Research Roundup

Pencil laying in a open book

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.


Observing primate behavior

A 300-pound gorilla does not just sit wherever it wants. Rather, an ape's proximity to others in its social group demonstrates aggression or reconciliation, depending on the situation, according to research by Suma Mallavarapu, a second-year comparative psychology graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As one of the first to investigate the post-altercation behavior of Western lowland gorillas, Mallavarapu spends hours observing the Zoo Atlanta's family of 13 captive gorillas. She records her observations when one gorilla roams too close to another-an act of aggression-and then watches the two involved animals to see if they reconcile within 30 minutes.

Most acts of gorilla aggression, says Mallavarapu, are extremely subtle. For example, by walking toward another gorilla, the aggressor forces the victim to relinquish his or her perch. More rarely, she says, a gorilla might run past and slap another animal. In either case, says Mallavarapu, the interaction causes social stress for the entire group-stress that can be alleviated by friendly interactions between the former opponents.

Though she has only observed a fraction of her ultimate goal of 250 incidents, Mallavarapu has found that gorillas usually make up after a fight. She has also found that the apes' reconciliations, like their altercations, tend to be very subtle.

"It's definitely different from what other primates do," says Mallavarapu. "Drill monkeys, for example-the minute they get into a small conflict, immediately they groom. And they stay in contact for a long time afterwards. The gorillas, they just tolerate each other in proximity."

Mallavarapu, whose research was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, will present her findings at the June meeting of the American Society of Primatologists.


Developing new tools for therapists

Depressed people tend to recount memories that describe a good situation turning sour-a tendency second-year Northwestern University clinical psychology student Jonathan Adler has observed by analyzing more than 70 life stories told by people with and without depression.

For example, says Adler, one man spoke about the day he met his wife. After richly describing a picturesque afternoon at a fair, the author ended the story by saying his future wife's father caught them kissing on the front porch, ruining the evening.

"When he recalled it, he talked about this great thing turning bad. Others might have said, 'Her father busted us, isn't that funny? We went out again the next week.'"

This tendency to see the dark cloud in every silver lining, also known as a contamination sequence, may contribute to low life satisfaction and even depression, says Adler.

In fact, the use of contamination sequences in telling life stories was more strongly related to these poor outcomes than a depressogenic attributional style, a tendency to explain negative events in terms of stable personality traits. Adler, who won an honorable mention for his research at the APA Division 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) 2004 conference, hopes that his findings might eventually be useful to practitioners.

"A cognitive therapist might help people come up with healthier ways to construct their life stories, and help [their client] avoid contamination patterns," he says.


Developing measures of fetal behavior

Gale Kleven, a sixth-year developmental psychology graduate student at the University of Iowa, hopes to discover precisely how neurotoxins affect the development of fetal rats. Although most research looks at the end result-the behavior of the rats after they have matured-she observes the fetal rats directly.

To do this, Kleven exposes a pregnant rat to a small dose of methylazoxymethanol, a chemical known to harm the central nervous system of developing animals. Once the neurotoxin has taken effect, Kleven removes the fetal rats from their mother and places them in a saline bath, maintaining their umbilical attachment to the mother.

Kleven then runs behavioral tests on the animals. In one, she exposes the fetal rat to lemon juice, which elicits a grooming response-wiping its face with its paws. In the second test, the experimenter presents a small plastic nipple, which causes the fetal rat to attach to it and suckle. In the third trial, the experimenter simply observes and records the spontaneous movements of the animal.

On these measures, normal rats exhibit subtly different responses from rats exposed to the toxin, Kleven explains. For example, in the lemon juice test, normal fetal rats begin wiping their face in a rapidly alternating motion, with the right paw, and then the left. The wiping culminates with a simultaneous movement of the two paws. However, rats exposed to the toxin exhibit less coordination between their alternating paws, and only make facial contact at the end of the grooming.

"Hopefully I'll be able to develop a picture, an animal model, of what we should be looking for in terms of deficits in prenatal development," says Kleven. "We can use that to build a diagnostic tool for studying human prenatal development."

Kleven's research is supported in part by an APA dissertation award, and she presented her preliminary findings at the 2001 conference of the International Society of Developmental Psychobiology.


Bolstering undergraduates' well-being

When first-year University of Pennsylvania clinical psychology graduate student Acacia Parks began researching depression prevention, her program of pre-emptive cognitive therapy worked only slightly better than no intervention.

However, she found that one outcome, subjective happiness, or a person's day-to-day feeling of well-being, determined whether the intervention worked.

"So I thought 'If we do something that targets happiness directly maybe we will get a stronger effect,'" Parks explains.

With this insight in mind, Parks designed an intervention based on the work of Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, her adviser and a former APA president. The six-week program is designed to prevent depression with weekly group meetings and after-session homework that attempts to increase the happiness of the participants, Parks explains.

Parks's participants-60 students deemed at risk for developing depression-are drawn from university screening tests. Half of these students are participating in a six-week positive life-skills workshop, and the other half will serve as a control group, receiving no intervention.

Activities for those participating in the two-hour meetings include exercises such as the Seligman gratitude visit, in which a participant composes a letter of thanks to someone, perhaps a friend or a teacher. The participant then visits or telephones the person and reads them the letter. According to Parks, both people feel buoyed by the experience.

Participants in Parks's sessions also complete an assessment of their personal strengths and then discuss the results with the group leader-usually a trained graduate student. During the discussion, the participants come up with ways to take advantage of their unique abilities.

"For example, if someone's strength is humor, I might suggest he use that in his job-perhaps by weaving jokes into his sales presentations," Parks says.

At the end of the six-week intervention, the students will complete measures of depression, such as the Beck depression inventory. Parks hopes that workshop participants' depressive symptoms will not increase. Those left untreated tend to become more depressed over time, she explains.


Investigating transmission of anxiety

Past research on white families suggests that parents who are overcontrolling in their interactions with their children may be more likely to have anxiety and may cause their children to develop anxiety as well. Kevin Chapman, a second-year clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Louisville seeks to find out if the same pathway exists in African-American families-currently a gap in the research.

Chapman is observing 128 parents and children as they interact on a number of tasks in his lab. In one task, Chapman gives the child 10 minutes to make up a story, and instructs the parent to help in any way.

In previous studies of white families, researchers have found that anxious parents tend to take control of the process and fail to show warmth toward the child.

"The parent says, 'This is how we are supposed to do it,' and the child resists," Chapman explains. "The parent then comes back demanding more control."

In contrast, Chapman is proposing that African-American children may not respond to the controlling behavior of their parents with resistance and anxiety. In fact, controlling parental behavior may even serve to buffer these children from feeling anxious.

The explanation for these divergent results may lie in the environment, Chapman posits. The African-American families in his sample may tend to live in more dangerous neighborhoods, where authoritarian parenting is necessary to protect the children. The children might be aware of this, causing them to interpret the controlling behavior of their parents as reasonable and protective, instead of cause for alarm.

In the future, Chapman hopes to explore this idea by directly studying the effect of socioeconomic status on the familial transmission of anxiety.


Exploring rodent parent-offspring relations

Spiny mice can be devoted fathers, an attribute that may prove to be an evolutionary advantage for the species, says Jill Menge, a sixth-year developmental psychology graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington.

Unlike in most mouse species, the spiny mouse father, or sire, stays near the mother, also known as a dam, throughout gestation and helps out with foraging after she gives birth.

Menge is exploring whether the infants benefit from intensive fathering by raising some newborn pups without fathers and examining what effect this has on the pups' weight and survival rate.

"Additionally, the sire's contribution to the development of his offspring may start even before birth," Menge explains. "For example, contact between sire and dam may provide sensory stimulation to the fetuses in utero. The male often lies horizontally across a resting female, exerting additional pressures onto the pups within the dam's body."

After birth, Menge has found the father mouse continues to provide sensory stimulation to his offspring, licking amniotic fluid from their fur and spending more than half of each day in direct physical contact with at least one pup.

Menge, who presented these observations at the 2003 meeting of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, hopes to develop an understanding of why male spiny mice evolved to be active parents while similar species did not.