In Brief

  • Psychological distress combined with exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may lead to behavioral problems among children (credit: John Foxx)Psychological distress combined with exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may lead to behavioral problems among children, finds a study at Columbia University. Researchers followed 248 mother-child pairs from pregnancy through age 9, collecting data via air sampling measured during pregnancy, emotional surveys from the mothers' second trimesters and behavioral assessments during early childhood. The researchers found that higher levels of exposure to pollutants — combined with maternal psychological distress — were linked to anxiety, depression, attention problems, rule-breaking and aggressive behavior among children (Pediatrics, online Oct. 7).
  • Exposing people to their fears while they sleep may help reduce their phobia, finds a study by Northwestern University scientists. The researchers exposed 15 healthy young adults to mild electric shocks while viewing two faces. The participants were also exposed to a different odor — such as lemon or mint — when seeing each face and getting a shock, conditioning the subjects to associate the odors with fear. Then, when the participants were sleeping, one odor was continuously presented but without the associated faces and shocks, and when the subjects awoke, they were shown both faces. The researchers found that participants had less fear when they saw the face linked to the odor they smelled while asleep, compared with the amount of fear they had when they saw the face linked to the other odor (Nature Neuroscience, Sept. 22).
  • Americans with similar temperaments are so likely to live in the same areas that a map of the country can be divided into regions with distinct personalities, according to a study led by a University of Cambridge psychologist. The researchers analyzed the personality traits of more than 1.5 million people from the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, collected over 12 years using information from Facebook and survey panels. They found that people in the north-central Great Plains and the South tend to be conventional and friendly, those in the Western and Eastern seaboards lean toward being mostly relaxed and creative, while New Englanders and Mid-Atlantic residents are prone to being more temperamental and uninhibited (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, online Oct. 14).
  • Waiting can make people more patient, suggests research conducted at the University of Chicago. Scientists invited study participants in the United States, China and Hong Kong to enter one of two lotteries, with one paying a $50 prize sooner and the other paying a $55 prize later on. The researchers then divided participants into three groups, each offering different waiting periods for the $50 and $55 prizes — from three days for $50 and three weeks for $55, to one month for $50 and nearly two months for $55. In addition, researchers made the third group wait for nearly a month to even choose which lottery to enter, before being made to then wait again before potentially receiving its prize. The researchers found that 31 percent of participants in the first group and 56 percent of participants in the second group opted to wait for the larger reward, while 86 percent of participants in the third group — who had waited the longest to make their decision — opted to wait for the larger reward (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, July).
  • Anxiety and stress can make inoffensive odors stinkAnxiety and stress can make inoffensive odors stink, according to research led by psychologists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The researchers asked 14 participants to rate a series of neutral odors, including almonds and smoke, and then used fMRI to track their brain activity as they were exposed to photos of car crashes and war scenes designed to induce anxiety. They found that activation in two typically independent circuits of the brain — one dedicated to olfactory processing, the other to emotion — became more closely connected when people felt anxious. After viewing the disturbing images, participants also found the previously benign smells to be much more unpleasant (Journal of Neuroscience, Sept. 25).
  • Stress may lead to false confessions, according to a study led by Iowa State University psychologists. The researchers assigned 132 participants to tasks that involved both individual and partner work, setting it up so that half of the partners asked for help with what should have been the individual task, essentially getting participants to break the rules. The researchers then accused the participants — both innocent and guilty — of academic misconduct and asked them to sign a confession form. They found that while the innocent participants showed less stress than the guilty when first accused of misconduct — based on blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity — their stress levels increased when pressured to sign a confession. In the end, 93 percent of the guilty participants confessed, as did 43 percent of those who were innocent (Law and Human Behavior, October).
  • Cross-ethnic friendships may help youths feel saferCross-ethnic friendships may help youths feel safer, according to a study led by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The study looked at 536 Latino and 396 black sixth-graders from 66 classrooms in 10 urban U.S. middle schools in predominantly low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The students reported on the number of same- and cross-ethnic friends they had, how vulnerable they felt, the quality of their friendships and their ethnic identity. The researchers found that cross-ethnic friendships increased as the diversity of classrooms rose, and that the students who reported these friendships also felt less lonely, less victimized by peers and safer at school than those with only same-ethnic friendships (Child Development, online Sept. 23).
  • Empathy appears to help children understand sarcasm, according to a study out of the University of Calgary. Researchers measured the empathy of 31 children ages 8 and 9, and then had the children watch a series of puppet shows that included either sarcastic or non-sarcastic praise. Afterward, the researchers asked the children to pick up a "mean" toy shark if they believed the puppets had spoken sarcastically, and a "nice" toy duck if the puppets had spoken normally. After several rounds of tests, the researchers found that children with stronger empathy skills were nearly twice as accurate in detecting the puppets' sarcasm than were children with less advanced empathy skills (Frontiers in Psychology, Oct. 8).
  • California's new mental health system is helping more people live independently, suggests an analysis by Oregon State University researchers. The study examined data from 43 of the state's 53 counties — a total sample of 9,208 adults — over four years. California's comprehensive community mental health program provides a broad range of services and supports, including medication management, crisis intervention, case management and peer support. The researchers found that people who stayed enrolled in the program were nearly 14 percent more likely to transition successfully from jail, psychiatric hospitals or homelessness to independent living and to stay out of jail than were those who did not stay continuously enrolled (American Journal of Public Health, October).
  • Employee health can be linked to a company's financial performance, suggests a study conducted by scientists at the health-care research firm HealthNEXT. The researchers analyzed the last 15 years' stock market performances for companies that had been recognized for having outstanding approaches to employee health and safety by the American College of Occupational Medicine. The companies outperformed the S&P 500, with higher annual returns ranging from 3.03 percent to 5.27 percent (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, September).
  • Maintaining eye contact may make people more resistant to persuasion, finds research conducted at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The scientists used eye-tracking technology to determine where study participants were looking while watching videos of speakers presenting arguments counter to the participants' own attitudes on a controversial social or political issue. They found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker's eyes while watching the video, the less convinced they were by the speaker's argument (Psychological Science, online Sept. 25).
  • Men and women alter their voices when speaking to lovers versus friends, finds research led by Albright College psychologists. The scientists asked 24 adults who were newly in love to phone their romantic partners, as well as a close same-sex friend, and engage in a short conversation asking specifically "how are you?" and "what are you doing?" Researchers then played the recordings to 80 independent raters who judged the samples for sexiness, pleasantness and degree of romantic interest. The raters were exposed to only one end of the conversation and, in some cases, for only two seconds, but were still able to correctly identify, with greater than chance accuracy, whether the caller was speaking to a friend or lover, leading researchers to believe that people alter their voices to communicate their relationship status (Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, September).
  • Guilt may literally weigh us down, finds research led by scientists at Princeton University and the University of Waterloo. In a series of studies with more than 600 adults in the United States and Canada, researchers asked half of the participants to recall a time that they did something unethical, such as lying, stealing or cheating. Then participants were asked to rate their subjective feelings about their own body weights, asking them if they felt less weight than usual, about the same weight or more weight. People in the guilt-inducing memory group reported an increased sense of weight compared with those who recalled an ethical memory, those who recalled a memory of someone else's unethical actions and those who were not asked to recall a memory at all (PLOS ONE, July 31).
  • Stepfamilies add to a caregiver's burden, according to a University of Michigan study. Scientists interviewed 61 women who remarried late in life and who eventually became the primary caregivers for a husband with dementia. In addition to assessing the women's well-being, the researchers asked about their social support networks and the amount of stress they experienced about caregiving decisions with family and stepfamily members. The researchers found that even when these women had good relationships with their adult stepchildren, communication about who should be making medical and financial decisions was stressful and led to increased depression among the participants. Communication was even harder for caregivers who did not have close ties with stepchildren before the onset of their husbands' health problems (Journal of Marriage and Family, October).
  • Infants who score highly on detecting number changes do better on standard tests by the time they reach preschool, according to a study led by Duke University scientists. The researchers used findings from a 2010 study showing that some 6-month-old babies gaze longer at a screen presenting a changing number of dots than a screen that shows the same number of dots changing in appearance — indicating that these infants have a good primitive number sense. In the new study, the researchers retested 48 of these children three years later, using the same dot test as well as other standard math tests for preschoolers — including some that assessed the ability to count, to tell which of two numbers is larger and to do basic calculations. They found a correlation between the infants' scores for early number sense and later mathematical abilities (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Oct. 21).
  • Personality is a key factor in health-care use, according to a study led by University of Rochester scientists. Researchers surveyed 1,074 older adults about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, such as whether they laugh easily, are courteous to others, get into arguments easily, feel inferior or like to be around people. They then looked at which costly health-care services participants used over two years, including emergency room visits, hospital stays, home-based skilled nursing and therapist care. The researchers found correlations between several personality traits and health-care service use. For example, people who scored high in neuroticism were 24 percent more likely to visit the ER and more than twice as likely to spend time in a nursing home for long-term care as individuals low in neuroticism (The Milbank Quarterly, September).
  • Aerobic fitness boosts learning and memory in childrenAerobic fitness boosts learning and memory in children, finds research conducted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers. In the study, 48 children ages 9 to 10 memorized names and locations on a map, either only by studying the information or by being tested on the material as they studied. Half of the children scored in the top 30 percent of their age group on a test measuring aerobic fitness, while the other half scored in the lowest 30 percent. When asked to recollect the information, children who were fitter performed better than those who were not as fit. The difference between the high-fitness and low-fitness groups was also stronger when the initial learning was performed by studying alone than when testing and study were interspersed (PLOS ONE, Sept. 11).

— Amy Novotney