University in 1999, Gortner found that community coping could be seen in the language changes in the school paper and the records at the university health center. Gortner has co-authored several articles on the research into depression and coping language.

Of this language-analysis method, developed by James W. Pennebaker, PhD, and colleagues, Gortner says, "I get really excited about this research because looking at people's language is a different way of conceptualizing psychological state and cognitive processes."


Training pilots

Although expecting the unexpected may sound like a contradiction, Katherine A. Wilson, a fourth-year student in human factors psychology at the University of Central Florida, wants to know how to teach pilots (and the rest of us) how to do just that.

As part of a joint project of the university's Institute for Simulation and Training and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Wilson conducted a literature review on unexpected events, then helped formulate suggestions on how people (especially pilots) might be trained to react to them.

With further funding secured from the FAA in December, she moved on to investigate how preflight briefings for general aviation pilots affect their reactions to unexpected events. She uses a PC-based flight simulator to test their reactions.

Wilson will present her work this month at the International Symposium on Aviation Psychology in Dayton, Ohio, and plans to submit the findings to an aviation journal. "We hope," she says, "to take the findings of this study and apply them at a commercial airline as part of their training program, including simulation-based...flight training."


Children's suggestibility

Every year, thousands of children are interviewed in legal cases, but it's difficult for interviewers to know just how suggestible an individual child is or how careful they need to be with their interviewing techniques.

To assist them, Tomoe Kanaya, a fourth-year student in developmental psychology at Cornell University, has helped validate the Video Suggestibility Scale for Children (VSSC), a tool that measures young children's suggestibility, and her work was published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 8, No. 4).

Kanaya worked with Matt Scullin, PhD, a graduate student when the research began, but now an assistant professor at West Virginia University. In their study, 50 preschoolers either helped a stranger find a lost toy or witnessed a stranger sprain an ankle. Researchers questioned the children, implying strongly that they'd participated in both events or that different things had occurred. Then, the researchers tested them with the VSSC, showing them a video about a birthday party followed by suggestive questioning. Kanaya and Scullin found that-for children older than four and a half years-the VSSC could determine who would be more suggestible.

Kanaya says her collaboration with Scullin was very rewarding, since Scullin had experience in research design and the suggestibility literature, while she had experience with observational data analysis and coding.

Kanaya says, "It was this give-and-take environment that brought out the best in all collaborators, improved the level of research and made the experience really rewarding for everyone."


Grabbing our attention

Whether it's scanning a crowded restaurant to find a friend or looking at a list of files on a computer, we all spend much of the day searching the environment.

Michael Proulx, a third-year student in the department of psychological and brain sciences at The Johns Hopkins University is investigating what affects that searching and what grabs our attention.

Previous research showed that new objects appearing in people's fields of vision are most likely to attract attention, so Proulx and his colleagues wondered about the effects of larger and brighter objects. So far, they seem to also be attention grabbers, but they aren't as effective as novelty.

As a research fellow, Proulx has been studying the effects of changes in the difficulty of search tasks. "Counter to intuition," he says, "our preliminary results suggest that increasing task difficulty might actually decrease the likelihood that something like a bright object would be distracting." He believes this is because difficult tasks make people concentrate harder.

The work has important practical applications, notes Proulx. For example, he is assisting the Transportation Security Administration with baggage screening procedures at airports.


Community health survey

For the past few years, Marina Tolou-Shams has been helping the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago study health behaviors and demographics in the lesbian and gay community.

Patients are not always willing to discuss their sexual orientation with their primary-care provider, says the fifth-year student in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and many providers don't ask about sexual orientation because they don't see that it affects health outcomes. She hopes to tease out important health issues and dilemmas facing lesbians and gays, and present that information to health-care providers. Toward this end, Tolou-Shams and her colleagues at the health center created a survey-distributed at various community events-asking for demographic data and about various health behaviors.

"The [survey] was actually an additional project I was working on due to my own interests, but then turned into data that I was able to use for my clinical preliminary examination," Tolou-Shams says.

The results, with data from more than 1,000 people, have already been distributed in such diverse venues as newspaper articles, academic and clinical conferences and a pharmaceutical magazine.

"We hope that distributing our results widely will spur conversation between provider and patient," Tolou-Shams says, "and hopefully lead to more [lesbian and gay] patients feeling comfortable accessing care and getting their needs met."