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.

Studying infant sleep

Sexual abuse's heavy cost

Revving-up recycling

Student satisfaction with training

Studying infant sleep

Adele Seelke, a fourth-year behavioral and cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Iowa, watches rats sleep for hours each week.

Why? To figure out the purpose of the time infants spend unconscious, she says.

"Infant rats are champion sleepers; they sleep almost constantly 75 percent of the day," says Seelke, who notes that human infants sleep much of the time as well.

She is studying the purpose of all that sleep by placing rats into cold chambers to see if it disturbs their rest. The colder the room, the less the animals slept overall, she reported in Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 119, No. 2, pages 603-611). However, when the rats slumbered in moderate cold, 82 F, and extreme cold, 68 F, the percent of time the animals spent in active sleep--characterized by limb twitches and similar to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in humans--stayed constant.

"Basically the rats were sacrificing quiet sleep for active sleep," Seelke says.

While cold temperatures shortened the animals' total sleep time, hunger did not, found Seelke. Even when the rats hadn't eaten in eight hours--a long time to fast for an infant rat--they still slept normally if they were in warm rooms.

The study lends support to the theory that sleep--especially active sleep--contributes to infant rat and human development, Seelke says. However, how infants use sleep and what their bodies are doing as they slumber remains largely unknown, she notes.

"While we still don't know what REM and non-REM sleep are used for, it has been theorized that they're both involved in memory and that REM sleep may be involved in the development of sensory and motor pathways in infant animals," says Seelke.

Sexual abuse's heavy cost

Experiencing childhood sexual abuse may cause girls to take on adult roles sooner than normal, according to research by Jacob Vigil, a third-year developmental psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Earlier maturation, in turn, may lead to a lower standard of living and fewer educational and social opportunities, he says.

A recent study by Vigil published in the APA journal Developmental Psychology (Vol. 31, No. 3, pages 553-561), found that women who experienced childhood sexual abuse rated themselves as less physically attractive and as having less overall worth than other women.

In his study, Vigil had 623 women--including 152 abuse victims--complete a self-report questionnaire that assessed such traits as their socioeconomic status, racial background, relationships with their parents, sexual abuse experience, reproductive development and self-image assessments.

He found that the abuse victims on average matured faster than other women, reporting their first menstrual period as occurring six months earlier than other women, their first consensual sexual activities one and a half years earlier and their first child nearly one and a half years earlier.

"The experience of childhood sexual abuse accelerates sexual development," says Vigil. "Their bodies may assess how they are going to be able to best compete in adulthood and may transition their reproductive development at an earlier age."

In the future, Vigil aims to further examine the physiological factors that influence victims' psychological development.

Revving-up recycling

After Paul Story worked as an undergraduate on a project with Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini, PhD, to stop people from stealing petrified wood from Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, the fourth-year graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University wondered what other behaviors could be modified to encourage environmentally responsible citizenry.

He decided to investigate the best way to increase recycling patterns. For his study, Story lurked around the recycling bins and grocery bags of 285 houses in Richmond, Va., recording the amount recycled before the neighborhood's 8 a.m. pickup time.

Story then randomly assigned households to one of two experimental conditions: Houses received a door hanger that either encouraged recycling or discouraged wastefulness. A third condition, the control group, did not receive a door hanger. Story had two variations of each experimental condition that either framed the message as a descriptive behavior, such as "Many people do recycle, which saves the environment" or an injunctive statement, such as "Recycling is the right thing to do."

Story found that residents who received positively framed messages about recycling as something that they "ought" to do because it's "the right thing to do" or because "it protects the environment" were more likely to recycle, and recycle larger quantities, than residents who received negatively phrased messages that they "ought not" be wasteful. He found little difference between descriptive and injunctive phrasing.

Story notes that since recycling in Richmond is not a requirement, the framing of encouragements is extremely important.

"Since prior to the study, most residents had already formed an opinion about recycling, posting benefits, rather than costs of not recycling, is more likely to change their minds," he says.

Story adds that his findings are in line with previous studies that have found that people are more likely to adapt better recycling habits when reasons for change are framed by posting benefits, rather than costs.

Student satisfaction with training

When fifth-year University of North Texas clinical psychology student Micheal Shafer entered his practicum training, he felt there was a big discrepancy between what he needed to know to perform well and what he learned in his coursework.

So he set out to find out just how common that experience was among his peers by surveying 240 psychology graduate students on their satisfaction with their classroom and practicum training. On a scale from one to seven, with one being "not at all satisfied" and seven being "very satisfied," Shafer found that about a fifth of students felt they weren't adequately trained for their first direct interactions with clients but that the majority felt adequately trained.

"I haven't seen any studies out there that assess the quality of training from the students' perspective," he says. "Lots from training directors and professors, but none that directly asked students."

The results of his as-yet-unpublished survey indicate that about 37 percent were very satisfied with the overall level of training in their therapy courses and about 17 percent were unsatisfied, he says. For assessment training, 46 percent were very satisfied and 13 percent were unsatisfied. For personality courses, 37 percent were very satisfied and 17 percent were unsatisfied. For multicultural training, 27 percent were very satisfied and 19 percent were unsatisfied.

While decisions about training cannot solely be based on student feedback, program directors should be aware of how prepared students feel as they begin their practicum experiences, says Shafer's adviser, psychologist Kenneth Sewell, PhD, director of clinical training at the University of North Texas.

"Micheal's research is not intended to determine what training should be composed of," Sewell says. "Rather it is intended to facilitate dialogue between students, programs and APA about how best to continue improving applied training of psychologists into the decades to come."

Shafer plans to submit his survey results to the American Psychologist.