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.


Computer science's gender gap

On a whim, Sapna Cheryan signed up for a computer science class as a senior at Northwestern University. To her surprise, she loved the intellectual challenge of programming.

"I wondered, 'Why hadn't I tried this earlier?'" she says. "I might have even majored in it."

Cheryan doesn't regret her major of psychology--she is now just a year away from getting a PhD in Stanford's social psychology program--but she has returned to the question of why women may not easily see themselves as computer scientists. In fact, undergraduate men earn about three times as many computer science degrees each year as women.

In a study Cheryan presented at the 2005 meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, she showed that one reason is the way that the profession depicts itself--as a haven for technically talented but socially awkward people. However, making small changes in computer science learning environments might draw more women into the field, according to Cheryan's paper.

"Right now women aren't even giving themselves a chance to try it," she notes.

In a series of studies, Cheryan queried Stanford undergraduates about whether they considered computer science as a major, what kinds of character traits they associate with people in the field and whether they felt they shared those traits. Both the male and female undergraduates responded that computer scientists were likely to be computer-obsessed and socially awkward. The students who felt they had those same or similar personality characteristics were more likely to say they would consider computer science as a major--and these students were mostly men.

However, it doesn't take much to counter women's perception of computer scientists, Cheryan found. In a subsequent trial, she asked 52 undergraduate students to answer questions about their interest in computer programming. All of the participants filled out the questionnaire in a room at Stanford's computer science building, but half did so in a "geeky" room while the other half sat in a neutral room. The geeky room included a Star Trek poster and was strewn with junk food and electronic equipment. The neutral room contained bottled water, an art poster and general interest magazines.

The women who filled out the questionnaire in the neutral room were more likely to say they had considered majoring in computer science than those who sat in the geeky room. By contrast, the men's interest was not affected by the room decor.

To attract more women to the field, computer science should change how it presents itself, says Cheryan, who has presented her findings to members of Stanford's computer science department. Simply replacing the Stanford computer science building's Star Trek posters with nature posters could encourage more women to give programming a chance, she says.


Children prefer the lucky

Children may be more likely to befriend their lucky peers and shun those who are having a hard time--even if it's through no fault of their own, according to research by Kristina Olson, a fourth-year social psychology student at Harvard University. What's more, children prefer peers who belong to the same social groups as lucky children, according to Olson's study, which was published in the October issue of Psychological Science. (Vol. 17, No. 10).

Olson's participants--5- to 7- year-olds she recruited at a science museum--read two-line vignettes about 10 fictional children and then rated how much they liked each one using a scale composed of frowning and smiling faces. Some of the children did good things like helping a teacher, and some children did bad things, such as lying to their mothers. Still other children in the stories fell prey to bad luck--perhaps their soccer game was rained out--while some had good luck. For instance, they found money on the sidewalk.

The participants liked the children who did intentionally good things the most, and they liked the children who did intentionally bad things the least, according to Olson's findings. Lucky children rated as less likable than the nice children, but more likable than the unlucky ones.

In a follow-up study, Olson found that the preference for lucky children extended to their social groups as well. Olson asked participants to rank how much they liked cartoon children on a computer screen. Some were standing near and wearing the same color shirt as other cartoon children who had just fallen prey to lucky or unlucky events. Just standing near a lucky cartoon child boosted the target cartoon's attractiveness in the eyes of the young participants.

The findings, says Olson, could provide insight into the adult tendency to believe that people who fall victim to bad luck, such as those who lose their homes tonatural disasters, deserved it in some way--what's known as the "belief in a just world."

"[Children's] preference for the lucky might be a mechanism from which these other, bigger theories might emerge," Olson notes.


Cognitive clues to eating disorders

Clinical psychology student April Groff came up with her dissertation research idea while working with women with eating disorders in a Boston clinic. Groff, who is in her sixth year at Boston University, found that several of her clients complained of attention problems, so she had them tested for frontal-lobe dysfunction. The results came back showing attention deficits, and Groff began to wonder if frontal-lobe functions such as executive control, impulse control and attention could underpin eating disorders in some cases. She hit the library to learn more, but found there was little research on the topic.

"One of the reasons people didn't do a lot of research on neuropsychology and eating disorders is because it is a chicken-and-egg problem," says Groff. "If a person is malnourished...it could affect their cognition."

Groff sought to determine what comes first-cognitive problems or eating disorders-by recruiting 51 women who showed eating-disordered behavior, such as being preoccupied with eating or frequently dieting, but whose problems had not yet escalated into a full-blown eating disorder. She matched the women with participants who had similar demographic profiles but healthy eating habits. She then brought all the participants into her lab for nine cognitive tests, several of which measured attention control and other frontal-lobe functions and some of which tapped general intelligence. Groff found that the women with disordered eating tended to score lower on the tests of frontal-lobe function, though the two groups did equally well on the intelligence tests. What's more, the severity of the women's disordered eating correlated with the severity of their executive control, impulse control and attentional deficits.

Though only a longitudinal study could show that frontal-lobe deficits precede and lead to eating disorders, Groff's findings--which she presented in 2005 at the International Conference on Eating Disorders-provide some suggestive evidence, she says. It's possible that frontal-lobe dysfunction could lead to impulsivity, which could make some women more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, Groff theorizes.

As part of her postdoctoral research, Groff plans to run brain scans on women with eating disorders as they perform tests that tap frontal-lobe function.

-S. Dingfelder