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.

Evaluating drug treatment programs

The first time clinical psychology student Alexander M. Millkey met his doctoral research participants, they were performing push-ups in a parking lot. Millkey, who is in his fourth year at Oregon's Pacific University School for Professional Psychology, researches the efficacy of alternative incarceration programs that send drug offenders to boot camps. These alternatives to traditional incarceration, says Millkey, use military-caliber discipline to enforce a rigorous schedule of physical and mental conditioning-the theory being that once inmates have learned self-control during the six-month program, they will be able to also control the urge to use drugs.

Millkey will be testing that theory by having approximately 125 participants complete a battery of tests as they enter the program, at the halfway point and at graduation. He will measure attitudes toward drug use and appropriate assertiveness-two variables shown to predict drug relapse. He also plans to administer the newly developed Acceptance and Action Questionnaire, which assesses tolerance to psychological discomfort.

Millkey will compare these results with those from two other groups of inmates that were randomly assigned either to an inpatient therapeutic community or treatment as usual within the prison system-a study design he implemented with the assistance of Paul Bellatty, PhD, of the Oregon Department of Corrections and his mentor Genevieve Arnaut, PhD, PsyD.

The therapeutic community, says Millkey, resembles a non-prison inpatient drug treatment program. Days there are devoted to group cognitive-behavioral therapy and other thought and behavior change programs.

Millkey predicts that both the boot camp and the therapeutic community will be more effective than treatment within the prison system, which usually consists of voluntary attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous meetings.

By showing the effectiveness of drug treatment programs outside of prison, he hopes to be able to justify their price tag, which is higher than that of regular incarceration.

"If we can lower recidivism by 2 percent, then these programs have paid for themselves," says Millkey. "The cost to society of incarcerating [drug addicts] again and again is really beyond reckoning."

Finding causes of sexual risk behavior

Past research links childhood abuse with a tendency to pick up sexually transmitted infections later in life, but the specific pathway by which this occurs remains an open question, says Lisa Stines, a fifth-year clinical psychology student at Kent State University in Ohio. It's a question she hopes to begin to answer by researching a population of low-income women.

The participants in Stines' study, which is part of a larger project conducted by her adviser, Stevan Hobfoll, PhD, are 1,000 women, ages 16 to 29, recruited from local womens' health centers. They answer questions presented by a live interviewer about childhood history, including abuse history, their current sexual activity and use of condoms and other birth control. The interviewer also requests details about the nature of the participant's current relationship-how well the two communicate, for instance, and whether the relationship is monogamous.

Each participant also role-plays a partner negotiation-pretending to ask her boyfriend to participate in a monogamous relationship, for example, which the investigators audiotape and score for appropriate assertiveness.

After the conversation, each woman receives a "condom credit card," which they can use at area convenience stores to buy prophylactics. This provides a measure of the participant's condom use in addition to self-report scales, says Stines.

Though the study is still recruiting women, Stines hypothesizes that she will find a connection between early-childhood abuse and an inability to negotiate with sexual partners later in life-a skill deficit that may hinder a woman's ability to require that her partner use condoms, for example.

"Growing up in chaotic, abusive households, these women may never learn how to stand up for themselves and successfully negotiate for healthy behaviors within relationships," says Stines.

Because many of the study's measures are based on self-report, Stines notes that they cannot know for sure how effective the participants are at bargaining with their partners. However, as part of the larger study, researchers will teach women negotiation skills in a group setting and track changes in their sexual risk behaviors-perhaps providing additional evidence for this hypothesis.

Detailing the occupational hazards of dancers

No research exists on the mental health hazards of working as an exotic dancer, says Wendy Burch, a second-year clinical psychology student at Texas A&M University, though Burch suspects those hazards are considerable. To find out, she and co-author Katherine Gaulke, a second-year industrial-organizational psychology graduate student at the university, hope to soon learn what factors contribute to dancers' on-the-job stress.

The two are recruiting 50 exotic dancers to participate in a study funded by a young investigators grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The participants will complete a bevy of surveys, including the Beck Depression Inventory and the Pennebaker Inventory of Limbic Languidness-a screening device for overall physical symptoms. The researchers will also question participants about how much they feel they are stigmatized due to their jobs-asking whether they willingly tell others what they do or if they feel people look down on them because of their profession.

Burch and Gaulke posit that the more stigmatized the dancers feel, the more vulnerable they will be to physical and mental illness. Others with low-prestige occupations, such as sanitation workers, may also wrestle with the mental duress of stigmatization and its resulting physical strain, notes Burch.

"They may not have the same resources to cope with stressors, or the same social support," notes Burch. For example, she says, a woman who is embarrassed to talk about her job may not be able to complain about a frustrating day at work to her friends or family, and even if she does solicit support, her family may not respond positively.

The two researchers hope that this line of research may lead to a better appreciation for the deleterious effects of stigmatization, and lead to governmental regulations that promote the mental health of women working in this profession.

Investigating the benefits of pessimism

To learn how to best prepare people for bad news, Kate Dockery, a second-year social psychology graduate student at the University of Florida, will soon be telling all of her research participants that they have tested positive for a fictional endocrine disease.

The participants, recruited from an introductory psychology course, will complete a bogus risk-assessment survey and then receive a computer printout informing them of the likelihood they will test positive for the disease.

Regardless of their answers, half of the students will learn their family and behavioral history put them at high risk, while the other participants will discover they are unlikely to develop the disease.

The researchers will then place a modified pH strip in the students' mouths and inform them that they have, in fact, contracted the illness.

At this point, Dockery and her associates will assess the emotional state of the participants as well as other factors, such as their self-efficacy, though a battery of surveys.

After the experiment, all participants will be informed that the disease is fictional and receive a thorough debriefing to ensure they leave the study in a positive emotional state, says Dockery.

"My suspicion is that people who were bracing for the worst will respond better to the bad news," she says.

Dockery hopes that this line of research will eventually help physicians understand the ramifications of encouraging hopefulness or bracing for the worst prior to diagnostic tests and present information in such a way that it helps patients deal constructively with poor prognoses.

Linking personality to psychopathology

Traumatic events affect different people in different ways, says Brian J. Hall, a second-year personality psychology student at Cleveland State University. Some emerge from experiences such as sexual assaults relatively unscathed while others may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he adds-an idea he became interested in after taking a class on PTSD taught by Cleveland State University psychology professor John P. Wilson, PhD.

To discover what personality factors may play into a person's response to trauma, Hall conducted a study with 320 undergraduate students recruited from an introductory psychology course.

These students filled out measures of PTSD symptoms, surveys of life events and the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire, Fifth Edition. Hall compared the subset of students with traumatic life events and a probable diagnosis of PTSD with participants who experienced traumatic events but not intrusive thoughts, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms.

His analysis showed that people who developed PTSD after trauma tended to score high on abstractedness-a tendency to daydream and engage in other imaginative activities. Hall posits that abstractedness may make these people especially prone to the PTSD's disturbing, vivid memories. He also found that people who reported a high degree of social support-the perception that one has friends who can help in a pinch-tended to be somewhat buffered from developing the disorder.

Hall's research was funded in part by the Institute for Personality and Ability Testing, and he hopes that his findings may someday be of use to therapists.

"If a client fits this particular personality profile, a clinician may want to be alert to [the client's] tendency to develop PTSD," he says.

Developing techniques to test infant memory

Shannon Ross-Sheehy and her colleagues at the University of Iowa have created the first measure of infant visual short-term memory capacity. Ross-Sheehy, a fifth-year developmental psychology student, shows young children two computer screens. On each screen is a set of one to six differently colored blocks that blink periodically.

One of the computer screens shows the same blocks between blinks, while the other changes the color of one of the blocks. If an infant can remember the shapes and their colors between blinks, says Ross-Sheehy, they will look longer at the computer screen with the changing blocks.

Using this technique, the researchers tested the visual memory of 312 babies, who were 4 to 13 months old. They discovered that infants younger than 6 months seemed to differentiate only between a single, color-stable block and a color-changing block, while infants between 10 and 15 months also gazed longer at the computer screen when the color of one block that was part of a group of three to four blocks changed.

"What we find is a period of rapid development in short-term memory-all the action is between 6 and 10 months," says Ross-Sheehy. "And this time period in infants coincides with a rapid prefrontal cortex development, which we know is involved in visual working memory."

Ross-Sheehy, who published the results of this study in the December 2003 issue of Child Development (Vol. 64, No. 6), is now working on an even more precise way to quantify infant memory.

Exploring everyday altruism

There's nothing fun about donating bone marrow, says W. Michael Tandy, a second-year clinical psychology student at Seattle Pacific University. The procedure is painful, requires an overnight hospital stay for most people and can cost the donor up to $95, he adds.

Despite these drawbacks, many people do sign up to donate bone marrow-good news for the more than 30,000 people a year who develop diseases that can be ameliorated or even cured with a transplant. And with the cooperation of the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), Tandy is exploring why.

Most people, says Tandy, undergo the typing process-a quick test to determine bone marrow compatibility between donors and potential recipients-because they have a close relative in need of bone marrow, due to, for example, leukemia or another autoimmune deficiency. In such cases, the motivation tends to be dominated by empathy-an understanding of another person's feelings.

However, says Tandy, some sign up for the registry out of pure altruism-a desire to help others in need, even at a cost to oneself.

After signing up for the registry, a potential donor will be asked to contribute bone marrow only if someone with a close match needs it. At this point, says Tandy, many people decline, especially if the recipient is a stranger instead of the close relative they originally intended to help.

To help the NMDP better predict this attrition, Tandy is sending surveys to 500 randomly selected registrants, asking them to complete an altruism scale and the Individual Responsiveness Inventory, a self-report measure of empathy.

By looking at the scores on these tests, he will develop a profile or set of profiles that describe the motivation of those who sign up for the registry-either due to familial need or out of concern for all people. In the future, Tandy plans to link these profiles with the likelihood of dropping out.

"We expect to find that people higher in altruism and lower in empathy will follow through," says Tandy.