Research Roundup

  • Sleep deprivation ramps up the brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying.Sleep deprivation ramps up the brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying, finds a study led by Andrea Goldstein, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers scanned the brains of 18 healthy young adults as they viewed dozens of neutral and disturbing images, first after a good night's rest and again after a sleepless night. To trigger anticipatory anxiety, researchers primed the participants with different signs: a large red minus sign when they were about to see a highly unpleasant image, such as a death scene; a yellow circle when they were about to see a neutral image, such as a basket on a table; and a white question mark when either a grisly image or an innocuous one was coming. The researchers found that when sleep-deprived participants saw the question mark, activity in their emotional brain centers soared, especially in the amygdala and the insular cortex. The amplifying impact of sleep deprivation was most dramatic for those people who were anxious to begin with (Journal of Neuroscience, June 26).

  • Night owls are bigger risk-takers and also more likely to consider suicide, finds a study led by Gerard Markham, an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester, in collaboration with psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers analyzed data from more than 2,100 18- to 21-year-olds from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and followed the participants over 15 years. They found that young adults with an evening circadian tendency — those who sleep late into the day and become most active at night — report taking more risks and seriously considering suicide more than those with a morning circadian tendency, who prefer to wake early in the morning and find it challenging to remain awake late into the night (Yale Review of Undergraduate Research in Psychology, 2012).

  • Women can remember faces better than men, according to research co-authored by Molly Pottruff, a psychology graduate student at McMaster University. The scientists used eye-tracking technology to monitor where the study participants focused — be it eyes, nose or mouth — while they viewed a series of randomly selected faces with names assigned to them. Later that day and four days later, the researchers gave the participants memory tests. They found that women were better than men at recognizing the faces and recalling their names. The women spent more time looking at different facial features and moved their eyes around more than the men, suggesting that women tend to notice more about new people's many features (Psychological Science, online May 21).

  • Pigeons and problem gamblers seem to have a particular trait in common — impulsive behavior, according to a study led by Jennifer Laude, a doctoral psychology student at the University of Kentucky. Using experiments that trained pigeons to peck keys to get food pellets, the researchers found that the birds were partial to pecking the ones they learned dispensed small amounts of food immediately, rather than the keys that gave them a larger number of pellets up to 20 seconds later. The authors note that this phenomenon — an inability to delay gratification — is also seen in pathological gambling, which is clinically recognized as an impulse control disorder. They suggest that training in impulse control might help reduce gambling behavior (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, online July 1).

  • When choosing friends, women snub other women who they think are sexually permissive.When choosing friends, women snub other women who they think are sexually permissive, finds a study led by Zhana Vrangalova, a doctoral student studying human development at Cornell University. For the study, 751 college students read near-identical vignettes about a male or female peer, with the only difference being the character's number of lifetime sexual partners (two or 20). Researchers then asked participants to rate the person on a range of friendship factors, including warmth, competence, morality, emotional stability and overall likability. They found that women — regardless of their own sexual histories — viewed the women with 20 partners more negatively on nine of 10 friendship attributes, judging them more favorably only on their outgoingness. Men — even those who were more sexually modest — preferred the less permissive potential friends on only half of all variables (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, online May 19).

  • Autism affects a range of sensory and motor skills, according to research led by Aarti Nair, a clinical psychology doctoral student at San Diego State University. Researchers used fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging to examine connections between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus of more than 50 children, both with autism and without. In the children with autism, the researchers found that the pathways connecting the cerebral cortex and thalamus were impaired, indicating reduced communication between these two parts of the brain (Brain, June).

  • The hormone oxytocin may help elicit trust in other people during a stressful event, finds a study co-authored by Christopher Cardoso, a psychology doctoral student at Concordia University. In the double-blind experiment, the researchers administered either oxytocin or a placebo via nasal spray to 100 students and then subjected them to social rejection by posing as students and disagreeing with, interrupting and ignoring the participants during a conversation that was staged to simulate real life. Using mood and personality questionnaires, they found that participants who were particularly distressed after being snubbed by the researchers reported greater trust in other people if they had sniffed oxytocin before the event, but not if they had sniffed the placebo. In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on trust in those who were not emotionally affected by social rejection (Psychoneuroendocrinology, online June 14).

  • When it comes to gun control, citizens often support politicians who point to the big picture, not specific incidents, according to research led by Erin Burgoon, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. As part of the study, 112 participants read purportedly real interview responses made by their congressional representatives regarding gun control two weeks after the shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January 2011. The researchers varied the location of the interview with the representative, telling participants that it occurred either at a district office close to them or at the representative's Washington, D.C., office. They also varied whether the representative cited the shooting or a broader set of gun-related crime statistics. The researchers found that participants were more likely to support a distant public official whose gun control position was based on statistics than to support an official who focused on the shooting. However, participants supported the representative interviewed closer to them equally whether that representative cited the shooting or statistics (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, June).

— Amy Novotney