A Closer Look

After a woman experiences a heart attack, research indicates it's unlikely that she will stop performing such household chores as changing bed linens or vacuuming, even though these jobs can further injure or even kill a person with a weakened heart. However, male heart patients tend to follow doctors' orders to decrease or completely stop all strenuous activity, sometimes permanently. Why is it that many women tend to fall back into a stereotyped caretaking role-even when it puts their health at risk-but men tend to change their behavior?

This is the kind of practical question members of APA's Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) are studying in addition to basic research on people and their thoughts, feelings and behaviors-on, for instance, where our personalities come from; what causes us to fall in love, hate our neighbors or join with others to clean our neighborhoods; and how culture shapes who we become and how we interact with one another.

While always concerned with such basic investigations, Div. 8 researchers are increasingly moving beyond them as well. In the household-chores research, for instance, Div. 8 member Jerry Suls, PhD, is seeking practical ways to help heart patients help themselves prevent more attacks

Indeed, members are using their strong scientific backgrounds to craft interventions in real-world health settings, says Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning, PhD, Div. 8's executive officer. Adds Div. 8 President Margaret S. Clark, PhD, of Yale University, social psychologists traditionally have studied intrapersonal, interpersonal and group processes at just the right level for designing interventions. Clark, for instance, studies relationships and has found that members of married couples typically start off marriages supporting their partners noncontingently, as a need for support arises. However, as a marriage progresses, a partner may move to what Clark terms "record keeping," or refusing to provide support unless support is promised in return. Unfortunately, this behavior can undermine spouses' sense of truly mutual partner care, Clark finds.

To restore the sense of being cared for, Clark suggests that therapists avoid asking couples to make contracts with one another. "Process-focused research suggests this is unwise-it is unlikely to restore a sense of caring," she says, advising that, instead, couples should focus on increasing trust and mutual responsiveness to needs.

Intervening for safer sex

In another instance of a practical Div. 8 investigation, member Blair T. Johnson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, uses his social-psychology expertise in social influence to explore the efficacy of HIV-prevention interventions. For example, Johnson and his colleagues published a 2003 article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (Vol. 154, No. 4, pages 381-388), reviewing 44 studies of interventions for adolescents. According to their meta-analysis, intensive behavioral interventions reduced HIV risk, especially because they increased skill acquisition regarding condom use, increased discussions between partners about safer sex and decreased the onset of sexual intercourse or the number of partners.

"A critic might be concerned that safer-sex interventions might increase adolescent sexual behavior," he says. "In fact, the studies showed the opposite-interventions reduced overall incidence of sex. And adolescents who were having sex were more likely to use condoms."

Johnson stresses the importance of publishing in a broad array of journals, not just those focused on psychology. "In trying to take the news of our insights to public health officials and scholars in other disciplines, we can potentially improve respect for it at the same time as we help solve a real-world problem," he says.

Heart attacks and gender roles

University of Iowa psychology professor Jerry Suls, PhD, the Div. 8 member studying the aforementioned women's and men's post-heart attack behavior, is interested in whether and how married men and women change their traditional sex roles after one partner's cardiac event.

"We've been trying to understand how heart attack patients adjust to their illness," he explains, "and we're particularly interested in how gender stereotypes play a role in that adjustment and the kind of social support people get." His participants have been Midwestern married couples over the age of 60.

Women, Suls notes, are more likely to assume social or emotional family responsibilities as well as tangible ones, such as household chores. While many cardiac patients exercise in a graded fashion as part of their rehabilitation-usually under professional supervision-many women return to high exertion household tasks before they should, Suls finds. Suls's research also suggests that women don't listen to their bodies even after a heart attack. "Men tend to moderate their activity when they experience symptoms," Suls says, "but the women seemed to ignore their symptoms." Sticking to their traditional gender role, and continuing high-activity tasks like household chores have serious health consequences for female heart attack patients, he notes.

Encouraging behavior change

Another Div. 8 member, Alex Rothman, PhD, an associate psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, is using his social and personality background to focus on another women's health issue: the prevention of breast cancer.

In particular, he studies how the phrasing of health messages influences women's decisions to get a mammogram. Even though screenings offer the benefit of early detection, he notes, women often focus on the risk of finding something unwanted.

Rothman's work compares the effectiveness of a gain-framed screening-behavior message, such as "If you get a mammogram, you'll have the chance to find breast cancer early," with a loss-framed message, such as "If you don't get a mammogram, you'll miss the chance of being able to find breast cancer early when it's treatable." He's found that gain-framed messages are more effective when trying to promote prevention behaviors, such as using sunscreen or condoms, while loss-framed messages are better for promoting screening behaviors like getting tested for HIV or undergoing a colonoscopy to check for colon cancer.

"I'm interested in understanding the basic decision processes that people use and rely on as they engage in actions that affect their health," he says. "What we're pursuing is a thoughtful understanding of those processes that can then inform the design of interventions to promote healthy behavioral practices."

Though social psychology theorists have often focused on how to get a person to start a behavior-such as showing up for a first mammogram or following physician's orders to quit smoking or lose weight-Rothman and others are also now studying how to get them to continue their new behavior.

"Behavior change is a critical public health issue-we need to get people to exercise more, modify their diets, and the health benefits that will come from those changes are really quite dramatic," says Rothman. "However, it's not enough to just lose weight or start exercising, you have to keep the weight off and continue exercising."

According to Rothman, social psychology theories have focused on how and why people start a behavior. Building on this work, Rothman and his colleagues have developed a model that addresses the processes that guide both the initiation and maintenance of behavior.

"We've designed smoking-cessation and weight-loss interventions to test our model of initiation and maintenance," says Rothman.

Further Reading

Div. 8 at a glance

ith more than 4,000 members, Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. Membership in the division earns subscriptions to two journals–Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and Personality and Social Psychology Review–as well as the semiannual newsletter Dialogue. The division hosts an annual conference; the 2006 meeting will be held Jan. 26–28 in Palm Springs, Calif. Div. 8 also sponsors several diversity initiatives, such as the SPSP Diversity Fund, a program in which qualified graduate students from underrepresented groups can apply for travel awards of up to $800 to attend the annual SPSP conference, and qualified undergraduates can apply for registration awards that cover the cost of SPSP conference registration. Div. 8 also supports the Social Psychology Network Mentorship Program. In this program, students from underrepresented groups can e-mail a faculty mentor of their choice with career-related questions or requests for assistance. Div. 8 sponsors several educational programs such as summer institutes. For more information on the division and its programs, visit its Web site at www.spsp.org/index.html. To join, download a membership application from www.spsp.org/pdf/membapp.pdf and mail it to Society for Personality and Social Psychology, c/o Kristin Tolchin, Department of Psychology, 252 Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.