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.


Going overboard on pet love

As an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University, Amy Lystad and her fellow research-methods classmates conducted a study on people's attitudes about their pets. One finding emerged that puzzled her: People with very high or very low levels of pet attachment scored low on life satisfaction, whereas people who reported giving their cats or dogs moderate amounts of attention seem happiest.

We found this inverted U-shaped function," says Lystad.

Now a first-year graduatestudent in the university's general psychology program, Lystad is looking at why that might be. According to results she presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, in May, one likely explanation is that people who feel a great deal of affection for their pets--people who dress up with their cats in matching outfits, for example, or people who give their dog a seat at the dining room table--may be reflecting an insecure attachment pattern that also plays out in their human relationships. Having very little love for your pet may also be a symptom of an insecure attachment style, she says.

In the study, Lystad surveyed 125 students about their relationship with their pet--asking them how much they agreed with statements such as, "My pet is a member of the family." She also measured the participants' attachment style with people, using the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale, which includes questions such as "I want to get close to my partner but I keep pulling back." Finally, she askedthe participants how satisfied they were with their life overall.

Again, Lystad found that people high or low on pet attachment tend to be less satisfied with their lives than people in the middle of the distribution. What's more, she found evidence that attachment style accounted for the relation-ship between the two variables, suggesting that very low or very high pet love could be a symptom of an unhealthy relationship style with all creatures.

"If you look at human attachment, we find the same thing," says Lystad. "People who are overly attached to other people tend not to be as satisfied with their lives, and so are people who are not attached enough."


Early diagnosis for bipolar children

Melissa Noya, a third-year clinical psychology student at Carlos Albizu University in Miami, first became interested in bipolar disorder when a friend's son developed it. At first, the family didn't know what was wrong, and they spent many months taking him from doctor to doctor.

With her research, Noya hopes to reduce the time families--specifically Hispanic ones--spend waiting to find a correct diagnosis by tapping into parents' knowledge of their children's mood and behavior. Pediatric bipolar disorder, says Noya, is characterized by many of the same symptoms as adult bipolar disorder, including periods of elevated and depressed mood. However, researchers have yet to determine how prevalent the disorder is in children, or how best to diagnose it, she says.

"My hypothesis is that [families] will be useful because Hispanic cultures are rooted in familism," says Noya. "Parents are very attuned to what is going on with their children."

Diagnostic tools including the Parent General Behavior Inventory and the Parent Young Mania Rating Scale--which asks parents to endorse statements such as "My child is acting more silly than usual"--are known to be among the best indicators of mood disorders in white, non-Hispanic children, says Noya, but they have yet to be tested with many other populations. To remedy that, this fall she will give that and other measures to the parents of 40 Hispanic children who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and 40 parents with children who have other disorders, such as ADHD. She will then compare her results with the children's diagnoses.

Study participants will come from two community health centers in the Miami area, and Noya aims to include people from a variety of countries, including Peru, Chile, Cuba and Mexico. She also will measure how families' acculturation changes the accuracy of the tools.

First, Noya will use the English version of the test with people who are fluent in English. If the test turns out to be meshing with clinicians' diagnosis, she will then translate the instruments into Spanish and try them with monolingual, Spanish-speaking populations.

"I want to help families with bipolar children because I see what the impact is on a day-to-day basis," says Noya. "They feel like they are walking on eggshells; there is just constant turmoil."


Quick, quiz yourself

Students may think that pop quizzes are a form of teacher-induced torture, but new research by graduate student Jeff Karpicke suggests that quizzes do more than just help teachers evaluate students: They may actually help students do better later on a big exam.

In the study, Karpicke, a fifth-year cognitive psychology student at Washington University in St. Louis, asked 120 undergraduates to read a passage of about 250 words on a topic they were unlikely to be familiar with. One passage, for example, was about sea otters.

Half of the students simply read the passage over and over. The other half of the students--the "tested" group--read the passage, and then immediately wrote down everything that they remembered about it.

Then, two days later, the students returned to the lab and again wrote down as much as they could recall from the passage. The students who had taken the initial test recalled about 70 percent of the material on the final test, while the students who'd simply read and reread the passages recalled slightly more than 50 percent. Finally, after one week, the tested students remembered about 60 percent of the material, while the nontested students recalled about 40 percent of it.

Karpicke theorizes that testing may boost scores because the tested students used the same memory-retrieval processes during the learning phase that they then needed to use two days and one week later.

"Your memory performance is going to benefit when you test yourself because you're practicing the skill required to do well on a future test," Karpicke says.

So would he suggest that students studying for a big exam administer self-tests as they study? Absolutely, he says: "Repeated reading is probably the most common study strategy students use. But our results show that self-testing while you study is a more effective way to enhance your performance."


Baby talk

You may hope your child learns the word "bottle" before learning "dirt"-but no parent may be able to nudge their child in that direction, suggests research by Temple University graduate student Shannon Pruden.

Pruden, a sixth-year student in developmental psychology, has found that children are more likely to associate new words with objects that they find intrinsically interesting, even when an adult is trying to attach the new word to something else.

Pruden and her adviser studied 10-month-olds who were just at the age of learning their first words. They attached two objects to a board--one, a brightly colored toy that made sounds, was intrinsically interesting to the babies, the other, a plain white door latch, seemed boring. Then, the researchers tried to teach the babies a made-up word for either the boring or the interesting object. The researchers would look directly at the object of choice and say things like "Look, a dax!" or "Wow, that's a modi!"

Next, the researchers put the board in front of the babies and asked, "Where is the dax?" or "Where is the modi?" They recorded which object the baby looked at longest and found that even when they had tried to attach the made-up word to the boring object, the babies looked longest at the interesting one.

Finally, in order to make sure that the babies were not just looking at the most interesting thing in front of them, the researchers asked the babies to look for something else ("Where is the glorp?"). If the babies had decided that the interesting object was the dax, then by process of elimination they should look away from it when trying to find the new object, the "glorp." And indeed, that is what happened.

In general, Pruden says, the research suggests that parents should just follow their children's lead when it comes to early language learning.

"The first words your kids learn are going to be the ones they're interested in," she says.

 -S. Dingfelder and L. Winerman