Research Roundup

Psychology graduate students conduct an array of innovative research. Here's a taste of their findings.

Sporty body images

Some people believe that participation in college-level sports exempts women from body image problems, but even physically-fit athletes show signs of dissatisfaction with their bodies, says Vicki Burns, a second-year counseling psychology student at the University of Miami. It turns out, she says, that all female athletes may be at risk, but certain ethnicities seem to be in particular danger. Similar to research with non-athletes, white and Hispanic female college athletes report significantly higher body dissatisfaction than their black counterparts, Burns has found.

Burns and her adviser in the University of Miami's counseling psychology doctoral program, Kent Burnett, PhD, surveyed 196 female athletes at the University of Miami and Indiana University on their eating attitudes and body dissatisfaction levels. Seventy-nine percent of the participants were white, 7 percent were Hispanic and 14 percent were black. The athletes assessed their feelings about food and their drive for thinness, and they rated their tendency toward eating disorder symptoms such as cutting food into small pieces, being highly aware of the calorie content of foods and having an impulse to vomit after eating.

Burns found that white female college athletes appear to be at the greatest risk for eating disorder symptoms, and that white and Hispanic athletes seem to be equally vulnerable to body dissatisfaction. Black female athletes reported lower rates on all eating disorder measures. Her results suggest that female athletes and non-athletes report similar breakdowns in body image problems, and that some ethnic groups receive different cultural messages about thinness. For example, her study parallels results from prior research that shows there may be less pressure to be thin in black culture, which may explain why the black participants showed a lower drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction score.

The findings highlight the need for more eating disorder and body dissatisfaction prevention and intervention programs targeting college-level female athletes, says Burns.

"Athletes do share in the heartache," Burns says. "[They] clearly need more attention, education and support in regards to eating and body image difficulties."

Globally changed

After studying in England for a semester during college, Dawn Graham came back a changed woman. And a few years later, while working as a study abroad adviser, Graham noticed that her own transformation wasn't an isolated case. Students returned appearing more confident and assertive, she says. "When students were coming back, they just looked different," recalls Graham, a fourth-year counseling psychology student at Purdue University.

Graham figured that studying abroad sparked developmental changes in students, and she conducted a two-year study to test her theory. She found that timeabroad prompted significant improvements in students' international competence and problem-solving ability. Even those students abroad for only a few weeks reported an improvement in their ability to work out problems, says Graham.

Graham surveyed 207 undergraduates at PurdueUniversity, before and after their participation in studyabroad programs that ranged from two to eight weeks during the summers of 2005 and 2006. She asked participantsto assess their problem-solving strategies during situations they encounter in daily life--whether they feel that the problems they face are often too complex to solve or if they make snap judgments and later regret them, for example. Participants also completed a 57-item International Competence Questionnaire gauging functional knowledge--such as their cultural sensitivity and ability to adjust to new situations.

Upon their return, students showed marked improvement in basic communication skills and foreign language ability and increased sensitivity to differences in language and cultures. They also showed a better understanding of how the global economy may affect their future careers, and were more able to trust their instincts when problem-solving. Practical tasks such as hailing a cab or asking for directions came more easily as well, as the experience forced students out of their comfort zones, says Graham.

"It's so easy to get comfortable in your lifestyle," says Graham. "Studying abroad allows these kids to...step out of their box and become uncomfortable in situations."

And as the U.S. becomes increasingly multicultural, knowing how to expand students' world view is key, notes Graham. Studying or taking an internship abroad can do wonders for young people's future careers, allowing them to make contacts abroad or gain résumé-building experience with international organizations, she adds. For budding psychologists, spending time overseas may mean exposure to different health-care systems and to scientists investigating areas students may not readily find at U.S. institutions. And for Graham, spending time in other countries has been particularly helpful as she prepares for a career in student counseling.

"My study abroad experience has really helped me build up my understanding and empathy in order to provide help to international students dealing with mental health issues and culture shock, due to their transition to a new country," says Graham.

The power of empathy

Clinicians who share their patients' illnesses or disabilities have more satisfied patients than those clinicians who can't empathize with their patients the same way, says Samantha Pelican Monson, a second-year clinical psychology student at the University of Denver. According to her new research, clinicians who share a patient's illness fare better on patient satisfaction reports, perhaps because they understand the significance of the illness to the patient, speculates Monson. This may foster a more empathic healing environment, leading to improved patient compliance and an increase in clinician satisfaction, she says.

Monson collected data from 96 adults with diabetes who attended appointments over a four-week period at two diabetes clinics near Denver. Seventy-three patients received their care mainly from diabetic educators (DE) with diabetes; 23 received care mainly from non-diabetic DEs. Monson surveyed the patients on their perception of their DE's ability to empathize and their satisfaction with the care they received.

Patients gave more empathy points to diabetic DEs than to their non-diabetic counterparts, and also rated the diabetic DEs higher on patient satisfaction. In this case, it seems a diabetic clinician's daily experience with the disease may lend itself to more awareness of the toll diabetes can take on a patient, allowing them to speak as an insider, says Monson. Her findings also suggest that a chronic illness or disability may give clinicians an edge when it comes to building relationships with their patients. And as technology continues to change the nature of health care, she says, the clinician-patient relationship becomes even more important to maintain. Monson plans to develop a training manual for increasing empathic capacity in physicians without a chronic illness, based on her research.

"Chronic illness is often just viewed as something that's negative," she says. "This gives hope to the idea that it can actually have a really positive element to it as well."