Research Roundup

Innovative research from today's students.

Fear of flying, urban living

Six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans still fear terrorism, some so drastically that they've dramatically altered their lives because of this threat. But a new tool measuring anticipatory fears of future attacks may help clinicians identify and treat people who are affected by what some psychologists call "pre-traumatic stress syndrome," says the tool's developer, Samuel Justin Sinclair, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Sinclair developed the Terrorism Catastrophizing Scale in 2006 for his dissertation as a clinical psychology graduate student at Suffolk University in Boston. The 13-item questionnaire and scoring scale examines how people deal with the threat of terrorism, based on three main factors: how often they think about it (rumination), how much they believe they will be a future victim of it (magnification) and whether they believe they can change their fate (helplessness). Based on Web survey responses from more than 500 U.S. adults, Sinclair found that most people are psychologically affected by the threat of another terrorist attack, despite the fact that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of psychopathology in the United States have essentially returned to baseline since Sept. 11. Further, Sinclair found that those most affected by these fears often show signs of depression and anxiety and are most likely to modify their lives by avoiding flying, metropolitan areas and public transportation.

"People still experience these fears in significant ways," says Sinclair.

His research further shows that, consistent with terror management theory, high self-esteem and a sense of social connectedness may help quell people's anxieties about additional attacks-a finding that dovetails with previous trauma research.

Sinclair's ongoing work with the TerrorismCatastrophizing Scale will include administering the test to inpatient psychiatric populations to determine if they are more psychologically vulnerable to terrorism threats. He's also planning to evaluate how the scale works during fluctuations in the nation's color-coded alert system and following terrorist attacks that occur overseas.

In the meantime, clinical psychologists may want to consider using the scale to spot clients distressed by ongoing terrorism-related fears, says Sinclair. "The scales provide a measurement system that...allows clinicians to identify and understand the extent to which people are affected by this threat," he concludes. "Once you identify it, you can then start tailoring interventions."

Color me cliché

Simple coloring books may play a big role in how girls view their place in the world, according to a study by California State University, San Marcos student Barbara McPherson. McPherson, a third-year developmental psychology student, examined gender roles and female character representation in contemporary children's coloring books and found that the books not only depicted girls significantly less than boys, but also reinforced stereotypical gender roles and activities.

McPherson and her colleagues recorded the gender, age and activity level of 432 characters in 33 coloring books. Researchers found that 65 percent of the characters were male, and that the male characters were three times more likely to be portrayed in active roles--running, jumping and climbing, for example-than female characters.

What's more, female characters were most often portrayed as children, rather than adults, says McPherson. For example, one book illustrated a male riding a horse toward a castle where a young princess is looking out of a window. Similarly, another book portrays a female bear sitting on a cloud as a male bear paints her portrait. These stereotypical images may discourage girls from exploring non-traditionally female careers and gender roles, says McPherson.

"If girls are being repeatedly told that they can't venture out beyond being a young human child, then it really restricts what they believe they can do and make happen in the world," she says.

Under the influence

Undergraduates at the University of Missouri--Columbia are getting high--off their beliefs, that is.Research by Joshua Hicks, a fifth-year social psychology graduate student at the school, and colleagues Sarah Pedersen, Denis McCarthy and Ron Friedman showed that students' beliefs about how they would feel, act and think under the influence of marijuana predicted intoxicated behavior after brief exposure to words or pictures related to the drug.

At the beginning of the academic semester, 260 undergraduate students completed a survey about how they thought marijuana use would affect them, rating their agreement with statements such as "Marijuana slows thinking and actions," and, "I would be more creative if I were under the influence of marijuana."

A month later, 101 of the students completed a "magazine preference task," where they rated magazine covers on design and content, and answered questions such as "How many people in America do you think subscribe to this magazine?" The last magazine viewed by participants in the experimental condition was "High Times," which advocates the legalization of marijuana. After finishing the magazine task, participants completed 12 arithmetic problems.

In a related study, 159 students categorized a series of letters flashing on a computer screen as words or nonwords. In the experimental condition, the researchers primed participants by flashing words related to marijuana--"bong," "stoned" or "high," for example--on the screen for 40 milliseconds, not even long enough for the participants to consciously notice. The students then completed the same math test as those in the first experiment.

In both studies, Hicks and his colleagues found that participants who believed marijuana would lead to cognitive and behavioral impairments performed worse than the students who were not exposed to the marijuana imagery and those who were exposed but believed that marijuana wouldn't affect them.

Interestingly, affected participants also showed a greater distortion in their sense of time--they thought they were working slower than they were--than participants who did not believe smoking marijuana would cause cognitive impairments.

"These results suggest that the simple activation--even without conscious awareness--of one's beliefs about the effects of marijuana can influence behavior in line with those beliefs," says Hicks.