Research Roundup

Silver microscope

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.


Applying psychology to conservation efforts

To develop methods to help primates bred in captivity survive after they are released in the wild, Matt Campbell, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin­Madison, trains tamarins to protect themselves against snakes. Cotton-top tamarins, an endangered species native to Colombia, lack an inborn response to many predators, explains Campbell. Rather, they learn how to protect themselves by observing the behavior of their parents toward dangerous animals. Unfortunately, says Campbell, often there are no acculturated adults available to teach survival skills to young captive tamarins, so Campbell uses recorded vocalizations to spur the animals to adaptive behavior.

For example, a cry termed a mob call, says Campbell, rallies tamarins in the wild to gang up and threaten an approaching predator. By working as a group, the monkeys can drive away some threats, such as boa constrictors. Primates innately understand these calls, though they do not always know when to use them, explains Campbell.

By pairing tape-recorded mob calls with the presence of a live boa constrictor, Campbell is training cotton-top tamarins with no prior experience with snakes to gang up on a predator, puffing up their hair and lunging at the threat-critical survival skills for tamarins in their natural habitat. Neither the primates nor the boa constrictor are harmed in the training. Though his tamarins will never be released from captivity, Campbell hopes his methods can be used to boost the survival skills of endangered primates scheduled for reintroduction into the wild.


Untangling determinates of human generosity

Participants in Deborah Small's research often go home with some extra cash; exactly how much cash, however, depends on the generosity of their fellow students. Small, a fourth-year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), is working with George Lowenstein, PhD, at CMU, to explore generosity. Using a variant of the "Dictator Game"-a procedure long used by experimental economists-Small provided some students with an envelope of tokens worth $10. The winning participants had the opportunity to share the bounty with students who earned no money in the random drawing.

Students presented with the option of sharing their windfall only knew the potential recipient by their identification numbers, so all students remained anonymous. However, some givers were told the identification number of who would receive their gift before choosing whether to share their wealth, and others picked the identification number after choosing to divide the prize. Small found that students who knew the ID number of their fellow student were much more generous than students for whom the recipient of the money was not determined until later.

This finding, explains Small, shows that pre-determining the recipient of a donation, even in the absence of meaningful information, can increase generosity-useful knowledge both for charitable organizations and psychologists interested in altruism.

In a companion study, Small found that, in soliciting donations for Habitat for Humanity, contributions increased when it was mentioned that the recipient of the donation had already been selected. Donors who read a letter that said specific beneficiaries had not yet been picked contributed less. Both studies were published in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (Vol. 26, No. 1).

According to Small, even without giving identifying demographic or personalizing information, altruistic behavior increases when a particular recipient has been singled out.


Reaching untreated binge eaters

While many psychologists focus their efforts on people who request help, Erin Dunn explores ways to reach students with eating disorders who are not necessarily aware of their problem. Dunn, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Washington, recruited 90 undergraduate students who, when surveyed, reported behaviors and attitudes indicating an eating disorder, but did not actively seek treatment.

Dunn gave all of the students a self-help book, and half of the students also participated in a one-hour motivational interview and feedback session to assess and discuss problem behaviors. Four months later, Dunn assessed students' readiness to change and eating habits using a battery of measures, including one she developed that was published in the September issue of Eating Behaviors (Vol. 4, No. 3). Dunn found that students who participated in the interview cut their binge eating by 38%, compared with a 25% reduction by the students who received only the self-help book.

According to Dunn, brief motivational interviews appear to be an effective and inexpensive way to help people with eating disorders who are not ready to delve into long-term therapy.


Inventing a new scoring tool for an old test

While working in a Fredericksburg, VA, child development center, Bill Lynch found that he was spending large amounts of time hand-scoring the adolescent version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-A), time that could have been better spent consulting with clients. Lynch, a fifth-year graduate student at Argosy University/Washington, D.C., experimented with different templates, and ended up hitting on a method that saved up to 25 minutes for each test scored.

The MMPI-A, one of the most commonly administered psychological tests, includes two tests for answer validity: the true response scale and the variable response scale. Unlike other MMPI-A scales, these measures require a scorer to compare two questions that may have occurred at very different places on the inventory, checking to see if respondents answer that they "never have headaches," for example, after marking 15 questions earlier that they "often suffer from migraines," explains Lynch.

Lynch created transparency sheets that overlay the MMPI-A answer key and connect related answers. The template, explains Lynch, improves both speed and scoring accuracy-saving the scorer from having to copy more than 100 answers from the client's answer sheet to the scoring sheet. He presented his innovation at the Virginia Psychological Association's fall convention and is patenting the template.

"Computer scoring costs anywhere from $12-$20 a test, so a lot of clinicians still use hand-scoring," says Lynch. "Using my template could save psychologists time and money."


Investigating negative body images in gay and bisexual men

In the course of working with gay and bisexual men at a Boston clinic, Sara Kimmel noticed that men with negative body images tended to link their body dissatisfaction back to an incident of homophobia in their lives. Kimmel, a fifth-year graduate student at Boston College, decided to investigate that observation further and studied the issue of internalized homophobia and gay male body image for her dissertation.

She surveyed 375 men recruited through online discussion groups with a variety of measures, including the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory and the Internalized Homophobia Scale. What she found confirmed her clinical hunch: Men who had high levels of internalized homophobia, expected to experience heterosexism in their daily interactions and demonstrated conformity to masculine norms tended to feel significantly more pressure to meet a masculine body ideal than those who had less experience with homophobia.

"What I heard from a lot of the participants is that after being told throughout their life 'you're gay, you're not a real man,' one of the ways they combat that stigma is by trying to create a physical appearance they feel good about-a strong, muscular, manly appearance," says Kimmel.

This finding could help to build a model for understanding the potential pathways of at least one kind of body image issue, says Kimmel, who presented her research at APA's 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto.


Exploring language and emotion

It is commonly accepted that talking about feelings can make a person feel better, but the way in which this happens is an open question. Fifth-year University of California, Los Angeles student Golnaz Tabibnia is working on answering that question by investigating the neurological underpinnings of language's effect on emotion.

In her research, Tabibnia shows participants disturbing images, such as a picture of a mutilated body, and monitors their emotional reaction by measuring heart rate, galvanic skin response and brain function through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In some instances, words that describe an emotionally neutral aspect of the picture are shown alongside the picture. Based on past research, Tabibnia expects that when these words are shown, they will activate the prefrontal cortex, the language center of the brain, and decrease activity in the amygdala, the brain region associated with negative emotions such as fear.

If higher cognitive functions, such as those involved in reading, can mitigate the effect of disturbing images, this information could be used to treat phobias, says Tabibnia. In a future study, she plans to expose arachnophobic people to pictures of spiders, a common method for habituating fears, and see if simultaneously exposing them to words such as "little" or "natural" helps lessen the emotional reactions of the participants.

"We have reason to believe that integrating verbal information to this treatment might boost the effect of this exposure," says Tabibnia.