Research Roundup

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Get out of town

If you want less stress, increased attention and improved well–being, get outside a little more, says University of Michigan cognitive psychology grad student Marc Berman. He found that spending even a short amount of time in natural surroundings boosted those attributes in people.

For the study, Berman enlisted about 70 undergraduates and had half walk around in an arboretum near campus for 30 minutes. The other half walked around downtown Ann Arbor, Mich. After their strolls, all participants returned to Berman's lab where he administered a battery of tests including stress reports and short–term memory assessments.

Sure enough, people who had walked in the arboretum were more attentive and had lower stress levels than the downtown walkers. Berman hypothesizes that when you're in a natural environment, your attention isn't as constantly taxed as when you're in a busy urban environment. In a more tranquil setting, your mind can relax and recharge in a way it can't when there are loud noises and cars whizzing by.

In a related study, Berman found similar, though slightly diminished, positive effects just from looking at pictures of nature scenes. It's critical that as we design our cities, living and work spaces, we keep these results in mind, Berman says. "Nature's not just a beautiful thing, but it also helps us cognitively," he says.

Tool time for babies

How do infants know when an object is a tool with a specific use? Prior experience with the object is one part of the equation, finds University of Washington cognitive psychology graduate student Kara Braun. When infants have seen what an object can be used for, they associate that item with a specific purpose, her latest research suggests.

Braun used a technique called "violation of expected outcome," which tests whether infants are surprised by some chain of events. If they are, they look longer at the scene than if they expected the outcome.

She created a scene that included an actor, an out-of-reach toy and a long piece of plastic pipe. Ten-month-old infants watched the actor grab the pipe before a screen was raised covering the scene. After the screen was lowered, the actor would either be holding the toy or the pipe. Additionally, infants were split up into two groups: one that received a short training session in which researchers put the pipe in the baby's hand and demonstrated how to reach for a toy with it, and another that would view the scene with no special training.

The untrained infants showed no difference in looking times whether the actor wound up holding the pipe or the toy. But the trained group did look longer at the holding-pipe outcome, showing they were surprised that the actor didn't use the tool as expected.

The results suggest that special training can facilitate an infant's understanding of tools and their use, says Braun.

The older, the better

Scientifically dubious practices such as reflexology, homeopathy and astrology share an interesting feature: They claim a long and venerable history. That history, whether it's fabricated or real, may strengthen these practices' credibility, says University of Maine social psychology student Jennifer Pattershall.

Pattershall conducted two studies to find out. In the first, she recruited 91 college students to read short statements about the practice of acupuncture. The statements differed only in their explanations of how long acupuncture has existed: 250, 500, 1,000 or 2,000 years. The rest of the statement explained that scientific support for acupuncture is mixed. As predicted, the students who read statements claiming acupuncture has existed for 2,000 years judged acupuncture much more positively than did those who read that it was invented only 250 years ago.

"The longer and more established the idea or practice, the more favorably it will be evaluated," she says.

In a follow-up study, Pattershall found that when participants are told there is no scientific support for reflexology, they view it negatively regardless of how long it's been in existence.

The results have implications for both product advertising (think "Classic" Coca-Cola) and public policy debates, Pattershall notes.

Stick together, stay healthier

Group therapy may be especially beneficial to older adults because it offers social support to a group that's more likely to be isolated and lonely. To test that theory, University of Southern Mississippi clinical psychology student Kathleen Payne conducted a meta-analysis of 45 journal articles, theses and dissertations—she selected studies that examined group therapies for adults 55 years and older, as well as studies weighing various interventions, or that looked at pre-treatment and post-treatment outcomes for group therapy—and analyzed how the people in these treatments fared. The studies spanned a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and dementia, and Payne found that group therapy did indeed seem to offer positive effects.

"On average, an older adult who received group treatment was better than before the treatment, and more improved compared with individuals receiving no treatment or a [non-group therapy] treatment," she says.

Payne encourages insurance companies to fund these group treatments for older adults because not only are they effective, they're cost-effective.

By Mike Price
gradPSYCH Staff