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.


Examining endings

Third-year Stanford University graduate student Hal Ersner-Hershfield's life as a Red Sox baseball fan changed after he witnessed the team's World Series victory in 2004. The win ended the Red Sox's 86-year championship drought.

"It was a meaningful ending after decades of losses," he says.

As a graduate student, Ersner-Hershfield is investigating individuals' emotional experiences after so-called meaningful endings, like the Red Sox championship, as well as personal events such as graduations, births and weddings. In particular, his research aims to understand what leads people to experience mixed emotions during these meaningful endings.

"On the one hand, I felt extremely happy that the Red Sox won," he says, reflecting on his personal meaningful ending. "But it was also an end to an era."

Numerous researchers have found that as people age even the most positive experiences can bring a tear to the eye, possibly because these older people feel more finality in their lives than younger people. However, Ersner-Hershfield sought to find whether aging alone or a person's time perspective-that sense of finality-is associated with the experience of poignancy.

To do so, he had 30 undergraduate students and 30 older participants select a personally meaningful scenario, such as walking through one's hometown. Then he asked the participants to imagine the experience as if it were the last time they would visit the location and rate the degree to which they experienced 19 emotions, such as excitement, happiness, sadness and anxiety.

He found that when participants imagined visiting their meaningful scenario for the last time, they experienced a significant increase in both positive and negative emotions--regardless of age--leading Ersner-Hershfield to suggest that complex emotional states may be a function of time perspective rather than age.

"These experiences we often associate with older people aren't a phenomenon endemic to age," he says. "But rather, they reflect our emotions as life changes and time passes on."

In future studies, Ersner-Hershfield aims to extend his findings to real-life experiences.


Orphanages and oxytocin

Children who spend their infancy in orphanages often develop social and emotional problems later, even after they are adopted into stable and loving families. They may have trouble developing an appropriate wariness of strangers, making friendships with other children and other difficulties, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Alison Wismer Fries.

Now, Fries and her colleagues have found evidence of a biological basis underlying these problems. In a study published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 102, No. 47, pages 17,237-17,240), they found that a lack of early parental nurturing throws a wrench into the system that governs the release of oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones responsible for social bonding.

In the study, Fries, a sixth-year student in clinical psychology, studied 18 preschoolers who had lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages as infants before being adopted by Wisconsin-area families. She compared them to a control group of 21 children who were raised by their biological parents.

The researchers first collected urine samples from all the children to measure their baseline levels of oxytocin and vasopressin. Then, during the experiment, the children sat on the laps of either their mothers or a female experimenter whom they didn't know. For 30 minutes, the adults and children followed a computer game that directed them to do things like whisper in each other's ears, tickle each other, pat each other on the head and count each other's fingers.

The researchers expected that the children who interacted with their mothers would show heightened levels of oxytocin immediately afterward, but children who interacted with strangers would not. And indeed, for the children raised by their biological parents, this is what happened. However, neither playing with their mothers nor playing with a stranger raised oxytocin levels on average for the adopted children.

Right now, Fries says, she's working on a follow-up study of genetic differences among adopted children to figure out why some are more susceptible or resilient than others to later social and emotional difficulties.

"We don't want the take-home message of this study to be that these children are permanently damaged, or that there's no hope," she says.

"The best thing for them is to be adopted into loving homes. And we hope that someday this research will yield more effective treatments for those who need them."


Rejection's relationship to depression

Though past research has documented an association between severe life stress and major depressive disorder, few researchers have investigated individual differences among those stressors. George Slavich, a fifth-year University of Oregon graduate student, aims to do just that by examining whether certain types of stress lead to more severe depression than others.

Slavich focused on whether targeted rejection--the exclusive and intentional social rejection of a targeted individual by another person or group--preceded a more severe onset of depression among 26 people diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Slavich chose to investigate instances of targeted rejection, like being dumped, due to their caustic effects.

"Life events that entail being singled out and rejected are very noxious," he says.

Slavich and his colleagues used a structured clinical interview to determine the onset date and length of the participants' depressive episode. They followed the interview with the Beck Depression Inventory-II to assess the severity of the participant's depression and the Bedford College Life Events and Difficulties Schedule to find the potential sources of stress and to identify specific types of stressors, like targeted rejection.

Although all of Slavich's participants had experienced severe stress prior to the onset of their depression, Slavich found that individuals who experienced a severe targeted rejection prior to depression onset became depressed more quickly than individuals who experienced other types of severe stress prior to onset. However, he also found that the two groups did not have significantly different depressive experiences, especially in terms of the severity of their depression and overall functioning.

One reason that targeted rejection may be psychologically mordant may be because targeted rejection events often involve more than one rejection. For instance, when a person's romantic partner breaks up with them, the rejection may spread to mutual friends who remain loyal to the breakup initiator and join in on shunning the individual.

In future studies, Slavich will examine what makes targeted rejection likely to produce quick depression onset but unlikely to affect depression severity and overall functioning.


Stressed out

Reflecting on your personal values may provide a buffer against the physical and mental toll of stress, according to a recent study by University of California, Los Angeles, graduate student David Creswell. Creswell, a fifth-year social and health psychology student, is interested in finding interventions to reduce stress--in the past he's studied meditation and other relaxation methods.

He was curious to see whether reflecting on personal values-- a form of self--affirmation--might also be beneficial.

"Social psychologists have already found that self-affirmation reduces people's defensiveness and their rumination after getting failure feedback," he explains.

In the study, published in November in Psychological Science (Vol. 16, No. 11, pages 846-851), Creswell and his colleagues asked 85 undergraduates to indicate which of five personal values-religion, social issues, politics, theory or aesthetics-were most important to them. Then, the researchers gave half of the participants questions that made them reflect on personally important values and the other half questions that made them think about personally unimportant values. For example, a participant who had indicated that he or she found political involvement important might be asked "Assuming that you have sufficient ability, would you rather be a banker or a politician?"

Next, the researchers put the students in a stressful situation. They made each give an impromptu five-minute speech to a panel of judges, and then count aloud backwards, by 13s, while the panel pressured them to speed up.

Finally, the researchers tested the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants' saliva. They found that those who had thought about personally important values before the stressful task had less cortisol in their saliva than those who had thought about unimportant values.

"I think the most interesting thing is that this really subtle manipulation is able to buffer people against biological stress responses," Creswell says. "It's pretty hard to get cortisol to move around using psychological manipulations."

Now, he and his colleagues are working on a follow-up study of self-affirmation in chronically ill patients. They hope to find that self-affirmation will help improve outcomes for cancer patients.

-Z. Stambor and L. Winerman