West coast psychologists and psychology students gathered at the annual Western Psychological Association convention in Portland, Ore., April 14-17, to discuss topics as varied as how culture affects intelligence testing, whether sugar might be addictive and what psychologists can learn from used car salesmen. Highlights of the meeting included the following.

Sugar addiction

Bartley Hoebel, PhD, one of APA's 2005 Distinguished Scientist Lecturers, presented his research on sugar addiction. Hoebel, a psychology professor at Princeton University, has shown that in rats, sugar can affect the brain in some of the same ways as drugs like cocaine and heroin--increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and decreasing levels of acetylcholine--and can cause some of the same chemical withdrawal symptoms as addictive drugs.

"Many people say anecdotally that sugar is addictive, but no one had done the research before this," Hoebel said. Addiction, he explained, has three parts: bingeing and increasing intake of a substance over time; withdrawal when the substance is taken away or its effects are blocked; and craving, or a recurring and sometimes increasing urge for the substance during abstinence. Sugar, he says, can cause all three of these behaviors under appropriate conditions.

In one experiment, he and his colleagues made rats binge on sugar by withholding food for 12 hours each day and then providing unlimited rat chow and sugar water for the other 12 hours. They found that the rats increased the amount of sugar they took over the course of 10 days, and that they tended to take the most sugar in the first hour it was available.

After 10 days, the researchers gave the rats naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opiates such as heroin and also the brain's own opiate-like neurotransmitters. The rats showed some of the same withdrawal symptoms, such as teeth chattering and forepaw tremors, that mark withdrawal from an addictive drug. The naloxone-treated rats also showed decreased levels of dopamine and increased levels of acetylcholine in the brain--another sign of withdrawal.

In another experiment, Hoebel and his colleagues inserted tubes in the rats' stomachs so that the rats could ingest the sugar water, but then have it drain out before being digested. The researchers found that even with this sham-feeding technique, sugar still raised the dopamine levels in the rats' brains.

"This could be the very beginning of an animal model of bulimia," Hoebel said.

Culture and intelligence

Intelligence assessments that fail to take cultural contexts into account are meaningless, said Robert Sternberg, PhD, in his Psi Chi invited presentation. Sternberg, 2003 APA president and a psychology professor at Yale University, studies human intelligence and intelligence testing. Intelligence, he said, means the ability to succeed in life within a particular cultural context--so tests that accurately measure intelligence in a city-dwelling American might not work at all for, say, a child in rural Kenya.

To test this theory, Sternberg and his colleagues looked at the relationship between practical knowledge and academic intelligence in Kenyan children. The researchers measured practical knowledge by testing the children's knowledge of herbal medicines--an important and even life-saving skill in a village where nearly all of the children have diseases like intestinal parasites, Sternberg noted. Then, the researchers gave the children general IQ tests and tests of G, or general ability. They found that on the whole, the better the children did on the test of practical knowledge, the worse they did on the IQ and G tests.

This might seem counterintuitive, Sternberg said, but actually it makes sense: "In Kenya, good grades don't get you anywhere. You're better off getting an apprenticeship or learning to mine or fish--those will allow you to support a family." So the "smart" children don't put their effort into learning academic skills; they learn practical skills instead.

These cultural differences have repercussions in the United States too, Sternberg said. In one study, he and his colleagues found that San Jose, Calif., students did better in school when their parents' and teachers' conception of intelligence matched than when they didn't. The matching parents were mainly Caucasian and Asian, and the nonmatching parents were mainly Latino.

All of this doesn't mean, Sternberg said, that IQ tests are "wrong," but that they are incomplete. "That incompleteness can have serious consequences," he added, such as underestimating a child's abilities just because he or she doesn't do well on a standard IQ test.

"This doesn't just apply to different cultures; it applies to your kids and our kids," he said. "Why waste all of these different talents?"

Used car salesmanship

Robert Levine, PhD, told attendees at an invited presentation on the psychology of persuasion that one of the most educational things he ever experienced was his stint as a used car salesman.

Levine, a social psychologist at California State University, Fresno, studies persuasion and manipulation. While writing a book about that topic--"The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold" (Wiley, 2003)--he decided to jazz it up with some personal anecdotes, so he convinced a car dealership to hire him. The result was a crash course in the psychology of used car sales.

"There's more psychology in there than you could fit into any lecture," Levine said.

For example, salesmen tap the reciprocity norm, which says that when a person gives something to others or helps them in some way, they will feel obliged to reciprocate. Salesman know this, Levine explained, and that's why they also know that the more time they can keep you on the car lot, the more likely you are to buy a car.

"They're giving you the gift of time, and in our culture time is money, so you feel indebted to them," Levine explained.

Another social psychology tenet salesmen rely on is obedience: Good salespeople are masters at making the customer feel obedient to them. One standard trick, Levine explained, is the "turn and walk." If a salesperson feels he's losing the customer's attention while showing off a car, he'll turn and walk away, to another car or back to the office. The customer will always follow.

In his presentation, Levine outlined 10 steps that nearly all car salesmen follow:

  • Get a foot in the door. The most important thing is to get the customer on the lot, even if that requires a deceptive maneuver like offering a lowball price.

  • Sell yourself. Make the customer think you're their friend. If you don't feel like you've established some relationship with a customer within 10 minutes, turn them over to another salesperson--then split the commission.

  • Sell the dealership. Say "this dealership has been here forever. There's a reason people keep buying our cars." This technique is based on the principle of social proof: One way people decide what is correct is to see what other people think is correct.

  • The walk. Take the customer on a walk around the lot--the goal is simply to get them to spend as much time as possible with you.

  • The walk-around. Show the customer one particular car in detail.

  • The test drive. Make the customer begin to feel as if he or she already owns the car.

  • Hypothetical commitment. Get the customer to make a hypothetical commitment, such as "If I could get you this car for $10,000, would you definitely buy it?"

  • The trade-in. Get the customer to commit just a bit further by giving you the keys to the old car to hold on to.

  • Tie 'em in close. Try to get the customer to tell you their objections. If you can get those objections to the surface, you can overcome them.

  • Close the deal. And the commission is yours.

But knowing these principles and putting them into practice are two different things. Despite his academic training in persuasion techniques, Levine said, he wasn't an effective salesman at all: "I was terrible! I only sold one car."