Psychology Research of the Month: September 2012 Edition

One of the basic tenets of psychology is that research is an absolutely vital piece of the advancement and success of the field. We recognize that tenet and we also recognize that all across the country, psychologists are conducting in-depth research that will almost certainly impact society in a positive or negative way. There is so much important research being done that we couldn't possibly cover it all, but we wanted to shine some light on some of the best research being done across the country, so we are introducing our new feature, Psychology Research of the Month, where we will highlight 10 examples of excellent research. Hat tip to our friends at Science Daily and the Association for Psychological Science, who make this feature possible with its in-depth and high-quality stories about psychology research.

 

Okay so maybe Dr. Emmett Brown isn't the best example of a scientist conducting psychological studies these days, but you get the idea. Chances are, if you are an avid news consumer, you have read an article based on a psychological study in the past few months. As the general public has become more aware of the impact and importance of psychological research, the more often this research has appeared in the news. But even now, the psychological research that makes its way into the consciousness of the general public is only the tip of the iceberg. Only the truly devoted can stay abreast with most of the psychological research that is continuously being produced.

Frankly, we think it is a shame that more of this research doesn't become common knowledge, because the research is important, and the people doing it are dedicating their lives to conducting it. These people deserve some credit, especially if the research is particularly telling or impactful. Keep in mind that all of this research wasn't conducted or published in September and not all of the research will change the world, these are just ten examples of important, fun, and interesting recent research being conducted across the globe. Not all of it is even specifically psychological research, but all of them have psychological ties for sure. Enjoy!

On how expressing fears can help conquer them 

School: UCLA

Notable Authors: Katharina Kircanski, Michelle Craske and Matthew Lieberman

At some point or another, everyone is forced to confront and try and overcome their fears. It's not usually a fun experience and can often be quite difficult. Fortunately, a study out of the UCLA psychology lab suggests that overcoming those fears might be as easy as describing those fears right before you confront them. A team of psychologists led by Katharina Kircanski (now at Stanford), Michelle Craske, and Matthew Lieberman asked 88 people with spider-phobia to get as close as possible to a live tarantuala.

They split the participants into four groups and found that the first group -- which was asked to describe its experiences and label their reactions to the tarantula -- was able to get much closer to the spider and seemed to be less nervous and anxious.

"When spider-phobics say, 'I'm terrified of that nasty spider,' they're not learning something new; that's exactly what they were feeling -- but now instead of just feeling it, they're saying it," Lieberman said. For some reason that we don't fully understand, that transition is enough to make a difference."

The words participants used also played a role as describing the spider in more negative terms actually helped participants overcome some of their fears. It may seem insignificant at first glance, but considering Lieberman and Craske plan to study how this strategy could help rape or trauma victims, the findings could have major implications on mental health and recovery.

On why people hate waiting in lines so much

School: INSEAD School of Business

Notable Authors: Ziv Carmon and Daniel Kahneman

 

This one struck a little close to our heart and so we decided to include it because there might not be anyone who likes waiting in a line less than we do. It's boring, frustrating, and sometimes even infuriating and we are hardly alone in this belief. MIT operations researcher Richard Larson explained it as occupied time (walking some place) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing in line) but there is more to this phenomenon than just that.

In 1995, Ziv Carmon, then at Duke and now a professor of marketing at Insead, and Daniel Kahneman, a Senior Scholar at Princeton examined lines in more depth and found some other interesting psychology involved. For example, your experience in a line can be impacted by the final moments, which means that if you hate the line you are in, try to make sure your last experiences in that line are positive ones. Also, people are more concerned with length of the line rather than how fast it is moving, meaning they often choose a slower-moving short line, even if it will take the same amount of time as a quick-moving long line.

You may wonder why in the hell this research is important at all, but the New York Times covered it recently and they made an excellent final point that is a far better description of why this research is important than we could give.

Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis. We’ll never eliminate lines altogether, but a better understanding of the psychology of waiting can help make those inevitable delays that inject themselves into our daily lives a touch more bearable.

On how valuing the future, makes smokers more likely to quit 

School: Newcastle (UK)

Notable Authors: Drs. Heather Brown and Jean Adams

At first glance it seems like this research should be a no-brainer. Given the well-documented health risks that come along with smoking, it shouldn't take much of a leap to realize that people who enjoy thinking about their future are more likely to quit smoking. But this research explains a lot more than that. Newcastle University doctors, Heather Brown and Jean Adams, used eight years of data from The Household Income and Labour Dynamics of Australia to identify nearly 2,000 survey-takers who said they were smokers from 2001.

They then analyzed those smokers' answers to questions about their future and placed the identified participants in two groups. People who looked ahead by more than three months were considered folks with long time horizons, and people whose future plans didn't go further than a week were considered folks with short time horizons. After that, they went back and looked at how many of those smokers has tried to quit by 2008 and they found that 76 percent of quitters were focused on their long-term future compared with just 66 percent of those who just kept on smoking.

survey collects data on economic and subjective well-being, work, and family dynamics every year from over 7,000 Australian households. Brown and Adams identified 1,817 participants who were smokers at the start of the survey (2001) and analysed their planning regarding their saving and spending to measure their future orientation. People whose spending and saving plans looked ahead by more than three months were categorized as having a longer time horizon, while those whose financial plans looked no more than a week ahead had a shorter time horizon. The researchers then looked at how many of those 2001 smokers had quit or tried to quit by 2008. Seventy-six percent of quitters were long-time-horizon planners, compared with 66% of those who continued to smoke.

You may think these numbers are negligible and that this information is really just common sense, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are wrecking their bodies by smoking. And if it is proven that helping a smoker think more carefully about their future will increase the probability that they quit down the line, then the research was worth it, especially when people's health is at risk.

On how students that binge-drink are happier with their college social experience

School: Colgate

Notable Authors: Carolyn L. Hsu and Landon Reid

 

By now it is pretty much common knowledge that binge-drinking has become college students' most popular and most dangerous pastime. But until Colgate sociology professor Carolyn L. Hsu and her co-author Landon Reid conducted their study, it probably wasn't common knowledge that those binge-drinkers are actually the happiest students on campus.

Of course the binge-drinking students aren't happier because of all the alcohol that is going into their body on a weekly basis, it is far more psychological than that. "Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for high status in college," Hsu said. "It's what the most powerful, wealthy, and happy students on campus do. This may explain why it's such a desirable activity."

Hsu and Reid conducted their research by using a survey of nearly 1,600 undergraduates at an elite Northeastern liberal arts college in 2009.  They found that the students from higher status groups (wealthy students, Greek-affiliated students) were happier with their college social life than their fellow students from lower status groups. They also found that these students from higher status groups were more likely to binge drink and frighteningly also discovered that lower status groups viewed binge-drinking as a way to climb the social ladder and and fit in with the "cool students on campus".

The impact of this information may be great, especially if it can help notoriously tone-deaf university administrators help devise better strategies to curb binge-drinking on campus. No one is naive enough to believe that binge-drinking can be stopped, but if people wake up and recognize that binge-drinking is most closely tied to social status, then maybe we can begin to develop more effective ways to reach students about the dangers of binge-drinking.

On how people lie when they are under time pressure

Schools: University of Amsterdam and Ben-Gurion University of Negev

Notable Authors: Shaul Shalvi, Ori Eldar, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer

Kudos to Shaul Shalvi of the University of Amsterdam and Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer of Ben-Gurion University of Negev for tackling the question that all of us have probably been asked at one point or another -- why do you lie? Their results turned up information that most people already knew, and it also turned up some information that may help people understand dishonest behavior when they didn't before.

The researchers theorized that time pressure would make people more likely to lie, especially if there was a potential financial windfall involved. They went about proving it by asking 70 adults to roll a die three times. The participants were told to reveal to the experimenters' what the first roll was, and that the higher the roll they reported, the more money they could earn.

They also gave half of the group only 20 seconds to report the roll while the others were under no time pressure at all. What they discovered is that while people in both groups lied, the people under time pressure were more likely to lie. They basically found data to indicate that their hypothesis was correct -- people under time pressure were more willing to lie, and people not under time constraints would only lie if they felt the lie was justified.

The research teaches us that forcing a person to answer a question in a short period of time or backing someone into a corner is only going to elicit more lies from the person responding to the question. People know what the right and ethical answer is, but when time is short and money is involved, they are willing to pull the trigger and lie. But maybe, just maybe, if you give someone the time to make the right, ethical choice, they will reward you with scrupulous and honest behavior.

On why some people don't leave when the storms comes calling

Schools: Stanford University and Princeton University

Notable Authors: Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani, Hazel Rose Markus, Hilary B. Bergsieker, and Liyam Eloul

 

This research, while old, is especially timely considering citizens of the Gulf Coast are still picking through the wreckage and damage done by the recently deceased Hurricane Isaac. If you are like us, and you watched brave Gulf Coast citizens refuse to leave their homes even in the face of a potentially lethal hurricane, then you probably also asked yourself why those foolish people don't just pack up and leave. Well, it turns out we weren't the first people to ask this question and the research shows that choosing to leave your home is a more difficult decision than you might initially think.

Researchers from Princeton University and Stanford University examined this issue in a 2009 article for Psychological Science magazine. They used Hurricane Katrina to exmaine the issue and started by analyzing how more than 450 outside observers perceived both the people who left New Orleans and the people who stayed. They quickly found that most observers were baffled by some citizens' insistence on staying in the city despite the obvious dangers. The researchers then used nearly 80 interviews from survivors from Hurricane Katrina and examined the motivating forces behind the people who left and the people who stayed. What they discovered is that it is easy for us to sit on our couches and say that everyone should evacuate the city, but it is much harder to make that decision when you are thrust into the middle of it.

“It seems like asking ‘Why didn't people leave?’ presumes that that's the best option for everyone to make,” researcher Hilary Bergsieker told NBC News. And in fact, the study proved that leaving isn't the best option for everyone. For starters, many people, especially in the poorer areas of New Orleans did not have the resources, supplies, and outside connections to even consider leaving. This is something that members of the middle and upper classes take for granted when they ask the question of why these people didn't leave, but that's only because those people have never experienced what it is like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But resources aren't the only reasons people stay, there are mitigating psychological factors at work as well, such as ties to the community, personal history and experiences, and emotional connection to the area.

"If you have spent most of your life in the same community, then you would likely feel more attachment to your home," study author Nicole Stephens said in the same interview with NBC News. "And [you would] feel less comfortable as well as less equipped to quickly uproot yourself in response to evacuation orders."

Will this study and research ever have an impact on your life directly? Maybe not. But it does offer those of us fortunate enough to have never been a part of such storms some perspective. Instead of judging the people who decided to stay and weather out the storms, more people should be willing to recognize the mitigating factors and maybe some of us will even identify with the personal and emotional connection some people have with their community.

On how brain scans may help treat social anxiety disorder better

Schools: MIT and Boston University

Notable Authors: John Gabrieli, Oliver Doehrmann and Satrajit Ghosh

Social anxiety disorder has long been one of the most difficult disorders to treat. As technology has advanced, scientists and doctors have learned more about the best ways to treat people with social anxiety disorder, and their methods have become more effective. But with a disorder as delicate as social anxiety disorder, people respond to different treatments differently, and there hasn't been an accurate way to determine which treatments work best with which patients. But now that all may be changing.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University conducted a study on behavioral therapy for social anxiety and as a part of that study, John Gabrieli, Oliver Doehrmann, and Satrajit Ghosh and their team authored a paper that indicated that brain scans may actually help doctors identify more effective and personalized treatment for potential patients.

The researchers imaged the brains of patients before and after treatment and measured the differences in activity as the patient looked at angry and neutral images. They were then subjected to three months of cognitive therapy and then had their social anxiety levels' recorded. They found that patients who had exhibited a larger difference in activity during the image-response test, showed the most improvement after therapy.

Now before you immediately rejoice, understand there is still a lot of work to do, and the researchers still aren't positive why brain activity would help treatment outcome, but they are already planning follow-up studies with the hopes of drilling down deeper into the meaning.

It may not have been a victory against social anxiety disorder, but it is an encouraging step forward when it comes to understand cognitive behavioral therapy and treatment for social anxiety disorder. If researchers can use this information and keep the momentum rolling, doctors will have a much easier job when it comes to treating social anxiety disorder.

On how schoolyard bullies with high IQs are less likely to become criminals later in life 

School: Cambridge University

Notable Authors: Professor David Farrington and Dr Maria Ttofi

One of the more interesting studies we included in our list this month comes from some smart folks like David Farrington and Dr. Maria Ttofi of Cambridge University, who examined the links between schoolyard bullies and criminals and presented their findings last week at the British Psychological Society's Developmental Section Conference.

It is interesting not only because bullying has taken such a prominent position in current events in recent months but also because of the methods these researchers used in their studies and the interesting conclusions they were able to draw from their research. The study began in the early 60s by analyzing more than 400 eight-year-olds in London as they grew from adolescence to adulthood. Using in-person interviews collected then, Farrington and Ttofi were able to secure 93 percent of the participants from 1961 to be interviewed again now that they were 48 years old. The results showed that 18 percent of teenage bullies had been convicted of a violent crime and 39 percent had been convicted for a criminal offense. But that was not all they found.

They also found that five percent of bullies with high IQ were convicted of violent criminal offenses compared to 26 percent of bullies with low IQs. They also learned that small, stable families and good schools were a factor in helping bullies stay out of criminal trouble. When they dug deeper they found that violent offenses were more related to the individuals' IQ and simple criminal offenses had more to do with family and social influences.

On the surface this all seems relatively straight forward. Scholars and researchers have known for years that stable and well-to-do backgrounds helped prevent later criminal behavior. But what this study and research shows is that there are different types of methods that will work for curbing the trend between school bullying and later criminal activity.

On how psychology will always trump anti-obesity drugs

School: University of Surrey

Notable Authors: Dr. Amelia Hollywood and Dr. Jane Ogden

Take all the anti-obesity drugs you want, it still won't help you lose weight unless you believe in yourself and your ability to lose weight, or at least that is what Drs. Amelia Hollywood and Jane Ogden of the University of Surrey are suggesting in their latest research study.

The duo interviewed 10 people who had put on weight over an 18-month period after they were prescribed weight loss medication. The doctors wanted to learn more about these people's experiences and why the weight loss medication wasn't working for them. What they found is that weight loss can be a psychological commitment as well as a physical one.

The research found that the discouraging results that these interviewees saw their inability to lose weight as a problem they couldn't overcome, something that no matter how hard they tried, would also be a part of them.

"Unless we get the psychology right and change people's beliefs about themselves, their eating and the way the drug works, this medication is often going to produce disappointing results," Dr. Hollywood said. "We hope our research will encourage the doctors to prescribe this medication more wisely and to provide patients with more support while they are taking it."

We are no experts, but it sure seems like in this case that belief is stronger or as strong as the medication itself. Weight loss is a physical challenge but it is also a mental challenge. People who are willing to put in the time and the work and truly believe that they can lose weight, will have more success that those who take a defeatist attitude and just assume that there is nothing to be done. So if you feel yourself getting discouraged or down, try to persevere, try to tell yourself that you can do this, you just have to believe.

On how violent video games are not so bad when players cooperate

School: Ohio State

Notable Authors: David Ewoldsen and John Velez

The link between violent video games and real world aggression has been examined since video games first started becoming popular. Games like Duke Nukem, Quake, and Grand Theft Auto have all been accused of influencing teenagers' aggression, anger, and violence. The debate has been going on for years about whether this criticism is valid, but maybe this new research, which shows that cooperation in violent video games may curb aggression, will render the debate moot completely.

Two separate studies found that college students who played violent video games with a friend were not only more cooperative and less aggressive than the college students who playing the video games competitively. According to the researchers, the aggressive feelings that come from playing  violent video game don't just disappear, they are just balanced out by the feelings that come from cooperating with someone else and joining forces.

One study placed nearly 120 students in four groups and the groups either played competitively or cooperatively. After playing the video game, the pairs were asked to play a real-life game with opportunities to cooperate or compete. The results showed that participants who cooperated in the video game were more likely to cooperate in real life also.

"Clearly, research has established there are links between playing violent video games and aggression, but that's an incomplete picture," study co-author and Ohio State professor Dave Ewoldsen said. "Most of the studies finding links between violent games and aggression were done with people playing alone. The social aspect of today's video games can change things quite a bit."

This research should change the way psychologists and communication experts analyze video games in the future because now they must take into account not only the gory content of the game, but also the environment in which user is actually playing the game and who they may be playing with.

This is an important step forward and a very important consideration, especially given how often video games are analyzed not only in research labs across the country, but also how video games are analyzed in the news, in pop culture, and by the general public.