In Brief

  • Secondhand smoke can affect the brain at levels on par with actually smoking, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The researchers used positron emission tomography to look at activation of nicotine receptors in the brains of smokers and nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke for an hour. In both groups, the researchers saw nicotine receptor activation similar to levels that occur when people actually smoke. Secondhand smoke could prime young people’s brains for nicotine, making it more likely they’ll become addicted if they smoke, the researchers write. The finding could also help explain why being around others who smoke triggers smokers’ addictive impulses. (In press in Archives of General Psychiatry)
  • Behavioral interventions and changing eating habits may be more effective at preventing obesity than changing perceptions of appropriate body size, according to researchers at Arizona State University. Psychologists have long noticed that people tend to have social groups that consist of people roughly similar in size to themselves. What’s unknown is whether being in such a group creates social pressure to maintain that body size, for better or worse. Researchers interviewed 101 women and 812 of their close friends and family members, recording their body mass indexes and asking them about their attitudes toward body size. After analyzing the data, the researchers found no evidence that people learn an “acceptable” body size from their friends and then work toward that. The finding suggests that group behaviors, such as eating or exercising together, have a greater influence than shared attitudes on maintaining a consistent group body size, the researchers say. (In press in American Journal of Public Health)
  • Couple in loveMen are more likely to say “I love you” before women, but each sex may hear something different from those same three words, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology evolutionary psychology and marketing researcher Joshua Ackerman, PhD. In a series of surveys, Ackerman found that although most people believe women tend to say “I love you” first in heterosexual relationships, men do so two-thirds of the time. But whether the men or women surveyed were happy to hear those words from their partners depended on whether they’d slept together by that point. Men were happier to hear it from their partners if they hadn’t yet had sex, whereas women were happier to hear it after sex. Applying an evolutionary perspective, Ackerman says “I love you” could signal to men that sex is imminent, whereas it could signal to women that the man is devoted. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 100, No. 6)
  • Education researchers who want to put their research into practice in schools too often ignore economic and social realities at those schools, according to a publication by school psychologist Melissa Maras, PhD, and graduate student Joni Splett, both at the University of Missouri. Maras and Splett say that although these researchers mean well, they frequently fail to consider each school’s unique circumstances — particularly those of resource-poor schools — and suggest generalized solutions. Instead of focusing on ideal solutions, the authors say, researchers would better serve schools by helping them figure out which of their existing policies are working and which need changing, as well as helping them develop and evaluate home-grown solutions. (Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 48, No. 4)
  • Learning to playLearning to play a musical instrument as a child could help ward off cognitive decline later in life, according to research from the University of Kansas Medical Center. The psychologists recruited 70 healthy adults, 60 to 83 years old, and assessed the musical training they’d had over their lives. The participants, who all had similar levels of education and academic achievement, were divided into high-level, low-level and non-musicians. Then the researchers administered a battery of cognitive tests that measured visuospatial memory, object naming and the ability to learn new information. The high-level musicians scored best, followed by the low-level musicians and then non-musicians. Those who still played instruments fared no better than those who were heavily trained as children but then stopped years ago. That suggests that the musical training itself has a protective effect. (Neuropsychology, Vol. 25, No. 3)
  • People who witness severe trauma during a disaster are slower to recover than their peers who see comparatively less trauma, according to psychologists at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden. The researchers contacted 3,500 Swedish tourists who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while vacationing in Southeast Asia and gave them a survey measuring their resilience since then. Almost all of the tourists who reported seeing minimal trauma scored high on the resiliency scale, while only 77 percent of those who witnessed significant trauma scored as high. That number dropped to about 50 percent for those who had lost a loved one. Tourists who had high exposure to trauma were also more likely to report having mental health issues than their peers. (Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 199, No. 3)
  • Places with the happiest people are also the most likely to have high suicide rates, according to a study led by Andrew Oswald, PhD, a behavioral economist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K. Oswald analyzed happiness measures for 21 Western countries and compared them with suicide risk statistics from the World Health Organization. The nations with the highest happiness levels, including Canada, Iceland and the United States, also ranked among the highest in suicide risk. Oswald next looked at these same data in individual U.S. states and found the same pattern. For example, Utah ranks first in life satisfaction but ninth in suicide rate, while New York ranks 45th in life satisfaction but has the lowest suicide rate in the country. Being around lots of happy people could cause already depressed people to sink deeper into depression, Oswald posits. (In press in Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization)
  • Being overly concerned about patients and clients burns out psychotherapists but also motivates them, says a study from Seoul Cyber University and Korea University. The researchers looked at 17 articles written from 1988 to 2008 about psychotherapists’ mental health and their sense of accomplishment. Analyzing these data, they found that over-involvement with clients was the biggest predictor of symptoms of burnout — work-related strain that presents as emotional exhaustion and reduced self-awareness. But the researchers found that over-involvement also predicted high levels of personal and professional accomplishment. That might be because psychotherapists frequently feel the need to work extra hours and become emotionally involved in their clients in order to provide the best care, but therapists should be careful to not blindly pursue accomplishment at the risk of their own mental health, the researchers say. (In press in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice)
  • BotoxBotox treatments could hinder people’s ability to recognize others’ emotions, finds a new study by researchers at the University of Southern California and Duke University. In one experiment, researchers recruited 31 women who had received either Botox or Restylane, an acid injected during lip augmentations, and asked them to identify the emotions represented by facial images on a computer. The women who’d received the muscle-deadening protein Botox were far less able to identify the emotions. In the second experiment, researchers applied a gel that amplifies facial muscle signals to 56 women and 39 men and asked them, too, to identify facial emotions. These participants were better at identifying the emotions than a control group. These findings dovetail with previous research that suggests we subtly mimic other people’s facial movements when trying to understand their emotional states, and that muscle-deadening agents like Botox get in the way of that. (In press in Social Psychology and Personality Science)
  • The thoughts and feelings of people with bipolar disorder could help predict their mood swings, according to findings by psychologists at the Universities of Manchester and Lancaster, U.K. The researchers asked 50 people with bipolar disorder to regularly record and then report their moods and emotional states for a month. Analyzing those data, the researchers found that those who expressed extreme thoughts and feelings — such as being completely out of control of their emotions or feeling the need to constantly keep active to prevent failure — were most at risk for having a mood swing within that month. Those who expressed feeling that they were reacting normally to emotions and could manage their moods were least likely to have a mood swing. The researchers suggest that teaching therapists, parents and people with the disorder themselves to recognize these predictors could help people manage the mood swings. (In press in Psychological Assessment)
  • Students from lower socioeconomic levels at elite universities could feel stigmatized because of their backgrounds, according to a new study led by Sarah Johnson, PhD, at Northwestern University. Because prestigious universities are often expensive, students from poorer backgrounds might feel pressured to live up to their wealthier peers. To test that theory, Johnson surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students on their self-perceived socioeconomic status, concerns about their academic fit and pressures to fit in. She also had some students report their frequencies of “stress eating” and take a Stroop test to measure their self-control and willpower. Lower socioeconomic status students reported more concern about their academic potential and felt that the pressure to fit in with their peers was emotionally depleting. They also reported more stress eating and scored lower on Stroop tests. Strengthening coping mechanisms could help these students better perform in school, Johnson says. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 100, No. 5)
  • Older husbands’ and wives’ physical health can affect each other’s mental health, suggests a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Pennsylvania State University. Researchers looked at health data from 1,704 couples over age 70 and gauged their ability to perform day-to-day activities as well as their levels of depression. They found that when one spouse’s physical health declined, the other’s mental health subsequently suffered. (Health Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 2)
  • Stress-management classes could help women with fertility problems become pregnant, according to a new study. Lead researcher Alice D. Domar, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues enrolled 143 women who were about to begin their first round of in vitro fertilization (IVF)treatments, some of whom participated in a 10-session mind/body stress-management program and some of whom participated in a control program unrelated to stress. After the second cycle of IVF treatment, 52 percent of the women who took the stress-management class had become pregnant compared with 20 percent of the women in the control condition, suggesting stress prevention and management could play a significant role in helping women overcome fertility complications. (Fertility and Sterility, Vol. 95, No. 7)
  • Marital instability during a child’s infant years might lead to sleep problems when those children are toddlers, finds a study led by Oregon State University developmental psychologist Anne Mannering, PhD. Researchers followed 350 families with 9-month-old adopted children over their next nine months (adoptive families were used to rule out genetic bases for sleep difficulty). The researchers questioned parents on their behavior and their children’s sleep patterns. Even taking into account children’s baseline temperaments and parents’ anxiety, children with parents who had unstable, volatile relationships had more difficulty sleeping at 18 months of age, the researcher found. The inverse wasn’t true; children’s sleep problems didn’t predict marital instability, suggesting that marital instability itself might cause sleep issues in children. (In press in Child Development)

—M. Price