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.



Testing chess experts

 As most adults age, their working-memory capacity and perceptual speed decline, says Michael Tuffiash, a fifth-year psychology student at Florida State University. However, some expert chess players manage to keep up their skill level or even improve despite decreases in their overall cognitive ability, he reports.

Tuffiash and his adviser, Florida State psychology professor Neil Charness, PhD, found this contradictory trend by testing the cognitive and chess-playing abilities of nearly 200 chess experts from Germany, Canada, Russia and the United States. These chess players, ranging from 18 to 80 years old, took a battery of cognitive tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale's "Digit-Symbol" task, which measures short-term visual memory. Then, after five years, the researchers surveyed the participants about their chess-related activities and achievements. At both points in time, the psychologists recorded participants' Elo ranking—an international rating of chess skill calculated using a combination of the number of players' tournament wins and their vanquished opponents' skill levels.

Tuffiash, who is still analyzing the results, is finding evidence of a group of aging chess players who, despite reduced working memory capacity, maintain expert-level Elo rankings.

"What we are finding is that the ones who are keeping up their skills aren't simply playing in tournaments, but they are engaging in serious practice activities that are either designed to maintain their vast knowledge of the game—or to target specific problem areas in their play," says Tuffiash.

In particular, some older expert players may offset their decreased abilities to remember new information during a tournament by studying the strategies of their future opponents, he notes. This may allow them to more efficiently exploit a foe's weaknesses, Tuffiash says.


Helping design text-entry devices

As computers become integrated into devices from televisions to cars to microwave ovens, people often enter in text without the aid of a traditional keyboard, says second-year Georgia Tech engineering psychology student Marita O'Brien. But those who design the systems where users, for example, type the name of their favorite show into a TiVo digital recorder with a remote control often do so without the aid of psychological research on the topic.

And that is a void O'Brien aims to fill.

"I like bridging that gap between the practical guidance designers need and the psychological literature on attention, motor control and other factors," O'Brien says.

To translate psychological research for engineers, O'Brien and her colleagues are compiling decades of psychological findings into a guide for text-entry technology designers, which they hope to publish in an ergonomics journal.

For example, after reviewing past research on motor control, she found that people more easily enter text using a rotary dial that circles through the alphabet than commonly used touch-screen keyboards.

Moreover, placing the dials concentrically—perhaps with the outer knob used for letters and the inner one for numbers—may provide visual reference points that attention researchers say speeds a technology user's search for information, she notes.

In addition to making specific recommendations, O'Brien hopes her research, funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, will help to highlight unanswered questions—such as what factors motivate people to learn a text entry system—that psychological research could tackle, she says.


Determining impression accuracy

Before going on a blind date, some people will seek out the personal Web page of their dinner partner, says Simine Vazire, a fourth-year personality and social psychology graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. But until her study was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 1), psychologists did not know how accurate an impression these autobiographical compositions convey, she says.

To find out, Vazire recruited 89 participants by searching the Yahoo directory of personal Web sites. She asked the volunteers to complete the Big Five Inventory—a personality assessment—and then nominate two acquaintances who could also describe their personalities using the inventory. Vazire sent e-mails to these secondary sources asking them to complete the 44-item questionnaire. By averaging these three scores, she created a composite picture of each Web site's author.

Vazire then asked 11 students who had never met the creators of the Web pages to assess their personalities using only the Internet documents.

She found that browsers of personal Web sites can garner on-target depictions of the personalities of the pages' authors. In particular, scores for the trait of "openness to experience"—a measure of creativity and broad-mindedness—adhered closely to the authors' self-assessments and the opinions of their friends and family.

Additionally, Web sites can be just as informative about their owners' personalities as bedrooms and offices, says Vazire, who compared her results with similar research on other avenues for self-expression.

"For agreeableness, people get more accurate impressions from Web sites and bedrooms than from offices," says Vazire. "If you want to learn about emotional stability, you can learn more from bedrooms than from Web sites or offices."


Boosting implicit self-esteem through video games  
 
Fifth-year social psychology student Jodene Baccus played the video game "Tetris" until it was so ingrained in her brain that she fit together colored puzzle pieces in her mind's eye while lying awake at night. And this, she says, gave her an idea: She could create a similarly addictive computer game with a positive mental health effect—increased self-esteem.

So she and her colleagues at Canada's McGill University wrote "Wham," a program that repeatedly pairs participants' personal information with smiling faces.

"Wham" players begin by entering information such as their name, birthday and hometown. They then click, as quickly as possible, on words as they flash on one of four quadrants of the computer screen. When the word is one with personal relevance, such as the person's name, the participant's click is quickly followed by social acceptance in the form of a picture of a grinning person. After clicking on neutral words, such as the name of a random city, the participant sees a picture of an impassive or frowning face.

Sixty randomly assigned college and high school students who played "Wham" for five minutes scored higher on measures of implicit self-esteem, such as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, than an equal number of students who played a similar game that paired information at random with smiling, neutral or frowning faces, according to Baccus's study, published in the July 2004 issue of Psychological Science (Vol. 15, No. 7). However, Baccus is not sure how long the effect lasts—a question she hopes to answer through a future study.

"Because ['Wham'] is on the Web, people everywhere can play it at the beginning of the day to give themselves a little boost," says Baccus.

Anyone with Internet access can play "Wham" and other self-esteem-boosting games at www.selfesteemgames.mcgill.ca.


Exploring teachers' worldviews

Some professors view knowledge as unchanging and objective, while others believe that different points of view can lead to a number of equally appropriate answers, notes fifth-year educational psychology graduate student Amy Dombach-Connelly. Matching students with teachers who share the same perspective on the nature of knowledge may increase a student's chance of educational success, she says.

But the first step in making this match is to identify the knowledge-related beliefs of professors. To do this, Dombach-Connelly took an unusual approach: She analyzed 200 humanities, social science and natural science course syllabi using the Schraw and Olafson epistemology categorization system, originally developed to gauge teachers' implicit beliefs about how knowledge is acquired.

As expected, Dombach-Connelly found that professors in the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, were likely to fall into the "realist" category—that is, their syllabi indicated they tend to see knowledge as unchanging and something that teachers transmit to relatively passive students. For example, these teachers tended to use evaluations such as multiple-choice quizzes, in which answers are either wrong or right.

In comparison, teachers in the humanities, including art history and literature, were most likely of the three disciplines to teach using a "relativist" style—perhaps grading students on class participation—in which students share their unique interpretations with their peers.

And finally, psychologists and other social scientists often displayed a contextual attitude toward knowledge, using such grading techniques as essays to test students' ability to demonstrate their understanding of concepts in different situations.

According to Dombach-Connelly, teachers in all of these disciplines may want to be somewhat flexible in their perceptions of knowledge so that they can relate information to students with differing attitudes.

In the next step of her research, Dombach-Connelly will assess both students' and professors' beliefs about knowledge across a single discipline, such as psychology, to see if matches lead to better grades and learning, she says.

"My long-term goal is for some of these research findings to contribute to teacher training or professional development of instructors," Dombach-Connelly says.

—S. DINGFELDER