Research Roundup

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


Computer training for at-risk youth

Instead of developing yet another anti-drug or anti-gun program for at-risk youth, Jason Lang decided to try providing a constructive alternative-computer training. Lang, a fifth-year student in clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, developed a curriculum that he hopes will bolster the educational motivation and career aspirations of Los Angeles-area teenagers in low-income housing projects.

Besides teaching the teens to use common software packages and scanning equipment and maintain and repair computers, the program also provides what Lang calls "a positive place" for participating teenagers to gather after school, and they become the trained staff for housing project computer labs. "Other kids in the community look up to them," Lang says. "And adults, who often think teens are up to no good, get computer help from them."

Lang has completed the pilot stage of the project and has moved on to training three groups of eight to 10 teenagers at two different sites. He plans pre- and post-participation assessments for each teen, measuring self-esteem, risk factors for violence, attitudes about school and their aspirations for the future. He will also interview parents about their children's behavior and use of free time, and he hopes to take into account students' school grades and attendance records as well.

"The broad goals are to get adolescents excited about something positive, get them to feel better about themselves, give them concrete skills they can use in the real world [and] train them to be leaders in their community," Lang says. "It is immensely rewarding to see you are making a real difference in real kids' lives at the same time you are collecting data."


Thinking about problem-solving

When Jessica Fleck read the literature on the cognitive strategies people use to solve complex puzzles, she questioned the long-held notion that people need a sudden breakthrough in their thinking, or insight, to find solutions.

Now, in her own research on "the candle problem"-a standard task in cognitive research-Fleck is finding support for her skepticism. To solve the candle problem, participants have to figure out how to hang a candle on the wall using only a box of tacks and a book of matches-without allowing the candle to drip wax on a table beneath it. According to traditional ideas about problem-solving, participants must restructure their ideas about the tack box to realize that it can be used as a ledge to support the candle.

However, participants in her study didn't follow the traditional path: impasse, an "aha!" experience and a sudden solution. As they talked out their thinking about the problem, most never reached impasse, Fleck says, and they successfully created other solutions that work, often finding even better ideas than the box solution.

"Further, they don't solve the problem in a single restructuring, but instead seem to work gradually toward the solution," she says. "This is not to suggest that insight never occurs; only that the solution of insight problems via insight seems to be the exception rather than the rule."

Fleck has already presented her research at meetings of the Eastern Psychological Association and the Cognitive Science Society. She plans to elaborate on this research in her dissertation, investigating how different kinds of memory are involved in problem-solving.


Assessing peer-group effects

Could belonging to a "deviant" peer group actually benefit some adolescents? Hannah Moore, a fourth-year student in child and family psychology at the University of Miami believes it's possible and is testing her theory by asking high school students about their health behaviors, psychosocial functioning and relationships with other students.

More specifically, she's using questionnaires to determine their peer-group status as-according to labels used in the psychological literature-populars, jocks, brains, burnouts, alternatives and loners.

She's also exploring how belonging to those peer groups affects their mental and physical health.

Consistent with previous research, students in the burnout peer groups-identified by their peers as drug users and non-conformists-often engage in high-risk health behaviors and come from less functional families. More surprisingly, Moore finds that their social functioning tends toward average, they have normal levels of depression and self-esteem and actually have a little bit less social anxiety than other teenagers. Maybe, she suggests, they are partially protected by their friendships with other burnouts, in which they learn at least some necessary social skills.

Moore is expanding on this research for her dissertation, exploring the connections between depression and reactions to rejection among peers. She and two other graduate students plan to investigate high school students' experience of relational victimization-which includes starting rumors, excluding others from activities and taunting or teasing.

The same peer groups appear in schools across the country and across time, Moore says. "This suggests they have an extremely important role in adolescent development," she explains. "Eventually, I would like to apply this research to prevention efforts aimed at both psychological disorders and health behaviors."


Identifying dating-show viewers

Who stays at home on a Friday night to watch Brad spill his drink on Linda? And what do they learn about dating from Brad's behavior?

These questions fascinated Jonathan Roberti, who completes his doctoral program in counseling psychology this month at West Virginia University, and colleague Rebecca Mestemacher. They wondered what types of viewers were driving the explosive growth of television dating shows-from two on the air in 2000 to 29 in 2003. So, as a research project, they created a Web survey to determine the audience and the motivation for watching shows like "Blind Date" or "A Dating Story."

According to their preliminary analyses and consistent with their hypothesis, Roberti and Mestemacher found that sensation-seeking was the strongest motive for watching dating shows. Apparently, they found, sensation-seekers enjoy the vicarious stimulation and arousal associated with dating, sometimes even getting dating tips. Other research has shown that sensation-seekers are least likely to be watching news or dramatic programs, which are popular with viewers less focused on stimulation.

Roberti and Mestemacher aren't surprised that the new shows attract sensation-seekers, since they provide more intimate details than older dating shows like "Love Connection," which was filmed in a studio and featured after-the-fact discussion of the date. Now, Roberti notes, "The viewer gets a play-by-play, almost voyeuristic view of what's going on in these dates."

Participants from all over the country logged on to their Web survey, providing basic demographic data, personality characteristics and such television habits as hours per week spent watching television, how many dating shows they watched and their opinions of dating shows.

When the analysis is complete, Roberti and Mestemacher plan to submit their results to the Journal of Applied Psychology.


Investigating teamwork and rewards

Managers who want to reward employees who work in teams face a difficult decision: They could reward each team member equally, or they could reward members proportional to their contributions.

Andrea Sinclair, who earned her PhD in May from Virginia Tech, studied 132 work teams to see how different reward systems affected employees' productivity, cooperation and conflict. In general, she found that proportional rewards generate greater speed and productivity, but can also compromise cooperation and work quality. Conversely, equal awards appear to boost cooperation and quality, but may lower productivity.

"This places organizations between the proverbial rock and a hard place," Sinclair says of the findings, "because most often organizations simultaneously want to increase productivity and quality."

A compromise may lie in the concept of procedural justice-how clearly managers explain a given reward system and how fair it is perceived to be. Sinclair's research suggests that if workers understand the reward system and believe it is just, they are more productive and cooperative, no matter what system is used.

In March, Sinclair presented her findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and they were also published in February in the journal Small Group Research (Vol. 34, No. 1).


Learning about HIV-positive health behaviors

Thanks to new medical treatments, people with HIV are living longer lives, but that also means there could be more opportunities for the disease to spread. Concern about that possibility led Arron Service, a fifth-year student at Southern Illinois University, to measure the prevalence of high-risk sex and drug use in both HIV-positive and HIV-negative people in Illinois.

Service, a research associate on the HIV/AIDS Behavioral Surveillance Project, and his colleagues surveyed 42 HIV-positive and 42 HIV-negative people about their sexual behavior and knowledge-such as correct use of a condom. The groups showed no differences in knowledge or behavior, meaning they were equally likely to have either safe or unsafe sex. There was, however, a significant difference in their access to health services: HIV-positive respondents were significantly less likely to have full-time jobs and health insurance, leading to lesser access to doctors and medications. That is unfortunate, Service says, since many HIV interventions take place in medical settings. "No matter how great the behavioral intervention is," Service explains, "if HIV-positive [patients] do not have access to these interventions, high-risk sexual behaviors will continue." He adds that this means that access to health services has significant implications for HIV-prevention efforts. Service is co-writing a summary of the data for submission to several journals.